When you are in a foreign country, you are subject to its laws, and American officials are limited as to how they can assist you. They cannot, for instance, represent you in legal proceedings or pay your legal fees or other expenses. They can, however, perform a variety of vital services, which include providing a list of attorneys, assisting in contacting your family in the U.S. if you wish it, helping you obtain money from family in the U.S., and monitoring your health and welfare and the conditions under which you are being held.
If you are arrested, immediately ask to speak to a consular officer at the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate. Under international agreements, the U.S. Government has a right to provide consular assistance to you upon your request. If your request to speak to your consul is turned down, keep asking—politely, but persistently.
Special warning about drug offenses abroad
Every year, several hundred Americans are arrested abroad on drug charges. Persons caught with illegal drugs in a foreign country are subject to the drug laws of that country, not those of the U.S.; as always, ignorance of the law is no excuse. In many countries, the burden of proof is on the accused to show that he or she is innocent of the charges.
Some Americans take advantage of an offer of an all-expenses-paid vacation abroad in exchange for carrying a small package in the luggage. When, to their surprise, they are caught, the fact that they did not know that there were drugs in that package will not reduce the charges against them.
Every aspect of a drug arrest abroad can be different from U.S. practice. For instance:
* few countries provide a jury trial
* many countries do not permit pre-trial release on bail
* pre-trial detention, often in solitary confinement, can last several months
* prisons may lack even minimal comforts, such as beds, toilets, and washbasins
* diets are often inadequate and require supplements from relatives and friends
* officials may not speak English
* physical abuse, confiscation of property, degrading treatment and extortion are
* persons convicted may face sentences ranging from fines and jail time, to years of hard labor, and even the death penalty
* penalties for drug possession and for drug trafficking are often the same abroad, so possession of one ounce of marijuana could result in years in a foreign jail
As with any arrest of a U.S. citizen abroad, consular officers perform a variety of services. But, you will basically be on your own. Don’t be stupid. Stay away from drugs.