When traveling abroad, the top concern for many Americans is safety.
Whether due to ongoing conflicts, special events like the 2024 Paris Olympics, natural disasters like the current volcanic eruption in Iceland, or increased crime, conditions in countries can change rapidly, affecting both travelers and locals.
To help keep American travelers safe, the US State Department issues and maintains travel advisories for US citizens based on current conditions.
These tips may be especially helpful for first-time and younger travelers, though the agency encourages all people to review them for their desired destination before traveling.
What is the travel advice based on?
Although travel alerts originate from the State Department and are live on its website, they are a joint effort between the State Department’s Office of Overseas Citizens Services and US consulates and embassies worldwide.
“We’ve got our diplomats and consular officers on the ground, who have more up-to-date information than anyone in Washington,” said Angela Kerwin, deputy assistant secretary for overseas citizen services, during the zoom. Interview on Thursday. “But we use different data to look at our travel advisory criteria around the world.”
In addition to crime reports, reports from non-governmental organizations and reports from international organizations such as the United Nations, governments consider nine risk factors in determining each country’s consultant designation level:
- C – Crime: There is widespread violence or organized crime in various parts of the country. Local law enforcement may have limited ability to respond to serious crimes.
- T – Terrorism: Terrorist attacks have occurred and/or specific threats against civilians, groups or other targets may exist.
- U — Civil unrest: Political, economic, religious and/or ethnic instability exists and may cause violence, major disruptions and/or security risks.
- H – Health: Health risks, including current disease outbreaks or a crisis that disrupts a country’s medical infrastructure. Issuance of a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Travel Health Notice may also be a factor.
- N — Natural disaster: A natural disaster, or its aftermath, causes danger.
- E — Time-limited event: Short-term events, such as elections, sporting events or other events that may pose a security risk.
- K — Kidnapping or hostage-taking: A criminal or terrorist person or group has threatened and/or detained or detained and threatened to kill, injure or detain a third party (including a government agency) to compel or refrain from doing something. conditions of release.
- D — Wrongful Detention: US citizens are at risk of wrongful detention.
- He is another: Potential risk is not covered by previous risk indicators. Read the country’s travel advice for details.
Although the recently added category, wrongful detention, applies to only a few countries, it is an important criterion for travelers who have detained a U.S. citizen without cause.
Reward your inbox with the TPG Daily Newsletter
Join 700,000 readers for breaking news, in-depth guides and exclusive deals from TPG experts
Level 1 to 4 tiered warning system
Based on that nine-rubric system, plus reports and input from U.S. consulates and embassies in these countries, the agency assigns each country levels from 1 to 4 tiered alerts, with 1 indicating the lowest level, relative safety, and 4 the highest. , meaning travelers should not visit.
Level 1: Practice normal precautions
This is the lowest level a country can achieve, making it the safest for Americans to travel. As with any trip, there are always some risks, so every country will always have at least one Level 1 advisory.
Level 2: Increased exercise alertness
Under a Level 2 designation, a country has increased security or safety risks, but they likely won’t prevent you from traveling there.
Level 3: Reconsider the trip
A Level 3 advisory asks travelers to potentially postpone travel to the country in question, as serious potential risks exist.
Level 4: Do not travel
The most serious advisories are Level 4 recommendations, which warn you to avoid travel to designated countries and areas due to potential life-threatening risks and greater threats to limited resources to help Americans.
What else to know about travel advice?
In addition to the State Department’s general travel advisories, a country information page will provide any timely warnings to consider from the relevant US embassy and/or consulate.
There are also countries where organizations may provide “carve-outs” for communicating information related to specific areas or regions within a particular country.
“Perhaps the country itself is a Level 3 country, but there is a certain border area that has dynamic activity, and we would say that would be a Level 4,” Carwin explained.
These carvings are often found in Mexico, as the United States shares a border with the country and many more Americans travel to Mexico for tourism than elsewhere.
“Mexico is a special case. We have more U.S. consulates than any other country in the world, and because of that, we are able to provide a state-by-state travel advisory level to Mexico,” Kerwin said. “[With] other countries of the world, [we] Just don’t have the power to have that level of detail; Specificity is high for Mexico.”
Because data is the main source of information for making these recommendations, not all alerts are created equal.
“It’s impossible to say that we can apply the same nine criteria to country A as we do to country B. You’ll have a more reliable kind of statistical data…than you would in Germany,” Carwin explained. “So comparing exactly the same report for Germany with the same report for Chad doesn’t mean much because that wouldn’t normally be available.”
