Travel & Safety Tips to Know Before You Go

Through planning and research you can prevent or be prepared for many of the common issues you might face in adjusting to a different environment overseas, such as: how to guard against petty theft, mitigate the risks of road safety, be cautious about water activities, maintain a low profile, and stay in touch with colleagues/loved ones.

Common Safety and Security Issues

Petty Theft

Petty theft is much more common in foreign countries than you may expect. Pickpockets and scammers may be prevalent in many of the places you will visit while traveling internationally. It is important to remain vigilant while in public spaces.

  • Keep your luggage and personal belongings in your sight at all times.
  • Be mindful of your surroundings while using public transportation to ensure a safe arrival at the correct destination. Take note of who is around you and where your belongings are.
  • Use a bag with a strap that goes across the chest and don’t keep valuables in your back pockets (wallets, cell phones).  Wear backpacks on the front of your body when using transportation.

Road Safety

Road and vehicular safety is the highest risk to your wellbeing when traveling.  The U.S. State Department estimates that more than 200 U.S. citizens die each year due to road accidents abroad.

  • Do not drive a vehicle (car, scooter, ATV, etc.) while abroad. Traffic laws in other countries can vary significantly from what you are used to, and ignorance of local traffic regulations in your host country could lead to accidents and/or fines.
  • Pay attention during your on-site orientation about what forms of public transportation are safe to use.
  • Use caution when you are a pedestrian.  Pay attention to traffic patterns and always remain alert when crossing the street.

Water Safety

Even experienced swimmers and boaters can be caught off guard in the unfamiliar conditions of bodies of water abroad.  Unfortunately, accidental drownings and related water accidents are one of the leading causes of death of Americans abroad.  As such, we remind you to take extra precautions when enjoying recreational activities in and around water and when you’re using boats for transportation or exploration.  Always obey posted signs, use a life jacket if available, and don’t take unnecessary risks when it comes to water safety.  Do not operate a boat or watercraft while abroad.

Tips for Maintaining a Low Profile 

  • Safety really begins with awareness – awareness of your surroundings, but also awareness of yourself and your behavior in a public place.
  • Be vigilant – establish boundaries, observe your environment, be aware of people around you, trust your intuition
  • Be extra cautious in tourist spots as they can be a higher risk target for petty theft, scams, and other crimes.
  • Avoid high-risk situations (e.g. protests). Do not go to prominently “American” locations (i.e., American-themed clubs or bars, or other locations where a lot of Americans are known to congregate).  Try to blend in with the locals as much as possible.
  • Avoid public demonstrations (especially political demonstrations or human rights rallies), where there could be large numbers of people and the atmosphere could become tense or violent.
  • Dress to blend in. Wearing your Penn State gear will make you stick out as a foreigner and a college student.
  • Minimize speaking in loud, American English in public spaces.
  • Don’t wear/carry flashy jewelry or expensive electronics.
  • Do not go out alone at night, and don’t leave your friends alone. Travel in groups of 3-5 people.
  • Cultural awareness – know what’s appropriate in the culture you will be visiting.
    • What is normal or acceptable behavior in this situation?
    • What do you see the locals doing? 
    • What might you typically do at home that would cause unwanted attention in your host country? – smoking or drinking in public, manner of dress, dating and public displays of affection, etc.

U.S. Department of State Resources

It is helpful to be aware of resources provided by the U.S. government to its citizens abroad, as well as the limits on the role the government can play in a foreign environment.

STEP Travel Registration

U.S. citizens should register all international travel using the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) through the U.S. Department of State. Non-U.S. citizens should inquire about their country’s registration process.

Please note: Students, Faculty/ and staff traveling internationally as a group through an approved Penn State Program are automatically registered in STEP as part of the enrollment process.

Additional Resources

Money Overseas

Certain steps should be taken with regards to handling money abroad:

  • Notify your credit card company and bank of pending international travel.
  • Keep contact information for credit card companies and banks in the event of a lost or stolen card.
  • Have multiple types of payment methods available.
  • Check with your bank or credit card company regarding foreign transaction fees.
  • Take only the credit cards and debit/ATM cards that you plan to use while you are traveling.  
  • Keep valuables such as your passport and any cash you are taking in a money belt or pouch next to your body for the duration of your trip.

Copies of Important Documents

Certain steps should be taken with regards to your important documents:

  • Make multiple copies of travel documents and credit cards. Keep one set of copies separate from the originals while traveling, and leave another copy at home or with someone you trust.
  • Leave an itinerary, and emergency contact information, with their department, and another copy with someone you trust.
  • In the event of a lost or stolen travel document, contact the U.S. Embassy in your area.

International Mailing Customs

When mailing items to another country those items must be reviewed and cleared by customs. Some items may not be legal to ship to another country, or may require a heavy tax to be paid before they are released to you. You should not mail any valuable electronics, medications, or anything that you would be upset to lose.

Communications

Certain steps should be taken with regards to communications abroad:

  • Staying in touch with family and friends will be important while you are abroad, but you should set expectations so they know how oftern they should expect you to contact them.
  • You should carry an internationally functioning mobile phone that is turned on and charged at all times.
  • Ensure you have the proper equipment, such as the correct type of plug and voltage converter, to function in your destination country.
  • Know how to make phone calls in your destination country.
  • Share your mobile phone number and emergency contact information with your department and any other appropriate persons.
  • Please Electronic Devices and Mobile Phones Abroad for more information.

Mobile Phone Options

  • Taking your U.S. cell phone abroad. Be sure to check with your cell phone provider here in the U.S. about international calling/texting plans. You will want to know the costs well in advance as they can be expensive.
  • Purchasing a “pay-as-you-go” cell phone once abroad. It is generally quite easy to purchase a simple "burner" phone once arrive in your host country. These phones generally have a low monthly fee and then you can purchase minutes and data amounts. You only pay for what you use.
  • Purchasing a local sim card for your U.S. phone. Another option is to purchase and international sim card upon arrival in your host country and place it into your U.S. cell phone. You will need to make sure your phone is unlocked prior to travel. Be sure not to lose the U.S. sim card as you will need to switch is back upon return to the U.S.