Know the Law Before Ruining Your Vacation

ByCharlotte Sector

June 22, 2005 — -- If you're among the millions of Americans packing their vacation bags for farflung summer sojourns -- from scaling the Great Wall of China to sipping fine French wines -- don't hold back taking advantage of, dare I say it, leisure time.

Don't forget, however, that as soon as you step off the plane, you're expected to follow that country's laws and that often punishments for violations are far stricter than at home. Think of the American teenager who got caned in Singapore in 1994 for throwing eggs and paint at cars, or the recent case of the young Australian woman who got 20 years in the slammer for allegedly trying to smuggle marijuana in Indonesia. Shappelle Corby got off easy, however, considering that she could have gotten the death penalty.

So what's to be expected for Americans who decide to walk on the wild side while traveling abroad? We took a look at some of the top countries Americans are most likely to visit and what might happen if you got caught:

According to the U.S. State Department and lawyers consulted in various countries, the following are the penalties for getting caught:

Editor's Note: The following article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. If you have a legal question, you should consult an attorney.


Smoking marijuana: If police bust you smoking a joint, they will most likely detain you overnight and assess a fine. Possession, selling or trafficking are criminal offenses, so expect tough punishments.

Carrying a firearm: Just because it's close by doesn't mean U.S. laws apply, even if you're just visiting for the day. You might be able to walk around with a gun in Texas, but that ain't so in Mexico, so leave your gun behind. If you wish to go hunting in Mexico, you can apply for a gun permit but expect to shell out $5,000.If you are caught bringing in a firearm, ammunition or any other weapon, Mexican authorities may confiscate your car and arrest you. A detained American may spend months in pretrial detention while his or her case is being investigated. If convicted, you may face several years in a Mexican prison.

Driving 70 mph on the highway: Speed limits are on the lower side. Depending on what type of highway you're driving on, you shouldn't go faster than 62 mph.The police enforce the speed limit, but most local cops don't have radars. The maximum fine for speeding is approximately $40.

To scare tourists into paying the fine "on the spot," sometimes police will threaten to keep your driver's license. This is illegal, so call them on it.

Patronizing a prostitute: Mexican law isn't explicit regarding this one. Prostitution has not been expressly legalized or prohibited in the country, with many border towns tacitly condoning the world's oldest profession. If your behavior gets out of hand, however, and police believe your conduct is disorderly, you can be charged with a misdemeanor.


Smoking marijuana: Despite rumblings of legalizing marijuana, it's still not legal to smoke weed in public. Simple possession of a joint will probably get you a $100 (Canadian) fine (about US$80.)

Carrying a firearm: Firearms are strictly controlled. As of Jan. 1, 2001, visitors bringing firearms into Canada, or planning to borrow and use firearms while in Canada, are required to declare the firearms in writing using a Non-Resident Firearm Declaration form, which costs US$50 to process.

Driving 70 mph on the highway: Driving in Canada is similar to driving in parts of the United States. Distances and speeds, however, are posted in kilometers per hour, and some signs, particularly in the French-speaking province of Quebec, may only be in French. On highways, the posted speed limit is 100km/hr, approximately 65 mph. Fines are incremental, so figure $15 Canadian for every 5 kilometers above the speed limit.

Patronizing a prostitute: Prostitution is not illegal; however, soliciting sex is. Expect a fine of $250 Canadian (about US$200) if caught.


Smoking marijuana: French law forbids smoking pot, despite the prevalence of smoking hashish, a dry resinous extract from the hemp plant.Anyone caught doing drugs can be fined $4,000 and get up to one year in prison, but such punishment is rare unless you're involved in another crime like a car accident. If you're caught importing or exporting drugs, a person can get up to 20 years in prison.

Carrying a firearm: Carrying a firearm is illegal in France. Possessing a firearm without a license (given only to certain types of guns such as for hunting) can get you five years in the slammer and a $4,000 fine.

Driving 70 mph on the highway: The French typically drive more aggressively and faster than Americans and tend to exceed posted speed limits, according to the U.S. Department of State. The speed limit on highways is 130km/hr, about 80 mph.

