Sooner or later, some travelers will encounter an emergency while abroad. Dealing with a serious injury, illness, an assault, or even just running out of funds is never a pleasant situation. However a little preparation beforehand can help you better prepare and cope with the situations life throws at you.
Health insurance Carry your insurance card with you. Inquiry about what coverage you have internationally: most likely you will need to take out specialist travel insurance. In some countries medical costs are very low. However, many overseas hospitals will insist on having payment for services before providing (or continuing) medical care. Having an insurance card may show the hospital that you have sufficient resources to provide medical care, even if you have no money on hand.
Medevac insurance Medevac means "Medical Evacuation". This is the process of chartering a special jet with medical personnel to bring you back from wherever you are to the nearest country with decent medical care or your home country, where medical care may be better and where your friends and family can be near. The price of this can be completely ludicrous if you're crossing oceans: $500,000 is not uncommon, and many insurers recommend having coverage of up to one million. Medevac coverage or a separate medevac policy is a good idea, particularly if you are going to spend a long time abroad.
Important phone numbers There is no substitute for knowing the emergency phone numbers of the country you are in. Carry in your wallet the local phone numbers for emergency services, such as ambulance or police. On GSM phones, the number 112 is guaranteed to connect to emergency services, no matter what country you're in. In a pinch, you can also try 911, which many countries forward to the local number. Travel insurers often have a 24 hour reverse charges helpline. Also carry the phone number of your country's embassy and your credit and ATM card issuer (they may even have a reverse charges number) so that you can report a card stolen or find out why it isn't working.
Leave copies of your plans with someone at home. They should have your itinerary, copies of your identity documents and details of your insurance policies. You should give them an idea of how often to expect contact. This will help them find you and/or get you consular and medical assistance if you can't get it yourself.
Carry money wisely and in multiple forms Carrying all your money in one wallet can wreak havoc on your trip if the wallet is lost or stolen. Spread your money out both on your person and in your bags. Furthermore, try to have multiple financial resources available. For example, a budget traveller might take a supply of cash for most ordinary purchases, keep an ATM or debit card for cash withdrawls, and carry a credit card or two for emergencies or to buy airline tickets. Each of these (cash, credit cards, ATM card) can themselves be a separate means of getting money. Keep them in safe places, but split between your bags and your person.
Know the lingo Be able to say, "I need help, Please call police" in the local language (or carry a card with the words in local script).
Know yourself, know your locale Emergency response standards and medical care vary enormously around the world. Be realistic on what you can handle. In dangerous countries, such as war zones, know where it is safe to get help.
In the event of an sudden injury or assault, try to summon help from any way you can. If you are able to, call the emergency services number on your own. In the event of a trauma injury, get to any clinic or hospital ASAP. You can always transfer hospitals later once your condition has stabilized
If your condition is stable and you have some time, make a wise choice as to which hospital to go to. Call your country's Embassy or Consulate and inquire about which hospital the Embassy recommends or its staff use. Even in third world countries with poor health care often have a handful of hospitals that are up to international standards. Find out where they are. Your insurer may also be able to make a recommendation.
Notify your family as soon as possible.
Assaults and robberies
Report the crime to the police, even if you don't think they can do anything, as you will need the police report for any insurance claims. In third world countries where you are unsure of the reliability of local police, report the situation first to your Embassy or Consulate, which may be able to assist you in notifying the police, as well as assist if you need help in notifying your family.
In an extreme emergency, most countries have services such as a battered women's shelter, homeless shelters, and the like. Using such services is not ordinarily recommended (they are geared towards local residents) but if your only other option is to sleep on the streets, make inquiries.
In the United States, Canada and Australia, the Travelers Aid organization lends a helping hand to travelers in need of any type of assistance. Staffed by volunteers in counters at many airports, they can answer routine queries (such as what is the cheapest way to get from the airport to downtown) but also can provide referrals to other social service organizations or emergency services in serious crises such as destitution, homelessness, or human traficking.
What your embassy can do
The quick answer is "much less than you'd expect" — in particular, they will never pay a single cent of any costs caused by the emergency — but their assistance can still be invaluable. These services can also be provided by consulates and associated countries (eg. Commonwealth embassies for Commonwealth citizens, EU embassies for EU citizens).
If you lose your passport, your embassy can make a new one for you, often very quickly. You'll usually need a police report and a copy of the lost passport will be very helpful. Fees will apply. Note that sometimes the fast-turnaround passports are temporary, and may need to be converted to a regular passport once you are back home, with varying degrees of headache.
If you have already reported a passport as stolen/missing and you find it afterwards, do not attempt to use it. Stolen/missing passports are entered in Interpol's database to prevent misuse, and attempting to enter a country using one will throw up huge red flags.
If you're the victim of a crime, your embassy can put you in touch with lawyers, translators and the police. They will not pay any expenses.
If you lose all your money, your embassy will, in extreme cases, arrange transportation back home. This is a last resort (they'll try to contact friends/relatives and have them wire money first) and you'll have to pay the costs with interest when you get back.
If you're arrested, you have a right to consular assistance. This means that the embassy can arrange a lawyer, a translator and contact your family. You'll have to pay for at least the first two. The embassy cannot pay fines or get you out of jail, nor can it interfere in the legal process of the country you are in or try to exempt you from local laws.
If you're hospitalized, the embassy can notify insurers or relatives. They cannot pay the bills on your behalf.
If you die, the embassy will confirm your identity, contact next of kin and collect paperwork. They cannot pay for expenses such as funerals or transporting the body.
Embassies usually cannot assist you in legal matters if you hold citizenship of the country you are currently in, even if you are a citizen of the embassy's country too.
Assuming someone is willing to send you money, there are several ways you can get money in a pinch.
Direct Deposit Someone deposits or wire transfers money to your bank account. You then use your ATM card to withdraw. This is the lowest cost method to get money -- assuming you have someone willing to deposit money to you!
Western Union Not the cheapest way to send money, but enormously popular because of its convenience and the fact that Western Union has offices in so many cities worldwide.
Credit Card cash advance Credit cards can be used to obtain cash either via an ATM (if you have been issued a PIN) or in person at a participating bank branch. (In many countries, it is increasingly becoming ATM only.) Before attempting this, it is strongly recommended that you contact your credit card company to ask about fees and participating banks at your destination. Many credit card companies charge 3% of the amount of the advance with interest accruing from that date.
Fedex and other overnight courier companies officially frown upon the sending of cash in their envelopes. But because delivery is so reliable, many choose to send modest amounts of money in overnight envelopes. Delivery time is generally one to five days, depending upon your location. Note this may be illegal in some countries.
OCS Trust Account This is the official name for the service by which an American citizen can receive money sent from a friend or relative via a US Embassy. The fee for an OCS Trust account is $30, in addition to fees for wire transfer. The method allows the sender to specify exactly how the money is to be disbursed: if the sender specifies that the funds are for a plane ticket home, for example, that is exactly what will be bought and nothing else. Due to the fees and complications, OCS trust accounts are generally used only in extreme emergencies such as when the recepient cannot physically go to a bank or Western Union office.
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