Nothing spoils the holiday mood like getting thrown in jail!
Ignorance is not a valid legal defense, so it is important to research not just the cultural norms but also the laws of your destination country before you go. You may be surprised!
Here are 10 examples of shocking laws to be aware of before you pack your bags.
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- 1 Don’t feed the birds in San Francisco, USA
- 2 Quit the camo in Jamaica, Oman and Saudi Arabia
- 3 Bathe respectfully in Switzerland
- 4 Forget about one-legged bicycling in Mexico
- 5 Save the smooching for outside the UAE
- 6 Keep your feet off the money in Thailand
- 7 Skip the stilettos at ancient Greek sites
- 8 Avoid a sticky situation in Singapore
- 9 Don’t let yourself go in Portuguese waters
- 10 Protect marine mammals in New Zealand
- 11 Illegal in every country
- 12 Surprisingly legal activities
- 13 Vote at age 16 in Argentina
- 14 Buy a gun at age 18 in the USA
- 15 Marry an animal in India
- 16 Sell your kidney in Iran
- 17 Eat poisonous pufferfish (fugu) in Japan
Don’t feed the birds in San Francisco, USA
Have you always dreamed of seeing the iconic Golden Gate Bridge with a bag of bread crumbs in your hand and feathery friends flocking all around you? You’d better change your plans!
It is illegal to feed the pigeons on the city’s streets or sidewalks.
Why? In a nutshell, a large pigeon population creates health hazards for the city’s human population, and feeding wild animals robs them of their natural ability to survive on their own.
Did you know that pigeons usually breed only 2 or 3 times per year, while overfed urban birds can breed up to 8 times per year? That’s a fast recipe for overpopulation.
Violators may be fined.
Quit the camo in Jamaica, Oman and Saudi Arabia
Here’s one to know before you pack your bags! Several countries, including Jamaica, Oman and Saudi Arabia, have a restriction on camouflage patterns. This includes clothing as well as accessories like hats and bags.
It’s not that the fashion police have been given legal authority here. The real reason is that camouflage material is reserved for military use only. If you’re caught wearing camouflage, you will be perceived as a threat or as impersonating military personnel.
In Oman, violating this law can result in a fine of over 5,000 US dollars.
Bathe respectfully in Switzerland
Bathing after 10 pm is not strictly illegal here, but it’s a good guideline to keep in mind as most buildings have rules about quiet hours. These may begin at 10 pm or even earlier.
During the designated rest periods, everyone respects their neighbors by not making disruptive noises. Depending on the building and the thickness of the walls, this could mean not playing music at a high volume, having a loud conversation, running the washing machine, vacuuming or taking a bath.
Failure to comply may result in a negative review on your apartment renting profile, a stern talking-to from your neighbours, dirty looks, and/or social ostracization.
Forget about one-legged bicycling in Mexico
Safety first! The reasoning behind the Mexican law that forbids bike riders to take their feet off the pedals is pretty easy to understand.
If you haven’t got your feet on the pedals, you’re probably goofing around, not paying attention to what you’re doing, or showing off — or maybe all 3!
When your feet are firmly on the pedals, you’re less likely to lose control of the bike and crash into traffic, pedestrians, other bikers, bushes, or inanimate objects (helloooo, fence!).
This law harks back to the 19th century and you’re not likely to get pulled over for breaking it, although technically you could.
Save the smooching for outside the UAE
International tourists have served jail time for kissing in public in the United Arab Emirates.
The Dubai code states that ‘Holding hands for a married couple is tolerated but kissing and petting are considered an offence to public decency.’ Note that simply holding hands is pushing the boundary of what is considered socially acceptable (and if you’re not married, forget about it!) So you can see how going so far as locking lips or even administering a quick peck on the cheek is crossing the line.
And while in Western cultures you might be loudly advised to ‘get a room’ by offended onlookers, that may not be an option in the UAE. It is forbidden for unmarried members of opposite genders to share a private room or accommodation. While hotels will often turn a blind eye for tourists, you can be arrested and jailed if caught.
It’s also important to note that marriages between members of the same gender are not recognised, and homosexual acts are illegal in this country.
When planning a trip to the Emirates, be sure to read up on the local laws first to avoid serious trouble with the police. For example, have you been known to spontaneously break into dance? Gazing up at the Burj Khalifa skyscraper may inspire a twirl or two, but watch out! Dancing in public places, including beaches and parks, is illegal.
Public displays of affection and other law-breaking activities are punishable by imprisonment or deportation in the United Arab Emirates.
Keep your feet off the money in Thailand
Think you’ll have no trouble abiding by this law? Imagine you’re walking down the street in Bangkok and the bottom of the handbag of the person in front of you splits open.
Suddenly, coins are rolling every which way. Instinctively, you might try to stop one with your foot. But think again!
Thais consider the feet to be the lowest and dirtiest part of the body. Couple that with the fact that the Monarchy must be shown respect at all times — you can get up to 10 years in jail for breathing a word of criticism about it — and keep in mind that the King’s image appears on all the money.
Now you see why you must bend over and pick up those coins with your hands! Stepping on them is illegal.
There are other situations where you must also be careful with your feet. Don’t point them at people or statues, don’t use them to gesture at anything, and certainly don’t put them up on a table. Your feet should never be higher than someone’s head. When you enter a place, especially a Buddhist temple, leave your shoes at the door. This should be easy to remember since there will usually be piles of shoes already outside.
Skip the stilettos at ancient Greek sites
Not only are high heels hard on your feet and body, they can also be hazardous to history!
Greece decided to ban high heels from historical sites in 2009 due to the damage they can inflict on the ancient monuments. Food, drink and chewing gum are also prohibited for the same reason.
