During a recent trip to Qatar, I found myself unable to leave the country when the PCR test result required to board a departing flight was delayed. A friend asked me whether I had called my embassy for help yet. I had never heard of a U.S. Embassy offering aid for travelers struggling with coronavirus regulations. Like many Americans who have traveled abroad, I had only a vague idea of what an embassy can — and can’t — do.
So when should you approach the U.S. Embassy for help? And when shouldn’t you?
Embassies can help travelers in limited and specific circumstances, including getting emergency passports and navigating certain serious emergencies. But embassies are no substitute for careful planning, travel insurance or medical evacuation plans.
The State Department doesn’t tally and report the number of requests it receives from Americans traveling abroad. Still, it’s a safe bet that as more people travel overseas this spring and summer, they will turn to their embassies for help. “The Department of State’s first priority is the safety and security of U.S. citizens overseas,” says Karin King, deputy assistant secretary for overseas citizens services.
Generally, embassies offer a limited range of services for Americans traveling overseas. They include helping you if you’re arrested or detained, if you’ve lost your passport, if you’ve been a victim of a crime, or if you’re the relative of someone missing abroad. The State Department publishes a complete list of services for American travelers on its website.
“The U.S. Embassy can be a lifeline for any traveler in a foreign country,” says Bob Bacheler, the managing director of Flying Angels, a medical transportation service. But he and other safety experts say you shouldn’t treat your embassy or consulate — which are analogous to branch offices — like a personal concierge.
Many American travelers don’t know what their embassy can actually do for them. Beth Payne, a retired U.S. consular officer who lives in D.C., says American travelers often contacted her for all kinds of reasons. Some of the more common ones involved locating lost luggage, mailing items back to the United States, and assisting with paying their hotel bill — none of which the embassy can help with.
Embassies and consulates can, however, be an invaluable resource for travelers facing serious issues. When Roberta Waters’s daughter, Paula, died in a traffic accident in 2014 in India, she phoned the U.S. Consulate in Mumbai for assistance.
“They quickly put me in touch with two individuals who were able to ascertain where she was and what was happening,” Waters recalls. “They were both extremely sensitive to our situation and were a great help to us.”
Waters, a real estate agent from Boston, says the consular officers helped with every aspect of the incident, including obtaining police reports and collecting her daughter’s belongings.
I’ve dealt with embassies for years as an expatriate in Vienna, as a Fulbright scholar in Germany, and as a journalist traveling the world. The consular officers I’ve met are earnest and hard-working, but they’re also a little sensitive about being treated like a valet service for American travelers.
Even if your problem is one the embassy or consulate can address, you might have to wait; during the pandemic, many embassies have reduced their services. I spoke with several American travelers who said basic services were delayed or nonexistent during the pandemic.
A State Department spokeswoman confirmed that the pandemic is affecting the availability of routine consular services at some U.S. embassies and consulates. “Most of our embassies and consulates are currently providing routine services to U.S. citizens overseas in addition to emergency services,” she says. “Services currently available are provided on each embassy and consulate’s website.”
Then there’s that Hollywood trope about knocking on the embassy door when you get into trouble while you’re abroad. Carrie Pasquarello, a former embassy worker who now runs Global Secure Resources, a travel safety education company, says American travelers should think of their embassies and consulates as just that: an emergency resource.
“They are there 24/7 to help you strategize the best outcome from an emergency,” Pasquarello says. “For example, if you are injured, they will share resources regarding hospitals, doctors and translators. They may help you communicate with your family. But they are not there to swoop in and rescue you.”
How can you best use an embassy and consulate? Payne, the retired consular officer, recommends registering for the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) to let the local embassy know you’ll be in the country. If something goes wrong, someone will reach out to you and try to help.
“For example, I was in Cuba when coronavirus took off, and the embassy was able to find me and provide guidance on what to do,” Payne says. “If I’d not been registered in STEP, they would not have known I was in Cuba.”
King, the State Department deputy assistant secretary, echoes Payne’s advice. She says travelers should see their embassy as a resource before they leave home.
“Read the State Department travel advisories and alerts for the countries you will be visiting,” she says, which you can find at travel.state.gov. Also, make a record of the contact details for the nearest U.S. Embassy or U.S. Consulate to carry with you in case of an emergency.
Oh, and on the question of whether the embassy in Qatar could have helped me with my coronavirus test results — the answer is no.
“It’s important for travelers to understand that they are subject to local laws of the country they are visiting, including coronavirus testing, vaccination and quarantine requirements,” King says. But, alas, embassies and consulates won’t make arrangements to get you another coronavirus test if your results are delayed.