In the wake of the tragic terrorist attacks in Paris, thousands of family members and friends wondered about the status of relatives and colleagues thought to be in Paris. At the same time, many of those in the City of Light wondered what their next steps should be.
The answer to both staying safe and letting friends and loved ones know you are all right goes back to the days of traveling abroad by ship – American citizens would register at a U.S. embassy or consulate upon arrival.
“We encourage all U.S. citizens travelling or residing overseas to notify the closest U.S. Embassy or Consulate of their contact information so that, in an emergency, we can contact them to provide important safety and security information, or support during a crisis,” the State Department tells travelers on its website.
Today, this can be done using an app, without the necessity of an in-person visit.
Indeed, even some of the most frequent of travelers are unaware of the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, or STEP, offered by the U.S. government. The program is a free service that allows U.S. citizens and residents traveling abroad to register a trip with the closest U.S. embassy or consulate from either a browser or a smartphone.
I’ve been a registered user of the app almost since its introduction in 2011, although I don’t always remember to register my trips (and I’ve been out of the country almost a dozen times so far this year… ooops!).
The STEP app promises to “update you with important safety and security announcements” for the country or city you are visiting. Additionally, the app makes it possible for an embassy or consulate to contact you in the event of an emergency provided you’ve registered with details of your trip.
The STEP service also provides travel alerts and warnings (including some weather warnings) as they are issued, and registering makes it easier for families to contact someone abroad in an emergency.
When I registered my upcoming trip, I was presented with a general “Worldwide Caution” warning issued July 29, 2015, but nothing specific for my destination, which was London. Interestingly enough, when I registered a trip that would take place four days after the terrorist attacks in Paris, there were no particular warnings provided at that time.
Using STEP is like having insurance. It’s something you hope you’ll never really have to use, but it’s good knowing it will be there in an emergency. You can register for the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program on the web or with the app.