General Information - Things to Know Before You Go
Whether you are traveling overseas for business, pleasure or study, the best way to ensure a carefree and relaxing trip is to prevent problems before they happen. The more you learn about passports, visas, customs, immunizations, and other travel basics, the less likely you are to have difficulties during your travels.
We have written this guide to help you organize and take a pleasant, trouble-free trip. In the back of the book, we refer you to other sources of travel information covering such matters as customs regulations, agricultural restrictions, visa requirements, U.S. embassy addresses, foreign country information, and more. For your convenience, the addresses of the U.S. passport agencies are listed at the end of the pamphlet.
The Department of State in Washington, D.C., and its more than 250 U.S. embassies and consulates worldwide, as well as other U.S. Government agencies, are ready and pleased to offer assistance whenever possible. This is your trip. Make it an enjoyable one.
There is much that you can do to prepare for your trip abroad, depending on where you are going, how long you are staying, and your reasons for traveling.
Learn About The Countries That You Plan To Visit
The following suggestions and sources may be useful:
- Read as much as possible about the countries in which you plan to travel. Informing yourself about a nation's history, culture, customs and politics will make your stay more meaningful. Such information can be found in most libraries, bookstores and tourist bureaus. Although English is spoken in many countries, it is a good idea to learn what you can of the language of the country in which you will be traveling.
- Travel agents can provide brochures and tourist information about the countries that you wish to visit.
- Most international airlines can supply you with travel brochures about the countries that they serve. Many countries have tourist information offices in main cities in the United States where you can obtain travel brochures and maps.
- Foreign embassies or consulates in the United States can provide up-to-date information on their countries. Addresses and telephone numbers of the embassies of foreign governments are listed in the Congressional Directory, available at most public libraries. In addition to their embassies, some countries also have consulates in major U.S. cities. Look for their addresses in your local telephone directory, or find them in the publication, Foreign Consular Offices in the United States, available in many public libraries, or on the Internet http://www.state.gov/
- The Department of State publishes Background Notes on countries worldwide. These are brief, factual pamphlets with information on each country's culture, history, geography, economy, government, and current political situation. The Background Notes are available for approximately 170 countries. They often include a reading list, travel notes and maps. To purchase copies, you can contact the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 20402, or call (202) 512-1800. Select issues are also available from the Department of State's Bureau of Public Affairs, fax-on-demand, by calling (202) 736-7720 from your fax machine or on the Department of State's home page on the Internet at http://www.state.gov/.
- The Consular Information Program provides pertinent information for travelers. The U.S. Department of State issues fact sheets, known as Consular Information Sheets, on every country in the world. You should obtain the Department of State's Consular Information Sheet for any country that you will visit. The sheets contain information about crime and security conditions, areas of instability, and other details pertaining to travel in a particular country.
The Department of State also issues Travel Warnings and Public Announcements. Travel Warnings are issued when the Department of State recommends deferral of travel by Americans to a country because of civil unrest, dangerous conditions, terrorist activity and/or because the United States has no diplomatic relations with the country and cannot assist an American citizen in distress. Public Announcements are issued as a means to disseminate information quickly about terrorist threats and other relatively short-term and/or transnational conditions, which would pose significant risks to American travelers.
Tips for Travelers Series
The Department of State publishes a series of brochures on travel to specific regions of the world. The brochures cover a variety of topics such as import and export controls, customs and currency regulations, dual nationality, crime information, health precautions, and photography restrictions. The publications are available for $1.00-$1.50 each from the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office (GPO), Washington, D.C. 20402. (Availability and prices are subject to change without notice. Please check with the GPO before ordering at telephone 202-512-1800.)
Travel document requirements vary from country to country, but you will need the following: a U.S. passport or other proof of citizenship, plus a visa or a tourist card, if required by the country or countries that you will visit. You may also need evidence that you have enough money for your trip and/or have ongoing or return transportation tickets.
A Valid Passport - Who Needs a Passport?
A U.S. citizen needs a passport to depart or enter the United States and to enter and depart most foreign countries. Exceptions include short-term travel between the United States and Mexico, Canada, and some countries in the Caribbean, where a U.S. birth certificate or other proof of U.S. citizenship may be accepted. Your travel agent or airline can tell you if you need a passport for the country that you plan to visit. Information on entry requirements is available from the booklet Foreign Entry Requirements, for 50 cents from the Consumer Information Center, Pueblo, Colorado 81009; telephone 719-948-4000; Internet http://www.pueblo.gsa.gov/. The embassy or consulate of the country where you plan to travel can also advise you about its entry requirements.
Even if you are not required to have a passport to visit a foreign country, U.S. Immigration requires you to prove your U.S. citizenship and identity to reenter the United States. Make certain that you take with you adequate documentation to pass through U.S. Immigration upon your return. A U.S. passport is the best proof of U.S. citizenship. Other documents to prove U.S. citizenship include an expired U.S. passport, a certified copy of your U.S. birth certificate, a Certificate of Naturalization, a Certificate of Citizenship, or a Report of Birth Abroad of a Citizen of the United States. To prove your identity, either a valid driver's license or a government identification card that includes a photo or a physical description is adequate.
With the number of international child custody cases on the rise, several countries have instituted passport requirements to help prevent child abductions. For example, Mexico has a law that requires a child traveling alone, or with only one parent, or in someone else's custody, to carry written, notarized consent from the absent parent or parents. No authorization is needed, if the child travels alone and is in possession of a U.S. passport. A child traveling alone with a birth certificate requires written, notarized authorization from both parents.
Beware of a Passport That Is About to Expire!
Certain countries will not permit you to enter and will not place a visa in your passport, if the remaining validity is less than 6 months.
All U.S. Citizens Must Have Their Own Passport.
Since January 1981, family members are not permitted to be included in each other's passports. Even newborn babies need their own passports to travel.
When to Apply
Every year, demand for passports becomes heavy in January and declines in August. You can help reduce U.S. Government expense and avoid delays by applying between September and December. However, even during those months, periods of high demand for passports can occur. Apply several months in advance of your planned departure, whenever possible. If you need visas, allow additional time - approximately two weeks per visa.
