COUNTRY DESCRIPTION: The Lao People's Democratic Republic (Laos) is a developing country ruled by a one-party, Communist government. Political power is centralized in the Lao People's Revolutionary Party. Services and facilities for tourists are adequate in the capital, Vientiane, and in the UNESCO World Heritage town of Luang Prabang, but are extremely limited in other parts of the country. Please read the Department of State’s Background Notes on Laos for additional information.
SMART TRAVELER ENROLLMENT PROGRAM (STEP) / EMBASSY LOCATION: If you are planning to live in or visit Laos, please take the time to tell our Embassy in Vientiane about your trip. If you enroll in STEP, we can keep you up to date with important safety and security announcements. By enrolling, you will also help your friends and family to get in touch with you in an emergency. Here’s the link to the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP).
Local embassy information is available below and at the Department of State’s list of embassies and consulates.
U.S. Embassy Vientiane
Rue Bartholonie (near That Dam), Vientiane – for local mail
Unit 8165, Box V, APO AP 96546 – for mail from the United States
Telephone: (856-21) 267-000
Recorded emergency information for U.S. citizens: (856-21) 267-111
Duty officer emergency cellular telephone: (856-20) 5550-2016
Embassy-wide fax number: (856-21) 267-190.
E-mail the Embassy’s Consular Section.
ENTRY / EXIT REQUIREMENTS FOR U.S. CITIZENS: You must have both a passport and visa to enter Laos, and your passport must also have at least six months validity remaining beyond the date that you enter Laos. You can get a visa on arrival in Laos if you are traveling for tourism, have two passport-size photographs and pay $35 at the following ports of entry: Wattay Airport, Vientiane; Pakse, Savannakhet, and Luang Prabang Airports; Friendship Bridge, Vientiane and Savannakhet; Nam Heuang Friendship Bridge, Sayabouly Province;and border crossings at Boten-Mohan, Dansavan-Lao Bao, Houaysay-Chiang Khong, Thakhek-Nakhon Phanom, Nong Haet-Nam Kan, Nam Phao-Kao Cheo, Veun Kham-Dong Calor, and Vangtao-Chong Mek. You can also get a visa on arrival at the Tha Naleng train station in Vientiane, which connects to the train station in Nongkhai, Thailand. If you obtain a visa from a Lao embassy or consulate prior to your travel to Laos, you may also enter at the following international entry points: Napao-Chalo, Taichang-Sophoun, Pakxan-Bungkan, and Xiengkok
If you get your visa on arrival in Laos, you will generally be allowed to stay in Laos for 30 days after you arrive. If you were born in Laos, you may be admitted for 60 days or longer. You can extend your 30-day tourist visa up to an additional 60 days for a fee of $2 per day through the Department of Immigration in Vientiane. If you overstay your visa in Laos, you risk arrest and you will be fined $10 for each day of overstay as you leave. The Lao government calculates visa fees and fines in U.S. dollars. Thai baht and Lao kip may sometimes be accepted for the fees but at unfavorable exchange rates. Additional information is available from the Lao National Tourism Administration.
If you enter Laos with a visitor (tourist) visa issued at a Lao embassy abroad, you will generally be allowed to stay in Laos for 60 days. If you wish to obtain a visa in advance, please contact a Lao embassy or consulate. In the United States, you can get visa and other information about Lao entry requirements from the Embassy of the Lao People's Democratic Republic, 2222 S St. NW, Washington, DC, 20008, tel: 202-332-6416, fax: 202-332-4923.
Business visas can only be arranged in advance. A company or individual “sponsor” must contact the Lao Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) in Vientiane, request a visa for you, and offer a “guarantee.” Once the Lao MFA approves the request, the Lao MFA will send the approval to the Lao Embassy in Washington, D.C., and business travelers may then apply for a business visa. This process usually takes one to three months. After you arrive in Laos, your business visas can generally be extended for one month.
Do not attempt to enter Laos without valid travel documents or outside of official ports of entry. You should not cross the border between Laos and Thailand along the Mekong River except at official immigration check crossings. If you attempt to enter Laos outside of official ports of entry, you may be arrested, detained, fined, and deported.
Immigration offices at some of the less frequently used land border crossing points are not well marked. Make sure you complete all immigration and customs requirements when you enter or depart Laos. If you enter Laos without completing these formalities, you may be subject to fines, detention, imprisonment, and/or deportation.
