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Safety Travel Safety: Europe: Bulgaria

Bulgaria: Republic of Bulgaria
Capital: Sofia
Population: 7,621,337
Currency: lev (BGL)
Languages: Bulgarian, secondary languages closely correspond to ethnic breakdown
Religions: Bulgarian Orthodox 83.8%, Muslim 12.1%, Roman Catholic 1.7%, Jewish 0.8%, Protestant, Gregorian-Armenian, and other 1.6% (1998)
Borders: Greece 494 km, The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia 148 km, Romania 608 km, Yugoslavia 318 km, Turkey 240 km

Bulgaria is a moderately developed European nation undergoing significant economic changes. Tourist facilities are widely available although conditions vary, and some facilities may not be up to Western standards. Goods and services taken for granted in other European countries are still not available in many areas of Bulgaria.

Recently, a series of bombings and shootouts have occurred in public places in Sofia. It is believed that these represent turf wars among organized crime groups. These groups often travel in convoys of late-model SUVs and luxury sedans, accompanied by armed men. Travelers should use caution when near such groups. Travelers should also be aware that people of a dark-skinned complexion have reported to the Embassy instances of hostile attitudes, ethnic slurs and physical attacks they believe were caused solely because of their skin color.

Petty street crime, much of which is directed against persons who appear to have money or appear foreign, continues to be a problem. Pick-pocketing and purse-snatching are frequent occurrences, especially in crowded markets and on shopping streets. Con artists operate on public transportation and in bus and train stations. Travelers should be suspicious of "instant friends" and should also require persons claiming to be government officials to show identification. There have been incidents in which tourists have been drugged or assaulted and robbed after accepting offers of coffee or alcoholic beverages from "friendly� individuals met by �chance� at hotels, the airport, or at bus or train stations. Travelers should be wary of unfamiliar individuals who encourage them to drink or eat products as these may be tainted with strong tranquilizers (such as valium) that can lead rapidly to unconsciousness.

Taxi drivers often overcharge unwary travelers, particularly at Sofia Airport and the Central Train Station. We recommend travelers use reputable taxi companies whose cars are clearly marked and have meters. Travelers should be aware that there is no official commission that sets taxi cab rates. At the airport, there is a clearly marked booth within the arrivals terminal, which arranges for metered taxis at a fair rate. Finding reputable taxis at the Central Train Station is more difficult. We recommend trying to pre-negotiate a fare to avoid excessive payment if a metered taxi cannot be found. Because pilferage of checked baggage may occur at Sofia Airport, travelers should not include items of value in checked luggage.

Automobile theft is also a frequent problem, with four-wheel drive vehicles and late model European sedans the most popular targets. Very few vehicles are recovered. Thieves also sometimes smash vehicle windows to steal valuables left in sight. Break-ins at residential apartments occur frequently. Persons who plan to reside in Bulgaria on a long-term basis should take measures to protect their dwellings. Long-term residents should consider installation of window grills, steel doors with well-functioning locks, and an alarm system that alerts an armed response team. Potential travelers should also be cautious about making credit card charges over the Internet as recent experience has shown that some offers come from scam artists posing as legitimate businesses. Travelers should also be careful about making credit card payments to Bulgarian tour operators over the Internet before coming to Bulgaria, because some listed entities do not actually exist.

While in a foreign country, a U.S. citizen is subject to that country's laws and regulations, which sometimes differ significantly from those in the United States and may not afford the protections available to the individual under U.S. law. Penalties for breaking the law can be more severe than in the United States for similar offenses. Persons violating Bulgarian law, even unknowingly, may be expelled, arrested or imprisoned. Penalties for possession, use, or trafficking in illegal drugs in Bulgaria are strict, and convicted offenders can expect jail sentences and heavy fines. Foreigners charged with a crime may be denied permission to depart Bulgaria. Criminal cases have been known to take years to resolve, regardless of their outcome.

Under the PROTECT Act of April 2003, it is a crime, prosecutable in the United States, for a U.S. citizen or permanent resident alien, to engage in illicit sexual conduct in a foreign country with a person under the age of 18, whether or not the U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident alien intended to engage in such illicit sexual conduct prior to going abroad. For purposes of the PROTECT Act, illicit sexual conduct includes any commercial sex act in a foreign country with a person under the age of 18. The law defines a commercial sex act as any sex act, on account of which anything of value is given to or received by a person under the age of 18.

Under the Protection of Children from Sexual Predators Act of 1998, it is a crime to use the mail or any facility of interstate or foreign commerce, including the Internet, to transmit information about a minor under the age of 16 for criminal sexual purposes that include, among other things, the production of child pornography. This same law makes it a crime to use any facility of interstate or foreign commerce, including the Internet, to transport obscene materials to minors under the age of 16.