How to Apply for Your Passport in Person
For your first passport, you must appear in person with a completed Form DSP-11, Passport Application, at one of the 13 U.S. passport agencies or at many Federal and state courts, probate courts, at some county/municipal offices, or at U.S. post offices authorized to accept passport applications. The addresses of passport acceptance facilities in your area are available on the Internet at http://travel.state.gov/.
Applicants who are age 16 and older must appear in person when applying for a passport, if they are applying for the first time. Minors who are ages 13, 14, and 15 years must also appear in person, and be accompanied by a parent or legal guardian. Applicants ages 16 and 17 years may apply on their own IF they have acceptable identification. The parent or legal guardian may be contacted by the Passport Agency to ensure that they are giving permission for issuance of the passport. If the applicant does not have identification, then the parent or legal guardian must accompany the applicant. For children under age 13, a parent or legal guardian may appear on their behalf. The children do not have to appear in person.
What to Bring When You Apply for a Passport in Person
1. A properly completed, but unsigned, passport application (DSP-11). Do not sign it!
2. Proof of U.S. citizenship (a, b, or c):
a. Use your previously issued passport or one in which you were included. If you are applying for your first passport or cannot submit a previous passport, you must submit other evidence of citizenship.
b. If you were born in the United States, you should produce a certified copy of your birth certificate. This must show that the birth record was filed shortly after birth and must be certified with the registrar's signature and raised, impressed, embossed, or multicolored seal. Certified copies of birth records can be obtained from the Bureau of Vital Statistics in the city, state, county, or territory where you were born. (Notifications of Birth Registration or Birth Announcements are not normally accepted for passport purposes.) A delayed birth certificate (one filed more than one year after the date of birth) is acceptable, provided it shows a plausible basis for creating this record. If it does not, you will need to submit the best secondary evidence possible.
If you cannot obtain a birth certificate, you may submit a notice from a state registrar stating that no birth record exists, accompanied by the best secondary evidence possible. This may include a baptismal certificate, a hospital birth record, notarized affidavits of persons having personal knowledge of the facts of your birth, or other documentary evidence such as an early census, school records, family Bible records, and newspaper files. A personal knowledge affidavit should be supported by at least one public record reflecting birth in the United States.
c. If you were born abroad, you can use:
- A Certificate of Naturalization
- A Certificate of Citizenship
- A Report of Birth Abroad of a Citizen of the United States of America (Form FS-240)
- A Certification of Birth (Form FS-545 or DS-1350)
3. Proof of identity.
You must also establish your identity to the satisfaction of the person accepting your application. The following items are generally acceptable documents of identity, if they contain your signature and if they readily identify you by physical description or photograph:
- A previous U.S. passport
- A Certificate of Naturalization or Citizenship
- A valid driver's license
- A government issued (Federal, state, municipal) identification card
The following are not acceptable:
- A Social Security card
- A learner's or temporary driver's license
- A credit card of any type
- Any temporary or expired identity card or document
- Any document that has been altered or changed
If you are unable to present one of the first four documents to establish your identity, you must be accompanied by a person who has known you for at least 2 years and who is a U.S. citizen or a permanent resident alien of the United States. That person must sign an affidavit in the presence of the same person who executes the passport application. The witness will be required to establish his or her own identity. You must also submit some identification of your own.
You must present two identical photographs of yourself that are sufficiently recent (normally taken within the past 6 months) to be a good likeness. Passport Services encourages photographs where the applicant is relaxed and smiling.
The photographs must not exceed 2x2 inches in size. The image size measured from the bottom of your chin to the top of your head (including hair) must be not less than 1 inch nor more than 1-3/8 inches with your head taking up most of the photograph. Passport photographs may be either black and white or color.
Photographs must be clear, front view, full-face, and printed on thin, white paper with a plain, white or off-white background. Photographs should be portrait-type prints taken in normal street attire without a hat and must include no more than the head and shoulders or upper torso. Dark glasses are not acceptable except when worn for medical reasons. Head coverings are only acceptable, if they are worn for religious reasons.
Applicants may use photographs in military uniform only if they are on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces and are proceeding abroad in the discharge of their duties.
Newspaper, magazine and most vending machine prints are not acceptable for use in passports.
5. The correct fee for applying for a passport in person.
Applicants age 16 and over, who are required to appear in person, must pay $60 for their passport. This includes a $15 execution fee. The passport is valid for 10 years. Applicants age 15 and under must pay $40 for their passport. This includes a $15 execution fee. The passport is valid for 5 years.
You may pay by check, bank draft, or money order, payable to Passport Services. You may also pay in cash (exact change only) at a passport agency and at some, but not all post offices and clerks of court.
How to Apply for a Passport by Mail
You may apply by mail if you meet the following requirements:
- You can submit your most recent passport.
- Your previous passport was issued on or after your 16th birthday and was issued within the past 12 years.
- You use the same name as that on your most recent passport or you have had your name changed by marriage or court order, and can submit proof of the change in name
How to Proceed
Obtain Form DSP-82, Application for Passport by Mail, from one of the U.S. passport agencies, from a Federal or state court, from a U.S. post office that is authorized to accept passport applications, from your travel agent, or from the Internet at http://travel.state.gov Complete the information requested on the reverse side of the form.
(1) Sign and date the application.
(2) Include your date of departure. If no date is included, passport agents will assume that your travel plans are not immediate, and you will receive your passport within 25 working days from receipt of the application at the passport agency.
(3) Enclose your previous passport. (Your previous passport and other documents that you may have submitted will be returned to you with your new passport.)
(4) Enclose two identical 2x2 photographs.
(5) Enclose the $40 passport fee. (The $15 execution fee is not required for applicants eligible to apply by mail.)
(6) If your name has changed, submit the original or certified copy of the court order or marriage certificate that shows the change of name.
(7) The person that you list to be notified in case of an emergency should be someone who could act on your behalf. The person should be someone to whom you have given or could give a power of attorney.
(8) For processing, mail the completed application and attachments to the National Passport Center, listed on the application form. An incomplete or improperly prepared application will delay issuance of your passport.
