Expat emergency planning

Expat emergency planning

In this new age of Covid-19, there’s been a whole lot of chatter in expat groups about expat emergency planning, response and preparedness. People have been taken by surprise by the reality of living abroad, being far away from their home cultures and families as well as the reality of living under regimes that aren’t our own. 

Having only been living in Singapore for 6 months when the Covid-19 pandemic started, we were caught unawares. We didn’t fully understand the laws of our new country and how they would apply to a situation where, say, we were unable to care for our children, much less one where our designated permanent guardians might not be able to even travel to get them. The idea of asking people we have only just met to be emergency contacts or temporary guardians is a concept only expats will understand. 

Not just expat emergency planning

I’ve seen so much great advice over the years about how to really be prepared for an expat emergency (well, any emergency) that I decided to put it all in one place for you, my favourite readers. This isn’t an exhaustive list and, while it is primarily meant for expats, it’s by no means an exclusive thing. Rather like my post on grab bags, it actually applies to everyone and not just people living away. Also, while this has been inspired by the latest pandemic, I’ve tried to write a more wide-ranging post to cover other scenarios as well. 

Here’s the thing, when you move to a new country, the last thing you usually think of isn’t how you will deal with a potential lockdown or emergency evacuation. Some locations, certainly lend themselves more to such a scenario, with histories of political instability and authoritarian governments. But really, if we can learn anything from the bushfires in Australia, flooding in the UK, other natural disasters in the US, not to mention the most recent coronavirus pandemic, it’s that we all need to be prepared for an emergency

So, what do we need to think about when planning our disaster response?

The first thing that comes to mind with any disaster, is evacuation. Whether it’s your house catching fire or a government shutting its borders leaving very little time to get home, there are plenty of scenarios in which any of us could be faced with having to leave our homes with little to no notice. 

Grab bag / go bag

Most of us have been asked the question about what we would save if we could only take one thing. What if that one thing was a bag with all your most valuable things inside? I wrote a whole post about packing a grab bag and what it should contain. It included a list of documents including up-to-date passports and IDs, ideas for a bag with some basics in it and some extra suggestions for an emergency survival kit. You can find my post on grab bags here.


For any documentation that’s in your grab bag (and maybe even more), make sure you have scanned copies on your computer and saved in your email. It might be worth sending copies to a family member or advocate as a backup. Getting duplicate copies in so much easier if you can prove you had those documents in the first place.

More than evacuation

We don’t just need to think of evacuation, though. There are plenty of scenarios where we might be stuck at home or the family separated with one or both parents stranded out of the country.

So what else do we need to think about?

Fridge list 

If you’ve never heard of a fridge list then it’s time you got one. This is the list you have for people coming into your house for the first time. They might be a babysitter needing emergency numbers such as police and ambulance numbers or, a friend coming in, needing to know how to contact your family somewhere else in the world. It’s always shocked me to think that my friends here would have no idea how to contact our parents or siblings (and vice versa). 

People also recommend putting more numbers on your fridge list including contact details for: 

  • 1-3 neighbours or friends
  • School
  • Doctor and dentist
  • Hospital
  • Designated local ‘temporary guardians’ 
  • Family numbers wherever they are in the world (spelled out with relationships etc including phone numbers and email addresses, location/time zone)


There’s always quite the debate around cash – some people keep large sums of money in their houses (in a safe I hope!) while others don’t bother. If you want to have cash in your house, the next question is around how much. This really varies by family and location. The most common recommendation is enough cash to purchase flights for the whole family. Many people recommend having the cash in USD, local and another back-up currency. Know that in an emergency you (or members of your household) might not be able to get the cash you/they need. 


I’m not saying you need a full-on first aid kit or the contents of a small pharmacy on hand. However, if you reply on prescription medication then you should absolutely consider having enough to last you for a week or two. 

Emergency survival kit

It might be that you need this in the event of a total lockdown for Covid-19, or that some emergency situation has arisen such as a natural disaster or civil unrest. In that case you’re going to need some emergency supplies to be kept in a waterproof zip bag including, but not limited to:

  • Water (and or something like a life water filter straw and/or sterilisation tablets)
  • At least one change of clothes per family member
  • One to two week’s worth of food 
  • 2 week’s worth of medication (see above plus general medication such as paracetamol)
  • Family first aid kit
  • Backup charging/power banks

Plan B

The older I get, and the further into our expat adventures we go, the more I realise that you need contingency plans. No-one wants to think of these things but being caught out with your head in the sand is a far worse scenario. Some eventualities you might want to think about include:

  • An idea of where you would go in an emergency and at least 2 ways to get there. Who would you contact? Where would you stay and what would you do for money when you got there? Is there a backup place to go in case you can’t get there?
  • A will in each country where you have interests or assets
  • Power of attorney and mandate for spouse
  • Guardianship arrangements for children
  • Temporary guardianship arrangements for children to allow time for permanent guardians to travel 
  • Advocate in home-country to help if needed with money transfers and any other arrangements

Share all these plans with key people – close family members, for example, the executors of your will and your designated temporary and permanent guardians. It always helps to have everyone on the same page, particularly when you are dealing with people across different countries and documents that are subject to the laws of multiple jurisdictions. Know how the local laws would apply to you and what you need to do to make sure that your wishes can be carried out. Consider the locations of your executors and permanent guardians – if they don’t live where you do, or where you come from, it can all get extremely complicated. 

Within reason, make sure all members of your household know how to access your emergency cash and documents in a rush. Make sure they all know the family contacts and how to call emergency services (911). 

Anything else

There are a few other considerations that have cropped up in my research that merit a mention too:

Pet passport

How could I leave out our lovely Wanderlust pooch?! Keeping his documents and vaccinations is something that is super important to us having been caught out by it before. We know we need to keep abreast of all the potential locations we might move to so that we are ready for a move with him as well as the Things. Believe me when I say one of the most stressful things about moving is making sure the dog gets there too! In 3 international moves with him, he has had to follow later twice.

Embassy / consulate

A recommendation in a number of expat forums is to register with your local embassy or consulate where possible. The UK FCO now doesn’t always hold a register of local Brits so it’s worth checking out what your embassy can / will / can’t / won’t do for you.

Contingency planning

I know some people who have a flat out two parents would never be on a flight together at the same time policy. I’m not sure if that applies to family holidays. Others say that two parents can never be out of the country at the same time for fear that they would both be stranded outside the country while their children were inside it. Perhaps not such a problem when travelling in and out of your country of residence as you’d almost always be allowed in but still a consideration even then.

Planning for an expat emergency isn’t the nicest of topics to cover but it does leave me feeling like I’m more prepared for all eventualities. The COvid-19 pandemic has shaken us all but I’m really hoping we will all come out of it better as people and as a society as a whole. If that includes planning so we aren’t caught off guard like this time, then that can only be a good thing.

I’d love to know where you are and how prepared you are for an emergency (DISCLAIMER – I am not this prepared but I am working on it!!!). What would you do first or where would you go? What are your must-have items? 

Emma Morrell
Emma Morrell

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