In an effort to prevent international child abduction, many governments have initiated additional procedures at entry/exit points. These often include requiring documentary evidence of relationship, such as the child’s birth certificate, and permission for the child's travel from the parent(s) or legal guardian not present. Having such documentation on hand, even if not required, may facilitate entry/departure. Information about dual nationality or the prevention of international child abduction can be found on our web site.
At Wattay Airport (Vientiane), Pakse Airport, Savannakhet Airport, and the Luang Prabang Airport, there is an international airport departure tax of US $10. This tax may be included in the price of the airline ticket, depending on the carrier. There is also a 5,000 kip (equivalent to approximately U.S. 60 cents) departure tax for domestic flights, which may be included in the price of the airline ticket, depending on the carrier. At the Friendship Bridge (Vientiane, Laos - Nong Khai, Thailand border crossing) there is an overtime fee after 4:00 pm weekdays and during weekends. Visit the Embassy of Laos web site for the most current information. For further information about customs regulations, please read our Customs Information page.
The U.S. Department of State is unaware of any HIV/AIDS entry restrictions for visitors to or foreign residents of Laos.
THREATS TO SAFETY AND SECURITY: There have been reports in the past of violent incidents carried out by anti-government forces. The Department of State recommends that if you travel to or reside in Laos, exercise caution and be alert to your surroundings at all times.
The Lao government security forces often stop and check all transport on main roads, particularly at night. You must comply with requests to stop at checkpoints and roadblocks. Especially if you are considering travel outside urban centers, please contact relevant Lao government offices, such as Lao Immigration Police Headquarters in Vientiane, the Lao Tourist Police, local police and customs offices, or the U.S. Embassy for the most current security information. To avoid trouble with the authorities, if you are traveling outside of normal tourist areas or contemplating any unusual activity (including, but not limited to, engaging in business, extensive photography, or scientific research of any kind), be sure to seek advance permission from the Village Chief, District Head, Provincial Governor, or National Tourism Authority, as appropriate.
The large amount of unexploded ordnance (UXO) left over from the Indochina War causes more than 200 casualties a year. UXO can be found in some parts of Savannakhet, Xieng Khouang, Saravane, Khammouane, Sekong, Champassak, Houaphan, Attapeu, Luang Prabang, and Vientiane Provinces. In addition, numerous mine fields are left over from the Indochina war along Route 7 (from Route 13 to the Vietnam border), Route 9 (Savannakhet to the Vietnam border), and Route 20 (Pakse to Saravane). Never pick up unknown metal objects and avoid traveling off well-used roads, tracks, and paths.
You should also exercise caution in remote areas along the Lao border with Burma. Bandits, drug traffickers, and other people pursuing illegal activities operate in these border areas, as do armed insurgent groups opposed to the Government of Burma.
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CRIME: Laos generally has a low rate of violent crime, but you should remain aware of your surroundings and exercise appropriate security precautions. Residential burglary is commonplace. The number of thefts and assaults in Laos has increased, and some have turned violent. Sexual assaults do occur in Laos. You should exercise caution, particularly after dark, at roadside restaurants, bars, and stalls. Foreigners are often victims of purse snatchings while they are dining or riding bicycles or motorcycles. Please be careful when carrying purses, bags, and other personal items.
Local law enforcement responses to crimes, even violent crimes, are often limited. Foreigners attempting to report crimes have reported finding police stations closed, emergency telephone numbers unanswered, or policemen lacking transportation or authorization to investigate crimes that occur at night. If you move to Laos, please contact the U.S. Embassy Vientiane for security information.
If you travel to Vang Vieng, be aware that some tourists have been robbed and sexually assaulted in that area. Many restaurants in the Vang Vieng area offer menu items, particularly “pizzas,” “shakes,” or “teas,” that may contain unknown substances or opiates. These products are often advertised as “happy” or “special” items. These unknown substances or opiates can be dangerous, causing serious illness or even death. Travelers in Vang Vieng have been fined and detained for purchasing, possessing, or using illegal substances. In recent years, foreigners, including U.S. citizens, have died in Laos after using illegal drugs, such as methamphetamines, opium, or heroin. The potency of some of these drugs can be several times that of similar substances found in the United States.
Please exercise caution on overnight bus trips, particularly on buses travelling to/from Vietnam. The Embassy has received reports of scams and thefts of personal belongings on these trips.
