Carry your country in your back pocket. Ok, so your country’s embassy is not exactly travel size, but understanding how it works and where you can find it will really get you out of a jam. Nearly any country you happen to visit has one. Surprisingly though, it is a resource that few use or completely understand, so we provided a brief overview of the fundamentals. From here, we will use the United States as an example, but the key principals apply to nearly every country’s embassy.

At its most basic, an embassy exists as a representation of the relationship between two countries.  From here, an ambassador will build trust with the host country and advance their country’s interests politically, financially, or culturally. The United States has hundreds of embassies around the world, most of which are located in capital cities. Smaller outlet locations, called consulates, also serve the same functionality. Curious about the culture? The embassy provides resources to help you understand the people and places around you.

An American embassy is American soil, even though it stands on foreign land. This means within the boundaries of an embassy, laws, customs, and taxes, have no authority. Foreign law enforcement cannot enter embassy grounds unless authorized by the American government. Therefore, you cannot enter an embassy without proper paperwork or proof of citizenship. Essentially, when you are inside an American embassy, you are inside the United States.

So how does an embassy help you, the traveler? Consider the embassy home base or a vast resource library. If injured, an embassy can assist with locating medical services, informing family members, and assist in transferring funds from the United States if needed. Lost your passport?  The embassy can replace it (though it is handy to have a photocopy of your passport). Likewise, an embassy handles visa transactions, replacements, and other such documentation.

If you are away during elections, forget to file your taxes, or give birth while outside the United States, your embassy can help provide and file important paperwork, send in your absentee ballot, and write up birth certificates. They cannot make someone a citizen of the United States but can handle marriage licenses.

For business ventures looking to take root on foreign soil, the embassy can help with commerce transactions and help avoid potential lawsuits and hefty taxes. They can also notarize.

It is also a place of safety in the event of civil unrest.  There are limitations however. An embassy’s jurisdiction does not supersede the country’s laws.  In other words, the embassy does not protect lawbreakers and will gladly hand criminals back to face the consequences. An embassy will help in understanding the local legal system and provide legal counsel recourses if needed.

Registering with the local embassy will enable you to receive texts about security and travel information. In the event of disaster (manmade or natural), the embassy will have a record of where you were staying and how to contact you with important information.  To register, visit http://www.usembassy.gov and find the embassy closest to your travel destination.  There is really no reason not to.