You're in a foreign country and the unthinkable happens. You've lost your passport and all your money. Or you're injured. Or you have been arrested. Or you've run into visa problems. Trouble with a capital T, as Professor Harold Hill said in "The Music Man." What do you do? A recent conversation with Karen Christensen, deputy assistant secretary for Overseas Citizen Services for the U.S. State Department, brought new and surprising issues to light.
Issue: My passport is missing.
"The most common difficulty … is a lost or stolen passport," Christensen said.
Steps to take before trouble occurs: Carry a color copy of your passport. Why color? "It's more accurate," Christensen said. And it means you'll have your passport number at hand. You can email yourself a copy, carry one with you or both.
Where to look for help: www.travel.state.gov. Go to "Country Specific Information" and type in the name of the country. You'll see a box called "Assistance for U.S. citizens" with contact information for embassies and consulates. You may also find a link to the U.S. Embassy's home page, which will provide additional information about services in-country.
If you're a fretful traveler: Print out all this info or put it on a thumb drive. And don't keep it near your passport. Carry an extra credit card and stash some cash, also well away from your passport.
What the State Department can do: You usually can get an emergency passport from the embassy or consulate. It costs the same as a new passport but is good only for a year. You can turn it in for a passport that's valid for 10 years (for adults). The State Department also can help you contact friends or relatives if you've lost all your money and, in some instances, arrange a loan.
Little land mines: U.S. embassies and consulates observe U.S. holidays and often the host country's holidays. If your problem occurs at such a time, help with a passport reissue may not be available immediately.
Issue: You are or your traveling companion is ill or injured.
"Travel insurance is really important for a lot of travelers," Christensen said.
Steps to take before trouble occurs: Your everyday health insurance may cover you when you're traveling abroad, but Medicare does not cover you outside of the United States. Travel insurance with medical is rarely a bad idea, especially if it comes with medical evacuation coverage.
Where to look for help: The embassy or consulate can help with a list of English-speaking doctors. Many travel insurers also provide this benefit. Learn more about navigating travel insurance.
If you're a fretful traveler: Or even if you're not, you should have your insurance policy info on that thumb drive or printout.
What the State Department can do: If the injury or illness results in death, it can advise you on procedures for repatriation of remains. In many cases, so can your travel insurer.
Little land mines: It's a good idea to have a credit card with lots of available credit or access to cash, or both, in case you wind up in a hospital that demands immediate payment.
Issue: You run afoul of local laws.
It doesn't have to be something major; for example, you may get tripped up by laws about being drunk in public. If you're a young traveler, be especially wary. "Alcohol is a big problem with that age group," Christensen said.
Steps to take before trouble occurs: Read up on local laws (under "Local Laws and Special Circumstances" on country-specific information on U.S. Department of State Travel page). You can get into trouble in innocuous ways (taking pictures of certain buildings or authorities, for instance, or trying to bring home antiquities without proper documentation).
If you're a fretful traveler: Maybe you've watched "Brokedown Palace" one time too many. (The 1999 film is based on a true story about two young women arrested for carrying a package that turns out to contain drugs.) Beware anyone who asks you to carry anything. Christensen said older travelers are increasingly being targeted by such scammers.
Where to look for help: If you're arrested, the Vienna Convention mandates that the U.S. Embassy or consulate be notified. Also, if you're traveling with friends or family, make sure they also contact the embassy or consulate on your behalf.
What the State Department can do: Among the services it can render according to the Arrest or Detention of U.S. Citizens Abroad website: provide lists of local attorneys and information about that country's criminal justice system, arrange visits by a clergy member and create a fund so the person has access to some money.
Little land mines: Some countries are extraordinarily strict about things you might not think are issues. I stumbled across this on the Japan page, and it gave me great pause: "In Japan, you may be taken in for questioning if you don't have your passport or Japanese residence card to show your identity and visa status. You must carry your U.S. passport or Japanese residence card (zairyu kado) with you at all times so that if questioned by local officials, you can prove your identity, citizenship and immigration status. Under Japanese law, the police may stop any person on the street at any time and demand to see identification. If you do not have with you either a passport or valid Japanese residence card, you are subject to arrest."
Carrying my passport scares the daylights out of me, and I thought I could get away with carrying just a copy. Not so. If you're in a country where you must carry your document with you, carry it securely. My method: a pouch worn under my clothing or a tank top with a secret compartment (the latter from CleverTravelCompanion.com).
Issue: Your visa is invalid.
This happened to Christensen when she was an 18-year-old traveling in Europe. She didn't have the proper visa and was removed from a train in the middle of the night. "I was pretty scared," she said.
Steps to take before trouble occurs: Know the visa requirements and follow them to the letter. You can find that information under country-specific information with U.S. State Department Travel. And check your passport to make sure you have the proper stamps arriving and departing.
Where to look for help: This is more like where not to look for help. The State Department does not generally get involved in visa issues, as our stories about lacking an exit stamp in Turkey and an expired visa in India demonstrate. On the Turkey page, for instance. it says, chillingly, "The U.S. Embassy is unable to assist with Turkish immigration and visa related matters."
Here is what State says about overstaying your Indian visa.
"Generally you will be fined and, in some cases, may be jailed for months until deportation can be arranged."
If you're a fretful traveler: Do not assume you can figure it out while you're there. Know before you go.
What the State Department can do: It can provide a list of attorneys or others who can help you with legal issues. It also can provide information, Christensen said, to help "to help you understand what that [visa] process is."
Little land mines: Visa issues can be a costly problem. It is always a good idea to have access to funds somehow, somewhere, in case the worst happens.