Wednesday, November 2, 2011

User’s Guide: What the U.S. Embassy Wants You to Know

Read their brochure.
About three years ago, a small group of Americans walked up to the U.S. Embassy in Luxembourg and rang the buzzer to alert the guard. When he answered, they announced that they were there for dinner. It was Thanksgiving, after all, and they had heard that the Ambassador always prepared a large holiday feast for all U.S. citizens in the area.

While the U.S. Embassy offers a number of services to Americans living in Luxembourg, an all-you-can-eat Thanksgiving buffet is not one of them. (Though I definitely think they should reconsider this policy, don’t you?)

So just what is the Embassy good for, if not for a decent slice of turkey? I had the opportunity recently to sit down with David Fetter, the Embassy’s chargé d’affairs (i.e. the guy holding down the fort until the new Ambassador arrives in a week or so) and Dr. Stephanie Shaheen, the Embassy’s public affairs officer, to ask a few questions, like: When is it appropriate to go to the Embassy with a problem, and when it is not? How long should a person expect to wait for a response from the Embassy? and Why doesn’t the Embassy ever update its web site?

If there’s one thing the Embassy wants you to know, it’s that behind the iron gate, through the metal detectors, past the guards, and beyond the armed escort to a sterile room where an official waits behind bulletproof glass to answer your questions; there are actually real, live, friendly people who are there to help you if you need them.

Mostly, though, they hope you don’t need them. “Success for us means not being involved in the daily life of Americans,” said Mr. Fetter. While he wants U.S. citizens to know how to reach the Embassy if they have a question or an emergency, he hopes that you don’t have to deal with a serious emergency, that you don’t lose your passport, and that you don’t ever find yourself in serious legal trouble (which they can’t really help you with anyway; while living here, you’re subject to the laws of Luxembourg, after all).

Have feedback? They want to hear it. (Really.)
Watch their web site for a “suggestion box” button that will be added soon. But in the meantime, the Embassy wants your feedback via If you have a comment, compliment or complaint about the U.S. Embassy in Luxembourg, they want to hear it. The good, the bad, the ugly – they can take it.

Maybe you’ve got an organization that would like to hear from the Embassy on a particular topic? Invite them. (They tell me that they particularly enjoy opportunities to speak to young people.) Or, perhaps you’ve thought of a brilliant way that they can better serve or connect with U.S. citizens or the foreign community? Tell them. Maybe you’ve found some irregularities in information presented in their materials? Let them know so they can fix it. They can’t take action on things they don’t know about, so help them out. Here’s that e-mail address again:

Keep up with the Embassy. Mr. Fetter and Ms. Shaheen are keenly aware that the Embassy’s web site needs an update (watch for new content later this month), that their Facebook page has gone silent (though not for much longer, so click here to “like” the page and keep in touch). They’re also working to fix a glitch with the Luxembourg e-mail list for the U.S. State Department’s STEP (Smart Traveler Enrollment Program) listserv. This is the tool they use to send notifications to citizens living abroad, such as; changes to consular hours, travel alerts, changes in Luxembourg law that affect Americans, or changes to U.S. laws that may impact Americans living in Luxembourg. You can sign up for STEP here.

So, some good things are in the works.

But what if you just want to know whether the Embassy will be holding an informative Q&A, or speaking at an event that might be of interest to you? Mr. Fetter and Ms. Shaheen explained that they do not promote events that they have been invited to speak at as a guest. So, your best bet is to be on the e-mail listserv of an organization for Americans living abroad that likely keeps in close touch with the Embassy, such as the American Women's Club of Luxembourg, the Luxembourg chapters of Democrats Abroad or Republicans Abroad, or the American Chamber of Commerce in Luxembourg.

When should you go to the Embassy?
While notarial services will always require you to be present, there are several services they offer that may not require you to physically go to the Embassy. Scan their web site before calling or heading over because, as Mr. Fetter put it: “Chances are good that your question has probably been asked several times before.”

Scanning their web site first is also a good idea because, depending on your issue, there may be forms to fill out before you can receive assistance. You’ll save time if you’ve printed them at home and filled them out in advance.

Embassy services. The Embassy’s most popular services are passport renewals, page additions and replacements; registration of U.S. citizen births abroad and visa services for foreigners requesting entry into the United States. On their web site, the Embassy has also compiled helpful lists of English-speaking attorneys, hospitals and medical specialists, sworn translators, information about marriage in Luxembourg as well as a list of funeral homes and how to make arrangements in case of a death abroad.

For a general overview and description of their most commonly used services, as well as fees associated with each service, check out their brochure. (Note that prices are accurate as of the writing of this blog post, but are subject to change.)

