The current U.S. Department of State Travel Advisory at the date of this report’s publication assesses the Sri Lanka at Level 1, indicating travelers should exercise normal precautions.
Overall Crime and Safety Situation
The U.S. Embassy in Colombo 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.
Please review OSAC’s Sri Lanka-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 a moderate risk from crime in Colombo. Official 2018 crime statistics indicate an upward trend for serious crime in the country overall. This differs from previous years, during which crime rates trended downward. Property crimes increased in areas frequented by tourists. In Colombo, total crime reported increased in all areas. Most violent crime occurs within the local community.
The majority of crimes against U.S. citizens continue to be petty crime (pickpocketing, hotel room thefts, and fraud). In 2015 and 2017, U.S. citizens residing in Colombo were reported as victims of home-invasion robbery attempts. Authorities charged and convicted suspects in both cases, which appear to have been crimes of opportunity.
There have been reports of thefts from many large hotels. Lock doors and windows while in hotels, lodges, or guest houses.
Street hustlers are common around popular hotels, shopping areas, and other tourist sites. Beware of tuk-tuk or taxi drivers offering “special” tours or access to festivals or gem shops. This common scam often results in tourists being heavily pressured to buy “gems” that are either cut glass or are worth much less than the price being asked. The U.S. Embassy has also warned female travelers of instances of sexual harassment by tuk-tuk drivers.
There appeared to be an increase in organized criminal activity in 2018. Police reported several incidents of gang-on-gang murders and violent attacks, and drug-related crime is a growing concern. Drug-related offenses increased 49% in 2018.
Visitors are encouraged to use cash for routine transactions when possible. Credit/debit card fraud is a persistent threat. Authorities have arrested several foreign nationals and organized groups for complicity in financial crimes. Avoid using credit cards, especially if it involves the removal of the card from you view. There have been reports of employees at reputable businesses (e.g. restaurants, chain grocery stores) wearing data skimming devices in their clothing and scanning a victim’s credit card or using other methods to steal credit card information. ATM skimming is also a threat. If you use an ATM, be on the lookout for skimming devices. Cover keypads with your other hand. For more information, please review OSAC’s Report, The Overseas Traveler’s Guide to ATM Skimmers & Fraud and the following resources:
FBI Resource on Credit Card Fraud
FBI Resource on ATM Skimming
FBI Resource on Protecting Yourself at the ATM
Other Areas of Concern
Take particular care when traveling to the areas of the north and east that are former conflict zones. These areas may contain both marked and unmarked minefields and unexploded ordnance (UXO), making travel outside of major roadways potentially dangerous. Although the government and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) continue operations to locate and dispose of landmines in the north, a number of areas remain mined. Landmines and UXO remain in parts of the Northern and Eastern Provinces, particularly in Ampara, Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mannar, Mullaitivu, Trincomalee and Vavuniya. As of July 2018, the government’s National Mine Action Center estimated 25.8 km2 remained to mined in these seven districts. Travelers in these areas should stay on main, heavily traveled roads, and never walk in forested or agricultural areas or in abandoned properties. Make yourself aware of, and able to recognize and avoid, any area cordoned off for landmine clearance.
For more information, please review OSAC’s Report, Security in Transit: Airplanes, Public Transport, and Overnights.
Road Safety and Road Conditions
Vehicular traffic moves on the left. Traffic in urban areas is very congested. Narrow two-lane highways combined with overloaded trucks, dangerously driven buses, motorized trishaws (tuk-tuks), and motorbikes (and sometimes elephants, cows, ox carts, and bicycles) make driving challenging and dangerous. Despite efforts to improve the roads, some in the former conflict zones remain in bad condition. One-way streets may not be clearly marked and occasionally change direction without notice.
Drivers are notoriously reckless; vehicle accidents are a principal threat for visitors. Traffic fatalities increased in 2018. Travelers should drive defensively. In the event of an accident, crowds might gather and become aggressive, particularly if the accident involves a bus, tuk-tuk, or taxi. For more information on self-driving, please review OSAC’s Report Driving Overseas: Best Practices. Many visitors opt to hire a car and driver.
