Traveling is one of the greatest pleasures of life. If you are reading this, you likely agree. We find it is one of our happiest places and feeds our souls. It is both an adventure and relaxation. But as with most things in life, it has inherent risks. It is important not to live life in fear of the what-ifs, but it is silly not to do all you can to mitigate those risks. It is always best to be prepared and use whatever tool, especially the free ones at your disposal.
There are many ways to protect yourself when traveling, such as travel insurance, which we are huge advocates for at all ages. That is for another day. This post is specifically about a free service provided by the U.S. Bureau of Consular Affairs, which is under the auspices of the U.S. State Department. Your tax dollars are already paying for it.
We all carry home insurance that covers fire loss. How many houses burn down? Very few, but if you are that victim of losing your home to a fire, that insurance helps you rebuild your life, where for most of us, it would be financially impossible without that insurance. When traveling, the same rules apply.
It is surprising how few people know about this service, especially when traveling to unstable parts of the world. We make sure to ask everyone we know before they leave for an overseas trip if they have registered for the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), and 95% of the time, the response is, what is that? So, let’s chat about why you should register for your next international trip and how quick and easy the process is.
What is the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program?
Protecting the lives and interests of U.S. citizens abroad is a core mission of U.S. Embassies and Consulates. The Smart Traveler Enrollment Program is a free service that allows U.S. citizens and nationals traveling and living abroad to enroll their trip or extended stay with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate. Therefore, they can be provide important safety and security information as well as support during a crisis or in an emergency.
What are the benefits of enrolling in STEP?
There are many ways STEP could render aid to you before and during your trip.
- You’ll receive the latest safety and security information for your destination country so that you can make informed decisions about your travel.
- Emergencies happen at home when you are traveling. STEP will help family and friends get in touch with you in an emergency
- Even in the safest of cities protests, and civil unrest can occur. The service provides you with the latest information on what areas to avoid in case of events such as strikes, demonstrations, or lockdowns.
- If you become ill or injured and require hospitalization, they already have all your information and know you are in the country. It will expedite the process to get guidance on what to do next.
- Natural disasters or terrorist attacks can occur at any time. The local U.S. embassies and consulates will take steps to verify and confirm the safety of the Americans they are there to represent and protect.
- Should you run into legal issues or are a victm of a crime while abroad, they are there to assist you in navigating the prociess.
Why should I register? Can’t I figure this out on my own?
One of the benefits of traveling abroad with a United States Passport is the protection your country provides. The United States is a powerful entity, both in diplomacy and in military strength. Civil and political unrest has impacted many countries, making it unsafe for Americans who are there. If the U.S. Government knows where you are, through the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, it can plan to offer assistance to you in circumstances where your safety is in danger.
What happens when I enroll?
When you enroll in STEP, you stay informed on the current information about your destination country, which comes in various forms.
- Alerts from the U.S. Embassy about safety and security
- Updates on any travel advisory which can be health-related, government instability, impending severe weather, or even crime-related.
- If you live abroad, it provides information about U.S. Embassy events and services, town hall meetings, voting info, federal benefits, and legal obligations you have to the U.S.
- When enrolled in STEP, you stay connected. The U.S. Embassy contacts you and assists in an emergency overseas. If your family or friends in the U.S. are having difficulty getting you with urgent news while you’re traveling, the service can use the information in STEP to try and reach you.
What can a consulate or Embassy do for me when I am overseas?
Consular officers at Embassies and Consulates can assist U.S. citizens who encounter serious legal, medical, or financial difficulties overseas. For example, if your passport is stolen while traveling, we can help you obtain a replacement to continue your trip. We can also provide the names of English-speaking doctors or local attorneys, give loans to needy U.S. citizens, and provide information about dangerous conditions affecting your overseas travel or residence.
They also perform non-emergency services such as helping with routine passport applications, absentee voting, selective service registration, receiving federal benefits, and filing U.S. tax forms. Consular officers can notarize documents, issue passports, and register U.S. citizen children born abroad. Most embassies and consulates have websites with more information about their citizen services.
In a crisis such as a natural disaster or severe political instability, the Department of State provides information and assistance to U.S. citizens in the affected area.
Did you know that there is a 24-hour number to reach the U.S. Embassy in case of emergencies for U.S. citizens traveling abroad? Some U.S. Embassies within the country may be reachable 24 hours a day, but if not, there is the main number available at all times.
From the US or while using a US cellphone
Dial 001 or +1 then 202-501-4444
We all worry about what is happening to information we share with others. The information you provide to the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program is pretty basic but still personal. There are laws in place to protect the information you give to STEP. One concern I hear is then they will know where I am. Here is the bottom line if you used your passport, the system knows where you are. The closest Embassy may not know, though, and you are not informed of what is occurring in that country.
