Voting in Elections while Abroad 2012

If you’re an expatriate, chances are you are carefully considering voting in the current election or not. It’s understandable if you chose one way or another. But as a fellow American with no intention of going back any time soon, or possibly ever, I would like you to vote anyway. Not only could the election outcome affect you abroad but it will most certainly affect your family and friends that are located back in the states. This article is not to persuade you into voting or not to but rather a guide to help those who are curious what it’s like voting abroad or actually want to do it.

Now if you are even thinking about voting, you don’t have much time left. I realise this article is a little late as well but I even I didn’t know if I would vote or not in this upcoming election. So if you are reading this, the time to act is now as you only have a few days left.

At this point if you have waited until the last minute to vote, voting by mail is most definitely out of the question unless you plan on overnighting the letter to your local county clerk. Even if you bring it to the embassy or consulate, chances are it could get to your county official late. Diplomatic courier bags have a bad tenancy to take forever in getting places. Fortunately, in today’s modern era of electronics, some states (list below) allow you to vote electronically.]

Here is a list of the states that as of 2012, allow you to vote electronically if you are abroad:

  • Arizona
  • California (fax only)
  • Colorado
  • Delaware
  • District of Columbia
  • Florida
  • Indiana
  • Kansas
  • Massachusetts
  • Mississippi
  • Montana
  • Nevada
  • North Carolina
  • North Dakota
  • Oklahoma
  • South Carolina
  • Utah
  • Washington
  • West Virginia

If your state is NOT listed above, you MUST return your absentee ballot by mail to your local county clerk, you have no other choice. At this point, I highly recommend using an overnight or express service to ensure your ballot gets to where it needs to by November 6, 2012 if you cannot vote electronically. If you do not have an absentee ballot, continue reading as there is a website where you can get it. Never use someone elses blank absentee ballot they downloaded either. Not only might it be for the wrong county you’re registered in (where you last resided in the states) but it will be detected as a duplicate due to a unique barcode causing both ballots to be invalidated.

Whether you plan on voting electronically or by mail (or have no choice one way or another), you should visit the Federal Voting Assistance Program website at www.fvap.gov. This website has all the information you need to making your vote count. I would replicate the information onto this post but unfortunately, every state is different procedural wise and I do not want to give you the incorrect information. It is best to visit the website and follow the prompts. Hence why I gave as general voting advice as possible.

A few things to keep in mind:

  • This website is for U.S. Citizens abroad ONLY. If you are not abroad, contact your local county clerk for voting information.
  • You must be 18 to vote in elections.
  • The address you use should be your last U.S. residence address. For me, mine was Fort Collins, ick.
  • Election Day is November 6, 2012 and ballots must be received by end of business on this day to be counted.
  • A federal absentee ballot is available on the Federal Voting Assistance Program website if you cannot access your state’s absentee ballot for one reason or another.
  • The website again is www.fvap.gov. if you need assistance, contact your closest embassy/consulate by going to www.usembassy.gov.
  • This guide was written for the year 2012, if you are voting in a different election year, find a new article!
  • Spread the word.

Renewing Your American Passport Abroad Painlessly

Renewing your passport abroad is much easier and faster than doing it state side. Back home, it can take up to 30 days to process and receive your new passport while doing it abroad, you can have your new passport in 5 business days. I renewed mine while I was in Sydney and it was painless and cheaper. As an expatriate or backpacker, eventually you will need to renew your passport as they are only good for 10 years at a time and if you received your current passport while you were younger than 16, it is only good for 5 years.

This guide only applies to those who are renewing their passport that still have their old one in their possession. If you lost your passport while abroad, you can expect to jump through some hoops but that is beyond the scope of this article. To start, you will need to visit www.usembassy.gov and select the country you are currently in along with the closest Embassy or Consulate. From here, you will need to find Citizen Services. Under the passport section, click renewing an adult passport and find Form DS-82. There are certain restrictions to using this form so please ensure it is the proper form, it might be the most common but depending on your circumstances, you may need a different one but they are located on the same page.

In addition to the form on the page, there should be instructions on how to send the form, your old passport, self addressed prepaid return envelope, and payment (as of October 2012, the cost is USD $110 but can also be paid in foreign currency, check the site for more details). If you are renewing via mail, follow the instructions exactly. I found it easier to just make an appointment at the consulate (link on the same page) which also allows you to pay via credit card as you cannot do that by mail as of this writing.

If you are applying in person at the consulate, you will be required to go through a security screening similar to what you go through at the airport. Leave anything home that you do not need, it speeds up the process considerably. After security, you will be lead to another part of the building with blast proof doors (I kid you not) and you need to take a number. You’ll be called up, hand in your forms, self addressed prepaid envelope, pay the money owed and your on your way. Pretty simple.

Some advice: If you are an expatriate, I HIGHLY recommend you get the passport with additional passport pages (non-standard passport) whether you think you will need them or not. It costs nothing to get the passport with additional pages but should you run out of pages at a later time, it will cost you $50 to get more added and you won’t have your passport for another 5 business days. It’s best to just get the additional pages. I got the third degree for requesting them since my old passport wasn’t completely stamped out but if you tell them you’ll be abroad for a very long time, they usually will give you the extra pages.

A few things to keep in mind:

  • It may have only taken me 5 business days to receive my new passport but it can take longer depending on how many passport renewals are being processed and the side of the world you are at.
  • You need a physical address for them to deliver the passport to. As far as I know, they do not offer pick up service. Someone correct me if I am wrong.
  • Some embassies do NOT have citizen services and you will need to go to a consulate instead, always check the website listed above for full details.
  • You absolutely need to schedule an appointment to see Citizen Services, they do not accept walk ins.
  • If you are paying by credit card, you must make a personal appearance to the consulate or embassy. Again, check the website for full details.
  • If you have lost your passport and are seeking a replacement, or are renewing a passport that you got when you were younger than 16, you will need to show additional documents and fill out a different form. You also must show up in person and cannot do it via mail. I have never had to do this so please research it first.
  • It’s best to get additional pages regardless if you think you will need them or not, especially if you’re an expat. If you have to get them at another time due to stamp out, you will pay $50 and waste more time.
  • If you are a ways away from a physical location where you can renew your passport, you will need to do it by mail unless you feel like traveling. If you don’t meet the criteria for Form DS-82, you must make a personal appearance.
  • When it comes to photos for your new passport, you must use a photographer that complies to the sizes required for a US Passport. The US uses a funny size that isn’t used elsewhere but the website will have a list of approved photographers. Be sure to use them and not a company not listed on the list as you may be making a second trip if your photo is the wrong size.
  • DO NOT send your completed forms and what not to the American address for renewing passports located on the form! That address is for those state side ONLY. Follow the instructions on the website, I cannot stress that enough.

I hope this article helps you in renewing your American passport abroad. The process seems more complicated than it is. If you are renewing an adult passport like I did and still have it in your physical possession, you can follow this article exactly, otherwise you will need to do some extra leg work. And again, be sure to follow the instructions on the embassy/consulate website for your area as rules and procedures can vary slightly place to place. Safe travels!

The Carrot Trick – Buying Food on the Cheap (Unethical)

The carrot trick is something I learned about while staying at ChiliBlue and was commonly used to get good food on the cheap. The carrot trick is just slightly more ethical than down right stealing the food but not by much. Although I personally have never done it, I have seen many friends do it before. So if you are dirt poor and hungry, this may be your best bet to surviving before stooping to the outright thieving level.

The Carrot Trick

Courtesy of some friends back in Australia. They enjoy carrots, a lot.

The carrot trick consists of a few basic principles that didn’t exist before the advent of the self-checkout kiosk. Pretty much instead of scanning the items barcode, you weigh it instead, lookup the item and select carrots. Keep in mind that if the machine reads the barcode, you lost your chance to ring it up as carrots. Be sure to block the barcode so the machine cannot read it. Easiest way is to have the barcode facing you when you place the item on the machine to read the weight.

