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Overseas Security Advisory Council
Bureau of Diplomatic Security
U.S. Department of State

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Spain 2020 Crime & Safety Report

This is an annual report produced in conjunction with the Regional Security Office at the U.S. Embassy in Madrid. OSAC encourages travelers to use this report to gain baseline knowledge of security conditions in Spain. For more in-depth information, review OSAC’s Spain country 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.

Travel Advisory

The current U.S. Department of State Travel Advisory at the date of this report’s publication assesses Spain at Level 2, indicating travelers should exercise increased caution due to terrorism. Exercise increased caution in Barcelona and Catalonia due to civil unrest. Review OSAC’s report, Understanding the Consular Travel Advisory System.

Overall Crime and Safety Situation

Crime Threats

The U.S. Department of State has assessed Madrid and Barcelona as being a LOW-threat location for crime directed at or affecting official U.S. government interests. Spain is generally a safe destination for tourists, students, business travelers, and others. Although violent crime may occur, it is generally uncommon. Foreigners are the targets of choice for pickpockets and thieves who operate in hotel lobbies, restaurants, public transit systems, airports, at car rental counters, and other areas frequented by tourists. Upon arrival at the airport, train station, bus station, hotel, or other areas with large crowds, keep a close eye on your personal belongings. Review OSAC’s reports, All That You Should Leave Behind, Hotels: The Inns and Outs, and Considerations for Hotel Security.

Common crime tactics include: baggage theft while visitors check in/out of their hotels, during check-in at the airport, while picking up or dropping off a rental car, or while hailing a taxi; theft of valuables left in vehicles; criminal distractions (e.g. asking for directions, dropping coins/keys and asking for assistance, or “inadvertently” spilling something on the victim and offering to clean it up) to allow a counterpart to pick a victim’s pocket; and taking advantage of unsuspecting tourists who hang a purse/backpack on the back of a chair, place their cellphones on a table when at a restaurant, or place their belongings on a bench beside them. Additionally, distraction continues to be a common tactic used by highway robbers in Spain. Thieves acting as “good Samaritans” will flag down their victim and indicate there is a problem with the victim’s vehicle. While one of the assailants distracts the victim’s attention, an unseen accomplice robs valuables from the victim’s vehicle.

In 2019, there was a rise in violent crime within Barcelona, specifically in popular tourist areas. Local authorities reported an increase in the number of petty theft schemes that included acts of violence such as aggressive thefts of jewelry, watches, and purses. In some cases, these incidents resulted in injury.

The highest incidence of street crime occurs during local holiday periods (late November through early January, Easter/Semana Santa, and August) and the busy summer tourist season. There are well-organized pickpocketing gangs who travel throughout Europe following the peak tourist season and major events where large groups of unsuspecting visitors will be present.

Credit-card skimming and cloning are a concern for travelers in Spain. Be wary of skimming devices placed on ATMs, take actions to protect card PINs, and closely monitor bank statements for anomalies. Review OSAC’s reports, The Overseas Traveler’s Guide to ATM Skimmers & Fraud and Taking Credit.

Residential burglaries primarily occur when security vulnerabilities exist and/or when residents do not implement sound residential security practices. Reports indicate thefts usually occur when occupants are away for an extended period; thieves usually gain access through doors or other entry points left unlocked. 

The U.S. Embassy and Consulate routinely receive reports of sexual assaults affecting U.S. nationals. Authorities warn of the availability of so-called "date-rape" drugs and other drugs, including GHB and liquid ecstasy. Review OSAC’s report Shaken: The Don’ts of Alcohol Abroad.

Cybersecurity Concerns

A number of U.S. nationals have been victims of various scams in Spain. One scheme involves a victim receiving an email/call requesting money to assist a relative or acquaintance who has been arrested, detained, robbed, or injured in Spain. These types of scams prey on emotions and the desire to assist others in need. The recipient of such a message should not send money and should independently confirm and verify the situation involving the relative or acquaintance. If a U.S. national is in distress overseas, please notify the closest Embassy or Consulate.

