DAVID G. SIMPSON

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GUIDE TO INTERNATIONAL TRAVEL

In 2006 I made my first trip outside North America. I found the whole process a bit confusing, and was unable to find a good source of information to guide me through the details of how to travel abroad. Once I had successfully made a couple of trips, I decided to write this brief guide to help other Americans traveling overseas.

Having made three trips overseas does not make me an expert traveler, but it does give me the perspective of a beginner, so I'm hoping that this guide may address some issues that more experienced travelers might take for granted. My goal in this guide to to help you to know what's involved in traveling overseas, how to leave a good impression, and how to better enjoy your trip.

I would appreciate hearing from more experienced travelers about any comments, suggestions, or corrections you may have.

Passports and Visas

A passport is a form of identification, and identifies you as a United States citizen. You will always need a passport anytime you leave the United States, and you will need it to return. Don't lose it! I keep mine on my person at all times while overseas, and I keep photocopies in my luggage and with someone back in the U.S. in case I do lose it. Information on how to get a passport is available through the U.S. State Department.

A visa is written permission to visit another country. There are several types of visas, depending on the purpose of your visit: tourist visa, business visa, student visa, etc. Some countries will require you to have a visa before allowing you into their country, while other countries do not require a visa. Visa requirements depend on which country you're visiting and which country you're coming from, and the requirements can change with time. Check the latest State Department Consular Information Sheet for the country you intend to visit to find the current entry requirements, and whether or not you will need a visa. (So far I haven't needed one of these for the countries I've visited, so I can't be of much further help here.)

Before You Leave

  • General. A good source of general information is the U.S. State Department travel site.
  • Passport. Get a passport from the U.S. State Department. Your passport will be valid for 10 years, after which you will need to get it renewed. You will need two "passport photos", which you can have made at many film-processing stores. Warning: it may take several months to get your passport, so apply well in advance of your trip.
  • Visa. Arrange to get a visa, if the country you're visiting requires it.
  • Maps. Get maps and travel guides for the country you intend to visit so you can find your way around when you're there.
  • Phrase book. Get a phrase book for the local language. (More on language below.)
  • GPS. (Optional.) I've found that an inexpensive GPS receiver can be useful: I enter the latitude and longitude of key locations (e.g. the hotel) before my trip, so I can find my way there when I arrive. (It's also useful if I get lost after I'm there). A GPS receiver is also useful for finding my car in the airport parking lot when I get back.
  • Register your trip with U.S. State Department. This is optional, but probably a good idea. In case there's some sort of emergency (that might require an evacuation, for example), the U.S. embassy or consulate will know where to reach you.
  • Travel advisories. Check for any travel advisories in the U.S. State Department's Consular Information Sheets. These will have information on what to be aware of when traveling to your destination: whether there is a crime problem, the quality of available health care, whether the water is safe to drink, whether you should get shots before going, etc.
  • Electrical appliances. In general, your electrical appliances won't work overseas without an adapter. There are two problems:
    1. The electrical outlets overseas generally take prongs of a different shape than we use in the U.S.
    2. The electrical voltage may be different overseas. U.S. electrical outlets are at 120 volts, but some countries use around 220 volts.
    To deal with this, you will need to buy an electrical adapter. One part of the adapter allows you to plug a U.S.-type plug into a foreign outlet. The other part steps down the voltage from 220 V to 120 V. You only need to use this second part if the country you're visiting uses the higher voltage -- but be sure to use it if you need it. Plugging your 120 V appliance into a 220 V outlet without stepping down the voltage may destroy your appliance.
    Consult the World Electric Standards to see the voltage and type of plug used in the country you'll be visiting.
  • Currency. Each country has its own currency, so you won't be able to spend U.S. dollars overseas. You can convert U.S. dollars to the currency of your destination at a currency exchange booth at the airport before you leave. Be sure to record the currency exchange rate before you leave; you'll need it when coming back. The Web site XE.com has comprehensive tables of currency exchange rates. (Note that these change with time, even fluctuating during the day). I've found it useful to keep very approximate currency exchange rates in mind while shopping. (For example, a euro is about a dollar, and a yen is about a penny.)
    Also, note that you can get more foreign currency by using ATM machines while in your destination country, and you can also often buy things with your credit card.
  • Time zones. Find out the time difference for the country you'll be visiting; you can find the local time in major world cities at the World Time Zones Web site. I re-set my watch to the destination time zone while on the airplane.
  • Valuables. I don't take anything overseas that I don't want to lose. I leave my good watch at home, and wear an inexpensive watch instead.
  • Wallet. I leave my wallet at home so I won't have my pocket picked. Instead, I have a small pouch with an attached cord, and put my credit cards, driver's license, and most of my currency in that. The pouch is meant to be worn around the neck, but instead I tie the cord to a belt loop on my trousers and keep the pouch in my pocket. That way I can't lose my money and credit cards, and can't have my pocket picked (unless someone cuts the cord with a knife).
  • Keys. I leave all my keys at home, except for my house key and car key. That way they can't get lost, and I don't need to be carrying around other keys anyway.
  • Write down the address of the local embassy or consulate, in case of an emergency.
  • Carefully plan out exactly how you will get from the airport to the hotel and back before you leave.
  • Leave a copy of your itinerary with someone, so you can be contacted in case of an emergency.
  • Write out your name, address, contact information, overseas hotel, and itinerary, put it all on a piece of paper, and put it on top of everything in your checked luggage. That way, if your luggage gets lost and the tag is missing or damaged, the airline can still get your luggage to you.
  • Plan to be at the airport four hours before your flight leaves. That will allow time for the shuttle bus, checking your bags, waiting in lines, getting through security, etc. You're going to have hours and hours of waiting at the airport, and there's just no avoiding it. Bring something to read while you're waiting.