In some regions of the world, there may be a cheaper option other than carrots but as far as I know, the cheapest selection in Australia is carrots. Instead of buying prime rib at $12/kilo, you are now buying it at $1.98/kilo. Not bad. Obviously the same holds true for items without barcodes as well, you simply select carrots instead. You may want to buy some actual carrots as well to put on top of the deeply discounted items you are practically stealing, just so you don’t raise any eyebrows.

Now, if you aren’t the brightest of thieves, you may end up paying more for items than if you were to use the actual barcode. To prevent this from happening, always read what the price of an item would be by weight. In Australia and New Zealand, it is always listed on the price tag on the shelves. If the items cost by weight is equal to or less than carrots, scan the barcode. If it is more, weigh it as carrots. Simple right?

The carrot trick is unethical and in the end does amount to shoplifting. I do not take responsibility for your actions if you are dumb/poor enough to actually do this. This article was simply for entertainment and informational purposes. Keep in mind that if you are caught, the police will most likely be called so be smart about your actions or at least nimble on your feet. As always, when the police are called you risk deportation so you need to ask yourself, is it really worth saving some money by buying a lot of carrots?

Declaring Items at Customs – Australia & New Zealand

Every port of entry has two things, immigrations and customs, both have completely separate functions but utilise the arrival card you frantically fill out while in line to get your passport stamped. In this post, I will cover the customs side of international arrivals, what to declare and what you can avoid in New Zealand and Australia. Figured it was a good time to cover declaring items at customs after a man declared a World War II bomb he found while abroad to customs agents at Auckland International Airport today causing the international part of the airport to shutdown.

The above gallery shows both the Australia and New Zealand arrival cards. (Can you find the odd thing to declare on the Australian arrival card?)

From the examples, you can see that there are quite a few things that one must declare upon arrival. Obviously chances are extremely high in Australia your bags will be searched and/or x-rayed. It is best to declare anything that will show up in either of these situations, such as food. In fact, the best advice I can give is toss any food you have in the bins provided, it just prevents the whole hassle of customs deciding what is safe and what isn’t/ My bags have been once x-rayed in Australia, once searched by hand and once I got a free pass to exit the customs area with no search at all (didn’t have my main bag as it was it decided to take a side trip). The time my bag was search by hand, customs officer Bill found two powerbars which I didn’t even know I had on me (always empty your bags before packing them). I got lucky that time, he just lectured me on the importance of declaring food items, most of the time you get an on the spot fine. My brother Davy didn’t declare his Oreos once, that too resulted in a lecture only to my parents since Davy was underage at the time. I think the more bags you have with you, the higher chances you will encounter an x-ray or bag search. It also depends if you tick yes or no on each box on your arrival card

As for New Zealand, ALL bags are x-rayed before entering the country, there is no chance here, it will happen. New Zealand is even more strict that Australia when it comes to food and dirt items. When I arrived in New Zealand, an individual indicated he had been on a farm the previous day. Needless to say, I saw the customs officer cleaning the fellows shoes which was funny to watch. Best to dump your items in the bins provided before reaching the customs checkpoint.

Illegal drugs are also highly sought after by customs agents and let me clue you, they will find them. Drug sniffing drugs are employed regularly and if you are caught, you risk deportation, jail and a fine. It’s just not worth it so never cross international borders with drugs, even if you think you can get away with it because you won’t and will be caught. Heed my warning, the past two times I’ve been in Australia, I have seen people hauled off for carrying pot on them. In addition to sanctions by the host country, you risk permanently losing your passport as the United States has laws against trafficking illegal drugs as well across international borders, whether it occurs in the United States or not. Just say no to drugs.

