How Not to Be a Bad American Abroad: Tips from State Department Officials

by  Yahoo! Travel | Feb 19, 2015
Passport / goodmoments/iStock

By Leah Ginsberg for Yahoo! Travel

Recently, I had a Top Secret chat with some government officials. Okay, so it wasn’t technically “top secret” (that’s probably above my pay grade as they say on TV). But I did talk with some officials from the U.S. State Department about Americans traveling abroad. The good news is, the officials say most citizens do the U.S. pretty proud while visiting other countries. But of course, there are always the exceptions. Here are six lessons I learned about being a good American while traveling abroad, thanks to some crazy true travel stories from the State Department.

1. The American embassy is not your personal concierge.

Fun fact: Belonging to a country club is not one of your inalienable rights. (Thinkstock)

“We had some folks living abroad who asked for our assistance when they were turned down for membership at an exclusive country club over there,” laughs one State Department official. Seriously. “They thought they had an inherent right to join.”

2. You should always have an escape plan.

Airport, not Airbnb. (Thinkstock)

“We had a woman who met someone online. When she went overseas to meet this person, she was left stranded,” says an official. “She was stuck at the airport for four days with no food or money. She couldn’t speak the language and it took her that long to work out who to ask for help.” Before you take off for an unfamiliar place, investigate your resources, warn the State Department officials. Do things like take the phone number of the U.S. embassy with you, and learn what uniforms the local police wear so you can easily get help if you need it.

Related: How to Spot an American Anywhere in the World

3. It’s helpful to learn about a foreign country’s culture — and eating habits.

Take the chopsticks out of the rice. (Thinkstock)

Did you know that “you can’t leave your chopsticks in your rice in east Asia because it means death?” asks one State Department official. Um, no, no I did not. “And in North Africa, you can’t eat with your left hand because it’s assumed that you use that hand for the, uh, facilities,” says another. The moral of this story is, be aware of local religious and cultural norms and respect them. A good article or guidebook will often clue you in about what to look out for, suggest the officials, as will a licensed tour guide.

Related: The Most (Accidentally) Offensive Things Americans Can Do While Traveling

4. Be aware of local laws, and don’t buy any ancient anything from anyone.

This could end you up in jail instead of on Antiques Roadshow. (Thinkstock)

“It may be well-intentioned, but buying some old sword and putting it in your suitcase can get you in trouble if it’s an antiquity,” says one official. Best-case scenario it will be taken away, worst-case scenario, they could press charges. The same with taking photos: “In Africa, and in some cities around the world, taking photographs around government buildings is pretty much prohibited and can get you arrested,” according to another official. “Knowing culturally what’s expected and legally what’s required is important.” That's because you're subject to the jurisdiction of wherever you’re traveling. As it says on the State Department’s website: “If you break local laws while abroad, your U.S. passport won’t help you avoid arrest or prosecution, and the U.S. Embassy cannot get you out of jail.”

5. Always know where your hotel is.

Brush up on your map skills if your smartphone doesn’t have international service. (Thinkstock)

“There were these people who were visiting a major capital city and managed not to remember where their hotel was located. So they just left their stuff there, and left the country,” recounts one of the State Department officials. “When we asked them why they did that, they said, ‘We couldn’t find it and we don’t speak the language.’” The officials suggest hiring a licensed tour guide or driver, using a map, or taking a business card from the hotel to prevent this kind of situation.

6. Heed local warning signs, like “Beware of crocodiles.”

He doesn’t care if you ran into him by accident. (Thinkstock)

Adventure travel is taking off – often among people who are hardly the American version of Bear Grylls. People climb mountains that are actually active volcanoes, “or they go scuba diving and it turns out there are crocodiles,” says an official. Do your homework and pay attention to signs or warnings from local authorities about safety matters. Also, make sure you have appropriate travelers insurance, so that if something bad does happen, you can get the assistance or medical attention you need. And you can always call the American embassy for help.

Related: A Hot Air Balloon Landing These Tourists Never Expected: Jail

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