The current U.S. Department of State Travel Advisory at the date of this report’s publication assesses Bulgaria at Level 1, indicating travelers should exercise normal precautions.
Overall Crime and Safety Situation
The U.S. Embassy in Sofia does not assume responsibility for the professional ability or integrity of the persons or firms appearing in this report. The American Citizens’ Services unit (ACS) cannot recommend a particular individual or location, and assumes no responsibility for the quality of service provided.
Review OSAC’s Bulgaria-specific page for original OSAC reporting, consular messages, and contact information, some of which may be available only to private-sector representatives with an OSAC password.
There is minimal risk from crime in Sofia. The Ministry of Interior (MOI) reported a 9.8% decrease in all registered crimes in 2018 compared to 2017, resolving 46% of cases compared to 43.7% in 2017. According to the MOI, the majority of incidents involving U.S. citizens are economic, including ATM skimming, credit card fraud, theft, robbery, and motor vehicle theft. The volume and the type of reported incidents suggest that criminals do not target U.S. citizens due to their nationality. The number of crimes registered against U.S. citizens in Bulgaria in 2018 was 12, compared with 20 in 2017. MOI has launched an outreach campaign targeting crimes against tourists, allocating additional resources and training for officers on the Black Sea coast and in winter resorts during tourist seasons.
The number of murders increased by 9.5% during 2018; however, the murder rate remains less than half of that of the U.S. Contract killings by organized crime groups largely dropped off following the arrest of five “Killers” gang members beginning in 2010. There was one assassination of an influential businessperson in 2018.
Pickpocketing reports fell by 10.4% in 2018, but remains an issue. Be particularly wary of pickpockets when using public transportation or transiting crowded markets, shopping streets, malls, etc. Pickpockets often use a diversion in the form of an argument or fight. Safeguard belongings when visiting cafes or restaurants, and while using public transportation. Be wary of your belongings around beggars and people selling trinkets and other items.
Thefts from homes and non-violent burglaries remain the most frequently registered property crimes. Statistics indicate that registered burglaries in 2018 decreased by 12.6% compared to 2017. Burglaries occur predominantly during the night; only a quarter take place during the daytime, according to statistics from security companies. Multiple break-ins occurred with residents inside their homes. Professional criminals are most likely to burglarize homes; opportunistic criminals will more frequently commit theft from adjacent buildings (e.g. attached garages, storerooms) and general theft. While professional criminals almost exclusively look for valuables with a quick turnover, less professional thieves steal anything they can use, trade, or resell. Take measures to protect dwellings, including installing window grilles/shutters, solid doors with secure locks, and an alarm system monitored by a security company with an armed response capability.
Registered robberies decreased by 19% in 2018 compared to 2017, and were concentrated mainly in Sofia, where 40% of all robberies occurred. Armed robbery constitutes only 3.6% of all robberies. Other cities with a high rate of robberies are Burgas, Pleven, Plovdiv, and Varna. The targets of armed robberies were financial institutions, gas stations, retail stores, and restaurants.
Organized crime groups exert a strong influence in some bars/nightclubs, and control many prostitution rings. Pay special attention to drink prices at high-end bars and nightclubs, as there have been instances of visitors charged exorbitant prices (several hundred dollars); in some establishments, the management may use force to secure payment. Do not purchase anything from a menu without prices.
Europe’s open borders and uneven patchwork of vehicle databases make car theft relatively easy. The MOI registered a 14.3% decrease in car thefts in 2018, with more than 60% of them stolen in Sofia. Authorities recover fewer than 12% of stolen vehicles. Car thieves target new luxury cars, various models of SUVs, and older cars that they can dismantle and sell for parts. In the last few years, the main markets for the stolen vehicles have been the Middle East, Albania, Kosovo, Russia, and Georgia.
A trend of vehicle lock jamming emerged over the past five years, with thieves using radio frequencies to block key fobs. Jamming leaves a car unlocked despite the owner pressing the lock button. In some cases, criminals have stolen vehicles using devices that mimic an electronic key. These incidents have been prevalent at shopping centers, gas station convenience stores, and school drop-off areas. Another scam involves a suspect puncturing a victim’s tire. While the driver changes the tire, the suspect robs the vehicle.