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 local law.
VICTIMS OF CRIME: If you or someone you know becomes the victim of a crime abroad, you should contact the local police and the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate. We can: replace a stolen passport; for violent crimes such as assault or rape, help you find appropriate medical care; put you in contact with the appropriate police authorities and your family members or friends; help you to understand the local criminal justice process and direct you to local attorneys.
In Laos, the local equivalent to the U.S. “911” emergency lines are: 190 for fire, 191 for traffic police, and 195 for ambulance. The Tourist Police can be reached in Vientiane at 021-251-128.
Please see our information on victims of crime, including possible victim-compensation programs in the United States.
CRIMINAL PENALTIES: While you are traveling in Laos, 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. Driving under the influence could land you immediately in jail. There are also some things that might be legal in Laos, but still illegal in the United States. For example, you can be prosecuted under U.S. law if you buy pirated goods. Engaging in sexual conduct with minors or using or disseminating child pornography in a foreign country is a crime prosecutable in the United States. If you break local laws in Laos, 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.
Arrest notifications in Laos: If you are arrested in Laos, you have the option to request that the police, prison officials, or other authorities alert the U.S. Embassy in Vientiane of your arrest, and to have communications from you forwarded to the Embassy.
Accessibility: While in Laos, individuals with disabilities may find accessibility and accommodation very different from what they find in the United States. Lao law does not mandate accessibility to buildings or government services for persons with disabilities. Vientiane has some local regulations providing building access, but these regulations are not effectively enforced. Currently, except for buildings and hotels that have been built under international standards, most public places and public transportation are not accessible. Persons with disabilities will face difficulties in Laos because foot paths, rest rooms, road crossings, and tourist areas are not equipped to accommodate disabilities.
Travel of Foreigners within Laos: The Lao tourist police have informed foreign tourists that a licensed Lao tour guide must accompany any group of more than five foreign tourists; however, this regulation does not appear to be strictly enforced. The authorities may restrict travel in rural areas outside of popular tourist destinations. Restricted areas may not be marked or even widely known by local citizens. If you travel without a reputable tour guide who is aware of local conditions, please talk to local authorities before entering remote areas away from obvious tourist destinations. Lao citizens who wish to have any foreign citizen, including a family member, stay in their home must obtain prior approval from the village chief. You may be held responsible if the Lao host has not secured prior permission for your visit. U.S. citizens are strongly advised to ensure that such permission has been granted before accepting offers to stay in Lao homes.
Surveillance: Security personnel may at times place foreign visitors under surveillance. Hotel rooms, telephones, and fax machines may be monitored, and personal possessions in hotel rooms may be searched. Taking photographs of anything that could be perceived as being of military or security interest may result in problems with the local authorities. Please review the section below on Photography and Other Restrictions.
Relationship with Lao Citizens: Lao law prohibits sexual contact between foreign citizens and Lao nationals except when the two parties have been married in accordance with Lao Family Law. Any foreigner who enters into a sexual relationship with a Lao national risks being interrogated, detained, arrested, or fined. Lao police have confiscated passports and imposed fines of up to $5,000 on foreigners who enter into unapproved sexual relationships. The Lao party to the relationship may be jailed without trial. Foreigners are not permitted to invite Lao nationals of the opposite sex to their hotel rooms; police may raid hotel rooms without notice or consent.
Marriage: A Lao Prime Ministerial decree requires that marriages of Lao citizens performed abroad be registered with Lao embassies in order to be legal in Laos. If you marry a Lao citizen in the United States, when you visit or return to Laos, you may be subject to penalties under the Lao law governing sexual relationships (above) if your marriage was not registered beforehand with a Lao embassy.
If you plan to marry a Lao national, you are required by Lao law to obtain prior permission from the Lao government. The formal application process can take as long as a year. The Lao government will not issue a marriage certificate unless the correct procedures are followed. You can obtain information about marriage requirements from the U.S. Embassy in Vientiane. Any attempt to circumvent Lao regulations may result in arrest, imprisonment, a fine of $500 to $5,000 and deportation.
If you cohabit with or enter into a close relationship with a Lao national, Lao authorities may accuse you of having entered into an illegal marriage, and you will be subject to these same penalties. If you wish to become engaged to a Lao national, you must also obtain prior permission from the chief of the village where the Lao national resides. Failure to obtain prior permission can result in a fine of $500 to $5,000. Lao police may impose a large fine on a foreign citizen a few days after he or she holds an engagement ceremony with a Lao citizen based on the suspicion that the couple subsequently had sexual relations out of wedlock.
