On this page:
- How we help you
- What to do if you're arrested or detained overseas
- What to do if you're sentenced and jailed overseas
- The International Transfer of Prisoners scheme (ITP)
- Financial help for prisoners
- Passport cancellation or refusal related to serious foreign offences
- After you're released from jail overseas
- Information for family members
Local laws and penalties apply to you when you're overseas, even ones that may appear harsh by Australian standards. This can include corporal punishment, life sentences and the death penalty.
If you're arrested or detained overseas, you have the right to contact the Australian Government. However, you need to have realistic expectations about our ability to resolve any difficulties you face. The Australian Government can't get you out of jail. We must work within the limits set by local authorities, laws and the prison system.
The Consular Service Charter outlines how and when we can help Australians overseas. It's available at smartraveller.gov.au/charter, or you can ask a consular officer to give you a copy.
This brochure will help you understand what we can do to help prisoners and their families.
How we help you
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) provides help to Australians who find themselves in trouble overseas. This support is called consular assistance or consular help.
What we may do to help
We'll do as much as possible to help you and your family within local and international law. But there may be limitations to what we can do ñ we can't override local laws.
- visit you while you're detained
- explain the rules for having visitors
- help you access money or telephones
- give you a list of local English-speaking lawyers for you to choose from (if they are present in the country)
- update your family or friends about your welfare (if you consent)
- tell your family and friends how to send you money
- discuss justified and serious complaints about ill-treatment or discrimination
- raise unresolved medical, dental or optical issues with local authorities
- arrange a small loan for you under the Prisoner Loan Scheme (subject to strict eligibility criteria)
- monitor your court trials and update you and your family/friends with your consent
- where applicable, give information on the International Transfer of Prisoners Scheme.
What we can't do
- get you out of jail
- give local authorities written guarantees to secure your release
- determine if you're innocent or guilty
- conduct investigations
- provide you or your family with legal advice
- recommend a lawyer
- pay your lawyer's fees, start court procedures or interfere in local judicial processes
- seek better treatment for you than what's given to the country's citizens or other nationals
- arrange your bail or pay your fines
- provide interpreter or translation services.
If you're a dual national and are in your other country of nationality we can only provide help in exceptional circumstances.
Under international law, countries don't have to recognise dual nationality. A foreign country may not allow us to help you if it considers you a citizen. They may not see you as Australian if you weren't travelling on your Australian passport. They also may deny consular access and refuse to provide information relevant to your case.
If this happens, the Australian Government will register its view with the local government ñ that all Australian citizens are entitled to consular help. However, there's no guarantee that local authorities will listen.
If you're arrested or detained overseas
If you're detained overseas, ask to speak to officials from the nearest Australian mission.
Many countries, including Australia, have signed the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. This means someone arrested or detained overseas can seek help from their government.
You can find the contact details of Australian embassies, high commissions and consulates on the DFAT website (dfat.gov.au/missions). If you can't contact an embassy, contact the 24-hour Consular Emergency Centre on:
- +61 2 6261 3305 (from overseas)
- 1300 555 135 (local call cost within Australia).
Australia has an agreement with Canada to provide consular help to Australians in some countries. Contact details for relevant Canadian missions are available on the DFAT website.
Meet with a consular official
If you're an Australian detained overseas and ask for consular help, a consular officer will visit or call you. They'll liaise with the local authorities and prison service to establish a communication channel with you. Arrests in some countries may involve a lengthy stay in a police detention centre, even if charged and given a suspended sentence, or if a deportation order is made.
The focus for our consular officers is your welfare. We don't make assumptions about your guilt or innocence.
Consular officers will try to ensure you:
- have regular contact with a consular officer
- have access to legal advice
- are treated no worse than local citizens detained for similar offences
- are subject to humanitarian standards of prisoner welfare
- have your basic needs met.
Consular officers may be able to help you find out about your prison's:
- local visiting hours, phone and mail regulations
- censorship and privileges
- social and welfare services
- opportunities to do paid work in the prison.
Consular officers will try to stay in touch with you. How often they contact you will depend on:
- your wishes
- prison regulations and/or local laws
- the location of the prison
- the length of the sentence
- the availability of other local support.
Seek legal advice
Consular officers can give you a list of local English-speaking lawyers. You are responsible for choosing your lawyer.
Consular officers are not lawyers. We can't provide you or your family with legal advice or tell you which lawyer to choose. We also can't make representations to the court on your behalf.
If you need an interpreter, you may need to organise this through your lawyer.
Maintain your health and welfare
Raise any health or welfare issues with the prison authorities. Ask your consular officer for support and advise if you believe prison authorities haven't dealt with your concerns.