Organizations should take measures to protect their offices. Criminals have used jamming equipment to circumvent alarm systems in bank vaults and private offices.
Document fraud is a challenge and affects the private sector when hiring and conducting due diligence. The majority of fraudulent documents are university diplomas, electronic payment documents, and identification documents. According to U.S. law enforcement, genuine blank Bulgarian passports, including biometric data customized to specification, are available on the black market for 250 Euros. Three 2018 police operations discovered factories for producing counterfeit documents from Bulgaria; police seized a massive cache of ready or unfurnished documents, computers, printers, laminators, printing plates, inks, and other materials. In 2018, a Bulgarian police operation uncovered a large high-tech printing factory manufacturing counterfeit Euro and Dollar banknotes. They found more than 11.5 million Euro and 1.7 million USD in different stages of manufacturing.
In 2018, authorities registered 21 financial crimes against banking systems. Due to wide media coverage and numerous police operations against criminals dealing with Value Added Tax (VAT) fraud, those cases dropped significantly in 2018. The majority of fraud is intra-EU.
Official corruption remains a serious challenge; Transparency International ranks Bulgaria the worst among EU countries for perceived corruption. However, the country has made significant progress in 2018, according to the European Cooperation and Verification Mechanism report. The Bulgarian government adopted a comprehensive reform of its anti-corruption law, as well as establishing a new unified agency for fighting high-level corruption. There is moderate to high risk of corruption for the private sector when dealing with public procurement, public services, police, tax and customs administration, and the judicial system. Cases of corruption schemes aimed at draining public money are common. Kickbacks and bribes plague the public procurement sector, impeding fair market competition and resulting in fewer opportunities for foreign investors. The law formally prohibits facilitation payments and gifts, but these still occur frequently. Inefficiency and corruption within the judiciary are a major obstacle against investigating and prosecuting high-level corruption and organized crime. U.S. citizens are most likely to encounter corruption at state-run medical facilities and from traffic police.
According to official statistics, illegal migration decreased by 58% in 2018 compared to 2017. Bulgaria continued to demonstrate its competency through domestic and international police operations aimed at neutralizing illegal trafficking channels moving migrants from Bulgaria to other EU countries in 2018. Authorities apprehended numerous persons within the country’s territory; they stopped the rest at the borders, primarily with Turkey, Greece, and Serbia. In 2018, Bulgarian authorities reported that they had detained 1,323 individuals who had illegally crossed the border. Detainees were mainly from Afghanistan (453), Iraq (327), Syria (135), Pakistan (130), and Turkey (69). Continued migration of asylum seekers from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries through Bulgaria to points north and west, along with the arrest of numerous human smuggling rings around country demonstrates that Bulgaria is still a transit route. The government of Bulgaria, with the assistance of the European Union, has invested in border security with significant success in reducing the flow of illegal migrants. Bulgaria has taken measures to enhance screening of detained migrants and asylum seekers, as well as foreign travelers, to identify possible known terrorists and transnational criminals entering or transiting the country.
The MOI reports that drug-related crimes increased by 11.9% in 2018, compared with 2017. Drug abuse and addiction continue to climb, and the age of first-time drug users is dropping. Bulgaria is a “gateway” country for the transit of illicit drugs and contraband into and out of the European Union. Bulgaria serves as a major transshipment point for heroin from Southwest Asia to Europe. Organized crime groups are heavily involved in drug trafficking. Heroin and synthetic drugs are the primary drugs transported through Bulgaria, principally via overland methods, including International Road Transport (TIR) trucks, passenger vehicles, buses, vans, and small trucks; small amounts are smuggled by air. Smugglers use Varna and Burgas as entry points for precursor and pre-precursor chemicals, controlled substances, including cocaine, into the Balkans, Greece, and Western Europe.
