Personal Safety Abroad

One of the biggest concerns about going abroad is personal safety. “Isn’t it dangerous?” is a question often asked – and one I myself used to ask others – at the mention of being alone in a city. Yes, there are cities with higher crime rates, and others that are extremely safe like good old Irvine. Danger can happen anywhere, close to home or far away, but you can minimize your risk by playing it smart.

Here’s an anecdote I want to start off with:

My first weekend in Barcelona, I decided to do some exploring on my own. I didn’t tell my host mom Maica where I’d be because at the time, I didn’t know where I would be going. As it was approaching dusk, I was at the Parc de la Ciutadella for the first time.


I’d barely gotten within the park’s borders and was starting to take photos when I realized someone was calling to me: “Oy! Hey, you!”

I’d been working on training my ears to respond to Spanish being shouted at me, so English sounded unfamiliar and startled me for a moment. I looked up, frozen, like, “Are you talking to me?” A group, maybe three or four people my age, strolled up to me. I don’t remember how the conversation started, but then it turned to the topic of my camera. The one who’d shouted to (at?) me noted that we had the same camera, but his battery had died. They were originally  from Ireland, here to make a short video or something like that. They were wondering where to get a new battery or possibly a charger, since it was Sunday and most stores were closed. They invited me to join them, but my guard was up. I panicked inwardly, wondering, “Are they going to kill me and take my camera battery??!” (silly reasoning but could be plausible) so I made up the excuse that I had to go home to eat dinner very soon. I pretended to walk out of the park until I saw them leave where we’d been talking, and then I went back in again.

When I retold this story to a friend of mine back home, her response was, “Why didn’t you go with them? I would have!”

Insert sigh.

Why I Did Not Go Off With Complete Strangers During My First Week Abroad

  1. I was by myself
  2. In an unfamiliar city
  3. With a considerable language barrier
  4. Nobody knew where I was
  5. There were 3 or 4 of them versus 1 of me
  6. I knew nothing about them

While they were friendly enough and I didn’t have a reason to suspect them of being dangerous, that’s the point: you can never tell. I don’t mean to say that you should act like every stranger you meet is out to get you, but in this situation I don’t doubt that I did the smart, safe thing by declining their invitation to go wandering to who knows where.

Now another anecdote that shows we all make dumb mistakes occasionally:

I’d just come home and was on the small landing outside our apartment. There was a man waiting outside the only other door on the floor. I quickly weighed my options: should I pretend to keep going up more stairs and wait until he left, running the risk of seeing other residents who would be wondering why I was standing outside their doors? Should I just turn around and go back outside? I decided on Option C, to go into our apartment as quickly as possible.

I’d just unlocked our front door and opened it slightly when the man asked if I was the owner of the apartment. I told him no and started to go inside. He kept talking to me but I couldn’t understand; I just kept repeating “no.” Maica heard us and appeared, and told him she was the owner. I got out of the way as quickly as possible but could hear the conversation from my room. I guess this man was a solicitor and kept visiting the apartments, trying to get residents to sign something. He’d been here before and she was very angry that he kept coming back. After he left, Maica told me to be more careful. The man could have easily hurt me or pushed me out of the way, and then entered the apartment. I felt really guilty about what I’d done, maybe even ashamed, especially because was a silly decision mostly based on me not wanting to be awkward or rude… but it could have put her in danger too. I still shake my head when I think of this incident. Looking back, I really should have turned around and went outside until he left. I think I was too trusting and hoped he was just someone waiting for a friend. After this, I was more careful, even about not unlocking the front gate to enter if someone was waiting outside.

Aside from this, I was fortunate that I did not have serious incidents while abroad. I heard stories about people in my program getting robbed even while they thought they were really careful.

Here are some tips for personal safety, based on my two anecdotes and also on plain common sense:

Blend in:

  • Research how locals dress and try to imitate their style.
  • Don’t wear clothing that advertises your home country.
  • Leave behind your sorority/fraternity attire as well as sportswear (ie: jerseys).
  • Don’t advertise wealth with flashy jewelry and designer handbags.

uo_flag tank

Money matters:

  • Don’t carry a lot of cash on you. You should only hold the amount you will need for the day. Also spread out your money in different pockets in case you are robbed; then you’ll still have money to make a phone call or take a taxi home.
  • Don’t go to an ATM late at night. After you withdraw money, immediately store it in a safe place before walking away.
  • Don’t carry all of your credit cards on you at the same time. Leave one at home in a safe place.
  • Know what to do in case your credit cards are stolen. You should write down the phone numbers on a separate paper, so that you can call to cancel the cards immediately and you won’t waste time looking up phone numbers.


  • Leave all contact information for your parents in case of emergency: your new cell phone number, information for contacting your program provider, and the number of your apartment complex, host family, etc.
  • Inform your parents, host family, and program provider of your weekend travel plans, where you’ll be staying, and when you should be back.
  • Always let someone know where you will be — especially if you are going alone. Give a general time frame of when you expect to be out.
My rental phone while abroad

My rental phone while abroad

Above all, play it smart:

  • There’s safety in numbers, especially if out late at night.
  • As Mad Eye Moody said, “Constant vigilance!” Always be aware of your surroundings, especially when you are in an unfamiliar neighborhood. Don’t walk with your headphones in. Glance around you to take note of out-of-the-ordinary people who may pose a threat.
  • Avoid small, dark side streets or alleys, particularly at night when nobody is around. Always take main streets whenever possible.
  • When you leave an area, do a quick glance behind you to make sure you didn’t forget anything.
  • Walk with confidence. Act like you know where you’re going, even if you don’t. If you have to stop to pull out a map, try to go inside a cafe or store to do it, instead of lingering out on the streets since you’ll be distracted.
  • Don’t leave your phone lying on the table in a public area — it’s really easy for someone to walk by and grab it. Your personal items should always be within an arm’s reach, but don’t leave anything out if you don’t need it.
  • Watch your drink be poured when you are out at night. Don’t accept drinks from strangers if you didn’t see it be poured, and don’t leave your cup exposed and then pick it up to drink later on.
  • If you notice someone following you, do NOT go into your apartment or your home. Take a (safe) detour or step into a store until they pass.

Being abroad can be intimidating. I was a lot more sheltered and naive before I studied abroad, because I attended school in one of the US’s safest cities where I could walk to work at night and feel fine. Was I scared of being alone in Barcelona? In the beginning, yeah. But after learning to trust my instincts and follow basic common sense, that fear went away. It doesn’t have to be scary at all if you play it safe.

Other links: Reliable Bag/Purse | A Safe Trip Abroad | Safety and Security Brochure



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