What makes Estonia a unique country to travel to?
Estonia is a stable democracy with an economy that is rebounding after facing sharp decline in 2008 and 2009. Tourist facilities in the capital, Tallinn, are comparable to those found in western European cities, but some amenities may be lacking in rural areas. In Tallinn, as well as in other locations frequented by tourists, many people can communicate in English.
Estonia is a relatively safe country, although sporadic crime in Tallinn’s Old Town is an ongoing concern, particularly during the summer tourist season. You should exercise the same precautions with regard to your personal safety and belongings that you would take in major U.S. cities. The most common crime encountered by foreign tourists in Estonia is pick-pocketing. Tourists are often targeted by individuals and small groups of thieves working together. In public places such as Tallinn’s Old Town, in particular the Town Hall Square (“Raekoja Plats”), the airport, train stations, bus stations, and the Central Market, you should exercise special care in safeguarding valuables against pick-pockets. Guard your valuables, especially purses and bags, while visiting busy cafés and restaurants. Do not leave valuables unattended in vehicles, and make sure car doors are locked at all times.
From time to time, especially late at night near bars and night clubs, foreigners have been subject to scams, or have become involved in altercations, including some involving violence, with inebriated individuals. Common late night scams involve women enticing tourists in a reputable bar to visit a nearby bar where they are grossly overcharged. Although Estonian police have shut down several suspect bars over the past year, this remains a concern.
On occasion, U.S. citizens have reported that they were harassed for racial reasons or because they appeared or sounded “foreign.” These incidents have generally occurred outside of major tourist areas. Credit-card fraud is also an ongoing concern, as is Internet-based financial fraud and “Internet dating” fraud. You should take precautions to safeguard your credit cards and report any suspected unauthorized transaction to the credit card company immediately. If an incident occurs, you should report it promptly to the local police. The Estonian police agencies are modern, well-equipped law enforcement entities on a standard comparable to most Western European police.
Don’t buy counterfeit and pirated goods, even if they are widely available. Not only are the bootlegs illegal to bring back into the United States, by purchasing them you may also be breaking local laws.
While traveling in Estonia, you are subject to its laws and regulations. Foreign laws and legal systems can be vastly different than our own. If you break local laws in Estonia, your U.S. passport won’t help you avoid arrest or prosecution. It’s very important to know what is legal and what is not legal where you are going.
There are also some things that might be legal in the country you visit, but still illegal in the United States. For example, you can be prosecuted under U.S. law if you buy pirated goods abroad. Engaging in sexual conduct with children or using or disseminating child pornography in a foreign country is a crime prosecutable in the United States.
Based on the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations and customary international law, if you are arrested in Estonia you have the option to request that the police, prison officials, or other authorities alert the U.S. Embassy of your arrest and to have communications from you forwarded to the embassy.
Medical Facilities and Health Information
Although medical care in Estonia falls short of Western standards, Estonia’s medical care is generally good, especially in Tallinn and in some other cities such as Tartu and Pärnu. Estonia has many highly-trained medical professionals, but some hospitals and clinics still suffer from a lack of equipment and resources. While private physicians often speak fair to excellent English, you are likely to find very limited English in hospitals and in emergency rooms. Due to workload, doctors in hospitals spend considerably less time interacting with a patient than is typical in an American hospital. Nurses and other hospital staff are likely to speak little to no English.
You can find good information on vaccinations and other health precautions, such as safe food and water precautions and insect bite protection, on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) website, or by calling their hotline for international travelers at 1-877-FYI-TRIP (1-877-394-8747). You can also consult the World Health Organization’s (WHO) website, which contains additional health information for travelers, including detailed country-specific health information.
If you plan to visit forested areas of Estonia in the summertime, you should take steps to avoid ticks because of occasional cases of tick-borne encephalitis. Although there is no vaccine against this disease currently licensed for use in the United States, a vaccine requiring a series of injections is available under two different brand names in Estonia, both of which can be obtained from many local physicians. Serious cases of seasonal influenza, including H1N1, have been reported in recent years and you should consider getting a flu shot before traveling to Estonia during flu season.
Safety and Security
Estonian authorities are vigilant in combating terrorism and other threats to security. There have been no incidents of terrorism directed toward U.S. citizens in Estonia. Furthermore, civil unrest is rarely a problem in Estonia. Nevertheless, large public gatherings and demonstrations may occur on occasion in response to political issues; these generally proceed without incident. If you hear of or encounter a demonstration, you should avoid the area and check local media for updates on the situation. You can also contact the U.S. Embassy in Tallinn for current information.
