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How to Travel Abroad with Key Legal Documents

Keep Your Trip Hassle- and Worry-Free

Pack all your key documents and keep encrypted copies on your devices for peace of mind when traveling.
Pack all your key documents and keep encrypted copies on your devices for peace of mind when traveling.

Preparing for travel abroad can be a daunting task, especially when it comes to putting your affairs in order. There are official documents to gather, phone numbers to collect, and emergencies to hedge against. Then you have to find a way to organize and carry (and not lose) some of these documents, which is a challenge unto itself on the road. This article will help you prepare for your own trip abroad, providing you with guidelines regarding what to consider and how to pull it all together.

As a former financial planner, creating contingencies is in my blood. I tend to prepare everything and create backups and fallbacks just in case things don’t go as planned. As stressful as it was at the outset, I must say that in my three plus years of full-time travel, I’ve come to rely on a good deal of this prep work, and the process has evolved into something easily maintainable. The peace of mind I get from having everything in order is also not to be underestimated.

The amount of your own required preparation depends on the length of your trip, to some extent. For example if you’re embarking on a short trip you may not feel too concerned about putting your wills and powers of attorney in order. Even so, be it two weeks or two years, anything can happen and it pays to be prepared. The following guidelines are good for just about any travel situation; whether it’s a short-term vacation or a long-term way of life.

Pre-Trip Preparations: Designating a Representative

As part of your trip planning, it is a good idea to designate a family member or friend at home as a representative. This person will have extra copies of your identification and key pieces of information at their fingertips just in case they need to advocate on your behalf if you are incapacitated or unable to make the appropriate calls from your current location.

The longer you plan to travel for, the more information you should give them. My designated representative has everything from my banking information, to my travel insurance at the time, copies of my identification, and even life insurance, wills, and powers of attorney.

What Identification to Carry

For the most part, your passport is the most important piece of identification you can travel with. However, it helps to have originals of at least one other piece of identification available. In some cases you may need to provide two types of identification; in other cases you may need some original identification to help replace a lost or stolen passport. It is generally accepted to carry at least your original passport and driver’s license with you while you travel. Leave at least one piece of original identification (such as your birth certificate) at home, just in case you lose everything else on the road.

Passport Copies

There are a few things you can do to protect your passport — as well as your identity — on the road. For example, make sure you have a photocopy of your passport, and carry it on your body separately from the original. This way if your original is lost or stolen, you can show your consulate the copy to expedite the process of getting a replacement.

Once at your destination, you can lock your original passport in a hotel safe (or at reception), and carry only the copy with you when you go out. When a safe is not available, many travelers will instead carry their passports with them in a money belt or purse, and if they go somewhere where this isn’t practical (such as to a pool or beach), they will lock it in their suitcase. It is also a good idea to give your travel partner a copy (if applicable), as well as your designated representative at home.

I carry a photocopy of my passport in my purse, and I also have electronic copies (pictures) available; one is encrypted on my laptop, and the other is on an encrypted USB flash drive which I keep in a secret pocket underneath my clothing (we’ll discuss this concept in more detail later). If you use your smartphone on international trips, which can prove expensive, store and encrypt key documents there as well.

Travel Insurance

Despite the lack of a legal requirement for it, travel insurance is a must-have when abroad. An unexpected accident or illness could ruin your trip and decimate your finances if you aren’t properly insured.

Some insurers won’t cover your expenses if you don’t contact them before seeking medical treatment, so you should carry your travel insurance information with you at all times. Make sure both you, your travel partner (if applicable), and your designated representative at home have the travel insurance company, policy number, and claims phone number at all times. (I keep mine in my wallet). It is also a good idea to have a copy of the full policy available just in case you need to reference it on the fly. Not once — but twice — have I had to use travel insurance, and having the full policy handy for reference has been invaluable.

International Driver’s License

Although it isn’t a necessity per se, an international driver’s license is handy to have on the road, especially if you are traveling through countries that speak a foreign language. It serves as an additional piece of photo ID, and in some places is mandatory if you rent or purchase a car.

Having bought a car and spent a good deal of time in Australia, my international driver’s license was surprisingly necessary. In fact, because I was there longer than three months, I would have had to get a local driver’s license (which isn’t cheap) if I didn’t have my international one.

Wills & Powers of Attorney

Some would argue that your chances of encountering disaster are no higher on the road than they are at home. So if you haven’t already done so, it would be prudent to put your affairs in order before you travel.

If you are traveling with a partner, you may want them to have a power of attorney for you, so that they can advocate (and make decisions) for you if you are incapacitated. However don’t take this decision lightly, as somebody who has power of attorney has ultimate control, and you need to be confident in the relationship and clear with them about the terms of the agreement before something bad happens.

Consulate Phone Numbers

A friend of mine was traveling through Africa when he was accosted by a local “authority.” After a verbal argument about turning over his passport because he was apparently breaking an unwritten law, he pulled out his cell phone and dialed his consulate (he had the number stored on his phone). A minute later the “authority” decided to move on to another target.

Having the contact information for his local consulate was handy on two fronts; not only was he able to speak to somebody who could confirm if the person in front of him was a legitimate authority, but simply having the number handy intimidated the attacker enough to leave him alone. Your consulate is your friend; don’t be afraid to use it by keeping the address and phone number handy.

Printed Itineraries

Some countries won’t let you in without proof of onward travel in the form of a plane ticket or itinerary. Don’t get stuck at the border without a printed itinerary; in some cases you could be forced to purchase another onward ticket right there in order to gain entry.

Passport Photos

I carry a set of passport photos with me, and have used them for everything from visa applications, to international driver’s licenses, to even scuba certifications. Getting passport photos on the road can be cumbersome, but having some made at home or online is simple and inexpensive.

How to Carry Your Documents

Between passport photos, travel itineraries, insurance policies, and other items, you need a way to carry everything safely and securely. I have a thin, light, waterproof plastic folder that houses all my important documents and is tucked into my carry-on luggage. I also keep some plastic sleeves and Ziploc bags handy to store any extra items I accumulate along the way that I wish to keep safe and dry.

Storage of Electronic Data and Emergency Provisions

As mentioned earlier, I carry a USB stick at all times with my pertinent information on it. Not only do I have digital photos of all my identification, but I also have important phone numbers, banking information, and passwords. It’s all encrypted so if the USB stick goes missing nobody can access this information without a master password. Not only that, but I carry the USB stick in a special small pocket underneath my clothing, along with some local currency. It is a true last resort in case I lose absolutely everything.

By following the above steps, I rest assured that no travel emergency will get the better of me. Believe it or not, I initially carried even more documents and identification, and have strategically pared down with experience (and learning from other travelers). The steps described above are the basics of preparing for travel abroad and hitting the road — safely and securely.

For More Info

For more information about storing passwords and encrypting electronic data, check out Nora's guide to Protecting Your Laptop Computer and Sensitive Information Abroad.

For more information on making sure you have proper travel insurance, see Nora's guide to Overseas Travel Insurance: Why You Need It.

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