ATM skimming, computer hacking, ransomware-related incidents, business e-mail compromise, and other electronic intrusions are known risks in Bulgaria. Southeastern Europe poses significant cyber threats to the U.S., Canada, and the rest of Europe. Most common victims of computer-related fraud are companies that trade entirely on the internet.
According to U.S. law enforcement, Bulgarian criminals have a significant role in ATM and credit card skimming-related fraud around the world. Until recently, Bulgarian transnational organized criminal groups manufactured skimming devices and sent teams to other countries to skim credit cards. These groups would then send the proceeds back to their Bulgarian bosses. There was only a moderate amount of the actual skimming of credit cards occurring in Bulgaria; these were usually to test the devices prior to deploying them abroad. This trend has changed over the past three years, as Bulgarian criminal groups have increased their operations dramatically both domestically and abroad. More criminal groups are now installing skimming devices in Bulgaria not only to test the devices but also to profit from the skimmed cards. ATM skimming in Sofia, Varna, and Burgas has increased several-fold. Be wary of skimming devices at high-volume ATMs, usually around tourist areas or in shopping centers. Protect your PIN, although that does not eliminate the risk. Use only ATMs inside trusted banks and similar institutions, and limit use of credit cards to trusted retailers and institutions. Closely monitor your bank statements for anomalies, and destroy private information by shredder or similar destruction method. For more information, review OSAC’s Report, The Overseas Traveler’s Guide to ATM Skimmers & Fraud.
Over-charging by taxi drivers, poor road conditions, and aggressive driving are the most frequent road risks faced by U.S. citizens. For more information, review OSAC’s Report, Security in Transit: Airplanes, Public Transport, and Overnights.
Road Safety and Road Conditions
Road conditions are generally underdeveloped, aside from some main roads and highways where renovation or reconstruction has occurred over the past few years. Secondary roads are often in poor condition. The government plans to continue and complete the construction of new highways and renovate roadways, including main boulevards and some secondary roads in the larger cities. This process causes heavier traffic and could lead to more road accidents. In some cities, traffic lights blink yellow in all directions late at night, leaving right-of-way unclear and contributing to accidents.
Heavy truck traffic along the two-lane routes from the Greek border at Kulata to Sofia and from the Turkish border at Kapitan Andreevo to Plovdiv creates numerous hazards. Expect delays at land border crossings.
Travel conditions deteriorate during the winter, as roads become icy and potholes larger. There are even more traffic difficulties on small streets in Sofia, where the snow is not cleared; may residents must have a four-wheel-drive vehicle to be able to drive in winter. There are occasional rockslides and landslides in the mountains and Black Sea area.
Aggressive driving habits, the lack of safe infrastructure, vehicles in poor repair, livestock, and animal-drawn carts on the roads contribute to road accidents and fatalities. In 2018, 6,690 heavy road accidents claimed 611 lives and injured 8,471 individuals, representing a 10% decrease in fatalities compared to 2017.
Avoid confrontations with aggressive drivers. In particular, many drivers of late-model sedans speed and drive erratically. Violent altercations are not unheard of, some including the use of firearms.
All drivers must observe local traffic laws, which are sometimes different from those in the U.S. Bulgarian law allows U.S. citizens to use their U.S. driver’s license for up to 3 months, accompanied with an international driving permit/or official translation with apostil. Following this period, the individual must have an international driver’s license or apply for a Bulgarian Driver’s license. Drivers operating motor vehicles must obey traffic police officer signals. Drivers must pay all fines for traffic violations either electronically or via bank transfer.
Avoid leaving valuables in plain view, especially in cars with foreign license plates. Exercise caution while stopping at gas stations, motels, or roadside restaurants. Insure cars against theft with a major insurance company. Drivers have reported car theft after leaving their vehicle with the engine running during cold weather. When leaving a vehicle unattended in a public location, ensure that the door is locked and valuables are out of plain view.
Call for help after discovering a flat tire, and be wary of passersby offering to lend a hand; he may have caused the flat tire and be more interested in stealing from a distracted driver than in helping. For more information on self-driving, review OSAC’s Report Driving Overseas: Best Practices.
