Arrest of a U.S. Citizen

Hong Kong and Macau are Special Administrative Regions of China with their own laws and the internationally recognized right to arrest and try foreigners as well as their own nationals. Anyone who breaks the law in Hong Kong or Macau is subject to prosecution under the local legal system. If an individual is convicted and sentenced to imprisonment by a Hong Kong or Macau court, the sentence would most likely be served in a local prison. For more information about Hong Kong laws and special circumstances, please refer to this website: Hong Kong International Travel Information (see Local Laws & Special Circumstances).

When notified of the arrest of an American Citizen, U.S. Consulate staff will attempt to visit the American as soon as possible. The following information is drawn from the same information we provide to Americans who are detained, arrested, or imprisoned in Hong Kong or Macau.

The Consulate’s Role

The United States Government cannot get someone out of prison. A U.S. passport does not entitle its bearer to any special privileges. While in Hong Kong or Macau U.S. citizens are subject to the same laws as  Hong Kong or Macau residents. Upon learning of a U.S. citizen’s arrest, an officer from the Consulate General visits the citizen within 24 to 48 hours to inform him/her of the right to legal counsel, to furnish a list of attorneys, and to obtain personal data which will assist the Consulate in communicating with family or friends who may be able to provide assistance.

  • The Consulate can telephone the accused’s attorney on behalf of the accused. We cannot provide legal counsel or advice, or pay for an attorney. We do maintain a list of lawyers who can be hired to assist in criminal matters.
  • The Consulate can contact relatives or friends to notify them of the citizen’s situation and to request financial assistance. We cannot perform errands for the purchase of items outside the prison system.
  • The Consulate can communicate with the relatives or friends about the citizen’s well-being. We cannot convey non-emergency messages or requests to relatives or friends.
  • The Consulate can ensure that the citizen is receiving fair treatment by the authorities consistent with that granted Hong Kong and Macau residents. We cannot intervene with due process of law.

Our Consular Visit

We gather certain information when we visit an American in jail. Here is a list of the kind of information we collect (PDF 3.44 KB).

Important Information for Dual Citizens

Any detained U.S. citizen who is deemed by the Hong Kong Immigration Department to hold Chinese or Hong Kong nationality will be treated as a Chinese citizen and will not have the right to U.S. consular protection.  Although the United States recognizes dual citizenship, Hong Kong and China do not.  This means the United States Consulate General in Hong Kong and Macau cannot provide services, including visits, to U.S. citizens deemed to hold Chinese, or Hong Kong, nationality.  To obtain U.S. consular protection while incarcerated, a dual citizen must formally renounce their Chinese nationality.  More information can be found here – Consular Protection and Right of Abode in HK(SAR) for Dual Nationals.

The U.S. Privacy Act

The Privacy Act of 1974 (Public Law 93-579) was enacted to protect U.S. citizens against unauthorized release of information about them by the government. If you want us to notify your family or friends about your arrest you must first give us written permission to do so.

The Consulate will not inform any person of your arrest without your permission. Even if your family or friends find out by other means, we will be unable to discuss your case with them without your permission. Although we routinely report to the Department of State in Washington on the condition of American prisoners in our consular district, the Department of State does not release this information to individuals without your permission.

You give us permission to contact people by signing a Privacy Act Waiver (PAW). Here is a sample copy (DS-5505: Authorization for the Release of Information Under the Privacy Act) (PDF 82 KB).

These files are maintained primarily for the purpose of providing protection and assistance to American citizens abroad and not for law enforcement purposes. While there is no automatic or mandatory dissemination of information in consular files to other agencies, we can release specific information to other agencies that have a legitimate interest in such data. Therefore, for legitimate law enforcement purposes in the U.S., the appropriate law enforcement agency in the U.S. may be notified.

Nonetheless, American citizens arrested overseas are not liable for prosecution for the same crime upon their return to the U.S. unless they are also wanted for an offense committed in the U.S. Please note that arrest records maintained by the Hong Kong government, however, are not bound by the restrictions of the Privacy Act.

Last modified: January 25, 2022