Travel Tips

Know Your Rights: What to Do When You’ve Been Arrested Abroad

Locations in this article:  Vienna, Austria

abandoned-jail.jpgIf you’ve ever seen Locked Up Abroad, you know what a nightmare it is to be arrested in a foreign country. But do you know your legal rights if you do have a run-in with the law? What if you didn’t even know you were breaking the law? Attorney and legal analyst AnneElise Goetz shares her insider tips on what to do if you’re arrested abroad.

It can happen for so many reasons: Maybe you got into a bar fight in Greece, maybe you spit your gum on the sidewalk in Thailand, or maybe you lit a cigarette in a public place in Singapore. No matter what the circumstances, you have now found yourself arrested in a foreign country – not exactly the “cultural experience” you were after! At this point, your best course of action is to remain calm and keep the following legal tips in mind as you navigate the foreign criminal justice system.

1. Your Friend the American Embassy

As soon as you are arrested, ask to speak to the American Embassy or U.S. Consulate. This is a critical first step and cannot be skipped. If you receive resistance, continue to make your request. Be firm but polite. Legally, under the Vienna Convention, you have the right to receive assistance from the United States. Countries are supposed to alert the Embassy of your arrest, but others won’t contact the American Embassy unless you demand the notification.

2. Evaluate Your Rights

While waiting for contact from the American Embassy, ask an officer for a written statement of your rights.  If you are arrested in a non-English-speaking country, then ask for an interpreter. Certain countries automatically locate and provide you with an interpreter, while others will do so for a fee. This is a necessity if you are not fluent in the language. You don’t want to chance your “adequate language skills” to get you through the criminal justice system.

Remember, your rights in foreign countries are going to vary dramatically from the United States. Odds are you won’t be provided with an attorney in the event you can’t pay for it, and do NOT count on anyone warning you that “anything you say may be held against you in a court of law.”

Never forget, from the moment you set foot in a foreign country, you are subject to their rules and laws; not only as the basis for your underlying arrest, but also in their criminal justice system.

3. Try to Get a Phone Call

This may or may not be successful, but if you can get it – do it. Reach out to a family member or a friend and use the time wisely… I know you may want to have a nervous breakdown and bask in the sympathy of a loved one, but this should be a “just the facts” phone call. Tell the person on the other end to grab a pen, and cover the following:

  1. Your geographical location and the name of your jail
  2. Your inmate number, if assigned
  3. Where you were arrested
  4. Who arrested you
  5. Where the alleged illegal conduct occurred
  6. Any potential witnesses to back up your case

The point of the phone call is to alert your family as to where you are, how they or an attorney can reach you, and to create a summary of the relevant facts of your case while they are fresh in your mind – which will be helpful to your lawyer when building the case.

Do NOT say anything incriminating, as you can assume someone is listening to the call.

4. Make the Most Out of Your Visit From the American Embassy

Let me be clear, the American Embassy is NOT your “Get Out of Jail Free Card;” however, the Embassy can do many things for you and, in those first few hours or days after an arrest, they will be your lifeline.

In your first visit with a representative from the Embassy, the following should occur:

  1. They will give you a list of English-speaking lawyers in the country
  2. If you are having any issues with abuse or living conditions, they will use their powers to monitor, report, and attempt to fix the problems
  3. At your first meeting, and any future meetings, they will serve as your point of contact with your family (Remember to provide the representative with one individual that all communication should go through)
  4. You are going to need money to pay for an attorney, and the representative can help your family forward the money to the appropriate person for your legal defense

5. Create a Media Frenzy

Anyone owning a television knows about the Amanda Knox verdict in Italy. Likewise, in late May 2013, a media storm was successful in getting a mother of seven released from an alleged drug smuggling bust in Mexico. The point is, the international press is powerful. If you have a compelling story, it may be critical to have the media behind you.

Best of luck on your speedy return to the United States.

By AnneElise Goetz for Visit AnneElise’s website at for more legal and life tips.