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Legal Matters and Consular Services

Obeying Local and National Laws

While you are visiting another country, you are subject to the laws of that country. Many of the legal protections we take for granted are left behind when you leave the U.S., and American embassies and consulates are very limited in the assistance they can provide should you be caught up in your host country’s legal system. They may be able to provide you with the names of attorneys and doctors who speak English, but they cannot provide legal advice, any financial assistance in paying for legal or medical services, nor intervene on your behalf in the administration of justice in the host country.

Bail provisions as we know them in the United States are rare in many other countries, and pre-trial detention without bail is common. The principle of “innocent until proven guilty” is not necessarily a tenet of many legal systems abroad. The best advice is to know the laws before you travel and then obey them scrupulously. If you get in trouble, contact your program director and seek local legal assistance as quickly as possible.


Avoid any involvement with drugs and all other illegal substances. Drug laws vary from country to country, but in many cases, the penalties are severe, regardless of whether the drug in your possession is for personal use or for sale to others. Bail is not granted for drug-trafficking cases in most countries. Pre-trial detention, often in solitary confinement, can last for months. Many countries do not provide a jury trial, and in some cases, you may not even be present at your trial.

Most prison and law enforcement officials abroad will probably not speak English, the significance of which you may not fully appreciate until you are confined and feeling helpless. Jail sentences for drug-related crimes can be stiff, and in several countries, hard labor or even the death penalty can be imposed for conviction on some drug charges. Do not wrongly assume that buying or carrying small amounts of drugs cannot result in your arrest. Americans have been jailed abroad for possessing as little as three grams (about one-tenth of an ounce) of marijuana. Indeed, they have even been jailed for just being in the company of someone who was carrying drugs for personal use.

You should also be wary of any new friends or strangers asking you to carry small packages for them (often in exchange for some prize or reward), or offering to let you use their bags or luggage to transport your own belongings. These are common methods used by criminals to trick unsuspecting travelers into transporting drugs for them. It does not matter if you did not know the drugs were there; if you are caught, you will be arrested and most likely tried as a drug trafficker.

Remember: Not knowing your host country’s laws will not hold up as a legal argument if you are arrested for drug possession, or for otherwise breaking your host country’s laws.

Working Abroad Legally

In many countries, holding a wage-earning job while in the country on a student visa is illegal and can be grounds for deportation. Your student visa usually authorizes you to remain in the country for the sole purpose of education, usually for the period of your formal academic enrollment. If you are caught working illegally, it is likely that you will be asked to leave the country.

You are likely to be busy enough with your studies and the other demands associated with being in a new place that you will not have time for an extracurricular job. However, if you are intent on working abroad, you must make arrangements in the U.S. before you travel. You should plan to work either before your program begins or after it ends. You will also most likely need a work permit. Such legal certification is only available in certain countries. Host-country employers are usually required to demonstrate that a potential international hire has skills and experience that are not possessed by the citizens of that country. This is usually a very hard case to make.

Help from Embassies and Consulates

Should you encounter serious social, political, health, or economic problems that cannot be handled within your program, the U.S. Embassy and/or Consulate can usually offer limited assistance to U.S. citizens. Contact information for U.S. embassies and diplomatic posts abroad can be found at

U.S. Government Travel Advisories

The U.S. Department of State routinely publishes official travel advisories and alerts to warn U.S. citizens about areas of danger or unrest around the world. The U.S. Department of State website contains these travel advisories, as well as other announcements and country-specific travel information.

Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP)

Contact your host-country’s embassy and/or International SOS to determine whether any drugs on your list are restricted in your destination(s). For example, if you will travel to China, contact the Chinese embassy or consulate in your home country and ask about medication restrictions. The International Narcotics Control Board is also a good resource. 

Non-U.S. citizens should check with their home country’s embassy/consulate to see if they offer similar services for their citizens abroad.  

Assistance to U.S. Citizen Victims of Crime

U.S. diplomatic officials often know about the local government agencies and resources in the country where they work, and thus can help victims of crime who are U.S. citizens in certain ways. The following is an overview of the assistance and services they can and cannot provide: 

U.S. consular officers and agents can:

  • Replace a lost or stolen passport
  • Contact family, friends, or employers with written permission
  • Provide information to facilitate access to appropriate medical care
  • Address emergency needs that arise as a result of crime
  • Explain financial assistance options, such as assistance available to return to the United States
  • Provide information about local points of contact or organizations who discuss relevant host country laws and implementation of those laws
  • Share information about the status of your case in the local criminal justice process when applicable
  • Connect you to overseas and U.S.-based resources for victims of crime, if available
  • Provide a list of local lawyers who speak English

U.S. consular officers and agents cannot:

  • Investigate crimes
  • Provide legal advice or represent you in court
  • Serve as official interpreters or translators
  • Pay legal, medical, or other fees for you

In addition to providing these support services to U.S. citizens who are victims of crime abroad, U.S. embassies and consulates abroad may also be able to help you during emergency situations in your host country. Such situations run the gamut from terrorist attacks to natural disasters. In such situations, the State Department can be an excellent source of information and alerts, which underlines the importance of all U.S. citizens signing up for its Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) before going abroad.

Office of Overseas Citizens Services

Should your family need to contact you while you are traveling (e.g., after the program is over), emergency assistance is available through the Citizen’s Emergency Center of the Office of Overseas Citizens Services (OCS), operated by the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs. The office is open Monday-Friday, 8:15 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Eastern time. The OCS toll-free hotline at 1-888-407-4747, and the overseas number is 1-202-501-4444.

This office can transmit emergency messages from your family, provide protection in the event of arrest or detention while abroad, transmit emergency funds to destitute U.S. nationals when commercial banking facilities are not available, etc. It would be wise for you to provide your family with at least a tentative itinerary so that in an emergency they can give the State Department some idea where to begin looking for you. More information about services available to US citizens in a crisis abroad can be found at

Special Considerations for Non-U.S. Citizens

Non-U.S. citizens should be sure to check with their home country’s embassy/consulates in their host country to see what type of information and services are provided by their home country’s government. International students studying at Duke should also be sure to check with Duke Visa Services before studying abroad to make sure that their trip abroad will not negatively affect their visa status in the United States.