Arrest of a U.S. Citizen

The Department of State is committed to ensuring fair and humane treatment for U.S. citizens imprisoned overseas. We stand ready to assist incarcerated citizens and their families within the limits of our authority in accordance with international, domestic and foreign law.

While in a foreign country, a U.S. citizen is subject to that country’s laws and regulations, which sometimes differ significantly from those in the United States and may not afford the same protections available to the individual under U.S. law.  Persons violating the law in a foreign country, even unknowingly, may be expelled, fined, arrested, or imprisoned.  If arrested abroad, a citizen must go through the foreign legal process for being charged or indicted, prosecuted, and possibly convicted and sentenced.

U.S. Department of State’s Role

Officers of the Department of State and U.S. embassies and consulates overseas are prohibited by federal regulation from acting as agents, attorneys or in a fiduciary capacity on behalf of U.S. citizens involved in legal disputes overseas. Department of State personnel, including its attorneys, do not provide legal advice to the public.  For more information please see the Department of State’s webpage on retaining a foreign attorney.

Avoid getting arrested overseas by:

  • Following the laws and regulations of the country you are visiting or living in.
  • Learning about laws there which might be different from the laws in the United States. We provide some information for each country on our Country Specific pages.  For further information on laws within the foreign country before you go, contact that country’s nearest embassy or consulate within the United States.

If you are arrested overseas (or know a U.S. citizen who has been arrested):

  • Ask the prison authorities to notify the U.S. embassy or consulate
  • You may also wish to reach out to the closest U.S. embassy or consulate to let us know of the arrest.  Contact information for S. Embassies and Consulatesoverseas can be found here or by going to our individual Country Specific Information pages.

Consular Assistance to U.S. Prisoners:

When a U.S. citizen is arrested overseas, he or she may be initially confused and disoriented.  It can be more difficult because the prisoner is in unfamiliar surroundings, and may not know the local language, customs, or legal system.

 We can help:

  • Provide a list of local attorneys who speak English
  • Contact family, friends, or employers of the detained U.S. citizen with their written permission
  • Visit the detained U.S. citizen regularly and provide reading materials and vitamin supplements, where appropriate
  • Help ensure that prison officials are providing appropriate medical care
  • Provide a general overview of the local criminal justice process
  • Inform the detainee of local and U.S.-based resources to assist victims of crime that may be available to them
  • If they would like, ensuring that prison officials are permitting visits with a member of the clergy of the religion of the U.S. citizen’s choice
  • Establish an Overseas Citizen Services (OCS) Trust so friends and family can transfer funds to imprisoned U.S. citizens, when permissible under prison regulations

 We cannot:

  • Get U.S. citizens out of jail overseas
  • State to a court that anyone is guilty or innocent
  • Provide legal advice or represent U.S. citizens in court overseas
  • Serve as official interpreters or translators
  • Pay legal, medical, or other fees for U.S. citizens overseas

Privacy Act

The provisions of the Privacy Act are designed to protect the privacy and rights of Americans, but occasionally they complicate our efforts to assist citizens abroad.  As a rule, consular officers may not reveal information regarding an individual American’s location, welfare, intentions, or problems to anyone, including family members and Congressional representatives, without the expressed consent of that individual. Although sympathetic to the distress this can cause concerned families, consular officers must comply with the provisions of the Privacy Act.