18.6 million Americans got their passport last year. What’s Stopping you?
By Peter Sacco
You’ve read about this point in your Lonely Planet guide for weeks, and today is the big day. It’s been called the most dangerous border-crossing in South America, but the sun is shining, reggaeton is in the air, and spirits are high.
Desert flies past the bus window, broken occasionally by a cluster of ramshackle huts or a lonely petrol station. Banana plantations recede behind you, blending with the dust of the road into the endless horizon. Ecuador has been good, but its time to move on to something different, time to cross into Peru.
As you approach the town of Huaquillas, which serves as the coastal gateway between Ecuador and Peru, something changes. You can feel it in the air, an unfamiliar undertone that puts you on guard. The bus stops and you disembark.
Throngs of people wait, milling through open markets and clusters of brightly colored tents. Almost immediately a middle age man to the left is vying for your attention, and then another to the right. You ignore them and head for the Customs Office; Peru is just one stamp away.
Out and then Gone
Subconsciously, you slip a hand into your pocket, running dirty fingers over smooth blue and gold. The passport comes out, just 15 feet from the Customs Office, and then it is gone. A dirty 12-year-old boy darts into the market, clutching your most valued possession to his chest.
The document that identifies you as an individual and a US citizen has just been stolen. Home is 2,000 miles away, and without a passport, it just became impossible to get there. What now?
At the U.S Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs, situations such as this are encountered and resolved every day.
“One of our primary purposes here at the State Department is to protect US citizens abroad, and we take that duty very seriously,” says Brenda Sprague, the State Department’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for Passport Services. “Our objective is to guide and inform US citizens traveling overseas along with the best possible path. Whether someone has lost their passport, been arrested, or become sick, we will assist in every way possible.”
First Things First
Planning an international trip? Your first step is to secure a passport. All of the information and paperwork you need to do this can be found online at http://travel.state.gov. If you are a US citizen, the process is fairly straightforward. In 2016 alone, the State Department issued 18.6 million passports, and currently, around one-third of US citizens own a passport.
There are thousands of passport acceptance agencies across the country, all of which are capable of authenticating your application forms. Fill the paperwork out online, which now asks for ‘parent one and two’ as opposed to ‘mother and father’, dig up your birth certificate and picture id, and write a check for $135. Present the lot to any of the acceptance desks countrywide and swear an oath of authentication. Check the mail in six weeks, and you will be ready to travel.
If your business is urgent, you can push your passport application through in two weeks, but it will cost you an extra $60.
You’ve Got A Friend In Me
Charged with the protection of the estimated 6.3 million Americans living overseas and 65 million Americans traveling internationally each year, the State Department is equipped with the tools to play a pivotal role in every overseas trip.
As much a forum as a resource, the State Department is not only poised to act on behalf of international Americans, it also provides a steady flow of information pertinent to all travel destinations. A briefing of every country in the world can be found on its website, including an overview of the local culture, currency, political environment, health risks and social stability.
“Before you travel, visit our website at http://travel.state.gov/,” says Sprague. “It’s easy to navigate and always up to date, plus there is a wealth of information that you will need to know no matter your destination. Spend some time on our site and you will be a smart and savvy traveler, and ultimately glad you did.”
The website Sprague speaks of also offers a list of countries subject to travel alerts and an adjacent list of destinations subject to travel warnings. Alerts pertain to short-term events, such as hurricanes, protests, or health emergencies, but travel warnings are indicative of a long-term and potentially volatile political or social environment.
Common sense alludes to most agitated destinations, but keep a wary eye on the State Department’s website anyway. Due to frequent coups and economic instability, the political and social climate of most third world travel destinations can change on a dime.
The Long Way Home
Not one to be left behind by the ever-evolving social media, the State Department now administers a twitter feed (@TravelGov), a Facebook page, and the Smart Traveler iPhone app. Smart Traveler can be downloaded free from the iTunes store, and it makes travel warnings and alerts easily accessible from the road. All of the State Departments social media outlets are designed to keep travelers up to date on conditions abroad.
Another valuable resource is the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program or STEP. Prior to departure on your trip, sign up online with your basic trip itinerary. In the event of an emergency, enrollment in STEP will help the State Department locate and assist you.
Most Americans travel abroad without incident. However, if you are hospitalized, lose your passport, or get arrested, the State Department can help.
“If you lose your passport abroad, go to the nearest US Embassy or Consulate,” says Sprague. “They can issue you a temporary passport that’s good for one year. However, you should be sure that you really have lost your passport because once a temporary document is issued, the original becomes obsolete.”
A temporary passport bought abroad will cost you $135, but upon your return to the US, it can be exchanged free of charge for a new, 10-year passport.
If you become sick overseas, the State Department can notify your family and help to facilitate communication and the transfer of financial aid. In the event of a run in with foreign law enforcement, you should immediately contact the nearest US Embassy. If your situation is dire, the State Department can provide you a list of local lawyers and simplify communication with your family.
Know Before You Go
The US State Department is a valuable ally overseas, but its power does have limits. Remember that when you
travel abroad, you are under the jurisdiction of foreign laws, a reality that is not to be taken lightly. International law prevents the US government from freeing you from detention abroad, so although the State Department is allowed to maintain contact with you, you are ultimately outside of US jurisdiction.
The best advice? Be aware and don’t test the system.
Understand before you leave for Guatemala that, although marijuana is legal in Massachusetts and 10 other states, possession their carries a serious jail sentence.
Know that police in Kenya may look the other way when a drunk local gets behind the wheel, but don’t be surprised when that same officer sends you to jail for drunk driving.
Ignorance is bliss, but it can also land you in a deadly third world prison.
Read up and become knowledgeable, wherever your travels lead, the State Department’s website maintains all of the information you will need on its website. Also, be aware of the stigma you carry as an American. Most peoples in the third world associate Americans with money and privilege, unfairly or justly so, and they carry a chip on their shoulder.
Use the US State Department as a resource to prevent trouble abroad, and an ally if trouble is encountered abroad. In the event of an emergency overseas, The US State Department can quickly become your best friend.
Peter Sacco is a former editorial assistant at GoNOMAD. He has traveled and lived in South America since graduating from UMass/Amherst.
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