(9) If requesting Expedited Service, include the $35.00 expedite fee.
How to Pay the Passport Fee
The following forms of payment are acceptable when you apply by mail:
- A bank draft or a cashier's check
- A check: either a certified check, a personal check, or a traveler's check (The check should be made out for the exact amount
- A money order: either a U.S. postal money order, an international money order, a currency exchange money order or a bank money order
- Checks must be made payable to Passport Services.
When You Receive Your Passport
Sign it right away! Fill in page 5, the personal notification data page. (For the emergency contact, do not include the name of your traveling companion; instead, write in pencil the name, address, and telephone number of someone who is not traveling with you.) Your previous passport and other documents that you may have submitted will be returned to you with your new passport.
Other Passport Information
It normally takes 25 business days from receipt of the complete application by a passport agency to return your passport. If you wish or need to receive your passport sooner, you may request expedited service for processing of the passport within 3 business days from receipt of the application by a passport agency. The fee for expedited service is $35.00 per application, which is in addition to the regular passport fee.
If you request expedited service, your departure date should be clearly shown on the application. Anyone who pays the $35.00 expedite fee and submits a complete application will be given expedited service.
If you plan to travel in more than two weeks, but need a passport urgently, it is strongly recommended that you arrange for two-way overnight delivery of the passport to prevent delays. If you are leaving within two weeks, it is recommended that you go to the nearest passport agency to apply.
For additional details, you may check with the National Passport Information Center.
If you plan to travel abroad frequently or if you stay overseas for long periods of time, your relatives or associates in the United States should have valid passports as well. That way, if you were to become seriously ill or involved in some other emergency, they could travel without delay. Also, you should leave with them your passport number and the date and place of the passport's issuance.
Change of Name
If you have changed your name, you will need to have your passport amended. Fill out Form DSP-19, Passport Amendment/Validation Application, which is available from any office that is authorized to accept passport applications. Submit the DSP-19 along with proof of the name change (a marriage certificate, divorce decree, or certified court order) to the nearest passport agency. There is no fee for this service, except if expedite service is requested.
An Altered or Mutilated Passport
If your U.S. passport is mutilated or altered in any way (other than changing the personal notification data), you may render it invalid, cause yourself much inconvenience, and expose yourself to possible prosecution under the law (Section 1543, Title 22 of the U.S. Code).
Mutilated or altered passports should be turned in to passport agents, authorized postal employees, or U.S. consular officers abroad.
Loss or Theft of a U.S. Passport
It is important that you safeguard your passport. Its loss could cause you unnecessary travel complications as well as significant expense.
If your passport is lost or stolen in the United States, you should apply for a new passport and complete Form DSP-64, Statement Regarding Lost or Stolen Passport, which is available at U.S. passport agencies.
If your passport is lost or stolen abroad, you should report the loss immediately to the local police and to the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate. If you can provide the consular officer with the information contained in your passport, it will facilitate issuance of a new passport. Therefore, it is a good idea to make two photocopies of the data page of your passport. Keep one copy separately from your passport to take with you on your trip, and leave the other copy with a relative or friend in the United States. It is also a good idea to carry two extra passport size photos with you.
A visa is an endorsement or stamp placed in your passport by a foreign government that permits you to visit that country for a specified purpose and a limited time - for example, a 3-month tourist visa. It is advisable to obtain visas before you leave the United States because you may not be able to obtain visas for some countries once you have departed. You should apply directly to the embassy or nearest consulate of each country that you plan to visit, or consult a travel agent. Passport agencies cannot help you obtain visas.
Foreign Entry Requirements
The Department of State publication M-264, Foreign Entry Requirements, gives entry requirements for every country and tells where and how to apply for visas and tourist cards. It can be ordered for 50 cents from the Consumer Information Center, Pueblo, Colorado 81009; telephone: 719-948-4000; Internethttp://www.pueblo.gsa.gov/ Please Note: The publication is updated annually, but it may not reflect the most current requirements. It is advisable to verify the latest visa requirements directly with the embassy or consulate of each country that you plan to visit.
Because a visa is stamped directly onto a blank page in your passport, you will need to give your passport to an official of each foreign embassy or consulate. You may also need to fill out a form and submit one or more photographs with the form. Many visas require a fee. The process may take several weeks for each visa, so it is wise to apply well in advance of your trip, if possible.
If the country that you plan to visit only requires a tourist card, you can usually obtain one from the country's embassy or consulate, from an airline serving the country, or at the port of entry. There is a fee for some tourist cards.
Proof of Citizenship
Check with the embassy or consulate of each country that you plan to visit to learn what proof of citizenship is required of visitors. Even if a country does not require a visitor to have a passport, it will require some proof of citizenship and identity. Remember that no matter what proof of citizenship a foreign country requires, U.S. Immigration has strict requirements for reentry into the United States.
Under international health regulations adopted by the World Health Organization, a country may require international certificates of vaccination against yellow fever and cholera. Typhoid vaccinations are not required for international travel, but are recommended for areas where there is risk of exposure. Smallpox vaccinations are no longer given. Check your health care records to ensure that your measles, mumps, rubella, polio, diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis immunizations are up-to-date. Medication to deter malaria and other preventative measures are advisable for certain areas. No immunizations are needed to return to the United States.
Information on immunization requirements, U.S. Public Health Service recommendations, and other health guidance, including risks in particular countries, are included in the book, Health Information for International Travel. It may be purchased by sending a check or money order for $20.00 to the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, P.O. Box 371954, Pittsburgh, PA 15250-7954. Orders by telephone and a credit card (Visa, MasterCard, Discover) can be made by calling 202-512-1800; fax 202-512-2250. In addition, you may obtain information on health from local and state health departments or physicians. The information is also available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's 24-hour hotline at 1-888-232-3228, from their automated fax-back service at 1-888-232-3299, or from their home page on the Internet at http://www.cdc.gov/
It is not necessary to be vaccinated against a disease to which you will not be exposed, and few countries refuse to admit you if you arrive without the necessary vaccinations. Officials will either vaccinate you, give you a medical follow-up card, or, in rare circumstances, put you in isolation for the incubation period of the disease that you were not vaccinated against. It is a good idea to check immunization requirements before you depart.