The police continue efforts to enforce traffic laws more vigorously. Speed traps and traffic enforcement checkpoints are becoming more common and traffic fines have increased.
Public Transportation Conditions
Individuals choosing to hire a tuk-tuk should select one with a working meter; otherwise, agree on a fare beforehand to avoid arguments at the final destination.
Train travel is common and inexpensive. If using trains, visitors should keep a close watch on possessions, especially in economy cars. Take special care to guard expensive electronic items. There is a scam wherein Sri Lankans in Colombo will fill trains bound for the tourist areas and take up all of the seats. They will then sell their seats to tourists and visitors for a profit and exit the train before it departs.
The RSO advises against the use of public buses, as they are often overcrowded, driven recklessly, and involved in serious accidents. Reports indicate that buses cause a disproportionately large percentage of accidents. Female passengers on public buses sometimes experience sexual harassment.
Inter-city luxury bus services, which do not pick up passengers along their routes and do not take on more passengers than they are able to seat, are safe for foreign travelers.
Local, Regional, and International Terrorism Threats/Concerns
There is minimal risk from terrorism in Colombo. In 2009, the government announced that it had achieved victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE, or Tamil Tigers). LTTE leadership did not survive the war, and there have been no terrorist attacks since 2009. However, in November 2018, two Sri Lanka Police officers were shot in the head, their hands tied behind their back, while manning a checkpoint in a former conflict zone; there is no confirmation whether this was a terrorist or criminal incident.
In 2014, al-Qa’ida announced the formation of a new branch, al-Qa’ida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS); this represents an elevated threat landscape in South Asia. The same month, ISIS released a recorded call for the killing of Americans (and Coalition members). The tape encouraged lone-offender and target-of-opportunity attacks. The transnational capabilities of select terrorist groups, ease of international travel, and the availability of black-market weapons/explosives require U.S. travelers to be vigilant in their personal security practices, especially at locations frequented by Westerners.
There have been no specific, credible threats (or attacks) directed against U.S. citizens or interests in Sri Lanka.
Political, Economic, Religious, and Ethnic Violence
In October 2018, a constitutional crisis occurred when Sri Lanka President Maithripala Sirisena announced that he was replacing the current prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, with former president Mahinda Rajapaksa. Large rallies and protests occurred in Colombo and other locations. During the crisis, bodyguards for oil minister Arjuna Ranatunga, who Sirisena fired, opened fire at crowds gathered near his office, killing one person. In December 2018, Wickremesinghe once again become prime minister following rulings by the Supreme Court that found his removal unconstitutional. While the crisis has ended, elections expected in 2019 could result in a spike in civil unrest and political violence.
There is minimal risk from civil unrest in Colombo. Demonstrations occur regularly, and nearly doubled in number in 2018. Most demonstrations are peaceful, resulting only in traffic congestion; however, some have ended in violence between the protestors and police or opposition groups. Some protests over Sri Lankan political issues have resulted in violent clashes, gun violence, and casualties. In 2017 and 2018, some demonstrations involved confrontations with police resulting in the police using water cannons and tear gas to disperse crowds
While the majority of demonstrations are related to domestic politics, protests directed toward Western embassies and international organizations are not unknown. There were several small protests against U.S. foreign policy in 2017 and 2018. However, all protests concluded peacefully with no violence. Common venues for demonstrations in Colombo are the Fort Railway Station, Viharamahadevi “Victoria” Park, Hyde Park, and surrounding junctions near Town Hall (Lipton Circus, Liberty Circus, Pittala Junction).
Sri Lanka is a country of 21 million residents, two national languages (Sinhala, Tamil), and four major religions (Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity), with an approximate ethnic representation of 74% Sinhalese, 18% Tamil, 7% Muslim, and 1% Eurasian. Ethno-religious tensions have sparked demonstrations and mob violence against places of worship.
In December 2018, Muslim youth were caught in Mawanella while they were damaging Buddha Statues built on the road.
- In March 2018, the president declared a state of emergency after violent clashes between Sinhala and Muslim communities in Kandy. Additional clashes occurred in the Eastern Province. Five people died during the clashes.