Although Bulgarian physicians are trained to a very high standard, most hospitals and clinics are generally not equipped and maintained to meet U.S. or Western European standards. Basic medical supplies are widely available, but specialized treatment may not be obtainable. Serious medical problems requiring hospitalization and/or medical evacuation to the United States may cost thousands of dollars. Doctors and hospitals often expect immediate cash payment for health services.

While in a foreign country, U.S. citizens may encounter road conditions, which differ significantly from those in the United States. The information below concerning Bulgaria is provided for general reference only, and it may not be totally accurate in a particular location or circumstance.

Safety of Public Transportation: Good
Urban Road Conditions/Maintenance: Fair
Rural Road Conditions/Maintenance: Poor
Availability of Roadside Assistance: Fair

The Bulgarian road system is largely underdeveloped. There are few sections of limited-access divided highway. Some roads are in poor repair and full of potholes. Rockslides and landslides may be encountered on roads in mountainous areas. Livestock and animal-drawn carts present road hazards throughout the country, especially during the agricultural season. Travel conditions deteriorate during the winter as roads become icy and potholes proliferate. The U.S. Embassy in Sofia advises against driving at night because road conditions are more dangerous in the dark. Some roads lack pavement markings and lights, and motorists often drive with dim or missing headlights.

Driving in Bulgaria is extremely dangerous. Aggressive driving habits, the lack of safe infrastructure, and a mixture of late model and old model cars on the country's highways contribute to a high fatality rate for road accidents.

Heavy truck traffic along the two-lane routes from the Greek border at Kulata to Sofia and from the Turkish border at Kapitan Andreevo to Plovdiv creates numerous hazards. Motorists should expect long delays at border crossings. A U.S. state driver's license is valid in Bulgaria only when used in conjunction with an International Driving Permit.

Furthermore, persons operating vehicles with foreign license plates frequently complain of being stopped by police and being fined on the spot for offenses that they have not committed. Under Bulgarian law, a police officer must give a written receipt for any traffic fine collected.

Buses, trams, and trolleys are inexpensive, but they are often crowded and of widely varying quality. Passengers on the busiest lines have reported pick-pocketing, purse slashing, and pinching.

The use of seat belts is mandatory in Bulgaria for all passengers, except pregnant women. Children under 10 years of age may ride in the front seat only if seated in a child car seat. In practice, these rules are often not followed. Speed limits are 50 KM/H in the cities/towns, 90 KM/H out of town and 130 KM/H on the highways. For motorcycles, speed limits are 50 KM/H in the cities/towns, 80 KM/H out of town and 100 KM/H on the highways. Motorcyclists must drive with helmets and with lights on at all times. At crossings that are not regulated, the driver who is on the right has the right-of-way, but this rule, too, is frequently ignored. Drivers may be charged with driving under the influence of alcohol with a blood level as low as 0.05 percent. Right turns on red lights are not permitted unless specifically authorized. The penalties for drivers involved in an accident resulting in injury or death range from a 25 U.S. Dollar fine up to imprisonment for life.

The most generally encountered local traffic custom is a driver flashing high beams, which usually means that a traffic police post is ahead.

Motorists should avoid confrontations with aggressive drivers in Bulgaria. Drivers of late-model sedans (BMW, Mercedes, Audi) are known to speed and drive dangerously. Motorists should exercise caution and not engage in altercations with the drivers of such vehicles because some are armed organized crime figures.

In case of emergency, drivers should contact the police at telephone number 166 and/or the Roadside Assistance at telephone number 146. For an ambulance, please call 150.

For specific information concerning Bulgarian driving permits, vehicle inspection, road tax, and mandatory insurance, please contact the Bulgarian Embassy via the Internet at

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has assessed the Government of Bulgaria's civil aviation authority as Category 2 - not in compliance with international aviation safety standards for the oversight of the Bulgarian air carrier operations. While consultations to correct the deficiencies are ongoing, Bulgarian air carriers currently flying to the United States will be subject to heightened FAA surveillance. No additional flights or new service to the United States by Bulgaria's air carriers will be permitted unless they arrange to have the flights conducted by an air carrier from a country meeting international safety standards. For further information, travelers may contact the Department of Transportation within the United States at 1-800-322-7873, or visit the FAA's Internet web site,

The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) separately assesses some foreign carriers for suitability as official providers of air services. In addition, DOD does not permit its personnel to use air carriers from Category 2 countries for official business except for flights originating from or terminating in the United States. Local exceptions may apply. For information regarding the DOD policy on specific carriers, travelers may contact DOD at (618) 229-4801.

Please also refer to the Worldwide Caution Public Announcement.

July 21, 2004

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