What My Parents, Extended Family and Friends Need to Know about the Foreign Affairs Lifestyle
Congratulations on your new assignment and welcome to the foreign affairs community! As you plan for your departure, there are many preparations you must make. This is a very exciting time for you but it is not without its stresses. The foreign affairs lifestyle is unique and one that many outsiders have trouble grasping. While your immediate family (spouse / partner / children) may be accompanying you to post, your parents, other relatives, and friends will no doubt barrage you with questions about where you're going and why, what your life at post will be like, and when they will see and hear from you again.
Below is a quick checklist of those items you might want to address with your extended family and friends. The major concerns will most likely be security, distance, and communication. No one knows your family and friends better than you do. Now is the time to provide a basic understanding of your new career and lifestyle, to set expectations, and to provide a contingency plan for your loved ones at home.
The bidding and assignments process can be complicated for first time officers and, more understandably, a total mystery to those outside the foreign affairs community.
- Explain the bidding and assignment process to your parents and extended family.
- Family and friends might be interested in how you prioritized your bid list and why. For instance, did you pick a post based on family, children's schooling, housing accommodations, health concerns, or job availability for your spouse/partner?
- Discuss why you might have ranked one specific post higher than another.
- If your spouse/partner is foreign born, often their parents will want to know the likelihood of your bring posted to that home country.
- Discuss living overseas and the fact that you will be moving every two to three years.
- Describe how long your current tour is and when you expect to be moving again.
- Explain your job and how you will spend your days.
Housing varies from post to post in both location and style. In some cities, apartment living is the norm. In other cities, single-family housing is more common. And in many locations, families with children may be placed in housing closer to the school. Parents, in particular, are interested in your accommodations and/or living situation. They often want to know that you are safe.
- Once you settle in to your new digs, take time to describe your housing situation.
- If allowed by post, send some pictures along to your immediate family members. Please check with your RSO (Regional Security Officer) upon arrival at post.
- Make sure your family knows how to send mail to you, without using your street address.
- Mention any security features, for instance, gated community, guard at gate, high walls and razor wire (common in many countries), cul-de-sac, apartment doorman, etc.
My Safety and the Safety of Those Accompanying Me
Your safety is often the biggest concern for those left behind in the United States. When Americans watch the news, they envision you in the midst of the demonstration, if one is happening in your city! The safety and security of all Department of State employees is vital to the morale of the mission and thus takes priority. Each post has its own dangers and upon arrival at post, you will be briefed by the Regional Security Officer (RSO).
- Talk to your RSO about post-specific security issues, then communicate what's appropriate to your family. If you feel certain information might worry a loved one, be selective. Be honest, but be sensitive.
- Assure your relatives and friends that you have been briefed and are following all safety and security precautions.
- Family members might see crisis events on TV or in the news about your country of assignment. It is a good idea to email them immediately to let them know you are OK. Let your family know the geography of where you are in relation to an incident/events.
Medical services are provided for U.S. employees and their families at post. Some countries and regions require different vaccines before departure which should also be kept in mind for potential visitors. Disease and health dangers vary from post to post. Family and friends should be aware that embassies and consulates are staffed with Health Unit professionals, with the support of the Office of Medical Services, Department of State, in the United States.
- Explain access to medical care and what happens if you or a family member falls ill.
- Family and friends might also want to know if the water safe to drink, if there are food-borne illnesses, and which animals/insects pose a threat.
- These aspects come into focus, especially if family and friends come to visit (see later section).
- If you are medically evacuated from post, let your family know what is happening.
It's very important to agree on expectations regarding communication with your parents, other relatives, and friends once you arrive at post. Think about how you wish to stay in touch with your friends and family back home.
- Be sure that everyone understands the time differences and your schedule. Set up a communication strategy that works for you.
- Decide if you will communicate via telephone the same time each week, if you'll be video chatting via Skype when available, or relying on social media (Facebook) or e-mail or snail mail.
- Be sure to understand how long mail will take to get to you. If there is a DPO at your post you will receive your mail in as few as three days; however, if you only have Pouch it may take as long as six weeks for mail to arrive.
- Teach your family and friends how to label packages/letters they are sending you.
