a blue passport with gold text on it

Should I stay, or should I go?

You’ve probably seen travel advisories in the news, and they go something like this: U.S. State Department issues (insert level) travel advisory for (insert country). 

The alerts can instantly inspire fear, nerves and bring travellers to question even the best laid future plans, or ones already booked.

This raises one question: what do U.S. State Department Travel Advisories actually mean, and should you really be worried about travel plans to a country that has one?

Short answer: it depends on the level, and the reason for the advisory. These days, it’s more difficult than ever to tell, but here’s how to approach each level.

a beach with palm trees and blue water

Four Tiers To U.S. Travel Advisories

All destination countries are broken up into four tiers.

The lower the number, the safer the United States deems that the country is to visit. And it’s worth noting that the US isn’t regarded as low risk by most countries either, so bear in mind that there can be a reciprocal warning system.

This system can be used for tit-for-tat insults between countries, so it wouldn’t be “wrong” to say that advisories can have a political element to them.

The key with these advisories is to note them, read them and then just behave like a logical tourist, if you decide to travel. The U.S. State Department Travel Advisories go like this…

  • Level 1: Exercise Normal Precaution. 
  • Level 2: Exercise Increased Caution. 
  • Level 3: Reconsider Travel. 
  • Level 4: Do Not Travel.
a blue passport with gold text on it

Level 1

A level 1 from the US State Dept means that the destination is as safe as travel can ever be. There’s quite literally no “safer” level of destination. The simple call to exercise normal precautions means effectively that, you shouldn’t act like an oblivious tourist or do anything your parents wouldn’t be proud of.

Read as: if you go out trying to buy drugs at 2AM, you’ll probably get robbed or worse.

If you wear flashy jewelry for a night out in the worst part of town and start a fight, you guessed it again – you’ll probably get robbed. Think as logically while traveling as you do while taking care at home and you’ll be fine.

Level 2

Level 2 State Department warnings are interesting. Know this: they do not mean “don’t travel”. They simply mean to be extra cautious.

Many countries you wouldn’t ever imagine to be on an increased travel warning list are featured in level 2 and in the grand scheme, are perfectly safe.

Think: Maldives, Italy, Turks & Caicos, Spain, United Kingdom, India and even the Bahamas. Yes, all of these have been, or are “level 2” or worse.

These are countries where there’s a slightly increased risk of terrorism or civil unrest. For example, the USA often fits a similar level to a level 2 warning on many other countries reciprocal travel lists.

When you see Level 2, just read “why” here, and register for free safety updates with STEP, the smart traveler program. STEP is a vital “step” for any traveler.

a flag on a stick

Level 3

All US Level 3 Travel warnings should be read and considered very carefully.

The 3rd tier warnings don’t specifically say not to travel at all, but that you need to be abundantly careful, and potentially reconsider plans. These can be due to things like covid-19 outbreaks, security concerns or other unappealing woes.

And furthermore, they also mean that there are areas within the country which should entirely be avoided. For example, the warning may be specific to a certain region and not the entire country.

By reading the Level 3 U.S. Travel Advisory you’re able to read between the lines and make your own personal risk assessment. These warnings may also apply to countries where the U.S. government has limited diplomatic resources to help if you get in a pinch, which is an important consideration.

Level 4

This one is simple. Level 4 US State Dept warnings could not be more simple or explicit: don’t travel.

These are places engulfed in war, famine, unrest or perilous health situations and danger and it’s the uncolored advice of the U.S. State Department that you should not go. If you do… you’re somewhat on your own.

In many cases, that doesn’t mean that you cannot go, but doing so puts you in grave danger and will likely secure you the beloved “SSSS” extra security status on many boarding passes to come.

Like all other warning levels, these are subject to change, so a country that’s level 4 now, might be level 1 at a later time.

Travel Is The Best, So Just Be Smart

A level 2 travel alert shouldn’t keep you from tasting Paella in Spain, wine in France or Pasta in Italy, let alone seeing the crystal blue waters of the Maldives or stunning beaches of Barbados in the Caribbean.

But it’s better to know that there are dangers, however large or small than not, and these alerts are designed to keep travelers informed and aware of potential issues to look out for, so that issues don’t happen at all.

Read them, follow them but don’t let them keep you from your dreams, unless they say not to go at all. Level 4 is not worth messing with, but everything else you can decide for yourself. Alerts change all the time, so registering for STEP is a great step in staying in the know…

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

Join the Conversation


  1. I had no idea what the specific things mean and generally I just avoided them, not even checked them before I traveled. But it seems that now that I understand them I can know when to go and when not to go. I remember going to Bosnia in the times of the war there and when I got back I’ve been told that the gov. told everyone not to go there under any circumstances. Well, I got back safely 😀

  2. As our government plans to issue a level 4 for most of the civilized world, despite vaccine roll outs it makes me wonder how much is political tit for tat

  3. I disagree w you. With so many countries at level 4 mainly due to COVID (even though many parts of the US are higher) I feel the warnings have lost all meaning. When Antarctica and Iceland were out at level 4 it was a joke! Obviously North Korea, Iran etc shouldn’t be traveled to but I have zero problem going to many of the level 4 locations and there are no restrictions- it is simply advisory. BTW have been to a few and have NEVER gotten the SSSS boarding pass so please quit trying to scare people.

  4. I’d like to see the State Department with more tiers, there just isn’t enough gradation between Level 2 and 3. I’ve been to a number of Level 3 countries and much like anywhere you travel, there are good spots, bad spots and all points in between. Nicaragua is a Level 3 and was a wonderful trip with lovely people there (and a lot of European tourists but few Americans). Others have been spot on. Some are just absurd – how does Antarctica get a Level 2 when the population is penguins, a handful of scientists and a few hundred Chileans. I’ve been and the most dangerous thing is falling for you is falling into a crevice.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *