What the Department of State Can and Can't Do in a Crisis

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How does the Department of State help U.S. citizens during a crisis in another country?

The safety and security of U.S. citizens overseas is one of our top priorities. To keep you informed, we provide security updates on travel.state.gov and embassy and consulate websites, and send out Alerts when you enroll in our free Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP).

The actions we take depend on the nature of the crisis. In some instances, we may provide information on conditions in the country, such as warnings about areas of unrest, how and where to seek help, and other useful information. In more severe situations, we may recommend that U.S. citizens leave the immediate area if it is safe to do so or even the foreign country. If commercial transportation is unavailable, and if we have consular officers at the embassy or consulate, and if the conditions permit, we will do our best to identify what transportation options may be available to help U.S. citizens travel out of the crisis location.

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How do I leave a country during an emergency?

The best time to leave a country is before the crisis if at all possible. Regularly scheduled commercial transportation is always the best option when local communications and transportation infrastructure are intact and operating normally. You should have a plan of action for crisis situations that does not rely on U.S. government assistance.

In extreme situations, if there are no commercial transportation options (planes, trains, boats/ferries, etc.) available, and if we have consular officers at the embassy or consulate, and if the conditions permit, we may help U.S. citizens seeking to depart by working with the host government, other countries, and other U.S. government agencies to identify – and in some cases arrange – available transportation. Regardless of the method of transportation, or who provides it, U.S. citizens (and others who are eligible for U.S. government assistance) are generally responsible for reimbursing the government for the cost of their travel.

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Will the United States Government always evacuate citizens in crises?

Our primary role is to keep the U.S. citizen community informed of safety and security developments and travel options. Regularly scheduled commercial transportation is always the best option when local communications and transportation infrastructure are intact and operating normally. If there are no commercial options available, and if we have consular officers at the embassy or consulate, and if the conditions permit, we may help U.S. citizens identify possible transportation options. In some situations, we may encourage you to stay at a safe location and leave as soon as you can do so safely, using transportation you are able to find on your own.

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What happens during a U.S. government-assisted evacuation?

U.S. government-assisted evacuations can vary depending on the nature of the crisis. In extreme situations, where local infrastructure is damaged or failing but the security situation still allows for some safe movement, we may work with the host government, other countries, and other U.S. government agencies to arrange chartered or non-commercial transportation for U.S. citizens seeking to depart. Options could include transportation by air, land, or sea. While we work closely with the Department of Defense, you should not expect the U.S. military to assist you when we recommend that you leave a country, as conditions may not permit such assistance.

If the U.S. government is able to coordinate an evacuation:

  • Generally, the U.S. government will provide a transportation option to a location away from the crisis event, usually a neighboring country or a different part of the same country. This nearby safe location is rarely the United States.
  • We will do our best to provide you with information about hotel options, but cannot guarantee hotel rates or room availability. Nor can we guarantee that immigration officials will allow you to stay in the country for any length of time.

Generally, you will need to:

  • Work with immigration officials to be sure you have any necessary visas, vaccinations, and/or other documentation.
  • Arrange and pay for your own accommodations and living expenses or transportation if traveling onward. For U.S. citizens who need emergency financial assistance at the evacuation destination, you may ask a consular officer to help you apply for a loan to help with the costs of your accommodations and/or other essential expenses.

Sometimes situations are so dangerous that we are not able to help organize evacuation options. Under these conditions, we suggest that you stay at a safe location and leave as soon as you can do so safely, using transportation you are able to find on your own.

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Why doesn’t the U.S. government use the U.S. military for all evacuations?

In many crisis situations, we may only provide information on conditions in the country, such as warning about areas of unrest, how and where to seek help, and other useful information. In more severe situations, we may recommend that U.S. citizens leave the immediate area or even the foreign country. If commercial transportation is unavailable, and if we have consular officers at the embassy or consulate, and if the conditions permit, we will do our best to identify what transportation options may be available to help U.S. citizens travel out of the crisis location. Sometimes situations are so dangerous that we are not able to help organize any departure options. When this happens, we suggest that you stay at a safe location and leave as soon as you can do so safely, using transportation you are able to find on your own. While we work closely with the Department of Defense, you should not expect the U.S. military to assist you when we recommend that you leave a country, as conditions may not permit such assistance.

 

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Will the U.S. government come and pick me up if I need assistance getting to the airport or other departure point?

In general, the U.S. government cannot provide in-country transportation to individuals or groups during a crisis. Security conditions and limited resources can also restrict our ability to move freely around the country. Please pay close attention to our travel and safety information, monitor local conditions, and have a plan of action in case of emergency that does not rely on U.S. government transportation assistance.

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Will the U.S. government pay for my evacuation if it is needed?

No. U.S. law requires that the assisted evacuation of private U.S. citizens or third country nationals be provided “on a reimbursable basis to the maximum extent practicable.” However, we do understand that you may not be able to access your own money during a crisis. For evacuation transportation that we arrange to transport you out of a crisis location, you do not have to pay before you board. To board these transports, you will need to complete and sign a form promising to repay the U.S. government. The amount billed to evacuees is based on the cost of a full fare economy flight, or comparable alternate transportation, to the designated destination(s) that would have been charged immediately prior to the events giving rise to the evacuation. Because different evacuation transports may go to different destinations, the cost of one transport may be different than another. We encourage people to leave on the first transport they are able and eligible to board.

