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How to stay out of Foreign Jails and What to do if Arrested

How to avoid going to jail in China

Yesterday, in Americans, Australians, British and Canadians Are Being Singled Out in China and I’ve Got Proof I wrote how the CCP singles out people for arrest on criminal charges based on their nationalities.

In response to that post, I got the following email:

I am an Australian citizen and you are right that we are being singled out for criminal prosecution in China now. We are also being singled out for other discriminations but I will save that discussion for another time. I want to leave China but I cannot afford to leave now. Is there anything you suggest I do to protect ourselves from arrest?

My response was that I would put it in a blog post and so here goes.

When my two kids did their foreign study I stressed to them that they would be bound by the laws in the countries in which they would live and visit and that the U.S. Embassy can do very little to help them if arrested. I also talked with them about various things they should not do. The below is a similar list for China and for anywhere else in the world. The following is intended to increase your odds of avoiding legal snafu in a foreign country. Note that some of these things do not apply to all countries. Note also that some of these things may not be a crime (or a big deal) in your country, but they can be a crime and a big deal in other countries.

  1. Driving without a local drivers license.
  2. Driving a motorcycle without a motorcycle driver’s license.
  3. Leaving “home” without your residency permit and passport.
  4. Living or habituating illegally.
  5. Letting your visa expire; overstaying on your visa.
  6. Working illegally/Working “under the table.”
  7. Participating in an “under the table” deal in any way, shape or form.
  8. Carrying or doing drugs, even if it’s just a plant you picked off the side of the road.
  9. Buying counterfeit products.
  10. Attempting to bring back large quantities of counterfeit goods to your home country.
  11. Soliciting prostitutes.
  12. Mouthing off or being generally uncooperative with a police officer or other government official.
  13. Criticizing the country you are visiting.
  14. Criticizing the government or the leaders or the royalty of the country you are visiting.
  15. Criticizing the flag or the national anthem of the country you are visiting.
  16. Taking pictures of military exercises, crime scenes or police activities.
  17. Taking pictures of a government installation.
  18. Bribing a police officer or official.
  19. Using an unapproved GPS device.
  20. Providing information on or discussing protests or other police activities.
  21. Conducting or operating a business without ALL of the necessary permits and licenses and approvals.
  22. Not paying all of your taxes.
  23. Importing something into the country that is not supposed to be imported into that country. This includes things for your business that might be perfectly legal elsewhere or even perfectly legal to use within the country.
  24. Doing business with a country with which you are not supposed to be doing business.
  25. Selling something that foreigners are not supposed to be selling.
  26. Conducting a business in that foreigners are not supposed to be conducting.In some countries what is legal for its citizens may not be legal for foreigners.
  27. Illegally raising funds.
  28. Engaging in financial fraud in. The definition of this can be quite broad in many countries.
  29. Engaging in religious activities.
  30. Engaging in environmental crimes.
  31. Intoxication.
  32. Not paying a taxi ore retail bill, even if a scam. Better to just pay it and walk away than to be arrested for not paying it.
  33. Fighting or loud arguing.
  34. Anything cannabis related. I put this in its own special category because I am always shocked by college students who wrongly assume that it is no big deal everywhere in the world.

Our international lawyers have dealt with or heard of criminal law problems arising from nearly all of the above.

I once came close (or what felt like close to me at the time) to going to jail when I was in high school in Turkey over #15. I attended a well-known private Turkish high school whose student body was less than 1% foreign students. One day, during playing of the Turkish national anthem, one of my American friends at the school slid me and another American friend a note that caused all three of us to laugh. We were called into the headmaster’s office where we were met by a group of worried administrators concerned that someone would report us to the authorities for acting negatively toward Turkey. Fortunately, nobody did.

