Trouble in a Foreign Country, What Help Can You Expect?

Foreign travel can provide exciting vacations, great educational opportunities and satisfying business trips.  But bad things can happen when you travel to a foreign country with different laws, a different legal system, and different views on personal rights.  While we all hope to avoid legal problems, becoming victims of crime, and medical emergencies when we travel, we also need to know what to do if disaster strikes.  This article will help you prepare for the worst while you hope for the best.

 The United States State Department is the Federal Agency Responsible for Regulating Foreign Travel and Assisting Americans Overseas.

    The State Department is responsible for issuing passports, replacing lost or stolen passports and renewing expired or expiring passports.  The State Department maintains U.S. Embassies and Consulates in foreign countries all over the world.  Before leaving the United States, you need to know what you can expect from the State Department in the event of an emergency and what you cannot expect.  The terms “embassy” and “consulate” refer to our government’s representation in a foreign country.  The United States will have embassies in only those countries the U.S. recognizes as sovereign nations.  There is only one Embassy in each country, usually in the capitol.  The Ambassador works out of the Embassy and is responsible for diplomatic and political relations with the foreign government.

   Consulates are sort of junior embassies with a Consul as the person in charge.  Consulates generally deal with minor diplomatic tasks, trade and commerce with the foreign country, and they look after American citizens abroad.  While many countries will establish their embassies in the capitol and consulates in smaller cities, the U.S. generally consolidates its consular and embassy services into the U.S. Embassy and does not have separate consulate offices. 

Lost or Stolen Passports

    If you lose your passport or if it is stolen while you are traveling overseas, contact the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate for help as soon as possible.  If you plan to leave that foreign country in the next few days or weeks, provide the consular staff with details of your travel arrangements.  In order to replace your passport, you will need the following:
•    A passport photo
•    Identification (Driver’s license or other photo ID)
•    Evidence of U.S. Citizenship (birth certificate, photocopy of lost passport)
•    Travel Itinerary (Airline/train tickets)
•    Police Report if available
•    DS-11 Application for passport (may be completed when you apply)
•    DS-64 Statement of lost or stolen passport (may be completed when you apply)

As you review the list, you will realize that it might be a good idea to carry an extra passport photo and a photocopy of your passport with you in your baggage. 

   Normally, the State Department will charge you the usual passport application fee, and your replacement passport will be good for 10 years (5 years for a child).  If you are the victim of a serious crime or in the event of a disaster, fees may be waived and a limited passport issued to get you home.  An urgent reason for your immediate return to the U.S. may also prompt the State Department to issue a limited passport to get you home.  Once back in the U.S., you will need to turn in the limited passport and apply for a replacement through the normal channels.

If you are the Victim of a Crime Overseas

    If you become the victim of a crime while traveling overseas, immediately contact the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate.  Consular officers are available for emergency assistance to American travelers 24 hours a day.  If you do not have the number of the local consulate, contact the Department of State in the U.S. to obtain the information on local services.  In the U.S. or Canada, the number is 1-888-407-4747; from overseas, call (202) 501-4444.

    The consular officer can assist you with replacing a stolen passport, finding medical care for any injuries you may have suffered, and contacting family, friends or your employer back home so they can wire you money or documents.  Consular officers can explain the local criminal justice system, obtain information from local authorities about your case, and connect you with U.S. based resources. 

If You are Arrested or Detained in a Foreign Country

    Of course, the smartest thing you can do is to avoid being arrested in a foreign country.  To that end, read up on the laws of the country or countries you expect to visit.  The first thing to do when you are arrested is to ask to speak to the American Embassy or Consulate. Keep asking over and over until your request is granted.  For more information read the article “Crime in a Foreign Country.”

Medical Emergencies or Disasters

    Falls, heart attacks, traffic accidents, train derailments, terrorist attacks –all sorts of disasters can befall us when traveling.  We hope to have a safe trip, but there are no guarantees in life.  Before you leave on your trip, check to make sure your health insurer provides coverage in a foreign country.  Many do not.  Medicare, for example, will not cover foreign health expenses.  Also check to see if you have medical evacuation coverage.  Most health insurers will not pay for medical evacuation to the U.S.  If in doubt, purchase both medical insurance and medical evacuation insurance before you go.

    If disaster strikes while you are traveling, contact the U.S. Embassy or Consulate for assistance.  The Embassy can help you find appropriate medical care, contact your family on your behalf, and help you find air evacuation services.  The Embassy will not pay for your medical care or for your evacuation back to the U.S.  In the event of a major disaster like a flood, ship wreck or terrorist attack, the Embassy can help you obtain funds from home and replacement clothing and documents.

Smart Traveler Enrollment Program

    The Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) is a service of the U.S. Bureau of Consular Affairs.  This free service allows U.S. citizens and U.S. nationals to enroll their trip with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate.  The STEP program will help you by providing you with information and alerts about safety conditions in the area you expect to travel.  The program also helps the Embassy contact you in case of an emergency, and helps family and friends get in touch with you in an emergency.

    Be a savvy traveler.  Know the laws and customs of the countries you intend to visit.  Be wary of high crime areas or areas with known terrorist activities.  Find the telephone numbers for the closest U.S. Embassy or Consulate for each place you plan to visit and keep those numbers with you at all times.




“Dealing with emergencies while travelling.”, Accessed 22 Sept. 2016.

“Diplomacy and Diplomats: What is the difference between an embassy and a consulate.” Quora, 22 Feb. 2013 Accessed 22 Sept. 2016.

“Help for U.S. Citizens Victims of Crime Overseas.” U.S. Department of State- Bureau of Consular Affairs, Accessed 22 Sept. 2016.

“Lost or Stolen Passports Abroad.” U.S. Department of State- Bureau of Consular Affairs, Accessed 22 Sept. 2016.

“Traveler Beware: What are your Rights in a Foreign Country.” Boates Law Firm, Accessed 22 Sept. 2016.

This website has been prepared for general information purposes only. The information on this website is not legal advice. Legal advice is dependent upon the specific circumstances of each situation. Also, the law may vary from state-to-state or county-to-county, so that some information in this website may not be correct for your situation. Finally, the information contained on this website is not guaranteed to be up to date. Therefore, the information contained in this website cannot replace the advice of competent legal counsel licensed in your jurisdiction.