Other scams include lottery or advance-fee scams in which a person is lured to Spain to finalize a financial transaction. Often, the victims are initially contacted via Internet or fax and informed they have won the Spanish Lottery (El Gordo), inherited money from a distant relative, or are needed to assist in a major financial transaction from one country to another.

Housing-related scams and illegal sublets are also employed by unscrupulous actors targeting foreigners, including students. Scammers may use another person’s property and claim it as their own. Individuals seeking long-term lodging should conduct thorough due diligence before making any transaction and use only vetted, well-known, websites and services to find housing. Additionally, those seeking housing should not sign a contract/lease without the homeowner/landlord present and ensure the homeowner/landlord signs the contract/lease.

Review OSAC’s reports, Cybersecurity Basics, Best Practices for Maximizing Security on Public Wi-Fi, Traveling with Mobile Devices: Trends & Best Practices, and Satellite Phones: Critical or Contraband?; and the Bureau of Consular Affairs’ website on International Financial Scams.

Transportation-Safety Situation

Road Safety and Road Conditions

Spain has an excellent network of roads and highways. Authorities enforce a speed limit of 120 km/h on major highways unless otherwise posted. The Guardia Civil patrols the highways and uses radar and cameras, both fixed and mobile, to enforce the speed limits. Speed cameras enforce average speed limits in tunnels and other zones along highways, and in urban areas throughout Spain. Find emergency phones on the side of the highways at regular intervals.

U.S. nationals who plan to drive in Spain must obtain an international driving permit (IDP) prior to their arrival. An international driving permit translates your state-issued driver’s license into ten languages for the benefit of foreign officials. The IDP is not valid by itself; you must carry it in addition to your U.S. state-issued driver’s license. It is illegal to rent a vehicle in Spain without an International Driving Permit. Authorities may impound your rental car, and require you to pay a fine, if they stop you. You must have liability insurance to operate any car or motorcycle.

It is against the law to use a mobile phone without a hands-free device while driving. There is a €300 fine for violating this regulation, and you may also lose your license.

The Spanish National Police or Guardia Civil may levy fines on the spot and issue a receipt for payment. Doing this ensures that foreigners pay their fines while still in Spain.

Drivers must maintain the following emergency equipment in their vehicle while driving in Spain: a spare tire and tools to replace it, two portable warning triangles, and a reflective vest. All drivers and passengers must wear a reflective vest and use a reflective triangle warning sign if they need to stop on the roadside. Review OSAC’s reports, Road Safety Abroad, Driving Overseas: Best Practices, and Evasive Driving Techniques; and read the State Department’s webpage on driving and road safety abroad.

Public Transportation Conditions

Spain has extensive and generally safe train, bus, subway, and airport transportation systems. Taxis are also abundantly available, reliable, and safe. Private transportation companies (e.g. Uber, Cabify) are operate in Madrid and Barcelona; check individual websites for operating status. Rail service is comfortable and reliable, but varies in quality and speed. Intercity buses are usually comfortable and inexpensive. The U.S. Embassy in Madrid and Consulate General in Barcelona place no restrictions on personnel use of mass transit. Review OSAC’s report, Security In Transit: Airplanes, Public Transport, and Overnights.

Terrorism Threat

The U.S. Department of State has assessed Madrid and Barcelona as being a MEDIUM-threat location for terrorism directed at or affecting official U.S. government interests. Credible information indicates terrorist groups continue to plot potential attacks in Europe, including Spain. All European countries remain vulnerable to attacks from transnational terrorist organizations with little or no warning. Maintain heightened situational awareness and incorporate good personal security practices into your daily activity, including vigilance while in public places.

Spain maintains a national terrorism alert level consisting of five levels: 1 – low; 2 – moderate; 3 – medium; 4 – high; and 5 – very high. Since June 2015, Spain’s terrorism alert level has consistently held at level 4. According to Spanish Interior Ministry figures, since 2015, Spanish security forces have arrested more than 300 individuals on terrorism-related charges associated with Islamic extremism. In 2019 and in furtherance of combating the threat of Islamic extremism, Spanish authorities conducted 32 anti-terrorism operations and arrested 58 individuals. These arrests took place throughout Spain, with the highest numbers of arrests taking place near Madrid. Review the Spanish terrorism alert level website.

