You’re in a foreign country, far from home and without any friends nearby. When something bad happens it may feel like you are all alone, and it’s easy to becmoe overwhelmed by the situation. But rest assured that there is somewhere you can turn for help: a government office specifically run to lend a hand when things get rough.
For most of us, embassies conjure up images of either swanky cocktail parties or flag-topped, bullet ridden buildings in the middle of warzones.Both images are not far from the truth: as the symbol of one nation’s presence in another, they are icons of power to be celebrated or conquered.
The day-to-day business of embassies is much more mundane, processing visa applications and offering advice to tourists in trouble. But when you’re considering a move to another country, it’s important to realise that embassies offer valuable services to long-term residents, not just to hungover holidaymakers who have lost their passports.
Embassies, found in most capital cities, can offer support and protection in emergencies as well as process essential paperwork that sets up your working life in the new country. Consulates are satellite offices, reporting back to the ‘head office’ of the embassy, and are often found in big cities frequented by tourists. The British Embassy in Spain may be in Madrid, but there are consulates in Malaga, Ibiza and wherever sunseeking Brits can be found.
Just to confuse things, British Embassies in Commonwealth countries are known as High Commissions, but fulfil the same role.
There are a lot of myths out there about what embassies can do for you and there are always variations by country. Americans in Australia can expect different levels of support than Germans down under.
So read carefully, and make sure that you’ve understood how much help is available before you land in your new home.
Travel advice and safety information
There are a multitude of sources for travel information, especially online. But only official government sources can pass on advice specific to your nationality.
Passports, reciprocal agreements and visa requirements aren’t universal, so be careful when reading sources that give blanket answers to any question about entry requirements to a country. It may be simple for EU residents to enter, stay or even work in one country, but it may be a totally different ballgame for Americans, Aussies or anyone else.
Embassies are the liaison between countries, not only helping to negotiate the terms of how each nation’s citizens can come and go, but also reporting these requirements back home. This information is all written by embassy officials who keep this guidance up-to-date at all times. It can usually be found on an embassy’s website.
Should there be unrest, natural disasters or terrorist threats, official travel advice may suggest avoiding certain areas or activities. If things get too bad, the embassy may advise you leave the country altogether. When things get gravely bad, it’ll be the embassy that arranges to evacuate its subjects to safety.
Your passport is undeniably important when away from home. Not only does it get you into your country and back home again, but in many cases it will contain the visa documents that give you the right to stay. Without this double-whammy of documents, you’ll be facing a shorter stay than you’d hoped, packed with many more awkward questions.
If you find yourself without your passport, immediately contact the embassy. They can issue you with temporary, emergency papers and start the process of replacing your permanent passport. It’s surprisingly common for passports to go astray: in 2013 British diplomats replaced 28,783 lost or stolen documents.
It’s important to keep copies of all essential documents as it speeds up the process of issuing new ones. As a rule, it’s best to keep a paper copy safe somewhere and safe electronic versions somewhere online. This way, even if the original and hard copies go missing, a trip to an internet café can reproduce them.
As well as passports and visas, embassy staff can help track down other records; more on that later.
Emergency cash transfers
Lost documents can be reissued, but lost cash isn’t so easy to replace. If you end up far from home with an empty wallet it can be very difficult to make it home, find accommodation or even the next meal.
A very unhelpful urban myth holds that embassies will give hard-up travellers an interest free loan when they find themselves without funds. This is totally untrue. Your money is your problem: if you blow it all in Vegas, no diplomat will be paying your bills for you.
However, in emergencies or after falling victim to crime, embassies and consulates may be able to lend small sums to help. These are very rare and must be repaid.
More common is helping to arrange transfers. The embassy can put you in contact with someone back home who will transfer cash via banks or money transfer. Most emergency cases are a result of theft, but many globetrotters find themselves in a difficult situation as they cannot contact their banks from overseas.
Many banks will allow customers to nominate a third party who can access their online bank accounts. This third party, usually a family member, can then monitor funds and transactions from home, even unlocking the account if your overseas shopping excursions trigger security settings.
This isn’t just a case of Delhi Belly or Montezuma’s Revenge; if you are seriously ill and require medical attention, make sure you call the embassy.
Every country has a different way of running their healthcare system and various ways of treating foreigners who need looking after. Brits abroad can expect the NHS to keep an eye on them in some parts of the world, but in others there may be a hefty bill for private medical services. Make sure you check exactly what applies in your destination.
Contacting the embassy in an emergency means that a representative can help steer you to the best care without breaking the bank. If your condition is critical the embassy may be able to fly relatives out to your beside, or fly you home to get better care.
