Most of the United States is relatively safe, but crimes can and do occur. Thefts and assaults can happen anywhere, even in areas that do not appear to be dangerous. While it is not wise (or fun) to walk around feeling scared and paranoid, you do want to follow certain tips to keep yourself and your belongings as secure as possible.
Tip #1: Be aware of your surroundings.
Are you walking through a deserted area late at night? If possible, walk somewhere more populated and with better lighting. Criminals are less likely to act if there are other people in the area or where they can be easily seen. Also be aware when using a mobile phone or other electronic device. Criminals are more likely to target people who seem distracted. If walking in secluded areas is unavoidable, be sure to carry an alarm that can be activated if you feel you are in danger, as criminals are less likely to stick around if there is a lot of noise drawing attention to the area.
Tip #2: Act like you belong.
It is important to be assertive when in public; try to look like you are moving with confidence. You do not want to walk around with your head down. If possible, plan where you are going in advance so that you do not have to constantly check a map. If you do need to use a map, go into a store or other populated building—do not look at maps or study maps on your phone while on the street.
Tip #3: Stay alert while on public transportation.
We all feel tired at the end of the day and it is tempting to want to rest your eyes during a long commute, but it is important to remain alert in public. Most people carry a cell phone or other expensive personal devices. You do not want to close your eyes for a short nap and wake to find your phone or mp3 player missing. If it is late at night or if you are tired or have been consuming alcohol, it may be best to take a taxi so that you will be safely delivered to your home.
Tip #4: Lock the doors to your apartment or car.
There are some communities where the residents feel safe enough to leave their doors unlocked all the time. It is nice to live somewhere that feels safe, but we recommend that you always lock the door to your home. It is also very easy for a criminal to jump into an unlocked car and drive away.
And when returning to your home or car, know where your keys are and have them at hand so that you are not fumbling around your pockets or your bag.
Tip #5: If someone looks anxious or nervous, it is best to keep your distance.
Not everyone who acts strangely is going to pose a danger to you, but don't ignore someone who is engaging in strange behavior. Often, someone who looks anxious or jittery may be on the verge of an outburst which may or may not be dangerous. It's also possible an anxious individual may be contemplating committing a crime, and you do not want to be near this individual when this happens.
Tip #6: If you see something, say something.
That phrase is very familiar to New Yorkers, but it applies everywhere. If you see someone being hurt or if you see any strange activity, abandoned packages, etc., alert the authorities. The phone number for emergency assistance is 9-1-1. This number works in every state in the United States and Guam and Saipan.
Tip #7: Never send money to untrusted sources, especially online.
There are many scam artists that try to prey on international visitors. If you are coordinating housing for example, do not send money to someone that you have never met for an apartment you have not seen in person. If overseas and traveling soon to the U.S., wait until you arrive to pay money for housing.
Tip #8: Avoid carrying things that can be used as weapons against you.
Carrying a weapon may make you feel safe, but remember that any weapon can be taken away and used against you by an attacker. Most safety advisors recommend carrying a whistle or alarm to use to call for help if you are being attacked. Remember that carrying knives, or other weapons, is illegal in most of the United States. Stay safe and on the right side of the law by not carrying weapons.
Tip #9: Protect your belongings.
Hold on to your belongings when in public and don't leave your bag/purse open (people can reach into the top and take your possessions). Also never hang your bag on the back of a chair. People can walk by and grab it while you are not looking. Take care not to flash expensive items as well. The less you call attention to yourself, the less likely you are to be targeted.
Tip #10: Use only indoor ATMs.
Are you using an ATM? Make sure you are in a brightly lit, occupied area, and do not use ATMs directly on the street. Go into a bank, store, or other populated area to make your withdrawal rather than on the sidewalk. You do not want to be seen alone with large sums of cash. Criminals have also been known to install card readers on isolated street ATMs to steal your credit card number.
Tip #11: Do not leave drinks unattended.
