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Aug 03 2017
by Elizabeth Robinson

18 Tips for U.S. Natives to Stay Safe While Studying Abroad

By Elizabeth Robinson - Aug 03 2017

I studied abroad in Seville this past June, and it was one of the finest summers I've ever had the privilege to experience. But it wouldn't have been nearly as enjoyable if I'd encountered any unfortunate circumstances. Whether you've been to a few health and safety meetings in preparation for a trip or are just looking into safety abroad for the first time, you've come to the right place. 

Avoiding Pickpockets

1. Call your credit card company ahead of time.

Your credit card company most likely has an automated system to alert you when an unusual purchase is made. If you let your company know ahead of time where and when you'll be abroad, then they can notify you if someone makes a purchase elsewhere; for instance, if you're studying abroad in Spain and your company suddenly sees a flight ticket purchase in Great Britain two weeks after you said you'd be leaving. You should call them anyway, if only to make sure that they don't report your purchases as fraud and cut you off.

2. Wear pants with zippered pockets. 

These are hard to find except in cargo pants, but they're super effective. If you're in a country where you're liable to be pickpocketed (or even have things fall out of your pockets) then this may be worth a fashion penalty. 

3. Keep your hands in your pockets. 

If you don't want to break the bank or the dress code on cargo pants, this is a viable alternative. If your hands aren't busy, keep them over your valuables in your front pockets. It's easy for someone to slip a hand into your pocket unnoticed, but slipping a hand over your hand in your pocket is a bit trickier. 

4. Invest in a hidden wallet.

In Spain, I used a neck wallet. What is a neck wallet? It's a string pouch that hangs from your neck that holds your valuables. Like a locket, but bigger and more practical. Mine appeared to be a simple choker, and no one even knew the wallet was there until I told them. It's difficult to find one that's discrete enough to hide under your shirt but big enough to hold insurance and credit cards, but I honestly can't think of a safer place to leave your belongings. Bonus if you have long hair: drape the pouch over your back and no one will ever even notice a bulge. Not your style? Hidden pockets inside your jacket, hat, shoes or even socks (yes, those exist) are also options. 

5. Keep a dummy wallet.

This is especially good for potential muggings. A robber will flee once he thinks he's gotten enough goods. I kept an old wallet containing just a few euros, an old, non-functional credit card and a spare ID in my pocket while keeping the REAL resources in my neck wallet. Your dummy wallet is still easily on-hand for quick purchases, and if it gets pick-pocketed, your losses are minimal. 

6. Put twist ties on your backpack zippers.

There is one person who was pickpocketed on my trip. Her backpack didn't close entirely, so someone likely stuck a quick hand inside while we were on the subway, and she would never have noticed. Backpacks with zippers are fine, but if you put twist ties hooking the zippers together, it means a 0% chance of accidentally leaving a pocket open and a much lesser chance of someone quietly sliding your zippers. 

Other Robberies

7. Always block your ATM pin code from sight.

And always find the most credible, normal-looking ATM possible. Not only could someone have installed a camera or card-reader on an ATM, someone could also just be looking over your shoulder. Find an ATM belonging to a normal bank with what looks like normal instructions and a normal place to put your card in (normal meaning real, in this case) and cover the keypad with one hand while typing your code in with the other. 

8. Always have an arm over your purse/bag strap.

You may be able to chase down a thief who runs away with your bag, but you can't catch a motorcycle or bicycle that snatches it off your shoulder. Yes, this actually happens in some places, and the best solutions are to always keep a hand over your bag and to keep it facing away from the street/bike lane if possible. 

9. Don't store much money on your debit card.

I did this just in case my debit card was stolen. That way, if someone drained my account, a thief would only make off with a minimal amount of cash. In fact, most of the time, I didn't keep any money on my debit card, except when I was about to withdraw cash from an ATM. 

Personal Safety

10. Never walk alone at night. But if you do...

This one is pretty straightforward. However, I did find myself accidentally in this situation several times. When I did, I spotted other people along the street and followed the most innocent-looking ones on my way back home. Elderly women or families with children were my preference, but a group of girls out on the town at night won't bother you if you walk a few feet behind them.

