Every year, more and more older Americans are traveling and retiring overseas. As the deputy assistant secretary for overseas citizens services in the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs, I can tell you that we work hard every day to provide services for these Americans. Our first goal is to make useful travel information available to them so that they can make informed decisions about where to travel and to live, because we believe that a well-informed traveler is a safe traveler. We appreciate very much the chance to work with AARP and its more than 35 million members. This cooperation is vital to spreading our message of travel safety and security.
Most U.S. citizens realize it is important to educate themselves before they travel about the conditions in their destination country, but doing the research—scouring websites, reading travel guides, talking to other globe-trotters, or calling embassies—can be challenging. Planning an overseas trip or relocating to a foreign country can seem overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. You just have to know the right place to look for information.
Our website, travel.state.gov, is a great resource for planning your overseas travel. We publish Country Specific Information for every country in the world, and we update it twice yearly. We don’t tell you about the best hotels, restaurants, and car rental companies, but we do offer safety- and security-related information, including entry and exit requirements, road conditions, areas to avoid, available medical care, information about accessibility for disabled travelers, and local emergency contact information. If conditions in a country change—for example, because of civil unrest, natural disasters, or crime—we issue Travel Alerts and Travel Warnings to help travelers make informed decisions about whether to visit or stay in a particular country.
If you’re planning to retire overseas, we can also help. On our website, you can find a list of important steps—such as checking residency requirements, reviewing medical care costs, and understanding your tax obligations—to take before you pack your bags and settle overseas. Know before you go is always the best policy.
A key to getting the latest information we provide is our Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). Once enrolled online, you’ll receive up-to-date information, including travel warnings and travel alerts, about your destination country. Enrollment in STEP is free and takes just minutes, but it opens the door to an invaluable source of information, as well as various tools and utilities. STEP also allows us to contact you easily if there’s a family emergency back home or a crisis in the country you’re visiting. You can get to STEP online at travel.state.gov or through your mobile device.
Our Smart Traveler app for the iPhone is another great tool for travelers. Smart Traveler allows you to research country-specific information quickly and easily and access the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program from anywhere in the world, as well as receive immediate updates and travel warnings straight to your smartphone.
No matter where you go, you can always expect the unexpected. I want to make a plug for everyone getting travel medical insurance. Many U.S.-based insurance policies, including Medicare, do not cover you overseas. In the worst case, you want a policy that will provide for care wherever you need it—especially the costs of medical evacuation if necessary. Getting this coverage before you go is a wise investment that will pay off in peace of mind to enjoy your trip.
In September, I will travel to New Orleans for AARP’s Life @ 50+ conference, where I will sit on one of AARP’s University Sessions: "Planes, Trains, Automobiles: Your Travel Reimagined." This marks our second year of participation in Life @ 50+, and I am looking forward to reconnecting with friends and partners like Regina Fraser and Pat Johnson (the Grannies on Safari) and Samantha Brown, making new connections with AARP members, and sharing important information about what we do and how we can help you enjoy safe travel. Our highest priority in the Bureau of Consular Affairs is protecting the lives and interests of U.S. citizens. Tools like travel.state.gov, STEP, and Smart Traveler can help ensure that you have safe and happy travels.
About the author
Jim Pettit has served as the deputy assistant secretary of state for overseas citizens services within the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs since November 2010. The Overseas Citizens Services Directorate includes the Office of American Citizens Services and Crisis Management, the Office of Children’s Issues, and the Office of Legal Affairs.