World's Strangest Laws
Americans expect to experience some difference in laws when they travel the world, but some laws we found just sounded insane. In France, it’s illegal to name a pig Napoleon. In Florida, single women can’t parachute on Sundays. And in England, you may urinate anywhere in public, including inside a policeman’s helmet, providing that you’re also pregnant.
Granted, most of us can rest easy on the plane ride to our destinations knowing that we won’t run afoul of such rules. Plus, many reported laws are just urban legends, and in other cases, anomalies on the books that no one has the time or interest to enforce. (“People here don’t keep bears!” an exasperated Israeli spokeswoman told us. “Why would they take one to the beach?”)
But other laws—such as keeping your headlights on at all times while driving in Denmark—are in equal parts surprising and real. Get caught, and the resulting fine could run about $100 (and the entire EU may adopt the law).
While some laws seem ridiculous at first blush, they often carry their own logic. Pigeon-feeding is not tolerated (and fine-worthy) in Venice, because the winged troublemakers—and really, their droppings—wreak havoc on the city’s old, vulnerable buildings. Singapore is infamous for its tough laws against chewing gum and graffiti (remember the 18-year-old American who got caned in the 1990s?). In the Singaporeans’ defense, the gum laws—which have relaxed a bit—were originally enacted to fight what authorities saw as rampant gum-wad littering. Even so, don’t even think about leaving a public toilet un-flushed. It could cost you $100.
What should you do if you do break a law, crazy or otherwise, while on vacation?Dick Atkins is a Philadelphia attorney who operates an international legal hotline, helping American travelers who have run afoul of the law in other countries. “It’s always best to try to get an attorney involved,” he says. Ignoring the issue could result in problems if you make a return visit to that country.
Atkins says he commonly deals with college kids who have taken too many liberties with other countries’ lower drinking ages, or unsuspecting tourists who get arrested for trying to take home souvenirs (such as old rugs) that end up being antiquities. He says such problems raise the argument for buying travel insurance, or even buying travel assistance packages, which can offer legal help abroad. (To price varying packages, check out www.ustia.org.)
Of course, most Americans don’t bother with travel insurance. In that case, you can contact the American embassy or consulate for a list of local attorneys. Or you can handle the problem on your own. Robert Siciliano recently stayed at a Mexican resort, and when he and his family rented a car, they were almost immediately stopped by police and accused of swerving dangerously on the road. (Siciliano says he was merely driving around fallen palm braches and coconuts following the previous day’s Category 2 hurricane.)
“They started to arrest me because they said all tickets were to be paid at the police station,” Siciliano says. But when he asked if he could pay the ticket on the spot, the cops agreed. Siciliano handed them a $100 bill and they let him go. He immediately returned the car. “Total rental car time, 20 minutes. Cost, $155,” he said. “Not spending a second in a Mexican jail, priceless."
No Feeding Pigeons Italy
Laws here are city-specific, and Venice takes issues with pigeons speckling their beloved buildings with pigeon poop. Likewise, officials don’t appreciate tourists adding to the crowd and mess in St. Marks Square by feeding said pigeons. They also don’t want visitors sitting around shirtless, climbing into fountains, or even sitting on the sidewalk eating a sandwich. In Rome, climbing into fountains to cool off causes similar stress.
Penalty: At first, just a warning; fines can reach up to $600, though probably no more than $50 or $60 if you pay quickly. “The local police are quite tolerant about tourists feeding pigeons just to take a picture,” says a Venice spokesman.
Stopping On the Autobahn Germany
As though driving the autobahn in Germany weren’t daunting enough, the laws add other risks. Running out of gas on the legendary highway is illegal—and your troubles snowball from there. Say you do find the needle on “E” and have to pull over to hoof it, in pursuit of gas. Walking along the autobahn is illegal, too... not to mention terrifying.
Penalty: A little under $100 for endangering other drivers—once for running out of gas, and again for walking.
