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Crime and Transportation in Jamaica

When you think of life in Jamaica, the constant sunshine and reggae music might be the first things to spring to mind, but living there is about much more than that tourist stereotypes. Check out our expat guide to Jamaica for a deeper insight into the “Land of Wood and Water”.
Unfortunately, Jamaican traffic is not always this cozy.

The Crime Rate

One of the biggest problems in Jamaican society is the high crime rate and large-scale corruption throughout society. Drug trafficking, as well as the gang violence that accompanies it, is especially a cause for concern. This has led to Jamaica having one of the highest murder rates in the world, with approximately 50 homicides per 100,000 people as of 2016, which is in fact an increase on recent years.  

Acts of violence are not limited to the poor parts of town or gang territory, but they could occur anywhere and are part of normal life in some areas, with home burglaries being especially common, even in affluent neighborhoods and gated communities. Although the majority of the criminal activity is Jamaican-on-Jamaican violence, it is still possible to get caught in the crossfire.

Expats Shouldn’t Worry Too Much

Despite the worrying crime rate, expats don’t need to worry too much about their safety while living in Jamaica. Although the larger cities like Montego Bay, Ocho Rios, Negril and, of course, Kingston, see their fair share of violence on a daily basis, you are unlikely to witness anything more than the petty crime common in big cities. Also, be careful when using public ATMs, which have often been tampered with by fraudsters.

Still, it is important to take certain precautions, like limiting the amount of valuables you carry to a minimum, being alert when walking at night or in certain neighbourhoods, and, of course, simply using your common sense. If in doubt, ask locals — for example your work colleagues, cab drivers, and especially your realtor — which areas you should avoid as an expat. It would also be wise to install security measures in your new home or even hire a private security service.

Additionally, it is important to remember that although the use of marijuana is widespread and synonymous with Jamaican culture in the minds of many foreigners, it is still not fully legal in the country. As of 2015, possession of a small amount (56 grams) has been decriminalized and limited to a petty offence, meaning it will not appear on a criminal record — however, any more is still illegal and could land you in trouble.

The LGBT Community

One negative side of life in Jamaica is the country’s controversial and discriminatory attitude towards the LGBT community, which even led to the nation being named “The Most Homophobic Place on Earth” in 2006 by Time Magazine. Same-sex sexual activity between men is still technically illegal, due to outdated 19th-century colonial legislation. Although sexual activity between women is not criminalized, lesbian or bisexual women in Jamaica still have to face social stigma and discrimination.

LGBT residents are often treated violently or in a hateful manner, with homophobic slurs being commonplace. Verbal abuse and physical attacks are not uncommon, and there have been many cases of Jamaicans being murdered due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. Although the situation appears to be slowly improving, thanks to the constant work of local activists and the progress of LGBT rights all around the world, it is still advisable that openly homosexual or transgender men and women think twice before considering living in Jamaica. 

Driving with Caution — Transportation in Jamaica

As Jamaica is part of the Commonwealth, motorists drive on the left-hand side of the road. A large part of the Jamaican road infrastructure suffers from years of neglect and disrepair. You might encounter problems like giant potholes, poorly-marked construction sites, inadequate street signage, or intimidating local driving. Drive with caution until you have acclimatised to the local road rules, and avoid driving at night whenever possible. Always be on the lookout for pedestrians and cyclists!

As a newcomer to Jamaica, you can only drive on your home license for a limited period of time before it is invalid. Therefore, we recommend that expats acquire an International Driving Permit (IDP) from their home country before moving. It will allow them to drive legally in Jamaica for a year before they need to acquire a Jamaican license. The process for this is subject to change, so we recommend contacting the Jamaica Tax Administration office, which is in charge of issuing local driving permits. A motor vehicle license costs 5400 JMD (around 43 USD) as of 2017. It lasts for five years and expires on your birthday, but can be renewed up to 30 days beforehand.

On a national scale, the large cities are connected via a network of four highways, A1 through 4, and a number of secondary roads with the designation B. In addition to the road issues mentioned above, the secondary roads are often rather narrow and frequently populated by livestock on the roadside.

There is the risk of flash flooding of roads due to heavy rainfall during most of the year. These floods make the roads impassable and often pose serious threats to motorists using them at the time of the flood. Before going on a journey, check the weather and road condition reports.

Transport Alternatives

If you don’t plan on driving in Jamaica, you have several other options to get around. The most popular form of public transport is buses, which can take you all over the island and are relatively cheap. However, they are often overcrowded and there is no set timetable — the driver simply leaves when the bus is full. Minibuses and route taxis are also popular, travelling to almost every village in the country.

Unlike many other countries, Jamaica does not have a railway system, as the popularity of trains has mostly been replaced by the use of cars. Unusually for an island, it also does not have an established boat or ferry service for local residents to get from A to B.


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