COUNTRY DESCRIPTION: El Salvador is a democratic country with a developing economy. Tourism facilities are not fully developed. The capital is San Salvador, accessible by El Salvador's International Airport at Comalapa. The U.S. dollar is the primary currency in El Salvador since 2001, and the economy is fully dollarized. U.S. citizens traveling with U.S. dollars should not exchange them for colones. Read the Department of State Background Notes on El Salvador for additional information.
SMART TRAVELER ENROLLMENT PROGRAM (STEP) / EMBASSY LOCATION: If you are going to live in or visit El Salvador, please take the time to inform the Embassy about your trip by enrolling in the Smart Traveller Enrollment Program ( STEP ). If you enroll, we can keep you up to date with important safety and security announcements. It will also help your friends and family get in touch with you in an emergency.
The Consular Section is open for services to U.S. citizens from 8:15 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. weekdays, excluding U.S. and Salvadoran holidays and the first Wednesday of each month. After business hours, the Embassy can be contacted by telephone at 011-503-2501-2316 or 011-503-2501-2253.
ENTRY / EXIT REQUIREMENTS: To enter the country by air or sea, U.S. citizens must present a current U.S. passport and either a Salvadoran visa or a one-entry tourist card. There is neither a requirement for the U.S. passport to be valid for a specific period of time nor for it to have a specific number of blank pages. The tourist card may be obtained from Salvadoran immigration officials for a $10.00 USD fee upon arrival in El Salvador at an airport or seaport. U.S. travelers who plan to remain in El Salvador for more than 30 days can apply in advance for a multiple entry visa, issued free of charge, from the Embassy of El Salvador in Washington, DC or from one of the 16 Salvadoran consulates in the United States:
Travelers may contact the Embassy of El Salvador at 1400 16th Street NW, Suite 100, Washington, DC 20036, telephone 1-202-595-7500, fax 1-202-232-3763, or visit the Embassy of El Salvador web site (Spanish language only).
When applying for a visa, travelers may be asked to present evidence of U.S. employment and adequate finances for their visit at the time of visa application or upon arrival in El Salvador. For passengers departing by air or sea, El Salvador has an exit tax, which is usually included in the price of the airline ticket.
Travelers should be aware that El Salvador's entry requirements vary in accordance with agreements the country has with foreign governments. Citizens of several countries in addition to the United States may enter El Salvador by air or sea with a current passport and either a visa or tourist card.Citizens of many other countries, including many Latin American and western European nations, may enter with only a current passport. However, citizens of most nations are required to present both a current passport and a visa to enter El Salvador by air or sea. Non-U.S. citizen travelers are advised to contact a Salvadoran embassy or consulate to determine the entry requirements applicable to them.
In June 2006, El Salvador entered into the “Central America-4 (CA-4) Border Control Agreement” with Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Under the terms of the agreement, citizens of the four countries may travel freely across land borders from one of the countries to any of the others without completing entry and exit formalities at immigration checkpoints. U.S. citizens and other eligible foreign nationals, who legally enter any of the four countries, may similarly travel among the four without obtaining additional visas or tourist entry permits for the other three countries. Immigration officials at the first port of entry determine the length of stay, up to a maximum period of 90 days.
Foreign tourists who wish to remain in the four country region beyond the period initially granted for their visit must request a one time extension of stay from local immigration authorities in the country where the traveler is physically present, or they must leave the CA-4 countries and reapply for admission to the region. Foreigners “expelled” from any of the four countries are excluded from the entire CA-4 region. In isolated cases, the lack of clarity in the implementing details of the CA-4 Border Control Agreement has caused temporary inconvenience to some travelers and has resulted in others being fined more than $100.00 USD or being detained in custody for 72 hours or longer.
