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From the Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advice: Every year British nationals risk getting caught out by local laws and customs when travelling overseas. From driving a dirty car in Russia, to wearing camouflage clothing in Barbados, travellers could end up with a hefty fine or may even be arrested if they are caught unaware.

Hazards linked to differences in local laws and customs may include:

  • Religious and political differences
  • Alternative customs
  • Different laws and severity of punishment
  • Unfamiliar language
  • Attitudes towards different ethnicities, genders and sexualities
  • Safe use of social media

Use the FCO Local Laws and Customs section for the location you are visiting to assist you in properly assessing the threat to you.

For most free-roaming travellers, some of the things we take for granted are luxuries in many parts of the world. The right to speak our minds, to make innocent mistakes, to travel freely and to be judged fairly under the law are not to be assumed everywhere.

When considering local laws and customs you should also be constantly making allowance for:

  • How you behave as an individual and how you look as these factors may make you more vulnerable in certain environments
  • How the activities you are carrying out will be received within the area you are proposing to work or study

You may need to seek further training if visiting a location that has a history of extreme hostility towards certain travellers. Discuss with your Department who can seek further guidance from the Safety Office if necessary.

Hazard description and Personal Vulnerabilities
  • Check the FCO site carefully for locations that you are visiting to ensure you are aware of all local laws, customs and cultural differences and are complying accordingly.
  • Unfamiliar language; potentially problematic, for example in an emergency health professionals may not able to read information that you are carrying regarding allergies and existing medical conditions.
  • Inadvertent mis-phrasing due to language barrier - could cause offence.
  • Attitudes towards lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) travellers around the world can be very different from those in the UK, however you are unlikely to have problems if you prepare well and research your destination before going.
  • Cohabitation by an unmarried couple can be illegal - check before you go if you plan to share accommodation with a partner.
  • Tolerances towards different religions can vary, you should include any in your assessment as well as whether you are at an increased risk of hostility due to your own faith.
  • Clothing - acceptable dress code in some areas needs to be considered. Check whether the location you are visiting requires you to wear clothing that covers certain areas e.g. head, legs.
  • Attitudes towards different genders and acceptable behaviour by different genders can be potentially problematic.
  • Tattoos and piercings can be viewed negatively - research before leaving.
  • Alcohol/drug laws - Possession of even small quantities of illegal drugs can lead to imprisonment in some countries. Drug trafficking can attract the death penalty.
  • Importing alcohol and pork products is illegal in some countries.
  • Some areas do not allow the photographing of military establishments, airports or government buildings.
  • Community acceptance failure – work/topic of study generates tensions between the traveller and a local community resulting breakdown in the relationship. Describe your plans and how you propose to operate within the local community. In addition to completing a risk assessment to address this threat you may also be required to complete an ethical review process – check with your department or relevant Research Ethics Committee.
  • Lone working – the risk posed by lone working can differ greatly depending on your location, the type of work or nature of research that you will be undertaking and your own vulnerabilities. Wherever possible, work should be organised so as to avoid lone working. However, it is recognised that in some situations it is not reasonably practicable to avoid. If undertaking unavoidable lone working in an environment where locals laws and custom also present risk then describe in detail what you will be doing (e.g. home interviewing, data collection in isolated locations).
  • Security breach - sensitive research and the possibility of your security being breached, what will the most severe consequences be if this does happen?
Control Measures (actions to reduce risk level)
  • In all circumstances check the local laws and customs section of the FCO site for the country and area you are visiting and demonstrate how you will implement these measures to reduce the risk of them becoming problematic.
  • Include whether you are fluent in the language of any location that you propose to visit and what assistance you will rely on if you do not speak the local language.
  • Invest in a good guide book – many offer specialist advice, including to LGBT and lone female travelers.
  • Use online discussion forums, blogs and media all of which can be good resources in understanding the local culture and how it may specifically impact you. List any advice that you take from these sources and intend to follow.
  • Avoid drawing attention to yourself in certain areas, for example, by speaking quietly, acting discreetly.
  • Agree not to consume alcohol or drugs in countries where both are illegal and heavy penalties apply.
  • Wear culturally appropriate clothing.
  • In some locations women should cover their heads when entering mosques or other holy places – agree that you will do this if you are spending time at any of these locations during the course of your University business.
  • Take note of religious festivals especially if there is a history of heightened sensitivities at these times – if particularly problematic you may need to avoid travelling during these.
  • If the country you propose to visit has a high threat level but is yours or your family’s home country, you should list the benefits of this, for example, fluency in the local language, network of trusted contacts.
  • List any local contacts who you will rely on for advice to blend in or who will accompany you when working and travelling.
  • If the nature of your research has the potential to offend other cultures or contradicts local law then you should include details of any contact you will be relying on to assist you, for example, an experienced supervisor who is aware of the research you will be doing and can guide you.
  • While within our culture we are very used to a balance between men and women in the workplace, this is certainly not the case in many parts of the world. You may find that attitudes to women are very different to those you are used to and this can pose some problems for students.
  • If you do encounter prejudice, remember to be considerate to a very different culture, and try to understand things from your host country’s point of view. It is often better to have a thick skin and quietly prove yourself by your actions than to be confrontational. Remember: you are a visitor, not a citizen.
  • Safe use of social media - it is never advisable to publicise specific travel details on social media however you may need to take further care in certain areas or when undertaking particular activities.

Communication and data security:

  • Don’t leave your laptop, tablet or mobile phone unattended e.g. on a plane or train.
  • Make sure to constantly remove sensitive data from your devices and store it elsewhere.
  • Use complex passwords on all devices so if you lose them or they are stolen, your data is not immediately vulnerable and accessible.
  • Use your VPN connection any time you are accessing your company information and not free Wi-Fi.
  • Frequently update your virus and firewall protections.