Education Abroad
Preparing to Depart

Staying Safe Abroad

  • Adapted from CIEE’s Knowledge series of informational brochures.
    Staying safe while abroad is much like staying safe here in Seattle- it’s about being aware, having a plan, and not taking undue risk.

    4 Principles for Personal Risk Preparedness Abroad

    • Awareness: Be aware of local hotspots and events- read local newspapers and magazines. Speak to local residents about what areas of town are safe especially at night and what modes of transportation are safest
    • Communication: Keep in contact with family at home either by email or phone, let friends and family know your itinerary when travelling abroad.
    • Cultural Common Sense: Recognize that cultures are different even if they appear similar. Learn cultural norms about clothing, behavior, the use of substance, and cultural cues.
    • Personal Responsibility: Personal safety and security starts with the decisions you make including transportation methods, who you hang out with, where you go out, etc. The greatest threat to safety involves alcohol which leads to impaired judgment and compromised decision-making.

    Judgment Calls

    It’s can be tempting to take risks while abroad you wouldn’t take at home, often justifying it with the argument you’re only doing what locals do. The problem is locals- who truly understand their culture- are in a much better position to judge the situations they find themselves in than you are. You may misread cultural signals- those verbal, non-verbal, and situational clues you interpret instinctively in your own culture.

    Prevent What You Can

    Most of us overestimate the danger of rare events over which we have no control (such as terrorist attacks) and underestimate the danger of common events over which we have at least some control (like traffic accidents). Be concerned with preventing the things you can: petty theft, pedestrian safety, getting lost, undue risks. Here are a few preventative measures:

    • Theft: be aware of local conditions and customs that may present risk, don’t call attention to yourself as an American/tourist, don’t carry too much cash, be aware, & use common sense if using alcohol.
    • Dangerous situations: use the buddy system- don’t walk alone at night, avoid political demonstrations, don’t take risks abroad you would not take at home, & be aware.
    • Alcohol and drugs: use caution and exercise common sense, remember that excessive use can be dangerous and often carries negative stigmas in many places of the world, be aware that most countries have severe penalties for buying, selling, and using illegal drugs.
    • Dating: be aware of what your interactions may insinuate to men/women of your host country, recognize that there are significant differences in the way dating is percevied elsewhere in the world, & be cognizant of local customs.
    • Dangers for women: recognize that staring and comments are common in many places, put your safety first by observing what behavior provoke unwanted attention, be aware of non-verbal cues that may suggest you are “available” or interested, dress as local women do to avoid attracting attention, & act culturally appropriate.

    Ask the Right Questions

    Make sure you know what to expect by asking about things like:

    • Common crimes (like purse snatchings)
    • Necessary traffic and transportation precautions (like taking the bus at night)
    • Street-smart behavior (where can you go safely and at what times? only if you’re in a group? only if you’re in a group that includes men?)
    • Who can be trusted (for example, in some places the police can’t)
    • Norms governing dress and behavior (for example, what are the assumptions made about the morals of a woman who is out alone after a certain hour?)
    • What documents should be carried at all times versus stored in a safe place
    • Natural phenomena that can be dangerous (i.e. tides at the beach)
    • Dangerous animals/plants 
    • Environmental hazards (like air quality or drinking water)