Public Transportation Conditions
Inter-city buses are newer, frequent, relatively fast, and comfortable.
Train accidents and fires on trains have occurred over the past few years. Criminals sometimes operate on trains.
Sofia has a modern, clean, and relatively safe Metro (subway) system.
Use only official taxi companies. The biggest problem at airports involves “rip-off” taxis, which usually have an accomplice inside trying to lure travelers to the vehicle. They sometimes design their logos to look like other companies (“CK” vs. “OK”). Most recently, the “rip-off” taxis have been changing one digit of the phone number from the original. Official taxi companies have desks inside the arrival terminals; order taxis at these desks.
Check the prices on the back windows of any taxicab before getting in. Do not accept a flat rate offered by a driver in lieu of using the meter, as this rate is often much higher than the meter would show.
Airline transportation is reliable, and there have been no registered airplane accidents in the past 30 years. The national carrier, Bulgaria Air, complies with the safety standards of the International Civil Aviation Organization. There are few reports of thefts, scams, ATM skimming, or pickpocketing at the four major airports (Sofia-SOF, Plovdiv-PDV, Burgas-BOJ, and Varna-VAR).
Local, Regional, and International Terrorism Threats/Concerns
There is minimal risk from terrorism in Sofia. Continued migration of asylum seekers from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries through Bulgaria to points north and west, continuing deportations of people considered national security risks, and extraditions of suspected foreign terrorist fighters from Bulgaria, albeit significantly less than in the previous two years, continued to raise the country’s counterterrorism profile. In response to perceived increased threats, the government has worked to enhance its prevention and enforcement tools, including criminalizing foreign fighters, adopting new and comprehensive counterterrorism legislation, and releasing a counter-radicalization strategy and national counterterrorism plan. According to the Bulgarian State Agency for National Security (SANS), there remains no specific information concerning prepared or conducted terrorist activities in Bulgaria and establishment of terrorist structures on Bulgarian territory. The SANS Chairperson ordered compulsory administrative measures of “withdrawal of the right of residence,” “expulsion,” and “a ban for entry in the Republic of Bulgaria” on 31 individuals affiliated with terrorist activities. At least 58 persons appear in the database of unwanted foreigners in Bulgaria as traveling foreign fighters.
In early 2019, Bulgarian authorities arrested and charged five Syrian citizens and a Bulgarian woman for financing terrorist activities in the Middle East by illegally transferring at least 25 million euros and smuggling of more than 100 vehicles to Syria.
Bulgarians in general tend not to be anti-U.S. However, several small political parties and organizations use anti-U.S. rhetoric. The most active organization is the political party “ATAKA.” Over the past 12 months, there were two small demonstrations of less than 30 individuals protesting in front of the U.S. Embassy.
Political, Economic, Religious, and Ethnic Violence
Bulgaria’s population is generally peaceful in its political orientation. Since the democratic changes in 1989, there have been several democratic, non-violent transfers of government power. Bulgarians elected five parties to sit in the Parliament in the 2017 parliamentary elections.
There is moderate risk from civil unrest in Sofia. Bulgarians often hold demonstrations to protest or advocate specific causes. Some political parties and organizations, particularly ultranationalist groups, have hired protestors from local soccer fan clubs who have been violent on occasion. While demonstrations are generally peaceful, avoid areas where they may be occurring.
Religious violence tends to target Muslims and Christian missionary groups. U.S. missionaries have been targets of harassment, physical assaults, and direct and indirect threats. There have been cases of local assailants beating missionaries and assaulting them with objects, and one account of robbery. For more information, review OSAC’s Report Putting Your Faith in Travel: Security Implications.
Ethnic violence tends to focus on Roma or, to a lesser extent, the Turkish minority. There were assaults targeting a Nigerian and two African-Americans in 2017 because of their skin color.
