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What Do Travel Advisories Mean?

U.S. Department of State banner
U.S. Department of State

From time to time, you’ve probably heard that the U.S. government has issued a travel advisory or warning about a specific country, like Mexico or France. Here’s what they mean—and how to find out more information about them.

The U.S. Department of State actively monitors what’s going on in countries around the world, so they can better protect U.S. citizens who are there (or planning to go there), whether it’s for work or pleasure. When something changes, they issue a travel advisory notice through the travel.state.gov website. The advisories stay issued until something changes, so there’s a notice for pretty much every country and area you’d ever want to visit. Even Antarctica has one.

There are four levels of travel advisory:

  • Level 1. Exercise normal precautions.
  • Level 2. Exercise increased precautions.
  • Level 3. Reconsider travel.
  • Level 4. Do not travel.

They’re issued for several reasons, including:

  • Widespread crime
  • A chance of terrorist attacks
  • Civil unrest
  • Health risks like disease or poor infrastructure
  • A recent natural disaster or likely occurrence of one
  • Short term events like elections or the Olympics
  • Targeted kidnapping and hostage-taking

No country doesn’t have at least a Level 1 travel advisory. There’s always some small measure of risk with international travel, but in a country like Ireland, Sweden, or Thailand, as long as you keep your wits about you, it’s unlikely you’ll be any less safe than you would be at home.

Level 2 travel advisories are issued for countries where there’s an increased risk of something happening. Both the United Kingdom and France have experienced terrorist attacks over the last few years, so they have a Level 2 advisory. There’s a small risk of crime and kidnapping in Mexico, so it also has one. Personally, I’d issue the U.S. a Level 2 advisory, so as long as you’re vigilant and don’t do things like wander the streets drunk at night or take part in political demonstrations, you’re unlikely to encounter any problems.

The U.S government issues Level 3 advisory to countries where they think people should reconsider traveling to, or only go if it’s essential. It takes a weird set of circumstances for them to consider the country more dangerous than Level 2, but not dangerous enough to issue a Level 4. Countries like Nicaragua, Nigeria, and Turkey all have Level 3 advisories issued for various reasons.

The strongest travel advisory the U.S issues is Level 4, do not travel. These are reserved for countries that are currently experiencing major strife, like the extreme political unrest in Venezuela or the ongoing civil war in South Sudan. When it comes to Level 4 advisories, I suggest you heed them.

How to Check a Travel Advisory

A travel advisory page at Travel.State.gov

Before you head off or plan a trip to somewhere, I’d suggest hitting up the Department of State’s website and checking the current advisory level of the country where you want to travel.

The advisory notice will give you a good bit of information, including:

  • The current level
  • Why that level was assigned
  • A warning about any particularly dangerous areas within that country
  • The contact information of the U.S. embassy or consulate
  • Specific travel advice, if any applies

Even if you aren’t a U.S. citizen, the advisories are worth checking out. They tend to be reasonably measured and not overly reactionary. For example, there are a total of less than 30 Level 3 and Level 4 travel warnings. Even the U.S. government agrees the vast majority of the world is safe—if you don’t act like an idiot.

Harry Guinness Harry Guinness
Harry Guinness is a photography expert and writer with nearly a decade of experience. His work has been published in newspapers like the New York Times and on a variety of other websites, including Lifehacker. Read Full Bio »

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