Written by Jacy Meyer
Did you attend last week´s Open House at the American Center hosted by the US Embassy? The room was packed to the gills, surprising probably most of the attendees and definitely the Embassy staff. While the requisite number of 20-somethings was there, a large amount of families with children and older adults attended as well, quelling the myth the expat population in Prague is solely composed of post-university English teachers. The Embassy website says more than 250 people attended, and from the looks of it, that number sounds about right.
I´d gone for information on voting. The Republicans Abroad and Democrats Abroad cozily shared a table in a pleasant non-partisan way. For those who are interested in voting, visit www.fvap.gov. It´s really a website with voting information for military personnel, but they have links to all the state´s election departments. Follow the instructions for your particular state. If you are aligned with a certain party their local branch may be able to assist you as well. Visit www.republicansabroad.org or www.democratsabroad.org. Finally, you can pick up registration and absentee ballot requests at the US Embassy (http://prague.usembassy.gov, Tržiště 15.) Make sure you register in enough time to receive your ballot and return it. Different states have differing deadlines regarding when an absentee ballot can be requested and when it must be returned.
Another two tables were manned by consular staff. People were filling out emergency contact cards at one table, while the other was stacked with a variety of forms, including registering your child as a US citizen, visa information for spouses married to a US citizen, getting married in the Czech Republic, request for notarization of documents and other such “living” related issues. In making a welcoming speech, US Ambassador Richard Graber stressed his desire for the Prague Embassy to be open and transparent, and that they are here for US residents living in the Czech Republic. A variety of services can be taken care of at the Embassy including applications for US passports, consular reports of births, US civil and police records and information on federal benefits. They are available to assist with absentee voting and Selective Service registration, provide US tax forms and distribute payments from Social Security and the Veterans Administration. The Embassy´s website is clear and easy to read with lots of additional links: http://prague.usembassy.gov.
Which brings us to table number four, dedicated to providing information on social security and other federal benefits, including answering social security totalization questions – which still have not been resolved in Congress. This table was situated next to the Association of American Resident Overseas folks (www.aaro.org/prague.) They are involved in a variety of issues important to citizens residing overseas including taxes, voting, the census, Medicare and Social Security. Members of the organization can also participate in their medical insurance plan.
But the most mobbed table was the one staffed by the poor young man from the Ministry of Interior. It was his painful task to distribute information on the extremely confusing Schengen expansion and what is means for US citizens. Bless his heart, he bravely got up in front of the not-so-friendly crowd, made a few brief remarks and attempted to answer some questions – mainly which dealt with how a US citizen can only be here for 90 days on their tourist visa, but it takes 120 days (or more) to process a long-term visa. He didn´t have a good answer for that; in fact suggesting people apply for their visa while still in the US – which doesn´t seem like a very viable solution. The basic rule of Schengen though is you can be in a Schengen zone country for up to 90 days out of 180 days simply on your US passport. Which means after spending three months in any of the 24 Schengen zone countries, you must leave the entire Schengen zone (not just the Czech Republic) for three months. So people can no longer pop across the border for the day to Germany or Austria, receive a new entry stamp and be free and clear for another 90 days. The Embassy reminded us they can´t help all that much with visa issues, but they will try and direct you to the proper Czech authority. For more information, click here (Embassy of the Czech Republic in Washington DC,) or see www.euroskop.cz (lots of information on Schengen rules and regs including a huge FAQ section) and www.mv.cz/english/index.html (Ministry of Interior´s English web page -has a list of documents but less than half are in English.) Euroskop is actually the Czech government´s official website on its membership in the European Union and offers a lot of referral information for foreigners on living in the CR.
On a semi-related side note, have you heard about the two Americans recently detained in Moravia for overstaying their visas? Apparently they originally said they were going to apply for asylum, but have recently changed their minds and now the border and foreign police folk say the two men are simply going to appeal the expulsion decision that was handed down. News reports say the expulsion decision included a six month ban from the Czech Republic for one of the men, and a one year ban for the other. Because they apparently stated they would not comply with the court´s decision, they were sent to a facility for detaining foreigners. Details of why exactly they were detained are fuzzy; reports are simply that the two men were detained in connection with the enlargement of the Schengen zone. The moral of the story (at least so far) seems to be if you are here illegally under the new Schengen laws and are caught, not only could you be deported, you could also be banned from the country, or in fact the entire Schegen zone.
Based on the large attendance and obvious desire for information and contact with the Embassy here, we hope these types of informative Open Houses will be more frequent. And the M&M´s and Oreos provided were a nice touch.