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Tourists’ Caribbean arrests highlight value of US travel warnings, expert says

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Three Americans detained in Turks and Caicos Islands for possession of ammunition are facing a possible 12-year prison sentence after they were arrested for what they say were innocent mistakes.

The situation is a good reminder to be aware of local laws anytime you’re leaving the United States.

If you’re planning a trip abroad, your first stop should be the U.S. State Department website, where you can get important safety and security information about your destination.

“Oftentimes people do a bit more digging to unknown destinations that they’ve never been to or destinations that might have an increased caution warning on the State Department website,” says Katy Nastro, a travel expert at flight-finding site Going. “We tend to not think about doing those same sort of steps before we travel to leisure destinations like a Caribbean island, or anywhere that we might have been to before.”

The U.S. State Department is warning travelers about strict new laws in Turks and Caicos Islands that carry a mandatory minimum sentence of 12 years for bringing guns or ammunition to the island.

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But it’s a good idea to check the State Department website before each trip so you can make informed decisions.  The State Department issues travel advisory levels for each country of the world based on conditions, from the minimum Level 1 to a Level 4, which is a do not travel advisory.

“It also advises against different regulations or things that have popped up recently,” says Nastro. “If you go on the State Department website right now and look under Turks and Caicos, there is an advisory to check your bags for things like ammunition that you cannot travel to and have on you when you’re traveling to Turks and Caicos.”

An Indiana woman whose son was sentenced to eight months in a Turks and Caicos prison last year for possession of ammunition spoke about a similar case against an Oklahoma man.

Nastro says it’s also a good idea to familiarize yourself with local laws to avoid any run-ins with local authorities.

“One perfect example of sort of being aware of local laws and regulations is chewing gum in Singapore. This is something that has been talked about in the past, because a lot of times tourists would come to the country and not be aware that, you know, spitting chewing gum and chewing gum in and of itself is banned,” she says. “Also being aware of what you’re saying. In some countries, you’re not allowed to speak ill of the government or, you know, have slanderous language specific type of words. Again, being aware, top line, of some of the differences in local laws and regulations before you travel to a country can really equip yourself to be a better and smarter traveler.”

The State Department website also provides information on local customs and norms. In some countries, tight-fitting clothing and sleeveless shirts and shorts are not acceptable.

“A lot of information can be found through various Facebook groups,” says Nastro. “Going has an incredible travel community that you can join where people actually swap tips and insights into what a specific destination is like after just having traveled there… as well as following local news outlets to get a better sense of what’s happening on the ground.”

You may also want to consider signing up for the state department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program. It’s a free service that sends you emails with updates on weather, safety and security from the local U.S. embassy or consulate.  

If there’s an emergency, it also helps them contact you with instructions on what to do. You can sign up here: step.state.gov.

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