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Assess Safety of Travel Abroad

Hillary Pettegrew, Esq.
October 2020
How to assess whether to permit or prohibit travel abroad

Your institution should consider prohibiting travel to a country or area when the U.S. government cautions against it. Examine government travel advisories and health warnings and follow these additional practices to keep community members safe.

Travel Advisories

In January 2018, the State Department rolled out a new system of travel advisories to give U.S. travelers information about the relative safety of different countries. It replaces all prior State Department travel warnings and travel alerts. Under this system, all countries are ranked in one of four levels according to a variety of factors, such as terrorism, crime, natural disasters, and (increasingly) health concerns:

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

The State Department rarely actually prohibits people from traveling to Level 4 countries. However, effective September 2017, it restricted U.S. citizens from traveling to North Korea in most circumstances, noting they must apply for a special validation passport to visit North Korea for certain limited purposes. Generally, the State Department explains that Level 4 “is the highest advisory level due to greater likelihood of life-threatening risks. During an emergency, the U.S. government may have very limited ability to provide assistance. The Department of State advises that U.S. citizens not travel to the country or to leave as soon as it is safe to do so.” 

In addition to the overall travel advisory level for each country, the State Department may issue security alerts with a different advisory level for a specific area or region within a country.

When the State Department bases a travel advisory in whole or in part on health considerations, it relies heavily on, and refers travelers to, travel health notices and related advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), discussed below.

The State Department reviews Level 1 and Level 2 advisories at least annually and Level 3 and 4 advisories at least every six months.

Travel Health Notices

The CDC issues three levels of travel health notices. The most serious is the Warning Level 3 to avoid nonessential travel because of widespread serious outbreaks of a disease or other public health concerns that are a high risk. In addition to Warning Level 3, the other CDC levels are:

  • Watch Level 1: Practice Usual Precautions (“Usual baseline risk or slightly above baseline risk for destination and limited impact to the traveler”)
  • Alert Level 2: Practice Enhanced Precautions (“Increased risk in defined settings or associated with specific risk factors; certain high-risk populations may wish to delay travel to these destinations”)

Consider These Best Practices

Your institution should use these strategies with its study abroad programs.

Establish a Travel Policy

The policy should cover school-sponsored travel by students, employees, or members of the general public. It should clearly state whether travel is allowed to countries or regions identified in a State Department travel advisory or a CDC health warning.

Verify Insurance Coverage

Liability, accident, health, and other insurance policies vary greatly, including whether they cover employees, students, or other travelers. Also, some carriers don’t cover claims or lawsuits brought in foreign countries, and some don’t cover hostilities or acts of terrorism that occur outside the United States. Check with your broker or underwriter to verify coverage.

Use Assumption of Risk and Release Forms

Consider options that let students avoid travel to an area under a travel advisory or warning. To reinforce the trip’s voluntary nature, require each participant (or a parent or guardian in the case of minors) to sign an assumption of risk and release form or a similar waiver. The document should confirm that the participant has read and understands the travel advisory or warning and other identified travel risks. Your institution’s legal counsel should draft or review all such forms.

Create Evacuation Procedures

Evacuations may become necessary in the event of a medical problem, civil unrest, or other emergency. Ensure that options are in place to remove one or more travelers or the entire traveling party. Consider the difficulty of evacuations from remote locations. The local U.S. Embassy or Consulate can provide information and, possibly, resources for safe and swift evacuations. Also, companies such as International SOS will provide evacuation services. Contact these companies during the trip planning process.

Use State Department and U.S. Embassy or Consulate Resources

Each travel abroad trip should be registered with the State Department through its Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), which enables the local embassy or consulate to notify the group in case of an emergency. In addition, trip leaders should have the contact information and location of the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate while traveling.

Keep Copies of Passports

Collect two copies of each participant’s passport. Trip leaders should keep one in a secure location, such as a safe, while abroad. These will be helpful in proving a participant’s citizenship and identity if a passport is lost or stolen. A readily accessible duplicate should be kept at the institution. All passport copies should be properly disposed of after the trip ends.


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Additional Resources

State Department Travel to High Risk Areas

State Department: Students Abroad page