If vaccinations are required, they must be recorded on approved forms, such as those in the booklet PHS-731, International Certificates of Vaccination as Approved by the World Health Organization. If your doctor or public health office does not have this booklet, it can be purchased for $1.00 from the Superintendent of Documents, P.O. Box 371954, Pittsburgh, PA 15250-7954; telephone 202-512-1800, or Government Printing Office bookstores. You should keep the booklet with your passport.
An increasing number of countries require that foreigners be tested for Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) prior to entry. Testing is usually required as part of a medical exam for long term visitors (i.e., students and workers). Before traveling abroad, you can check with the embassy or consulate of the country that you intend to visit to learn about the latest information concerning entry requirements and, particularly, whether or not an AIDS/HIV test is a requirement.
Obtaining medical treatment and hospital care can be costly for travelers who are injured or who become seriously ill overseas. The Social Security Medicare/Medicaid program does not provide coverage for hospital or medical services outside the United States. Before you leave the United States, you should be informed about which medical services your health insurance will cover abroad.
Senior citizens may wish to contact the American Association of Retired Persons for information about foreign medical care coverage with Medicare supplement plans.
If your health insurance policy does not provide coverage for hospital or medical costs abroad, you are urged to purchase a temporary health policy that does provide this type of coverage. There are short-term health and emergency assistance policies designed for travelers. You can find the names of companies that provide such policies from your travel agent, your health insurance company, or from advertisements in travel publications. Useful information on medical emergencies abroad is provided in the Department of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs' flyer, Medical Information for Americans Traveling Abroad, available by auto fax service at 202-647-3000. In addition to health insurance, many policies include trip cancellation, baggage loss, and travel accident insurance in the same package. Some traveler's check companies have protection policies available with the purchase of traveler's checks.
Although some health insurance companies may pay "customary and reasonable" hospital costs abroad, very few will pay for medical evacuation back to the United States. Medical evacuation can easily cost $10,000 or more, depending on your location and medical condition. One of the main advantages of health and emergency assistance policies is that they often include coverage for medical evacuation to the United States. Even if your regular health insurance covers you for emergencies abroad, you should consider purchasing supplemental insurance to cover medical evacuation.
Whichever health insurance coverage you choose for travel overseas, remember to carry with you both your health insurance policy identity card and claim forms.
Do You Need Travel Insurance?
You may not need travel insurance, if you are already adequately covered by other insurance policies.
Depending on the travel insurance plan, travel insurance usually promises to cover you for cancellation or interruption of your trip, some form of emergency medical care while you are traveling, lost or stolen luggage, and various other troublesome occurrences.
Before you decide on a travel insurance plan, it is wise to investigate the plan carefully and read the fine print. You should closely check any agreements with your travel agent, tour operator, airline, or other companies involved with your travel plans. The agreements may include written guarantees.
If you have a fully refundable airline ticket, you may decide that you would not need trip cancellation/interruption insurance.
On the other hand, it may be worthwhile noting that certain insurance plans can protect you by covering the financial costs in case of the following situations:
- A sudden, serious injury or illness to you, a family member, or a traveling companion.
- Financial default of the airline, cruise line or tour operator.
- Natural disasters or strikes that impede travel services.
- A terrorist incident in a foreign city within 10 days of your scheduled arrival in that particular city.
The fact that you, a traveling member of your family, or a traveling companion were quarantined, served with a court order or required to serve on a jury.
A circumstance in which you were directly involved in an accident enroute to departure for your trip.
It is a good idea to check your other insurance policies. For instance, your homeowners or tenants insurance may cover the loss or theft of your luggage.
Certain credit cards may also provide additional travel insurance, if you have used them to purchase the ticket for your trip.
Your health insurance may provide certain coverage, regardless of where you travel. But it is very important to note that some policies only partially cover medical expenses abroad. Moreover, as previously explained in the section on Health Insurance, Medicare/Medicaid will not cover hospital and medical services outside the United States. (Please see section on Health Insurance for more details about health emergencies abroad.)
Your travel agent should be able to advise you about the right plan for you. Before purchasing travel insurance, review the plan carefully, and be wary of buying coverage that you may already have.
It is wise not to carry large amounts of cash. You should take most of your money in traveler's checks and remember to record the serial number, denomination and the date and location of the issuing bank or agency. Keep this information in a safe and separate place so, if you lose your traveler's checks, you can quickly get replacements.
Some credit cards can be used worldwide, even for cash advances. Keep track of your credit card purchases so that you do not exceed your limit. Travelers have been arrested overseas for mistakenly exceeding their credit limit! Leave all unnecessary credit cards at home. Record the numbers of the credit cards that you do bring, and keep the list separately from the cards.
You should immediately report the loss or theft of your credit cards or traveler's checks to the credit card companies and to the local police. If you plan to stay in one place for some time, you might consider opening an account for check cashing and other transactions at a U.S. bank that has an overseas affiliate. U.S. embassies and consulates cannot cash checks for you.
Before leaving on your trip, you may wish to check with your bank to see if the country or countries that you plan to visit have Automated Teller Machine (ATM) service. The bank should be able to tell you if you can use your ATM card during your trip abroad.
Prepare for Emergency Funds
It is a good idea to keep the telephone number for your bank in the United States with you, in case you run out of cash and need to transfer money. In some countries, major banks and certain travel agencies can help arrange a transfer of funds from your account to a foreign bank. If you do not have a bank account from which you can obtain emergency funds, you should make arrangements in advance with a relative or friend to send you emergency funds should it become necessary. If you find yourself destitute, contact the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate for assistance in arranging a money wire transfer from a relative or friend in the United States.
Before departing, you may wish to purchase small amounts of foreign currency to use for buses, taxis, phones, or tips when you first arrive. Foreign exchange facilities at airports may be closed when your flight arrives. You can purchase foreign currency at some U.S. banks, at foreign exchange firms, at foreign exchange windows, or even at vending machines in many international airports in the United States.