Many years ago, I went to Papua New Guinea to help a Russian client recover three helicopters from there (I love writing this sentence). Business visas cost around $800 back then and tourist visas were around $50. I was going there for business and so I got a business visa. At one point while I was in Goroka, I met with the Governor of the Eastern Highlands Province who was not happy that I was there at all. He asked to see my passport and I gave it to him. He looked for the PNG visa and was shocked when he saw that I had a business and not a tourist visa. I have no doubt that his plan was to deport me (or worse) for having an improper visa.

My general advice (once again) is as follows (yes, I know this is really basic, but please bear with me).

My advice is as follows (yes, I know some of it is really basic, but please bear with me):

    • Know the law and follow it to the letter. Do not do something just because someone tells you they heard someone else did it without a problem. There are murderers who never get caught, but that does not make it legal nor does it mean you will get away with it. Want to know the law? The best way is to read the webpage of your embassy or consulate or chamber of commerce and to talk to people at your embassy or consulate. Or hire a lawyer who deals with the applicable laws every day.
    • If it is illegal in your own country, even if just a minor infraction, you should just assume it is illegal in whatever country you are visiting.
    • If you think it might be illegal, just assume that it is.
    • If your country has a system that allows you to register with it before you travel, you should do so. See the United States’ Smart Traveler Enrollment Program here.
    •  Keep a copy of your visa and your passport with you at all times. Make sure everything is current. If the country in which you are traveling clearly does not require this, it is still a good idea to have a copy on you nonetheless.
    • If you are questioned by any government official, be civil. Be respectful. Keep your cool. Tell the truth. If you get caught in a lie you are done. Done. Do not make jokes and especially do not make jokes about the country. Do not act arrogantly. Act respectfully (I am intentionally being repetitive). Make the job of the authorities easier, not more difficult. Just remember, the people in front of you are doing their jobs (or seeking a bribe) and no matter what you do, your actions that day will not advance democracy or human rights or any other ideal one iota. Even government officials in authoritarian regimes are human beings with at least some small bit of discretion. Your job is to give them a reason to cut you a break. This does NOT mean paying a bribe, which has the very real potential of getting you in worse trouble than being deported.
    • If nothing seems to be working, ask if you can call your embassy, your consulate, your lawyer, your joint venture partner, a local friend, or anyone else you think might be able to help you.
    • If you think you might have visa issues down the road, deal with them now. Start your application, find the right lawyer, talk to your embassy or consulate. Whatever. Just do not wait.

If you ever get caught or are accused of committing a crime in a foreign country, do not make light of it in any way. This means you do not complain about the law. This means you do not talk about how what you did is legal somewhere else (like your home country) and this means you seek to hire a top-flight criminal lawyer as quickly as possible, even better if that lawyer has experience representing foreigners on criminal matters. This also means you should immediately contact your home country’s embassy or consulate to let them know that you are being held.

It also does not hurt to remember that foreigners in most countries are more likely to get caught, more likely to get arrested, more likely to get prosecuted, and more likely to get a stiffer sentence than a local.

I welcome any additions to the above.

12 responses to “How to stay out of Foreign Jails and What to do if Arrested”

  1. Good list. I would add “getting in heated arguments or fights”. When different cultural norms are at play, disagreements can escalate unpredictably. If someone criticizes your country, keep your cool, stay friendly and polite, and avoid a confrontation.

  2. Don’t fly drones, especially with cameras 🙂 My friend spent a nice day in a Chinese police department and it took quite a big effort to let him out!

  3. I would add public displays of affection including holding hands, kissing and of course any sex act in public with heterosexual or same sex partners

  4. I would say about 60% of the expats I knew in Beijing and in Shanghai were regular dope smokers. They were certain nothing could possibly happen to them. In those days, they were right. The drug dealers sold their drugs right in front of the Sanlitun police station. The police wanted them there to keep an eye on them. As long as they sold to expats only, the police did not care. As you note in your post, the American college students/young teachers think that smoking dope is no big deal: nothing could go wrong. It’s a new world. So query: will they listen to you?

  5. Great list. I would add to anything on the list that involves speaking or expression above to include not doing it on social media.

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