There are limits on the amount of tobacco and alcohol you can bring into the country as well. If you exceed the limits, you will be expected to pay a duty. In Australia, they recently changed the amount of cigarettes you can take in (as of September 1, 2012) and I heard stories where people bought a full carton of cigarettes at the duty free shop, the shop didn’t tell them about the new rules and they were forced to pay an additional $100 in duty fees. The cigarettes were still cheaper than buying them inland but still, if you are a smoker and going to Australia, you’ll pay through the nose. Even if you don’t smoke, in some countries it’s worth it to buy a cartoon especially if packs are expensive, resell them for quick cash and quite a turn around on investment (that’s for another article however). As for alcohol, it is very expensive in New Zealand and Australia. Even if you don’t drink much, buy as much hard liquor as permitted, another way to make a quick buck.

Australia also asks about any convictions you may have against you in another country. Contrary to popular belief, the only way another country will find out if you have any convictions is if you are wanted by Interpol (in that case you have bigger problems) or you declare it. If you declare it, be prepared to answer some questions. If you served more than one year in jail/prison, you will be found inadmissible to Australia and will be sent back home on the first flight. As for New Zealand, the same holds true for terms longer than 4 years even though they ask if it was for 12 months or more.

Regardless if you served time or not, don’t bother declaring you have a criminal background as it probably isn’t worth the third degree from some customs agent. Technically, even speeding tickets are supposed to be declared as a criminal conviction and most people don’t tick the box so why should someone with a measly shoplifting conviction? If they really didn’t want to have you in their country, they would partner with your home countries criminal database to figure it out when issuing your visa. One thing to note however, if when applying for your visa you did indicated you had a criminal conviction, YOU MUST declare it on the arrival card as well! Failure to do so will result in a fine and deportation. The country will have this in their immigration computers if you have previously declared it so if you already told the truth, it’s best to just continue with it.

Medicine is usually not a problem in New Zealand or Australia. Don’t bother declaring medicines unless it’s really strong stuff such as morphine as otherwise it’s just another waste of time.  Obviously in some foreign countries, you need to declare all medicines but that is beyond the scope of this specific article. Do keep in mind that if cannabis is legal in your country as medicine, it is not legal in New Zealand or Australia and is considered an illegal drug. Do not travel with it or simply dispose of it in the rubbish bins provided.

Another good one: the age old deportation question, have you ever been deported or removed from a country? Unless you have a deportation stamp, were previously deported from the country you are now trying to enter or declared it on your visa application, tick no. Just another annoying question you should avoid if possible. Again, if they really were interested in keeping you out, they would make an effort to share information with other countries but they don’t.

Finally, what prompted me to write this article in the first place, traveling with dangerous goods, i.e. an unexploded World War II bomb. Although you need to declare it, after all it will show up on x-ray, it probably is NOT a good idea to travel with it in the first place. How this individual got it on a plane in the first place is beyond me but crossing international boundaries with explosives, firearms, ammunition or anything else that goes boom is a strict no no in my book. You usually need permits to get that stuff in and out of countries and without them, you can land yourself in a whole lot of hot water. It’s best to leave that stuff at home or better yet, avoid being around it in the first place. Things that go boom are dangerous and unless you know what you are doing, stay away from them, especially unexploded World War II artillery.

In short, leave the following at home or toss on arrival:

  • Anything that goes boom
  • Illegal drugs
  • Food items (this includes drinks along with water as well)
  • Plants, soil or wood

Declare the following if required:

  • Food (if you still want to try and bring it in for whatever reason)
  • Tobacco if over the concessions
  • Alcohol if over the concessions
  • Criminal history only if the country previously knows about it (you told them upon entering before or in your visa application)
  • Dirt/Plants (some people like to collect beach sand, you should declare this to be on the safe side)

Don’t bother declaring the following:

  • That you’ve been on a farm in the past 48 hours (unless you reek of cow)
  • You have a criminal conviction (only if they don’t know about it)

Follow the above rules and going through customs will be a breeze. However, if you don’t take my advice, it can turn into a costly nightmare and you may end up waiting 2 hours to have your bags manually searched. It’s always best to travel with the bare essentials and take care of restricted items before hand. As always, keep up to date with what you can and cannot bring into Australia at www.customs.gov.au and New Zealand at www.customs.govt.nz. Always check these sites before your trip as laws tend to change at a moments notice.

