India draws more than 10 million tourists from a variety of backgrounds, cultures, ethnicities, genders, and sexual orientations every year. For the most part, traveling in the colorful home of the Taj Mahal is safe, but if there were one demographic, in particular, that is targeted more than others, it would be female travelers. Foreign women commonly attract unwanted male attention in the form of staring, but rarely does it escalate to aggressive or hostile behavior.
The U.S. Department of State warns of crime and terrorism in the subcontinent, stating in its Level 4 travel advisory that "Indian authorities report rape is one of the fastest-growing crimes in India. Violent crime, such as sexual assault, has occurred at tourist sites and in other locations." The advisory cites Jammu and Kashmir, the India-Pakistan border, Northeastern states, and Central and East India as high-risk areas for crime and terrorism. It also notes that because officials require special authorization to travel from eastern Maharashtra and northern Telangana through western West Bengal, the U.S. government has limited ability to respond to emergencies in these areas.
Is India Dangerous?
Even though crime is prevalent in India, foreigners are generally sheltered from it when they practice the necessary precautions and stick to tourist-friendly areas. Some of the safest destinations for travelers are Rishikesh, Jaipur, Pondicherry, Goa, and Kasol. Nevertheless, women—in particular—are often stared at and, at worst, sexually harassed. Harassment is most prevalent at popular tourist destinations in north India, including Delhi, Agra, and parts of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh. Fatehpur Sikri, near Agra, is known to be one of the worst places in India for rampant harassment of foreigners as well as local women. In 2017, it culminated in the severe assault of two Swiss tourists.
Is India Safe for Solo Travelers?
In short, India is not a country where you should let your guard down, but many travelers go it solo without a single incident to report. Lone wanderers should follow the same travel advice as groups: Avoid the high-crime areas, pay attention to your surroundings, and don't walk around at night. Try to make travel buddies in hostels and go out in numbers, if possible. India can be overwhelming at times, but rarely is it threatening.
Is India Safe for Female Travelers?
A June 2018 survey of about 550 experts on women's issues conducted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation named India as the world's most dangerous country for women. The survey was widely refuted as being subjective and based on perception; nevertheless, it understandably leaves many foreigners wondering if India is a safe place for females to visit. The U.K. and U.S. have both issued travel advisories for India, advising women—in particular—to exercise caution. The U.K. has also issued a detailed information sheet for “survivors of rape and sexual assault" in India.
As a female traveler, you can expect to be stared at (by all locals, in fact, not just men), occasionally asked to pose for selfies, and, in extreme cases, groped. The best way to avoid unwanted attention is to dress modestly (loose-fitting clothes that cover skin is the cultural norm) and monitor your body language toward men. Even a subconscious gesture, such as a smile or touch on the arm, could be interpreted as interest.
Tamil Nadu has been called one of the best places for solo female travel in India and is a recommended starting point. The cosmopolitan city of Mumbai also maintains a reputation for safety. The Delhi Metro and Mumbai Local trains have women-only compartments where women can feel more comfortable and avoid being stared at.
Safety Tips for LGBTQ+ Travelers
Gay sex was categorized as a criminal "unnatural offense" in India up until 2018. With the latest ruling, discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation was also outlawed, but despite the modern laws, India's estimated 100 million-plus LGBTQ+-identifying residents keep much of their pride concealed. It's still not very widely accepted to engage in public displays of affection beyond hand-holding, and that goes for heterosexual couples, too. It's a conservative country, and romantic interactions are kept discreet.
Nonetheless, there is a place for LGBTQ+ travelers in India. If you're keen to meet other gay, lesbian, bi, and trans travelers, consider joining a tour such as those organized by the Delhi-based gay travel agency Indjapink.
Safety Tips for BIPOC Travelers
Traditionally, light skin tones have been associated with class and beauty in the Asian country. Dark skin tones, therefore, can sometimes be associated with lower economic classes and castes. In most cases, racism in India looks like being gawked at rather than discriminated against, and that goes for Western tourists of all ethnic backgrounds.
The best way to avoid run-ins with racism is to stick to the tourist-popular areas that are accustomed to interacting with a diverse range of people. Higher-rated hotels are generally going to be more accommodating and friendly than budget hotels and hostels.
Safety Tips for Travelers
In order to stay safe while traveling in India, it's important to follow the U.S. State Department's travel tips and practice common sense.
- Always make others aware of your whereabouts. You may even consider enrolling in the Bureau of Consular Affairs' Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), which can help locate you in the case of an emergency.
- Dress modestly and without flashy clothing and jewelry that may signify wealth.
- Never accept free drinks, food, or rides.
- Keep your belongings close—in a money belt or a crossbody bag instead of a backpack or pants pocket—and lock your possessions up in hostel lockers when you go out.
- Be cautious of monkeys in India as they can be aggressive and have evolved into expert food and drink thieves.
- Get a SIM card for your phone to help with GPS, translation, and to contact someone in the case of an emergency.
- Don't drink the tap water in India as it can be contaminated, and be wary of the street food, too.
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention requires all travelers to get vaccinated for measles before going to India and most travelers to get vaccinated for hepatitis A and typhoid .
U.S. Department of State. "India Travel Advisory." August 6, 2020.
New York Times. "Assault in Taj Mahal Country Shakes India’s Tourist Trade." November 6, 2017.
Reuters. "Exclusive: India most dangerous country for women with sexual violence rife - global poll." June 26, 2018.
United Kingdom Foreign & Commonwealth Office. "India: information for survivors of rape and sexual assault."
Voa News. "Landmark Verdict in India Scraps Law Criminalizing Homosexuality." Published September 6, 2018. Retrieved December 29, 2020.
The New York Times. "India Debates Skin-Tone Bias as Beauty Companies Alter Ads." June 28, 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "India Traveler View."