Staying Safe While Studying Abroad
The first step to staying safe is becoming familiar with the area in which you live and go to school. Ask other students, campus security, your program director, or the International Student Office for local safety information.
- Find out which areas of your town or city are safe and unsafe during the daytime and at night. Avoid dangerous areas where you could become the victim of a crime.
- Don’t use shortcuts, narrow alleys, or poorly lit streets.
- Try not to travel alone at night.
- Keep a low profile and try not to stand out as a foreigner or tourist. In most places, wearing tennis shoes, baseball hats, jeans, or sweatpants are dead giveaways that you’re American. Observe the local standards of dress — and don’t hang a camera around your neck.
- Never, ever discuss travel plans or personal information with strangers.
Aim to blend in. Speak the language of your host country instead of English. Also, speak softly. Americans tend to speak loudly and this attracts attention. Don’t frequent American hangouts like McDonald’s — pickpockets can linger around looking for unsuspecting American students.
Warding off pickpockets
When you’re out and about in your host country, pay attention to your surroundings just as you would in any public place. Remember that crowded elevators, festivals, market places, subways, train stations, tourist sites, and marginal areas of cities are prime locations for thieves and scam artists. Beware of strangers who approach you offering bargains or to be your guide.
Petty theft is rampant in many countries, and foreigners are almost always a favorite target. Pickpockets often have an accomplice who jostles you, asks you for directions or the time, points to something spilled on your clothing, or otherwise distracts you by creating a disturbance as the pickpocket runs off with your money. Wear the shoulder strap of your bag across your chest and walk with the bag away from the curb to avoid drive-by purse-snatchers.
A child or even a woman carrying a baby can be a pickpocket. Beware of groups of vagrant children who create a distraction while picking your pocket.
If you’re confronted by a thief, don’t fight back. Just give him what he asks for. Give up your valuables. Your money and passport can be replaced, but you cannot.
Use the following tips to keep yourself safe on the streets:
- Try to seem purposeful when you move about. Even if you are lost, act as if you know where you’re going. Consult maps very discreetly.
- When possible, ask directions only from individuals in authority.
- Avoid public demonstrations and other civil disturbances.
- Learn a few phrases in the local language so that you can signal your need for help, the police, or a doctor.
- Make a note of emergency telephone numbers you may need: police, fire, your hotel, host family, roommates, program director, and the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate.
The U.S. Embassy is available to help you if you’re the victim of a crime. Every embassy has an officer on call 24 hours a day to assist in an emergency and help you get in touch with medical care or police.
Staying safe aboard public transportation
As a student studying in a foreign country, you are probably not going to have access to a car. Wherever you’re going, you’ll likely be relying on your own two feet or public transportation to get you from place to place.
The consular information sheets on the State Department Web site list whether a country has a pattern of tourists being targeted by criminals on public transport in the “Crime Information” section. Even if your area isn’t listed, always carefully watch your belongings while you travel.
In cities, taxis are often the safest way to travel at night, but remember to keep your wits about you. Take only those taxis clearly identified with official markings. Beware of unmarked cabs or drivers soliciting passengers in train stations or airports: They may take advantage of you or take you somewhere you don’t want to go. Never get into a taxi if someone is already in the backseat. Never put your bags in the taxi before you get in — the driver could take off with your stuff! Try to become familiar with routes to and from your destination so that taxis don’t take the longest and most expensive routes possible.
When going out, always take enough money for a taxi home.
Trains and buses
Public transportation may be a new adventure for you and can be challenging and difficult until you get used to it. If you’re intimidated by the rules and routes, take a friend with you to show you the ropes your first time out. If you do venture out on your own, carry a map of public transportation systems with you until you are comfortable getting where you need to go. Plan your routes ahead of time, and make sure you know the fares and how to signal the driver to stop.
Passenger robberies along popular tourist routes on trains and buses are a serious problem, but you can protect yourself. Take a look at the following list for some tips:
- First and foremost, never accept food or drink from strangers when traveling on trains and buses. Criminals have been known to put drugs in food or drink offered to passengers, and then rob them while they’re sleeping.
- Crime on trains and buses is more common at night and especially on overnight trains. You don’t need to avoid such trips altogether, but do stay alert and in tune with your surroundings.
- Remember the following if you travel via train at night:
• Lock your compartment.
• If you are unable to securely lock your compartment, sleep in shifts with your traveling companions. If you’re traveling alone, stay awake.
• If you must sleep and are traveling alone, tie down your luggage, strap your valuables to you, and sleep on top of them as much as possible.
- Never be afraid to alert train authorities if you feel threatened in any way during your trip. Extra police are often assigned to ride trains on routes where crime is a serious problem.
In some countries, entire busloads of passengers have been robbed by gangs of bandits.
Memorizing the rules of the road
Road rules and conditions vary widely by country and region and likely aren’t what you’re used to.
If you rent a car for a road-trip, make sure to take a friend with you (and a mobile phone if you have one) and follow these tips:
- Don’t rent something exotic (like an SUV); choose a car that you see on the roads in the country you’re in.
- Fully insure the car for the duration of your trip and make sure you have contact numbers for roadside assistance.
- Keep good road maps on hand.
- Ask your rental car agency for advice on avoiding robbery while visiting tourist destinations.
- Where possible, ask that markings that identify the rental car as a rental be removed, otherwise you’re an easy target for thieves who prey on tourists.
- Make certain that the car is in good shape and recently serviced. When possible, choose a car with automatic door locks and power windows.
- Get a car with air conditioning so you can drive with the windows closed. Thieves can snatch purses and bags through open windows of moving cars.
- Keep bags and purses out of sight locked in the trunk.
- Keep car doors locked at all times. Wear seat belts.
- As much as possible, avoid driving at night.
- Don’t leave valuables in the car.
- Don’t park your car on the street overnight. If you can’t park in a parking garage or other secure area, select a well-lit area.
- Never pick up hitchhikers.
- Don’t stop to help strangers or accept help from anyone except authorized roadside assistance. Criminals may pose as stranded motorists seeking help. Or they may flag you down, ask for assistance, and then steal your luggage or car. Usually they work in groups; one person preoccupies you by chatting while the others rob you.
- Never put yourself into a situation in which you feel uncomfortable or unsafe. If the area where you planned to park doesn’t feel safe to you, drive away instead.
According to the State Department, victimization of motorists has been refined to an art in many places frequented by tourists, including areas of southern Europe. Where this sort of crime is a problem, U.S. Embassies are aware of it and try to warn the public about the dangers. In some locations, these efforts at public awareness have paid off, reducing the frequency of incidents.
Carjackers and thieves operate at gas stations, in parking lots, in city traffic, and along the highway — basically, anywhere there are cars. In extreme instances, criminals may attempt to get your attention with abuse, either trying to drive you off the road or causing an “accident” by rear-ending you and creating a fender bender. Or in some urban areas, thieves don’t waste time on ploys: They simply smash your car windows at traffic lights, grab your valuables or your car, and get away.
The bottom line is that it is simply better to avoid driving in a foreign country. If you must drive, drive defensively, and keep an eye out for potentially criminal pedestrians, cyclists, and scooter riders.