New State Department Travel Advisory Rating System, Impact on Student Travel Policies

by Hogan Lovells

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of State launched a revamped travel advisory rating system that warns of unsafe travel destinations. The State Department’s goal is to provide U.S. travelers “clear, timely, and reliable” safety and security information for travel worldwide. The new four-tiered rating system reflects a shift from the State Department’s previous two category system of “Travel Warnings” and “Travel Alerts” and offers more nuanced travel risk guidance than before.

With a significant number of students traveling abroad each year, institutions heavily rely on the State Department travel warnings and alerts as an important criteria for making decisions about institution-supported international travel for students as well as faculty. Many institutions have recently adjusted their student travel policies and procedures to reflect this new system.

What’s New? Overview of State Department’s Travel Advisory Rating System

Travel Advisory Levels

Under the new color-coded system, every country is issued a Travel Advisory with a level rating between 1 and 4 that corresponds to the level of safety and security risks. The levels of advice, as described in a State Department fact sheet, are:

Travel Advisory Rating System


  • 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. 
  • Level 3–Reconsider Travel: Avoid travel due to serious risks to safety and security.
  • Level 4–Do Not Travel: This is the highest advisory level due to a greater likelihood of life-threatening risks. 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 State Department warns that the conditions in any country “may change at any time” and can modify these levels depending on changing conditions.

In addition to the overall country Travel Advisory, the State Department may identify varying levels of advice for specific areas within a country. For example, Mexico has an overall Travel Advisory Level of 2 but some states within the country are rated at higher risk levels, Levels 3 or 4, due to crime.


Travel Advisory Risk Indicators

The State Department established the following seven risk indicators which indicate the specific risks and reasons for the Travel Advisory level assigned.

  1. Crime: Widespread violent or organized crime is present in areas of the country.
  2. Terrorism: Terrorist attacks have occurred and/or specific threats against civilians, groups, or other targets may exist.
  3. Civil Unrest: Political, economic, religious, and/or ethnic instability exists and may cause violence, major disruptions, and/or safety risks.
  4. Health: Health risks, including current disease outbreaks or a crisis that disrupts a country’s medical infrastructure, are present.
  5. Natural Disaster: A natural disaster, or its aftermath, poses danger.
  6. Time-limited Event: A short-term event, such as an election, sporting event, or other incident that may pose a safety risk.
  7. Other: There are potential risks not covered by other risk indicators.

The individual country Travel Advisory profiles often include specific details on the country’s risk indicators such as the types of crimes prevalent in the area and the level of access to local police and consular services in the event of an emergency.

Replacement of “Emergency Messages” and “Security Messages”

Under the previous regime, the State Department posted on its website “Emergency Messages” and “Security Messages”. These messages have been replaced by “Alerts” which are issued for each country and included in a country’s Travel Advisory. These Alerts can provide information on a wide range of country-specific safety and security concerns such as crime trends or an extreme weather event.

Implications for Student Travel Policies and Procedures

The State Department’s travel warning guidance has and continues to be a trusted source of information for institutions to determine when and where they allow students and faculty to travel for institution-supported programs. Under the State Department’s predecessor system, several institutions implemented travel restrictions, additional review and approval processes that were triggered when students wished to travel to countries subject to a travel warning or travel alert. In the wake of the State Department’s revised travel rating system, institutions may consider reviewing their policies and procedures on international travel in order to ensure that they align with the new regime. Some considerations include:

  • Reevaluation of “High Risk” Countries. In light of the new Travel Advisory system, institutions may want to consider reevaluating countries that have been deemed “high risk” and subject to heightened review processes and travel restrictions. The more in-depth guidance from the State Department can help institutions better assess which countries and even particular regions within a country should be subject to more or less scrutiny and restrictions. The new Travel Advisories likely will not significantly impact how institutions currently handle travel requests to certain “high risk” countries. For example, several of the countries previously subject to State Department travel warnings like Sudan and Syria continue to be designated as unsafe to travel under the new system as Level 4 “Do Not Travel” countries. However, there are a number of countries that were subject to travel warnings and alerts under the old system like Egypt, Kenya, and Saudi Arabia that are now designated as relatively less risky countries with an overall Level 2 rating with heightened safety and security risks identified only for certain regions.
  • Consideration of Other Sources. Although the State Department Travel Advisories provide insightful guidance on a country’s travel risks, such guidance often does not capture all of the potential country safety and health risks. Institutions often consider several factors and sources when assessing where and when students can travel. These other sources may include experience from faculty and students who have traveled to the country and guidance from other government and non-governmental organizations such as the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that can provide additional travel health information, medical warnings and immunization requirements. Also, third party travel assistance and security companies can provide more in-depth and up-to-date information regarding country conditions and safety risks.
  • Update Travel Policies and Procedures. International travel policies and procedures may need to be updated to replace references to the old State Department “Travel Warnings” and “Travel Alerts” with the new Travel Advisory levels. In addition, institutions may also consider reviewing whether certain countries now designated as Level 3 or Level 4 should serve as the basis for triggering the same or different travel procedures and restrictions that applied to countries previously subject to a travel warning or alert.

While the State Department travel advisories are an important tool for monitoring country travel risks, there are many other pre-travel requirements and procedures that institutions can also implement for students wishing to travel to Level 3 and Level 4 countries or countries otherwise deemed as “high risk” including the following:

  • Multi-level review and approvals from the College Dean, Provost, President, International Travel Advisory Committee or similar committee, or Office of Risk Management
  • Additional student travel insurance including medical and evacuation insurance
  • Student travel policy acknowledgement form; additional waiver requirements
  • Restriction on travel to Level 4 countries
  • Supplemental information requests (i.e., risk assessment worksheet)
  • Requirement to enroll in the Department of State Smart Traveler Enrollment Program
  • Travel safety orientation that covers State Department country guidance

These procedures and requirements are those that institutions often do implement for student travel to high risk destinations. Based on our experience, carefully tailored travel procedures and policies that are attuned to the different levels and types of country risk factors can help institutions effectively identify and mitigate travel risks.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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