In this case, the government relies on its embassies and consulates, which are located in most countries in the country, to help inform its warnings.
“We’ve got people on the ground who are often in the best position to help us assess the number of kidnappings, the level of civil unrest, how many terrorist attacks are reported or unreported,” he said.
Note that the lack of readily available or accurate information does not make a country inherently risky or more dangerous for travelers.
“It means that we don’t have the right kind of data that we would have in other countries,” Carwin said. “We have to rely more on embassy reporting and our people there, but that doesn’t mean it’s a more dangerous country.”
Does a level 4 warning mean I should avoid traveling there?
In short, the answer is yes.
At the time of publication, there were 19 countries with a Level 4 alert, according to the State Department.
“These are the places we consider the most dangerous for US citizens to travel to, and we really want US citizens to look at other destinations,” Kerwin said. In part, this is due to the limited consular or embassy services available in these places when an American needs help.
“Every American citizen can make their own decisions about where they want to travel. That’s all we can do as a government,” he continued. “If a U.S. citizen finds themselves in a situation where they need to travel to one of these countries for any reason, we ask them to look at our travel advisories in advance, read our country information sheet. We would certainly recommend that if we have an effective Embassy, that they save that information on their phones so that they can contact the embassy if needed.”
But overall, travelers should avoid traveling to Level 4 countries if possible.
“Each of these Level 4 countries will tell you what our concerns are with these countries and. [that] Our criteria are met,” Kerwin said. “We believe it’s pretty dangerous to go there.”
How often is the State Department travel advisory updated?
When viewing a travel advisory, you’ll note the date it was last updated at the top, as alerts are updated on a rolling basis.
Generally speaking, Level 4 and Level 3 alerts are updated at least once every six months, while Level 1 and Level 2 alerts are reviewed at least once per year, pending changing circumstances.
“If something changes or something happens, we’ll do it earlier if necessary,” Kerwin said.
For example, on Thursday, the US Embassy in Reykjavik issued its own warning about a volcanic eruption in southwest Iceland that morning. While embassy alerts are issued for isolated incidents in a specific region of a country, this does not necessarily reflect the overall level of the country as a whole.
Despite the volcano warning, Iceland remains at Level 1, as it has been since July. If it had been a wider outbreak affecting general European air travel, it would have prompted the agency to update travel advice overall.
“Right now, by sending out that safety alert, we’re saying stay away from the volcano, but if you want to go out to dinner in Reykjavík, follow our regular travel advisory information,” Carwin said.
That volcano alert also went out through the agency’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, which sends relevant safety updates from the nearest U.S. consulate, and which Kerwin suggested travelers enroll in as another way to stay safe abroad.
“So anyone traveling or living in Iceland who is registered with STEP will get an email saying, ‘Hey, be aware the volcano erupted again today, we’re monitoring it closely; pay attention,'” he explained. “We have those various security alerts that we can send to a country at any time based on late-breaking events.”
Special events such as the upcoming 2024 Paris Olympics will trigger additional and/or more frequent alerts.
“We’re going to pay special attention to that. We expect a large number of US citizens to be heading that way to cheer on our team and we want to make sure we’re giving them the best information we can about them while they’re traveling,” Kerwin said.
Other factors should be considered while traveling abroad
As with travel in general, the State Department advises Americans traveling abroad to prepare in advance.
“We have a slogan that we’ve been using, and I like it; it’s called ‘Smart Travel from the Start,’ and it starts before you decide on a destination,” Kerwin said. This slogan applies to details such as checking that your passport has sufficient validity (entry to most countries takes six months) and purchasing travel insurance.
Kerwin recommends gathering contact information for the nearest U.S. government presence (eg, embassy or consulate) through the State Department’s list of U.S. embassies and consulates.
“Write on paper, take a picture on your phone and save the phone number or email address of the US Embassy/Consulate so you can contact us if there’s a problem,” he said. “And always be aware of your surroundings… A high level of awareness… is important for travelers wherever they are going.”
With travel comes an inherent risk and the government aims to help travelers stay safe at home and abroad.
Although the travel decision is ultimately up to the traveler, these travel tips should be taken seriously.
“Our goal is to always provide the best advice and information for U.S. citizens to help them make their decisions about where they want to travel,” Carwin said.
Therefore, heed these State Department travel warnings through U.S. embassies, consulates, and the Department of State’s STEP program.
“The last thing — and it’s an important one — is to have fun,” Kerwin added. “Travel is wonderful – you get to see new cultures, and you get to experience new languages and beautiful countries and beautiful cities. We want Americans to travel and have fun on their adventures around the world.”