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International Programs News & Views Volume 5

September 2009

Questions and Answers on International Travel

The purpose of this newsletter is to help you understand the foreign travel process in the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). The regulations concerning travel become increasingly complicated as the details of each trip become more complex. Consequently, we have limited our coverage to relatively simple travel situations. Consult the International Programs Division (IPD) well in advance if you anticipate a complex trip or unusual expenses. Our telephone number is 304-504-2271 and fax is 301-504-2217.

What can I do to become involved in international programs?

All NRCS employees are eligible to participate in international programs. Here are a few suggestions:

1.       Develop a proposal under our Scientific and Technical Exchange Program. Specialists work with their counterparts all over the world to share data and new technologies for soil and water conservation and to improve the capacity for wise use of natural resources in the U.S. and in the foreign country.

2.       Participate in technical and professional meetings held outside the United States. This provides opportunities to share technology with colleagues from other countries and to broaden and increase your technical knowledge and professional capability. Conservation of natural resources is a global challenge and NRCS has numerous opportunities to communicate across national borders.

3.       Host training programs in the U.S. for foreign visitors. Foreign colleagues participate in discussions, observations, and on-the-job training with NRCS regarding natural resource conservation programs in order to transfer applicable methods back to their home countries.

Where do I begin?

Read and understand IPD’s policy in the General Manual Title 280. Then complete an International Travel Request Form (ITRF) which is available from the IPD and the IPD's Web Site. Obtain your supervisor's approval as well as other appropriate approvals on the form, and fax to the IPD. The form must be completed in full or it will be returned to you. Your request will be reviewed for technical merit, how well it supports the NRCS mission, how it benefits the NRCS domestic program, and other criteria. You will be notified if and when agency clearance has been granted and whether or not to proceed with travel arrangements. Your travel is subject to final approval by the IPD.

Do I need an official passport?

Yes. When conducting official U.S. Government (USG) business, you must have an official USG passport to depart or enter the U.S. and to enter or depart most foreign countries. This is a Departmental travel regulation.

Where and how do I obtain an official passport?

Official passports are issued by the Department of State (DOS) to employees of the U.S. Government who travel abroad to conduct official business. As appropriate, the IPD will contact you to secure a new official passport or to revalidate your existing official passport.

If you are a first-time applicant, you must appear in person at a passport agency, a federal or state courthouse, or a U.S. post office authorized to accept passport applications. You must submit the following documents:

  • Form AD-121, Passport Request, which will be sent to you by the IPD.
  • Form DP-11, completed but unsigned.
  • Proof of U.S. citizenship such as certified birth certificate with raised seal and date of filing.
  • Two recent (within the past six months) passport-size photographs (2"x2", color or black and white).

The Passport Agent will accept and execute your application and forward it to a designated regional passport agency. You should not be charged for the execution of an official passport. The expense for passport photographs is reimbursable and should be claimed on your travel voucher.

If you wish to renew your expired official passport or apply with a personal passport, submit the following documents to IPD by mail:

  • Form DS-82
  • Your expired passport
  • Two recent (within the past six months) passport-size photographs.

Forms DS-11 and DS-82 are available from the IPD or from your local Passport Agent.

May I keep my official or diplomatic passport after my business has been completed?

No. A U.S. passport is a document from the U.S. Government to the government of another country requesting travel privileges for the bearer into, through, and/or from that country. It remains at all times the property of the U.S. and must be returned to the IPD within five (5) business days of completion of travel for which passport was issued, by overnight delivery or certified mail.

May I use my personal passport when traveling on official business?

No, with the exception of travel to Taiwan. Your personal passport must be used for official business in Taiwan. Also, your personal passport must be used if you plan to take annual leave in conjunction with your official duties since you will not be conducting official business at this time.

What is a visa?

A Visa is an endorsement or stamp placed on a passport by officials of a foreign country to grant entry into their country for a limited time period. Visas are required for travel to certain countries, and are furnished by embassies in Washington, D.C. and some consulates located throughout the U.S. The IPD keeps abreast of current visa regulations to comply with requirements of foreign governments and will provide instructions to you as appropriate. Depending on the specific requirements, you may be asked to complete a visa form or to submit additional photographs to the IPD. The IPD will ensure that all appropriate visas are issued before your passport is released to you.