Note: Don't let this be an excuse to walk alone at night.

11. Try to blend in.

Local predators know that they can prey on tourists most easily. So if possible, don't look like a tourist. Everything from wearing the appropriate clothing to how often you smile can tip people off. Apart from being singled out as a target, your clothing and attitude may also being insulting to locals: Not everyone will appreciate a MAGA hat or wearing shorts inside a Cathedral. Some of these things are gender-specific (fashion trends for men/women), some are building-specific (for instance, the Sevillian Cathedral doesn't allow shorts) and some are political.

12. Be aware of the local flirting dynamic.

What counts as flirting? How aggressive are the thirsty men? Do men typically cat-call women? Who's trying to hook up and who is using it as a pretense to snag your wallet? All of these are things to consider before leaving the U.S. Small things we think of as friendly may be flirting to non-Americans, such as smiling or compliments. Other things are not, such as kissing or hugs. In many cultures, the opposite sex is expected to be bold if they think you're flirting with them. They may see it as romantic while you see it as threatening. Overall, you just need to be aware of what's OK and what isn't, always be with a fellow American when socializing and know of appropriate ways to handle the situation. 

13. Never leave a drink unguarded.

This is true in the U.S. and it's true abroad. Predators, scammers and thieves love a victim who can't fight back. So if you're at a bar (the drinking age in Spain is 18, after all) and need to use the restroom, please make sure a friend stays behind and watches your drink so nobody drugs it. 

14. Get an international data plan.

I decided to not get a data plan and instead just rent a little Nokia with pay-per-minute service in all of Europe. That's my biggest regret. Not only did the Nokia not work properly, but my life abroad basically depended on being able to message other students via GroupMe. This isn't just a convenience issue, but a safety one. If you get lost or can't contact anyone quickly, you could get into trouble. 

Quick navigation tip: Google maps still tracks your location without internet or data. Download a map of your city ahead of time and it'll be as if you always have connection when walking from place to place. 

15. Stay up to date on diseases.

Are you traveling into a malaria zone? Do you need extra vaccines? Is tap water safe to drink? Even small things like the presence of scabies or fleas on local animals could be the difference between spending your time partying or spending your time itching. 

16. Take pics of cab drivers' license plates.

And make sure they see you taking pics of it. This will deter them from any shady business like driving into wrong neighborhoods or overcharging you. Another good thing to be wary of is fake cab drivers without official meters or a license from the city. Learn how to identify real cabs and fake ones, but take pictures of all of them. 

17. Don't swim drunk/without a buddy.

This never came up for me, but apparently, the major cause of death abroad for my school was not kidnapping or disease, but drowning. Drowning is one of the major causes of deaths abroad overall, right after vehicle accidents and intentional deaths. If you swim, be smart. Don't cliff dive alone at midnight. Don't go out in high tide. Don't go swimming after drinking. But most importantly: Don't swim alone! 

18. Don't go to protests.

Protests aren't all peaceful, even in the U.S., and foreign police may be less tolerant of even the peaceful ones. If the protest itself gets out of hand and turns into a riot, you could be caught in the middle of a public property charge or a trampling mob. The government's response to unruly crowds may also be more extreme. 

What's better than carrying a weapon, having a personal body-guard or needing a 300-character password to use your credit card? Common sense. Very few, if any, of these tips should be inconvenient, but getting yourself robbed or injured will be incredibly inconvenient. Follow these tips, and you should be golden.

Lead Image Credit: Pexels

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Elizabeth Robinson - University of Texas at Austin

I'm a sophomore at UT Austin majoring in Dean's Biology. I've loved writing since elementary school and published my first novel in high school. I love reading, writing (obviously), foreign languages, doggos, martial arts, anthropology, theater, and watching far too much YouTube. I dream of being a fiction author and geneticist after graduate school, hopefully combining my two loves to change the world. Follow me on Twitter @MetokaPublishi1, Instagram as BlackPage13, or (best option) visit my website,!

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