- In 2017, there were increased reports of interreligious attacks. There were several reported incidents of violence perpetrated by militant Buddhist groups against both Muslims and Christians, including attacks on mosques, churches, and businesses. Most of these attacks occurred in the eastern and northern parts of Sri Lanka.
Evangelical Christian churches and mosques have been the target of lesser forms of harassment and intimidation. Supporters of militant Buddhism have increased their criticism of the government, and have held several protests against the arrest and detention of Buddhist monks implicated in intimidation of or violence against religious minorities. For more information, please review OSAC’s Report Putting Your Faith in Travel: Security Implications.
Sri Lanka experiences severe flooding brought on by the northeast monsoon (October-December) and the southwest monsoon (May-July). The heavy rains can be unpredictable and often impact the hill country in the central regions. With haphazard development contributing to soil erosion, landslides are a concern. Landslides may block roads, including major highways.
- In May 2018 and again in December 2018, heavy southwest monsoons resulted in floods and displaced many thousands of people in the island.
- In June 2017, a period of intense rain caused several instances of flash floods and landslides in the southern and western parts of the country, resulting in 47 confirmed deaths, 180 missing persons, and approximately 111,900 displaced.
- In May 2016, intense rain over several days caused flooding throughout the country and landslides that destroyed several villages, with over 200 people either confirmed killed or never found.
Sri Lanka is affected by strong currents along each coast that change depending on the season. The currents can cause strong undertows and riptides that lead to a significant number of drownings each year. Pay attention to warning flags along the beaches and avoid swimming during high-risk times.
Sri Lanka is host to numerous animals that may pose a danger to visitors. There are many species of venomous snakes and fresh/saltwater crocodiles. Sri Lanka also has a population of wild elephants that are considered dangerous and should not be approached if encountered. For more information, please review OSAC’s Report When Wildlife Attacks.
Approximately 50 fatal industrial accidents and about 3,000 non-fatal accidents are reported annually. A large number of accidents remain unreported. Approximately 60-70% were due to technological and mechanical defects (e.g. unsuitable machinery to fit the physique of the user, defective parts, unguarded machines, damaged electrical cables, worn-out hoisting ropes), while 30-40% were due to unsafe behavior. The boom in construction since the end of the war has contributed to a great number of construction-related accidents resulting in death or serious injury.
Reports of economic espionage are rare; however, thefts of Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) are a much larger problem. Piracy of sound recordings, movies, and software is widespread. Local agents of well-known U.S. and international companies representing recording, software, movie, clothing, and consumer product industries have complained that a lack of IPR protection damages to their business. Sri Lanka is a party to intellectual property agreements with the U.S. and the WTO. Infringement of IPR is a punishable offense under both criminal and civil law; however, enforcement remains a significant problem. Police occasionally raid counterfeit sellers, including counterfeit garment sellers, though it is rare for the police to act without a formal complaint and assistance from an aggrieved party.
Personal Identity Concerns
Media, police, and diplomatic reporting indicates that sexual crimes against women are a concern. While most reported incidents involved non-physical acts (e.g. cat calls, leers, verbal harassment), there have been several serious incidents (e.g. threats of sexual violence, groping, rape). Some incidents involved the surreptitious spiking of drinks. For more information, please review OSAC’s Report Shaken: The Don’ts of Alcohol Abroad. Western women have been targeted with varied levels of harassment/assaults at nightclubs, hotels, and to a lesser degree on public streets in Colombo. Incidents have also occurred at tourist beaches and smaller hotels in the Southern province. Sporting events can also be hostile or uncomfortable environments for foreign women, especially in economy seating areas. Female travelers should consider traveling with companions whenever possible and remain vigilant in their personal security practices, especially at night.
Sri Lanka has a small, but increasing drug problem. The government remains committed to targeting drug traffickers and implementing nationwide demand reduction programs. Sri Lanka is not a significant producer of narcotics or precursor chemicals, but it is playing an increasing role as a transshipment route for heroin from Pakistan, India, and other locations. Sri Lanka Police made their largest seizure of heroin in 2018. Officials are addressing a modest upsurge in consumption of heroin, cannabis, and ecstasy. Penalties for illegal drug use and trafficking are severe, including death. 2016 saw a major increase in seizures of cocaine; police and customs officials seized three shipments of 301 kg, 220 kg, and 800 kg while transiting the port of Colombo.
