STEP is a free service for U.S. citizens that allows the Department of State to share your travel details with the U.S. embassies or consulate offices nearest to where you’ll be staying abroad, so they can more effectively provide assistance in the event of an emergency.
There are several really great ways the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program can help you:
- You’ll receive travel alerts and warnings via email for the regions in which you’ll be traveling, both leading up to and during your trip.
- If there is an emergency once you’re abroad—like a natural disaster or civil unrest—the local U.S. presence already knows you’re in the area and can more quickly get in touch to provide aid, or just make sure you’re OK and accounted for. They can also help relay that info to loved ones back home (which is great, since in public emergencies cell service is unreliable).
- If your passport is lost or stolen, having already notified the local embassy to your presence makes it easier to get a replacement.
- If there is an emergency back home and your family or friends need to get in touch with you, the local embassy can help connect them with you.
The world has an always been a chaotic place, but now with 24/7 news cycles, we’re so hyperaware of every awful thing that happens around the globe. On one hand, being informed is a powerful thing! On the other hand, it’s very easy to lose perspective, and to give into irrational fear when traveling.
But really, all you need to do is take a few precautions. You probably already know to share your travel plans with family or friends, and to have a way to communicate with people back home. But you can also participate in STEP. All you have to do is visit the official website, create an account, and fill out an online form with as much information as you have about your trip. You’ll also need to provide identifying information, including your passport number.
When I was reading more about STEP online, I realized some people are very concerned with handing over their detailed trip itinerary to the government, and argue it’s unnecessary because scanning your passport at a border already tells the government where you are, anyway. That argument doesn’t hold water, in my opinion. Countries are big! U.S. officials might know you’re in, say, Italy—but pinpointing where exactly you may be during a disaster or emergency is not as simple, and those are the situations where every minute counts.
Then again, some people don’t want local embassies to know they’re in town, for whatever reason. If that’s you, then, sure; you probably won’t want to sign up for the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program.
As for myself, I’m already signed up! I sure hope I never need any help while traveling—but if I ever do, it’s nice to know I have options.