What is my authority to travel?

You must have a travel authorization before you depart on any assignment. These are usually issued by the Financial Management Division (FMD), as requested by the IPD. States have the authority to issue authorizations for travel to Canada and Mexico to conduct routine business for common interest or to attend an international meeting. These authorizations should be drafted and faxed to the IPD for review.

IPD will contact the issuing office to indicate when authorizations may be finalized. In all cases, FMD will issue the authorization if you require actual subsistence expense travel or if your travel is funded by a non-Federal source. All in-country locations must be identified on your travel authorization. The IPD will ensure issuance and release of your travel authorization prior to your departure date.

May I use annual leave while in official travel status?

Annual leave for TDYs of 30 days or longer may be granted by the employee’s supervisor.  No annual leave may be taken for international meetings.

Can my family accompany me?

The agency cannot dictate whether or not your family can accompany you on short-term official business. Whether you are traveling to provide technical assistance, to participate in a scientific and technical exchange, or to attend an international meeting -- your family must not interfere with your official business. We recommend that your family meet you after your official business has been conducted, or perhaps at a location between your residence and your official foreign duty location. If your family accompanies you, they must travel on their personal passport and you must absorb any additional costs incurred. Prior approval should be obtained before making reservations for family members.

If you are serving on a long-term assignment, usually two years duration, your family may accompany you at government expense. As appropriate, dependents may be issued diplomatic passports.

Do I need country clearance?

Yes. Country clearance is granted by the U.S. Embassy in the foreign country. The IPD will request this clearance on your behalf well in advance of your proposed visit, and will ensure that clearance is granted prior to your departure date. Any employee who travels without this clearance will be charged annual leave and will absorb the costs of the entire trip.

What is the policy regarding acceptance of travel expenses from non-Federal sources?

You must not solicit or accept payments directly from non-Federal sources. This could possibly result in a conflict between personal interest and that of NRCS, or could create the appearance of a conflict of interest. The non-federal source must submit a request directly to the IPD for review. The request should include a description of the meeting or function and how it relates to your official duties, and must also describe details of the offer (e.g., payment for travel, subsistence, and related expenses).

IPD will send this request for NHQ personnel to the FMD for review and to determine if the non-Federal source is an "interested party." The FMD will forward the request to the Human Resources Management Division (HRMD) for a conflict-of interest analysis before any offer can be accepted on behalf of the agency. For travelers at the state level and below, the traveler’s state ethics officer must approve. Payments must be made directly by non-Federal sources to NRCS, or accepted "in-kind" by you (i.e. hotel room, airline ticket, meals, etc.).

When and how should I make travel arrangements?

Make your travel arrangements as soon as possible at www.govtrip.com and fax your itinerary to the IPD. Do not wait until your trip has been approved -- your reservations can always be canceled. Advance bookings are necessary to take advantage of available excursion fares. Make sure your ticket is refundable. Official ticket charges should not be made on your personal credit card.

What class accommodations may I use?

Extra-fare accommodations (premium, first class, business class) may not be used. These accommodations may be used only if less than first-class accommodations are not available in time to accomplish that which is so urgent that it cannot be postponed, or you are handicapped and other accommodations cannot be used. If economy class is not available, contact the IPD immediately. In some cases, you may be able to upgrade your accommodations through the frequent flyer program. Handicapped employees must submit a doctor's certificate.

Can I use any air carrier I choose?

No. You must use U.S. flag air carriers where available. The Government has contracts with certain carriers to provide discounted service.

Is there any specific route or type of transportation I must use?

You must use the most direct or usually traveled route. Indirect travel for personal reasons is at your expense when there is an additional transportation cost. Transportation should be by airport shuttle or public transportation when possible. Taxis may be used when no other transportation is reasonably available. Receipts are needed for fares (excluding tips) in excess of $75.00. Bus, train, or special conveyances may be used for short distance travel and must be authorized on your travel authorization.

When do I get a rest stop?

