A tattoo is a perfect way to express personal growth, mark something important, ascribe deeper meaning to a personal struggle, commemorate a significant life-changing event, or simply adorn yourself with something you consider beautiful and fitting for your body and your life. But there are images and symbols that can make life harder for you, and many of them are deeply associated with troubled groups that stand on the wrong side of the law, especially if you are traveling with tattoos.

There are also countries where certain tattoos (or tattoos in general) can draw attention that you definitely do not want, from the ire of religious police to negative reception from locals. However, before we steer too far into fearmongering, it’s important to note that this is simply meant to serve as an informational post to help make potential travelers aware of how their ink might be perceived in other places across the globe.

In general, tattoos are perfectly fine, and very rarely would they inconvenience or disturb locals, save for a few countries. Professionals likely understand that most offices have an unspoken rule regarding tattoos being kept hidden (and in some places, it’s an official rule), and while you might get stares and uncomfortable looks, that’s about the worst that might happen. There are special circumstances where certain tattoos can get you into legitimate hot water, legally and/or otherwise.

Can my tattoo cause me visa problems?

Yes. While your tattoos specifically may not cause visa problems, certain tattoos definitely do. Whether you were simply ignorant, or have a past you are not proud of, or your design happens to veer very closely to something that can potentially be linked to ink commonly worn in certain unsavory circles of society (i.e. organized crime), there is a good chance that you will have trouble completing any strenuous immigration process.

Getting a visitor’s visa might be a little less complicated, but any visa that requires a full medical checkup (or one that generally means someone will see your tattoos, shirtless or otherwise) can potentially result on a denied application, provided your tattoos are linked to crime. Here is a rather comprehensive, albeit potentially outdated list of designs and common tattoo elements that might be seen as cause to link you to organized crime, or other “unlawful activities”.

Aside from the tattoos listed within the handbook noted above, some other tattoos that may cause a problem include:

  • Religious imagery
  • Islamic texts and images
  • Depictions of Muhammad
  • Depictions of the Buddha (Buddhist art is generally okay)
  • Norse mythology/rune work

What should I do with an insensitive tattoo?

If it’s something related to a haunted past, or a mistake made while you were an intolerant and unwise youngster, then you really only have two options: tattoo something else over it, or get it removed. If you have pictures of yourself with these tattoos anywhere online or otherwise, do your best to scrub them off the Internet. Nothing is ever really gone, but a rudimentary check probably won’t reveal much after you take a little time to carefully remove any potential images. If you have a criminal past, you will likely face more serious issues with regards to getting a visa than just your tattoo, but it’s still probably a good idea to get it removed or covered up in the near future. If it’s just a small tattoo, you’re in luck. If it’s something much larger, then you will likely have some issues.

Even if it’s generally clear that you were never part of a gang, having gang-related tattoos can still be a cause to deny certain visas.

What about other tattoos?

Having a tattoo in and of itself isn’t a problem, as long as the tattoo doesn’t offend local sensibilities or trips up an immigration agency’s gang alarm (and if you’re headed to a devout country like Thailand or Saudi Arabia with religious tattoos, try to keep them covered). Two major countries that come to mind where a tattoo could lead to a denial of entry (or deportation) are Thailand and Sri Lanka, where images of the Buddha are considered blasphemous.

Malaysia also recently blocked an entertainer from entering the country after revealing a tattoo with the name “Allah” above her breast. Checking in with travel forums and locals can give you a better idea of what to expect if you’re inked, even if it isn’t ink that’s necessarily offensive to you.

What countries don’t allow tattoos/frown upon tattoos?

We have an extensive list of countries (TATTOO TABOO) where it’s de facto or technically illegal to get inked, as well as countries where certain designs can get you in trouble, or where being inked is generally frowned upon.

Thanks to the Internet and widespread access to information, many younger generations all across the globe have gotten accustomed to the sight of inked foreigners, and a tattoo isn’t necessarily something to gawk at anymore in many parts of the world (unless it’s an especially big one).