What to Take With You

  • Passport (and visa, if needed).
  • Electrical adapter.
  • Notebook, pencil, and calculator (for recording purchases and converting to U.S. dollars).
  • Maps and directions between hotel, airport, and your destination.
  • Any guide books you wish to take.
  • Phrase book for the local language.

When You Arrive at Your Destination

  • You will pass through security and customs when you arrive (see "Duty and Customs" below).

During Your Trip

  • In a notebook, write down everything you buy, and how much it cost. Save all your receipts.

When You Return

  • You will need to fill out a customs form on the airplane on the way back to the U.S. (see "Duty and Customs" below).
  • When you get off the airplane in the U.S., you will first pass through a secure area where you must show your passport.
  • After showing your passport, you be allowed to go to the baggage claim area at the airport to get your luggage.
  • Get your luggage and carry it to the customs station, where there will be a customs official. Show him your passport and give him your completed customs form. You will then be allowed to officially re-enter the U.S.
  • If you have a connecting flight, you will then put your luggage on a conveyor belt, where it will be taken to your airplane.

Duty and Customs

When entering a country or returning to the U.S., you will, in general, have to pay a tax or "duty" on any goods you are taking from one country to another. This will apply to any goods you take to another country and intend to leave there, or to any goods you bought overseas and are bringing back to the U.S.
  • "Do you have anything to declare?"
    You may be asked this by customs officials when entering a country. Strangely, I've never found any book or Web site that explains what it means, but I think I've figured it out:
    • "Do you have anything to declare?" means "Are you bringing any goods into this country that you bought in another country, and that you intend to leave here?"
    For most people, when entering another country from the US, you will have nothing to declare (unless you're bringing gifts for someone or are bringing goods for sale in the other country). When you return to the US, though, you'll have to "declare" all the goods you bought overseas and are bringing back to the US with you. If you are bringing a lot of goods back with you, you may have to pay a duty, which is a kind of import tax.
  • Duty-free shop. You will find these at the airport. I'm still not entirely sure what these are or how they work. There is a Wikipedia article, however. Maybe a more experienced traveler could provide me with a simple explanation.
  • Customs form. On the airplane on the way back to the U.S., a flight attendant will give you a white and blue customs form to fill out before re-entering the U.S. Here you list everything you bought while overseas; if you've been careful to keep a list of everything you bought, here's when to use it. I summarize merchandise I bought by category ("Books", "Clothing", etc.). You'll be asked for prices in U.S. dollars, so you will need to convert to U.S. dollars using the exchange rate you recorded before your trip. On the most recent customs form I saw (2007), you are allowed to bring back to $800 in merchandise without having to pay a duty. Don't give the customs form to the flight attendant; you will give it to a U.S. customs official at the airport when you get to the U.S.
  • Foreign money. Don't bring back too much foreign currency. A few souvenier notes and coins are OK, but if you try to bring back more than a few thousand dollars without permission, you may be suspected of being involved in some illegal activity.
  • Food. Avoid bringing back food. There are restrictions on bringing food into the U.S., so you can save yourself some trouble if you don't bring any back. It's actually probably OK as long as it's not meat or produce, but expect to be questioned about it.

