It is never a pleasant thing to be detained no matter where you are. This detention could occur by police or customs officials and can be for a variety of reasons. It doesn’t always have to involve being dragged away to a police station but can include being stopped and questioned by authorities. When you are detained on foreign soil, it can really become an unpleasant experience.
I am not an attorney and this post is not meant to be legal advice but a reflection on personal experiences and some information gathered together in one post.
Being Detained In A Foreign Country
I have had some experience in this little department, but it fortunately did not include any type of jail or prison. A friend of mine and I were driving back to Amman from Petra on the King’s Highway. I had fallen asleep while my friend drove. In our haste to get back to Amman and with my friend being a little tired, he missed the speed limit sign on the side of the road and we were going over the limit. I cannot remember for sure now how fast we were going, but it was enough that when we came around a corner, we drove right into a speed trap.
It was in the middle of the desert but they had this very small jail cell and a couple of police cars in place. As we were approaching them, they began to motion us to the side of the road. When they came to the car, they asked the usual questions of what we were doing here, where we had come from, where we were going, who did the car belong to, etc. After answering the questions, we thought we were good to go. Unfortunately, that is when the lead officer told us that he had to give us a ticket.
We got out while he wrote out our ticket and then we went to take it and leave. He informed us that we had to pay the ticket right then and there in local currency! Now, we were leaving Amman the next day and we only had a little local currency left on us. We told them that and they insisted it had to be paid or we could not leave. Picture that we are halfway between Petra and Amman in the Jordanian desert (it was about a 3.5 hour trip) and there is nothing around us (even gas stations are few and far between). The officer told us that he was going to hold my friend there while I went to get the money.
What do you do? 🙂 I got in the car and headed off down the road to find someplace to change money. After about a 15 minute drive, I found a small restaurant/shop/tire repair place on the side of the road. When walking in, it felt like I was walking back in time a bit with the dress and even the swords that some of the men had with them. I went up to the counter and explained that I needed to exchange money. They kept thinking I was telling them I wanted a sandwich and proceeded to make me a hot sandwich. After a few more attempts, I was able to show them what I was talking about and they agreed to exchange (after first refusing). The problem was that the exchange rate was horrendous! I cannot remember what the official exchange at the time was but I know that I ended up paying double that rate to get the money I needed. It was either that or drive another 1.5 hours to Amman and hope to get there before the banks closed, so of course I paid the exorbitant price.
I drove back to the police location and paid the money and we were on the way. If I had not paid it, they would have put my friend in jail until the next day when I would have to pay it. So, we were glad to get out of that!
What Happens If You Get Detained?
There are several places that one could be detained in a foreign country. You could be detained by the police while traveling through the country or you could be detained upon entering or exiting the country (this has happened to me a few times upon entering).
Detained on the Road
If you are detained while on the road, it can be much more difficult to handle the situation comfortably. The reason is that you are already in an unfamiliar area and now you do not have the luxury of having people around you that may know your language enough to translate. Another reason is that you may not have the ability to make a phone call to the US Embassy or Consulate or someone else that might help in this situation.
Not the same!
Here are some things to remember if detained while out and about on the road – US laws are not the same as other countries’ laws! While you may have a good grasp on what is and is not allowable by police in the US, that grasp becomes very loose when it involves the laws of other countries. Do not argue with the officer who has detained you. Some countries actually turn their backs to bribes that may or may not happen on the streets. If you argue with such an officer, you may only be increasing the amount of money that needs to be paid and, remember – it is his word against yours.
Being Polite Wins
Start by asking if the officer speaks English and then apologize for not speaking enough of his language to communicate with him in his own tongue. When I have been stopped on the streets, I always start by asking if I had done something wrong. If it was some type of a traffic violation, I demonstrate a bit of my ignorance in that particular situation. If I had done something wrong while driving in a foreign country, it was because I had missed a sign but not because I do not understand the laws of the land. I want them to know I missed that one sign and am not just driving around their country ignorant of all the laws. Every time this has happened (which fortunately was not a lot), they always ended up warning me and sending me on my way.
Stopping me because I look …
Sometimes you may be stopped when walking down the street just because of how you look. Do not get offended at this! I know we are not as used to the stereotyping in America that exists in other countries, but we are in their country now. If there is something about us that draws some notice and suspicion, they are probably just trying to follow through on their responsibility to check up on something. Respect that and show them your passport, if they ask for it.
However, don’t ever let them take your passport and walk away unless you have insisted on getting some receipt first! That is your all-important document that you will need to exit the country and to show proof of legal entry into the country as well as your chief means of identifying yourself. Politely explain that you cannot let the passport be taken from you.
They just don’t know!
