U.S. State Department overhauls travel advisory system

The State Department debuted a new system for warning travelers about potential danger abroad

The U.S. State Department updated its warning system and how it conveys information about the risks of traveling to other countries, in a bid to make these warnings easier to understand.

What were previously referred to as “warnings” and “alerts” are being re-classified as “advisories,” accompanied by a color and number-based system with detailed descriptions on why an advisory has been issued. According to Michelle Bernier-Toth, Bureau of Consular Affairs acting deputy assistant secretary for overseas citizens services at the state department, the change came about about because travelers found the previous system difficult to understand.

“We often got questions from people saying, ‘I read your travel warning, but what does that mean, what am I supposed to do?’” Bernier-Toth said during a State Department call early Wednesday. So we’ve done away with travel warnings and alerts, we’ve done away with emergency and security messages because, again, that was something people didn’t always understand the difference [between], and we have gone to a travel advisory [system] for every country—including Antarctica.”

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The new system ranks countries from one to four on a sliding scale of increasing danger, with No. 1 suggesting normal precautions while traveling, and No. 2 suggesting increased precaution. Meanwhile, No. 3 advisories suggest travelers reconsider trips to designated locations, while No. 4 recommends against travel.

Additionally, reasons for travel advisories will be attached to letters, such as C for crime, T for terrorism, H for heath issues, U for civil unrest and O for other.

Apart from these advisories, the State Department is unable to prohibit travel to any country other than North Korea, which requires a waiver on a case-by-case basis. Countries categorized under No. 4 advisories include Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq. Countries designated level 3 and above will be reviewed every 6 months for safety assessments, and further reviews will be carried out based on current events.

One country’s advisory level that raised questions was Cuba, which currently sits at Level 3. The State Department’s website says this designation is earned due to “health attacks directed at U.S. Embassy Havana employees” over the past several months, and Bernier-Toth said this is being taken seriously.

“We reduced staffing in Havana, and every time we do that we release a travel warning, which is reflected in our current Level 3 for Cuba,” she said. “We have a small footprint there, and our ability to help people in an emergency there is very limited, so that is also a factor.”

Meanwhile, alerts, such as hurricane warnings, demonstration alerts and other considerations, will continue to be released from the State Department's Smart Traveler Enrollment Program. This program also remains a recommended path to receiving updates to travel advisories going forward.

"If you are enrolled in our Smart Traveler Enrollment program, you will continue to get alerts based on events such as these, as well as updates to our travel advisory," Bernier-Toth said.