Tips & Tricks: Bring an extra lock to your hotel

Each week at The Prepared Expat I share a tip or trick to help you survive and thrive as an expat.

Today’s tip: Bring your own lock or door alarm when staying in a hotel.

Just two weeks ago, this scenario happened to me. Imagine if it happened to you: you’re in a hotel that’s nice, but not luxurious. You’ve cleaned up, changed into your pajamas, locked the door (no chain in this hotel), and are starting to fall asleep in bed. You hear a couple of very loud and obviously drunk men come up the stairs and walk towards your room. You hear them stop outside your door and then something juggles the lock and the handle starts to turn. What races through your mind?

On the one hand, they’re obviously drunk and they probably just have the wrong door. On the other hand, what if they somehow got a copy of your key and the door is about to open? There’d be nothing to stop them from getting in. Are you about to be robbed? Assaulted?

Thankfully, though I was alert, sitting up, and had my flashlight and tactical pen ready, I wasn’t worried. Why not? Because I had my own lock on the door; so even if somehow they got the hotel’s lock open, they wouldn’t be able to get into my room unless they broke down the door. As it turned out, they realized their mistake and stumbled down the hall. I went back to sleep quite quickly, feeling secure that there was an extra lock on the door.

Why do you need to bring your own lock?

Doors have locks for which there is a key, but this provides a very low-level kind of security; locks can be picked, keys can be copied, electronic keys can be sniffed and duplicated, hotel staff can be bribed or tricked into making a new key–and in some places of the world, the hotel staff is in cahoots with criminals! That’s why most Western hotels also have a secondary lock (chain or deadbolt) so that, even if the main door lock is compromised, an intruder can’t gain access to the room.

There’s a reason for that–though not widely known, crimes in hotels are common; criminals know that people in a hotel are relatively vulnerable: the hotel guests are by definition in unfamiliar territory, the hotel staff doesn’t know the faces of every person in the hotel, and they have to provide customer service to hotel guests who actually did lose a key. While no one quite knows how many crimes are committed in hotels, some examples are suggestive. For example, in just the New York Metro area in 2017, there were 2,656 hotel crimes, an increase of 45% since 2011. And that’s in the US, in hotels that meet US standards. Including the extra lock.

As an expat in a foreign country, your risk is far higher; you’re far more likely to be targeted, you’re far more likely to face corrupt hotel staff or even police, and you’re far more likely to have a hotel that doesn’t have a deadbolt or chain. The hotel I stayed in last week didn’t have either. That means your safety depends on only one lock between you and an assault, kidnapping, or robbery–safety that can easily be compromised by a copied key, a picked lock, or corrupt/incompetent/tricked staff.

Thus, bring your own extra lock when you’re traveling. They’re small, take up almost no space, but can save your life by denying a criminal access to your room, alerting others to the crime, or even just delaying an intruder’s forced entry so that you have time to defend yourself.

What kind of extra lock should you get?

There’s a variety of kinds of extra locks, each with pros and cons. Here’s a few different examples:

This is a door handle lock by a company called Master Lock; it jams between the floor and the door handle, bracing the door and preventing it from moving. While I like that it adds another point of resistance to the door, it’d be quite bulky to travel with.

Here is a door stop alarm by DMDMAK; it can help to jam the door, but its main feature is that it activates an alarm when pressure increases on it (i.e. the door is pushed against it). I love the alarm, but it won’t do much to stop someone from opening the door.

This next is a lock plate lock by AceMining; one part that fits into the door lock plate and another that connects to it, bracing the door against the lock plate. This is a common design, but a problem with it is that the piece that fits into the lock plate (the silver piece on the left) has to fit the lock plate and lock bolt. I have one of these style locks and it only works in the US; it doesn’t fit other countries’ locks.

Next up is different style of lock plate lock made by Trustella; it also has a piece that fits into the lock plate and another that connects to it, blocking the door. This variation looks like it would work in more styles of locks than the above version, but both are only as strong as the door jamb is (which is usually not very!).

The one in the middle is a simple alarm made by a company called Lewis N Clark; there’s a piece in the door jamb so that if the door opens, an alarm will sound. It’s a great and simple alarm, but it won’t stop an intruder from entering your room, so I wouldn’t use it just by itself. It might be great when paired with another style lock, though.

