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Arrest of a U.S. Citizen

While in a foreign country, a U.S. citizen is subject to that country's laws and regulations, which sometimes differ significantly from those in the United States and may not afford the same protections available to the individual under U.S. law. Persons violating the law in a foreign country, even unknowingly, may be expelled, fined, arrested, or imprisoned. If arrested abroad, a citizen must go through the foreign legal process for being charged or indicted, prosecuted, and possibly convicted and sentenced.

More than 2,500 Americans are arrested abroad annually. More than 30% of these arrests are drug-related, and more than 70% of these drug-related arrests involve marijuana or cocaine.

Each country is sovereign and its laws apply to everyone who enters regardless of nationality. The U.S. Government cannot get Americans released from foreign jails. However, a U.S. Consul will insist on prompt access to an arrested American, provide a list of attorneys (PDF - 68kb), provide information on the host country's legal system, offer to contact the arrested American's family or friends, visit on a regular basis, protest mistreatment, monitor jail conditions, provide dietary supplements if needed, and keep the Department of State and family members informed.  Under no circumstances can an Embassy official provide legal advice, guidance or representation to an arrested American.  For more information on retaining a foreign attorney, please see

Please notify the American Citizen Services Unit (207-7000) when you or a friend or family member is arrested or detained.  Detained Americans will generally be visited by a U.S. Consul within 48 hours.

In Panama, the judicial process can be lengthy.  On average, it takes 8 months to a year before a trial date is set and one year before the trial process is completed.  Living conditions in the prisons are usually below the expectations of Americans.  Prisoners live in close quarters and have limited access to telephones.  Typically, family members send money to the attorney representing a prisoner who will purchase toiletries, comfortable bedding and personal articles for him or her.

The Office of Overseas Citizens Services (OCS) at the Department of State in Washington, D.C., is the point of contact for family members in the United States who are concerned about an American citizen family member who has been arrested abroad. You can reach OCS by calling 1-888-407-4747. Family members in Panama may call the ACS Unit at 207-7030 or e-mail us at

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