Some countries regulate the amount of local currency that you can bring into or take out of the country; others require that you exchange a minimum amount of currency. For currency regulations, check with a bank, a foreign exchange firm, your travel agent, or the embassy or consulate of the countries that you plan to visit.
If you leave or enter the United States with more than $10,000 in monetary instruments of any kind, you must file a report, Customs Form 4790, with U.S. Customs at the time. Failure to comply can result in civil and criminal proceedings.
Valuables -- Do Not Bring Them!
Do not bring anything on your trip that you would hate to lose, such as expensive jewelry, family photographs, or objects of sentimental value. If you bring jewelry, wear it discreetly to help prevent snatch-and-run robbery.
Try to Make Lodging Reservations in Advance
Many travelers wait until they reach their destination before making hotel reservations. Some train stations and airports have travel desks to assist you in finding lodging. However, when you arrive, you may be tired and unfamiliar with your surroundings, and could have difficulty locating a hotel to suit your needs. Therefore, when possible, reserve your lodging in advance and confirm your reservations along the way. During peak tourist season, it is important to have a hotel reservation for at least the first night that you arrive in a foreign city.
An alternative to hotels and pensions is the youth hostel system, which offers travelers of all ages clean, inexpensive, overnight accommodations in more than 6,000 locations in over 70 countries worldwide. Hostels provide dormitory-style accommodations with separate facilities for males and females. Some hostels have family rooms that can be reserved in advance. Curfews are often imposed and membership is frequently required. For more information, you may contact: American Youth Hostels, P.O. Box 37613, Washington, D.C. 20013-7613; telephone (202) 783-6161.
Pre-Paid Telephone Card Service
You never know when you may wish or need to telephone home during your trip. For such purposes, you might consider purchasing a pre-paid telephone card. You can check with telephone companies about pre-paid telephone card service. They should be able to provide you with information about prices, sales locations in the United States and ordering the service by telephone. If you decide to purchase a pre-paid telephone card, be sure that the card you choose will work outside the United States.
At the time of publication, U.S. citizens in the United States, who are traveling abroad, are required to pay a $12 airport departure tax and a $6 federal inspection fee that are included in the price of the air ticket.
Charter Flights and Airlines
There have been occasions when airlines or companies that sell charter flights or tour packages have gone out of business with little warning, stranding passengers overseas. If you know from the media or your travel agent that an airline is in financial difficulty, ask your travel agent or the airline what recourse you would have, if the airline ceased to operate. Some airlines may honor the tickets of a defunct airline, but they usually do so with restrictions.
It is a good idea to purchase tours only from operators that guarantee the safety of your money through a consumer protection plan.
Before you purchase a charter flight or tour package, read the contract carefully. Unless it guarantees to deliver services promised or give a full refund, you may consider purchasing travel insurance. If you are unsure of the reputation of a charter company or tour operator, consult your local Better Business Bureau or the American Society of Travel Agents at 1101 King Street, Alexandria, VA 22314, Tel. (703) 739-2782. They will help answer your questions and tell you whether or not a company has a complaint record.
Driver's License/Auto Insurance
If you intend to drive overseas, check with the embassy or consulate of the countries where you will visit to learn about requirements for driver's license, road permits, and auto insurance. If possible, obtain road maps of the countries that you plan to visit before you go.
Many countries do not recognize a U.S. driver's license. However, most countries accept an international driver's permit. Before departure, you can obtain one at a local office of an automobile association. The U.S. Department of State has authorized two organizations to issue international driving permits to those who hold valid U.S. driver's licenses: AAA and the American Automobile Touring Alliance. To apply for an international driving permit, you must be at least age 18, and you will need to present two passport-size photographs and your valid U.S. license. Certain countries require road permits, instead of tolls, to use on their divided highways, and they will fine those found driving without a permit.
Car rental agencies overseas usually provide auto insurance, but in some countries, the required coverage is minimal. When renting a car overseas, consider purchasing insurance coverage that is at least equivalent to that which you carry at home.
In general, your U.S. auto insurance does not cover you abroad. However, your policy may apply when you drive to countries neighboring the United States. Check with your insurer to see if your policy covers you in Canada, Mexico, or countries south of Mexico. Even if your policy is valid in one of these countries, it may not meet its minimum requirements. For instance, in most of Canada, you must carry at least $200,000 in liability insurance, and Mexico requires that, if vehicles do not carry theft, third party liability, and comprehensive insurance, the owner must post a bond that could be as high as 50% of the value of the vehicle. If you are under-insured for a country, auto insurance can usually be purchased on either side of the border.
U.S. Customs Pre-Registration
It is a good idea to be informed about U.S. Customs regulations. Foreign-made personal articles taken abroad are subject to U.S. Customs duty and tax upon your return, unless you have proof of prior possession such as a receipt, bill of sale, an insurance policy, or a jeweler's appraisal. If you do not have proof of prior possession, items such as foreign-made watches, cameras, or tape recorders that can be identified by serial number or permanent markings, may be taken to the Customs office nearest you, or to the port of departure for registration, before you depart the United States. The certificate of registration provided can expedite free entry of these items when you return to the United States.
Documentation for Medications
If you go abroad with preexisting medical problems, you should carry a letter from you doctor describing your condition, including information on any prescription medicines that you must take. You should also have the generic names of the drugs. Please leave medicines in their original, labeled containers. These precautions make customs processing easier. A doctor's certificate, however, may not suffice as authorization to transport all prescription drugs to all foreign countries. Travelers have innocently been arrested for drug violations when carrying items not considered to be narcotics in the United States. To ensure that you do not violate the drug laws of the countries that you visit, you may consult the embassy or consulate of those countries for precise information before you leave the United States.
If you have allergies, reactions to certain medicines, or other unique medical problems, you may consider wearing a medical alert bracelet or carrying a similar warning.
Information About Physicians and Hospitals Abroad
Several private organizations provide listings of physicians abroad to international travelers. Membership in these organizations is generally free, although a donation may be requested. Membership entitles you to a number traveler's medical aids, including a directory of physicians with their overseas locations, telephone numbers and doctors' fee schedules. The physicians are generally English-speaking and provide medical assistance 24 hours a day. The addresses of these medical organizations are in travel magazines or may be available from your travel agent.
