OSAC constituents have increasingly indicated an interest in mobile applications (“apps”) that could help prevent or resolve normal travel and safety concerns for travelers overseas. The travel app market is competitive, with some private-security providers supporting systems for traveler tracking and global emergency assistance. However, some free apps are available to independent travelers and private-sector organizations operating overseas without the ability to budget for these products, some of which can be quite expensive.
This report details a number of apps supported by the U.S. Government (USG). Most of these apps have Blackberry, Apple, and Android versions, and all can be downloaded free of charge. Many of these apps can be downloaded, preprogrammed, and then used offline, so they are particularly useful if traveling to remote, isolated areas. Apps offer basic content and functionality to users in offline mode or without an Internet connection; this is the most fundamental difference between a mobile website and an application. Further, a well-designed app, which stores data locally on a device, can perform actions much faster than a mobile website, which stores data on a remote web server.
In addition to apps, many of these resources can also be found on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social media platforms. While all of them may not be necessary for every trip, this is a listing of some of the more useful, relevant USG apps that a traveler might need.
Department of State
OSAC: This app is designed to allow OSAC constituents to access resources and gain global and situational awareness of the security environment. The OSAC app offers many of the same tools and reports provided on osac.gov. Users can access Events, original OSAC Analysis, the incident reporting tool, and Crime & Safety Reports. In addition, Consular messaging, including Travel Warnings and Travel Alerts, are also available. The filtering tool offers the user the ability to customize the app to show only reporting in the region/country of their choosing. Those with an osac.gov login can access contact information for embassies and consulates, as well as OSAC research analysts.
Department of Health and Human Services: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
TravWell: This app provides destination-specific vaccine recommendations, a checklist of what you need to do to prepare for travel, and a customizable healthy travel packing list. The app can store travel documents, keep records of medications and immunizations, and set reminders to get vaccine booster doses or take medicines. The 2.0 version is expected in July.
Can I Eat This?: This app can help prevent food and water borne illnesses while abroad. Based on the destination and a few easy questions and graphics, the app will advise whether a food or beverage is likely safe. It includes a short rationale to explain why consumables likely are or are not safe to eat.
Department of Homeland Security
My TSA: This app provides real-time updates on airport delays. It includes how long security lines are at various airports; information about what you can and cannot bring onto an airplane; and a frequently-asked question list, including new advanced imaging technology.
Border Wait Time: This app makes it easier for travelers to plan their trip across U.S. land borders. The app provides estimated wait times and open-lane status at land ports of entry, which may be particularly helpful when in an area with multiple crossings. Wait times for pedestrian and passenger/commercial vehicle crossings are broken down by lane type (standard, SENTRI, NEXUS, FAST, Ready Lane, etc.).
FEMA: This app contains disaster safety tips, an interactive emergency kit list, emergency meeting location information, and a map with open shelters and open Disaster Recovery Centers. It also has a Disaster Reporter feature to submit GPS photo reports of disasters.
Disaster Mitigation Best Practices: This app is a collection of ideas, activities/projects, and funding sources that can help reduce or prevent the impacts of disasters.
Mobile Passport Control: This app expedites travelers’ entry into the U.S. U.S. and Canadian citizens can submit their information to CBP via the app prior to arrival.
Department of Commerce: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
NOAA Now: This app can help travelers be prepared for inclement weather conditions. It provides the latest information from NOAA on hurricanes and tropical storms in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans; mainland storms, including alerts; worldwide animated satellite views; and the ultraviolet index.
Tsunami Alert: This app, also produced by NOAA, sends alerts for the US, Canada, and all countries along the Pacific Ocean, India Ocean, and Caribbean Sea for tsunami warnings, watches, and advisories.
Department of Defense
American Forces Network (AFN) 360: This app allows anyone in South Korea or Japan to access to the AFN radio stations throughout the Pacific Region for guidance during a crises or contingency.
Most USG apps can be found the Federal Government Mobile Apps Directory. They can generally also be found in the app stores of the mobile operating system.
