Crime on Cruise Ships

Until you or a family member experiences a sexual assault or rape during your overseas cruise, it is easy to forget that the risk of being assaulted on vacation is real. And it is similarly easy to forget that, when you leave U.S. waters on a cruise ship, you also leave behind some of the protections that you enjoy on land as a U.S. citizen.

cruise ship

For example, in the event a sexual assault occurs at sea, there are no police onboard to immediately secure the crime scene and interview witnesses. A cruise ship (which may resemble a small city in population size) typically hires security personnel, but they do not necessarily have a law enforcement background, and you cannot assume that ship personnel will automatically secure the crime scene or collect evidence. They are employees of the cruise ships, not deputized law enforcement officials with the skill and responsibility to investigate crimes.

If the victim is a U.S. citizen, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) will be involved in the investigation, but another nation (or nations) may have jurisdiction as well. (The typical cruise ship is foreign flagged or foreign registered, and it may be outside of U.S. waters when the crime occurred.) Our federal criminal code, the laws of the other nation(s), and international law will determine the FBI’s legal authority to respond to and/or investigate the crime. Due to such jurisdictional complexities, the FBI often will not board the ship until it docks, or is about to dock, at the nearest port. In the meantime, hours or days may have elapsed since you first reported the crime.

cruise ship

For all of these reasons, it is important that you exercise at least as much caution while traveling at sea as you would while on land. Before you embark, follow the tips below to help protect yourself in the event you experience a crime while traveling. And in the event you do experience a sexual assault during your cruise vacation, the information below may help.

Tips to Protect Yourself Before You Embark

  1. Remember that the medical attention you would receive at the ship’s infirmary in the aftermath of a crime may be less thorough than what a U.S. hospital would provide. Ask informed questions of your travel agent before you go. (For example, in the event that you will require medical treatment during the voyage, is the onboard physician licensed in the U.S.; does he or she speak English; how accessible are the ship’s medical facilities [e.g. are they available 24 hours each day]; do ship medical personnel have the ability to conduct forensic examinations?)
  2. Medical treatment and hospital care abroad as well as medical evacuation to the U.S. can be extremely costly. United States medical insurance is usually not accepted outside the U.S., and the Medicare and Medicaid programs do not provide coverage for hospital or medical costs outside the U.S. As recommended by our State Department, ask your medical insurance company if your health insurance policy applies overseas and if it covers emergency expenses (such as medical evacuation); if not, consider obtaining additional insurance before you go. The Bureau of Consular Affairs has a list of companies that offer short-term health and emergency assistance policies.
  3. Read your ticket. The ticket might, for example, contain fine print specifying a maximum period (e.g., one year) during which you can file a claim against the cruise line. The ticket also may reference a particular jurisdiction for any lawsuits against the cruise line; and this forum may not be particularly convenient for you, the passenger. (For instance, someone residing in Seattle may have to pursue a case against a cruise line in Miami, while another cruise line may designate Seattle.) Note whether the ticket contains any other restrictions.
  4. If you plan to leave the cruise ship during your voyage to visit another country, become acquainted with that nation’s local customs and laws (to which you are subject while you are there). The State Department’s website has useful, country-specific, safety information and tips about places you may be visiting.
  5. Read the U.S. State Department’s Tips for Traveling Abroad. Consider registering your overseas travel plans with the Department. Online travel registration, which is free, allows you to provide information about your trip to State Department officials, which they can use to help you in an emergency. (Their staff will not release this information to others without your approval.)
  6. Being on a cruise may create a false sense of community. In reality, the typical ship is akin to a small floating city filled with strangers. Treat it as you would any unfamiliar environment. Parents should not let their children roam the ship unattended. You should keep your cabin door locked; do not open your door to anyone you are not expecting, even a crewmember. Know where your traveling companions are at all times, and have scheduled times to check in.

If You Are a Victim of Rape/Sexual Assault While Aboard a Cruise

  1. Do not shower, and do not wash your clothes or bedding (as this may damage or destroy valuable evidence) until you have had a forensic examination by qualified medical personnel.
  2. Immediately seek treatment in the emergency room of the nearest hospital or, if you are at sea, from the ship’s medical facilities for any physical injuries. Get a forensic examination to ensure that any evidence is collected; and take photos of any physical injuries or bruises and of the scene of the incident.
  3. If you are onboard the ship when the crime occurs, immediately telephone the FBI and U.S. Coast Guard about the crime, and get advice on how to proceed. You can reach FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C. at 202-324-3000, while the emergency numbers for the U.S. Coast Guard are: (1) Atlantic Area Command Center (for Great Lakes, Gulf and East Coasts) - (757) 398-6390; (2) Pacific Area Command center (for the Hawaiian, Alaskan and Pacific Coasts) - (510) 437-3700.
    FBI jurisdiction over sexual assault at sea arises under federal criminal law. The Bureau has jurisdiction in these four circumstances: (1) if the cruise vessel is owned in whole or in part by a United States company, (2) if the victim or the perpetrator is a United States national or if the vessel departs or arrives in a United States port anytime during its voyage, (3) if the offense was committed by or against a United States national outside the jurisdiction of any nation (i.e., in international waters), and (4) if the offense occurred in the United States territorial sea within 12 miles of the United States coast.
  4. If the crime occurred onboard the ship, also report the incident to a cruise ship security officer as soon as possible. Insist that the scene of the crime be secured until law enforcement officials arrive.
  5. Get the names and contact information of any individuals (both crew members and passengers) who witnessed or were involved in the incident.
  6. If the crime occurs when you are on foreign soil, seek advice from your nearest embassy or consulate concerning local resources and report the crime to the local police. (Remember that not every country’s legal definition of “rape” and “sexual assault” is the same.) Consular duty personnel are available 24/7 in over 260 Foreign Service posts abroad; and they can provide U.S. citizens who are victimized while traveling with a variety of forms of emergency assistance. Here are some of the ways a U.S. consular officer can assist:
    • Contacting your family, friends, or employers;
    • Locating medical services;
    • Meeting other emergency needs that arise as a result of the crime;
    • Providing information about the local criminal justice process and about the case itself;
    • Obtaining information about local resources to assist victims, including foreign crime victim compensation programs;
    • Obtaining information about U.S. crime victim assistance and compensation programs on your behalf, and
    • Obtaining a list of local attorneys who speak English.