Airlines operating out of El Salvador International Airport require all U.S. citizen passengers boarding flights for the United States (including U.S.-Salvadoran dual nationals) to have a current U.S. passport. U.S. citizens applying for passports at the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador are reminded that proof of citizenship and identity are required before a passport can be issued. Photographic proof of identity is especially important for young children because of the high incidence of fraud involving children. Since non-emergency passports are printed in the United States, and not at the U.S. Embassy in El Salvador, citizens submitting applications in El Salvador should be prepared to wait approximately 10 business days for receipt of their new passports. Please visit the U.S. Embassy in El Salvador website to schedule an appointment for passport services.
The U.S. Embassy in El Salvador reminds U.S. citizen travelers that their activities in El Salvador are governed by Salvadoran law and the type of visa they are issued. Under Salvadoran law, all foreigners who participate directly or indirectly in the internal political affairs of the country (i.e. political rallies or protests) lose the right to remain in El Salvador, regardless of visa status or residency in El Salvador.
HIV Info: The U.S. Department of State is unaware of any HIV/AIDS restrictions for temporary visitors. Salvadoran Immigration Law does not specifically refer to HIV/AIDS, but persons wishing to apply for residency must undergo a medical exam and be certified free of communicable diseases.
Visit the Embassy of El Salvador website for the most current visa information.
Information about dual nationality or the prevention of international child abduction can be found on our web site. For further information about customs regulations, please read our Customs Information page.
In an effort to prevent international child abduction, many governments have initiated procedures at entry/exit points. These often include requiring documentary evidence of relationship and permission for the child's travel from the parent(s) or legal guardian if not present. Having such documentation on hand, even if not required, may facilitate entry/exit. Minors traveling on Salvadoran passports, and who are traveling alone, with one parent, or with a third party, must have the written permission of the absent parent(s) or legal guardian to depart El Salvador. A Salvadoran notary must notarize this document. If the absent parent(s) or legal guardian is (are) outside of El Salvador, the document must be notarized by a Salvadoran consul at a Salvadoran embassy or consulate. If a court decree gives custody of the child traveling on a Salvadoran passport to one parent, the decree and a passport will allow the custodial parent to depart El Salvador with the child. Although Salvadoran officials generally do not require written permission for non-Salvadoran minors traveling on U.S. or other non-Salvadoran passports, it would be prudent for the parents of minor children traveling on U.S. passports to provide similar documentation if both parents are not traveling with their children.
For any questions concerning U.S. visas for either temporary travel to or permanent residence in the United States, please contact the U.S. Visa Information Service for El Salvador. Live bilingual customer service representatives are available by calling 011-503-2113-0344 or 011-503-2211-9392 between 8:00 a.m. and 7:00 p.m. on weekdays, and between 9:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. on Saturdays and most holidays. Callers in the United States may call 1-646-259-0557, and long distance charges may apply. Emergency cases will be referred directly to the U.S. Embassy in El Salvador for appropriate action by the customer service representative after the person has contacted the Visa Information Center.
Volunteers, Mission Groups, and Non-Profits: Groups bringing donated supplies, equipment, and medicine may experience difficulties with customs. To avoid potential problems, all donated material should be cleared with the appropriate office well before traveling to El Salvador.
For medicines, please contact the ConsejoSuperior De SaludPublica(Superior Council for Public Health) at Superior Council for Public Health.
For all other donated goods, please contact the Secretariade Inclusion Social (Secretariat of Social Inclusion) via email at Secretariat of Social Inclusion.
THREATS TO SAFETY AND SECURITY: Most travelers to El Salvador experience no safety or security problems, but the criminal threat in El Salvador is critical and a Travel Warning for El Salvador was issued on January 23, 2013. Random and organized violent crime is endemic throughout El Salvador, and there are no areas within the city of San Salvador (or the country of El Salvador) that are deemed free of potential violent crime. U.S. citizens have not been singled out by reason of their nationality, but are subject to the same threat as all other persons in El Salvador. See the section below on Crime for additional related information.
Political or economic issues in the country may give rise to demonstrations, sit-ins, or protests at any time or place, but these activities occur most frequently in the capital or on its main access roads. U.S. citizens are cautioned to avoid areas where demonstrations are being held and, to follow local news media reports or contact the U.S. Embassy for up-to-date information.
