While Kenya can be quite a safe destination, there are still plenty of pitfalls for the unwary or inexperienced traveller, from everyday irritations to more serious threats.
The following government websites offer travel advisories and information for travellers:
Australian Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade (www.smartraveller.gov.au)
Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs & International Trade (www.voyage.gc.ca)
France Diplomatie (www.diplomatie.gouv.fr)
Italian Ministero degli Affari Esteri (www.viaggiaresicuri.mae.aci.it)
New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs & Trade (www.safetravel.govt.nz)
UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office (www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice)
US Department of State (www.travel.state.gov)
As of late 2017, most Western governments were advising against all but essential travel within 60km of the Kenya–Somali border as well as the entire coast from Malindi to the Somali border (except Lamu and Manda islands). The rest of the country was largely considered to be safe for travellers, but check the most recent reports to be sure.
Such advisories can be important when it comes to travel insurance – check with your insurance company about your specific itinerary before finalising tickets, hotels etc.
It is also worth checking the prevailing situation in Laikipia, after violence affected a handful of ranches and lodges in 2017.
Although hotels give you room keys, it is recommended that you carry a padlock for your backpack or suitcase as an extra deterrent. Furthermore, don’t invite trouble by leaving valuables, cash or important documents lying around your room or in an unlocked bag.
Upmarket hotels will have safes (either in the room or at reception) where you can keep your money and passport (and sometimes even your laptop), so it’s advised that you take advantage of them. It’s usually best not to carry any valuables on the street, but when your budget accommodation is a bit rough around the edges you'll find yourself faced with a difficult choice and may want to consider hiding your valuables on your person and carrying them with you at all times. Of course, use discretion, as muggings do happen in large towns and cities. Sadly, theft is perhaps the number-one complaint of travellers in Kenya, so it can’t hurt to take a few extra precautions.
Northeast The ongoing conflict in Somalia has had an effect on the stability and safety of northern and northeastern Kenya – the latter is considered extremely dangerous and has been for years thanks to bandits and poachers. AK-47s have been flowing into the country for many years, and the newspapers are filled with stories of hold-ups, shoot-outs, cattle rustling and general lawlessness. Visitors to Lamu should fly if possible.
Northwest In the northwest, the main problem is armed tribal wars and cattle rustling across the South Sudanese border. There are Kenyan shiftas (bandits) too, of course, but cross-border problems seem to account for most of the trouble in the north of the country.
Risk Despite all the headlines, tourists are rarely targeted, as most of the violence and robberies take place far from the main tourist routes. Security has also improved considerably in previously high-risk areas, such as the Isiolo–Marsabit and Marsabit–Moyale routes. However, you should check the situation locally before taking these roads, and should avoid Garissa County altogether.
South Sudan & Ethiopia borders The areas along the South Sudanese and Ethiopian borders are sometimes considered risky – check the situation carefully if you're planning to travel overland between either country and Kenya.
Even the staunchest Kenyan patriot will readily admit that one of the country’s biggest problems is crime. It ranges from petty snatch theft and mugging to violent armed robbery, carjacking and, of course, white-collar crime and corruption. As a visitor you needn’t feel paranoid, but you should always keep your wits about you, particularly at night.
Although crime is a fact of life in Kenya, it needn’t spoil your trip. Above all, don’t make the mistake of distrusting everyone you meet – the honest souls you encounter will far outnumber any crooks who cross your path.
Precautions Perhaps the best advice for when you’re walking around cities and towns is not to carry anything valuable with you – that includes jewellery, watches, cameras, bumbags, daypacks and money. Most hotels provide a safe or secure place for valuables, although you should also be cautious of the security at some budget places.
Mugging While pickpocketing and bag snatching are the most common crimes, armed muggings do occur in Nairobi and on the coast. Always take taxis after dark.
Snatch & run Snatching crimes happen more in crowds. If you suddenly feel there are too many people around you, or think you are being followed, dive straight into a shop and ask for help.
