Wherever you go, there it is…kind of.
When I heard about a compact resource which Chris at Bootsnall’s London travel guide had put together for London visitors, I realized I had never even really touched on this topic: your country’s embassies abroad.
I’m sure each country’s embassies have different services, and even within the embassies of one country, services may vary from location to location, but here is what I know of many US embassies:
- If you register with your embassy in the place you live, by providing copies of your passport and filling out a form, you can replace your passport with less hassle if lost or stolen. They will also be aware that you are there in case of an evacuation or some other event that it is just nicer not to think about. I did once receive an invitation to a 4th of July celebration because of this, so inclusion in social events is a possible bonus too.
- Think ahead, and do not turn up at a security-conscious embassy with a backpack full of assorted oddities, including your pinchy shoes in a plastic bag and a nearly-full container of Diet Coke.
- Many can add pages to your passport when it is approaching “full”; don’t count on this if you are close to running out of pages — ask in advance. I was told in one place that they had run out of the supplements and had not been replenished, which they thought was done to encourage people to apply for new passports, rather than adding pages. However, when they have the pages, it takes about five minutes.
- As decent people who understand the challenges of living abroad, consular services may be able to offer informal advice on bureaucratic topics that are not the embassy’s own, or to refer you to someone who knows. I’ve gotten extremely useful information this way. But work and residence permits are not issued to you by your country’s embassy, so while their goal of helping protect your interests as a citizen still applies, most often they cannot give authoritative answers or sort things out for you. Acknowledging that will probably go a long way towards obtaining someone’s informal help.
- As far as legal assistance goes, I’ve always read in Lonely Planet: If the trouble you’re in is remotely your own fault, they can’t help you get out of it or intervene on your behalf. On a positive note, they can probably ensure you get enough food in prison and so on. Step one: stay out of trouble!
- Hours for citizen services may be restricted, so go ahead and double check on those before you make the trek there.
I’ve heard some stories about the variety of problems consular services staff are approached with, and it just makes me think to point out that while your embassy is obviously a good resource, try to be realistic about what they can and cannot do. Also be aware of the number of people they need to try and do it for.