What to Consider if Traveling in Oppressive Countries

James Montague shares how travelers can stay safe when visiting countries ruled by authoritarian regimes, such as North Korea and Iran.


North Korea Photo © Getty Images/ED JONES/AFP

I found out about the H Bomb via a New York Times push alert, just after visiting the embalmed body of Kim Jong-il, the glorious leader. It was September 2017 and I was in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. I was there to write a story about soccer in the so-called Hermit Kingdom. But an official journalist's visa was almost impossible to get. So, I went in as a tourist (with the full knowledge of the tourist company and the Tourism Ministry). On a trip to the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, where the bodies of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il lie in state, I got the message about the bomb, detonated in the north of the country, (travelers can only get a limited amount of data in North Korea) and a diplomatic crisis followed. My data ran out and the others in the tour group were relying on state news. There was no mention of it. No one knew whether a nuclear war was imminent, or not.

Such are the perils of traveling in a dictatorship, as well as the huge ethical issues. But many travelers still want to visit. If you’re one of them, what are the rules you have to follow? How do you keep yourself – and the people you interact with on your trip – safe?

Know the rules

North Korea is probably the most extreme example of a dictatorship. It is impossible to travel to without entering with an officially sanctioned tour group. It is illegal to obtain the local currency, the won, and you are not allowed to leave your hotel without your minder. It is a dictatorship in its purest form, a place where any perceived slight against the ruling family, no matter how minor, can have huge consequences.

The tragic fate of Otto Warmbier is a case in point. He was arrested in Pyongyang in 2016 while on an officially sanctioned tour, for allegedly trying to take a propaganda poster from the wall of his hotel. He was sentenced to 15 years hard labor but returned home to the US in a vegetative state the following year, and died a few days later. The full blame rests with the North Korean state, but it also shows the dangers of what can happen if you end up on the wrong side of the authorities, even if what you are doing seems inconsequential to you.

North Korea is not the only country with draconian rules. Thailand is often viewed as an idyllic destination, but it has only just come out of its own period of military dictatorship. It also has the strictest Lèse-majesté rules [forbidding criticism of its monarchy] in the world, and any infringement of these rules will result in a jail sentence.

Assume you are being watched

There are other countries that appear to afford more freedom, on the surface at least. Most EU citizens ­– but not those from the UK ­– can enter Iran on a tourist visa and you will be relatively free to move about and talk to local people. But you should expect to be monitored for at least part of your trip. My rule is to assume that every conversation, every message and every interaction is being recorded. Avoid talking about controversial issues and always be suspicious if someone prompts a conversation about controversial issues out of context. Try not to incriminate yourself or the people around you.

There may also be times when you will be stopped and searched. Always swap your camera’s memory cards just in case your camera suddenly gets searched. In Egypt, both before and after the 2011 revolution, a soldier tried to delete all my photos. Switching cards means you won't lose everything. I always keep my phone and laptop on me at all times. If you have to leave your laptop in your room, and you are worried about people accessing it, lay it on a table, scrunch up a wire (a USB cable will do) and lay it on top, then take a picture on your phone. It's almost impossible for anyone to open your computer and put the wire back in exactly the same way without you noticing.

Always ask before taking a picture

This takes a lot of the spontaneity out of your trip, but it is a necessary precaution for two reasons. One, you might be taking a picture of a monument, but behind it is, say, the Ministry of Defence, and suddenly you'll find a dozen armed troops running towards you. This happened when I took a picture of a sign in the center of Damascus, before the war, in 2008. Suddenly, I was surrounded by troops. It turned out to be the headquarters of the Syrian Army.

In North Korea, I always asked before I took any pictures. Ordinary people can be fearful that being recorded or photographed will incriminate them and their families. Nine times out of 10 it was fine, but on a few occasions, the people I asked said no. Respect that.

You can leave, your guide can't

If you are in a country that requires a guide or a minder, be aware that your actions could have devastating effects on them after you leave. Interacting with foreigners in North Korea is actively discouraged, so your guide is one of a select number of people trained and chosen largely because their families have shown absolute loyalty to the Kim family over generations. One troublesome visitor might be enough for them to be punished in a very harsh way. But this goes for everyone you meet in all dictatorships. Be aware that if you blog or post pictures when you get home, it can result in disastrous consequences for anyone featured in them, particularly if you are critical of the regime in your posts.

Take all the cash you need

Many dictatorships have spent years isolated from the global banking system, which means that your ATM cards won’t work. I found this out the hard way when I arrived in Iran for the first time in 2006 and had to make my paltry sum of local currency stretch for a whole week. North Korea and Syria are the same, and there are also places in Europe where cash is king.