Luggage This is an obvious signal to criminals that you’ve just arrived. When arriving anywhere by bus, it’s sensible to take a ‘ship-to-shore’ approach, getting a taxi directly from the bus station to your hotel. You’ll have plenty of time to explore once you’ve safely stowed your belongings. Also, don’t read a guidebook or look at maps on the street – it attracts unwanted attention.
Reporting crime In the event of a crime, you should report it to the police, but this can be a real procedure. You’ll need to get a police report if you intend to make an insurance claim. In the event of a snatch theft, think twice before yelling ‘Thief!’ It’s not unknown for people to administer summary justice on the spot, often with fatal results for the criminal. In Nairobi, the tourist helpline is a free service for tourists in trouble. It is a good nationwide network and works closely with the police and local authorities.
With street crime a way of life in Nairobi, you should be doubly careful with your money. Don’t overlook the obvious and leave money lying around your hotel room in plain view. However well you get on with the staff, there will be some who are unlikely to resist a free month’s wages if they’ve got a family to feed.
Hotel safes The safest policy is to leave most of it in the hotel (or room) safe and just carry enough cash for that day. If you don’t actually need your credit card or cash with you, they’ll almost always be safer locked away in your hotel safe.
Money belts If you do need to carry larger sums around, a money belt worn under your clothes is the safest option to guard against snatch thefts. However, be aware that muggers will usually be expecting this.
Other tricks More ingenious tricks include tucking money into a length of elasticised bandage on your arm or leg, or creating a hidden pocket inside your trousers with a small stash for emergencies.
Expensive stories At some point in Kenya you’ll almost certainly come across people who play on the emotions and gullibility of foreigners. Nairobi is a particular hotspot, with ‘friendly’ approaches a daily, if not hourly, occurrence. People with tales about being refugees or having sick relatives can sound very convincing, but they all end up asking for cash. It’s OK to talk to these people if they’re not actively hassling you, but you should probably ignore any requests for money.
Over-friendly strangers Be sceptical of strangers who claim to recognise you in the street, especially if they’re vague about exactly where they know you from – it’s unlikely that any ordinary person is going to be this excited by seeing you twice. Anyone who makes a big show of inviting you into the hospitality of their home also probably has ulterior motives. The usual trick is to bestow some kind of gift upon the delighted traveller, who is then emotionally blackmailed into reciprocating.
Car scams Tourists with cars also face potential rip-offs. Don’t trust people who gesticulate wildly to indicate that your front wheels are wobbling; if you stop, you’ll probably be relieved of your valuables. Another trick is to splash oil on your wheels, then tell you the wheel bearings, differential or something else has failed, and direct you to a nearby garage where their friends will ‘fix’ the problem – for a substantial fee, of course.
Nairobi in particular has huge problems with street children, many of whom are AIDS orphans, who trail foreigners around asking for food or change. It’s up to you whether you give, but it's debatable how much your donations will help as the older boys operate like a minimafia, extorting money from the younger kids. If you want to help out, money might be better donated to a charity, such as the Consortium for Street Children (www.streetchildren.org), which works to improve conditions for these children.
Terrorism is, unfortunately, something you have to consider when visiting Kenya, although the vast majority of the country is safe to visit. Remember that reports of an attack in, for example, Mombasa is likely to have very little impact upon the safety of visiting the Masai Mara or even Tsavo East National Park.
The country has come under major terrorist attack on at least three occasions: in August 1998 the US embassy in Nairobi was bombed; in November 2002 the Paradise Hotel, north of Mombasa, was car-bombed at the same time as a rocket attack on an Israeli jet; and in September 2013 terrorists attacked the upscale Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi. Since then, security has been tightened considerably.
Kenya has an extremely high rate of road accidents and perhaps the most widespread threat to your safety comes from travelling on the region’s roads. Road conditions vary, but driving standards are often poor and high speeds are common. Tips for minimising the risk of becoming a road statistic: