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It goes without saying that the laws vary from country to country, and what is illegal in one country might be both legally permitted and culturally accepted in another.

For example, in the US the minimum age to legally consume alcohol is (generally) 21, but in many countries, the minimum age is 18 or lower. It is possible for a 19-year-old US citizen to travel to Chile, for instance, and consume alcohol legally according to the local laws.

I am curious, though, if a US citizen could potentially* be prosecuted upon returning home for "breaking US laws while on foreign soil".

Is that idea as absurd as it sounds, or are there US laws that US citizens MUST obey while they are traveling, even if no such laws exist (or are less strict) in the countries they are traveling to?

* Leaving aside the practical consideration of how anyone would ever find out what the traveler did during his trip; I'm more curious to know if there's a precedent.

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I don't know for USA, but for France, there is a law about sex tourism, which by definition concerns foreign soil. –  mouviciel Feb 11 at 14:13

4 Answers 4

up vote 20 down vote accepted

I am curious, though, if a US citizen could potentially* be prosecuted upon returning home for "breaking US laws while on foreign soil".

Yes.

  1. The U.S. maintains embargoes against several countries, the best known of which is Cuba. Many of these include travel restrictions. It is illegal, for example, for a U.S. person to use U.S. currency or a U.S. passport to travel to Cuba.

  2. The U.S. government generally holds that U.S. citizens are liable for taxes, regardless of where they live. Many countries have tax treaties with the U.S. that in some cases reduces or eliminates this burden, but in general, if you are a U.S. citizen and you make enough money in a foreign country, the U.S. government will expect you to pay U.S. taxes. (Here's a Wall Street Journal blog entry on the subject: "The U.S. is the only industrialized country that requires citizens to pay income tax on offshore earnings, and many are finding the complications and cost of maintaining U.S. citizenship abroad to be increasingly burdensome.")

  3. It is against U.S. law (the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act) to bribe foreign officials.

I would also guess that the U.S. sometimes has jurisdiction in foreign countries. Obvious examples would be military bases and embassies, but perhaps also in matters pertaining to U.S.-registered ships and aircraft(??).

References

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ships and aircraft are considered "soil" of the country they're registered in for legal purposes, at least while operational (not quite sure what their status is while docked/parked, may depend on whether the captain is on board or not). –  jwenting Feb 12 '13 at 7:03
    
@jwenting: IIRC, only when they are on/over international waters. On/over territorial waters the local jurisdiction applies. –  vartec Feb 12 '13 at 10:50
    
@vartec not so sure, would probably depend on whether it's criminal or civil law as well, or on next port of call (i.e. different laws might apply for a US aircraft in Dutch airspace if they're heading for Amsterdam or just passing through for say Frankfurt), but i may be mistaken. –  jwenting Feb 12 '13 at 11:23
    
@jwenting: I'm quite sure, that should the plane overflying Dutch airspace be eg. hijacked, it would be intercepted by Dutch fighters, forced to land in Dutch airport and dealt with by Royal Dutch Marechaussee. –  vartec Feb 12 '13 at 11:33
    
@vartec yes, it would be. But were a person arrested on said aircraft by US air marshalls, I doubt it would divert to Schiphol to turn them over to Dutch police :) –  jwenting Feb 12 '13 at 19:14

(This is going to over-simplify things a little, but...)

Technically, as a US citizen you are covered by the laws of the US regardless of where in the world you are. However with very few exceptions, when you are outside of the US you are outside of the jurisdiction of those laws. ie, if you're a 19 year old US citizen and you're drinking in Australia then you're not breaking any law - simply because there is no law against 19 year old US citizens drinking whilst in Australia.

There are, however, exceptions.

The US government can - and has - passed laws which include a jurisdiction outside of the US. The most well known of these is the "PROTECT Act of 2003", which makes it illegal for a US citizen to partake in illicit sexual conduct abroad with someone under the age of 18. In effect, the intent of these laws was to stamp out "sex tourism", and many other countries have passed similar laws.

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Actually it is illegal to have sex with people under the age of legal consent of the local jurisdiction or 16, whichever is older. Prostitutes (sex for money) cannot be younger than 18 though. Another good example is taxes - US citizens must file tax reports even if they live abroad. –  littleadv Apr 10 '12 at 5:43
    
This is good to know; is there a list of laws or categories out there that could serve as a set of general guidelines to follow while traveling? –  todofixthis Apr 12 '12 at 22:43

Generally, if you break a US law even though you're not in the US - you can be prosecuted if the victim is a US person, even if what you did was legal at the place where you did it.

As mentioned by @Doc, there are explicit laws regarding sex tourism, taxes, volunteering for military service, and other stuff.

Some things may be legal, but not wise. American teenagers are notorious for getting drunk everywhere they go just because they can. Now imagine yourself a bunch of kids coming into your neighborhood just to get drunk, and that's what the locals would think of you for doing that. Its not illegal, but it is still damn stupid.

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My understanding is there exists a presumption against the extraterritorial applicability of United States law unless there is explicit language in the law to indicate it was the intent of Congress for the law to have applicability outside the territory (and designated special areas) of the United States. This is not to say the United States does not have the ability to enfore its laws outside its territory; the United States can and in some cases does, normally violations of US criminal codes, enforce its laws on actions occuring in other sovereign States.

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