This last style of lock is the one that I own myself; the picture is from my hotel room the other week. This is called the DoorJammer; it goes under the door and creates pressure between the floor and the door, bracing the door surprisingly well ( I couldn’t budge it).

Now all of these have different advantages and disadvantages, and any of them would be better than nothing. I’ll be happy if you just pick something and go with it, but I do think the DoorJammer is better than other options, especially for an expat. It’s small (unlike the door handle lock), I’ve never found a door where it won’t work (unlike the lock plate style locks), and it will physically stop someone from opening the door (unlike the alarm-only locks). I wish it had an alarm, but you can easily pair it with the Lewis N Clark door alarm.

But regardless of what you get, definitely get some kind of extra lock to bring with you the next time you go to a hotel. It’ll protect you in–or even prevent–a robbery or assault; but if those never happen, you’ll still sleep better at night knowing that its there. I know I do.

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How to: Get a Social Security number while overseas

Each week The Prepared Expat publishes information to help you survive and thrive as an expat; todays’ deep dive “How To” will help you get a US Social Security number while living overseas. Most of The Prepared Expat posts for for expats of any nationality, but since most of my audience are US citizens, some, like today’s, are specific to US citizens.

The most likely reason you’d need to get a Social Security number (SSN) while living overseas is because you had a child (congrats!) and need to get them a number so you can file your taxes with the proper exemptions. The guide below assumes you’re getting a SSN for your child who has never had a number before. It can be a daunting task and, unfortunately, US government information online isn’t clear, but never fear–The Prepared Expat is here to guide you through the process.

Disclaimer: By continuing to read this guide, you agree that The Prepared Expat cannot be held liable if you follow this guide and things don’t go the way you wish. Other disclosures and disclaimers apply.

1. Check where and how you’ll apply

The Social Security Office maintains FBU offices in US embassies around the world; to see if your local embassy has a FBU office, contact your local embassy, or, better and faster, check the FBU’s list of offices yourself. It’s critical to note the address of the office, because the office that serves people in your host country may be located in another country entirely. To pick one row as an example, the FBU for China is in the Philippines, for Colombia it’s in the Dominican Republic, for Comoros it’s in Greece, and for Congo it’s in France.

Depending on what you find, you’ll be in one of three scenarios:

A) Your local embassy has a FBU unit: If so, congrats–you’ve got an easier process than the rest of us expats (please don’t gloat). Use the listed contact information to contact the FBU office and make an appointment (they won’t take walk-ins), then follow their instructions for the SSN application.

B) Your local embassy does not have a FBU unit: This is most countries. Contact your local embassy to see if the embassy accepts SSN applications on behalf of the FBU, then follow their instructions for the SSN application.

C) Your local embassy does not have a FBU unit and they do not accept applications on behalf of the FBU: Contact the FBU office that serves people in your country and follow their instructions for the SSN application. In most cases, you will need to mail your application and documents to the FBU office (see notes below).

2. Prepare your documentation and application

Follow the FBU instructions, but in most cases you’ll need to complete a SS-5 application (https://www.ssa.gov/forms/ss-5fs.pdf) and provide a parent’s original US passport, the child’s original US passport, and the child’s original Consulate Report of Birth Abroad (CRBA). If you’re in situation A or B, above, then bring those documents to your appointment, along with any other information the FBU office indicated. That’s relatively straightforward.

What’s tougher is if you’re in situation C, which usually (always?) requires that you mail those items to the FBU office…which is in a different country. Now, I’d say it’s quite unwise to mail you and your child’s passport books to another country: your host country may require foreigners to have their passports with them at all times, your passport could get lost/stolen in the mail, you may need your passport to live/travel in your host country, or an emergency could arise and you need your passport to travel internationally. So I strongly recommend that you not send in your passport book.

So how can you avoid that and yet still meet the FBU requirements? You have two options:

A) Get certified copies made.

Make an appointment at your nearest US embassy to get a certified copy of your passport, your child’s passport, and your child’s CRBA. It’s a free service that most (all?) US embassies offer, but note that you must bring all three items to get certified copies made; they will not certify only one document (I learned that the hard way!)

