You don't need to be a drug mule or serious criminal to get in trouble with the law while on holiday. Here are 10 seemingly innocuous mistakes that could land you in jail.
Carrying prescription medicines
The Emirates is notorious for strict drug rules, which cover some prescription medicines too (even cold and flu remedies) unless properly documented. In 2018 a traveller was jailed for carrying anti-anxiety medications. The severe laws also apply to substances just washing around in your bloodstream or urine, and in 2008 a British tourist copped a four-year sentence for a micro-gram of cannabis stuck on his shoe sole.
Overstaying your visa
No, we aren't talking illegal immigrants. In 2017 an Australian traveller was temporarily jailed in the USA after overstaying a visa by just two hours. And in 2007, an Icelandic woman was arrested on arrival at JFK airport for overstaying her tourist visa a decade previously. She spent two days in the slammer before being deported. Tourist over-stayers in countries from Mexico to Thailand have also been detained.
Baring your bottom
You might expect this to be a no-no in some places but maybe not Europe, where bare breasts and G-strings on beaches are commonplace. But in 2003 a British woman was arrested in Greece and charged with indecent exposure after flashing her derriere in a raucous "beautiful bottom" resort competition. She was sentenced to eight months imprisonment but escaped with a fine of 2500 euros.
Twelve seemingly innocent plane-spotters also ran foul of Greek law in 2001 after taking photos at an air show. They were accused of espionage over their snaps of military aircraft and sentenced to three years imprisonment, not overturned until a year into their incarceration. Photography of military bases and other installations, plus sensitive infrastructure such as airports or even bridges, is strictly verboten in many countries.
Touching someone in a bar
In 2017 the busy Dubai police arrested a Scottish tourist for touching another man's hip. The tourist maintained he'd reached out a hand to ease past while trying not to spill drinks. Although released on bail, the Scotsman was stuck in Dubai for months and racked up an enormous legal bill. Ironically, he'd been drinking at the Rock Bottom Bar, which is what he hit.
Flying a drone
Mark Firkin and Jolie King, who were arrested in Iran, were documenting their travels on social media. Photo: Instagram
Two Instagram bloggers from Perth, on their way overland around the world, found out the hard way in 2019 that you shouldn't go flying drones in sensitive places. In this case, near a military base. In Iran. They were arrested in their hotel at gunpoint and dragged off to Tehran's notorious Evin Prison. They were lucky to be released after three months following a government prisoner-swap arrangement.
Wearing a bikini
Boracay's famous White Beach. Photo: Getty
Should tourists be punished for being culturally insensitive? Good question, answered by Filipino police in 2019 when they arrested a Taiwanese tourist in Boracay for wearing skimpy swimwear. And by Maldivian police in 2020 when they dragged away a bikini-clad British tourist in Maafushi and charged her with indecent exposure. Bikini-wearing in the Maldives is allowed only in tourist resorts. Most countries have laws regarding appropriate dress.
A photo posted to the Kinabalu Park Facebook page thought to show the 10 tourists who posed naked at Mt Kinabalu. Photo: Facebook
In 2015 four tourists, ignoring their guide's advice, took their kit off on top of Mt Kinabalu in Malaysia. Big mistake, because Mt Kinabalu is considered sacred. They were jailed for three days and deported after handing over a hefty fine. You don't even have to be naked; Aussies were arrested at the Malaysian Grand Prix in 2016 for wearing budgie-smugglers inappropriately emblazoned with the Malaysian flag.
See also: What sort of person takes off their clothes at a famous tourist attraction?
British tourist Naomi Coleman with the offending tattoo. Photo: AFP
Three French tourists in Sri Lanka got six-month suspended gaol sentences in 2012 for pretending to kiss a Buddha statue in Kandy. In 2014, a British tourist was deported for sporting a Buddha tattoo on her arm. And in 2015, a Kiwi and his Burmese colleagues were jailed in Myanmar for two years after producing a Photoshopped picture of Buddha wearing sunglasses to advertise their bar.
Dressing as nuns
If holidaying on the island of Crete, don't think of donning lacy lingerie and a nun's habit for your big night out. In 2009 a party of male tourists did just that, got drunk and rowdy, and offended the locals. They spent 40 hours pondering their mistake in a jail cell and suffered the indignity of having their cross-dressing photos plastered all over the newspapers before being sent packing.
Brian Johnston has travelled as a guest of numerous tourism offices and travel companies.