- If you and/or your loved ones are not currently on Facebook, consider setting up an account! You can communicate via instant message, share photos and post statuses about what's going on in your life. Be sure to keep in mind security concerns – if you need clarification on what you can and can't post, get in touch with your RSO.
- Be clear with family members about whether your emails to them can be shared with an extended network. Often we put information in our communications with family that we might not want shared/forwarded to others.
Visits from Family and Friends
Having your parents, extended family, and friends visit you at post can be a great and exciting way to introduce them to the foreign affairs lifestyle, not to mention the joy of exploration and tourism.
- Alert family and friends to apply for (or check expiration dates on) passports and visas in a timely manner and have them research any accompanying fees (no surprises!).
- Be aware of travel advisories put in place by the United States government (visit www.travel.state.gov).
- Suggest to family and friends what they should wear and bring (sun glasses, hats, good walking shoes, etc.)
- Make sure family and friends have travel insurance, health insurance, and SOS (evacuation) insurance. Check OBC's handout for companies offering these services.
- A good supply of prescription medicines and/or other medications should be brought.
- Other suggestions for travelers are on www.travel.state.gov. Visitors can register as a tourist traveling in a given country, which alerts the embassy/consulate of their whereabouts.
R&R, Home Leave, and Vacations
When planning to visit home, it is always best to prepare ahead of time. You may be relying on the kindness of family and friends to house you (and your family) for the duration of a stay in the United States. Or, you may be renting a house and having family and friends visit you there.
- You may not have a great deal of control over when you are able to take leave, but assure family you will keep them informed of your plans. Ask family members if certain dates will work for them.
- Give plenty of notice and confirm your arrival plans for a return home.
- Check your driver's license to assure it is not expired (for rental of a car).
- Many people will want to see you. Plan accordingly.
- Try to plan with birthday, reunions, and other celebrations in mind.
- Explore whether R&R, Leave and Vacations can be spent in a foreign country.
- While at home, schedule appointments to take care of medical, rental, documentation, etc., paperwork. Family might be able to assist in scheduling some of these visits for you.
Children / Teens
The foreign affairs lifestyle doesn't just involve you and your work; it also involves your children. Your extended family will miss out on your children's birthdays, holidays together, and other extended family oriented activities.
- Many foreign affairs families maintain a Facebook or password-restricted blog and/or routinely send photos home to loved ones.
- Encourage family to send birthday cards and holiday gifts to your children so there is a connection to home. Be sure to account for shipment time.
- Have your children stay in touch with their grandparents through letters, phone calls, Skype, etc.
- Talk about the school environment and what your children are doing / involved in. Sports teams, music lessons, musical groups, and extracurricular clubs are an integral part of embassy/consulate life.
- If you have friends/extended family who send their children to visit you, talk about what plans you may have in store for them during the visit and safety and security BEFORE they arrive. If teens (cousins), lay down ground rules for the visit with the local environment in mind. See if your post of assignment requires an authorized letter for either you or the minor at any point in the visit (entering country, leaving the country, travel itinerary, etc.).
Each post has security measures for emergency situations ranging from fires to natural disasters to political instability. Upon arrival at post, the Regional Security Officer (RSO) briefs employees and their family members on emergency preparedness, precautions, and procedures. Parents and extended family will not be contacted if an emergency occurs at post unless, of course, they are an emergency contact listed by the employee. The Department of State Operations Center is open 24 hours a day and will be able to answer any questions your loved ones might have or figure out how to contact you overseas if a family member in the United States is looking for you.
- Make sure you are registered with the Employee Services Center with an emergency contact listed.
- Make sure your extended family knows how to reach you overseas in the case of an emergency.
- Provide your extended family with the contact information for the Department of State Operations Center — (202) 647-1512 — for emergency notification. See OBC's handout: Emergency Notification Procedures (which includes procedures for non-State agencies) and/or pick up Emergency Contact cards at the OBC.
- If your in laws are from a country outside the U.S., provide them with a contact at your post of assignment. Keep language abilities in mind.
Realities of Foreign Service Life
Overseas Crisis Readiness
Department of State website
Travel advisories, travel information, passports, visas
Travelers Required Immunizations
Travelers Health Safety and Education
Department of State Telephone Directory (PDF)
Driver License Renewals