Our world is a complicated place that changes from moment to moment. Countries that were deemed unsafe to travel to just a few years ago are now tourism hot spots, and favorite getaways can quickly turn into hostile territories. In a perfect world we would all be able to travel freely and enjoy safety and comfort wherever we go, but unfortunately that isn’t yet the case.
That’s why the State Department uses travel advisories to keep the American public informed about the state of travel around the world. Under the old system, the State Department would issue a new advisory when a problem arose in a country or territory that created an unsafe situation. In January 2018, the travel advisory system was updated. Now, every country has a travel advisory rating which indicates how safe it is for American civilians to travel to that country.
Whether a country is perfectly safe or a serious safety risk, it has a rating that can be looked up at any time. Some larger countries are broken into segments. For example, Mexico is divided into several sections, and some areas are considered relatively safe to visit while others are considered incredibly dangerous.
It’s worth noting that the rating system is not a guarantee, and bad things can happen anywhere. Ratings are subject to go up or down at any time and are meant to serve as cautions, not thorough reports. If you are traveling to a country or area that you’re unfamiliar with, you can subscribe to travel advisory updates for that area. You can also notify the State Department of your travel dates so that if something happens in the country while you’re there — like a natural disaster or an attack — the US government will know to look for you. Learn more about that here.
The four advisory levels are labeled Level 1 through Level 4. Here is an overview of what each level indicates:
Level 1 – Exercise Normal Precautions
Level 1 is the lowest advisory level. This means that you should be able to travel to these countries without putting yourself at any additional risk.
Level 2 – Exercise Increased Caution
According to the State Department, you should be aware of heightened risks when traveling to one of these areas. Countries and territories can receive a Level 2 rating for having higher than usual crime levels or for being possible targets of terrorism or political unrest.
Level 3 – Reconsider Travel
Countries that are designated Level 3 are considered to be dangerous. According to the State Department, such countries currently pose serious safety concerns. The reasons could be unstable governments or high levels of crime.
Level 4 – Do Not Travel
Countries with a Level 4 advisory are countries that, according to the State Department, present a heightened likelihood of life-threatening risks. These countries tend to be active war zones and countries with authoritarian governments. As of the time of writing, countries currently on this list include North Korea, Iraq, and Yemen.
In every case, you can visit the travel advisory page for each specific country to learn more information. Within each level there are additional subdivisions. For example, a country can be considered Level 1 but still have certain locations within it that are considered high risk. There are very few places where American civilians cannot legally travel — it’s simply a question of where you can travel with the highest levels of safety.
Rob Lee is co-founder of Swift Passport and Visa Services. Originally from Michigan, Rob is an avid fisherman and SCUBA diver who enjoys adventure travel.