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While it is never possible to guarantee that an experience will be 100% safe—whether at home or abroad—there are many actions we can take to mitigate the risk of falling victim to crime.
Deter violent crime
Following are some general safety guidelines to deter violent crime:
- Know about local safety conditions wherever they are going (US Embassy advisories on local safety in your program country are available online).
- Follow guidelines given in on-site orientations.
- Lock doors and windows.
- Put valuables in a safe or ask the local contact about storing valuables at the program site.
- Know which neighborhoods are safe and which should be avoided.
- Avoid traveling alone. Avoid poorly-lit places. Stick to well-traveled streets and try to walk in groups at night. Students should be especially cautious when they are new to a city and do not know which parts of town may be less safe.
- Don’t walk around or travel at night.
- Don’t flaunt wallets, purses, money, or cameras. Students should avoid displaying large bills or lots of cash and should only carry the money they need. Students should wear a concealed money belt if they must carry a lot of money.
- Don’t drink alcohol. Students who choose to drink should drink alcohol sparingly and be aware of their surroundings when drinking. Even a small amount could increase one’s vulnerability to crime.
- Leave expensive or expensive-looking jewelry at home. Do not wear flashy clothing.
- Always be aware of surroundings and walk with a purpose. Don’t dull your senses by listening to headphones while walking.
- Don’t act like a tourist. Reference travel guides and maps discreetly.
- If a situation makes you uncomfortable, walk away.
When there are crowds, there are opportunities for theft. Additionally, simply by being a foreigner, travelers are perceived as wealthy and easy prey for theft and scams.
- Don’t pack anything that will draw attention or you deem irreplaceable. If you’re afraid to lose it, don’t bring it.
- Dress as similarly to the local people as possible. This is especially true in host cultures where dressing in certain ways is inappropriate. If you are uncertain about how to dress, it’s best to ask someone who closely identifies with the host culture.
- Pack clothes that will help keep your wallet, money, and other belongings or documents secure and safe from thieves. Choose pocket that zips up or buttons closed. At the least, carry your valuables in your front pocket. Carry a money belt when you are carrying your passport and other documents.
- Choose a secure, discreet bag. An old backpack would work great. Just make sure that the zippers are secured together using a simple twist-tie, paperclip, or a small lock. When carrying a purse/shoulder bag, sling it across your body and keep it close to your side or in front in crowded areas.
- Travel with a companion. Having an extra set of eyes and being able to share the responsibility of watching belongings, especially luggage, can be invaluable. Of course, traveling with a companion is safer, too, especially at night.
- Keep in touch with your belongings. When sitting, keep your bag on your lap or your put your leg through the loop of your bag. Don’t simply set it next to you or hang it on the back of your chair.
- Don’t keep all your money in one place. Spread it around your person so if your pocket is picked or you are robbed, you still have some cash. Avoid displaying a wad of cash or large bills. If you must refill your wallet, do it in a private place.
- Take extra precautions around ATMs. Go during the day, and if you feel uncomfortable, leave and find another ATM.
- Be aware of your surroundings. Be aware that groups of thieves could work together to steal. One could distract you, while another could pick your pocket. If a situation feels wrong, just walk away.
- Don’t limit your senses while traveling in crowded spaces. Drinking alcohol, wearing headphones, and even sleeping in public spaces all increase your vulnerability.
- Walk with a purpose. If you look like you know what you’re doing, you are less of a target. Avoid reading maps or guidebooks in public.
Extra precautions on public transportation
City buses and subways are crowded and commuters frequently get on and off, making the environment constantly changing and enabling would-be-thieves easy escape. If you feel unsafe, get off the bus or subway and find another one.
- When on buses and subway cars, keep any bags in front of your person while safeguarding pockets that hold other valuables with either your hand or arm. This can often be challenging since it’s common to have to keep one arm raised above your head to hold on. When traveling with friends, it’s also a good idea to keep an eye out for each other.
- Long-distance buses, trains, and boats are places where you should keep your belongings within sight, in touch, or tied down. This is especially important when traveling on sleepers.
- When sleeping on a bus or a train, consider securing your bag to your body by running your belt through a bag loop, using your bag as a pillow, or wedging your bag between your body and a wall. If you have luggage, if possible, lock it to something secure, such as a bar under the seat or on a luggage rack. At the least consider securing your luggage together so it is clumsy to lift and carry.
