Assistance from American Consuls
U.S. consular officers are located in over 260 Foreign Service posts abroad. In addition, consular agents in approximately 46 foreign cities without U.S. embassies or consulates provide a more limited but still important series of emergency and other consular services.
Providing assistance to Americans during a crisis abroad, such as political upheaval or a natural disaster, is one of the most critical tasks consular officer perform. During a crisis, consular officers look for missing Americans and help Americans return to the U.S., among many other duties to assist Americans. The State Department strongly encourages American citizens planning travel abroad to register their travel with the Department of State so that we may find you during a crisis. Travel registration is free, it’s confidential, and it’s easily accomplished online at https://travelregistration.state.gov.
Consuls also advise and help Americans who are in serious legal, medical or financial trouble, including health emergencies, arrests, deaths, missing persons, and destitution. For information about emergency assistance to Americans in trouble abroad, see http://travel.state.gov/travel/tips/emergencies/emergencies_1205.html#general#general. In addition, note the following information for assistance in emergencies:
Consular officers also perform non-emergency services, including providing information on absentee voting, selective service registration, and acquisition and loss of U.S. citizenship. They can arrange for the transfer of Social Security and other U.S. government benefits to beneficiaries residing abroad, provide U.S. tax forms, and notarize documents. They can also provide information on how to obtain foreign public documents. Note, however, that because of the limited number of consular officers and the growing number of U.S. tourists and residents abroad, consuls cannot provide tourism or commercial services. For example, consuls cannot perform the work of travel agencies, lawyers, information bureaus, banks, or the police, nor can they obtain work, residence or driving permits, act as interpreters, search for missing luggage, or settle commercial disputes for U.S. citizens. For information about routine consular services performed by consuls abroad, see http://travel.state.gov/travel/travel_1744.html.
How to Contact the Embassy or the State Department in an Emergency
Consular duty personnel are available for emergency assistance 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, at U.S. embassies, consulates, and consular agencies overseas and in Washington, D.C. To contact the Office of Overseas Citizens Services in the U.S. call 1-888-407-4747 (during business hours) or 202-647-5225 (after hours). Contact information for U.S. embassies, consulates, and consular agencies overseas may be found at http://www.state.gov/countries.
When the family of an American traveler needs to reach him or her because of an emergency at home or because family members are worried about the traveler’s welfare, they should call 1-888-407-4747. The State Department will relay the message to the consular officers in the country in which the traveler is thought to be, and the consular officers will try to locate the traveler, pass on urgent messages, and, consistent with the Privacy Act, report back to the inquiring family.
What You Should Know If You Are a Victim of Crime
Consular officers are committed to assisting American citizens who become victims of crime while abroad. Familiar with local government agencies and resources in the country where they work, consular officers can help American crime victims to:
- replace a stolen passport;
- contact family, friends, or employers;
- obtain appropriate medical care;
- address other emergency needs that arise as a result of the crime;
- provide information about the local criminal justice process and about the case itself;
- obtain information about local resources to assist victims, including foreign crime victim compensation programs;
- obtain information about U.S. crime victim assistance and compensation programs, and
- obtain a list of local attorneys who speak English.
For more information about consular assistance for victims of crime abroad, see http://travel.state.gov/travel/tips/emergencies/emergencies_1748.html.
Passport fraud is attempted by U.S. citizens and non-citizens for a variety of criminal purposes – money laundering, narcotics trafficking, illegal entry into the U.S., terrorism, etc. In processing lost/stolen passport cases, the Department of State must take special precautions that may delay the issuance of a new, full validity passport. If you suspect a U.S. passport is being used fraudulently, do not hesitate to contact the nearest American embassy or consulate or in the U.S., the nearest Passport Agency.
Financial scams originating from overseas are a real and growing problem. Individual American citizens have lost considerable sums of money on these scams, ranging from a few hundred dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars. While confidence schemes have long existed, the advent of the internet has greatly increased their prevalence, and the Department of State receives daily inquiries from victims. Scams may involve internet dating, inheritance, work permits, overpayment, and money-laundering.
For information about these scams and what you can do to protect yourself (or what to do if you are the victim of a scam), visit the Department of State website at http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/financial_scams/financial_scams_3155.html.
International Child Custody Disputes
There are legal limits to the assistance that U.S. authorities can provide to parents involved in a child custody dispute. When an American child is abducted overseas by a parent, the U.S. Government's role is to help the remaining parent by locating the child, monitoring the child's welfare, and providing information about child custody laws and procedures in the country where the child has been taken. Consular officers overseas can issue a U.S. passport to a child involved in a custody dispute, if the child appears in person at a U.S. Embassy or Consulate, and if there is no court order from the foreign court of that country barring the child's departure from the country.