Spanish authorities continue to operate with an increased level of vigilance focused on the threat of those promoting and supporting terrorism and terrorist organizations, individuals radicalized in Spain or other parts of Europe, and returning foreign fighters.

In August 2018, a 29-year old man of Algerian origin brandished a knife in a police station in the Cornellà de Llobregat neighborhood of Barcelona, reportedly shouted “Allahu Akbar” and tried to stab a police officer before being fatally shot. Local security officials consider the incident a terrorist attack.

In August 2017, Spain suffered its first major terror attack in 13 years. Vehicular ramming attacks in Barcelona’s Las Ramblas pedestrian zone and in the coastal town of Cambrils claimed 16 lives (including that of one U.S. national) and resulted in over 100 injuries. The attacks involved a cell of ISIS supporters radicalized by a Moroccan Imam in Spain with an extensive criminal history. The cell’s original attack plans were disrupted on August 16, 2017, when members of the group mishandled explosives in a safe house resulting in an explosion that killed several of its members. Had the original attack plans come to fruition, the death toll would have been significantly higher.

In 2011, the Basque Separatist Group Euskadi ta Askatasuna (ETA), declared a “definitive cessation of armed activities” following a decades-long campaign of violence that claimed over 800 victims. Since then, ETA has not conducted any violent activity. In 2018, ETA formally announced its dissolution.

Political, Economic, Religious, and Ethnic Violence

The U.S. Department of State has assessed Madrid and Barcelona as being LOW-threat locations for political violence directed at or affecting official U.S. government interests.

Civil Unrest 

Public demonstrations occur often in Spain and are normally peaceful. Demonstrations require formal petition to the local government and approval. Police generally supervise control large demonstrations well.

General strikes can cause disruptions to public transportation, a temporary shutdown in public services, and large street protests. These events typically have the greatest effect on public transportation and the industrial sectors, making travel within areas near the protests difficult.

In October 2019, the verdict in a trial of 12 pro-independence Catalan leaders touched off a week of demonstrations and significant violent clashes between protesters and security forces in Barcelona and other cities in Catalonia, in northeastern Spain. Protest activity impacted airport access, and blocked roads, major thoroughfares, and rail operations within Catalonia. As a result of the violence, authorities arrested approximately 100 individuals and over 300 injuries occurred. The Consulate issued numerous security alerts advising U.S. nationals to avoid the demonstrations due to their unpredictability and potential for violence. Travelers to Catalonia should monitor local political conditions, as they can possibly lead to protest activity in major urban areas. Review the Embassy’s Demonstration in Spain website and OSAC’s report, Surviving a Protest.

Religious/Ethnic Violence

In March 2018, the Madrid neighborhood of Lavapies saw several days of rioting by the African migrant community after a Senegalese street vendor died of a heart attack while reportedly fleeing from local police.

According to international migration organizations, in 2019, Spain detected approximately 32,492 irregular migrants at its borders. This is an approximately 50% decrease from the 58,525 detected in 2018.

Post-specific Concerns

Personal Identity Concerns

The U.S. Mission in Spain has received reports of sexual assaults affecting U.S. citizens, especially younger travelers, students, and young exchange teachers. There have been specific reports alleging sexual assaults by a representative of a tour operator based in Seville. According to media reports, this tour operator offered U.S. citizen students tours within and outside Spain, and recruited students to serve as interns to recruit other tour participants. Review the State Department’s webpage on security for female travelers.

There are no legal restrictions on same-sex relations or the organization of LGBTI events in Spain. Review the State Department’s webpage on security for LGBTI+ travelers.

Review OSAC’s report, Freedom to Practice, and the State Department’s webpage on security for faith-based travelers.

