Sometime ago we posted a blog discussing how to best utilize a U.S. embassy. You can find that blog here. Using that as a jumping off point, we thought it would be helpful to dig a little deeper into the services the State Department provides and define a few terms that might need clarification. You can never have too many tools in the tool box.
The following is summarized from an American Society of Travel Agents webinar that took place July 2016.
The STEP program
Travelers can register their trip with the closest U.S. embassy using the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program or STEP. After you’ve registered, you’re able to upload your itinerary, so in the event of catastrophe (home or abroad), you’re always reachable. The service also provides you with detailed safety information of the country you are visiting and notifications of changing social conditions. Best of all, it’s free. Register yourself here, or if you are working with a travel agent, they can resister for you.
State Department Website and Blog
Everyone has a blog these days. U.S. embassies often relay messages via State Department Blogs usually detailing helpful news or reporting minor disruptions. Each embassy has its own blog, for example, you can find the U.S. Mexican embassy blog here.
The State Department’s home website deals with more serious matters issuing warnings and alerts – and yes there is a difference.
A Travel Warning insists you seriously consider traveling to a country, and often advises against it. Warnings include anything from unstable governments, civil wars, ongoing intense crime or violence, or frequent terrorist attacks just to name a few. Most of these are long term; some have been in effect for decades. Also, many of the countries listed with a warning have little or no U.S. diplomatic presence. In the event that you face troubles in these countries, help may be considerably harder to obtain, if at all.
For a short term disturbance, a Travel Alert is issued. Reasons for issuing an alert might include election seasons that attract protests, strikes, and demonstrations which may cause disturbances, but where violence rarely affects you. Alerts also include disease outbreaks such as H1N1 or extreme weather conditions. These, though lesser in severity, and very temporary, are still something a traveler should seriously consider.
The State Department website can be found here.
Victim and Detainment Aid
In the unfortunate event that you are arrested and imprisoned (guilty or not), the State Department has a variety of services at your disposal via the local embassy. You’re your written permission, they can contact family, friends, or employers on your behalf and establish what’s called an OCS Trust so family and friends can transfer money as long as the country’s laws permit it. The embassy will keep in close contact to ensure that you are treated in accordance with international laws and help you understand the local criminal justice process. While the embassy can’t legally represent you, they can provide information as to where local legal representation might be found. With this in mind, the State Department will not interfere with local legal proceedings or pay fines or bail.
If you are a victim of a crime, the State Department can help work with local law enforcement and medical system as well as help keep in touch with family overseas.
Wherever you decide to go, there is no need to go alone, even if you are a solo traveler. Keep these tools handy and these tips in mind so that wherever you find yourself, you can always stay safe.