Strong undertows and currents can make swimming at El Salvador's Pacific Coast beaches and the country’s lakes extremely dangerous for even strong and experienced swimmers. Since 2008, 11 U.S. citizens have drowned while swimming in Salvadoran waters. Lifeguards are not present at beaches and lakes and access to medical resources in these areas is limited.
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CRIME: The State Department considers El Salvador a critical crime threat country which exists when there is a continuous serious threat for crime and forced entries and assaults on residents are common. In 2011, El Salvador had the second highest murder rate in the world: 71 per 100,000 people (by comparison, the murder rate in Massachusetts, with a similar geographical area and population, was 2.6 per 100,000). In 2012, a truce between El Salvador’s two principal street gangs contributed to a decline in the homicide rate. However, the sustainability of the decline is unclear, and the truce had little impact on robbery, assaults, and other violent crimes. Most of these crimes go unsolved. In March 2012, as a result of an administrative review of the security situation, Peace Corps El Salvador substantially reduced the number of its volunteers in country.
U.S. citizens do not appear to be targeted based on their nationality. However, 24 U.S. citizens have been murdered in El Salvador since January 2010. During the same time period, 242 U.S. citizens reported having their passports stolen. Armed robberies of climbers and hikers in El Salvador’s national parks is common, and the Embassy strongly recommends engaging the services of a local guide certified by the national or local tourist authority when hiking in back country areas, even within the national parks. In 2000, the National Civilian Police (PNC) established a special tourist police force (POLITUR) to provide security and assistance to tourists, as well as protection for the cultural heritage of El Salvador. It has officers located in 19 tourist destinations.
A majority of serious crimes in El Salvador are never solved; only 5 of the 24 murders committed against U.S. citizens since
January 2010 have resulted in convictions. The Government of El Salvador lacks sufficient resources to properly investigate
and prosecute cases and to deter violent crime. The PNC is still developing into a modern and effective police force that
can protect the public. While several of the PNC’s investigative units have shown great promise, routine street level patrol
techniques, anti-gang, and crime suppression efforts are limited.
Transnational criminal organizations conduct narcotics, arms trafficking, and other unlawful activities throughout the country and use violence to control drug trafficking routes and carry out other criminal activity. Other criminals, acting both individually and in gangs, commit crimes such as murder-for-hire, carjacking, extortion, armed robbery, rapes, and other aggravated assaults. El Salvador, a country of roughly six million people, has hundreds of known street gangs totaling more than 20,000 members. Gangs and other criminal elements roam freely day and night, targeting affluent areas for burglaries, and gang members are quick to engage in violence if resisted.
Extortion is a particularly serious and common crime in El Salvador. Many extortion attempts are no more than random cold calls that originate from imprisoned gang members using cellular telephones, and the subsequent threats against the victim are made through social engineering and/or through information obtained about the victim’s family. U.S. citizens who are visiting El Salvador for extended periods may be at higher risk for extortion demands. Hitting its peak a few years ago, extortion has dropped in the last two years; however, recent reports show that there is an increase in the level of violence associated with extortion cases, including media reports of extortion victims and witnesses being killed. Extortion attempts can be transnational in nature and can include kidnapping of victims. For example, in 2011, a two year old U.S. citizen was kidnapped from the home of his grandparents in El Salvador by eight to ten armed men. Ransom demands made to family members in both El Salvador and the United States were traced back to a local prison used exclusively to incarcerate gang members.
Criminals have ready access to firearms and shootouts are not uncommon. Foreigners, however, may not carry guns even for their own protection without first obtaining firearms licenses from the Salvadoran government. Failure to do so will result in the detention of the bearer and confiscation of the firearm, even if it is licensed in the United States.