Consular officers and your lawyer can raise welfare complaints on your behalf. This includes complaints about ill-treatment or discrimination. Complaints must be justified and serious.
The Australian Government can generally only raise issues with local authorities if you're:
- being treated worse than a local prisoner would be
- experiencing unreasonable delays in your case, compared to similar cases for local prisoners
- you're not receiving medical care.
The Australian Government may also consider appealing to the foreign government in support of applications for pardon or clemency or converting a death sentence to a prison term.
Contact your family
Stay in direct contact with your family or friends while in detention. Keep them updated about your health and welfare needs. We also suggest you let your family contact your lawyer directly. Your lawyer can keep them informed about your case.
If you can't contact your family, consular officers may be able to help. We'll only pass on information if you agree and give consent. If you don't want us to tell your family or friends, we'll respect your request and won't contact them or update them if they call us.
If you want us to update your family and friends, make one person the point of contact. This will help us coordinate information and avoid confusion.
Address your finances
Prison systems in some countries make you pay for your stay. If you or your family can't pay, you may not get access to some basic services while in prison. Your consular officer can advise your family on transferring money to you.
Travel insurance won't cover prison expenses. Neither will the Australian Government.
You'll also need to address your finances in Australia, especially if you receive welfare payments. Tell a consular officer if, before you were detained, you were:
- receiving Centrelink payments
- paying or receiving child support.
Consular officers can help you contact Services Australia and tell them about your detention. Centrelink needs to know about your change of circumstance to prevent you from developing a debt.
Prepare for trial
Legal processes vary from country to country. Your lawyer will help you prepare for your trial. In some destinations, it can take months or years before your case is heard. You may face a long period of detention before your case comes to trial.
The Australian Government will closely watch your case. We expect procedural fairness. But there's no guarantee our actions will achieve what you want as the foreign government may not respond to us.
If you're sentenced and jailed overseas
If you're sentenced to prison, you'll generally be expected to serve your sentence in the country where you're detained.
Prison conditions and management vary from country to country and prison to prison. You may need to learn new rules and routines to adjust to different prison environments.
Ask the prison authorities if/how you can:
- learn the local language
- send letters, and how often. Sometimes remand prisoners can send more letters which will help you get your personal affairs in order
- make phone calls, and how often
- study in the prison or through an external educational institution
- participate in activities that can contribute to a sentence reduction
- take part in any sporting or creative activities
- work inside the prison, whether work is compulsory, and whether you can earn money.
Discuss your options with a consular officer if you have difficulty communicating with the prison authorities or arranging activities.
Pardons and clemency
If you seek a pardon or clemency, you, your family or your lawyer must apply through the legal system of the country you're detained in.
Consular officers can't get you out of prison. We also can't give the arresting authorities written guarantees to get you out of jail.
If you request it, the Australian Government may start or support your application for a pardon. We will only do this where:
- local law and practice allow
- you've served a similar sentence to what you would have done for your crime in Australia, less one year to allow for application processing time.
Whether the local authorities grant your pardon is entirely up to them.
International Transfer of Prisoners Scheme (ITP)
Australia has agreements with several countries under the International Transfer of Prisoners Scheme (ITP). Under this scheme, some Australian prisoners can serve the rest of their sentence in an Australian prison.
Eligibility for transfer to Australia
You may be able to transfer back to Australia if you are an Australian Citizen or permanent resident with community ties to Australia, and meet all the conditions:
Australia has a transfer agreement with the country you're imprisoned in.
- The terms of transfer are agreed to by
- the Australian Government
- the government of the country you're jailed in
- the government of the Australian state or territory you wish to transfer to.
- Your transfer won't prevent your extradition to another country if required.
- You have at least 6 months of your sentence remaining (unless this condition is waived or varied)
- The conviction or sentence isn't subject to appeal
- The offence you're serving a sentence for would also be an offence in Australia (unless this condition is waived).
Applying for the ITP
You, your family or your lawyer must complete and submit your application for the ITP scheme.
Ask your consular officer about the scheme if you've exhausted all appeal avenues. They can help you apply. There are no guarantees of the outcome.
Ask your consular officer:
- if the country you're held in has a transfer agreement
- about eligibility requirements and conditions for transfer. You can also email the Attorney-General's Department at firstname.lastname@example.org for an information pack on the scheme and an application form
- to keep you updated on the progress of your application.
Financial help for prisoners
If you need money, ask your friends and family. In some countries, Australian prisoners can have bank accounts to receive funds from family and friends to pay for lawyers or items you may need to buy, such as phone cards or stamps. A consular officer can advise you on setting up the account.
If you can't have a bank account, we may be able to provide family or friends with information on how to transfer funds. If we can't offer this advice, we'll give you the contact details of the prison authorities who can.