Your local embassy may allow someone else to get certified copies made on your behalf. Contact them to see if this is the case; this may be a good option if someone you trust lives near the embassy who is willing to do you a favor.

Note that your local embassy can also make the certified copies when you pick up your child’s passport and CRBA from the local embassy, but only if you pick up the passport in person. If you have the US embassy mail you the new passport for your child, they cannot also send you certified copies. The reason is that the embassy requires the passport to be signed in order to make a certified copy; since your child’s new passport is unsigned, they cannot make certified copies before mailing it to you.

Regardless of how you do it, once you obtain certified copies, then you can send them to the FBU office while keeping your passport books in your possession.

B) Use passport cards instead of passport books.

This option works especially well if, like me, traveling to the nearest US embassy is a hassle and a expensive.

This option only works if you have, or can get, a passport card for one parent and your child; if you’re following The Prepared Expat then you would have seen this tip to do just that. If you have the cards, then you can send your passport card, your child’s passport card, and your child’s CRBA to the FBU office. The FBU accepts passport cards as proof of identity on par with a passport book (though probably email them just to make sure), but you can keep your passport books in your possession.

Of course, the passport cards and CRBA could be lost/stolen, but these can be far more easily and inexpensively replaced than a passport book.

3. Arrange for the mailing of the SSN and the return of your documents

So you have your application and proof of identity. Now you need to make sure that you get back the SSN card and the documents you’re providing. This step is critical for expat and is a lesson I learned the hard way–my son’s first SSN is lost somewhere in the mail because I didn’t know any better. I’m here to make sure that doesn’t happen to you!

Once your application is accepted, your child’s SSN will be printed and then shipped from the US via United States Postal Service (USPS) to the address listed on your SS-5 (box 16). However, since the form requires you to use the Roman alphabet to input the address and since the USPS does not always reliably ship around the world, I recommend that you do not list your foreign mailing address on the form. That’s how my son’s card got lost somewhere and I had to start my application all over again.

Instead, on the SS-5 you should write the US address of a friend/family member who can receive the card on your behalf and tell you the number or send you a scan (make sure to do it securely). Since it’s unlikely you’ll need the actual SSN card in your host country, this is what I think most expats should do.

Thus, if you’re in situation A or B, then you’re all done; the FBU or embassy will return your documents to you at your appointment and then the SSN will be sent to the US address you listed on the SS-5. All set.

But if you’re in situation C and you have to mail in your identity documents with your application–then it’s slightly more complicated. By default, the FBU office will send your original documents to the address on the SS-5. If you used certified copies of your passports, no problem–they’ll shred the copies and ship the SSN to the address on the SS-5. But if you send in original passport cards and CRBA, then those also will get shipped to the US address. That’s probably not what you want, but there’s a way around it.

So here’s the trick: contact the FBU office that serves your country and ask if they will ship the original documents to a different address than where the SSN will be shipped. I can’t promise every FBU office will be as helpful as the one I’ve worked with, but in my experience they were more than willing to help out. What they’ll have you do is provide them with a prepaid shipping label (Fedex, UPS, DHL, etc.) and any other shipping instructions (for example, my country needs the local address and phone number taped to the outside of the package). They’ll then ship originals documents back to you using your prepaid shipping label (and shipping instructions) and then the SSN number will be shipped to the US address on the SS-5.

There you go! You’ve successfully applied for your child’s SSN even while living overseas!

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This information is accurate as of time of writing (January 2023) but, as always with bureaucracies, things change. If there is a mistake or inaccuracy, please let me know so I can update this page.

Tips & Tricks: Check (now) the requirements to renew your passport/visa

Each week The Prepared Expat shares a tip or trick to help you survive and thrive as an expat. This week’s is born out of my experience and something I wish I knew to do sooner.

This week’s tip is short and sweet: Check now the requirements to renew your passport and visa. Do this ASAP, even if your renewal date is far in the future, so you can plan to meet the requirements and not be surprised by them.

Check visa renewal requirements

This may seem basic for experienced expats, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people wait until the last minute to find our their renewal requirements…and then be surprised that they can’t meet them. Sometimes your host country gives an extension, but experienced expats all have a story of at least one person who had to leave because they couldn’t meet the renewal requirements.