U.S. embassies and consulates abroad usually keep lists of physicians and hospitals in their area. Major credit card companies also can provide the names of local doctors and hospitals abroad.
Places to Receive Mail
If you are traveling for an extended period, you may want to arrange for the delivery of mail or messages to you abroad. Some banks and international credit card companies handle mail for customers at their overseas branches. General Delivery (Poste Restante) services at post offices in most countries will hold mail for you. U.S. embassies/consulates do not handle private mail.
Learn About Dual Nationality
Whether you are a U.S. citizen from birth or were naturalized as a U.S. citizen, a foreign country may claim you as its citizen if:
- You were born in that country.
- Your parent(s) is or was a citizen of that country.
- You are married to a citizen of that country.
- You are a naturalized U.S. citizen, but you are still considered to be a citizen under that country's laws.
If any of the possibilities for dual nationality applies to you, check on your status (including military obligations) with the embassy or consulate of the country that might claim you as a citizen. In particular, Americans may have problems with dual nationality in certain countries in the Middle East, in South America, and in Africa. Some foreign countries refuse to recognize a dual national's U.S. citizenship and do not allow U.S. officials access to arrested Americans.
Your Itinerary - Leave a Paper Trail
You should leave a detailed itinerary (with names, addresses, and phone numbers of persons and places to be visited) with relatives or friends in the United States so that you can be reached in an emergency. Also, include a photocopy of your passport information page.
Other Important Numbers
It is a good idea to make a list of all important numbers - your passport information as well as your credit card, traveler's checks, and airline ticket numbers. Leave a copy of the list at home, and carry a copy with you.
How to Deal With the Unexpected
If you change your travel plans, miss your return flight, or extend your trip, be sure to notify relatives or friends at home. Should you find yourself in an area of civil unrest or natural disaster, please let your relatives or friends at home know as soon as you can that you are safe. Furthermore, upon arrival in a foreign country, you should contact the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate to register your presence and to keep the U.S. consul informed of your whereabouts.
Protect Your Passport
Your passport is the most valuable document that you will carry abroad. It confirms your U.S. citizenship. Please guard it carefully. Do not use it as collateral for a loan or lend it to anyone. It is your best form of identification. You will need it when you pick up mail or check into hotels, embassies or consulates.
When entering some countries or registering at hotels, you may be asked to fill out a police card listing your name, passport number, destination, local address, and reason for travel. You may be required to leave your passport at the hotel reception desk overnight so that it may be checked by local police officials. These are normal procedures required by local laws. If your passport is not returned the following morning, immediately report the impoundment to local police authorities and to the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate.
Law enforcement records show that U.S. passports are sometimes used for illegal entry into the United States, or by criminals abroad seeking to establish another identity. This can cause embarrassment to innocent U.S. citizens whose names become associated with illegal activities. To protect the integrity of the U.S. passport and the security of the person bearing it, consular officers overseas have found it necessary to take precautions in processing lost passport cases. These precautions may involve some delay before a new passport is issued.
Safeguard Your Passport
Carelessness is the main cause for losing a passport or having it stolen. You may find that you have to carry your passport with you because you need to show it when you cash traveler's checks or the country that you are visiting requires you to carry it as an identity document. When you must carry your passport, hide it securely on your person. Do not leave it in a handbag nor in an exposed pocket. Whenever possible, leave your passport in the hotel safe, not in an empty hotel room, and not packed in your luggage. One family member should not carry all the passports for the entire family.
Guard Against Thieves
Coat pockets, handbags, and hip pockets are particularly susceptible to theft. Thieves will use all kinds of ploys to divert your attention just long enough to pick your pocket and grab your purse or wallet. These ploys include creating a disturbance, spilling something on your clothing, or even handing you a baby to hold!
You can try to prevent theft by carrying your belongings in a secure manner. For example, consider not carrying a purse or wallet when going along crowded streets. Women who carry a shoulder bag should keep it tucked under the arm and held securely by the strap. Men should put their wallets in their front trouser pockets or use money belts instead of hip pockets. A wallet wrapped in rubber bands is more difficult to remove without notice. Be especially cautious in a large crowd _ in the subway, on buses, at the marketplace, at a festival, or if surrounded by groups of vagrant children. Do not make it easy for thieves!
Local banks usually offer better rates of exchange than hotels, restaurants, or stores. Rates are often posted in windows. Above all, avoid private currency transactions. In some countries, you risk more than being swindled or stuck with counterfeit currency _ you risk arrest. Avoid the black market --- learn and obey the local currency laws, wherever you go.
Mail Small Items
When you purchase small items, it is a good idea to mail them personally to your home or to carry them in your luggage. This will help prevent misdirected packages, no receipt of merchandise, or receipt of wrong merchandise. When you mail purchases, be sure to ask about insurance.
American embassies and consulates abroad cannot serve as post offices. They cannot accept, hold, or forward mail for U.S. citizens abroad.
Items mailed home are not eligible for your $400 personal exemption. If the item that you are mailing home is less than $200, duty will be waived. Be sure to write on the outside of the package that it contains goods for personal use.
Value Added Tax
Some European countries levy a value added tax (VAT) on the items that you buy. In some places, if you ship your purchases home, the VAT can be waived. Other places may require you to pay the VAT, but have a system to refund all of it or part of it to you by mail. You can ask the store clerk for an application to apply for the refund. The VAT refund is only for items that you can ship or carry with you. It does not apply to food, hotel bills, or other services. Because the rules for VAT refunds vary from country to country, you should check with the country's tourist office to learn the local requirements.
Beware When Making the Following Purchases:
Be careful when you buy articles made from animals and plants or when you purchase live, wild animals to bring back as pets. Some items, such as those made from elephant ivory, sea turtles, crocodile leather, or fur from endangered cats, and many species of live animals cannot be brought legally into the United States. Your wildlife souvenirs could be confiscated by government inspectors, and you could face other penalties for attempting to bring them into the United States. Do not buy wildlife or wildlife products unless you are certain that they are legal for import into the United States.
