What to Do If You’re A U.S. Citizen Stranded Abroad

Meghan Coyle
Jon Nickel-D'Andrea
By Jon Nickel-D'Andrea and  Meghan Coyle 
Edited by Mary M. Flory

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One of the biggest worries of traveling abroad is being stuck in a foreign country. Maybe your passport got lost or stolen. Perhaps your flight got canceled and there aren't any more flights to the U.S. for another week. If you have a serious illness or injury on vacation, you might have to wait until after you're well enough to travel.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the world has seen how quickly borders can be shut down. And we've learned a few things about what we should do in cases like these if you're a U.S. citizen stranded abroad.

Remain calm

First — while it may seem like a cliche — the most important thing is to remain calm. It's hard to resolve any issues if you let your emotions get in the way of your decision-making and communication skills. Focus on what you can control.

Yelling, screaming and reminding officials that you have to get home because of a personal emergency won’t get you very far. For example, let's assume that a standard commercial airliner has an average of 250 seats. Canceling that one flight could disrupt the plans of literally hundreds of people. Even one canceled flight can cause an enormous problem. You’ll get home — but it will take time.

🤓Nerdy Tip

If you have a while to wait until the next flight to the U.S., it might be worth spending the hours at an airport lounge, where there's usually more space and free food. Some lounges sell day passes or you might have access as a benefit of your travel credit card.

Check your U.S. Embassy website

If there's an international issue, like a war breaks out or a global pandemic starts spreading, you might want to check with the authorities first. The U.S. State Department has websites for each international U.S. Embassy location, and those sites are supposed to be updated regularly.

As a good general rule, before you head overseas, you should always make sure to have the address, phone, email and website of the U.S. Embassy or Consulate for the place you’re headed printed out. If you can’t get easy internet access or you need the information quickly at hand, a printout or screenshot will do wonders.

Register with STEP

STEP — or the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program — allows U.S. citizens to register their trip with embassies and consulates abroad. If something goes sideways while you’re overseas, this at least allows the State Department to know where you are and what your plans are so they can offer assistance in times of need.

If you didn’t register with STEP before you left for your vacation, do it now. Late is better than never.

Check the airlines’ websites

Getting out of the country could be as simple as contacting an airline. Calling the airline for assistance could mean facing a long wait time. If you’ve got a little bit of flexibility, try social media. Many airlines allow travelers to resolve issues via chat, Facebook message or even Twitter.

If you don’t have a Twitter account, it’s easy enough to sign up now (even if you never use it again).

Check with your travel insurance provider

If you bought travel insurance before you left, you might be entitled to assistance. Terms apply with each type of insurance, so it’s important to contact your provider for more details.

Some insurance policies carry evacuation coverage, and some will cover medical evacuation if you became sick while overseas.

Check with your credit card

Whether or not you have travel insurance as part of your credit card depends on the type of credit card that you used to make your purchase.

Many premium credit cards come with trip interruption or trip cancellation insurance. Just like any standalone travel insurance policy you may have purchased, the terms and conditions for each are different and might not apply to your specific situation. A quick way to find out your credit card’s exact coverage is simply to call the number on the back of the card.

Remember that if the number is an 800 number, you can fire up Skype on your computer or phone and call for free, no matter where in the world you are.

Dust off your points and miles

If you’ve been holding on to points and miles for that “special occasion,” getting home now just might be that time. Last-minute trips can be pretty pricey, but last-minute flights might also be available using your points.

Here, you can see that a flight from Madrid to New York City is over $1,900 in cash:

But using miles, it can be as few as 17,000 British Airways Avios plus just $194 in taxes and fees.

If you can manage to find an available flight, your best bet may be to just book it. After all, getting home is the most important part of this whole endeavor.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, many airlines have loosened their change and cancellation policies. If it's easier to book a new flight back to the U.S. on a different airline than to change the one you originally booked with, you might want to consider canceling your original flight. If a flexible rebooking policy applies, you'll get some sort of refund or trip credit that you can use on a future flight when you're not trying to get back in a hurry.

Patience is key

As with many things in life, having patience is going to be crucial during this time. It might be as simple as rebooking your flight, or canceling your flight and rebooking on a different airline. Bigger issues might involve getting in contact with the local U.S. embassy. If you’re abroad right now, we wish you a safe trip home.

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Rewards rate


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See more travel cards
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