Estonia is quite dark during the winter months (roughly October through April), and Estonian law requires pedestrians to wear small reflectors, which people generally pin to their coats or handbags. Although this law is rarely enforced in cities, reflectors are very important in rural areas where it may be difficult for motorists to see pedestrians. Violators of this law may be subject to a fine of around US$50 or a higher fine up to around US$500 if the pedestrian is under the influence of alcohol. Reflectors are inexpensive and you should be able to find them at many supermarkets, kiosks, and other shops.
Traffic Safety and Road Conditions
While in Estonia, you may encounter road conditions that differ significantly from those in the United States. In order to drive in Estonia, you must have the correct license. Estonian authorities strictly enforce their rules on driving with a proper license, and many U.S. citizens have been subjected to hefty fines in recent years due to confusion about Estonian rules, so please read the following information carefully. If you are a visitor to Estonia, you may drive only if you carry both your valid U.S. driver’s license and a valid International Driving Permit (IDP). You should obtain your IDP from either the American Automobile Association (AAA) or the American Automobile Touring Alliance (part of the National Auto Club) before you leave the United States. These are the only two entities in the United States that are authorized by international agreements to provide IDPs. Other entities purport to offer “international driver’s licenses,” but such documents are not recognized by Estonian authorities. If you are a resident of Estonia, you can initially drive in Estonia with your valid U.S. driver’s license and valid IDP, but upon receipt of an Estonian residence permit or after living in Estonia for more than one year (whichever is shorter), U.S. citizens must obtain an Estonian driving license. However, licenses cannot be issued until you have been in Estonia for 185 days within the past year. All individuals required to obtain an Estonian license must pass both a written and a practical driver's exam. An English-language version of the written exam is available and the Road Administration will ensure that an English-speaking examiner is available for the practical driving portion. Although testing may take place at several locations around the country, it is recommended that you contact the Road Administration headquarters at Mäepealse 19 in Tallinn, tel: 620-1200. Your U.S. license and International Driving Permit must have been issued before your “residency” began, so it is imperative that you obtain these documents before you move to Estonia. If you are caught driving without a proper license, you likely will be subject to a fine and your driving privileges may be revoked. Any U.S. citizen who wishes to obtain an Estonian driver’s license should contact the Estonian Road Administration authority (known by the Estonian acronym “ARK”).
Although road conditions in Estonia are generally good, some roads—especially in rural areas—are poorly lighted and are not up to Western standards. You may find that, compared to U.S. drivers, some drivers in Estonia can be aggressive, recklessly overtake vehicles and travel at high speed, even in crowded urban areas. Despite strict Estonian laws against driving under the influence of alcohol, accidents involving intoxicated drivers are frequent. It is not uncommon for the police to set up checkpoints on major streets and highways; you should pull over when asked by a police officer. You should always remain alert to the possibility of drunk drivers and pedestrians.
Estonian police very strictly enforce laws against driving under the influence. The basic rule is zero tolerance. Thus, you can be subject to severe penalties if stopped by the police and even a trace of alcohol is detected, so please do not drive in Estonia if you have consumed any alcohol whatsoever.
If driving, you must always stop for pedestrians in marked crosswalks. Some Estonian motorists do not comply with this rule, so if you are walking, you should always be careful when crossing the streets. In rural areas, wild animals, such as deer and moose, and icy road conditions can create unexpected hazards. You should also watch out for dark-clothed or drunk pedestrians walking along unlighted roads or darting across dimly-lighted streets or highways. Winter roads are usually treated and cleared of snow, but you still should remain vigilant for icy patches and large potholes.
You should comply with all traffic rules, including the following: You should always keep your headlights illuminated while driving; the driver and all passengers should use seatbelts; children too small to be secure in seatbelts must use child car seats; you should carefully comply with posted speed limits; you should not be using a cell phone without a hands-free device while driving; and right turns on a red light are prohibited unless otherwise indicated by a green arrow. According to Estonian law, if you are involved in an accident, you should not attempt to move the vehicle to the side of the road until the police reach the scene. The Eesti Autoklubi ( Estonian Auto Club ), which is affiliated with AAA, provides emergency roadside assistance. You do not need to be a member to receive assistance, although fees are lower for members. To request roadside assistance or towing service, dial 1888. For ambulance or fire assistance the number is 112. For emergency police assistance, call 110. Please note that for both numbers, the level of English spoken by the operator answering may be minimal.