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What Help Can You Expect from a U.S. Consul at an American Consulate Abroad?

What Help You Can Find at a U.S. Consulate

U.S. consular officers are located at U.S. embassies and consulates in most countries overseas. They are available to advise and help you, if you are in any serious trouble.

In the Case of Destitution

If you become destitute abroad, the U.S. consul can help you get in touch with your family, friends, bank, or employer and tell you how to arrange for them to send funds for you. These funds can sometimes be wired to you through the Department of State.

In the Case of Illness or Injury

If you become ill or injured while abroad, you can contact the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate for a list of local doctors, dentists, medical specialists, clinics and hospitals. If your illness or injury is serious, the U.S. consul can help you find medical assistance and, at your request, will inform your family or friends of your condition. If necessary, a consul can assist in the transfer of funds from the United States. Payment of hospital and other expenses is your responsibility. U.S. consular officers cannot supply you with medication.

During an emergency, if you are unable to communicate, the consul will check your passport for the name and address of any relative, friend, or legal representative whom you wish to have notified. Because the U.S. Government cannot pay for medical evacuations, it is advisable to have private medical insurance to cover this.

Marriage Abroad

U.S. diplomatic and consular officials do not have the authority to perform marriages overseas. Marriage abroad must be performed in accordance with local law. There are always documentary requirements, and in some countries, there is a lengthy residence requirement before a marriage may take place.

Before traveling, ask the embassy or consulate of the country in which you plan to marry about their regulations and how to prepare to marry abroad. Once abroad, the Consular Section of the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate may be able to answer some of your questions, but it is your responsibility to deal with local civil authorities.

Birth Abroad

A child born abroad to a U.S. citizen parent or parents generally acquires U.S. citizenship at birth. As soon as possible after the birth, the U.S. citizen parent or parents should contact the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate to have a Report of Birth Abroad of a Citizen of the United States of America prepared. This document serves as proof of acquisition of U.S. citizenship and is acceptable evidence for obtaining a U.S. passport and for most other purposes where one must show a birth certificate or proof of citizenship.

Adoption Abroad

If you plan to adopt a child overseas, you should be aware that the U.S. government considers foreign adoptions to be a private, legal matter within the judicial sovereignty of the nation in which the child is residing. U.S. authorities have no right to intervene on behalf of American citizens in the courts of the country where the adoption takes place. But there are a number of ways in which U.S. embassies and consulates can assist prospective parents.

The U.S. embassy or consulate can provide you with information on the adoption process in that particular country. Consular officers can inquire on your behalf about the status of your case in the foreign court, and they can assist in clarifying documentary requirements, if necessary. Consular officers will also try to ensure that, as a U.S. citizen, you will not be discriminated against by foreign courts, and they will provide you with information about the visa application process for your adopted child.

Because children in foreign adoptions are considered to be nationals of the country of origin, prospective parents must comply with local laws. One way to accomplish this is by dealing with a reputable international adoption agency, experienced in handling adoptions in the particular country in which you wish to adopt the child. In the case of a private adoption, you should hire a local attorney with expertise in adoptions.

Further information on adoption procedures can be obtained by requesting BCIS Form M-249, The Immigration of Adopted and Prospective Adoptive Children. You may also write for the free pamphlet, International Adoption. Please send a self-addressed, triple-stamped 9"x12" envelope to: United States Department of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs, Office of Children's Issues, SA-17 9th Floor, Washington, DC 20522-1709. If you are planning to adopt from a particular country, you should mention that in your request, because the Office of Children's Issues has specific information on the adoption procedures in countries around the world. 

International Child Custody Disputes

There are limits on the assistance that U.S. authorities can provide to parents involved in a child custody dispute. When an American child is abducted overseas by a parent, the U.S. Government's role is to help the remaining parent locate the child, monitor the child's welfare, and provide information about child custody laws and procedures in the country where the child has been taken. Consular officers overseas can issue a U.S. passport to a child involved in a custody dispute, if the child appears in person at a U.S. embassy or consulate, and if there is no court order from the foreign court of that country, which bars the child's departure from the country.

