Like 2017, 2018 somehow managed to slip by so quickly that I didn’t have time to pursue one of my oldest passions: travel (and not the business variety).

I’ve had the travel bug since childhood, when I would make a practice of buying a postcard on every trip I took and keeping them as souvenirs. At fifty cents a pop, that was about all my kid-self could afford. But it resulted in great memories and is a tradition I still practice.

Although I’ve been to some incredible places and feel quite fortunate to have had those experiences, I’ve always been intrigued by places like Cuba and North Korea – the forbidden fruit of travel for U.S. citizens. Of course, there is a big difference between fascination and action, and I have no desire to become some dictator’s next bargaining chip. But a number of Americans – including some of our clients – are apparently less risk averse and willing to tempt fate in search of the next thrill or the best Instagram post. If you’re thinking about joining their ranks with travel to any of the below destinations, here are a few things to consider.


Although it remains possible to travel to Cuba under a variety of different special circumstances, pure tourism travel is illegal for U.S. citizens. The Trump Administration has tightened certain rules previously loosened by the Obama Administration following widely-publicized “sonic attacks”, ostensibly from the Cuban government, against U.S. embassy staff. We’ve handled several security clearance denial and revocation cases over the years where U.S. citizens failed to scrupulously follow the strict rules on travel to Cuba; I can report from firsthand experience in these cases, that the U.S. government does take the matter quite seriously for clearance holders. If you’re considering any travel – particularly to a place like Cuba – be sure to consult the State Department website for the most up-to-date details.


At the time of writing, it is presently legal for U.S. citizens – including security clearance holders – to travel to Iran. Nonetheless, the State Department warns against such travel, noting the high risk of arbitrary arrest and advising U.S. citizens traveling to Iran to discuss with their loved ones a “funeral plan” prior to travel. If that doesn’t say “stay at home” I don’t know what does.

Despite the serious security risk, many U.S. citizens travel to Iran each year to visit family members residing there. And although its legal for clearance holders to travel to Iran, there are bound to be some raised eyebrows from security officials when reporting a trip to Iran. Travel there may result in uncomfortable questions about whether it comports with national security for the clearance holder to remain a clearance holder given the potential risk. Prior to planning any trip to Iran, be sure to discuss it with your agency security officials and seek pre-approval.


At the time of writing, U.S. citizens presently “cannot use a U.S. passport to travel to, in, or through North Korea without a special validation from the Department of State.” In theory, that appears to mean that U.S. citizens holding dual nationality could use their foreign passport to enter and exit North Korea – a possibility for more clearance holders since the Department of Defense relaxed its rules in 2017 regarding holding and use of a foreign passport.

But playing semantics with the rules is never a wise idea when one’s livelihood depends on an ability to maintain the U.S. government’s trust. I certainly understand the allure a closed society like North Korea holds for adventure-seeking travelers, but I strongly advise against taking that risk – whether you hold a clearance or not. For current regulations, always consult the U.S. State Department directly.


Finally, it is worth mentioning China and Russia here because of the long standing tension between both countries and the U.S.  We’ve heard reports over the years from clients that travelers to either destination – particularly those known to be affiliated with the U.S. government – should expect increased suspicion from local officials, monitoring (whether electronically or otherwise), and potential petty forms of harassment from local officials.

These difficulties aside, it is possible for clearance holders to travel to either country for tourism, educational purposes, or to visit family. The caveat is that, like with Iran, travel to either country will be viewed with heightened suspicion and concern by U.S. government security officials – especially in cases where connections are developed (romantic or otherwise) that continue after the traveler has returned to the U.S.  The best plan of action is always full transparency and pre-authorization (where possible) before such travel.


This article is intended as general information only and should not be construed as legal advice. Consult an attorney regarding your specific situation. 

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Security Clearance Attorney Sean M. Bigley represents clients worldwide in security clearance denials and revocations. He is a former investigator for the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. For more information, please visit