Travelers should remain in groups and avoid remote or isolated locations in order to minimize their vulnerability. Travelers should also avoid displaying or carrying valuables in public places. Passports and other important documents should not be left in private vehicles. Armed assaults and carjackings take place both in San Salvador and in the interior of the country, but are especially frequent on roads outside the capital where police patrols are scarce. Criminals have been known to follow travelers from the El Salvador International Airport to private residences or secluded stretches of road where they carry out assaults and robberies. Armed robbers are known to shoot, if the vehicle does not come to a stop. Criminals often become violent quickly, especially when victims fail to cooperate immediately in surrendering valuables. Frequently, victims who argue with assailants or refuse to give up their valuables are shot. Kidnapping for ransom continues to occur, but has decreased in frequency since 2001. U.S. citizens in El Salvador should exercise caution at all times and practice good personal security procedures throughout their stay.
Armed holdups of vehicles traveling on El Salvador's roads are common, and we encourage U.S. citizens to remain aware of their surroundings. The U.S. Embassy warns its personnel to drive with their doors locked and windows raised, to avoid travel outside of major metropolitan areas after dark, and to avoid travel on unpaved roads at all times because of criminal assaults and lack of police and road service facilities. Travelers with conspicuous amounts of luggage, late-model cars, or foreign license plates are particularly vulnerable to crime, even in the capital.
Travel on public transportation, especially buses, both within and outside the capital, is risky and not recommended. The Embassy advises official visitors and personnel to avoid using mini-buses and buses and to use only radio-dispatched taxis or those stationed in front of major hotels.
U.S. citizens using banking services should be vigilant while conducting their financial exchanges either inside local banks or at automated teller machines (ATMSs). There have been several reports of armed robberies in which victims appear to have been followed from the bank after completing their transactions. U.S, citizens have also been victimized at well known restaurants, hotels, and retailers within San Salvador. The Embassy has noticed a recent trend in credit card cloning and similar fraud. Credit card fraud can be difficult to recover from and can adversely affect your credit score and financial health. Using a credit card is safer than using an ATM card or Debit card to pay. With ATM or Debit cards, the money is transferred out of the account at the very moment of the transaction, and it is usually not recoverable or contestable.
For your security we recommend the following to avoid becoming a victim of credit card fraud: notify the card issuer of your travel plans, check your statements frequently, limit the number of credit cards you have and/or carry with you, limit the locations that you regularly use your card(s), maintain direct visual contact with their credit cards at all times, and shred all receipts. If you become a victim of credit card fraud, contact your bank’s fraud hotline and cancel your card immediately. They will ask you for information and will usually then send you an affidavit to sign, affirming you did not make the charges.
Visitors to El Salvador should use caution when climbing volcanoes or hiking in other remote locations. Armed robberies of climbers and hikers are common. Mine removal efforts ceased several years ago, but land mines and unexploded ordnance in backcountry regions can still pose a threat to off road tourists, backpackers, and campers. The Embassy strongly recommends engaging the services of a local guide certified by the national or local tourist authority when hiking in backcountry areas, even when within the national parks.
Don’t buy counterfeit and pirated goods, even if they are widely available. Not only are the bootlegs illegal in the United States, if you purchase them, you may also be breaking the local law.
VICTIMS OF CRIME: If you, or someone you know, become the victim of a crime abroad, you should contact the local police and the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate. We can:
Victims of crime should bear in mind that law enforcement resources are limited and judicial processes are uneven in El Salvador. Most crimes in the country (including murder) go unsolved, and the likelihood for redress through the judicial system is limited. As a result, only a small percentage of cases result in conviction.
The local equivalent to the “911” emergency line in El Salvador is also 911.
Please see our information on victims of crime, including possible victim compensation programs in the United States.