Religious Workers: Religious proselytizing or distributing religious material is strictly prohibited. If you are caught distributing religious material, you may be arrested or deported. The Government of Laos restricts the importation of religious texts and artifacts. While Lao law allows freedom of religion, the Government registers and controls all associations, including religious groups. Meetings, even in private homes, must be registered and those held outside of established locations may be broken up and the participants arrested.
Modes of Transportation: When you travel in Laos, please consider carefully and evaluate the relative risks of the three modes of transport (see sections on Aviation Safety Oversight, Traffic Safety, and River Travel) below.
River Travel: River travel is common in Laos, but safety conditions do not conform to U.S. standards. In particular, travel by speedboat (the local term is “fast boat”) is dangerous and should be avoided, particularly during the dry season, which generally runs from December through April. Avoid travel on or across the Mekong River along the Thai border at night. Lao militia forces have shot at boats on the Mekong after dark.
Photography and Other Restrictions: If you photograph anything that could be perceived as being of military or security interest, including bridges, airfields, military installations, government buildings, or government vehicles, you may be detained or arrested, and local authorities may confiscate your camera. Be cautious when traveling near military bases and strictly observe signs delineating military base areas. Lao military personnel have detained and questioned foreigners who have unknowingly passed by unmarked military facilities. Because of the prohibition on religious proselytizing, you should avoid taking photographs or videotaping non-Buddhist religious services. If attending public services or religious gatherings, ask permission from the local police and civil authorities to photograph or videotape. Please see the section above on Religious Workers. Local police may suspect persons using any kind of sophisticated still or video camera equipment of being professional photographers or possibly photojournalists, which may lead to questioning, detention, arrest, or deportation.
Financial Transactions: Network-connected ATMs are available in Vientiane, including those operated by the Australia and New Zealand Bank – Vientiane (ANZV) and the Foreign Commercial Bank of Laos, also known as the Banque Pour le Commerce Exterieur de Laos (BCEL). BCEL also has network-connected ATMs in Vang Vieng, and most provincial capitals, or “Muang.” These machines are generally limited to withdrawals of the equivalent of about 100 U.S. dollars in Lao kip only. Credit cards are accepted at major hotels and tourist-oriented businesses. Credit card cash advances and/or Western Union money transfers are available at banks in most provincial capitals and other tourist centers. While the government requires that prices be quoted in Lao kip, prices are often given in U.S. dollars or Thai baht, especially in tourist areas or at markets. The Lao government requires payment in U.S. dollars for some taxes and fees, including visa fees and the airport departure tax.
Customs/Currency Regulations: Lao customs authorities may enforce strict regulations concerning temporary importation into or export from Laos of items such as firearms, religious materials, antiquities, foreign currency, cameras and other items. Please contact the Embassy of the Lao People's Democratic Republic in Washington for specific information regarding customs requirements. Please also see section on “Religious Workers” above. Prohibitions exist against importing or exporting currency of any kind in excess of U.S. $2,500 or its equivalent without authorization. Contact a Lao embassy or Lao customs authorities for more details.
MEDICAL FACILITIES AND HEALTH INFORMATION: Medical facilities and services in Laos are limited and do not meet Western standards. In Vientiane, U.S. citizens may wish to contact the Primary Care Center, also known as the Centre medical de L’Ambassade de France (CMAF), which is supported by the French Embassy. The CMAF is located on Khou Vieng Road across the street from the Green Park Hotel, tel. 856-21-214-150, or 856-20-5558-4617, or email. The Australian government also supports a fee-for-service clinic located at the Australian Embassy, which is located at Kilometer 4 on Thadeua Road, tel. 21-353-840. Both facilities have well-trained physicians who can handle routine and urgent health problems and provide travel medicine services. The Alliance Clinic, operated by the Wattana Hospital group from Thailand, is located in the Honda building near the airport. It has basic clinical services provided by Thai physicians.