No Public Eating During Ramadan United Arab Emirates
If you’re traveling to the United Arab Emirates during the holy month of Ramadan, eating or drinking in public during the fasting hours—as in, daylight—can get you a ticket. Also, it might be best to keep your hands to yourself: Islamic tradition affects both the culture here and its laws, so public displays of affection aren’t tolerated. In theory, an unmarried man and woman can even get in trouble for being found in a car with tinted windows.
Penalties: Penalties aren’t set in stone, but consider a few precedents: Two Brits who violated the PDA rule were sentenced to three months’ jail time, while a couple of juice-drinking travelers were recently fined about $275 each.
Don’t let the tropical weather tempt you to joy ride with your shirt off in Thailand. Police can (and do) hand out tickets if they spot you topless while driving a car or motorcycle.
Penalty: A mere slap on the wrist (or sun-burned shoulders). Tickets go for a few hundred baht (about $10).
Paying in Pennies, Canada
Canada’s Currency Act of 1985 sets out the guidelines for how coins should be used, including reasonable limits for the shelling out of endless coins. What’s reasonable? Don’t try using all coins to buy something that costs $10, or even using all one-dollar coins (sometimes called “loonies”) to pay for an item that costs more than $25. But then, what kind of loonie wants to carry so many coins anyway?
Penalty: If the seller actually wants to take all your pennies, he can, but by law he can also tell you to scram.
No Kissing at Train Stations, France and England
By some accounts, April 5, 1910 was the day romance died on French railways: Kissing was reportedly banned to help deter lover-induced rail delays. But the law seems to be unheard of today. “Are you sure this isn’t a law in Great Britain?” a French spokeswoman at the consulate asked us. What a coincidence: It turns out that Virgin Trains has recently posted “No Kissing” signs at its station in Warrington Bank Quay, in northwest England.
Penalty: While there’s no penalty now for train-related kissing in France, the folks at Warrington Bank Quay will politely ask you to move your smooching to the designated “kissing zone” near the car park.
Driving a Dirty Car, Moscow
Some say this is just an excuse for Moscow police to over-ticket drivers, but you should still watch the filth factor on your rental car. How dirty is dirty? That’s unclear. A recent newspaper survey explored the idea of how to even define “dirty”—almost half said a car was too filthy if you couldn’t read the license plate, while 9 percent said the determining factor was if you couldn’t see the driver.
Penalty: You can get a ticket. Fines might be, shall we say, open to interpretation. Here is a case where you might politely offer to pay the officer up front—$100 should cover it—and be on your way.
Strolling in a Bathing Suit, Grenada
Visiting cruise-ship passengers have gotten under the skin of the local police in Grenada, who cringe at tourists walking off the beach during their shore excursions and into town wearing nothing but their swimsuits. The police chief instituted a fine, and supposedly has also expressed interest in fining folks who wear their jeans too low.
Penalty: In theory, a $270 ticket, though the tourist board assures us that they don’t think it has really been enforced.
Driving With Headlights Off, Denmark
Renting a car? You must always drive with headlights on, says the law in Denmark and other Scandinavian countries. Studies have found that other drivers are more aware of surrounding vehicles when other cars’ lights are on, thus reducing accidents. The law may get adopted across the EU.
Penalty: Driving without headlights will get you a fine of a little under $100.
Chewing Gum, Singapore
Feeding birds, spitting, and not flushing public toilets will also get you in trouble. Singapore’s most quirky-seeming laws stem from the government’s well-meaning desire to keep things tidy—and let’s face it, gum wads, pigeon droppings, and unflushed toilets aren’t pretty. The infamous gum law actually loosened up in 2004, and Nicorette is now legal (though you have to get it through a doctor and they take down names). Selling regular gum is more of a problem than just casually chewing it, a spokesman says. And more changes are on the way: Gambling will become legal later in 2009, and you can now legally dance on top of bars.
Penalty: About $100 a ticket, especially for leaving a toilet un-flushed; many public loos auto-flush, we learned, but it’s wise to double-check on your way out.