How Americans Die Abroad

Each year hundreds of U.S. citizens perish overseas from unnatural causes
Updated on

Last year, Americans took 68 million international trips. The overwhelming majority of travelers returned safely to U.S. shores. An unlucky few didn't.

The government doesn't keep comprehensive records of civilian deaths abroad. But the State Department is required to collect and publish information on citizens' deaths from unnatural causes, recording more than 8,000 in the past 10 years. The picture that emerges from that data tells us a little bit about risks around the globe.

In much of the world, the causes of unnatural death for Americans abroad are similar to those at home—suicides and accidents, particularly car crashes. A handful of places show more unusual patterns: a high number of murders from Mexico across Central America and into Colombia, Venezuela, and Guyana; terrorist deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan; and drowning in coastal destinations, including many island nations in the Caribbean and South Pacific.

In Vietnam and Indonesia, motorcycles are a common form of transport—and the top hazard for American travelers. In Nepal, thrill-seekers climbing Mount Everest fly onto a strip of asphalt in the mountains that's been called the world's scariest airport. Over the past 10 years, 13 Americans have died in air accidents there, the most common cause. (The data don't include deaths from this year's earthquake in Nepal.)

Drug overdoses kill more Americans than car crashes at home, but they're a far less common cause of death for U.S. travelers, with little more than 200 recorded in the past 10 years. Still, they were the leading reason Americans died in Cambodia and Laos.

The statistics tally deaths recorded by the State Department for U.S. citizens traveling or residing abroad. It doesn't include members of the military or government officials posted in foreign countries. It's also not a comprehensive account, because survivors may not inform the State Department of every death, particularly of expats who settled overseas long term.

It's difficult to gauge from the data whether traveling abroad has become more or less hazardous. The number of deaths reported to the State Department ranges from 651 in 2006 to 1,064 in 2010, when the earthquake in Haiti claimed the lives of tens of thousands, including more than 100 Americans. In most of the past 10 years, the number of deaths reported abroad was roughly between 725 and 850.

Anecdotally, much of South America has become safer for travelers, while areas of the Middle East and Africa appear riskier, says Robert Cavaliere, chief product officer at Allianz Global Assistance USA, which insures more than 15 million Americans traveling each year for business or leisure.

Still, while headlines about drug crime or terrorism may spook travelers, more mundane hazards such as car crashes or drowning are, statistically, much more lethal. "The common accidents are very much alive all over the world," says Cavaliere.

"More people die from coconuts falling on their heads than shark attacks every year," Cavaliere says. "You hear about the shark attacks. You don’t hear about the coconut attacks." Although data on coconut injuries are sketchy, suffice it to say that neither is a good reason to cancel your exotic beach vacation.

Corrects the spelling of Colombia in the third paragraph.

Correction: Corrects first paragraph to clarify that Americans took 68 million international trips in 2014.