Don’t Get Busted in a Foreign Country: Know the Laws
Jul 19, 2023
Road trips

Don’t Get Busted in a Foreign Country: Know the Laws

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When traveling abroad, there are plenty of things you want to learn about your destination well in advance, to ensure that you don’t stand out as a tourist indifferent to local customs, or get yourself into more serious trouble. Learning a few important phrases in the local language, making at least a token effort to observe local customs, and getting vaccinated against any diseases to which you might be exposed are all very important if you want your trip to go smoothly. One thing that’s often overlooked, however, is the necessity to learn a little bit about the laws and legal systems of any foreign country you plan to visit.

First things first: when you visit another country, you’re subject to that country’s laws. The laws of your home country mean next to nothing. If you live in the U.S., you have a lot of constitutional rights that you probably take for granted. The instant you leave the United States, you have no rights under the U.S. Constitution, because it simply doesn’t apply. And you know the Bill of Rights? Those first 10 Amendments that lay out the bare minimum level of personal freedom that we can expect as Americans reflect uniquely American values. Some other cultures in the world don’t share all of these values, which is reflected in their laws, which will apply to you as much as anyone else.

With all that in mind, here are some interesting (and, in some cases, bizarre) laws of foreign countries that you probably won’t find anywhere in the U.S. Obviously, this is not a comprehensive guide to foreign law. These are just a few examples that are meant to serve as an illustration of how important it is to research this subject before leaving the U.S.


Singapore is a former British colony, and its legal system, like that of the United States, is derived from British common law. It therefore demonstrates some superficial similarities to the U.S. legal system, and most of its laws will seem pretty reasonable to an American. However, Singapore’s punishments for breaking those laws are, to say the least, extreme. Of the roughly 3000 Americans who are arrested abroad each year, most of them are arrested on drug charges.

You do not want this to happen to you in Singapore. In that country, the punishment for importation or possession of relatively small amounts of illegal drugs (half an ounce of marijuana, 2 grams of heroin, 3 grams of cocaine, for example) carries a mandatory death sentence. And Singapore typically carries out 20-50 executions per year, with the majority of executions being for drug-related crimes – showing that this law is strictly enforced. Oh, and about a third of the people executed in Singapore each year are foreigners. Just FYI.

And you may also remember the 1994 case of Michael Fay, a young American man convicted in Singapore of vandalism. He was sentenced six lashes with a cane, four months in jail, and a $2,000 fine. President Clinton protested the harshness of the sentence. In an extremely rare concession to foreign pressure, the authorities in Singapore reduced his sentence to four lashes. The sentence was carried out shortly thereafter.

The Middle East

I know “The Middle East” isn’t a country. I’m not that ignorant of geography. But, in the interest of saving space, I’ll note that, while there is huge variation in the laws of individual Middle Eastern nations, there are some general trends in Muslim-majority countries that one should be aware of. For example, alcohol is forbidden under Islam, and in most Muslim nations, it is illegal or heavily restricted. For example, in the United Arab Emirates (best known as the home of that playground for the super-rich, Dubai) alcohol is illegal except in licensed bars and clubs, which tend to be very expensive. They also have a different definition of “drunk driving” in the UAE: if you are pulled over and have any alcohol in your system whatsoever, your driver’s license is permanently revoked as a matter of course, and you’ll probably face prison time.

Furthermore, some Muslim countries (particularly the UAE and Saudi Arabia), sex between unmarried partners is extremely taboo, and often outright illegal. Couples have been arrested in some of these countries simply for kissing (on the cheek) in public. Generally, what happens in a private setting (such as a hotel room) stays there, but caution is always advisable.

However, some other Muslim-majority countries are far less conservative and authoritarian, with Lebanon and Turkey being good examples, especially in their urban areas.

Pork is also forbidden to Muslims. While it’s illegal in all Muslim countries, it is illegal to import any type of pork product into Yemen.


In Sweden, prostitution is legal, in the sense that it’s legal to sell sexual services. However, it’s illegal to buy them. So, it’s legal to be a prostitute, but it’s illegal to patronize one.

In Denmark, wearing a mask in public can lead to arrest. More generally, European countries have a very, very different attitude towards guns than the U.S. The most gun-friendly countries in Europe will probably have gun laws far more restrictive than the most anti-gun states in the U.S. This should go without saying, but leave your gun at home.

General Considerations

Many countries in the world don’t have the same protections for free speech that we enjoy in the U.S.

If you don’t like the government of the country you’re visiting, it’s safest to keep your feelings to yourself. Also, you should be very sensitive about photographing anything having to do with the military or police.

Finally, if you are arrested, most countries abide by international agreements that give you a right to speak with a consular representative. If arrested, you should ask to be put in touch with the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate. However, there’s rarely much that they can or will do for you. They can’t get you special treatment, and they won’t attempt to. They might help you find a local lawyer, but they probably won’t help you pay for their services (you may be entitled to an attorney under local law, however). If you ask them to, they’ll usually try and reach a friend or family member in the U.S., but they won’t interfere with the legal process of the country that’s arrested you.

And if you’re arrested in a country that has no diplomatic relations with the U.S., such as North Korea, Cuba, or Iran, the assistance that the U.S. government can provide is even more limited.