Bulgaria is in a seismically active area. There were no strong earthquakes in 2018. The last significant earthquake in Bulgaria, measuring 5.8 on the Richter scale, occurred in 2012; its epicenter was 15 miles from Sofia, close to Pernik. In January 2018, Sofia felt a 4.7-magnitude earthquake in northern Greece. Take steps to prepare and review safety measures.
Flooding primarily occurs during the winter/spring. Floods are more likely in smaller villages and towns, as infrastructure is insufficient to handle heavy spring rainstorms and winter runoff.
Hailstorms have caused significant property damage in the past. There have been no severe hailstorms in Bulgaria since 2014.
Cold weather and sizable snowfall can cause serious transportation problems, floods, and electrical outages. In case of heavy snowfall, crews may not plow or salt roads, which can be extremely dangerous or closed to traffic altogether. Tourists in mountains should exercise caution and follow the advice of the mountain rescue services, as avalanche incidents do occur. Hikers should maintain medical evacuation and mountain rescue insurance.
Forest/wildfires are more likely in mountain areas during the summer. In 2018, there were no sizable wildfires in the country.
Counterfeit and pirated goods remain available. Some operations offering free illegal downloading of software continue to rely on Bulgarian IP addresses, despite almost a decade of efforts to disrupt these operations.
Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) crimes are a challenge for officials and the private sector. Bulgaria ranked 63rd out of 125 countries in the 2018 International Property Rights Index. OSAC constituents using security offices, investigations, and disruption programs have met limited success in detecting, deterring, and disrupting criminal efforts. They have used the information gathered during these efforts to develop stronger countermeasures. Those constituents relying on courts or a legal department-centric strategy to protect their brand express frustration with the lack of speed, effectiveness, and outcomes of their efforts. There have been a number of large-scale IPR investigations, including some in concert with other EU countries. Several companies, including OSAC constituents, have reported difficulty when seeking recourse for patent and trademark infringement at the Bulgarian Patent Office. The MOI and the Customs Service continue to combat contraband garments, shoes, cosmetics, and other products bearing counterfeit trademarks.
U.S. businesses involved in certain high-profile sectors (e.g. energy, finance, construction) should contact their corporate security headquarters or consult with the Regional Security Office about specific issues and countermeasures.
Personal Identity Concerns
Be aware that body language norms differ from those in the U.S. Shaking one’s head side to side means “no” in the U.S. but means “yes” in Bulgaria, and conversely an up-and-down nodding in the U.S. means “yes” while it means “no” in Bulgaria. Even people living in Bulgaria for years may not notice subtle changes in body language that could provide warning of hostile intent. Understanding and acknowledging this limitation and a heightened awareness is important for all travelers and expatriates.
Kidnapping as an organized-crime tactic dropped off following the arrest of the “Impudent” gang, accused of at least 13 high-profile abductions, in 2009. Rival criminal groups used kidnapping either for ransom or because of unresolved financial dealings. In 2017, masked, armed men kidnapped the 25-year old son of a business executive as he left his house for work; they released the man 11 days into his captivity after his family paid a ransom. For more information, review OSAC’s Report, Kidnapping: The Basics.
The law does not permit police officers to issue spot fines or accept cash for any reason, including minor traffic violations. Requests for spot fines are always a form of extortion.
How to Handle Incidents of Police Detention or Harassment
In cases of lawful police detention or police harassment, U.S. citizens should contact the American Citizen Services (ACS) unit in the Consular section at the U.S. Embassy for assistance immediately at (+359) 2 937 5101; e-mail: ACS_Sofia@state.gov (use e-mail for non-emergency situations only).
Crime Victim Assistance
Victims of crime should call 112. This number is accessible throughout Europe on all phones to connect callers with emergency services. U.S. citizens should report security incidents to ACS at (+359) 2 937 5101; e-mail: ACS_Sofia@state.gov (use e-mail only for non-emergency situations).
For local first responders, refer to the Embassy’s Emergency Assistance page.
