Keeping Safe
Most health-workers are not at serious personal risk while abroad. Studies show that accidents (usually automotive) are by far the greatest sources of injury and death to travelers. Some people do choose to volunteer under more dangerous conditions -- such as war zones or in high crime areas, where additional precautions are essential. This section provides some practical advice on a variety of security issues and lists references for further study. 

General Advice

Find out about local security conditions including crime, conflict and attitudes toward foreigners. Ask several different reliable people about local conditions and conservatively follow their advice. US Consular Information sheets and Travel Warnings are available on the Internet, at US regional passport offices, through airline computer reservation systems or by sending a self- addressed, stamped envelope to: Overseas Citizens Services, Room 4811, Department of State, Washington DC 20520-4818. In addition the information is available by touch tone calling at (202) 647-5225 or by fax at (202) 647-3000 or via computer modem on the consular affairs bulletin board (CABB) at (202) 647-9225 with software set on N-8-1. 

Make a conscious effort to maintain a low profile. Dress conservatively in accordance with local social norms. This does not mean that you must wear local clothing or costumes, but do avoid the appearance of affluence. Don't speak loudly in public or discuss travel plans with strangers. 

Avoid black-market currency exchanges that place you at risk of theft or arrest. 
Purchase some foreign currency before you leave as exchange opportunities are often not available immediately upon arrival. 

Learn how to use local telephones and where they are located before an urgent need arises to do so. This may also include learning how to place collect calls. In many countries, the procedure for telephoning is quite different from what you may be used to and you may be unable to read any written instructions on the phone. 

Travel "light," label luggage inside and out. Outside labels should be covered to avoid casual observation by potential thieves and others. 

Carry a separate photocopy of your passport, driver's license (local and international), airline tickets and other important documents to facilitate replacement. Also carry an extra set of passport photos. 

Avoid crowds, high risk areas, and being on the street late at night. 

Learn the layout of your new surroundings using a map. Learn routes to police, hospital and other sources of assistance both by day and night. Let someone responsible know your daily itinerary and agree beforehand on when and how to act if you are overdue. 

Follow local news events especially if you are in an unstable region. If there are no local restrictions on radio ownership, consider taking along a short-wave radio to assist in following events. 

Know in advance how to get help. Find out beforehand what your embassy or consulate can do if you need to call on them. Many people do not understand what assistance can and cannot be rendered to them by their nation's representatives. If you are an American, be sure to register at the local US embassy or consulate when you arrive. This step will allow officials to give information to your family if needed, to replace lost documents more quickly and to provide you with up-to-date security advice. If you are not American, follow the advice of your embassy or consular officials. 

If you believe that the local government is likely to be hostile to you, be extra certain that you know in advance how to get help. 

Remember that when you are abroad, you are subject to the laws of the country you are visiting, not your own. 

If you are arrested or detained try to behave in a manner you think best based on your knowledge of local conditions and culture. In some areas a friendly, polite, but confident attitude is best. In other areas "name dropping" can help. Hostile outbursts or refusal to talk are usually not wise. Under international agreement you have the right to speak to your nation's consul and should do so as soon as possible. 

When taking photos, be sure to know beforehand what areas are considered sensitive by the local government even if they seem okay to you. Lots of people inadvertently get into trouble this way. Failure to obey the rules can mean loss of the film, confiscation of the camera, the imposition of a "fine," or even arrest. Also be sure that local people don't mind being photographed before taking their picture -- many do. Some people are so offended that they become hostile or violent; others will demand payment. 

If you encounter shooting in the street it is usually best to immediately lie down (preferably behind a solid protective object) with your arms over your head. Look up to plan your exit only when things are quiet and seem safe. Then get away fast staying low. If you are inside of a building when shooting erupts stay low to the ground, away from windows, with lights off. If possible crawl to an interior room or at least behind a protective object. If you should come under shelling, it is usually best to seek interior spaces on lower floors. 

Anticipate and avoid danger, flee if possible, only be brave and tough as a last resort. 


Don't carry your passport, money, valuables, or camera unless absolutely needed. Don't wear a watch, jewelry or carry anything that you value or which looks valuable in high crime areas. 

If you must carry money or documents, keep them in a zippered pouch hidden beneath your shirt or in a money belt. Other "body safes" fit onto your thigh like an "Ace" bandage or hang inside your pants attached to a belt. Access these items only in private without being seen. 

Carry a separate wallet or money clip with "mugging money." If you are held up, consider throwing the decoy cash while immediately running in the opposite direction, toward help or at least a lighted, busy area while shouting for assistance. 