CRIMINAL PENALTIES: While you are traveling in El Salvador, you are subject to its laws even if you are a U.S. citizen. Foreign laws and legal systems can be vastly different than our own. In some places, you may be taken in for questioning for not having your passport with you. In other places, driving under the influence could land you immediately in jail. These criminal penalties will vary from country to country. There are also some things that might be legal in the country you visit, but are still illegal in the United States, and you can be prosecuted under U.S. law. For example, buying pirated goods, engaging in sexual conduct with children, or using or disseminating child pornography in a foreign country is a crime prosecutable in the United States. If you break local laws in El Salvador, your U.S. passport won’t help you avoid arrest or prosecution. It’s very important to know what’s legal and what’s not where you are going.
Penalties for breaking the law can be more severe than in the United States for similar offences. Persons violating El Salvador’s laws, even unknowingly, may be expelled, arrested, or imprisoned. Penalties for possession, use, or trafficking in illegal drugs in El Salvador are severe, and convicted offenders can expect long jail sentences and heavy fines. Prison and detention center conditions are harsh and dangerous. Overcrowding constitutes a serious threat to prisoners’ health and lives. In many facilities, provisions for sanitation, potable water, ventilation, temperature, and lighting are inadequate.
Based on the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, bilateral agreements with certain countries and customary international law, if you are arrested in El Salvador, you have the option to request that the police, prison officials or other authorities alert the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate of your arrest, and to have communications from you forwarded to the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate.
Guns: El Salvador has strict laws requiring a locally obtained license to possess or carry a firearm in the country. The Embassy strongly advises persons without a Salvadoran firearms license not to bring guns into the country or use a firearm while in El Salvador. The Embassy cannot intervene in the judicial process when a U.S. citizen is charged with a firearms violation. Conviction for possessing an unlicensed firearm can carry a prison sentence of three to five years.
Disaster Preparedness: Preparation for natural disasters is essential in El Salvador which has significant seismic activity, seven active volcanoes, a coastline vulnerable to hurricanes and tsunamis and a rainy season that can produce severe flooding and mudslides. In November of 2009, heavy and constant rain over a four day period caused severe flooding and triggered landslides that severely damaged roads, bridges, and houses. Almost 200 people died and 14,000 more were left homeless. In October 2011, 10 days of heavy rains destroyed crops and towns in Central America, hitting El Salvador particularly hard with mudslides and flooding that killed 34 persons and forced 50,000 to seek temporary shelter.
An earthquake measuring 7.6 on the Richter scale devastated parts of El Salvador in January 2001. A second earthquake in February 2001 measured 6.6 on the Richter scale and caused significant additional damage and loss of life. In total there were three earthquakes that struck El Salvador in 2001, which resulted in over 1,000 deaths, one million people left homeless, and over 400,000 homes destroyed. In March 2007, an earthquake of 5.6 struck in the northern section of the country, knocking down a number of homes and damaging buildings. Seismic tremors measuring over 5.0 occur on a regular basis, usually causing little damage to the country. It is estimated that there are close to 2,000 tremors that affect the country per year.
General information about natural disaster preparedness is available from the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Additional information in Spanish about earthquakes (sismos) in El Salvador can be found on the Government of El Salvador’s web page.
Accessibility: While in El Salvador, individuals with disabilities may find accessibility and accommodation very different from what you find in the United States. The law prohibits discrimination against persons with physical and mental disabilities in employment, education, access to health care, or the provision of other state services. According to the National Council for Comprehensive Attention to Persons with Disability (CONAIPD), the government did not allocate sufficient resources to enforce these prohibitions effectively, particularly in education, employment, and transportation and did not effectively enforce legal requirements for access to buildings, information, and communications for persons with disabilities. There are almost no access ramps or provisions for the mobility of persons with sight and hearing disabilities.
MEDICAL FACILITIES AND HEALTH INFORMATION: There are a few private hospitals with an environment that would be acceptable to visiting U.S. citizens. The Embassy recommends that these hospitals be used only for emergency care to stabilize a condition prior to returning to the United States for definitive evaluation and treatment. Private hospitals and physicians expect up-front payment (cash or, for hospitals, credit card) for all bills asthere are no hospitals or medical offices who will bill U.S. insurance companies.