Perhaps not coincidentally, in 2008, about 60 pounds of gum was removed from underneath the seats of Odeon of Herodes Atticus in Athens, a stone Roman theatre completed in 161 A.D.
So if you need an excuse to enjoy your meals in a restaurant and don comfortable shoes when you’re out and about, you might want to think about Greece for your next destination.
Avoid a sticky situation in Singapore
Teachers and Greek historical monuments aren’t the only ones who enforce a strict no-gum policy.
The sale of chewing gum has been banned in Singapore since 1992. Those who flout the rules can expect fines to the tune of 1,000 Singapore dollars. That’s over 700 US dollars!
However, since 2004 there has been an exception that allows doctors and registered pharmacists to sell therapeutic, dental, and nicotine gum to people with a prescription.
The ban only applies to selling the substance, so you can bring your own and chew it till you’re blue in the face. Just don’t spit it out on the ground: you can be fined 2,000 Singapore dollars for littering!
Don’t let yourself go in Portuguese waters
Did you know that your pee turns bright blue if you relieve yourself in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Portugal?
This type of tall tale about a urine indicator dye keeps kids from doing their business in community pools every summer. But the idea of a nation’s government putting these chemicals in the ocean seems a bit far-fetched.
Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction! In Portugal they’ve come up with a different type of deterrent to prevent people from peeing in the water: they’ve made it illegal.
While this law must be difficult to enforce, it goes a long way in encouraging bathers to use a proper restroom and keep the environment clean.
Protect marine mammals in New Zealand
Many people who visit this island nation are fortunate enough to see wild marine mammals in their natural environment. (Did you know that NZ is home to 9 species of dolphins?)
That’s why it is important to know the appropriate ways to act to avoid harming the animals.
The Marine Mammals Protection Regulations from 1992 and the Marine Mammals Protection Act of 1978 make it a crime to harass, disturb, injure or kill marine mammals like whales, dolphins, seals and sea lions.
Among other things, this means refraining from making loud or disturbing noises near them, throwing rubbish or food near them, or getting too close to them. There are specific rules for each type of animal depending on if you are on land, swimming in the water, or aboard a vessel.
As a result of these protections, sometimes marine mammals can ruin a party. One year, the fireworks show for Matariki, the Māori New Year, had to be cancelled when a whale came into the harbour.
The maximum penalty for making loud or disturbing noises near a whale is 10,000 New Zealand dollars (more than 7,000 US dollars), while other crimes against marine mammals can result in a fine of up to 250,000 New Zealand dollars and up to 2 years’ imprisonment.
Illegal in every country
Here’s something that’s illegal no matter where you go: travelling without the proper documents. In some countries you just need your passport, while in others you may need a visa.
Remember to check the visa laws of your destination before you plan your next trip.
Surprisingly legal activities
Tired of hearing about things you can’t do? Here are some unusual things that are oddly legal in different countries.
Keep in mind that while they may be legal, many of these are certainly not recommended.
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Vote at age 16 in Argentina
In 2012, Argentina lowered the legal voting age from 18 to 16. It was not the first Latin American country to do so: 16-year-olds can also exercise their right to vote in Brazil, Ecuador and Nicaragua.
Interestingly, most of these countries also have a law that makes it compulsory for certain citizens to vote. Voting is mandatory if you are aged between 18 and 70 in Argentina or Brazil, or 18 to 65 in Ecuador.
Of the 21 countries in the world where voting is mandatory, 10 are located in Latin America.
Buy a gun at age 18 in the USA
While 3 countries see gun ownership as a constitutional right — the United States, Mexico and Guatemala — the US is the only one with no constitutional restrictions. In Mexico, for example, bureaucracy, restrictions and the fact that there is only 1 gun store in the whole country make it difficult for most people to legally buy a gun.
6 countries have repealed laws that once made it a constitutional right to bear arms: Bolivia, Costa Rica, Colombia, Honduras, Nicaragua and Liberia.
Marry an animal in India
Perhaps the most famous case of a human-animal marriage in India took place in 2007. An Indian man had treated dogs poorly during his childhood and suffered from multiple illnesses later in life. In his mind, marrying a dog was a way to atone and set things right.
In this and other reported cases, this custom is a matter of superstition and can be recommended as a remedy for bad luck, evil spirits or disease. It is not legally binding and does not prevent the person from later marrying another human.
Sell your kidney in Iran
Iran is the only country that allows people to sell their own kidney to a stranger. The government legalised the practice in 1988 and set up a transplantation system.
Advocates of the government-organised system prefer the term ‘paid donation’ rather than ‘organ selling’. They claim that the practice has eliminated the waiting time for organs and benefits both the person who donates the organ and the person who receives it.
Opposers point out that the legal system has ethical and legal loopholes, and that it exploits vulnerable groups.
Long story short, it remains controversial.
Eat poisonous pufferfish (fugu) in Japan
If this fish is prepared incorrectly, eating it can kill you.
Selling any fish from this genus is illegal in the European Union. Only 17 restaurants in the United States are licensed to serve it.
But in Japan, it’s available in most cities. It’s also popular in parts of South Korea, where it’s known as bogeo.
Fugu chefs must go through a 2 or 3-year apprenticeship and pass a licensing exam before they are allowed to prepare and sell the fish. Less than half of applicants are successful.
If you dare to roll the dice, look for fugu on the menu while you’re in Japan. It’s served in many different ways. Some say that fugu has a delicious fresh taste, while others find the flavor overly subtle. But one thing’s for sure: there’s nothing like the taste of danger!
We hope you’ve enjoyed learning about how laws change from country to country. Before embarking on an international trip, make sure to read up on the local laws that may affect you as a tourist. They may take you by surprise!