In case you didn’t realize it: your host country has no obligation to let you stay and or tell you when the requirements for a visa have changed. That’s wholly on you–so make sure you know in advance what the requirements are; and they change all the time, so just because you met them previously doesn’t mean you can meet them this year!

So check in advance and plan to meet the requirements; every country is different, but 3-6 months before your visa expires is a good time to be checking in to make sure you’re up to date on the current requirements. It’s always easier to plan than to scramble at the last minute.

Check passport renewal requirements, especially kids

Your home country, likewise, may have changed the passport renewal requirements, so check to make sure you can meet them–especially if you have kids on their first passport, as children passport renewals often have extra requirements than adult renewals. Part of the reason for that is because children’s faces change so quickly and thus it’s hard for your home country to identify whether the child is the same or not. After all, my son’s passport photo–taken when he was 2 weeks old–looks nothing like him today. So check what you’l be required to submit as proof that your child applying to renew a passport is the same as the one in the original passport.

For example, some countries require your kids to return to your home country to renew a passport; that’s certainly a hassle, but it’s better to know this 2 years in advance and plan for it than to discover it when your passport is about to expire. Other countries, often those with a UK connection/history, require someone in the country to guarantee the identify of the applicant, but if someone in your home country has never met your child, they may not be able to truthfully make that declaration. Again, plan in advance.

Depending on the embassy, US citizens are usually required to present profile, passport-like photos that show the facial development of the child since their lass passport. I’m sure you have lots of pictures of your kids, but I spent a not-insignificant amount of time finding profile photos over the required time period. But planning in advance to have those photos is as easy as taking a photo on purpose every 6 months, dating it, and saving it so you’re ready.

Thus, today’s tip: check in advance the requirements for renewing your and/or your family’s passport(s) and visa(s). Keep in mind that the embassy in your host country may have different requirements for passport renewal than an embassy in a different country. I set a recurring reminder in my task manager to check visa/passport

For US citizens like me, here’s a quick tip to save you loads of time. Set your phone or task manager to remind you every 6 months to take a “passport-like” photo of your kids. Snap it, date it, and save it in a place you’ll remember (I keep them in a passport renewal folder on my computer). When renewal time comes, your photos will all be assembled in one spot so you’re ready to go.

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Tip & Tricks: Get a passport card

Welcome back! I’m beginning a new series at The Prepared Expat where I’m going to deliver an actionable tip that will help you thrive and survive as an expat. The tips and tricks are born from living most of my adult life as an expat–often from mistakes I’ve made!–with a focus on being practical. So let’s dive in!

Today’s tip is: get a US passport card, not just a US passport book for you and your family1. If you trust me enough to take my advice, don’t read “why”–just learn how to apply. For everyone else, read on:

What a passport card is–and why you should get one

If you’re not familiar with the $30 passport cards, you can read more at the US State Department’s site, but the basic difference is that a passport card can only be used at US land/sea borders from countries bordering the US2 whereas the passport book can be used worldwide and for international air travel.

If the passport card can only be used in a few situations, why would you want to get one? I’m glad you asked–here’s six reasons why you should get one:

1. A passport card is official US government ID

A passport book is official ID too, but an expat often has times when you don’t have a passport book and yet still need to prove your ID. This happened to me just this morning; my passport book is with my host country to renew my visa, but my bank froze my account and needed to see my ID in order to unfreeze it. This could have been disastrous, as it was my main bank, but it was easy to use my passport card to prove my identity.

In addition, if your passport book were lost or stolen, a passport card will make it much easier to enter a US embassy, prove your identity, and replace your passport book than showing up without any ID. It’s a great backup to have for just $30.

2. A passport card doesn’t have an address on it or visas in it

As an expat, maintaining a US address can be cumbersome and often your mailing address won’t match your address on your driver’s license. That’s the case for me right now; my driver’s license is from one state, but my mailing address is in a different state. Banks have given me trouble if I use my driver’s license for ID since its address doesn’t match what they have on file, but a passport card has no address on it to create confusion.

Not only does it prevent confusion, but it’s also an easy way to protect your privacy (or the privacy of the friend/family member whose address is on your license) because you won’t exposes that address. Further, since a passport card doesn’t contain visas or entry/exit stamps, there’s less for a US customs agent to become quizzical or suspicious about when you present it for entry.