Beware of purchasing glazed ceramic ware abroad. It is possible to suffer lead poisoning, if you consume food or beverages that are stored or served in improperly glazed ceramics. Unless the ceramics are made by a firm with an international reputation, there is no immediate way to be certain that a particular item is safe. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends that ceramic tableware purchased abroad be tested for lead release by a commercial laboratory on your return or be used for decorative purposes only.
Certain countries consider antiques to be national treasures and the "inalienable property of the nation." In some countries, customs authorities seize illegally purchased antiques without compensation, and they may also levy fines on the purchaser. Americans have been arrested and prosecuted for purchasing antiques without a permit. Americans have even been arrested for purchasing reproductions of antiques from street vendors because a local authority believed the purchase was a national treasure.
Protect yourself. In countries where antiques are important, document your purchases as reproductions, if that is the case, or, if they are authentic, secure the necessary export permit. The documentation or export permit may be available through the country's national museum. A reputable dealer may provide the export permit or information on how to secure one. If you have questions about purchasing antiques, the country's tourist office can guide you. If you still have doubts, consult the Consular Section of the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate. In places where Americans have had problems because of purchasing antiques, the Consular Section is usually well aware of such situations. Consular officers can inform you about the local laws and the correct procedures to follow.
It is important that you keep all receipts for items you buy overseas. They will be helpful in making your U.S. Customs declaration when you return.
Obey Foreign Laws
When you are in a foreign country, you are subject to its laws. It helps to learn about local laws and regulations and to obey them. Try to avoid areas of unrest and disturbance. Deal only with authorized outlets when exchanging money or buying airline tickets and traveler's checks. Do not deliver a package for anyone, unless you know the person well and you are certain that the package does not contain drugs or other contraband.
Before you think about selling personal effects, such as clothing, cameras, or jewelry, you should learn about the local regulations regarding such sales. You must adhere strictly to local laws because the penalties that you risk are severe.
Some countries are particularly sensitive about photographs. In general, refrain from photographing police and military installations and personnel; industrial structures, including harbor, rail, and airport facilities; border areas; and scenes of civil disorder or other public disturbance. Taking such photographs may result in your detention, in the confiscation of your camera and films, as well as the imposition of fines. For information on photography restrictions, check with the country's tourist office or its embassy or consulate in the United States. Once abroad, you can check with local authorities or with the Consular Section of the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate.
About 3,000 Americans are arrested abroad each year. Of these, approximately one-third are held on drug charges. Despite repeated warnings, drug arrests and convictions are still a common occurrence. Many countries have stiff penalties for drug violations and strictly enforce drug laws. If you are caught buying, selling, carrying or using any type of drug - from hashish to heroin, marijuana to mescaline, cocaine to Quaaludes - you will be arrested. You are subject to foreign laws overseas, >not U.S. laws, and, if arrested, you will find that:
- Few countries provide a jury trial.
- Trials are often long, with delays and postponements.
- Most countries do not accept bail.
- Pre-trial detention, often in solitary confinement, may last for months.
If you are convicted, you face a possible sentence of:
- 2 - 10 years in many countries
- A minimum of 6 years hard labor and a stiff fine in some countries
- The death penalty in a number of countries (e.g. Malaysia, Pakistan, Turkey, Thailand, Saudi Arabia)
During recent years, there has been an increase in the number of women arrested abroad. These are usually women who serve as drug couriers or "mules" and who believe that they can make fast money and have a vacation at the same time, without getting caught. Instead of a vacation, they receive a permanent residence in an overseas jail.
U.S. citizens have been arrested abroad on drug charges because they possessed just one ounce or less of marijuana. The risk of being jailed for just one marijuana cigarette is simply not worth it!
Once you are arrested, the U.S. consular officer CANNOT get you out of jail nor out of the country!
Likewise, the U.S. consular officer CANNOT
- Represent you at trial or give you legal counsel.
- Pay legal fees and/or fines with U.S. Government funds.
- If someone offers you a free trip and some quick and easy money, just for bringing back a suitcase...SAY NO!
- Do not carry a package for anyone, no matter how small it may be.
- Do not let anyone pack your suitcases for you while you are abroad.
- If the drugs are in you suitcase, you will be caught.
Do not get involved with illegal drugs overseas! It can spoil more than your vacation. It can ruin your life!
Because you are subject to local laws abroad, there is little that a U.S. consular officer can do for you, if you encounter legal difficulties. As stated previously, a consular officer cannot get you out of jail. What American officials can do is limited by both foreign and U.S. laws.
Although U.S. consular officers cannot serve as attorneys nor give legal advice, they can provide a list of local attorneys and help you find adequate legal representation. The lists of attorneys are carefully compiled from local bar association lists and responses to questionnaires, but neither the Department of State nor U.S. embassies or consulates abroad can assume responsibility for the caliber, competence, or professional integrity of the attorneys.
If you are arrested, you should ask the authorities to notify a consular officer at the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate. Under international agreements and practice, you have the right to talk to the U.S. consul. If you are denied this right, try to have someone get in touch with the U.S. consular officer for you.
When alerted, U.S. officials will visit you, advise you of your rights according to local laws, and contact your family and friends, if you wish. They will do whatever they can to protect your legitimate interests and to ensure that you are not discriminated against under local law. U.S. consuls can transfer money, food, and clothing to the prison authorities from your family or friends. They will try to get relief, if you are held under inhumane or unhealthy conditions or treated less favorably than others in the same situation.
Help From American Consuls Abroad
You should register at the Consular Section of the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate:
- If you find yourself in a country or area that is experiencing civil unrest, has an unstable political climate, or is undergoing a natural disaster, such as an earthquake or a hurricane.
- If you plan to go to a country where there are no U.S. officials. In such cases, you should register at the U.S embassy or consulate in an adjacent country, leave an itinerary with the Consular Section, ask about conditions in the country that you will visit, and ask about the third country that may represent U.S. interests there.
- If you plan to stay in a country longer than one month.