Kidnappings occur infrequently and mainly within the local community. The motive is usually political or business-related. Victims and their families have blamed kidnappings on security services (extrajudicial detentions/arrests, often called white van kidnappings). No U.S. citizens have been reported to be victims of kidnapping.
Although allegations of corruption and politicization of security services was once commonplace, the Sri Lanka Police Service (SLPS) is becoming increasingly professional, specifically in its specialized units. However, police officers often lack resources/training, especially at the lower ranks. Police do not always speak English well. Response time varies and can be lengthy depending on the type of incident; response to traffic-related incidents can be inefficient.
Carry a passport copy rather than the original and leave an itinerary with someone you trust.
How to Handle Incidents of Police Detention or Harassment
In cases of police detention or harassment, attempt to take note of the badge numbers of the officers involved and notify the ACS section of the Embassy as soon as possible. In some cases, police have detained third-country nationals of Sri Lankan origin for extended periods and without consular notification. However, U.S. citizens of Sri Lankan origin have not reported this problem. Contact ACS during business hours at (94) 11-249-8686 or via email. After hours, contact the Embassy duty officer at (94) 11-077-725-6307.
Crime Victim Assistance
If you are the victim of a crime, you should contact the local police and the ACS section of the U.S. Embassy. The Embassy staff can help you find appropriate medical care, contact family members/friends, and explain funds transfer. Consular officers can help you to understand the local criminal justice process and how to find an attorney if needed.
The emergency response line is 119. An additional police emergency line for Colombo is (94) 11-243-3333. Although emergency services personnel answer the number 24 hours a day, police responsiveness may vary.
The SLPS falls under the Ministry of Law & Order and Southern Development. The SLPS is comprised of approximately 60 functional divisions. The primary divisions and their purposes are as follows:
- Inspector General of Police: The senior-most police official
- Senior Deputy Inspectors General: One S/DIG is assigned to each of nine “ranges” to serve as the senior law enforcement official for each province
- Criminal Investigation Division (CID): Serious and complex criminal investigations, countrywide jurisdiction
- Police Narcotics Bureau (PNB): Illicit narcotics investigations and demand reduction activities
- Special Task Force (STF): Elite police paramilitary unit, Explosive Ordnance Disposal, protective security, special weapons and tactics
- Special Protection Range - President’s Security Division / Prime Minister Security Division / Ministerial Security Division/ Judicial Security Division / Diplomatic Security Division: each specializes in protective duties
- Terrorist Investigation Unit (TID): Terrorism investigations
Contact Information for Available Medical Services
For medical assistance, please refer to the Embassy’s Medical Assistance page.
Available Air Ambulance Services
Pacific Flight Services, Singapore, (65) 648-3756: Pacific Flight Services owns two Lear jets and contracts with specialty medical teams in Singapore to respond to medical emergencies. Pacific Flight Services has a 24-hour call center.
International SOS, Singapore, (65) 63-387-800: International SOS does not own any planes, but contracts with other companies for the use of planes. The company has its own medical teams and a 24-hour call center.
CDC Country-specific Vaccination and Health Guidance
The CDC offers additional information on vaccines and health guidance for Sri Lanka.
OSAC Country Council Information
The Colombo Country Council meets intermittently. Interested private-sector security managers should contact OSAC’s South and Central Asia team with any questions.
U.S. Embassy Location and Contact Information
Embassy Address and Hours of Operation
210 Galle Road, Colombo 3, Sri Lanka
Embassy working hours: 0800-1730, Mon-Thurs, and 0800-1200 Fri
Embassy Contact Numbers
U.S. Embassy Switchboard: (94) 11-249-8500
Embassy Duty Officer: (94) 11-077-725-6307
Register with the Embassy in person or online with the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP).
Sri Lanka Country Information Sheet