New Country Rankings Aim to Help Travelers Choose Safe Destinations

Porto in Portugal, which is among the countries the State Department has ranked as Level 1, the lowest risk.
Credit...Daniel Rodrigues for The New York Times

Planning to travel abroad this year?

The State Department has new advisories at that rank every country on a scale of one to four to help travelers make informed decisions about their personal safety. The agency introduced the rankings this month to replace its longstanding system of warnings and alerts, which many travelers found difficult to grasp.

“Frankly, I personally was tired of explaining the difference between a travel warning and a travel alert even to some of my colleagues,” Michelle Bernier-Toth, the Bureau of Consular Affairs acting deputy assistant secretary for overseas citizens services, said during a conference call about the rankings.

Many people weren’t sure what differentiated travel warnings from alerts, and what they were supposed to do when either was issued. Under the new ranking system, the lower the number, the lower the risk, with Level 1 being “exercise normal precautions,” Level 2 being “exercise increased caution,” Level 3 being “ reconsider travel” because of serious risks to safety and security, and Level 4being “do not travel” because of the greater likelihood of life-threatening risks and the United States government’s limited ability to provide help.

Upon first blush, the rankings may seem like laws. For instance, if you search for a country and it’s a Level 4, as Afghanistan is, it has a bright red heading and the words “Do not travel.” But the State Department does not bar private citizens from traveling to a particular country — even one that it advises they not visit. (In the case of North Korea, however, there is a general travel restriction on the use of a United States passport.) The rankings, even those that are Level 4, are recommendations, not rules.

Each level has a corresponding color: blue for Level 1, yellow for Level 2, orange for 3, and red for 4. What the department thinks each country’s particular risks are is detailed on its page. If a country has a ranking higher than Level 1, the agency also shows certain letters on the country page to indicate the threat or threats at a glance: C for crime, T for terrorism, U for civil unrest, H for health risks, N for natural disasters, E for a time-limited event like an election that may pose a safety risk, and O for other.

Ms. Bernier-Toth said the State Department hasn’t changed how it assesses a level of threat in a country — just the way threats are presented and described to travelers. Iran, Libya, Syria and Somalia are among the Level 4 countries with “do not travel” recommendations. Canada, Portugal, Cambodia and Vietnam are some of the Level 1, lowest-risk countries.

Brazil, which said on its government news site, BrazilGovNews, that it will soon begin allowing American citizens to apply for an e-Visainstead of making an appointment at a Brazilian consulate, is a Level 2 country, because of crime. Cuba is an example of a Level 3 country, a ranking that reflects the agency’s reduced staffing in Havana and limited ability to help travelers, as well as concerns that Americans may be at risk after the mysterious attacks in 2016 that affected employees of the United States Embassy there.

In addition to an overall ranking, there can be different rankings within a country. Mexico, for instance, is a Level 2 country, which simply calls for increased caution — that’s the same ranking as other favorite vacation destinations like France, Italy and Britain. Yet certain areas within Mexico — Colima, Guerrero, Michoacán, Sinaloa and Tamaulipas states — that experience violent crime from gangs and criminal organizations were given the highest ranking, Level 4. Those particular states, not all of Mexico, have the same ranking as countries like Afghanistan and Somalia. Read what the State Department says about the states in Mexico and you’ll see that the threat is violent crime. In Afghanistan, the agency says the threat is not only crime, but also terrorism, civil unrest and armed conflict. This is why it’s important to look not just at the ranking number, which lacks that nuance.

The smartest way to use the rankings to help decide if a trip is right for you is to read the explicit risks on the country page, which on the overhauled website are more clearly explained.

In general, the guidelines, including the differentiation between states in Mexico, for example, are a reflection of the restrictions that United States government personnel in the country adhere to. “Where they can go,” Ms. Bernier-Toth said, “where they’re not allowed to go, where they can go with very specific security precautions.” Travelers who choose to follow the guidelines are doing what United States government employees themselves are doing.

The agency plans to routinely reassess the rankings. Levels 1 and 2 will be reviewed at least once a year, unless a new threat emerges or there’s been a change in circumstances that warrants a review. Level 3 and 4 countries will be reviewed every six months, or more if circumstances call for it.

Travelers who were already familiar with the department’s online country pages will still find entry and exit requirements, local laws and customs, and health conditions. The website is now mobile-friendly as well.

And while the State Department has also done away with emergency and security messages, it will still issue alerts for things like hurricanes and terrorist incidents, which you can sign up for through its Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), and read at

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