The knife laws around the world can be confusing and may even land you in jail. Play it smart with this guide.

Story by Michael Janich, Photos by Sally Janich

If you visit any internet knife forum, odds are you will see an active thread with a title of something like, “What is the best knife for self-defense?”

You will probably see the same repetitive litany of useless comments.  “Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight,” “Just run away,” and so on. Sadly, such threads rarely result in useful discussion. When they do, the advice typically focuses on the technical aspects of knives rather than the practical aspects of their carry and use, according to international knife laws.

Knife Laws for Travel

I became interested in knife-based self-defense when I first started learning the martial arts as a teenager. It wasn’t until I was stationed overseas that I made it a priority in my training. The reason was simple: I was working and traveling in environments that posed a significant threat of violence. Even though I was assigned to a U.S. embassy or consulate, I was not authorized to carry a gun. As a foreigner, I was prohibited from even owning one privately. Knives, on the contrary, were legal to own and carry. Since I had a diplomatic passport, I could bend the rules pretty far for what I could carry. From a standpoint of necessity, practicality, and legality, the knife became my primary defensive weapon.

Nowadays, I live in a state that allows concealed carry. Whenever possible, I carry a handgun as a primary lethal-force weapon. Since I travel frequently and often have to work in non-permissive environments where firearms are not an option, my knife — or more accurately, knives — regularly return to a primary role.

In the U.S., I use Knife Rights’ Legal Blade smartphone app to research the laws of the cities and states to which I travel, so I can ensure that I’m carrying something permissible. When I travel internationally, however, things get a lot more complicated. To do my best to remain reasonably well-armed and play by the rules of the countries I visit, I’ve developed a few “rules of thumb” that guide my strategy.

Knife Rights' app screen

Within the U.S., KnifeRights’ Smartphone app Legal Blade is a great resource to determine what’s legal to carry. For overseas travel, internet knife forums are about as good as it gets.

1 Do Your Homework in Advance

Knife laws vary dramatically from country to country, so doing research in advance is invaluable. Internet knife forums typically have international membership. Using them to ask about knife laws and their actual enforcement for a particular country usually elicits good information from natives and frequent visitors. You should also search the internet for any formal documentation of the country’s knife and weapon laws that describe what you can and can’t carry.

2 If Possible, Carry What the Locals Do

If you’re traveling to a country known for a signature style of pocketknife, invest in one of those. Even though as a foreigner you’ll still stand out, if you carry the same style of knife they do, you’re likely to have fewer problems if you’re questioned. While you can certainly wait until you’re in-country to buy a knife, that leaves you unarmed for a while and prevents you from practicing with that knife before you travel. Sooner is better.

3 Lean Traditional, Not Tactical

Germany prohibits the carry of one-hand-opening, lock-blade knives. Paradoxically, you may carry fixed-blade knives with blades less than 12 centimeters (about 4.7 inches), not purposely designed as weapons or specifically carried for self-defense. So, the best way to stay armed is carry a traditional-looking knife with a wood handle and a leather sheath. Avoid, for instance, a black-bladed tanto in a quick-draw Kydex rig.

In general, the more utilitarian a knife looks, the better off you are. Traditional ethnic knives are also less expensive than tactical blades, so if officials confiscate your knife, you’ll limit your losses.

Paris police searching men

Marc Galli is being searched on the way into the Paris Police Museum. Like most other life experiences, being polite goes a long way.

4 Respect Authority

If questioned, treat the officer respectfully and explain that you carry your knife as a tool, not a weapon. If he insists that it is illegal, apologize and tell him that you’ll “understand” if he needs to confiscate it. Compared to checking out the décor of a foreign jail cell, it’s the smarter move.

5 Life Without a Defensive Knife

Truth be told, the knife laws in some countries are simply too severe to make it worth the risk of carrying one. In that case, carry a flashlight, tactical pen, or a similar improvised weapon instead of a knife. However, as with your knife skills, make sure that you have the training to use them effectively. In fact, in the weeks before you travel, focus your training on the tools you’ll actually have, to make sure you can change gears when the situation demands it.


Do you travel with a knife? If so, what are your #bestpractices? Let us know in the comments!

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