Surviving Long Haul Flights – Avoiding Airsickness

When it comes to air travel advice, I’ve figured out how to travel well on air planes. In the past 5 months, I have flown 54,000 kilometres, been in 5 different countries spanning 3 continents and survived 13 take off and landing combinations. The majority of the flights were also long haul flights lasting more than 3 hours and some, lasting for over 12 hours. Now, not everyone is accustomed to such long flights but if you plan on seeing the world, you better get comfortable as you have no other choice. In this article, I will cover airsickness and the best ways to avoid it.

Airsickness

Everyone has different needs when it comes to air travel as well. Some of us get sick when turbulence hits, some of us are claustrophobic (like me) and others just need constant entertainment because they can’t sleep. Fortunately, I have found the solution to most common problems you will encounter on your long journeys. What works for one person may not work for you so of course, adjust accordingly.

I love turbulence and anyone who has ever travelled with me knows that I tend to get excited when the plane begins to shake loose. It’s weird, I know, while others are giving their arms rests the death grip, I’m throwing my arms in the air like we’re at Six Flags. Unlike me however, some people tend to get air sick, especially once you get acclimated to smooth flying at 10,000 metres and all of the sudden the plane starts shaking violently. Although there is no way to prevent turbulence, you can prevent airsickness or at least mitigate it.

Most people that get nervous before a flight tend to drink themselves silly at the airport, I have seen this time and time again. Guess who the first ones to reach for the air sick bag are? That’s right, those guys. The number one thing you can do to prevent airsickness is avoid alcohol and drink plenty of water while on the ground and up in the air. Have a full meal about an hour before you start boarding as well, this usually gives your stomach plenty of time to begin the digestive process. If you eat right before boarding, you’re more likely to lose whatever you just ate. Sometimes that isn’t enough as plenty of people get airsick while avoiding alcohol and flying on an empty stomach. The motion of the plane does a lot of people in but that too can be avoided.

It’s no secret when you are a kid that the back of the bus was always the most fun. When the bus driver would hit a bump, you would usually go flying, always an excellent end of the day amusement to see who could touch the roof after each bump. The same holds true for aeroplanes, the back of the plane is the bumpiest (my preferred location of seating for long flights) followed by the front of the plane. If you love flying first class (and who doesn’t?) but get airsick quite easily, you may want to relocate to coach as the best place to sit to prevent airsickness is a window seat right over the wings. It might seem counter intuitive but it’s not. That location is the least likely to move in a way that affects the human body. It moves yes but in a way that is less bumpy and you feel more glued to your seat. So if the motion of the plane really bothers you, sit over the wing on a window seat, you’ll feel much better.

Other tips to keep in mind is you may want to take a anti-airsickness pill that helps prevent airsickness. You can usually buy them at the drug store and even in the airport itself if you forgot to get them ahead of time. While flying, be sure to drink a lot of water and avoid alcohol. When they begin to serve food, eat but don’t eat too fast. If you take your time and turbulence hits, the food will stay in your stomach. Stay buckled in as well with the belt as tight as possible around your waist, that way if turbulence hits, your less likely to bounce around. This holds true for any seat in the aircraft.

Although it is important to walk around on long flights to keep your circulation going, some people get very airsick after walking around on board an aeroplane. If this is the case, I advise you to stay seated as much as possible and get up only if it’s absolutely necessary. Turbulence can hit at any time and usually happens when you least expect it, for me it’s when I’m in the bathroom go figure. However, once the captain turns off the seat belt sign after encountering turbulence, usually you’re in the clear for a while and this is the best time to get up if you want to avoid getting sick while walking about.

There are many tricks to surviving long flights and I will be covering more soon. I felt airsickness was a good place to start since on my last flight, a few people lost their breakfast soon after being served it. As always, I like hearing advice you may have on the subject as well.