If you’re an experienced world traveler, you are probably aware that different countries have different cultures and values from the United States, and other Western countries. And a sociologist will tell you that a society’s most important cultural and moral values are most clearly reflected in its laws. It follows, then, that many foreign countries are going to have laws that differ widely from those of the United States.
In some foreign countries, a lot of conduct that would be perfectly legal in most Western countries is strictly prohibited, sometimes with severe legal consequences. I should make one thing perfectly clear, right off the bat: when you are in a foreign country, you are subject to that country’s laws. Period. It doesn’t matter where you’re from; it only matters where you are.
Before getting into some specific foreign laws that might be surprising to Westerners, I should make a few general points. If you’re an American, you enjoy many personal freedoms which you probably take for granted – free speech and freedom of religion, just to name a few. These freedoms are not universal. In the U.S., you can say pretty much whatever you like about the government. You can walk around in public wearing a sandwich board that denounces the U.S. government, and everything it stands for, and your conduct will be protected by the Constitution. In many other countries, however, such conduct is viewed far less favorably. For example, Iran recently executed several leaders of the large anti-government protests that took place back in 2009. So, if you’re in a foreign country, and aren’t 100% clear on its laws vis-à-vis free speech, it’s best to keep quiet if you don’t like some of the policies of that nation’s government.
What will follow are a few of the most interesting and/or surprising examples of foreign laws that Westerners might not be aware of. It should go without saying that this is not a comprehensive guide to the legal systems of every country in the world. Not even close. However, these examples are meant to serve only as illustrations of how important it is to make sure you understand at least some of the basics of the laws of the country you’re going to visit.
- In Singapore, it’s illegal to spit on the street, with violations punishable by large fines. This city-state values public cleanliness and morals above nearly all else, and they are not afraid to strictly enforce these rules. Furthermore, they have a zero-tolerance policy towards illegal drugs. The penalty for importing, possessing, or selling even a relatively small amount of illegal drugs (less than half an ounce of marijuana, and just a few grams of cocaine, heroin, or methamphetamine, among many others) is a mandatory death sentence. The sentence is carried out by hanging. Singapore has a population of about 5 million, but usually carries out between 20 and 50 executions per year, giving it the highest per-capita execution rate in the world. Furthermore, in most years, around a third of those executed are foreign nationals. A conviction and sentence can be appealed, but once a conviction and sentence is handed down, successful appeals are extremely rare.
- In the United Arab Emirates, home of the booming city of Dubai, possession and consumption of alcohol is strictly controlled, as it is in most Muslim-majority countries (alcohol is forbidden in Islam). Possession and consumption of alcohol is absolutely prohibited outside licensed establishments (as a practical matter, only very expensive private clubs and hotels can sell alcohol). If you are caught driving with any alcohol in your system (there is no legal maximum, as in the U.S.), you automatically lose your driver’s license for life. Also, you’re probably looking at some significant jail time.
- In other Muslim-majority countries, such as Saudi Arabia, alcohol is completely prohibited, and bringing it into the country carries serious criminal penalties.
- In Sweden, the legal situation of prostitution is unique, and somewhat confusing: it’s legal to be a prostitute, but it’s illegal to hire one.
- In Burma, currently ruled by an extremely authoritarian military dictatorship, access to the Internet is extremely restricted, and it’s technically illegal to access the Web without official government permission, and attempting to access web content that’s being censored by the government is dealt with extremely harshly.
- In many countries, particularly in global “hotspots,” governments are very sensitive about foreigners taking photographs. In many countries, it’s best to avoid photographing police/military personnel, military and industrial installations, scenes of civil unrest, and other sensitive locations.
These are just a few examples and I should again emphasize that this is not a comprehensive guide.
If you’re actually arrested in a foreign country, you should first stay calm and cooperate with the arresting officer. If you don’t understand what the officer is saying, you should, as calmly as possible, try to indicate that you don’t speak the local language.
Once at a police station, you should probably ask to speak with a consular representative from your home country. Assuming you’re from the U.S., a consular representative should be available no matter what country you’re in (with a few exceptions, discussed below). Most nations are party to international agreements that give foreigners the right to speak with a representative of their home country’s government when arrested. However, don’t get your hopes up regarding the help that a consulate or embassy can provide. The fact is, there’s very little the U.S. government (or any other government) can or will do to interfere with the internal legal affairs of a foreign country. They might help you find a local attorney, but they probably won’t help you pay for their services. They will get in touch with friends or family in your home country, if possible.
They will not, however, make any effort to obtain special treatment for you, by virtue of your citizenship. After all, when you are in a country, you are subject to that country’s laws.
If you’re visiting a country with which the U.S. has no diplomatic relations (North Korea, Iran, Cuba, and Bhutan), you’re in an even worse spot. The U.S. government usually can’t provide you with any direct assistance. However, the Swedish embassy will provide limited assistance to U.S. citizens (usually limited to emergencies) in Iran and North Korea. Note that this assistance is very limited, even when compared to the already-limited assistance that the U.S. government can provide to its citizens when they’re arrested in foreign countries.
John Richards is a writer for LegalMatch.com and the LegalMatch.com Law Blog. The above article is for informational purposes only, and should not in any way be construed as legal advice to assist you with a particular legal issue. Every legal issue is unique, and the only person who is qualified to give you legal advice is an attorney licensed to practice in your jurisdiction.