There was a time not long ago that travel to places like China, Russia, and Iran was a manageable risk for American citizens. The generally accepted principles were to avoid drawing attention to one’s self, not engage in any illegal activity, and comply with local customs. Doing these things, the conventional wisdom said, was likely to result in an uneventful trip.

Times Have Changed

Unfortunately, times have changed. With tensions spiking between the west and countries seeking to establish a new world order, Americans abroad are increasingly seen by hostile governments as bargaining chips to gain political concessions.

Western business executives have gotten the message, with many companies slamming the breaks on development in – or pulling out altogether from – countries that lack the rule of law. But individuals are still taking considerable risks, as evidenced by the number of Americans imprisoned abroad on trumped-up or entirely manufactured charges in recent years.

Russia, one of the most notorious exploiters of this so-called hostage diplomacy, has arrested numerous U.S. citizens on bogus charges since their 2014 initial military incursion into Ukraine. These include former Marine Paul Whalen; Wall Street Journal Reporter Evan Gershkovich – who Vladmir Putin has publicly mused about exchanging for a Russian operative imprisoned in Europe for murder; and Ksenia Karelina, a Los Angeles-based ballerina and spa worker facing twenty years in a Russian prison for donating fifty-two dollars to a Ukrainian relief organization before traveling to Russia to visit her 90-year-old grandmother.

None of these individuals has any affiliation with the U.S. government, but Karelina’s experience is a particularly relevant cautionary warning for U.S. government security clearance holders. After a decade representing clearance holders and applicants, I know there are many patriotic Americans with aging relatives, friends, or financial interests in hostile foreign countries. The understandable temptation is to see grandma one last time or visit those old friends from childhood. Or, perhaps the contemplated travel is after the death of a loved one, when the individual is called to settle an estate or sell property owned by the deceased.

Navigating Visits to Hostile Countries

Make no mistake: these are all arguably valid reasons to visit a hostile foreign country in the abstract. But given the state of the world in 2024, abstractly valid reasons are no longer enough to justify the objective risk. Chances are very good that your employer’s security officials share that view. Indeed, during my last few years in private practice, any recent clearance-applicant travel to places like Russia, China, or Iran – no matter how “good” the reason – was almost always a recipe for problems.

Of course, those holding an active security clearance are unlikely to be authorized for such travel anyway, which is required under Security Executive Agent Directive-3 and/or agency policy. Former clearance holders are generally not under the same obligation, although they are taking an even greater risk than the general public due to the value of the knowledge they possess.

I realize that this may mean difficult choices for some individuals faced with the agonizing decision of balancing career and personal safety over family and emotions. However, I also know that most clearance holders I encountered facing this predicament were confident that their loved ones would rather forego the face time than place them in danger.


This article is intended as general information only and should not be construed as legal advice. Although the information is believed to be accurate as of the publication date, no guarantee or warranty is offered or implied. Laws and government policies are subject to change, and the information provided herein may not provide a complete or current analysis of the topic or other pertinent considerations. Consult an attorney regarding your specific situation. 

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Sean M. Bigley retired from the practice of law in 2023, after a decade representing clients in the security clearance process. He was previously an investigator for the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency (then-U.S. Office of Personnel Management) and served from 2020-2024 as a presidentially-appointed member of the National Security Education Board. For security clearance assistance, readers may wish to consider Attorney John Berry, who is available to advise and represent clients in all phases of the security clearance process, including pre-application counseling, denials, revocations, and appeals. Mr. Berry can be found at