Financial help from the government
In most cases, the Australian Government can't support you financially in prison. We can't pay your legal fees. Medicare, Centrelink or the Department of Veterans Affairs can't pay you benefits.
Prisoner Loan Scheme
Sometimes, we may arrange a loan for you from the Australian Government under the Prisoner Loan Scheme.
We'll only arrange a loan if:
- the prison is not providing adequate food, medical facilities and other essentials such as bedding, clothing and soap
- you can't organise a loan from family or friends
- the country where you're imprisoned is on the approved country schedule.
You must repay loans granted under the Prisoner Loan Scheme after your release.
If you fail to repay the loan, you may not be able to get a new or replacement Australian passport. Your passport may be cancelled if you've incurred a debt for a loan from the Australian Government while in prison.
Assistance from the Attorney-General's Department
The Attorney-General's Department has 2 schemes for Australian prisoners overseas. You may be eligible for financial assistance through their:
How to apply
To apply for financial help for legal fees, complete the forms on the Attorney-General's Department website (ag.gov.au). If you can't access these forms online, ask a consular officer to provide them on their next visit.
For more information about these schemes, contact the Attorney-General's Department during business hours on
- 02 6141 4770 (within Australia)
- +61 2 6141 4770 (outside Australia).
The Attorney-General's Department will not normally cover the cost of any legal fees or expenses you pay before you make an application.
Passport cancellation or refusal related to serious foreign offences
If you're convicted, the Australian Government may cancel your passport. The Australian Passports Act (2005) allows the Minister for Foreign Affairs to cancel your passport if:
- a foreign country has issued a warrant for your arrest regarding a serious foreign offence
- you're prevented from travelling by a legal order or direction in the foreign country.
The Minister may also choose not to issue you a new Australian passport.
If the Minister cancels or refuses your passport, you're still an Australian citizen. You can still seek Australian consular assistance.
After you're released from jail overseas
Returning to Australia
The Australian Government can provide consular support when you're released from prison. We can help ensure you can return to Australia. This may include help during the deportation/extradition process such as issuing you with travel documents if your passport is expired or cancelled.
Consular officers can give you the contact details of prisoner support organisations in your state or territory. These organisations may be able to help you to re-establish your life when you return to Australia.
Once you've been released and returned to Australia, consular officials close your case file.
Support in Australia
In Australia, Services Australia gives information about:
- eligibility for the one-off crisis payment - prison release
- referrals to employment service providers to help you look for work
- Centrelink payments, such as employment assistance, pensions, family and parenting payments, and payments for carers
- Child support services if you're making payments for dependent children or if you're receiving child payments
- Medicare services, such as the reissue of Medicare cards and enrolment for Medicare.
Crisis payment - prison release
You may be entitled to a one-off crisis payment on release in addition to ongoing Centrelink payments. To qualify for a crisis payment, you must be all of the following:
- in severe financial hardship
- charged with committing an offence
- spent 14 or more days in prison
- in Australia when you apply
- eligible for a Centrelink support payment.
Keep documents stating your period in custody. You must provide this if you claim payments.
Visit servicesaustralia.gov.au for more information on support payments and how to apply.
Information for family members
Contact DFAT if you have concerns about a family member arrested or detained overseas or would like an update on their situation. Information provided is subject to privacy laws.
Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade
Attn: Consular Operations Branch
RG Casey Building John McEwen Crescent
BARTON ACT 0221
Phone 02 6261 3305 or 1300 555 135 (24-hour number, local call cost).
While we can help you and you can contact us anytime, our primary client is the detained person.
We may be able to give you updates. However, we can be limited in the details we can give due to privacy rules.
Visiting an Australian in prison overseas
If you want to visit your detained family member, contact us before leaving Australia. We can tell you about prison visiting arrangements. These vary widely from country to country. We recommend you make arrangements before you leave.
Consular officers may also be able to provide advice on
- what you can send or take into prisons overseas
- the full postal address and telephone number of the prison
- details of the prisoner's legal counsel and information about court proceedings, if authorised.
If we can't provide this advice, we will give you the contact details of the prison authorities who can.
Contact the Consular Emergency Centre at +61 2 6261 3305 if you need urgent mental health support overseas. A consular officer can transfer you to a Lifeline telephone crisis supporter.
This information has been prepared carefully. However, the Australian Government can't be held responsible if the information here leads to injury, loss or damage of any sort. "Australian Government" includes employees, agents, and diplomatic and consular staff overseas.
Consular and Crisis Management Division
Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, RG Casey Building
John McEwen Crescent BARTON ACT 0221
Tel. (02) 6261 3305; 1300 555 135
Travel advice is available from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Tradeís Smartraveller website Smartraveller.gov.au.