For non-critical incidents the embassy may be able to provide a list of approved doctors and pharmacists who can offer assistance and prescriptions. This can be used for mental as well as physical health issues.
Of course, consular assistance will not cover costs incurred and is no substitute for comprehensive travel insurance. Make sure you are covered for any pre-existing medical conditions and that the policy applies to your destination country. Keep an eye on the embassy travel advice offered: if the embassy advise against visiting an area, your policy may be invalid there.
Your passport is not a get out of jail free card. Be under no illusions: when in a country you must abide by its laws and there may even be laws from home that remain in force overseas. Members of the armed forces can also be subject to military law, even when on holiday from the services.
Make sure you know which laws apply to you wherever you go. Even things that seem inoffensive at home may be serious crimes abroad. Don’t be tempted to kick back with a cocktail in Saudi Arabia as the tee-total state has harsh penalties for alcohol consumption, whilst in Singapore serious trouble can come from chewing gum.
If you are arrested, call the embassy. They will not pay bail, but they can put you in touch with legal representatives and interpreters to help your journey through the legal process.
Diplomatic staff can keep family members informed of your situation and pass letters home. However, they may not be able to get messages back to you if the local laws do not allow it.
If convicted, the embassy can monitor your wellbeing and ensure you are treated according to internationally accepted standards. If facing deportation, corporal punishment or the death penalty, some governments will protest the sentence but generally have no legal power to overturn it.
The best legal advice anyone can offer expats abroad? Stay on the right side of the law.
This is another service which will vary greatly depending on your nationality, destination country, residency status and length of stay. Whatever the exact process, you’ll be contacting the embassy at some point.
EU citizens may retain the right to vote in their local elections as well as those of their home nation. Commonwealth and British citizens may also be able to double up on voting.
You will need to pre-register to ballot from abroad; a process that varies widely. So do your own research and make sure you get it right as some countries – Australia included – issue fines to citizens who fail to vote even when abroad.
Brits should take a look at www.aboutmyvote.co.uk to learn more about their rights and how to exercise them from overseas.
Tax and benefits
There are two things to consider here: how your tax status may change when abroad, and how it may be altered when you get back.
Expats in Saudia Arabia or the Grenadines can enjoy a tax-free lifestyle and be cash-rich for the duration of their stay. On returning home, they may find that their entitlement to free medical care, state pensions or unemployment benefits may be greatly reduced.
Retiring overseas can have its own issues as state pension eligibility may expire over time and your new country may not offer comprehensive state medical care. Ensure that you register for any local healthcare services and have a plan in place for any welfare emergencies, bearing in mind that flying home for treatment may be the best option.
Contacting the embassy in your destination country will answer any questions you may have on this issue.
Passports are not the only important documents for those living abroad. Settling in a new country means many lifetime milestones may occur away from home.
Embassy staff can help you process birth and marriage certificates and, of course, citizenship papers. They can even help your track down existing documents for family members and arrange delivery of these.
In the unfortunate event of a death, the embassy can assist in issuing death certificates and arrange the release of post-mortem documents or police reports.
Victims of crime
Sadly the most common experience most of us will have with embassies is as victims of crime. Embassy representatives can guide you through the reporting process and provide interpreters when making victim statements. In most cases diplomatic staff will not appear in court as witnesses, but they can help you through the system.
Special services will be available to victims of violent or sexual crimes, helping to arrange medical attention and advice on STIs or emergency contraception.
For missing persons or incidents involving children, many embassies will be able to offer liaison with police and may be able to bring in law enforcement officers from home to aid the investigation. In many nations a crime must be reported before you leave its jurisdiction if you want an investigation to proceed.
It’s important to remember that the embassy can’t conduct its own investigation or influence the outcome of a case. What it can do is offer you support and look after your welfare.
It’s never nice to think about, but you should still plan for it. In 2013 6,193 Brits died abroad, with embassy staff offering support to bereaved families.
It is important to nominate someone as a next of kin: should the worst happen, this person will be the only one permitted to make decisions about the arrangements.
If you inform consular staff ahead of time about your wishes for your property, they will be able to support the next of kin in fulfilling your wishes. They may also be able to arrange for the burial, cremation or repatriation of your body. You may be able to leave instructions about your wishes regarding organ donations, but local laws will hold precedence over your instructions.
Deaths overseas are often followed by an inquest or coroner’s investigation at home; the embassy will be able to assist with this.
Making a will and leaving instructions with the embassy may also reduce stress for your loved ones at a difficult time.
Do you have any tips on dealing with consulates and embassies abroad? Let us know in the comments!
Article by Andy Scofield