Priority Ambulance (011-503-2264-7911) is the only private ambulance service with a fleet of vehicles in San Salvador that has trained personnel and medical equipment to manage emergencies. The response time is often less than ideal because of the heavy traffic in San Salvador. Therefore, whenever possible, people should transport themselves directly to the hospital by private vehicle.
Pharmacies are plentiful but not all medicines found in the United States are available in El Salvador. Medicines often have a different brand name and are frequently more expensive than in the United States. We recommend that U.S. citizens traveling to El Salvador carry an adequate supply of any medication they require in its original container, which should be clearly labeled. A copy of the prescription from your doctor will be helpful in the event that it is requested by immigration or customs authorities.
No specific vaccinations are required for entry into El Salvador from the United States. Travelers coming from countries where yellow fever is endemic must have had a yellow fever vaccination in order to enter the country. For more information, visit El Salvador’s Immigration web site.
You can find good information on vaccinations and other health precautions, on the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) website. For information about outbreaks of infectious diseases abroad, consult the infectious diseases section of the World Health Organization (WHO) website. The WHO website also contains additional health information for travelers, including detailed country-specific health information.
Tap water is not safe to drink in El Salvador, and the Embassy advises official visitors and personnel to use either bottled water or to disinfect tap water using the guidelines suggested at the CDC website.
MEDICAL INSURANCE: You can’t assume your insurance will go with you when you travel. It’s very important to find out before you leave whether or not your medical insurance will cover you overseas. You need to ask your insurance company two questions:
In many places, doctors and hospitals still expect payment in cash at the time of service. Your regular U.S. health insurance may not cover doctor and hospital visits in other countries. If your policy doesn’t go with you when you travel, it’s a very good idea to take out another one for your trip. For more information, please see our medical insurance overseas page.
TRAFFIC SAFETY AND ROAD CONDITIONS: While in a foreign country, you may encounter road conditions that differ significantly from those in the United States. The information below concerning El Salvador is provided for general reference only, and may not be totally accurate in a particular location or circumstance.
Major highways and thoroughfares are among the best in Central America, but road conditions throughout El Salvador are not up to U.S. standards. Even within the city of San Salvador, it is not uncommon to see missing manhole covers and large objects in the roadway marking the danger. Road travel at night is particularly dangerous outside the capital as there are few road lights and many vehicles lack adequate safety lighting or reflectors. The Embassy advises against driving outside the capital during night time or periods of low visibility. Mini-buses, buses, and taxis are often poorly maintained. Drivers are frequently untrained and unlicensed, and generally do not adhere to traffic rules and regulations.
Because of inconsistent enforcement of traffic laws in El Salvador, drivers must make an extraordinary effort to drive defensively. Passing on blind corners or across several lanes of traffic is commonplace. Two lane traffic circles are common in El Salvador and can be especially dangerous to navigate as it is generally understood that the traffic in the inside lane has right of way.
Although the law in El Salvador requires all parties involved in a vehicle accident to stay at the scene until the police respond, it is not unusual in minor traffic accidents for both parties to simply drive away especially if one or both drivers are uninsured. Salvadoran law requires that the driver of a vehicle that injures or kills another person must be arrested and detained until a judge can determine responsibility for the accident. This law is uniformly enforced.
Visitors to El Salvador may drive on their U.S. license for up to 30 days. After that time, a visitor is required to obtain a Salvadoran license.
Please refer to our Road Safety page for more information. Also, we suggest that you visit the web site of El Salvador’s national tourist office and the national authority responsible for road safety. Further information on traffic and road conditions is available in Spanish from Automovil Club de El Salvador (ACES).
AVIATION SAFETY OVERSIGHT: The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has assessed the government of El Salvador’s Civil Aviation Authority as being in compliance with International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) aviation safety standards for oversight of El Salvador’s air carrier operations. Further information may be found on the FAA’s safety assessment page.
This replaces the Country Specific Information for El Salvador dated December 02, 2011 with updates to every section.