Generally, you are entitled to a rest stop (not to exceed 24 hours) when air travel between two points, including stopovers, exceeds 14 hours by direct or usually traveled route. A rest stop may be authorized at any intermediate point, providing the point is midway or near midway. A rest stop may not be authorized when you, for personal reasons, elect to travel by an indirect route. The rest stop must be identified on the travel authorization, only if and when you meet the requirements.

May I rent a commercial automobile while in travel status?

A rental car may be authorized only in cases where it is necessary to complete the assignment. Use of a rental car must be for official use only and not for your personal convenience. Use of a rental car must be included on your travel authorization and must be justified on your travel voucher. Car rental agencies overseas usually provide auto insurance, but in some countries, the required coverage is minimal. A good rule of thumb when renting a car overseas is to purchase insurance coverage that is at least equivalent to that which you carry at home.

In general, your U.S. auto insurance does not cover you abroad. However, your policy may apply when you drive to countries that neighbor the United States. Check with your insurer to see if your policy covers you in Canada, Mexico, or countries south of Mexico. You will not be reimbursed for any additional insurance coverage. You must pay for the rental car and claim reimbursement on your travel voucher. Claims for rental cars must be supported by receipts.

Do I need an International Drivers Permit if I rent a car in a foreign country?

Yes. The permit is issued by a local AAA Travel Agency (members and non-members) for a nominal fee. Most car rental companies require this permit even if the country itself does not.

Will the Government pay for my baggage transportation costs?

Baggage up to certain weight limits is usually transported without charge by the common carrier. Check with the airline to be used for their current regulations. There is rarely a need for authorization of excess baggage allowances, and these charges may be reimbursable to you only if authorized by your agency and included on your travel authorization. You should attach receipts for approved excess baggage charges to your voucher. Excess baggage costs for your personal items are your expense.

Who makes in-country arrangements?

You are responsible for coordinating your in-country agenda. Your hotel reservations should be made by you. If your travel is being coordinated by USDA's Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS), these arrangements will most likely be made on your behalf.

Are there established international rates for lodging and meals and incidental expenses (M&IE)?

Yes. Rates are established by the Department of State and are available by calling the IPD, or on the Internet at http://www.state.gov/www/perdiems/index.html. If any of your meals are included in a meeting registration, you must deduct a fixed amount from your M&IE rate for each meal accepted.

May I claim payments to friends or relatives for lodging if I stay with them?

No. Friends or relatives (except commercial innkeepers) may receive reimbursement only if it can be demonstrated that they incurred additional cost clearly equal to the amount of reimbursement. The burden of proof is on you and it is difficult to demonstrate or justify this cost.

May I obtain a travel advance?

You may obtain a travel advance only in certain situations. Generally, your travel advance must be obtained by using your Government credit card and Personal Identification Number. Cash withdrawals can be made in the U.S. and from nearly 30,000 international automated teller machines worldwide, and should be limited to applicable M&IE rates. Cash withdrawals made in the U.S. are limited to $300 per day with a maximum of $1,000 per week.

Money can be issued in cash or foreign currency up to $200, with the balance in travelers checks. For foreign currency transactions, the amount dispensed will be converted into U.S. dollars prior to assessing transaction fees. Problems with machines outside the U.S. should be reported by calling collect 904-565-7895.

Do I receive reimbursement for film and processing services; language books; literature; and miscellaneous books?

No. Film and processing services (for official use only) should be obtained from your Information office. Prior to your departure, the IPD will send you an information package with health, security, travel tips, and relevant country background documents.

What is the policy regarding authorized personal telephone calls during official business?

You should exercise care and reasonableness that a prudent person would use if traveling on personal business. Personal telephone calls are authorized but cannot exceed the amount equal to $7.00 times the number of lodging nights (includes access charges and charges for calls not completed). Personal calls should be listed separately from official calls.

What is the policy regarding official telephone calls during official business?

Official calls should only be placed in emergency cases. We do not recommend that you access your voice mail, as this is quite expensive. Claims for calls placed to a local duty station on your day of return from official travel will be authorized only for notification of a change in your schedule. Expenses which exceed a reasonable amount may not be reimbursed.

Do I need a medical clearance?