Parents who are involved in a custody dispute overseas should find out whether the foreign country to which the child has been taken is party to the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. Under the Hague Convention, a child who has been wrongfully removed from a parent may be returned to his or her place of habitual residence.
For further information on international child abduction and the Hague Convention, visit the Department of State website at http://www.travel.state.gov/abduction/abduction_580.html or contact the Office of Children's Issues at 202-647-7000. That office also has copies of the booklet, International Parental Child Abduction, which contains helpful information on what U.S. citizen parents can do to prevent their child from becoming a victim of parental child abduction. (The booklet is also available by autofax service at 202-674-3000.) If you are overseas and would like information on this subject, contact the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate for guidance.
When you are in a foreign country, you are subject to its laws, and American officials are limited as to how they can assist you. They cannot, for instance, represent you in legal proceedings or pay your legal fees or other expenses. They can, however, perform a variety of vital services, which include providing a list of attorneys, assisting in contacting your family in the U.S. if you wish it, helping you obtain money from family in the U.S., and monitoring your health and welfare and the conditions under which you are being held.
If you are arrested, immediately ask to speak to a consular officer at the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate. Under international agreements, the U.S. Government has a right to provide consular assistance to you upon your request. If your request to speak to your consul is turned down, keep asking—politely, but persistently. For information on how consuls assist American arrestees, see http://travel.state.gov/travel/tips/emergencies/emergencies_1199.html.
Special Warning About Drug Offenses Abroad
Every year, several hundred Americans are arrested abroad on drug charges. Persons caught with illegal drugs in a foreign country are subject to the drug laws of that country, not those of the U.S.; as always, ignorance of the law is no excuse. In many countries, the burden of proof is on the accused to show that he or she is innocent of the charges.
Some Americans take advantage of an offer of an all-expenses-paid vacation abroad in exchange for carrying a small package in the luggage. When, to their surprise, they are caught, the fact that they did not know that there were drugs in that package will not reduce the charges against them.
Every aspect of a drug arrest abroad can be different from U.S. practice. For instance:
- few countries provide a jury trial
- many countries do not permit pre-trial release on bail
- pre-trial detention, often in solitary confinement, can last several months
- prisons may lack even minimal comforts, such as beds, toilets, and washbasins
- diets are often inadequate and require supplements from relatives and friends
- officials may not speak English
- physical abuse, confiscation of property, degrading treatment and extortion are possible.
- persons convicted may face sentences ranging from fines and jail time, to years of hard labor, and even the death penalty
- penalties for drug possession and for drug trafficking are often the same abroad, so possession of one ounce of marijuana could result in years in a foreign jail
As with any arrest of a U.S. citizen abroad, consular officers perform a variety of services (see Arrests Abroad, above). For more information about arrests abroad, see http://travel.state.gov/travel/tips/emergencies/emergencies_1199.html.
Death of a U.S. Citizen Abroad
Each year, over 6,000 Americans die abroad. Most of them are Americans who live overseas, but, each year, a few thousand Americans die while on short visits abroad. One of the most important tasks of U.S. consular officers abroad is to provide assistance to the families of U.S. citizens who die abroad.
When an American citizen dies abroad, consular officers:
- confirm the death, identity and U.S. citizenship of the deceased
- make notification to the next-of-kin if they do not already know about the death, providing information about disposition of the remains and the effects of the deceased, and provides guidance on forwarding funds to cover costs
- serve as provisional conservator of the estate, absent a legal representative in country
- prepare documents for disposition of the remains in accordance with instructions from the next-of-kin or legal representative, and oversee the performance of disposition of the remains and of the effects of the deceased
- send signed copies of the Consular Report of Death of an American Citizen Abroad to the next-of-kin or legal representative, for use in settling estate matters in the U.S.
For more information about consular assistance when an American citizen has died abroad, see http://travel.state.gov/law/family_issues/death/death_600.html
Terrorist acts occur unpredictably, making it impossible to protect yourself absolutely. The first and best protection is to avoid travel to areas where there has been a persistent record of terrorist attacks or kidnappings.
Most terrorist attacks are the result of careful planning. Just as a car thief will first be attracted to an unlocked car with the key in the ignition, terrorists are looking for the most accessible targets. The chances that a tourist, traveling with an unpublished program or itinerary, would be the victim of terrorism are slight. In addition, many terrorist groups, seeking publicity for political causes within their own country or region, may not be looking for American targets.
