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How Americans Can Plan For and Handle Emergencies Abroad

Your Embassy and the U.S. State Department Can Help

American embassy in Vienna in case of emergency
Always know the locations of embassies abroad in case of emergency.

Yearly natural disasters around the world often serve as a terrible reminders for overseas travelers that it is a good idea to prepare for all types of emergencies. Do a little homework and read the country briefings and travel warnings about your destination. Find out about dangers and diseases that could affect you, and plan accordingly. With the help of the information and resources found in this article, you can be better prepared for any eventuality, however unlikely to occur.

Still, no matter how well you prepare, sometimes you may have to ask for assistance at a U.S. embassy or consulate. Embassies are not staffed to provide personalized assistance for minor difficulties and setbacks, but you can count on help in emergency situations.

Register with the State Department

An online registration service makes it easy for U.S. citizens living or traveling abroad to provide their contact information. You can also register in person at an embassy or consulate at your destination. This makes it easier for the U.S. embassy to contact you in an emergency.

Lost or Stolen Passport

If your passport is lost or stolen, first report the theft to the local police and get a police report, then contact the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate. Because of new security features, U.S. passports are no longer issued abroad. Instead, they are sent to embassies from the U.S., which takes more time. Only temporary passports for urgent travel needs are issued at embassies abroad normally within 24 hours. Unless you can prove your identity with another document, you may be interviewed and your family may be contacted to verify your identity. In some emergency cases U.S. citizens may be given a transportation letter with the permission to enter the U.S. without a passport.

Welfare and Whereabouts Services

If your family has lost contact with you, or if they need to reach you because of an emergency at home, they can contact the State Department’s Overseas Citizens Services. Consular officers at the local embassy will then try to locate you and report on your welfare. This may include checking, hotels, hospitals, and even prisons. For a child custody or parental child abduction case of a U.S. citizen under the age of 18, contact the Office of Children’s Issues. In the case of a runaway minor in a foreign country, consular officers will work with local authorities.

Medical Emergencies

If you become sick your embassy can provide you with a list of local doctors and hospitals, and if the illness is serious a consul can help you find medical assistance and notify your family or friends. The Bureau of Consular Affairs can assist in sending private funds to the injured American and forward medical records to an embassy or consulate. The State Department can also arrange for the return of an injured American, either through a commercial air ambulance or in rare cases by a U.S. Air Force medical evacuation aircraft. However, all evacuation costs have to be borne by the injured American or their family.

Help in a Disaster

In the case of a natural disaster or political upheaval, contact your relatives at home immediately to let them know you are safe. You can also contact an embassy or consulate to forward a message to your relatives at home. When a crisis occurs the State Department sets up a task force in Washington to work closely with the embassy in the affected country to assist and locate Americans overseas and contact their relatives in the U.S. In rare emergencies an embassy may provide for the evacuation of American citizens.

Financial Assistance

Americans who need financial assistance can ask the embassy to contact their family or friends at home and arrange for a money transfer through a trust with the State Department for an annual fee. If this is not possible, the Office of American Citizen Services and Crisis Management can in rare cases provide a small government loan under the Emergency Medical/Dietary Assistance program (EMDA-II), so American citizens can get medical help, receive temporary financial assistance for food and lodging, or get funds to help them return to the U.S. safely.

Assistance to Crime Victims

After-hours duty officers are available for emergency assistance 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If you are the victim of a crime overseas, contact the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate, as well as the local police, to file a police report. Consular personnel can provide assistance to crime victims in a number of ways: to replace a stolen passport, contact family and friends, help you get medical care if needed, and help provide information about the local criminal justice process as well as victim compensation programs in your host country and in your home state.

Assistance in Case of Arrest or Incarceration

American citizens are subject to local laws, which may differ significantly from those in the U.S. Consular officers can provide a list of attorneys and information about judicial procedures, notify relatives if requested, and forward requests for money and other aid to relatives and friends. U.S. embassies can also arrange for medical care and provide loans to destitute prisoners through the Emergency Medical/Dietary Assistance (EMDA-I) program. Consular officers will sometimes attend the trial and monitor the treatment of prisoners and protest abuse. Consular officers cannot demand the release of a U.S. citizen or represent a U.S. citizen at trial, give legal advice, pay legal fees, or represent a prisoner in court.

Death of U.S. Citizens Abroad

In the case of the death of an American citizen abroad, the embassy notifies relatives and prepares an official Foreign Service Report of Death. The Bureau of Consular Affairs also provides help for family members to make arrangements for local burial or return of the remains to the U.S. However, the State Department has no funds to assist in the return of remains or ashes of American citizens who die abroad.

In addition to these emergency services U.S. embassies and consulates also provide non-emergency services for Americans abroad, such as birth certificates, federal benefit payments, assistance in child custody disputes, notarization of documents, absentee voting, and more.

Key Emergency Information for Americans Abroad

It is often prudent to register with the U.S. State Department — Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP).

Do some background research via the CIA World Factbook, as well as other sources in print and online, of course.

U.S. State Department — Bureau of Consular Affairs provides useful information for Americans traveling or living abroad. A key part of the site is the International Travel page, which provides access to Travel Warnings, Country Background Notes, Passports, Visas, and much more.

For all emergencies and crises contact the U.S. Department of State: Emergency Resources. Or, contact the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate.

See also sections on the U.S. Department of State website related to: Medical Information and Insurance for Americans Abroad and U.S. Embassies and Consulates Worldwide.

Find out where to locate and vet a list of Foreign Attorneys representing the Americans Abroad, as well as other legal information.

Volker Poelzl is a Living Abroad Contributing Editor for Transitions Abroad. He helped a friend find his runaway teenage son in Spain, which inspired this article.

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