Arrest of a U.S. Citizen

The State Department is committed to ensuring fair and humane treatment for U.S. citizens imprisoned overseas. We assist incarcerated citizens and their families within the limits of our authority, in accordance with international, U.S., and Philippine laws. We monitor conditions in foreign prisons and protest allegations of abuse against U.S. citizen prisoners. We work with prison officials to seek treatment consistent with internationally recognized standards of human rights and due process.

This information is provided for U.S. citizens who have been arrested or are facing arrest and imprisonment in the Philippines. Please note, a U.S. Embassy duty officer is always available for emergency assistance. During normal working hours the U.S. Embassy’s American Citizen Services section is available to assist in all matters relating to the arrest of a U.S. citizen. After hours the U.S. Embassy duty officer can be reached at +63 (02) 5301-2000.

The Philippines is a party to the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, a multilateral treaty which provides that consular officers and their nationals may communicate with and have access to each other. An Embassy officer will visit a U.S. citizen incarcerated in the Philippines, to ensure that he/she is receiving appropriate treatment, to provide a list of local attorneys, and to provide information on the Philippine judicial system.

While in the Philippines, a U.S. citizen is subject to Philippine laws and regulations, which sometimes differ significantly from those in the United States and may not provide the same protections available in the United States. Penalties for breaking the law can be more severe than in the United States for similar offenses. Persons violating the law, even unknowingly, may be expelled, fined, arrested, or imprisoned. Penalties for possession, use, or trafficking in illegal drugs in the Philippines are strict, and convicted offenders can expect jail sentences and fines. A citizen arrested in the Philippines must go through the Philippine legal process to be charged or indicted, prosecuted, convicted and sentenced, and for any appeals.

The United States Government cannot arrange for a U.S. citizen to be released from a jail or prison.

U.S. citizenship does not entitle anyone to special privileges in the Philippine legal system. The U.S. Embassy does not have authority to intervene in the Philippine justice system and cannot act as a legal representative or provide legal advice to U.S. citizens.

The Role of the Consular Officer

While there are definite limits on the role they can play, Consular officers can provide a wide variety of services to U.S. citizens who are incarcerated in the Philippines.

A consular officer may do the following:

  • Visit an arrested U.S. citizen in jail after being notified of the arrest, to check on the prisoner’s treatment by law enforcement authorities and to monitor the state of his/her health and well-being.
  • On request of the prisoner, notify family and friends regarding the situation, and relay requests for financial or other aid.
  • Provide information about judicial procedures in the Philippines.
  • Provide a list of local attorneys. (Note: The consular officer cannot help to select an attorney from the list, nor can the officer provide legal advice.)
  • Work to facilitate communications with family, friends, and legal counsel, subject to local law and regulations.
  • Work to ensure that the individual’s basic rights under local law are protected and that he/she is treated humanely in accordance with internationally accepted standards.
  • Follow the progress of the individual’s case in the judicial system.
  • Visit an incarcerated U.S. citizen regularly and report on those visits to the Department of State.
  • Arrange for medical, dental, and dietary care, if not provided by prison, to be paid for from prisoner’s funds; funds provided by family; or, if applicable and subject to conditions, funds loaned to the prisoner by the U.S. government under the Emergency Medical/Dietary Assistance (EMDA) program for destitute U.S. citizens incarcerated abroad.
  • With concurrence from the State Department in Washington DC, protest any mistreatment by local officials while incarcerated.
  • Facilitate any goods (holiday meals, reading materials, etc.) donated from the local community to prisoners, subject to local laws and regulations.

A consular officer cannot:

  • Demand the immediate release of a U.S. citizen arrested in the Philippines, or otherwise cause the citizen to be released.
  • Represent a U.S. citizen at trial, give legal advice or pay legal fees and/or fines with U.S. Government funds.
  • Intervene in the Philippine judicial system.
  • Identify and/or contract an attorney to represent the individual before the court.

The Embassy encourages U.S. citizens facing arrest to engage the services of a local attorney. An attorney entitled to practice in the courts in the Philippines has the right to confer privately with the person arrested, in the jail or in any other place of custody, at any time of the day or, in urgent cases, at night. The U.S. citizen may wish to choose an attorney from among those on the list of local attorneys the Embassy has prepared, or hire any other attorney. The Embassy encourages the U.S. citizen to establish clear-cut terms as to fees and the extent of legal services required.

The Embassy does not have staff attorneys to protect the legal interests of U.S. citizens abroad. An individual must be prepared to pay an attorney from personal funds. If an accused individual cannot afford the services of a private attorney, the court will appoint one for him/her, but in practice, many of the court-appointed counsels do not devote as much time and effort in pursuing their cases as those whose clients are paying the fees charged. The Embassy recommends that an accused U.S. citizen hire a competent, private attorney if possible.

The Arrest Report

A U.S. Embassy officer will make every effort to contact an arrested U.S. citizen promptly to assess his/her personal welfare.  The officer will also obtain data for the arrest report (i.e., passport information, next-of-kin, details of your arrest, etc.). The officer will ask the U.S. citizen to sign a release under the provisions of the Privacy Act of 1974 to communicate his/her wish regarding release of information to the U.S. citizen’s family, friends, members of Congress or journalists. Under the Privacy Act, the Department of State is prohibited from releasing information without the individual’s written consent.

Arrest; Investigation; Trial; Appeal; Imprisonment

Experience has shown that arrests and trials in the Philippines are often unpredictable. Significant deviations from prescribed procedures do occur, arrestees are often not given clear information about procedures and charges, and allegations of corruption are common. While the Embassy will attempt to address egregious violations of basic rights, an individual’s private legal counsel should address procedural issues through the legal process. Embassy officials cannot intervene with judicial officials, interfere with the normal judicial process, or investigate allegations of corruption or other official misconduct.


Whether in detention after arrest or serving a prison term upon conviction, U.S. citizens should be prepared to face the realities of what are by U.S. standards inadequate facilities, overcrowding, poor food, and deficient sanitation in prisons in the Philippines. An incarcerated U.S. citizen may provide the Embassy with the names of family or friends who can provide financial assistance to purchase dietary supplements and basic necessities like soap and toothpaste. The Embassy can arrange for remittances to be sent through the Embassy to ensure that the money is delivered securely.

Although prison mail is subject to censorship, U.S. citizen detainees are entitled to write to the U.S. Embassy. Since consular officers make periodic visits to U.S. citizen detainees, they may discuss with him/her any problems arising from their confinement. Consular officers or local civic organizations can help prisoners to obtain reading material.

Final Remarks

If you require additional information, you may contact the American Citizen Services unit of the U.S. Embassy via email at or telephone at +63 (02) 5301-2000.