Trouble Abroad

Your mother warned you to stay out of it, but sometimes trouble just finds you.

The simplest way to stay out of trouble is to avoid it. For instance, in most countries it is a bad idea to be caught with drugs and in some countries, like Burma, drug possession is an automatic death sentence. Know the laws before you go. The US State Department outlines local laws and penalties on their website; they also list American embassies and consulates. See the section on Travel Warnings first.

If you’re in trouble overseas, here are some things you should know and resources that may help.

If you’re arrested:

  • Stay calm and politely request to contact the nearest embassy or consulate. Residents of the US should ask for American Citizens Services, the branch of the State Department that assists Americans abroad. If you can’t reach your consulate, try another country’s embassy — many have reciprocal agreements — or someone you trust. Remember, you can’t get help if nobody knows where you are.
  • Be open to financial arrangements. In many countries, bribes are a traditional way of doing business. Let the authorities make the first move and if they’re willing to forget the whole thing for a price, respectfully negotiate that amount. And have cash on hand — these guys don’t take American Express.

If there’s a medical emergency:

  • The American Citizens Services, or ACS, at the nearest US consulate is your first call if you don’t have overseas medical insurance or don’t know where to locate a doctor. The ACS can also notify family members, if you’re too sick to do so, and provide translation assistance with local medical staff. And if you’re one of the 6,000 Americans who die abroad each year, they’ll help make arrangements to bring your carcass home. See, also the State Department’s list of emergency contacts for Americans abroad.
  • Carry a first aid kit and use it. A lot of big medical problems start small. Cuts, for instance, if left untreated in the tropics can lead to nasty infections. Carry neosporin or other topical antibiotics to treat all minor scrapes. For a more complete list of medical supplies travelers should have, see the Coastalsurvey Surfari Packing List.
  • Consider medevac insurance. Care for a serious injury abroad and transportation back to a US hospital can cost upwards of $50,000 — and most domestic health plans won’t cover it.

If you’re robbed:

  • ACS can help you get a new passport pretty quick, especially if you have a photocopy of the passport stashed away somewhere. Check with the nearest US consulate.
  • They can’t get your stuff back, but ACS can help you contact friends and family to get the cash you need to continue. Or if you’re completely destitute, American Citizens Services will ship your ass home with a “repatriation loan”, which means your passport gets stamped “Direct Return” and is invalid until the loan is paid off.
  • Have backup. Carry travelers checks with the numbers in a separate place. If you use an ATM card, keep only small amounts of cash in the checking section and move funds from a separate account as needed. Make photocopies of your passport, credit cards and the customer service numbers to be left with a friend or relative at home. That way the replacement/repair process can be started with a single phone call.
  • If you can call the folks at home, they can send you cash via Western Union, which has affiliates everywhere. Western Union charges a premium for its services. If you have an international bank, it might be cheaper to do a branch-to-branch transfer.
  • Lastly, don’t worry. It’s only stuff.

If you’re missing:

  • Family members that haven’t heard from you for months and months can call the State Department’s Overseas Citizens Office — 202.647.5225 — which will contact the local consular officers, who will try to find you.
  • To avoid the missing-person scenario, don’t forget to call your mom once in awhile — she’s worried about you.