Let’s share some real-life stories
- On our last trip to Iceland, an exceptionally peaceful and safe country, a work stoppage to protest conditions for workers in the service industry, was scheduled. Except for management, all workers were no show for work for 48 hours. This was occurring during two of the three days we were there. Some hotels were not as prepared as others. We verified with our hotel they had a contingency plan and what would occur. Restaurants were closed, and no housekeeping was available. It was bare-bones staff, but they were going to stay open and do their best. It was not the case at all hotels or restaurants.
- Before our travels to Spain, we received an email from the state department warning of a new crime directed at tourists. It was unique, and we could have easily been a victim, not knowing what to avoid and how to be prepared.
- A couple from one of our hometowns was traveling overseas for an extended month. Shortly after departing, their son was in a severe accident. The Embassy provided assistnace in getting the couple home very quickly and escorted them until they were on the plane. Once they arrived in the U.S., they were greeted and expedited through customs so they could immediately be transported to the hospital to be with their son.
- During the terrorist attacks in Paris, many families desperately tried to reach their loved ones traveling or living in Paris. The families there struggled to get word to their loved ones that they were ok. The U.S. Embassy was able to facilitate the tracking of U.S. citizens and their status. It also guided Americans in Paris on what to do during the crisis.
- While visiting Barcelona, Joelle was there during the annual Catalonia freedom protests seeking independence from Spain. She was there in the heart of it. Though usually peaceful, we were warned there was a potential for violence. Many streets and highways would be blocked and impassable. Details were provided on what areas to avoid. The morning of her flight road blockages on the airport route was planned. Due to the advisory Joelle left early for her flight before the protests began.
- Some friends were in the Caribbean when a massive hurricane was approaching. There were frequent updates on evacuation plans, where to go for safety, and services available. Once the storm passed, assistance on how to get off the devastated island was provided.
- Once in Paris, we received an email warning us of demonstrations that were likely to get violent. It provided the location, which was where we were planning to be that day. We avoided the area and stayed safe.
- Transportation strikes are pretty common in Europe. It could make getting to an airport or other destination very problematic. An advanced warning can allow you to have contingency plans.
Traveling soon? Check out our Country Travel Guides here.
Registering for STEP
Now that we have discussed why you should get this valuable service let’s talk about what is involved in registering, not much surprisingly. It is quick and easy. It can be done via a computer or a mobile app. We chose the computer as it is faster and easier to navigate. We find the process user-friendly and well presented.
*If you chose the mobile app, the app could be found in your APP store under Smart Traveler.
A Walk Through the Registration Process
There are four options to chose from on the Home page. (The group option is not visible in the photo above). The bullets below explain each option.
- If you are a infrequent travelers it may be best to enroll in a single trip by clicking the “TRAVELING? Enroll a trip” option.
- The staying-at-home option is to track alerts and warnings occurring in a country you are considering traveling to or have people you know visiting there. Perfect for parents with students traveling abroad.
- Those who travel often can create an account by clicking the “FREQUENT TRAVELER? Create an account” option. An account allows travelers to quickly modify their travel information and enroll in additional trips in the future. Much of your information is prepopulated for future trips.
- A large group of travelers can be enrolled by selecting the “Create Organization/Group Account” option at the bottom of the homepage.
The screens for each step in the registration process
Screen one: Answer two questions.
Screen two: Review and accept privacy act information.
Screen 3: Provide your name, date of birth, gender, citizenship, email, phone, and passport number. No address is needed.
FYI If you are traveling with someone, you can enter them into this profile, so you don’t have to register separately. Keep in mind, though, in an emergency; they will be tied to the lead person registering. If you at any time you go separate ways during the trip, it may be best for each person to register for themselves.
Screen 4: Provide trip details. You will need at least one address of where you will be staying. If moving around a lot best to add each address.
Screen 5: Provide emergency contact info for someone back home that can be reached in an emergency.
Screen 6: You will be taken to a page of any travel advisories that pertain to this country and other info. Below is from our Greece trip.
Screen 7: One last page to review and confirm your entries.
That is it. You are done. It may take 5-10 minutes if you have the hotel addresses ready.
You will receive an email shortly confirming your trip registration.
U.S. embassies and consulates assist nearly 200,000 Americans each year who are victims of crime, accident, or illness or whose families need to contact them in an emergency. When an emergency occurs, or if a natural disaster, terrorism, or civil unrest strikes during your international travel, the closest U.S. embassy or consulate can be your source of information and support. By registering your travels, you are helping the Embassy locate you when you might need them the most.
Using the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program is like having insurance. STEP is voluntary and costs nothing to you. It’s something you hope you’ll never really have to use, but it’s good knowing it will be there if an emergency occurs.
Ready to Register Your Trip? Click link below
Have on you at all times the Embassy location and contact details for any country you are traveling in and your passport number. We try not to carry our passport with us when sightseeing, but we always have a photocopy of the passport.
In a crisis or severe injury or illness, you may not want to be wasting time googling the info or needing to return to the hotel to get the information.
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