I decided to write this article after reading several posts on the internet by folks planning to take a GPS receiver to Asian countries. This is written only as a cautionary note. The opinions stated here are mine alone, based on my travels throughout the world and knowledge of military operations.
GPS is military technology. It was deployed in the late 1970's as a military positioning system for use in navigation, targeting and troop movement. It was used extensively during Desert Storm by military forces. Many civilian GPS receivers were in the hands of US and allied military units at that time. In many countries, GPS is still considered hi tech military equipment. For this reason, having in your possession or using GPS in certain countries carries a risk. Travelers have been detained, questioned or worse for using GPS in some areas.
Make no mistake about civilian GPS receivers. They are accurate enough to mark a military facility as a waypoint and later guide troops or worse, back to the same spot. They can also be used to mark accurate locations of facilities which are deliberately omitted from available local maps. Many countries concerned with the activities of small rebel opposition military units are deliberately vague about exact locations on maps. A $100. GPS receiver used to help you find your way back to your hotel in Bangkok, may appear to have a very different use to a Military or Police intelligence officer or interrogator. In many places around the world, your GPS would be considered to be a very high tech spy tool. Were you to be found, even unknowingly, using your GPS near a sensitive facility, you would almost certainly be detained and questioned and your GPS confiscated. The form of questioning used might seem harsh to someone from a country where due process and human rights are the law.
In my travels throughout the world, I have always carried a tiny Sony short-wave receiver. I use this to catch up on world news with the BBC and get a bit of news from home with Voice of America. Such an innocent little radio as this carries the same risk in some countries.
The bottom line here is to do a little investigation before you leave home. Contact the Embassy or Consulate office of your destination countries. You should ask specific questions about the electronic equipment you plan to bring. Find out if they have any regulations about bringing portable electronic equipment into their country. You might be surprised by what you learn. Things like cell phones, walkie talkies, GPS receivers or short-wave receivers are usually on the prohibited list. I don't know if this is still true, but it used to be illegal to bring a tape player to Thailand. Based upon the information you obtain, you can then decide if you are going to take your GPS or other electronic device. If you do take a GPS, use it discretely. Keep it in your pack or a small camera case while not in use. Never use it around a police or military facility. It might not be a bad idea to delete unneeded saved waypoints as you go along. Should you get into a bad situation, it's just one less position you might have to explain. Never sell your GPS receiver to a local resident. If you are going to work in a place which has GPS restrictions and you need GPS to perform this work, it is especially important to do your homework. Get a letter from the Consulate or Embassy giving you permission to have and use your equipment. Keep it with you while you are using your GPS. It might be wise to have this letter in both English and the local language.
Please do not allow this information to spoil your fun. Times and rules change. GPS may be perfectly OK at your destination. It certainly is a helpful tool in traveling around foreign areas you are not familiar with. Even before GPS, I always carried a little compass attached to my fanny pack zipper. I can't count the number of times I have used it to get back to my hotel after a days exploration of a foreign city. Know the rules and policy before you go.
Have a great time in your travels
Send comments/additions to: Ken
Note from Joe:
Western Countries such as the USA, Canada, Mexico, Australia, NZ, South Africa, and Western European Countries could not care less if you use your GPS >away from military installations<. The same goes for most of the island nations. However, heed Ken's advice and ASK if you are in any country outside of the "Western Democracies" listed above.
If anyone can add to the list of "GPS OK TO USE HERE" countries, I will be happy to add them to the comments.