You must obtain a medical clearance only if your assignment is over 60 days duration or if you travel to a high altitude area (over 5,000 feet). You and your family must obtain a medical clearance if your assignment is long-term, usually 2 years duration. Costs over and above what your insurance carrier will cover are reimbursable expenses and may be claimed on your voucher.

What about health insurance?

You should use your personal health insurance to cover costs of medical services incurred. Check with your insurance carrier on your coverage while abroad.

All NRCS employees are covered in the Department of State (DOS) Medical Program while serving on official international assignments. The DOS will provide and assist you in obtaining the best possible medical care available in the country. This covers any medical emergency such as a serious illness, injury, or medical condition which requires hospitalization or similar treatment. The DOS does not actually pay the medical costs -- they provide assistance and coordination to allow the medical situation to be handled immediately. The DOS guarantees payment, acting only as a facilitator of the bill, since a hospital in a foreign country may not accept your insurance card. After claims have been processed by your insurance carrier, the covered unpaid balance may be paid by NRCS.

What immunizations do I need?

Consult a local health facility or your doctor for a list of required and recommended immunizations for entry into foreign countries. A country may require vaccinations against yellow fever and cholera. A typhoid vaccination is not required for international travel, but is recommended for areas where there is risk of exposure. A tetanus shot every ten years is recommended for all foreign travel.

Check your health care records to ensure that your measles, mumps, rubella, polio, diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis immunizations are up-to-date. The importance of taking antimalarial medication cannot be overemphasized. You may need to carry your health card to reflect any required immunizations and present it upon arrival at the airport in the foreign country.

What if I take special medication?

You should carry any medication that you routinely take in your carry-on luggage. You should also carry an extra prescription with you when you travel. If you have any special medical problems, ask your doctor to write a short description of your problem, treatment, and any medication you are allergic to. To avoid problems when passing through customs, keep medicines in their original, labeled containers.

If a medication is unusual or contains narcotics, carry a letter from your doctor attesting to your need to take the drug. Wear an identification chain or bracelet if you have chronic ailments or allergies. If you have any doubt about the legality of carrying a certain drug into a country, contact the embassy or consulate of that country before you depart the United States.

Should I get travelers checks? How do I get foreign currency?

Do not carry large amounts of cash. Take most of your money in travelers checks. Sign all travelers checks immediately upon purchase. Checks should not be countersigned until you are ready to use them, and then only when the person who is accepting them is watching. Record serial numbers, denominations, and the date and location of the issuing bank or agency. You may want to leave a copy of this information with a friend or relative at home. Carry your copy with you in a safe and separate place so if you lose your travelers checks you can get replacements quickly. Fees for obtaining travelers checks are reimbursable.

Before departing the U.S., you may wish to purchase small amounts of foreign currency to use for buses, taxis, phones, or tips when you first arrive. Foreign exchange facilities at airports may be closed when your flight arrives. You can purchase foreign currency at some U.S. banks, at foreign exchange firms, or at foreign exchange windows or even vending machines at many international airports in the United States. Also, you may exchange currency after entering and before exiting each country. Do not exchange all your money for foreign currency. Keep a small amount of foreign currency as you leave each country in case of last minute emergencies, such as airport taxes. Some countries regulate the amount of local currency you can bring into or take out of the country, while others require that you exchange a minimum amount of currency. It is a good idea to carry about 15 $1.00 bills, which are good for small emergency purchases or tips.

What should I take?

Safety begins when you pack. Dress conservatively and always travel light. Carry the minimum amount of valuables necessary for your trip and plan a place or places to conceal them. Your passport, cash, and credit cards are most secure when locked in a hotel safe. When you have to carry them on your person, conceal them in several places rather than putting them all in one wallet or pouch. Avoid hand bags, fanny packs, and outside pockets which are easy targets for thieves. Inside pockets and a sturdy shoulder bag with the strap worn across your chest are somewhat safer. One of the safest places to carry valuables is in a pouch or money belt worn under your clothing. Do not take anything you would hate to lose. Leave room for things you may want to purchase and bring home. Pack a small carry-on bag with toiletries and a change of clothing in case your luggage goes astray. This small bag will also be useful for short site trips while leaving your larger bags with the hotel.

