Study Abroad Student Handbook
United States United States
Center for Global Education

How the U.S. Laws Apply to You

In this section, you will find information on what you should know about the legal system of the United States. Your home country's embassy is limited in what it can do to assist you if you should get into legal trouble while in the United States. As an international student in the United States, you are expected to follow U.S. law.

1. General Information

Not knowing local laws can get you into serious trouble. Just because something is legal in your home country doesn't mean it is legal in the United States. Most students who study in the U.S. do not break laws on purpose; instead, they end up doing something illegal without knowing it. Even as an international student, you must obey all U.S laws.

If you break laws in the United States, your home country's government can do very little to help you. You are granted no special privileges or rights, and will be dealt with according to standard procedure of the U.S. legal system. The U.S. government encourages all visitors to become familiar with local laws before they visit. Upon arrival in the United States, you may also wish to ask an U.S. official about local laws and procedures.

For more complete information on the U.S. legal issues listed below, visit the official website of the U.S. Department of State

2. Basic Legal Tips

  • Know the Important Laws: Make sure you know the relevant laws. Foreign laws apply to visitors, regardless of a visitor's country of citizenship.
  • Travel Warnings and Consular Information Sheets: Read the Travel Warnings and State Department Consular Information Sheets for the most updated laws
  • Embassy or Consulate Assistance: If you find yourself in legal trouble (for example, arrested) in the United States, your home country's Embassy or Consulate may only be able to assist you in the following ways:
    • Visit you in jail after your arrest
    • Give you a list of local attorneys
    • Tell your family and friends and relay request for money and other aid
    • Talk with local authorities to help ensure your proper treatment under the law and in accordance with internationally recognized standards
    • Protest mistreatment
  • Legal Representation:You will be responsible for paying for of your legal representation as well as the outcome of a trial.
  • Constitutional Rights: You stop being protected by your home country's law and its system of rights once you leave your home country.
  • Drinking Laws: The legal age for alcohol in the USA is 21 years old. The National Minimum Drinking Age Act of1984 required all states to raise their minimum purchase and public possession of alcohol age to 21. States that did not comply faced a reduction in highway funds under the Federal Highway Aid Act. The U.S. Department of Transportation has determined that all states are in compliance with this act. The national law specifically prohibits purchase and public possession of alcoholic beverages. It does not prohibit persons under 21 (also called youth or minors) from drinking. The term "public possession" is strictly defined and does not apply to possession for the following:
    • An established religious purpose, when accompanied by a parent, spouse or legal guardian age 21 or older
    • Medical purposes when prescribed or administered by a licensed physician, pharmacist, dentist, nurse, hospital or medical institution
    • In private clubs or establishments
    • In the course of lawful employment by a duly licensed manufacturer, wholesaler or retailer (Source:

    Any time you want to purchase an alcoholic beverage, you will be asked for a valid ID (some establishments do not consider a non-U.S. passport for a valid ID). Familiarize yourself here with the laws in all U.S. states as you may save yourself from an incident jeopardizing your future!

Understand that gambling (including on-line betting) is illegal in most places. Make sure you understand the laws before you make a bet on your favorite team! Ask your international student coordinator.

3. Relevant Questions

  • Do you know how the legal system works in the country of your choice and in the countries to which you will be traveling ("innocent until proven guilty" or "guilty until proven innocent")?
  • What kinds of laws do students from the United States break in the country of your choice and other countries (perhaps, unknowingly)?
  • What are your program's specific set of rules to be followed, in addition to any local/national laws?
  • Is consumption of alcohol legal in the country of your choice and in the countries you will visit? If so, what is the legal age for alcohol consumption?
  • What are the penalties for drug use in the country of your choice and in the countries you will visit?
  • How do locals and local laws deal with harassment and sexual assault (a cultural norm, supportive of victims, blame victims, prosecute, etc.)?
  • What kinds of legal assistance can the local U.S. Embassy or Consulate provide you?

4. Checklist

  • I am familiar with the basic social laws of the countries to which I will be traveling, including laws related to drug and alcohol use.
  • I am familiar with how the legal system works in each country I plan to visit.
  • I know the location of the U.S. Embassy in each country I plan to visit.
  • I have registered/will register with the U.S. Embassy in the country of your choice.
  • I have proper insurance (see the insurance guide section) and a personal lawyer in case I should need legal counsel.

5. Resources

Country Specific
Student Handbooks
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