How to deal with an arrest or detention abroad

How to deal with an arrest or detention abroad



Being arrested or detained in a foreign country can be very distressing especially if you cannot speak the language and don’t know the local law and criminal procedures. In almost all countries, there is a British Embassy, High Commission or Consulate available to contact when a British national has problems abroad. If you are arrested or detained, it is your right to be able to inform them of your arrest. You can also get a friend or relative to contact the Foreign & Commonwealth Office on 020 7008 1500 on your behalf.


Once you, or a relative have informed the Consulate of the arrest, they will aim to get in contact with you within 24 hours and try to visit you if needed. The Consulate will support any British national and be sensitive and non-judgemental regardless of the crime. 


The Consulate in the country of your arrest can provide you with resources to help. They can get in contact with friends or relatives back home and inform them of your arrest. If you prefer your friends or relatives not to know about your arrest, they will keep the matter confidential, it is, however, recommended that you inform relatives in case you need support. The Consulate will pass messages between you and your relatives where phone or postal services are not available. 


They will provide you with information on the country you have been arrested in, the local legal system, including whether a legal aid scheme is available and about prosecution, remand, bail, appeal procedures and prison conditions. It is important to consider carefully whether you want legal representation and an interpreter and to discuss all costs beforehand. The Consulate cannot offer you legal advice, start legal proceedings or investigate a crime. 


If you have any medical or dental problems, your foreign and legal representatives can ensure this is brought to the attention of the police or prison doctor. They can also raise any matters if you are mis-treated, being discriminated against or your personal safety is at risk. The foreign office can also approach local authorities if they believe that you are not being treated in line with internationally accepted standards regarding fair trials and prisoner rights. 


If you are sentenced and sent to a foreign prison, in the European Union countries, or in Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, Canada, Switzerland, Canada, the USA and New Zealand a foreign office representative will visit once after sentencing and then only if there is any real need. In other countries, they aim to visit once a year, or more if necessary. 


If it is your friend or relative that is imprisoned, you can send money through the foreign office. However, you cannot send any parcels, but you can send a message if needed. Money can be very helpful for prisoners and help buy ‘prison comforts’ in some countries. Money would also go towards paying for any legal fees, as the foreign office will not pay for this. 


Prisoners can also be put in touch with the prisoner’s welfare charity, Prisoners Abroad. This charity supports British nationals who have been arrested abroad and aim to be supportive during any time in prison. You can find out more information about this facility by visiting their website 


In some cases, British prisoners can apply to be transferred to a UK prison and the foreign office can help with advising about this process. However, they cannot prevent local authorities from deporting a prisoner back to the UK upon release. 


Dual Nationals

If you are a dual national travelling on your British Passport in a third state (that is a country of which you are not a national) you will get offered full support from the Consulate. If you are travelling on the passport of your other nationality, you will normally be directed to that state's local Embassy, High Commission, or Consulate. If you are a dual national travelling in the state of your other nationality, you would not normally be offered support from the British Consulate and they would not get involved in dealings between you and the authorities of that state. However, there may be exceptions if there are special humanitarian reasons where support is required. 


What you can do to help yourself

Prison life can be difficult, but there are things that you can do to make it easier:


  • Prison guards may be more helpful if you make an effort to learn the language. If you can’t get the books you need from the prison, contact the Consulate. Prisoners Abroad may also be able to help provide resources.
  • Try to find work within the prison. Most people find that work helps to pass the time more quickly. However, yHHou may not be able to work while on remand.
  • Keep in touch with friends and family. Provide them with the full postal code of the prison and all the information about your legal case, including who is representing you, and the details of the nearest British Consulate.
  • Prisoners Abroad may be able to help find you a pen pal. Make sure you know how many letters you are allowed to send. It is important to get your affairs in order before a trial. In some countries, restrictions on sending mail are imposed after sentencing.
  • Try to keep healthy in prison. Prisoners Abroad has produced a booklet on how to do this. If you are ill, or have ongoing medical problems, contact the prison doctor in the first instance.


  • If you think you are not getting adequate treatment, contact the Consulate or ask someone to contact the Consulate for you. Prisoners Abroad may also be able to send you vitamins and help with some medical bills.


Useful Links and Contact Numbers


Consular Assistance: 020 7008 1500


Heathrow / Gatwick Travel Care: provide a social care role at each airport including assisting prisoners arriving back in the UK

Heathrow: 020 8745 7495

Gatwick: 01293 504283


Prisoners Abroad: Call free of charge from a UK landline, on 0808 172 0098 (Mon - Fri, 10am - 4pm)


Fair Trials International: 020 7762 6400 


Information sourced from and adapted for