Parents who are involved in a custody dispute overseas should find out whether that country is a party to the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. Under the Hague Convention, a child who has been wrongfully removed from a parent may be returned to his or her place of habitual residence. For further information on international child abduction and the Hague Convention, please contact the United States Department of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs, Office of Children's Issues, SA-17 9th Floor, Washington, DC 20522-1709; telephone 1-888-407-4747 or 202-501-4444. This office also has copies of the booklet, International Parental Child Abduction, which contains helpful information on what U.S. citizen parents can do to prevent their child from becoming a victim of parental child abduction. 

Death Abroad

When a U.S. citizen dies abroad, the consular officer reports the death to the next of kin or legal representative and arranges to obtain from them the necessary private funds for local burial or return of the body to the United States. Before you begin your trip, please complete in pencil the address page in the front of your passport. Please provide the name, address and telephone number of someone to be contacted in an emergency. Do not give the names of your traveling companions, in case the entire party is involved in the same accident.

Because the U.S. Government cannot pay for local burial or shipment of remains to the United States, it is worthwhile to have insurance to cover this possibility. Following a death, a Report of the Death of An American Citizen (Optional Form 180) is prepared by the consular officer to provide the facts concerning the death and the custody of the personal estate of the deceased. Under certain circumstances, a consular officer becomes the provisional conservator of a deceased American's estate and arranges for the disposition of those effects.

A Variety of Non-Emergency Services

Consular officers provide non-emergency services as well. These include information about Selective Service registration, travel safety information, absentee voting, and the acquisition or loss of U.S. citizenship. They arrange for the transfer of Social Security and other Federal benefits to beneficiaries residing abroad, provide U.S. tax forms, and notarize documents. Consuls can also provide information on how to obtain foreign public documents.

What Help You Cannot Get at a U.S. Consulate

U.S. consular officers will do their best to assist U.S. citizens abroad. However, they must devote priority time and energies to those Americans who find themselves in the most serious legal, medical, or financial difficulties.

Because of limited resources, consuls cannot provide routine or commercial-type services. They cannot act as travel agents, information bureaus, banks, or law enforcement officers. U.S. Federal law forbids a consular officer from acting as your lawyer. Consular officers cannot find you employment; get you visas, residence permits or driving permits; act as interpreters; search for missing luggage; call your credit card company or bank; replace stolen traveler's checks; or settle disputes with hotel managers. However, they can tell you how to get assistance on these matters, as well as other issues.

When to Register With the U.S. Embassy

You should register at the Consular Section of the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate:

  • If you find yourself in a country or area that is experiencing civil unrest, has an unstable political climate, or is undergoing a natural disaster, such as an earthquake or a hurricane.
  • If you plan to go to a country where there are no U.S. officials. In such cases, you should register at the U.S embassy or consulate in an adjacent country, leave an itinerary with the Consular Section, ask about conditions in the country that you will visit, and ask about the third country that may represent U.S. interests there.
  • If you plan to stay in a country longer than one month.
Registration at the U.S. Embassy or Consulate makes your presence and whereabouts known, in case it is necessary for a consular officer to contact you in an emergency. During a disaster overseas, American consular officers can assist in evacuation were that to become necessary. But they cannot assist you if they do not know where your are. Registration also makes it easier to apply for a replacement passport, if yours is lost or stolen.

If you are traveling with an escorted tour to areas experiencing political uncertainty or other problems, find out if registration at the U.S. embassy or consulate is being done for you by your tour operator. If it is not, or if you are traveling on your own, you should leave a copy of your itinerary at the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate soon after you arrive.

Source: U.S. Department of State

About the Author: For over 20 years, the U.S. Passport Service Guide team has helped hundreds of thousands of travelers with their travel document questions and shared advice about how to make traveling abroad simpler, safer, and more enjoyable.

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