- Sitting next to a window not only is more secure, but you can get some air if smoking is allowed on board.
- As with all modes of transportation, be extra attentive at stops. The most opportune time for theft is when passengers are getting off. Be careful at rest stops when your belongings are still on the bus. The best way to be safe in such a case is to travel with a trusty companion and take shifts or take your belongings off the bus with you.
- The ticket station and check-in luggage areas warrant extra attention as well. Keep an eye on your belongings and board the bus, train, or boat after luggage has been secured.
- All students are responsible for their personal property. For additional protection before departure, students are encouraged to obtain an insurance policy for their possessions since the GeoBlue health insurance only covers student medical needs. Students should ask their parents or legal guardians if their home-owners or renters insurance includes adequate travel insurance.
- If students are the victim of crime or require assistance, they should contact their local program director, the on-site staff, or the University of Michigan Police Department (734.763.1131) immediately.
Safety suggestions for female travelers
Students may or may not have thought about what it might mean to be female in the country in which they will be studying, but CGIS encourages students to do so. While it is impossible to generalize about the experience of women traveling in all places in the world, women may experience some gender-specific challenges when they live or travel abroad.
It is a fact that the incidence of violent crime against women is higher in the US than in many other countries. However, due to language and cultural differences, what a student considers to be appropriate behavior for a woman in the US may be interpreted very differently by the men—and women—of their host country. This is further compounded by the fact that people in some other countries may have distorted or stereotyped notions about American women, based on images acquired through American media. Be aware that behavior that is considered incorrect in many parts of the US may not be viewed in this way abroad (for example, whistling, catcalls, or personal comments).
Similarly, a smile, eye contact, certain clothing, or the way students carry themselves can have different connotations in other cultures, so students should read destination-specific travel guides, forums, or articles and talk to women who have been to the host country. The more familiar students are with the customs and traditions of their host country, the more understanding they will have and the safer they will feel while abroad.
On past programs, female students have been asked to complete CGIS’s Women Abroad Questionnaire. Suggestions they have made include:
- Follow the example of women from the host country in terms of culturally appropriate dress and demeanor.
- Trust your instincts. If you don’t feel safe in a situation or someone’s behavior is making you uncomfortable, get out of the situation.
- Travel in groups of at least two.
- Lock hotel rooms when traveling, and do not stay in hotels without adequate locks, even if that means staying where room rates are higher.
- Walk with purpose.
- Be aware that drinking blunts your ability to interpret social and behavioral cues and thus increases your vulnerability to assault.
- Ignore unwanted overtures, or firmly say "no" to any unwanted invitation and turn away.
- Take a free self-defense class offered by the UM Dean of Students Office before leaving to increase confidence.
If a situation arises in which students are sexually harassed or assaulted, experience discrimination, violence, and aggression, or if students feel that particular situations are unsafe, students should contact their program director or another staff member on the program or at the university with whom students feel comfortable.
The University of Michigan’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center (SAPAC) has a 24-hour hotline students may use: 734.936.3333. The regular office number is 734.998.9368.
More Women Travel: Adventures and Advice from More Than 60 Countries, ed. Natania Jansz and Miranda Davies (New York: Penguin, 1995).
A Journey of One’s Own: Uncommon Advice for the Independent Woman Traveler, 3rd ed., Thalia Zepatos (Portland: Eighth Mountain, 2003).
If you are arrested or detained abroad
While in a foreign country, a US citizen is subject to that country's laws and regulations, which sometimes differ significantly from those in the United States and may not afford the protections available to the individual under US law.
The United States consulate cannot:
- demand a citizen’s immediate release or get them out of jail or the country
- represent citizens at trial or give legal counsel
- pay legal fees and/or fines with US government funds.
Actions that can be taken by the US Department of State's Consular Services include:
- visiting the prisoner as soon as possible after notification of the arrest
- providing a list of local attorneys to assist the prisoner in obtaining legal representation
- providing information about judicial procedures in the foreign country
- notifying family or friends, if authorized by the prisoner
- obtaining a Privacy Act Consent
- relaying requests to family and friends for money or other aid.
- monitoring conditions in foreign prisons
- protesting allegations of abuse against American prisoners
- working with prison officials to ensure treatment is consistent with internationally recognized standards of human rights
- working to ensure that Americans are afforded due process under local laws.
For more information, consult the US Department of State's Assistance to US Citizens Arrested Abroad webpage.