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State Department overhauls travel warning system for Americans abroad

The State Department is overhauling its travel warning system for Americans abroad for the first time in years in an effort to streamline information on threats overseas and present it in a clearer, more direct fashion, it said.

The changes come at a time of global upheaval that's difficult for many travelers to keep tabs on, but also a time of increased travel -- 2017 was on track to be a record year for the number of Americans traveling abroad. In 2016, there were over 80 million Americans who went overseas.

Instead of travel warnings and travel alerts, as well as country specific pages with details like what dangers may await and how to secure a visa, the State Department will combine all of that onto one country page -- accompanied by a travel advisory at one of four levels for each country:

Level 1 -- Exercise Normal Precautions -- lowest level of risk
Level 2 -- Exercise Increased Precautions -- heightened risk
Level 3 -- Reconsider Travel -- avoid travel due to serious risk
Level 4 -- Do Not Travel -- highest level, with greater likelihood of life-threatening risks


Every country -- and plenty of non-nations -- now have a page, including Antarctica (a Level 2), Hong Kong (Level 1) and Jerusalem (Level 2).

The new rollout also includes an interactive map for travelers to more easily determine the warnings in each country.

There are 11 Level-4 countries -- Afghanistan, Central African Republic, North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Mali, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen. The Department advises that U.S. citizens do not travel to these countries, and advise to leave as soon as it is safe to do so.

While the State Department may warn against all travel, they cannot bar citizens from traveling abroad or going to a specific country. Instead, what they can do is ban the use of a U.S. passport to enter a country -- what's called a geographical travel restriction.

A Level-4 designation does not mean there is a travel ban on the country. North Korea is the only country currently under a geographical travel restriction.

In addition, these new travel advisories are accompanied by icons meant to make it easier to indicate what the risk is, including "C" for Crime, "T" for Terrorism or "U" for Civil Unrest.

Nothing about how the safety and security situation in each country is evaluated has changed -- that's still done by the State Department in consultation with intelligence agencies, host governments and local U.S. embassies. Level 3 and 4 countries will be reassessed every six months, and Level 1 and 2 countries once a year.

Security and emergency messages are also changing, replaced by alerts -- but those will continue to go out through the Smart Traveler enrollment program and through the State Department's travel website.
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