Arrest of a U.S. Citizen

Guide to Malawian Legal System

The information provided in this document is a general description of criminal justice procedures in Malawi and is intended as a guide for U.S. Citizens. It is not a comprehensive legal document. Some items in this guide may not be relevant to a particular case. Specific questions involving interpretation of Malawian law should be addressed to legal counsel.

As a former British protectorate, Malawi’s legal system is based on an English law model. Any U.S. Citizen visiting or living in Malawi is subject to local laws and should expect no special treatment.

When you are under the authority of Malawi’s legal system, please keep the following factors in mind:

  • The U.S. Embassy is a neutral actor. It cannot advocate for you or give you legal advice. Its role is limited to ensure that you get fair treatment.
  • Consular personnel can communicate your situation to your friends and family in the U.S. However, you must first give us permission to do so by completing a Privacy Act Waiver.
  • You should retain legal representation. The Embassy can provide a list of licensed attorneys in Malawi. The Embassy cannot recommend a specific attorney and cannot guarantee their performance.
  • The Embassy is opposed to and discourages paying bribes in any form.

What to expect when you are arrested:

Malawi Law allows the local police to make arrests and the police can detain you for up to 48 hours without charge. While in detention, you have the right to make phones calls, to have visitors, and to be informed about the reason for the arrest. By law, you also have the right to legal representation. If you cannot afford a lawyer, you may request that one be provided free of charge by the local Legal Aid Department. Lawyers licensed in Malawi understand the local legal system and can help to resolve cases expeditiously and fairly.  If you have a medical condition, you can get medication or medical assistance. Basic food is provided in jail. If you have special dietary requirements, local authorities will try to accommodate. Overall, conditions in Malawian jails and prisons are poor.

If you have been arrested and charges are made, a court hearing will be scheduled to determine your guilt or innocence. The time between detention and conviction varies depending on the circumstances of the case, but the Malawian legal system can move more quickly than U.S. jurisprudence. The Presiding Magistrate or Judge will decide your guilt and what penalty is to be applied. Juries are not used.


Depending on the case, bail can be arranged through the police or a court. Police bail is done without fees but requires production of a surety, a promise by someone to make a payment to the court if you fail to appear. Court bail could involve producing sureties, depositing cash, surrendering travel document, or reporting periodically to a police station. The U.S. Embassy cannot act as a surety.


If you have been convicted, you have the right to appeal within 30 days of the date of conviction. Appeals are addressed to the High Court of Malawi or the Supreme Court of Appeal.

Immigration Violations

If you have violated local immigration regulations, you could be fined, detained or deported depending on the gravity of the offense. For minor infringements (such as short overstay) of a tourist visa, you could be fined (normally 10,000 Malawi Kwacha). For serious immigration violations (taking employment without a permit or participating in acts that are deemed threatening to national security), you could be detained and imprisoned until a court determines if you must be fined, deported, or both. In most cases, detention for immigration violations does not extend beyond 30 days.

If you have been fined and/or deported, you are allowed to come back to Malawi. Persons also declared “Prohibited Immigrant” are not allowed to return to Malawi. You can challenge a “Prohibited Immigrant” determination in a Malawian court.