And for the full list of all the services available to you from the Embassy, click here.

(Last, a personal tip: having something notarized at the Embassy will cost you $50. So, if your document doesn't need to be certified by a U.S. official, head to your commune office and have it done there for 2€ instead.)

Hours & Contact Information. Drop-in hours at the U.S. Embassy in Luxembourg are every Thursday from 8:15am to 11am and 1:30pm to 3pm. Depending on your needs, they also take appointments on Tuesdays.

The advertised office hours aren’t the only times at which they’ll talk to you, however. In fact, quite the contrary. Anyone with a question is welcome to call the Embassy (phone: 46 01 23, the number is the same for after-hours emergencies) or send an e-mail (

“Sending an e-mail is best. The more detailed, the better,” advises Mr. Fetter. The more information and background they have to go on about your specific question, the easier it is for them to try to assist you with what you need. (And, since an e-mail is easier to document than a phone call, it’s also easier for you to follow up if necessary.)

72 Hours
In general, you should expect to hear from the Embassy within 72 working hours. If you haven’t received at least an acknowledgement of your question, it’s appropriate to call back or e-mail them again after three working days have gone by.

If your situation is serious, or perhaps you’re having trouble getting what you need through regular channels, you can also seek assistance by contacting your member of Congress. If they contact the State Department on your behalf, the Department must respond within seven days. Your member of Congress would be the last Senator or Representative that served the district you lived in before moving to Luxembourg, i.e. where you last registered to vote. (If you’re not sure who that was, you can look up your Senator here, or your member of Congress here with your last U.S. address.)

The good thing about living in Luxembourg, though, is that it’s a small country, which means that the Embassy has a smaller pool of people making requests for their assistance. (So, unless you already have a relationship with your member of Congress, you probably don’t need to go that route.) In fact, the Embassy often finds itself helping citizens who live outside of Luxembourg’s borders. So, if you need something: ask. If they can’t help you, they’ll try to refer you to someone who can.

What exactly do they do at the Embassy?
English Teachers' Day
By the Embassy’s count, there are 1,800 United States citizens residing in Luxembourg, and about 15,000 Americans visit the country each year. “Only 20 percent of what we do is related to American citizen services,” explained Mr. Fetter. The remaining 80 percent of their work is focused on outreach to Luxembourg and the European community.

To this end, they have met recently with English teachers in Luxembourg, talked to students in Ettelbruck about the American approach to Halloween, and, when asked, they facilitate informational sessions or help make connections that can pave the way for American businesses thinking about setting up overseas offices in Luxembourg ( is one example).

Explaining the American perspective
on Halloween in Ettelbruck.
They also work with Fulbright Scholars, a prestigious group of teachers, researchers and students that have been given a U.S. government grant to study/teach/research abroad or in the U.S. And they’re finding ways to educate the next generation about American culture and business by partnering with the University of Luxembourg, which requires all students to spend a semester abroad. The Embassy raises funds from U.S. businesses in Luxembourg to provide scholarships to university students who want to spend their time abroad studying in the United States. Read a little more about that here.

The Final Word
Guard your passport. “People don’t always realize that their passport is not their passport. It is the government’s,” said Mr. Fetter. “Protect it, and don’t lose it.” Also keep in mind that if you do lose your passport, the Embassy can’t reissue a new one to you on the spot, it’s going to take a few days.

Should you carry it with you everywhere? Mr. Fetter advises that if you’re visiting Luxembourg on vacation, just keep it with you at all times. If you are a resident in Luxembourg and you have another official form of identification, you’ll probably be fine in Luxembourg, but you should take your passport with you if you cross the border. (Learn from my mistake by reading about the time I almost got kicked out of Germany here.)

You play a role in how America is perceived. “Luxemburgers are very well-traveled people, but not everyone has been to America,” said Mr. Fetter. “America is bigger and more diverse than we [Americans] think it is, so it’s probably bigger and more diverse than they [Luxemburgers] think it is. A negative action from one person can have a disproportionate impact." And on the other hand, he clarifies, positive actions can also make the same kind of impact. "People will take the actions of one person and magnify it.” (Translation: Pretend your mother is watching you and mind your manners!)

If you have a question, ask. Even if they can’t help you, the Embassy will help point you in the right direction of a resource that can. Even Ms. Shaheen still asks for help when she has a question. Once, a question to the Internal Revenue Service office in Paris paid off in a big way when the agent offered to do her taxes for her. It was a service normally reserved for the elderly, but the agent had the time so he helped her out. So, you really never know what kind of help you might receive unless you ask...

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