You should take a first-aid kit (band-aids, sterile cleanser, antibacterial ointment, aspirin, antacid, and motion sickness pills if needed). If you wish, pack an extra pair of eyeglasses and a copy of your eyeglass prescription. If you pack small electrical appliances such as a hair dryer, you may need a transformer and/or adapters. Check before you leave the United States. Make two photocopies of your passport identification page, airline tickets, driver's license and credit cards that you plan to take with you. Leave one photocopy of this data with family or friends at home and pack the other in a place separate from where you carry your valuables.

Where can I go for help, or what if I become ill while overseas?

Contact your hotel or the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate for a list of local physicians and medical facilities. If the illness is serious, consular officers can help you find medical assistance and, at your request, will inform your family or friends. Payment of hospital and other medical expenses is your responsibility.

Should I worry about food and drink?

Yes. Health regulations are not as controlled in some foreign countries as they are in the United States, so be careful what you eat and drink. Many countries do not have a clean water supply. This is an important point when you realize that water is used in food and beverage preparation and in hand washing. In developing countries, use only bottled or boiled water and do not use ice in your beverage. Check fruit juices to make sure they are not diluted with local water. Vegetables should be washed in good water and fruits should be peeled. Do not eat raw or even poorly cooked seafood, and avoid all shellfish. You may wish to carry a few snacks with you, such as health food bars or trail mix.

What about local laws and customs?

When you leave the U.S., you are subject to the laws of the country where you are. Therefore, before you go, learn as much as you can about the local laws and customs of the places you plan to visit. Good resources are your library, your travel agent, and the embassies, consulates or tourist bureaus of the countries you will visit. Keep track of what is being reported in the media about recent developments in those countries.

What about customs declarations?

You will receive a Customs Declaration on board your plane as you return to the United States, which you must complete, and give to the U.S. Customs Inspector. Some items may be brought into the U.S. free of duty and internal revenue taxes. Certain merchandise is prohibited or restricted from entering the U.S. Among articles prohibited are narcotics and dangerous drugs, liquor-filled candy, lottery tickets, pornographic articles and publications, and hazardous articles. Fruits, plants, vegetables, cuttings, seeds, unprocessed plant products and certain endangered species of plants are either prohibited from entering the country or require an import permit. Canned or processed items are admissible. Merchandise that is prohibited from entry into the U.S. will be seized.

What is cultural shock and how can I deal with it?

Culture shock is brought on by the anxiety that results from losing all our familiar signs and symbols of social structure. Some of the symptoms are excessive concern over cleanliness and the feeling that what is new and strange is "dirty." This could be in relation to drinking water, food, dishes, and bedding; fear of physical contact with attendants or servants; a feeling of helplessness and a desire for dependence on long-term residents of one's own nationality; irritation about delays and other minor frustrations, out of proportion to their causes; delay and outright refusal to learn the language of the host country; excessive fear of being cheated, robbed, or injured; great concern over minor pains; and finally, that terrible longing to be back at home and to be in familiar surroundings.

In an effort to overcome cultural shock, familiarize yourself with the ideas and customs of the local people. It matters a great deal when you know the cause of your disturbance. Once you realize that your trouble may be due to a lack of understanding of other people's cultural background and your own lack of the means of communication rather than the hostility of an alien environment, the sooner cultural shock will disappear.

How do I beat jet lag?

Jet lag does not affect everyone equally. There are some simple strategies to help combat jet lag:

  • Get plenty of sleep before the trip.
  • Get a good "night's" sleep on the plane.
  • Do not nap.
  • Avoid alcohol.
  • Use sleeping drugs carefully.
  • Spend time outside.
  • Reset your watch on the plane.

When should I file my travel voucher for reimbursement?

Your travel voucher should be calculated in U.S. dollars, and should be submitted to the appropriate office as soon as possible. If your travel has been funded by the IPD, fax a draft copy of the voucher to 301-504-2230 within two weeks after your return. Your voucher will be reviewed and you will receive instructions to submit the final completed voucher (with any changes) for signature. For all travel not funded by the IPD, fax the first page of your voucher within two weeks after your return.

When should I submit my travel report?

Your travel report or Executive Summary (hard and electronic copies) should be submitted to the IPD within two weeks after your return. A format for the report will be sent to you by the IPD.