    Consular officials cannot:

    • Investigate crimes;
    • Provide legal advice or represent you in court;
    • Serve as official interpreters or translators; or
    • Pay your legal and medical bills or other fees.
    Captain's hat

    To reach the Office of Overseas Citizens Services in the U.S., call 888-407-4747 (during business hours) or 202-647-5225 (after hours).

    Contact information of U.S. embassies, consulates, and consular agencies for U.S. citizens traveling abroad.

    More information about consular assistance for victims of crime abroad.

  7. Seek support from the National Sexual Assault Hotline (800-656-HOPE), the National Sexual Assault Online Hotline (, or your nearest rape crisis center. If the FBI is involved in investigating your case, you also may want to contact the FBI Office for Victim Assistance about the status of the criminal investigation: 866-828-5320.
  8. Call your physician when you return home and make sure you receive the proper medical care and longer term counseling if necessary.
  9. Should you decide to pursue a civil claim, seek the advice of a legal professional. Your state bar association can refer you to a lawyer with expertise in maritime and admiralty law.

What is Your Risk of Being Sexually Assaulted Aboard a Cruise?

According to the FBI:

  • “[s]exual assaults are the dominant threat to women and minors on the high seas [with the] vast majority of these incidents occur[ing] on cruise ships.” (See December 2005 statement of Chris Swecker, Assistant Director of the Criminal Investigative Division of the FBI, before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform, Subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats and 
International Relations and Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources.)
  • Sexual assault is the leading crime reported to and investigated by the FBI on the high seas (comprising 55 percent of the crimes at sea that are reported to the Bureau). (See March 2007 statement of Salvador Hernandez, Deputy Assistant Director of the FBI, before the U.S. House of Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure, Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation.)
  • FBI field offices in Miami, Los Angeles, Tampa, Houston, and New Orleans typically see the most cases, “due to their large and active ports, and the number of ships that arrive in and depart from these ports.” (See December 2005 statement of Chris Swecker, Assistant Director of the Criminal Investigative Division of the FBI, before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform, Subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats and 
International Relations and Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources.)
  • During one six-month period in 2007, the cruise lines reported 41 instances of sexual assault to the FBI, of which “19 represented allegations of sexual activity generally categorized as rape, three of which occurred onshore, and, thus, outside the jurisdiction of the FBI. Based on the 41 reports, the FBI opened 13 investigative cases.” According to the FBI, five of these cases were later closed due to victim reluctance to press charges or because the U.S. Attorney’s office declined to prosecute. As of September 2007, just eight of these cases remained under investigation. (See September 2007 statement of Salvador Hernandez, Deputy Assistant Director of the FBI, before the U.S. House of Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure, Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation.)

The exact rate of sexual assault aboard cruise ships is difficult to determine. It is hard to precisely pinpoint the extent of the problem because:

  • While the cruise industry maintains that the rate of sexual assault at sea is significantly lower than the onshore rate of sexual assault, there is no reliable way to assess whether the cruise lines are fully and accurately reporting all onboard sexual assaults to federal authorities. The industry is already expected to report cruise crime to the authorities, but what is reported to the FBI is not automatically made public. That means it is virtually impossible for passengers (or independent third-parties) to confirm whether each incident of sexual assault, including their own, has been fully and properly recorded.
  • Sexual assault is one of the least reported violent crimes. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, as many as 60% of onshore sexual assault victims decline to report the crime against them. It is likely that many cruise passengers who experience sexual assault on the cruise also will not report the crime, and therefore such crimes will not become part of industry cruise safety statistics.

CLICK HERE to see recent news articles on Cruise Ship Safety

Other Resources / Helpful Links

While compiling this information, we reviewed hundreds of web resources. The following hyperlinks will take you to those we found most useful.


This website is neither intended to be given as legal advice nor as the practice of law, and should not be relied upon by readers as such. Before taking any action, always check with a licensed attorney in your jurisdiction to ensure compliance with the law.

National Sexual Assault Hotline | 1.800.656.HOPE(4673) | Free. Confidential. 24/7.

© RAINN 2009 | 1220 L Street NW, Suite 505, Washington, DC 20005 | 202-544-1034 |
1.800.656.HOPE(4673) | CFC#10488 | Privacy Policy | Federal Funding Disclaimer