As mentioned above, an evacuation is almost always to a nearby location away from the crisis, which is very rarely to the United States. You are also responsible for the costs you may incur in the destination, including hotel, food, clothing, medication, and other necessities.

Emergency financial assistance in the form of a loan may be available to U.S. citizens who are unable to pay for their onward travel to the United States.

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Can I bring my pet with me on the evacuation?

When traveling or residing with pets, expect that you will not be able to bring them with you on a U.S. government-coordinated evacuation. You should make alternate plans for their care or take commercial transport if a crisis occurs abroad. In rare situations when pets can be transported, we will let you know, including the basic restrictions or requirements for boarding. In addition, you are responsible for ensuring your pet meets the requirements to enter the destination country (and any applicable transiting countries). We will usually not know these requirements in advance. If your pet is allowed to board, you assume all risks associated with your pet’s travel.

Working animals, such as guide dogs, are not considered pets and will be accommodated, if possible. 

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How can I receive up-to-date information during a crisis?

We encourage all U.S. citizens travelling abroad to enroll in our Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), which provides you with information as a crisis develops. It is important that you keep your contact information up-to-date.    

In addition, the latest information is also posted on the State Department website, the embassy or consulate website, and our social media platforms, including Twitter and Facebook. We may also ask that local television, radio, and other media outlets broadcast messages.

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How can I get in touch with the Department of State during a crisis?

There are a number of ways to contact the Department of State during a crisis:

Task Force Alert: In some crises, we activate this online system so that you can inform us that you or your loved ones are in the crisis location.  Consular officers will use this information to locate U.S. citizens and offer emergency consular assistance. (Please note that this service does not automatically notify emergency medical or law enforcement officials. U.S. citizens in need of immediate emergency assistance should contact appropriate local responders.) This site is only used to provide us with information about U.S. citizens who are in the affected area.

Email: We may also set up a crisis-specific email address. This email address will be advertised in our public messaging and on travel.state.gov. As a confirmation of your email, you will receive a reply with up-to-date information on the crisis and a checklist of key information we need from you in order to offer emergency consular assistance to you or your loved ones.

Phone: You may also call us at 1-888-407-4747 (from the United States and Canada) or +1-202-501-4444 (from overseas). Depending on the severity of the crisis and the number of U.S. citizens affected, hold times to speak to a person may be longer than usual. Please consider using the other crisis-specific contact methods listed above, to include the internet and/or email, to contact us. 

If the person you are concerned about is not a U.S. citizen, please contact the nearest embassy or consulate of that person’s nationality. You can also contact aid organizations, such as the Red Cross, for additional information on assistance they may provide. See “What about my family and friends who are not U.S. citizens?” below for more information.

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What if I don’t have access to email or phone?

Internet and cell phone service are often interrupted during a crisis. If this happens, we may use local television, radio, and other media outlets to help broadcast information.

We may also use a system of pre-designated community members, called “Citizen Liaison Volunteers,” to pass information to and from the area. Citizen Liaison Volunteers or “CLVs” are private citizens who have volunteered to help us spread information to, and communicate with, U.S. citizens in designated areas. During a crisis, CLVs often help us locate U.S. citizens and provide information in areas that are difficult for us to reach. Depending on the crisis circumstances and their capabilities, CLVs may also be able to relay information about, or messages from, individuals.

Regularly updating your status through social media is a great way to let your loved ones know how you are doing. Also, please try contacting your friends or family using SMS text messaging. Text messaging and data service will often work even if the phone/voice lines are down. See our page on Locating your Loved One During a Crisis Abroad.

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If my U.S. passport is expired, can you help me?

Yes, but it will probably take longer to assist you, especially if you are trying to travel. It takes time to issue emergency travel documents and they will only be valid for a short period of time in order for you to depart the affected area. The best way to avoid this is to keep your travel documents up-to-date at all times. If your U.S. passport expired while you are overseas, please contact the consular section of the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate to apply for a new one.

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What about my family and friends who are not U.S. citizens?

Our focus must be on helping U.S. citizens. The embassy or consulate of your friend or family member’s nationality is responsible for helping their citizens. In general, we do not provide evacuation assistance to non-U.S. citizens. Exceptions may be made to accommodate special family circumstances, such as when a spouse or other relative of a U.S. citizen is traveling with the U.S. citizen family member.

If your friend or family member is not a U.S. citizen, you can contact the embassy or consulate of their nationality. You may also contact aid organizations, such as the Red Cross, to ask about any assistance they might be able to provide. 

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What happens to visa processing during a crisis?

The primary mission of U.S. embassies worldwide is to provide assistance to U.S. citizens. In many crisis situations, an embassy or consulate may limit or suspend visa processing and other routine services so that consular staff can help U.S. citizens. Please do not risk your safety by staying in an area that is dangerous in order to wait for the processing of a visa application.

DISCLAIMER

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Last Updated: August 6, 2019