U.S. citizens in Laos often seek medical care in Thailand. The Friendship Bridge linking Vientiane, Laos, to Nong Khai, Thailand, is open daily 6:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. Officials generally will allow travelers to cross after hours in cases of medical emergency. AEK International Hospital (tel: 66-42-342-555) and North Eastern Wattana General Hospital, both in Udorn, Thailand (tel: 66-1-833-4262), have English-speaking staff accustomed to dealing with foreign patients. Ambulances for both AEK International Hospital and Nong Khai Wattana Hospital have permission to cross the Friendship Bridge to collect patients from Vientiane. In Vientiane, the Setthatirat Hospital ambulance (tel: 021-413-720) can take patients to Thailand. The Department of State assumes no responsibility for the professional ability or reputation of these hospitals.
Counterfeit pharmaceuticals are a problem throughout Southeast Asia. Please be aware of this problem and purchase pharmaceuticals only through the most reputable pharmacies and with a physician’s prescription.
Avian influenza (H5N1) continues to be a concern in Laos. In Laos and other Southeast Asian countries affected by avian influenza, you should avoid poultry farms, contact with animals in live food markets, and any surfaces that appear to be contaminated with feces from poultry or other animals. For information on influenza, please refer to the Department of State's Influenza Fact Sheet.
You can find good information on vaccinations and other health precautions, on the CDC website. For information about outbreaks of infectious diseases abroad, consult the World Health Organization (WHO) website. The WHO website also contains additional health information for travelers, including detailed country-specific health information.
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 doctors’ 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 Laos, you may encounter road conditions that differ significantly from those in the United States. The information below concerning Laos is provided for general reference only and may not be totally accurate in a particular location or circumstance.
The number of road accidents and fatalities in Laos has risen sharply in the last decade as the number of motor vehicles has increased. U.S. citizens involved in traffic accidents have been barred from leaving Laos before paying compensation for property damage or injuries, regardless of who was at fault. A driver involved in a traffic accident should remain at the scene and attempt to contact the police or wait for them to arrive to prepare an accident report. If renting a car or motorcycle, contact the rental company and its insurance agent. If there is major damage, injury or death, contact the Consular Section or the Duty Officer at the U.S. Embassy. When renting a car, motorcycle, or bicycle, do not give your original U.S. passport to the owner of the vehicle as surety against loss, theft, or damage to the vehicle.
Traffic in Laos is chaotic, and road conditions are very rough. Few roads have lane markings. Where lane markings, road signs, and stoplights do exist, they are widely ignored. Many drivers are unlicensed, inexperienced, and uninsured. Driving under the influence of alcohol or illegal drugs is not uncommon, and penalties for such offenses may not be enforced. Theoretically, traffic moves on the right, but vehicles use all parts of the road. Motorcyclists pay little or no heed to cars. Motorcycles carry as many as five people, greatly impeding the drivers' ability to react to traffic. The evening hours are particularly dangerous. Road construction sites are poorly marked, appear with no advance warning, and can be difficult to see at night. Roads are poorly lit, many vehicles have no operating lights, few bicycles have reflectors, and trucks without reflectors commonly park on unlit roads.
Exercise caution when traveling the roads of Laos, and be sure to check with local authorities, transport companies, other travelers, and/or the Embassy regarding any recent road developments prior to travel. Road obstacles, such as changes in surface conditions due to the weather, occur frequently.
Public transportation is unreliable and is limited after sunset. Automobile taxis or cars for hire are available at the airport, the Friendship Bridge, most major hotels, and near the Morning Market in Vientiane. The most common form of public transport is a three-wheeled, open-sided taxi called "tuk-tuks.” Tuk-tuks and taxis are frequently in poor repair, and drivers generally speak little or no English. Inter-city transport is provided by buses, vans, pickups, and trucks, any of which may also be in poor repair.
Emergency services in Laos are either unreliable or non-existent. Lao road traffic regulations require any driver coming upon a road accident to assist in transporting injured persons to a hospital.
Please refer to our Road Safety page for more information.
AVIATION SAFETY OVERSIGHT: As there is no direct commercial air service to the United States by carriers registered in Laos, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has not assessed the Lao Civil Aviation Authority for compliance with International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) aviation safety standards for oversight of Laos’s air carrier operations. Further information may be found on the FAA safety assessment page.
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This replaces the Country Specific Information for Laos dated January 27, 2012, to update sections on Country Description, Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) / Embassy Location, Entry/Exit Requirements for U.S. Citizens, Threat to Safety and Security, Criminal Penalties, Special Circumstances, and Medical Facilities and Health Information.