Nevertheless, the following pointers may help you avoid becoming a target of opportunity. These precautions may provide some degree of protection, and can serve as practical and psychological deterrents to would-be terrorists.
- Schedule direct flights if possible, and avoid stops in high-risk airports or areas.
- Be cautious about what you discuss with strangers or what others may overhear.
- Try to minimize the time spent in the public area of an airport, which is a less protected area. Move quickly from the check-in counter to the secured areas. Upon arrival, leave the airport as soon as possible.
- As much as possible, avoid luggage tags, dress and behavior that may draw attention to yourself.
- Keep an eye out for abandoned packages or briefcases, or other suspicious items. Report them to airport authorities and leave the area promptly.
- Avoid obvious terrorist targets, such as places where Westerners are known to congregate.
- Watch for people following you or "loiterers" observing your comings and goings.
- Report any suspicious activity to local police, and the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate.
- Keep a mental note of safe havens, such as police stations, hotels, and hospitals. Formulate a plan of action for what you will do if a bomb explodes or there is gunfire nearby.
- Select your own taxicabs at random. Don't take a vehicle that is not clearly identified as a taxi. Compare the face of the driver with the one on his or her posted license.
- If possible, travel with others.
- Be sure of the identity of visitors before opening the door of your hotel room. Don't meet strangers at your hotel room, or at unknown or remote locations.
- Refuse unexpected packages.
- Check for loose wires or other suspicious activity around your car.
- Be sure your vehicle is in good operating condition.
- Drive with car windows closed in crowded streets. Bombs can be thrown through open windows.
- If you are ever in a situation where somebody starts shooting, drop to the floor or get down as low as possible. Don't move until you are sure the danger has passed. Do not attempt to help rescuers and do not pick up a weapon. If possible, shield yourself behind a solid object. If you must move, crawl on your stomach.
While every hostage situation is different, there are some general considerations to keep in mind.
- U.S. Government policy is firm: we do not make concessions to terrorists. When Americans are abducted overseas, we look to the host government to exercise its responsibility under international law to protect all persons within its territories and to bring about the safe release of hostages. We work closely with these governments from the outset of a hostage-taking incident to ensure that our citizens and other victims are released as quickly and safely as possible.
- At the outset of a terrorist incident, the terrorists typically are tense, high-strung and may behave irrationally. It is extremely important that you remain calm and alert, and control your own behavior.
- Avoid resistance and sudden or threatening movements. Do not struggle or try to escape unless you are certain of being successful. Don't try to be a hero, endangering yourself and others.
- Consciously put yourself in a mode of passive cooperation. Talk normally. Do not complain, avoid belligerency, and comply with all orders and instructions.
- If questioned, keep your answers short. Don't volunteer information or make unnecessary overtures.
- Make a concerted effort to relax. Prepare yourself mentally, physically and emotionally for the possibility of a long ordeal.
- Try to remain inconspicuous, avoid direct eye contact and the appearance of observing your captors' actions.
- Avoid alcoholic beverages. Eat what they give you, even if it does not look or taste appetizing, but keep consumption of food and drink at a moderate level. A loss of appetite and weight is normal.
- If you are involved in a lengthier, drawn-out situation, try to establish a rapport with your captors, avoiding political discussions or other confrontational subjects.
- Establish a daily program of mental and physical activity.
- Think positively and avoid a sense of despair. You are a valuable commodity to your captors, and it is important to them to keep you alive and well.
How to Access Funds in the U.S.
U.S. consuls can assist Americans abroad who are temporarily destitute due to unforeseen circumstances. Americans who find themselves in these circumstances should contact the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate (see http://usembassy.state.gov for contact information) or the State Department’s Office of Overseas Citizens Services at 1-888-407-4747 (during business hours) or 202-647-5225 (after hours). Consular officers can help destitute Americans contact family, bank, or employer to arrange for transfer of funds. In some cases, these funds can be wired through the Department of State.
How to Get Your Passport Replaced
If your U.S. passport is lost or stolen while you are overseas, report it immediately to the local police and to the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate. A consul can issue a replacement passport, often within 24 hours. Links to contact information for U.S. Embassies and Consulates may be found at http://usembassy.state.gov. If your U.S. passport is lost or stolen in the U.S., report it to the Department of State by following instructions found at http://www.travel.state.gov/passport/lost/lost_848.html.