When a U.S. Citizen is Arrested Abroad

Many United States citizens might mistakenly believe that if they are arrested abroad, U.S. laws will continue to apply to them. However, the U.S. Constitution and U.S. laws only apply to U.S. citizens while on U.S. soil and do not provide protection in other countries.

U.S. citizens abroad are at the mercy of the local laws which can be extremely different from U.S. laws and may not offer the same protections and rights. Moreover, punishments for violating foreign laws are often far harsher than in the United States. Individuals that refuse to comply with or even unknowingly violate the local laws can be expelled, fined, arrested and even imprisoned.

The Arrest
Once an arrest has been made in a foreign country, the policies and procedures of that country apply to the U.S. citizen, including indictment, prosecution, conviction and sentencing. If an American citizen is arrested while abroad, they should consult with a U.S. Consular Officer.

Function of U.S. Consular Officers
The Department of State and U.S. embassies provide a U.S. Consular Officer to help American citizens arrested abroad. Although comfort may be provided, it is important to note that the Consular Officer’s abilities are limited. They are not intended to serve as attorneys or to offer legal advice. Additionally, the level of interaction and assistance that is allowed varies by country and the circumstances of the arrest.

Assistance Provided by U.S. Consular Officers
U.S. Consular Officers strive to protect American citizens’ legitimate interests and aim to ensure that American citizens are not subject to discrimination under the local law.

After becoming aware of an arrest, the U.S. Consular Officer is permitted to:

  • Visit the jail where the individual is imprisoned
  • Supply a list of local attorneys
  • Contact and inform family and friends to facilitate the transfer of money, food, clothing or other permissible items
  • Attempt to ameliorate the conditions if they are inhumane, harmful, or worse than others in the same situation

U.S. Consular Officers do not have the ability to demand release of individuals incarcerated in the foreign country where the arrest took place.