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While careful planning and common sense are two of the best ways to stay safe when traveling, security situations can change very rapidly in foreign countries — and if you’re not carefully following the news, you might miss an important update.
That’s why the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs has created the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) to help keep you up-to-date on relevant security updates from the nearest US consulate, wherever in the world you happen to be. Today we’ll take a look at who should register for STEP and what the sign-up process looks like.
Who Should Register for STEP?
The primary purpose of STEP is to keep American citizens safe. While you probably don’t need to register if you’re taking a weekend trip to Canada, here are a few reasons to consider signing up:
- You’re traveling to an area that’s politically unstable or prone to violence.
- You’re taking an extended trip (several weeks or months long) where you may have limited internet access.
- You’re traveling for a major event, summit or conference (like the World Cup) that might become the target of protests or attacks.
- You’re a minority traveling to an area where you might be targeted as an outsider.
- You’d like an additional safety resource during your trip, no matter the destination.
Some group trips or programs may even require participants to enroll. When I studied abroad in Paris during college, we weren’t allowed to so much as begin our housing applications until we’d submitted proof of enrollment in STEP. This, unfortunately, proved to be a very useful tool, as the devastating 2015 Paris attacks took place during our program. Before the official number of casualties had been announced, my university was able to work with the US embassy and confirm in mere hours that every member of our program was safe.
In the event of a rapidly deteriorating situation, such as a coup or natural disaster, STEP can connect you with evacuation efforts, or provide important safety information and help you take care of yourself.
How to Register
The registration process is broken down into two steps. First, you’ll have to create an account and fill in your personal information (date of birth; passport info), contact information and provide emergency contacts. This process is incredibly straightforward and can be completed in a matter of minutes.
Once your account is set up, you’ll need to log in and register each specific trip or residence abroad. You repeat this process for each new trip if you’d like to receive STEP alerts.
You’ll then be prompted to fill in information about your upcoming trip and select the nearest US consulate to where you’ll be staying. Note that “destination” refers to the country, not specific city, state or territory, and the available options will auto fill as you type.
You’ll then fill in the dates of your trip, the reason you’re traveling and how you can be reached while abroad. The entire process takes less than 60 seconds, after which you’ll be brought to a page of specific information for your country.
When I registered for my move to China, one thing jumped out at me: a link to follow the State Department on WeChat (the prominent Chinese messaging app similar to WhatsApp). It’s great to see the State Department working to make communication seamless and finding a way to reach me on the platform I’m already using, increasing the chance that I’ll see important alerts.
I also found it interesting that the information presented was about China as a whole: not Shanghai, where I’m currently living (though it’s certainly possible that there are no specific alerts for the Shanghai area at the moment). Another thing that gave me pause? This bulletin was last updated in January 2018. The US-China relationship is dynamic, to say the least, and a lot has happened this year. While I don’t think the information presented is necessarily out of date, just because you enroll in STEP does not mean you should close your eyes and stop paying attention to developments around you.
The Bottom Line
STEP is a lot like travel insurance: If all goes well, you’ll never need to use it and you might even forget you have it. But unfortunately, bad things do still happen all the time, all over the world. When things go wrong and your local US embassy or consulate kicks into high gear to make sure all Americans in their jurisdiction are safe and accounted for, STEP notifications can be incredibly important. Since the entire sign-up process takes less than five minutes, you should really just sit down and do it.
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