Always carry a small amount of emergency money and important local addresses and phone numbers hidden in your shoe. If you have been robbed or in an emergency you will still be able to call for help or get a ride even if you don't know the local language. 

Use travelers checks and credit cards whenever possible. Avoid carrying large amounts of cash. Remember to keep copies of travelers check numbers both at home and with you, but in a separate location from the checks. This precaution will allow you to record which ones have been used or report the ID number of stolen or lost checks. 

Use hotel safety boxes rather than leave valuables in your room or carry them on your person. 

Plan in advance how you will react in given circumstances. 

Be alert, anticipate problems and avoid them. 


Remember to get an international driver's permit for use in the many countries where they are required. They can be obtained through automobile associations such as AAA. 

When renting a car, it is often best to avoid autos with conspicuous rental agency markings as these may attract thieves. On the other hand, rental car markings sometimes can be of benefit in areas with frequent check points if local authorities are in the habit of treating tourists well. 

Unless you are a skilled mechanic, choose a reliable, low mileage, commonly available make. Avoid expensive models. Understand clearly how to obtain assistance from the rental agency in case of a breakdown. Know what procedure to follow in case of theft or accident. 

Avoid leaving a vehicle parked with valuables, identification or bags in plain view. 

Seek off-street, secure parking especially at night. 

Keep windows closed and doors locked while traveling. Passenger side windows are especially vulnerable to entry by thieves on the curb. Both sides are vulnerable to bicycle or motorcycle mounted thieves. 

Be aware that roadside "accidents" may be staged as a ploy to rob you. Some thieves will bump your car or create a "fender bender" accident to get you to stop. Rental companies often have good advice regarding local crime tactics and avoidance. 

When driving, always leave plenty of room in front of you to maneuver and be ready to take evasive action. When at a stop in traffic, try to leave room in front of you to escape in case of attack. 

Avoid hitchhikers. 

Don't enter a parked vehicle without checking the rear seat area for an intruder. 

Don't exit a vehicle if suspicious individuals are in the vicinity. 

If you are unable to speak the local language, keep 3 x 5 cards with important messages written in the local language in the glove box. 

When in high threat areas vary your route and schedule when driving. 

Living Quarters

Before going to sleep at night, try to secure your room. Sometimes leaving the key partly turned in the lock will prevent insertion of another key from the outside. 

Check that windows and balcony doors are locked. 

A rubber door stop, an attachable door lock, an attachable door alarm or furniture placed in front of a door can lend extra protection to a vulnerable door. 

Don't open doors to unidentified persons. 

Avoid underground parking in multi-unit buildings unless security is quite good. 

Plan an escape route in case of fire or hostile assault. Have emergency items for escape in easy reach. Emergency items vary depending on local conditions, but usually include money, phone numbers, important addresses and a flashlight. 

For theft prevention, rooms above the second floor provide more safety from forced entry. For fire safety choose a room no higher than local rescue capabilities can handle (usually below the 7th floor). 

Find a neighbor you can trust to turn to for safe haven or at least notification of authorities if needed. 

Apartments are generally easier to make secure than free standing single homes. 

Intrusion alarms, security lighting, protective metal bars, fencing and other standard security measures are always desirable. 

If your voluntary service will keep you abroad for a considerable time or if your family will be with you, other security concerns should be addressed. Much more detailed advice is contained in reference 3 (below). 


1. Savage, P., The Safe Travel Book, Lexington Books, New York, 1993. (ISBN 002-927726-4) Tel. 800-257-5755. 

2. A Safe Trip Abroad, Department of State publication 10110, United States Department of State Bureau of Consular Affairs, Washington DC, 1993. For sale (currently $1.25) by US Government Printing Office Superintendent of Documents, Mail Stop: SSOP, Washington, DC 20402-9328 or in many major US cities at US Government book stores. (20 pages) 

3. Security Guidelines for American Families Living Abroad, Department of State publication 9820, United States Department of State Overseas Security Advisory Council, 1990. This document of approximately 60 pages is also available through the Government Printing Office or at US Government bookstores (currently $3.75). 

Additional US Government Information 

Superintendent of Documents 
US Government Printing Office 
Washington DC 20402 
tel. 202-783-3238 
current cost $1.00 except where noted 

Tips for travelers to Sub-Saharan Africa 
Tips for travelers to the Caribbean 
Tips for travelers to Central and South America 
Tips for travelers to the People's Republic of China 
Tips for travelers to Mexico 
Tips for travelers to the Middle East and North Africa ($1.25) 
Tips for travelers to South Asia 
Tips for travelers to Russia 
Travel tips for older Americans 
Tips for Americans Residing Abroad