Expat Emergency: When Something Goes Wrong in the Homeland

Published 2012-06-26 09:36:40

Wall-mounted fire alarm isolated on white background © tuulijumala - Fotolia.comWhen embarking on a new life abroad, there is a lot to worry about.
How will you find work?
What kind of housing is available?
Where are the best schools?
Should you bring your car?
Will you make friends?

Expat guides, forums, and blogs can help you prepare, but what you might not consider is the life you are leaving behind. What should you do if there is an emergency back home?

UK expat in South Africa, Chickenruby, was recently faced with this difficult dilemma. She posted on the forum:

"Hubby and I have discussed at length exactly what constitutes an emergency in terms of flying back to the UK. We've debated, closed the circle, argued over what is important and now we find ourselves in the very situation, we don't know what to do.
My father has had a heart attack, he is in hospital, the best place, there is regular contact with my mother and sister, but there is no advice available.
'Do I fly home?' If I leave now, it'll be 11am wednesday morning before I get there....
Anyone else been in a similar situation? How did you handle it? what decisions did you make? Is there anything you'd have done differently that you could help me with?

This kind of dire situation is the worst fear for many expats. Trying to make such a decision in the face of disaster can be debilitating. Whether it is a natural disaster, health issue, or anything in between, the best defense is a plan.

Prepare for the Worst

Among the many exciting prospects in planning for your new life abroad, you need to speculate about possible problem areas. As painful as it could be, write down every worst case scenario. If you are aware of issues, you can think of solutions. And if the possible risks involved in your move away outweigh the positives, you may need to re-think your plan.

One of the most common scenarios for an emergency trip back to your home country, like the situation above, is a medical emergency of a loved one. A difficult time if you live 5 minutes away, the stress of not being able to go to their aid is something that haunts most expat's bad dreams. However, there are steps you can take so that if an emergency occurs, you don't have to make tough choices under pressure.


Keep updated contacts! With more of us moving around - either across the globe or around the neighborhood - it is important to maintain up-to-date contacts for friends and families. The more information the better, so include:

  • Full names
  • Phone numbers (home, work, and cell)
  • Home addresses
  • Work address
  • e-mail

Most e-mail systems have a built-in contact list that you can regularly check and update. Social media services like Facebook are another excellent resource for monitoring your contacts whereabouts. If you are a luddite, a good 'ole address book will do. Just be sure to adjust your records when contact info changes. You can even schedule a time, about every 3 months, to regularly update your info.

Create a list of phone numbers and e-mail addresses for everyone in your family or household. This can be as easy as entering into the electronic database of their phone or computer, or making a contact card to keep in their wallet. Your family should also maintain an emergency kit and this should contain an emergency contact list as well.

In addition, remember to supply friends and family with your contact details. It is just as vital that they know how to contact you in an emergency.

Transportation Options

It is important to study and understand your transportation options. Formulate a default plan for getting to your loved one as quickly as possible. You can even program important numbers like airlines, train services, or other modes of transport into your phone for emergency use.

Some places may offer a bereavement or compassionate fare that can offer 10 - 50 percent off of full price. How close a relation is necessary to be eligible for the fare depends on the airline. It may only include immediate family members, while some airlines allow for half relatives, step relatives, and in-laws. A major benefit is that these fares tend to be quite flexible, allowing for open leave and return dates. However, note that discount fares may still be a better deal. If you have the luxury, it is best to shop around for the best deal. These options are rarely advertised and you will usually need to speak with a booking agent to secure this option. As proof, most airlines require the name of the terminally ill or deceased person, the contact details of the attending doctor, or of the funeral home. When applicable, a copy of the death certificate may be required by some airlines. It is best to check the airline first, to determine what the requirements might be.


It is always important to maintain the proper travel documents and have them readily available. Take care to secure the proper visas that allow for your passage in and out of the country at all times (for information on visas, refer to EasyExpat's 50+ country guides "Passport, Visa & Permits" section). This includes travel documents for all family members including minors.

If you have a pet that would travel with you, know the requirements for bringing an animal through the necessary borders. Base requirements:

  • Microchip (ISO standards)
  • Vaccination (generally every pet older than 3 months must be vaccinated against rabies. The vaccination usually must be administered at least 21 days before arrival. However the vaccination cannot be older than 12 months from the date of arrival.)
  • Certificate of good health (issued by a vet after an exam)
  • Payment for Transport
For a guide to taking your animal abroad, refer to our article on Expat Pets.

If you need to leave quickly, the last thing you want to do is scramble for documents. If organization isn't your forte, at least have your passport or travel documents in a safe, secure place where they are kept at all times.

Emergency Fund

A last minute trip home costs money and there is little time to assemble funds. It is in your best interest to have an emergency fund at all times, and this is one of those times where it would be incredibly valuable. While it is up to you and your family how much you feel comfortable saving, most experts recommend you maintain between three and six months worth of your living expenses for an emergency fund.

If you don't already have savings to start from, begin putting a little aside each month. Keep this account sperate from your general finances and only use it in case of a real emergency. You will be thankful to have it if/when a real problem does occur.

In the end, Chickenruby posted on her blog about the situation. Given the chance to return to the UK, she eventually took it.

Did I need to fly home? No, not really in the sense of it being a life threatening situation. But in the sense of my personal needs and that of my immediate family, Yes I did need to be there. To see them when they are all well and alive. I don't want to be flying back for a funeral having not seen any of them for a year.


Author: EasyExpat
Community Manager EasyExpat.com

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