Language

  • I strongly recommend learning at least a little of the language of the country you'll be visiting. There are several reasons for this:
    • Don't assume that everyone in the world speaks English. Not everybody does, and those who do often speak it only at a low level. During my first trip to Italy, for example, I found that nobody at my hotel spoke any English at all.
    • It's a little arrogant to go overseas and expect people there to speak your language.
    • It's only polite to make an effort to learn at least a little of the local language. Your efforts will be greatly appreciated, especially if you've made an effort to learn a lesser-known language (Icelandic, for example).
    • Your trip will be much more interesting if you can communicate with people in their own language.
  • Even if you don't have years to devote to becoming fluent, you should at least learn a few words and phrases in the local language. Try to mimic an authentic accent of a native speaker as closely as possible. I've found that the Pimsleur language courses are quite useful for acquiring a good accent. I like to make every effort use only the local language when traveling.
  • Useful phrases. The more of the language you can learn the better, but I've found that these phrases will get you through most situtations (roughly in order of usefulness):
    1. Thank you.
    2. Thank you very much.
    3. Please.
    4. Yes.
    5. No.
    6. No, thank you.
    7. Good morning.
    8. Good day.
    9. Good evening.
    10. Good-bye.
    11. Pardon me / excuse me / I'm sorry.
    12. That's fine / it's OK.
    13. I understand.
    14. I don't understand.
    15. You're welcome.
    16. Where is...?
    17. Do you speak English?
    18. I only speak a little... [language].
    19. How do you do? I'm pleased to meet you.
    20. My name is...
    21. I have a reservation.
    22. Water. (I've bought many bottles of water overseas during hot weather.)
    23. Numbers. (Useful for hotel room number, flight number, prices, etc.)
  • Don't shout. If you do try speaking English to someone and they don't understand, then speaking English loudly won't help. Instead try using gestures, writing, using simpler words, speaking more slowly, or (best of all), using the local language, maybe with the help of a phrase book.
  • Esperanto. Esperanto is an international language that was invented in 1887 by Dr. L.L. Zamenhof. There are currently around 2 million speakers of Esperanto around the world. Learning it is an excellent introduction to foreign languages, and is also a great way to see the world. The World Esperanto Association has their annual meeting in a different country each year; if you learn the language and go to their annual meeting (or kongreso), you will have a chance to meet people from all around the world, attend lectures about the local culture, enjoy plays and concerts, and go on sightseeing tours guided by Esperanto-speaking tour guides. Esperanto is much easier to learn than any other language, and once you learn it, you can use it in whichever country is sponsoring the kongreso. For more information, visit the Esperanto League for North America, and my Esperanto Web site.

Transportation

  • Public transportation. So far I've relied on walking and public transportation to get around overseas. Learn as much as you can about how this works before going: where the stations are, where and how to get tickets, etc.
  • Driving. I've never tried driving overseas, but I understand that you need something called an "international driver's license". Maybe a more experienced traveler can provide some more information here. Note that people drive on the left-hand side of the road in some countries, and in those countries people may tend to walk on the left-hand side of the sidewalk.

Manners

  • Be polite, courteous, and friendly at all times. You want to leave a good impression.
  • Be patient. Not everyone in the world lives at the same fast pace we Americans do.
  • Avoid complaining. Better to tolerate a little inconvenience than to leave a lasting impression that all Americans are rude.
  • Speak softly. Americans tend to talk a bit loudly by international standards, and this can be seen as bragging in some cultures.
  • Learn at least a few words of the local language.
  • Avoid discussing politics.
  • Don't criticize the country you're visiting. People are proud of their own countries, just as we are proud of ours.
  • Avoid boasting about the United States, or making comparisons with the United States. (Such as: "This is so much better back in the U.S.")
  • Avoid criticizing the United States. In some countries, you will be thought of as being disloyal, and this will not go over well.
  • Feel free to offer words of praise about the things you like about the country you're visiting: beautiful scenery, interesting history, friendly people, etc.
  • Dress conservatively. Americans tend to dress a bit informally by international standards.
  • Remember that you are, in a sense, representing your country. Try to leave a good impression of Americans.

Miscellaneous

  • Tipping. Tipping customs vary from country to country. Consult a travel guide for the country you're visiting to find out whether it's appropriate to leave tips at your hotel, in restaurants, etc.
  • Hotel keys. This took me by surprise in a small hotel in Italy: my room key was attached to a large, heavy piece of metal, and I learned that I was expected to leave my hotel key at the front desk when leaving for the day, and was to pick it up again when returning. Apparently they needed the key to get into the room to clean. Whether this will be the case where you're staying will depend on the hotel. Since nobody spoke English at that hotel, it was useful to learn how to say in Italian:
    • "Here is the key to my room."
    • "I would like the key to my room, please."
    • "Room 16."
  • Food. This may be a little paranoid, but I take a box of granola bars with me, in case I can't figure out how to order food in the local language. (This may also be useful if you find the local food to be unpalatable.)
  • Observe the natives, and do as they do. (For example, in Japan I learned to bow and to walk on the left side of the sidewalk.)


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Page last updated: December 8, 2014.