Last week, the US told citizens abroad that if they wanted to return to the US, they should make plans to do it now. As someone who is constantly watching the US State Department feed about flights for various countries, I have seen countries slowly but surely lose options on flights back to the US. This means that if you want to go back, if you do not do it now, you should prepare to shelter in place.
Plan Return Flights to America or Shelter in Place
Some have wondered why people should try to get back to America while America is seeing the number of virus cases and deaths climbing. There are a few good reasons why an American should try to get back now.
- Visa expiration
- Passport expiration
- Flight options disappearing
- Healthcare issues
- Financial expenses
In places like the Schengen Area, Americans can only stay for 90 days before having to leave for 90 days. If flight options are all gone, you could be at risk of overstaying the visa allowance and that will cause you to face a hefty fine when you do leave.
Fortunately, there are some options where you could get a visa extension, depending on the country. But, you need to at least check with the local police to see what, if any, options there are for visa extensions. Remember – visas and waivers are up to you! Do not just assume that due to the virus crisis, you will not have to worry about it!
The US State Department has said that passport services are being cut down on during this crisis. This includes at US Embassies. Here is what I received from the US State Department regarding getting passports abroad (which normally happens within a week and does not even cost extra for the fast processing):
Effective April 2, the Department of States ceased printing and shipping full validity passports (five year passports for minors under 16, 10 year passports for those aged 16 and older) and Consular Reports of Birth Abroad to Embassies overseas because of public health measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. If you previously applied for a passport or Consular Report of Birth Abroad, you should expect significant delays in receiving your document. Please consider waiting to apply until we resume normal operations.
If you choose to send your passport renewal application by mail, be advised that we do not know when your passport will be printed in the United States and sent to the Embassy for further courier delivery to you. If you need your current passport back in the interim, we can return it to you via courier at your expense (5 Euros in Athens, 8 Euros outside of Athens). If you choose to apply for a Consular Report of Birth Abroad for your child, please follow the instructions on our the website. We will review the documents, and if your application is complete, place it in the queue for appointment scheduling when we re-open.
In an emergency and with proof of travel within 72 hours, the Embassy may be able to print an emergency passport for an adult or a minor valid for up to a year. Please email to explain your emergency; do not come to the Embassy without prior approval as you may not be admitted.
Remember that your passport should have 6 months before expiring if you plan on traveling! While not every country requires this and while you can always enter the US with your passport no matter how close to expiration it is, if you are boarding a plane that will transit another country, that country may not allow you to board if you are within the 6 months.
IF your passport is approaching less than 6 months of validity, it may be time to go back to the US since you may not get it back in time. It will depend on the Embassy as to whether your reason for getting an emergency passport does count as an emergency!
Flight Options Dwindling
#Panama: We’ve arranged a Spirit Airlines humanitarian flight for U.S. citizens/qualified travelers to enter the US on Apr. 11. There are no other planned flights. We are in the process of notifying individuals who have already expressed interest. https://t.co/ZS2lh6rwdV pic.twitter.com/KwTbT87osa
— Travel – State Dept (@TravelGov) April 7, 2020
Every day, I am seeing more countries on the US State Department Twitter feed as showing last flights out or that they do not know when another flight may be departing. With so many international airlines halting flights, it may be sometime before you are able to take a flight to the return to the US.
#Honduras: United Airlines will offer a flight on Apr. 13, which could be one of the last commercial options. You should contact United Airlines directly to take advantage of this flight. Please let us know if you are traveling. https://t.co/U34sHZGNpr pic.twitter.com/NeIh9DUfSH
— Travel – State Dept (@TravelGov) April 7, 2020
If your visa is set to expire, you may not have a flight option that would even let you get out of the country/area you are in. The US State Department is letting people in various countries know what the commercial flight options are but those options are fast becoming limited.
Also, while the State Department is arranging some charter flights out, those are not free for US citizens! I recently saw one such flight leaving Iraq that was going to cost each person $3,500 for the one way trip!
#Iraq: One commercial flight organized by the US Embassy departed Baghdad today. There are no special flights expected in the future. US citizens still located in Iraq should be prepared to shelter in place until commercial flights resume. https://t.co/x2iwG0kh27 pic.twitter.com/hVcBwFwOzp
— Travel – State Dept (@TravelGov) April 8, 2020
So, it may be smarter to take care of a flight while many commercial options exist.
Healthcare and Financial Issues
Again, the US may not be the best place for people to head to right now but there are some countries that may be even more strained with healthcare options. In such cases, it is either going to be very expensive (since some private clinics and even public hospitals will want the money up front as opposed to charging your insurance company directly) or not possible at all.
We saw the issue with people in Peru. The US has repatriated over 6,000 Americans in the last couple of weeks. Many of those Americans had been in travel limbo having to quarantine at hotels while running out of money. As of today, the US says that “We are seeking more flights from Iquitos and Arequipa. We do not expect ongoing regular flights and urge US citizens to utilize forthcoming options.”
If you have to shelter in place in the country you are visiting, you may find it to be incredibly expensive. Some countries, during previous crisis, had stopped accepting credit cards due to fear of non-payment or the need for cash. Do your homework to make sure you have enough to carry you over until regular flight options resume.
One More Thing to Consider!
Several countries have closed all hotels. The dates for reopening keep getting pushed back. If you are planning on staying in place in a hotel, that may not work for long. So, you will either need to rent an apartment or home, get an Airbnb that you can keep long-term, or find a friend that will let you move in! 🙂
What if You Decide to Stay Abroad?
Read this post for more information but, at the very least, you should sign-up for the STEP service with the State Department to be informed of all updates relevant for US citizens in the country you are in.
I do not think people need to panic but I do think they need to be smart. I see stories every day of people that are all excited about being quarantined in exotic or beautiful areas only to be followed up a couple of days later with the same people all worried because they are about to get locked on to the island or place they are at.
If you are in a country with a low number of affected people and you are able to stay in a place that is comfortable enough during quarantine/lockdown situations, you may just want to stick it out. But, definitely count the cost to see what is the best choice for you. While the US government is doing a lot right now to bring Americans home (that want to return home), it may become more difficult.