Patronizing a prostitute: Being caught with a prostitute is not a crime in France. The police will most likely fine the prostitute rather than the client. That said, if the prostitute is a minor (under 18) or has any infirmities, then the client will be fined up to $50,000 and jailed for three years.

United Kingdom

Smoking marijuana: British police will not arrest you if you light up in public. You may get a warning, with the police confiscating your joint, but if done discreetly, you may not be hassled. Carrying large amounts of marijuana can get you 14 years in prison if the police believe you're selling the stuff.

Carrying a firearm: Gun laws are strict. It's illegal to carry a firearm -- not even the police carry guns. Carrying a firearm will get you a minimum of five years in a prison cell.

Driving 70 mph on the highway: Unlike in the rest of Europe, traffic moves on the left in Britain. The speed limit is 70 mph (yes, they use miles here too) so you can outrun that Mini just ahead of you. If you are caught speeding, you may have to pay a £60 fine, that's about $110.

Patronizing a prostitute: The act of prostitution, as in selling sex or paying for it, is not illegal but soliciting -- i.e. looking for it or offering it -- is. You can get a maximum of six months in prison and/or be fined up to £5,000, which is about $9,000.


Smoking marijuana: Drugs are frowned upon in Thailand. Getting caught smoking marijuana is punishable by one year in jail and/or a fine of 20,000 baht ($500). Thailand also has a death penalty for serious drug offenses, and has executed convicted traffickers. The U.S. Embassy frequently doesn't find out about the arrest of U.S. citizens for minor drug offenses, particularly in southern Thailand, until several days after the incident, according to the State Department. Thai police occasionally raid discos, bars or nightclubs looking for underage patrons and drug users. During the raids, they typically check the IDs of all customers and make each person provide a urine sample to be checked for narcotics (despite your nationality). Anyone whose urine tests positive for drugs is arrested and charged. And if you are found in possession of a lot of drugs, the police authorities will assume you are carrying with an intent to sell and you can get life in prison or even execution.

Carrying a firearm: Thailand prohibits possessing firearms, ammunition or explosives without a license. If you're caught with a gun and no license, you may get slapped with a $500 fine and be stuck in a jail cell for one to 10 years. It gets worse. If you have a firearm that isn't legal even with a license, offenders can be sentenced to life imprisonment or capital punishment, i.e. death.

Driving 70 mph on the highway: Traffic moves on the left in Thailand with a speed limit that varies between 52 mph and 60 mph on expressways and country roads. One important difference is that your car is insured, not the driver. Police speed traps are quite common on major routes, although considering the sub-Autobahn condition of many of the roads, you probably won't be burning rubber here.

Patronizing a prostitute: Prostitution is illegal; however, paying for sex is not illegal. Some massage parlors often provide more than just a neck rub and it's not uncommon for women to proposition men at bars for a date and more. That said, sex with children under 18 years of age is a crime and the customers may face very heavy fines. Customers caught with someone younger than 18 can get one to three years imprisonment and/or a fine ranging from 20,000-50,000 baht (about $500 to $1,200). In addition, any person having sex with minors faces up to 20 years of imprisonment and/or fines of about $1,000 regardless of consent.

As an American citizen, if you get in trouble, the U.S. Embassy in the foreign country will be notified and come to your aid. "Our role is to provide assistance, but that doesn't always mean securing a person's release," said Angela Aggeler, spokeswoman for the U.S. Bureau of Consular Affairs. The local U.S. embassy will make sure the person has appropriate legal representation and has access to a local attorney as well as make sure the person gets fair and humane treatment if imprisoned.

Best not to spend your vacation in jail, so exercise caution. "If in doubt, don't do it," said Don George, the Lonely Planet Global Travel Editor, who stressed getting to know your destination before you leave. He advised studying the guidebooks, reading the U.S. State Department travel warnings and checking out fellow traveler bulletin boards.

If you would like more information about staying out of trouble in different countries, Click Here.

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