Some U.S. embassies or consulates also have mobile applications. Embassy Warsaw, Virtual Embassy Tehran, and Embassy Rio de Janeiro, for example, have apps. When available, the app can often help you find answers to visa questions, provide Consular Affairs assistance to expatriates and visiting U.S. citizens, and provide you with the latest news from the Embassy news feed and other social media platforms.
Beyond USG sources, there are hundreds of commercially available mobile apps to assist with and simplify travel. Some are free while others are fee-based. Some customizable content includes mobile messaging and social media; transportation trackers; currency converters; local transportation, dining, and accommodations providers; city orientation; walking and tourism guides; women’s safety; air quality alerts; and cultural, linguistic, and translation sources. Many travelers find these apps useful in pre-arranging travel logistics, simplifying and organizing their data, and/or being informed in near real-time. Many travel industry websites maintain popular lists (DigitalTrends, Travel+Leisure, TimeOut, BusinessInsider, Guardian). OSAC cannot promote or recommend any of these apps but notes that even those without a direct security nexus might be considered prior to travel, if only to ease the burden of navigating a new city or understanding local culture.
Some host governments have released mobile apps to alert users of emergency situations and offer real-time guidance (see OSAC’s Report “Terrorist Threat Levels in Western Europe”). For example, the French government launched a public emergency notification mobile application called SAIP. In the event of a security crisis in the vicinity of a SAIP user, the user should receive notifications regarding the incident and guidance from authorities on how to respond. Similarly, citizenAid mobile application provides guidance to individuals involved in a variety of crisis situations, including terrorist attacks, in the United Kingdom (UK). Cardiff, Wales, UK, has just launched the EVAC Cardiff mobile application to provide information to the public in the event of an emergency. The South Korean Ministry of Public Safety and Security “Emergency Ready” app allows users to make emergency 119 calls, locate the nearest emergency shelters, and watch videos related to CPR, First Aid, etc.
A Word of Caution
There are some countries that have very strict, and often monitored, Internet usage, making apps—even ones internal to an organization—a potential security vulnerability. Certain places, including China, are known for the use of sophisticated cyber capabilities (spear phishing, targeting of mobile devices, social engineering/network manipulation). Viruses, malware, and other forms of malicious software are common. In these places, all visitors should be aware that they have no expectation of privacy in public or private locations. All means of communication, including telephones, mobile phones, faxes, emails, and text messages, are likely monitored. For example, the Chinese government has declared publicly that it monitors private email and Internet browsing through cooperation with the limited number of Internet service providers (ISPs) and wireless providers in China. Many popular services and websites (Google, Twitter, Facebook) are blocked. WeChat and other alternative Chinese applications are nearly ubiquitous; however, they have built-in features that allow the Chinese government to monitor and censor messages, access the device’s address book and photos, track the user’s location, and activate the microphone or camera. In another example, in response to political unrest, the government of Ethiopia suspended Internet and mobile data traffic in October 2016 before restoring limited service. Access to certain social media remains prohibited, and the U.S. Embassy has experienced difficulties in communicating with American citizens. If traveling to countries that restrict and/or monitor cyber usage, arranging a cyber security awareness briefing may be prudent. Cyber security awareness is designed to educate computer users on current cyber trends and topics and to promote safe cyber security practices.
Other locations may not have a developed telecommunications infrastructure or may to too remote to permit mobile app. For example, in mainly rural or unpopulated countries such as Mali, cellular phone coverage is limited in many areas. And even in countries experiencing rapid modernization, travelers may find difficulties with communications. For instance, Burma’s telecommunications and Internet infrastructure remains substandard, and access is limited outside of urban areas and large towns. An estimated 75% of the population has access to cell phones, and approximately 4% have landlines, making communication by telephone somewhat difficult due to infrastructure issues. Travelers should understand that they may not have access to cellular networks and should consider redundant/alternative forms of communication. In these cases, apps will need to be installed prior to arrival.