Sometimes, you may be briefly detained because they honestly do not know what to do with you. I have been stopped before while on a run because they could not understand why someone would be running in the area I was in (there were not a lot of runners). They just stopped me to check my passport and wait for a few minutes while someone called a superior. We had a great conversation and left very friendly – they just didn’t know what to do with me initially.
Whenever you are stopped, especially in a foreign country, it is bound to make you nervous. All you can think of is the National Geographic show Locked Up Abroad (and if you had not thought about it, now you will be thinking about it:) ) and you are trying to figure out how you can let your family know where your body will end up. The truth is, after most law enforcement officials begin to talk with you and find how where you are from, they do become quite courteous and understanding (even in some countries that diplomatically may not be on the friendliest of terms with your country). Just stay calm, polite, and honest and it will be ok (as long as you didn’t do something wrong!).
KNOW THE LAWS!
I put that one in all caps because it is extremely important. As I mentioned above, not all countries have the same laws. It will behoove you to know some of the major laws before you enter a country. For example, some countries have strict laws about bringing in or taking out the local currency. These laws can be very strict! You do not want to be leaving the country and empty your pockets at the medal detectors only to reveal that you have a whole pocket full of currency as a souvenir! The responsibility of know a country’s laws rests upon the traveler. While police may be lenient in certain situations, it is still your responsibility to know what is allowed and what is not.
Another point to remember is that taking photographs in certain areas is absolutely prohibited! I have found out (the hard way) that what might look cool is actually a big no-no to photograph. If you are unsure, ask a local if it is ok. To find out what major laws may be in effect for the country you are visiting, look up the country at this site.
At the Border
Being detained at the border is a whole different scenario. In these situations, you are dealing with many officers but also a better opportunity to speak with someone in authority right away. More often than not, these short times of being detained are nothing more than they want to check a little bit more into you because of something that may have been in your bags or on your paperwork.
I remember onetime when I was crossing a desert border crossing and there were many of us in the holding area waiting for our turn to go to the front of the line to be matched to our bags and passports (they did take our passports to the central processing area, but that is sometimes to be expected at borders). With many people smoking around me, my asthma began to act up. Since they had taken all of our things from us, I had to go up to the front to ask if there was some way that someone could bring me to my inhaler or vice versa. Instead, they moved my passport to the top of the pile and brought me into a side room for about 45 minutes of questioning. During this time, they went through everything – even my electronic files on my computer. Just my requesting my inhaler sounded suspicious enough to bring that one!
Another time, I was detained shortly at the border on my entrance into Iran. With only a couple of thousand US citizens touring Iran each year, an American coming through demands a little extra attention. I expected that and other than some questions and fingerprinting, it was all done and I was on my way!
Still another time, I was detained at the border of one country I was transiting through because I had my ham radio with me. Both this country and my final destination had reciprocal licensing agreements (and I had all my paperwork) but they still did not understand this and they wanted to question me for a while about the radio and who I spoke to on it.
Give the information they are asking for
Most border crossing questioning is simple to get an idea of what you did and with whom you were in contact in the country. If you had done nothing illegal, you have nothing to fear (normally!) so answer the questions truthfully!
Carry paper copies of your itinerary and reservations
Many times you are questioned at borders, you will not have the opportunity to use your electronic device to access the information. Have printouts of all your travels on that trip and be ready to show them.
Have a plan
If you are traveling with someone, be ready for the possibility that you may be separated for questioning. Know going in what to do if the other is held a lot longer than you were or know where to go if they release you outside of the security are (most secure border areas will not let you just hang around outside the doors).
Get the numbers
This works for any type of detention in a foreign country – have the phone number for the US consulate or embassy in the city you are in. This is one of the areas that your citizenship is assisted when traveling outside of the US. To find out this information, check out this page from the State Department. They can help in many different ways and it should be the first number you call if the detention becomes more serious.
One of the highest priorities of the Department of State and U.S. embassies and consulates abroad is to provide assistance to U.S. citizens incarcerated abroad.
I know that none of this is pleasant but if you can enter a situation with a little more knowledge, it will help you to enjoy your time there just a little bit more. All told, I have been detained on the road and at borders probably 15 times. The word detained brings up some terrible thoughts but is simply being kept in one place by an official. In all those times that I was detained, I was never arrested or even put in a cell. It is obvious that this little incidents have not curbed my enjoyment to try new places nor have they given me negative feelings about the places where it happened to me (which is one of the reasons I left the names of some countries out of the experiences). I just thought it would be good to put some of what I have learned down on paper (so to speak) in case any readers ever have similar incidents, or to help prevent them!
Here are some of the links used in this post to refer to:
- The State Department’s Role in a Crisis
- The State Department’s Emergency page
- Arrest or Detention of a US Citizen Abroad
- US Embassy
- State Department’s website to look up country information
Have you ever been detained? What happened and what tips do you have?