The U.S. government suggests that U.S. citizens traveling or residing abroad register with consulates in the host countries. Many other countries advise the same. Here's what the U.S. State Department says on the subject:
"The travel and contact information you enter into our Smart Traveler Enrollment Program will make it easier for consular officers in U.S. embassies and consulates around the world to contact you and your loved ones during an emergency."
Chinese hotels must notify local police when foreigners check in, give passport and travel details, and warn of anything suspicious. If foreigners stay with a Chinese friend, in the friend's home, for example, the friend also has to report the foreign presence to the police.
Thailand has issued thousands of retirement visas to foreigners, mostly Europeans. These retirees can stay in Thailand indefinitely. Yet every three months every one of these retirees has to report to the Thai Immigration office, present a passport, and confirm a resident address.
In Malaysia foreigners have to register cell phones with the government.
Why all the fuss with reporting and registration? Why do consulates and countries, police and immigration officials want to know where we are?
The truth? They want to make it that much easier to arrest us should the need arise.
Like China and many other countries, Thailand also requires hotels to report foreigners who take up residence. Recently the Thai police learned that many guest houses and hotels paid little attention to the reporting rule. The police started a successful campaign to whip local innkeepers into shape. Here's what the lead official said about the program's success:
"If a foreigner commits a crime, we can [now] track them down to the last place they stayed, or if a foreigner is reported missing, hotel records can help find them."
Note the official referred to two outcomes. First, the reporting program makes it easier for the police to make arrests. Second, the reporting program enables governments to work faster in case of emergency.
I've been thinking about reporting rules lately because of Edward Snowden, the NSA contractor who blew the whistle on a top-secret U.S. government surveillance program. As of this writing, Snowden remains on the run. The U.S government desperately wants to arrest Snowden but doesn't know for sure where he is. Other countries, for reasons of their own, are refusing to help the United States locate the guy. So much uncertainty has angered U.S. law enforcement officials. The job of arresting people becomes much easier when the guys trying to make the arrests know exactly where the people they're trying to arrest are located.
So, reporting rules clearly benefit governments. Officials can more easily arrest people, more easily deal with emergencies. But whether reporting rules benefit travelers and expat retirees seems less clear. Yes, certainly, emergencies happen, but is it the U.S. consulate you want to rely on for help in that case?
Perhaps, as expat retirees and travelers, we need to go beyond reporting rules and concern ourselves more broadly with what information we want available in an emergency and who should have it. You know that you're going to die, probably get sick, and maybe have an accident. If you live overseas, those things will happen to you overseas.
So make sure someone you trust knows what to do for you in case of emergency and has the information to do it, in the event. Think passports, copies of passports, bank account information, medical records, and cash, for starters, all in a place where trusted people can get to them.
We all hate to think about emergencies and, certainly, about dying. And we typically figure that, in today's information-based world, all the data anyone needs about us is out there. But I know I'm not always careful to be sure that all the right information is in the right place and available for the right hands at all times.
You could choose to register with your local consulate wherever you are overseas and let them take responsibility for you in case of emergency. Or you might wish to make your own emergency plan. Not because you're hiding from the U.S. consulate or anyone else. Just because you're taking responsibility for yourself.