Spanish law mandates access to buildings for persons with disabilities. The Spanish government generally enforces these provisions; levels of assistance and accessibility vary across Spain. Madrid, Barcelona, and many other major cities have made great strides in making public transportation, museums, and other public buildings accessible to those with physical disabilities. Most buses have ramps to accommodate wheelchairs, and many metro stations have elevators; taxis that can accommodate wheelchairs are available, but generally must be booked in advance. In historic areas and in some other areas, sidewalks can be narrow and have uneven surfaces. Review the State Department’s webpage on security for travelers with disabilities.

Drug-related Crime

Penalties for possessing, using, or trafficking illegal drugs in Spain are severe; convicted offenders can expect long jail sentences and heavy fines. Most cities in Spain have banned the consumption of alcohol in the street, other than in registered street cafes and bars. You could face arrest or fines if you break the law.

Police Response

Crime Victim Assistance

The emergency line in Spain for police, fire, and ambulance is 112. In Madrid, and in most metropolitan areas of Spain, English speakers should be available to assist non-Spanish speakers that call the emergency hotline. Download the State Department’s Crime Victims Assistance brochure.

A variety of professional law enforcement organizations operate in Spain. The Guardia Civil (Civil Guard) is an 80,000-strong national police force with broad policing responsibilities, including coverage of rural areas. The Cuerpo Nacional de Policia (Spanish National Police) is an 85,000-strong national police force with broad policing responsibilities, mainly in urban areas with a population of more than 20,000.

To file a complaint via telephone, call the Spanish National Police and reach a dedicated English speaker at (34) 90-210-2112. This service is available Monday-Sunday from 0900-2100.

Spain also has several autonomous regions with their own regional police forces: Ertzaintza in the Basque Country; Mossos d’Esquadra in Catalonia; Policia Foral (Foruzaingoa) in Navarre; Brigadas Especiales de Seguridad de la Comunidad Autónoma de Madrid (BESCAM, Special Security Brigades for the Autonomous Community of Madrid) in Madrid; and the Policia Canaria in the Canary Islands.

At the local level, many cities have municipal police called Policia Municipal or Guardia Urbana. Local police, sometimes dressed in plain clothes, can require you to produce identification to establish your identity upon request and detain you for further questioning. In some cases, a copy of your passport may serve as sufficient identification if you do not feel comfortable carrying your actual passport.

Medical Emergencies

Dial 112 from any phone to request assistance in a medical emergency. An English speaker should be available to assist non-Spanish speakers. Good medical care comparable to that available in the United States is available in Spain. Find contact information for available medical services and available air ambulance services on the U.S. Embassy website.

Regulations regarding medications vary from those in the United States. Spanish regulations do not permit the international shipment of medication; do not ship medication from the United States to Spain. Spanish customs authorities will reject and return to the shipper medication mailed from the United States. This may cause a significant delay in receiving your medications. Medications requiring prescriptions in the United States also require a local doctor’s prescription in Spain. In some instances, a medicine prescribed in the United States will not have a local equivalent. Research this on the European Agency for Medication website prior to travel. Review OSAC’s report, Traveling with Medication.

The U.S. Department of State strongly recommends purchasing international health insurance before traveling internationally. Review the State Department’s webpage on insurance overseas.

The CDC offers additional information on vaccines and health guidance for Spain. Review OSAC’s reports, The Healthy Way, I’m Drinking What in My Water?, Shaken: The Don’ts of Alcohol Abroad, Health 101: How to Prepare for Travel, and Fire Safety Abroad.

OSAC Country Council Information

The Spain Country Council is active and meets on a quarterly basis. Contact OSAC’s Europe team for more information or to join.

U.S. Embassy Contact Information

Calle de Serrano, 75, 28006 Madrid

Hours of Operation: 0800 and 1300 Monday through Friday, except U.S. and local holidays.

Telephone: (+34) 91 587 2200

Emergency: (+34) 91-587-2200

Website: https://es.usembassy.gov/

Other U.S. Diplomatic Posts in Spain

Helpful Information

Before you travel, consider the following resources:

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