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Evaluating the U.S. Department of State Travel Advisory System


Many colleges and universities, including Northwestern, pay close attention U.S. Department of State (DOS) consular announcements, which are disseminated to the public to help assess travelers’ risks. It’s important for travelers to understand the different announcement types and sources.

The Consular Travel Advisory System

Under new DOS Travel Advisory system every country is assigned a color-coded risk rating from one to four, defined as:

  • Level 1 – Exercise Normal Precautions: This is the lowest advisory level for safety and security risk.
  • Level 2 – Exercise Increased Caution: Be aware of heightened risks to safety and security. The Department of State provides additional advice for travelers in these areas in the Travel Advisory. 
  • Level 3 – Reconsider Travel: Avoid travel due to serious risks to safety and security. The Department of State provides additional advice for travelers in these areas in the Travel Advisory. 
  • Level 4 – Do Not Travel: This is the highest advisory level due to greater likelihood of life-threatening risks. During an emergency, the U.S. government may have very limited ability to provide assistance. The Department of State advises that U.S. citizens not travel to the country or leave as soon as it is safe to do so. The Department of State provides additional advice for travelers in these areas in the Travel Advisory.   
These new travel advisories replace previous Travel Warnings and Travel Alerts.

Additional country-specific information is provided in each advisory, including clearer, actionable steps for that travelers can take to mitigate risk. (See Risk Indicators below). The DOS will update the advisories as needed, based on changes to security and safety information.

Risk Indicators

By using established risk indicators, the Travel Advisories at levels 2-4 provide clear reasons for the level assigned:

  • E - Time-Limited Event: A short-term event, such as an election, sporting event or other incident that may post a safety risk.  
  • C – Crime: Widespread violent or organized crime is present in areas of the country. Local law enforcement may have limited ability to respond to serious crimes.
  • T – Terrorism: Terrorist attacks have occurred and/or specific threats against civilians, groups, or other targets may exist.
  • U – Civil Unrest: Political, economic, religious, and/or ethnic instability exist and may cause violence, major disruptions, and/or safety risks.
  • N – Natural Disaster: A natural disaster, or its aftermath, poses danger.
  • H – Health: Health risks, including current disease outbreaks or a crisis that disrupts a country’s medical infrastructure, are present. The issuance of a Centers for Disease Control Travel Notice may be a factor.
  • K– Kidnapping or Hostage Taking: Criminal or terrorist individuals or groups have threatened to and / or have seized or detained and threatened to kill,  injure or continue to detain individuals in order to compel a third party (including a governmental organization) to do or abstain from doing something as a condition of release.
  • D – Wrongful Detention: The risk of wrongful detention of U.S. nationals by a foreign government exists.
  • O – Other: There are potential risks not covered by previous risk indicators.


U.S. embassies and consulates will now issue Alerts to replace the Emergency Messages and Security Messages. Alerts will inform travelers of specific safety and security concerns in a country and will be labeled according to their issue: Security Alert; Health Alert; Weather Alert; or Demonstration Alert. Recent Alerts for a country appear below the Travel Advisory. Alerts can also be found on individual embassy or consulate websites.

Click here for an example of an embassy Alert message.

Additional Information

For an even more detailed description of these terms, please see the Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) document, Understanding the Consular Travel Advisory System.