3. A passport card is valid for 10 years and is easily renewed

Most expats use their driver’s license as a backup form of ID, and that’s great–but driver’s licenses often have to be renewed every 5 years, are difficult or impossible to renew while overseas and, even when they can be renewed, don’t ship internationally. Passport cards, though, are easily applied for and renewed through US embassies worldwide. Further, a passport card is valid for a long time (10 years for adults, 5 for children under 16) which beats most driver’s licenses. It’s a superior way to get a backup ID.

4. A passport card reduces your risk

Let’s say you need to ship an ID internationally–I’ll give you a scenario for that in a second–you definitely don’t want to ship your passport book. Even if it doesn’t get lost in the mail–entailing the arduous task of replacing it and your visas–it’s quite dangerous (and usually illegal) to be without a passport in a foreign country. But having a passport card means you can keep your passport book with you, yet still mail your ID.

Why would you need to ship off ID? There’s a variety of possible scenarios, but I’ve twice needed to do this when applying for social security numbers for my children born overseas. The Federal Benefits Unit requires that I mail in my and my son’s passport as proof of identity, but I don’t dare do that. I could take a trip to the US embassy and make certified copies of our passports, but that requires a 3+ hour plane trip, possibly an overnight stay, and is just a hassle. Instead, I send in my and my son’s passport cards. I kept my passport books with me and, if they had been lost in the mail, I’d only be out $60. That’s far cheaper than plane tickets to get certified copies made.

Another way a card reduces your risk is because it’s smaller and more concealable than a passport book, plus doesn’t contain any visas in it. So if you ever go on a Caribbean cruise, for example, you’ll need to take a passport and I’d recommend taking your passport card. If its lost or stolen, you won’t have to replace any active visas in your passport book (which can be a pain in the neck); plus a passport card is smaller and more concealable, so it’s less likely to be stolen in the first place! Win-win.

5. A passport card provides safety in a crazy scenarios

For most of us, these scenarios are unrealistic, but they have happened and a $30 card protects you from them. There was a man, who shall rename nameless, who was traveling in an unnamed South America country. The police in this country are notoriously corrupt and targeted him as a foreigner for a bribe. They stopped him on a trumped-up charge and seized his passport book; they said that to get his passport back, he had 24 hours to pay an exorbitant “fine” or else he’d be jailed for 6 months.

Fortunately, he had a passport card; he chartered a boat and was able to flee the South American country and arrive safely at a US land border, where his card gave him entry. The corrupt police thought that seizing his passport was enough leverage to make him pay the bogus “fine”, but his passport card got him out of the sticky situation.

Now, most of us won’t be in a situation like that, but a simple passport card gives you redundancy so that, if you were in a crazy scenario that required chartering a boat to the US, you could keep your family safe. At $30, it’s one of the cheapest insurance policies you can get.

How to get a passport card

Follow the directions on the US State Department website; the process is almost identical to getting a passport book and can be done at the same time if you’re applying for a passport book.

If you’re already overseas, then you typically have three options: 1) mail in an application, if your US embassy supports that, 2) apply at the US embassy, 3) apply at a “town hall” event that US embassies sometimes put on in non-embassy locations.

If you already have to visit a US embassy or apply for a passport already, then it’s a no-brainer to get the passport card at the same time. If not, you’ll have to decide if a passport card is worth an extra trip–but there’s five good reasons above to get a card at some point.

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Footnotes:
1. I’m aware this tip is relevant only for US citizens; most future tips aren’t US-specific, but since I’m a US citizen (and much of my audience is), I’ll share tips even if they’re not universally relevant. But if you’re not a US citizen, check out to see if your government offers an equivalent card; it’s not unusual and likely has many of the same benefits as the US passport card.

2. Specifically: Canada, Mexico, Caribbean countries, & Bermuda. See more at the State Department site.

Converter app designed for expats

I’ve been absent from the public face of The Prepared Expat for a while, but hard at work on the back end and in consulting for individual folks. Reach out to me if you’re interested in my consulting services. I plan to, by year’s end, to be in a more active role here and look forward to that!