The self-declared republic of Transnistria is nominally in Moldova, but it has its own currency, the Transnistrian rouble. Since the Russian annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, and the subsequent international sanctions, you can’t use your bank cards there, even though Russia has integrated Crimea into the rest of the country. Take a mix of euros and US dollars in small denominations; some countries, like Iran, frown upon dollars officially but the thirst for hard currency on the street exchanges mean you will probably always find a good rate.

Read and watch the news

Knowing the political situation in a country before you go is a must. Iran is a case in point. As the political situation with the West changes, so does the treatment of westerners by the authorities. If relations between your country and Iran are going well, getting a visa will be less of a problem. Know what's going on in regards to any future elections. If protests are likely, you should avoid them.

It’s also important to be aware of regional issues. If you visit Crimea, you are breaking the law in Ukraine. If you visit the unrecognized Republic of Nagorno Karabakh (which you access via Armenia), you won't be allowed into Azerbaijan. The two are still fighting over ownership of it. If you go to Iran, you'll be lucky to avoid a 10-hour interrogation in Israel. Likewise, an Israeli stamp will mean trouble in Lebanon. And, of course, the US has put restrictions on people who have visited Iran and several countries, such as Sudan and Iraq, after March 2011.

Be aware of your social media

This is probably the most important issue facing travelers today. You can go to a dictatorship and follow the rules, but social media does not adhere to the same boundaries. Turkey is a popular destination but it is also extremely sensitive to any criticism, especially of President Erdogan. You may be denied entry or worse if you have posted anything critical of Erdogan or of Islam. The UAE passed some of the most restrictive social media laws in the world in 2012, meaning that any criticism of the state or the royal family is outlawed and can result in up to 10 years in prison. Some countries, such as China, have banned most of the social networks we use in the West. Download a VPN before you go, but a word of warning: VPNs have been tactically allowed in China but are technically illegal. That might now be changing. Check before you go.

Check your past tweets and posts for any comments you have made about your destination in the past, even if it's a seemingly harmless meme. There may be consequences even in countries that are considered less repressive. The US now has a visa requirement for you to disclose your social media accounts. Dictatorships don't have a monopoly on controlling what you can post online anymore.

Editor's note: We’re all about adventurous, independent, off-the-beaten-track travel, but unfortunately, at the time of writing, World Nomads travel insurance policies cannot cover travel to or in North Korea, Iran, Iraq or Sudan. For more information, read our travel safety tips if you do choose to travel to North Korea.

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  • Kristen Dolle said

    Like the US?!?! We are the most oppressive fascist regime on the planet! Domestically and internationally and keep getting worse! Where is the cultural awareness and reflection in this article?

  • ladyoflarkspur said

    This article was misleading. It does not cover the "ethics" of traveling to an oppressive regime; it's more like tips for not getting in trouble there. I'd like to see an actual article about the ethics and a conversation, too. Thank you

  • Xavier St-Pierre said

    Oh Come on, Kristen Dolle, that is probably, seriously, the most ridiculous comment I have ever read. The US the "most oppressive fascist regime"? Jesus, where to start. A useful barometer of oppression is the reaction of the authorities in the face of public criticism. Let me just propose this experiment: in the US, publicly criticize Donald Trump, and see what happens to you. Breaking news: NOTHING will happen to you. I publicly criticize Trump all the time and nothing happens. Then go to North Korea, China, Syria, just to name these three, and publicly criticize Kim Jong-Un, Xi Jinping or Bashar Al-Assad, and see how the government reacts. Enjoy your time in prison. Now just get real and think rationally about oppression. You're welcome.

  • Jennifer Ondrejka said

    I agree with ladyoflarkspur. The article was terribly disappointing because there was no mention of ethics. Information on personal safety in oppressive regimes is important, too. Just bill it as such.

  • Eedken said

    To get a visa for entry into the USAyou now have to supply your Social Media account names, from the last five years across all platforms. Interesting...

  • Natalie said

    I lived in Turkey for 3 years and what you wrote about it is simply NOT TRUE. Please educate yourself.

  • Rhonda Duby said

    Well for me the best thing to do is to have a quick search about the country you plan to visit and follow the steps in acquiring <a href="https://visahelp.us.com/visitor-visas/">visitor visas</a>. With this you can learn the important points you must avoid doing while staying in the country.

  • travelheart said

    The article was very useful for tips if you choose to travel to an oppressive country, but it does not address the ethics of whether you *should* travel to such a country. For example, Cuba and Myanmar are both high on my list of countries I want to visit, but is it ethical to do so? Myanmar has committed genocide against the Rohingya people, while Cuba is backing the dictator Maduro in Venezuela. I know that the everyday people in these countries do not necessarily agree with their governments, much like I do not agree with my own government this term, so do I go and invest my tourism dollars in the local people? Or does that still benefit the governments I disagree with? Another article addressing this topic would be helpful.

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