AHA takes the safety of our participants very seriously and has a number of protocols in place to help maximize student safety. While safety abroad cannot be guaranteed any more than it can be on your home campus, it is a reality that safety issues abroad are most likely to arise in connection with day-to-day occurrences that are similar to those you may encounter at home – theft, road accidents, getting lost in unfamiliar surroundings, etc. These every day issues are however made more complicated by the fact that when you are abroad, you are more likely to be in an unfamiliar location, may not be fluent in the language, and may miss cues (body language, indirect communication, road signs) that will help you stay safe. Thus, many of the common-sense precautions that one would take at home are equally important to follow abroad; at the same time, it is important to research and understand the differences between your home environment and the environment you will find abroad.
With this in mind, AHA recommends you consider the following:
- Read the materials you receive from AHA carefully, attend your campus pre-departure orientation, and pay close attention to the safety information presented at your on-site orientation. Review the State Department's country specific information sheet for your country of study as well as any other countries you plan to travel to during your time abroad; these sheets include an overview of safety, crime, legal and traffic issues for the country. Be sure to ask questions about anything that seems unclear or about which you have special concerns. Make sure that by the end of your orientation abroad, you understand both general and local safety issues, including:
- Local environmental issues, if any - drinking water, local phenomena such as mountain climbing safety or beach safety, etc.
- Crime & precautions – are there areas of town to avoid? Times after which it’s unwise to be out alone? Are there issues that may particularly affect female students, students who are from a different racial/ethnic background than the host country majority, or LGBTQ students?
- Cultural norms – are there local expectations or norms about dress, behavior in public, relationships between men and women, that you should be aware of when making decisions about your own behavior?
- Traffic issues – pedestrian safety, roads to avoid, public transportation issues if any, etc.
- Documentation – what should be carried with you, what should be kept in a safe place.
- Understand your destination. Start by reading your AHA program materials, including the Culturegram for your destination; do additional research as well. Make sure you have at least a basic understanding of the politics, culture, religion, and current issues of your destination.
- Make a personal emergency contact plan. You will receive emergency contact information for your site in your pre-departure information. At your on-site orientation, you will receive additional details about how you can communicate with local staff, and how they will communicate with you, in the event of an emergency. Prior to departure, you should be sure to go over an emergency contact plan with family and friends who will be concerned about you while abroad. Talk about how often you will be in touch under “normal” circumstances, how you will contact each other in an emergency, what to do if they can’t reach you, alternate contacts if you can’t reach them, etc.
Once abroad, following common-sense precautions as you would at home will be a major factor in staying safe. Think about the following precautions, as well as the program-specific information you receive during your pre-departure and on-site orientations:
- Don’t carry large amounts of cash, or wear expensive jewelry or other items that may attract pickpockets. Consider purchasing a money belt or a concealed purse for your passport, visa, money, credit cards, and other documents. If you carry a wallet or regular purse, keep them closed and wear close to the body.
- Prepare for the possibility of loss. Make two copies of all of your important documents (passport, visa, credit card numbers, etc.); leave one set with a trusted family member or friend at home, and keep one in a safe location abroad or in a secure electronic format that you can access from abroad. AHA strongly encourages students to purchase personal property insurance for possessions such as your laptop, digital camera, smartphone, etc.
- Be aware of your surroundings and circumstances at all times. Know which neighborhoods to avoid, travel with others when possible, don’t travel alone at night. Avoid public demonstrations, which may unexpectedly turn violent. Be especially alert when in crowded areas, including major tourist attractions and public transportation.
- When travelling on trains, buses, or metros, choose a compartment where others are seated if possible. Note the location of emergency equipment/exits. Stay awake and alert for short rides; if you are bothered or harassed, immediately contact the conductor or driver.
- Avoid calling attention to yourself as a foreigner in public, if possible; foreigners are often seen as easier targets than locals for crime or unwanted attention. Consider avoiding locations that are identified with foreigners (U.S. chains such as Starbucks or McDonalds, etc.).
- Make sure you stay in regular communication with your Site Director and staff, as well as family and friends. When traveling away from the site, complete a travel form with your itinerary and contact information and leave it with site staff. You will be registered with the U.S. embassy or consulate for your site; if you plan to travel outside of your country of study on breaks, register your trip with the embassy online.
- Stay alert and sober. According to the U.S. State Department, alcohol or drugs are a factor in the majority of incidents (theft, injury, assault, fatality, accident, etc.) involving U.S. citizens abroad. Being intoxicated can contribute to poor judgment and inability to assess situations, and greatly increases your risk of being a victim of a crime.
- If you receive unwanted sexual attention or are subjected to sexual harassment, remove yourself from the individual or situation as quickly as possible, and report the incident to your site director or other AHA staff member.
- Pay attention to transportation issues, especially those that may be different from home. Traffic patterns, the interaction between pedestrians and motor vehicles, and road safety are common areas of difference from one country to another; traffic accidents are one of the primary causes of injury and fatalities of U.S. citizens abroad.
- While abroad, you are subject to the laws of your host country and responsible for knowing those laws.
- Laws, penalties, and legal procedures can vary greatly from country to country; do not assume that the legal rights you have in the U.S. will be the same elsewhere.
- Violation of local laws is grounds for dismissal from AHA.
- Avoid illegal drugs and excessive alcohol consumption. Possession of illegal drugs and being under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs are two of the most common factors in the arrest or detention of U.S. citizens abroad every year. Possession of even a small amount of illegal drugs may carry very severe penalties; disruptive behavior in public due to alcohol can lead to criminal charges (disturbing the peace, indecent behavior, etc.).
- Be aware that should you be arrested or accused of a crime, the U.S. embassy cannot intervene on your behalf. The embassy can assist you in finding legal representation, contacting family or friends, visit you in detention, and will try to ensure that your rights under local law are observed. The embassy cannot give legal advice, represent you, or demand your release.
- AHA Crisis Management Plan
- Students Abroad: Smart Travel This U.S. State Department resource page for students going abroad includes general recommendations and advice regarding safety as well as specific recommendations for women travelers, LGBT travelers, etc.
- Country specific information These U.S. State Department information pages include specific information about safety and security, crime and criminal penalties, and traffic safety for each country.