Registration at the U.S. Embassy or Consulate makes your presence and whereabouts known, in case it is necessary for a consular officer to contact you in an emergency. During a disaster overseas, American consular officers can assist in evacuation were that to become necessary. But they cannot assist you if they do not know where your are. Registration also makes it easier to apply for a replacement passport, if yours is lost or stolen.
If you are traveling with an escorted tour to areas experiencing political uncertainty or other problems, find out if registration at the U.S. embassy or consulate is being done for you by your tour operator. If it is not, or if you are traveling on your own, you should leave a copy of your itinerary at the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate soon after you arrive.
What U.S. Consuls Can Do To Help You
U.S. consular officers are located at U.S. embassies and consulates in most countries overseas. They are available to advise and help you, if you are in any serious trouble.
In the Case of Destitution
If you become destitute abroad, the U.S. consul can help you get in touch with your family, friends, bank, or employer and tell you how to arrange for them to send funds for you. These funds can sometimes be wired to you through the Department of State.
In the Case of Illness or Injury
If you become ill or injured while abroad, you can contact the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate for a list of local doctors, dentists, medical specialists, clinics and hospitals. If your illness or injury is serious, the U.S. consul can help you find medical assistance and, at your request, will inform your family or friends of your condition. If necessary, a consul can assist in the transfer of funds from the United States. Payment of hospital and other expenses is your responsibility. U.S. consular officers cannot supply you with medication.
During an emergency, if you are unable to communicate, the consul will check your passport for the name and address of any relative, friend, or legal representative whom you wish to have notified. Because the U.S. Government cannot pay for medical evacuations, it is advisable to have private medical insurance to cover this.
U.S. diplomatic and consular officials do not have the authority to perform marriages overseas. Marriage abroad must be performed in accordance with local law. There are always documentary requirements, and in some countries, there is a lengthy residence requirement before a marriage may take place.
Before traveling, ask the embassy or consulate of the country in which you plan to marry about their regulations and how to prepare to marry abroad. Once abroad, the Consular Section of the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate may be able to answer some of your questions, but it is your responsibility to deal with local civil authorities.
Giving Birth Abroad
A child born abroad to a U.S. citizen parent or parents generally acquires U.S. citizenship at birth. As soon as possible after the birth, the U.S. parent or parents should contact the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate to have a Report of Birth Abroad of a Citizen of the United States of America prepared. This document serves as proof of acquisition of U.S. citizenship and is acceptable evidence for obtaining a U.S. passport and for most other purposes where one must show a birth certificate or proof of citizenship.
When a U.S. citizen dies abroad, the consular officer reports the death to the next of kin or legal representative and arranges to obtain from them the necessary private funds for local burial or return of the body to the United States. Before you begin your trip, please complete in pencil the address page in the front of your passport. Please provide the name, address and telephone number of someone to be contacted in an emergency. Do not give the names of your traveling companions, in case the entire party is involved in the same accident.
Because the U.S. Government cannot pay for local burial or shipment of remains to the United States, it is worthwhile to have insurance to cover this possibility. Following a death, a Report of the Death of An American Citizen (Optional Form 180) is prepared by the consular officer to provide the facts concerning the death and the custody of the personal estate of the deceased. Under certain circumstances, a consular officer becomes the provisional conservator of a deceased American's estate and arranges for the disposition of those effects.
A Variety of Non-Emergency Services
Consular officers provide non-emergency services as well. These include information about Selective Service registration, travel safety information, absentee voting, and the acquisition or loss of U.S. citizenship. They arrange for the transfer of Social Security and other Federal benefits to beneficiaries residing abroad, provide U.S. tax forms, and notarize documents. Consuls can also provide information on how to obtain foreign public documents.
What U.S. Consuls Cannot Do
U.S. consular officers will do their best to assist U.S. citizens abroad. However, they must devote priority time and energies to those Americans who find themselves in the most serious legal, medical, or financial difficulties.
Because of limited resources, consuls cannot provide routine or commercial-type services. They cannot act as travel agents, information bureaus, banks, or law enforcement officers. U.S. Federal law forbids a consular officer from acting as your lawyer. Consular officers cannot find you employment; get you visas, residence permits or driving permits; act as interpreters; search for missing luggage; call your credit card company or bank; replace stolen traveler's checks; or settle disputes with hotel managers. However, they can tell you how to get assistance on these matters, as well as other issues.
You should confirm your return reservation at least twice, and at least 72 hours before your scheduled departure. Whenever possible, obtain a written confirmation. If you confirm your return reservation by phone, record the time, day, and the name of the agent who took your call. If your name does not appear on the reservations list, you have no recourse and may find yourself stranded.
Some countries levy an airport departure tax on travelers, which can be as high as $50. Please ask the airline or a travel agent about this tax. Make certain to have enough money at the end of your trip so that you will be able to get on the plane.
Immigration and Customs
If a passport was required for your trip, have it ready when you go through Immigration and Customs. If you took other documents with you, such as an International Certificate of Vaccination, a medical letter, or a Customs certificate of registration for foreign-made personal articles, have them ready, also. Have your receipts handy, in case you need to support your customs declaration. When returning to the United States by car from Mexico or Canada, have your certificate of vehicle registration available. It is a good idea to pack your baggage in a way to make inspection easier. For example, pack the articles you acquired abroad separately, if possible.
Articles acquired abroad and brought back with you are subject to duty and Internal Revenue tax. U.S. Customs currently allows each U.S. citizen to bring back $400 worth of merchandise duty free, provided the traveler has been outside the United States for at least 48 hours, has not already used this exemption within the preceding 30 day period, and provided the traveler can present the purchases upon his or her arrival at the port of entry. The next $1,000 worth of items brought back for personal use or gifts are subject to duty at a flat 10% rate. (Your duty-free exemption may include 100 cigars, 200 cigarettes, and one liter of wine, beer or liquor.)
There are two groups of destinations from which the duty-free exemption is higher. These are a group of 24 countries and dependencies in the Caribbean and Central America from which the exemption is $600, and a group of U.S. insular possessions (the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and Guam), from which the exemption is $1,200.
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