You’re in another country, somewhere far from home and far from familiar. You reach for your wallet to buy a snack from the street vendor but where you expect the comforting rectangular form there is nothing. You pat again, groping yourself in desperation. Your heart rate begins to rise. It has to be here. You squat on the cement train platform, dumping the contents of your bag. You turn your pockets inside out. It’s gone.
You’re alone. What do you do?
* * * *
Drop yourself into enough foreign adventures and someday you will inevitably find yourself reenacting the age-old pocket-patting, panic-inducing where-the-hell-is-my-wallet dance. You will wonder which clever child tailed you through the market, which bar you drunkenly vacated, or which shady character on a train sidled a little too close. In the end, it doesn’t matter how it disappeared, all that matters is that it did. What’s next?
Best Case Scenario: You Planned Ahead
Before you leave your house, split your cash and cards into three different locations:
- On you: A small amount should stay on your person, in a pocket, in a passport protector under your shirt, or tucked in your bra. Stash enough cash for a cab-fare, a meal, and a hostel room (probably about $30-$50).
- Day Pack: Half of your remaining cash and one credit card go in a zippered interior pocket of your day pack (purse, fanny pack, shoulder bag, whatever you use).
- Deep Storage: Whatever’s left (at least one credit card and any remaining stores of cash) goes in your luggage. This is what you’ll be leaving at the hotel or hostel while you venture out during the day.
Pro Tip: Leave your credit card numbers with a trusted friend or family member. They will be better positioned to cancel on your behalf (or pretend to be you…) than you will be if you’re far from a solid phone line.
Second Best Case Scenario: You Didn’t Plan Ahead, But Luck Was On Your Side
If all of your money and credit cards are gone, your number one task is to obtain cash. If you are lucky enough to still have a government issued ID, you’ve got options:
- Bank – If you use a global bank (Citibank, Bank of America, etc.), head to the nearest branch location. With your ID, you should be able to access an emergency cash transfer. This will cost you somewhere between $25 and $50 and will likely require several hours of form-filling and red tape, but you’ll walk out cash in hand.
- Wire Transfer – Western Union locations exist worldwide in big cities and tiny towns. A friend or family member can transfer money to you in as little as a few hours (but it can also take up to three days). After sending funds, they’ll provide you with a confirmation number that you’ll use to collect.
Pro Tip: Western Unions are usually only open on weekdays. Banks, even global ones, often close early on Saturdays and are closed on Sundays.
Worst Case Scenario: You Have No Money, No Cards, No Identification
Without a passport or photo ID, you are effectively stuck, unable to access your bank account or Western Union wire transfer. Head to your embassy to get a temporary ID. Depending on the day of the week and how far removed you are, that process can take several days. What do you do in the meantime about food and shelter?
- Kindness of strangers: Though pride-wounding and embarrassing, asking for help in this situation may be your only choice. If you are already at a hostel or hotel and you start telling other guests your story (especially other folks traveling alone), people will offer to help. It might be $20, or it might be an offer to buy you lunch, but whatever it is, take it and be gracious. If you find yourself on the other side of this mess someday, do what you can.
- Friends of Friends: If you have Internet access, email everyone you know who might conceivably have a friend near where you are. Post your location on social media. You never know when someone’s old roommate’s brother’s exchange student will come out of the woodwork and give you a couch to crash on while you’re stuck.
- Hostel Honor Code: Hostels have seen it all when it comes to traveler emergencies. If you lose your wallet and need to stay in one place long enough to negotiate embassy red tape, explain your situation to your hostel manager. In all likelihood, they will allow you to stay extra nights and reconcile your bill when you’re back on your feet. It can’t hurt to ask.
Pro Tip: Most embassies (including the United States’) have an emergency phone line for after hours. While the embassy cannot provide financial assistance, they may be able to provide advice on accommodations or other services.
Prepare as much as you can in advance. Write down phone numbers (because you will never remember them in the moment), photocopy your passport and separate it from the original, and split your resources so no single incident can wipe you out. Above all, don’t panic. You are capable and smart and you will find a way out of any tight spot. Go forth and explore.