The MOI is the primary law enforcement body in Bulgaria, encompassing the National Police Service, Border Police, Fire and Civil Protection, Migration, and Chief Directorate for Combating Organized Crime; and overseeing the 28 regional police directorates and over 180 police stations. With more than 55,000 employees, the MOI oversees a vast mission of law enforcement, national security, public order, fire safety, border security, immigration, and traffic enforcement. Most interactions U.S. citizens have with law enforcement are with MOI employees.
The Bulgarian customs administration is a centralized administrative structure, organized within the National Customs Agency (NCS) under the Minister of Finance. NCS counteracts the contraband channels of different goods and drugs. It is also responsible for collecting all duties and excises paid to the state budget.
The National Investigative Service (NIS) is the investigative arm of the Prosecution Service, which is part of the Judiciary. It works with the Interior and Justice Ministries to carry out investigations.
The National Protection Service (NSO) provides protective security to Bulgaria’s national leadership, including the president, prime minister, and visiting government dignitaries, but does not conduct criminal investigations.
The State Agency for National Security (DANS) is a domestic security agency with investigative responsibility but, since 2015, no law enforcement authority. It coordinates closely with intelligence services and law enforcement agencies depending on the nature of the investigation.
Medical training is at a very high standard, but most hospitals and clinics, especially in rural areas, are not equipped or maintained to U.S. or Western European standards. Basic medical supplies and over-the-counter and prescription medications are widely available, but highly specialized medication and/or treatment regimens may not be. Those in need of emergency services for an infant/child should call ahead to ensure those services will be available.
In the event of a medical emergency, call the 112 emergency number to request an ambulance. Dispatchers are likely to speak English. This service will usually transport a person to a private hospital of their choosing. Ambulance service can be slow; in large cities, it may take over 30 minutes. If there is a medical emergency in Sofia, it may be quicker to call a taxi or ask a friend or colleague to drive you to a hospital.
Contact Information for Available Medical Services
For medical assistance, refer to the Embassy’s Medical Assistance page.
Available Air Ambulance Services
Air ambulance services are available from Heli Air Services Company.
Serious medical problems requiring hospitalization and/or medical evacuation to the U.S. may cost tens of thousands of dollars. Most doctors and hospitals expect immediate cash payment for services rendered. U.S. citizens must have enough cash (or access to cash) to cover a medical emergency. Strongly consider purchasing medical evacuation (medevac) insurance.
Country-specific Vaccination and Health Guidance
Air pollution is a problem, especially in urban areas during the heating season November-March; monitor it in real time at www.airbg.info. A European study found that Bulgaria has the most polluted air among EU countries. Five of Europe’s cities with the highest levels of particulate matter – Sofia, Pernik, Plovdiv, Pleven, and Dobrich – are in Bulgaria. High concentrations of particulates are in the air in Pernik for about 180 days of the year (compared to about 15 days a year for Paris and Stuttgart). Bulgaria also has the highest concentration of carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide.
Hot weather can cause serious transportation and health problems.
Tuberculosis (TB) continues to be a serious health concern.
The CDC offers additional information on vaccines and health guidance for Bulgaria.
OSAC Country Council Information
The Sofia Country Council met quarterly in 2018. The Council, one of the strongest and longest-standing OSAC programs in Europe, has consistently met at least twice a year since 2012. Interested private-sector security managers should contact OSAC’s Europe Team with any questions.
U.S. Embassy Location and Contact Information
Embassy Address and Hours of Operation
U.S. Embassy Sofia 16 Kozyak Street, Sofia 1408
The Consular Section is open 0830 to 1630, Monday-Friday, except on U.S. and Bulgarian official holidays.
Embassy Contact Numbers
Telephone: +359 (2) 937 5100
Emergencies involving U.S. citizens 24 hours a day: +359 2 937-5101 (via the U.S. Embassy Duty Officer)
Before doing business in Bulgaria, U.S. companies should check with the U.S. Embassy’s Foreign Commercial Service office and American Chamber of Commerce regarding the business environment and opportunities in Bulgaria.
U.S. citizens traveling to Bulgaria should register with the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) to ensure they receive pertinent security updates and notices.
Bulgaria Country Information Sheet