In the meantime, I wanted to pass along to you a neat deal on something that probably will interests you. As much as you want to adjust to the local units used in your country of residence–whether that’s miles or kilometers, stones or kilograms, yen or pesos–you will still find yourself needing to make conversions. That’s where Morpho converter comes in, an app made by expats for expats. Use the link above for a special deal the developer gave to me and my followers where you can get the first 90 days of the Pro version absolutely free. Check it out!

How to quarantine safely during the COVID pandemic

All around the world, expats are stranded–some in countries they call home and some in places they were just visiting. Now, many are forced to repatriate–because of a risk assessment, expiring visas, inhospitality, and more. Unfortunately, while you can reduce your risk of infeciton while traveling, that’s not the only risk you face: many are now forced to quarantine in a hotel for 14-35 days, depending where you go. So how can you keep yourself safe while in a hotel quarantine?

It’s a real question. My doctor friend made the disturbing observation that a quarantine in a hotel is more like being in a cruise ship or dorm room than in a medical isolation ward. And just in case you’ve not been tracking what’s happened with COVID-19 on cruise ships and dormitories, its not pretty. Yet a hotel quarantine will be nearly identical: densely packed populations, shared air circulation, communal corridors, centrally-prepared food, and more. The hotel staff is aware of these risks–here’s a few photos taken by expat friends of mine as they entered hotel quarantines:

Now, these are high-risk quarantines and yours may be lower risk–but the reality is that you don’t really know the risk level, so it’s wise to be prepared for any situation before you travel. My family and I will likely be forced to hotel quarantine in a few weeks, so here’s our plan to reduce our risk:

Continue reading “How to quarantine safely during the COVID pandemic”

Our plan to reduce our risk of infection while traveling during the COVID pandemic

Maybe you’re in a major city and decided to head out; maybe you’re overseas and your visa ran out; or maybe you’re traveling to see a loved one in an emergency situation. Whatever it is, you’ve calculated your risk and decided that going is better than staying. Now, how do you do that safely?

My family faced is now facing this exact situation, as we our vis is about to expire, most likely requiring us to return to the US. We face the prospect of 45+ hours traveling, by taxi, bus, train, and three separate airplanes, putting us in shared space with tens of thousands of people, any of whom could have COVID-19. I spent several days learning from experts and doctors so that I can keep my family safe and want to share my plan with you in case you also need to travel and to welcome your feedback of how we can be better prepared!

To put this advice in context, first just observe how airport staff are attired for their own protection:

Now consider that if you’re traveling by plane, you’ll be in the exact same environment as the staff. Their length of exposure risk may be higher depending on crowd density and duration of their shift v. your travel time, but you face the same risk of exposure from the same people that they do. It thus behooves you to travel very carefully to reduce your risk of exposure. Here’s 11 ways we plan to to reduce our risk of exposure to COVID-19 while traveling:

Continue reading “Our plan to reduce our risk of infection while traveling during the COVID pandemic”

COVID: To go or stay? A guide toward assessing risk

As COVID reached my family’s city, the US State Department issued dire warnings to its citizens and we saw dozens and dozens of ex-pats flee our city. We faced the agonizing decision whether to leave our home, family, and friends, or to stay. You may face that same decision–perhaps returning to your home country, perhaps going to a different part of the country. Such a decision is intensely personal and depends on a multitude of factors that are hard to sort through–made even harder by fear or forced pressure of making a decision before exit routes are cut off.

I know that fear and concern that you face and I want to give you a 4-part paradigm that can help you more comprehensively assess your risk–and in so doing, explain part of why we stayed even as many others fled.

Continue reading “COVID: To go or stay? A guide toward assessing risk”

Ten tips from a COVID quarantine survivor

At the end of January, the city where my family and I live overseas had an influx of COVID-19 cases, leading to a two week quarantine-at-home order issued by the local government. We spent 6 weeks in self-quarantine before that order was lifted…and are now still mostly at home from an abundance of caution. For our friends and family around the world who are now just entering shelter-at-homes and quarantines, here’s some lessons we’ve learned–lessons learned from things we did that were helpful, unhelpful, or failed to do. Here’s ten tips to make your self-quarantine a bit better:

Continue reading “Ten tips from a COVID quarantine survivor”