Postcard to Americans Abroad

Last week, I worked from our consulate in Sydney for two days and attended an American Citizen Services (ACS) training for consular officers posted to Sydney, Perth, and Melbourne.  Ninety percent of the time, I work in the embassy in Canberra as a political officer, but every once in a while, my particular portfolio allows me to do some consular work too. This is especially important to me because I’m consular-coned, and I’m also the only consular officer in the embassy. From sharpening my skills on working death and arrest cases, to making citizenship determinations, to bonding with my consular colleagues and friends, my whirlwind 48 hour trip to Sydney after an interesting and busy week of political meetings and writing in Canberra was a morale boost and a chance to pivot my focus. How much do you know about ACS?

High above downtown Sydney’s central business district, a consular team of Americans and Australians works hard to provide good service to U.S. citizens in the area, and help them stay informed, documented, and safe. What does that mean, exactly? Consular officers are not lawyers, doctors, or tax preparers (or at least, not YOUR lawyer, doctor, or tax preparer). And yet, if you are an American who is born, dies, goes to jail, needs to vote, or simply needs to get a document notarized or renew a passport, and you’re in the Sydney consular district of New South Wales or Queensland, chances are that someone on this team will assist you or your family.

Hello up there, U.S. Consulate Sydney!

Not a lot of Americans realize that they are entitled to services while overseas, what those services are, or how to utilize them. Other Americans don’t find out about consular services until they have been the victim of a crime or some unfortunate circumstances. Still others have unrealistic expectations informed by Hollywood, thinking they can flaunt local laws and a consular officer will barge into a foreign prison with a get-out-of-jail free card (“I’m an American, damnit!”), or swoop down in a helicopter to rescue them from danger. We are cool, but are we that cool!? (Sometimes. The stories we could tell.) And of course, some really well-informed Americans leverage consular services in just the way they were intended.

Being in downtown Sydney, a few blocks from where I lived in grad school, just makes me feel grounded and at home. I remember walking by the consulate back then and wondering how I could potentially work there. I had hardly a clue about the Foreign Service or the diplomatic corps writ large for 4 more years afterwards.

And yet, even in my twenties I was one of those Americans who carried a list of addresses and phone numbers for the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate in whatever country I traveled to. I had just enough of a clue, I suppose. (Including that time in 2005 I got detained in Kosovo as a private citizen without a transit visa, but didn’t become an ACS case because the soldier was bemused by my mad language and diplomatic skillz, busted out a typewriter, and issued me the proper document with a fatherly clap on the shoulder. So there was that. My bad!! #consularfail)

Some of the cases we discussed and broke down would pull at even the toughest officer’s heart strings, especially the death cases. At one particular moment, I noticed an Australian white ibis (affectionately known to Aussies as a “bin chicken” for its propensity to rummage through rubbish bins) fly by the window nearly 70 stories up. I sat startled, not realizing they flew that high. I guess I couldn’t have been anywhere else but Australia; this was the view from our meeting room:

All in all, it was a stimulating and productive time getting into the weeds on stuff that really interests me, like visiting incarcerated Americans, making death notifications, and other emergencies that I haven’t had much of a chance to work on yet.

@SebastianSalons #blonder

And a half hour before I headed to the airport, I made a brief jaunt down to Circular Quay, because no trip to Sydney would feel complete to me without that.

Sydney Harbour Bridge

So how much do YOU know about consular services?

  • For example, did you know that your U.S. passport should be valid for at least six months beyond your travel dates and have two or more blank pages? (True story: I will never forget the time I flew from Panama City to Miami seated next to a sobbing American who had just been turned around by Panamanian immigration authorities because her passport was expiring in three months, even though her vacation was only a week.)
  • Did you know that most regular U.S. health care plans will not cover medical emergencies abroad? Are you prepared to pay five figure medical bills if need be, and wait for reimbursement?
  • Have you considered following @TravelGov on Twitter and Facebook to receive the latest safety and security updates?
  • Do you know what to do if your loved one is in a crisis abroad? (Hint: You can call the State Department at 888-407-4747, and check for any crisis-specific information.) 

To learn more about what embassies and consulates do, click here.

Click the link to read and/or download the State Department’s Travelers’ Checklist for references on customs and import restrictions, crisis planning, obtaining International Driving Permits (IDPs), travel to high-risk areas, TSA Pre-check and Global Entry, consent for traveling with minors, FBI advice for U.S. students traveling abroad, evacuation insurance, links to apply for foreign visas and foreign entry/exit requirements, special considerations for female travelers or travelers with disabilities, and much more.

To learn how you can stay connected and informed by registering with the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) before traveling overseas, click here.

To learn more about what the State Department can and cannot do in a crisis, click here.

To learn more about how consular officers in the U.S. support consular officers at embassies and consulates in making adoption determinations, travel emergency warnings, child abductions, arrests, welfare and whereabouts inquiries, citizenship determinations, and other essential services for Americans abroad, click here.

To learn more about what consular officers do (vis-à-vis management, political, public diplomacy, and economic officers), click here.

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Sarah W Gaer

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