If you are out at a bar with your friends, do not leave your drinks unattended or accept drinks from anyone if you did not see the drinks come directly from the bartender. It is possible that someone may slip drugs, also known as date rape drugs, into your drink, putting you into a very dangerous situation. While it may seem nice that a stranger wants to buy you drink, you should accompany the individual to the bar and take the drink directly from the bartender to ensure it is safe to drink.
Tip #12: Do not drink too much.
Similarly, if you are out having some drinks with friends, do not drink too much. Everyone wants to have a good time, but just two drinks can put you over the legal limit for driving in the U.S. If you are pulled over for driving under the influence, this can have serious legal consequences for your visa status. More seriously, though, driving under the influence could result in the loss of life—your own or someone else's. Even if you're not driving and will be taking public transportation, drinking too much will slow your reaction time and make you less aware of your surroundings, thus making you less able to prevent an attack on your person.
Tip #13: Do not do drugs.
Drug use in the U.S. is illegal. Do not use drugs under any circumstances, particularly if someone you do not know offers them to you. If you are caught with illegal drugs, you will likely be arrested and your visa program will be ended.
Tip #14: Do not text and drive (or walk).
Research has shown that texting while driving is more dangerous than drunk driving—if you text while driving, you are 23 times more likely to be involved in an accident than when you are not texting. If you need to use your cell phone while driving, it should always be used with a hands free device—this is even the law in many states. If you need to text while driving, pull your car over immediately. No conversations can be as important as protecting your life and the lives of others driving near you. Just as with driving, texting while walking is distracting. Many people have been struck by cars because they were texting and not paying attention to where they were walking and walked right out into traffic! Step over and stop on the sidewalk while texting and then put your phone back in your pocket.
Tip #15: Do not wear headphones in public.
Whether you are walking on the sidewalk or on public transportation, wearing headphones in public poses many dangers. If you are walking, you will not hear an attacker coming up behind you. Similarly, if you are distracted, you will not be able to hear car horns or other alarms that are attempting to alert you that you are in danger. When on mass transit, you may miss important announcements. Finally, under no circumstances should you wear headphones while biking. Headphones are great at drowning out noise around you, but they prevent you from being aware of your surroundings and will only serve to put you at greater risk of an attack or accident.
Tip #16: If you ever feel unsafe, remove yourself from the situation.
Generally speaking, if you ever feel unsafe, get away from where you are! If you think you're being followed, get to a public area. If you believe someone is trying to put something in your drink, go to a different bar and report the individual to the bartender and the police. If you see someone swerving or driving wildly on the road, memorize the license plate number, stop your car and call the police to report their behavior. Do not go into deserted areas, elevators, streets, etc. if the area or individuals in the area make you uncomfortable. Too often, people (especially women) do not trust their instincts or they are too concerned about offending someone, that they put themselves in situations that make them uncomfortable. Listen to your body and mind—if it is telling you that you may be in danger, do not ignore the feeling.
If you witness a crime taking place, or if you are the victim of a crime, call 911 immediately. If you require medical attention, call 911 immediately or ask someone to call for you. Carry your accident & sickness insurance card with you at all times, and provide your insurance details to your emergency contact. Always file a police report when you are a victim of a crime, and be sure to contact your bank and credit card providers if your wallet is lost or stolen so that they can prevent unauthorized withdrawals or charges from your account.
Finally, if you are ever the victim of a crime, always be sure to contact InterExchange Career Training USA so that we may be of assistance to you.
InterExchange Career Training USA is a top J-1 Visa sponsor for university students and young professionals who have already secured internships or training programs with companies in the U.S. If you still need to find an internship or training program in the U.S., check out our resources and start the J-1 Visa sponsorship process early.
Originally from Columbus, Ohio, Ani is a fan of exploring new places through photography and the local cuisine. After earning her BFA in photography from NYU and gaining communications experience at International Planned Parenthood Federation, she joined InterExchange in 2012, and worked as the Marketing Producer until 2016.