The United States Federal Government has been closed since October 1st, indefinitely, until America’s Congress can pass a budget to allocate funds for over 1,300 agencies. Since government shutdowns like the one in Washington DC are exceedingly rare in the developed world, the procedures and cutbacks pertaining to services, travel or otherwise, can be unclear.
Many are ad-hoc to an extent; based in part on how long the
showshutdown will last. For those of you planning a trip to, from, or within of the United States, here’s what you need to know.
A Brief Breakdown – What Is A Shutdown?
- Why The Shutdown Happened – 32 members of Congress did not approve of the Affordable Care Act, insisting changes be made to the health care legislation before they would vote to pass a budget. With insufficient votes, Congress could not approve a budget. No money, no funny, no government.
- Well, Mostly – Approximately 800,000 federal government workers have been furloughed (temporary unpaid leave) until a budget is passed. Only those employees deemed “essential” are still on the job. For example, only 3% of NASA employees are at work right now.
The biggest question at the moment is: when will this shutdown end? There are no definite answers but many believe it will be before October 17th, when the U.S. must raise its debt ceiling; otherwise defaulting on its loan payments. But until the federal government starts working again, this is the current status of services and sites pertaining to travelers.
Travel Visas To The U.S. – No Change (Theoretically)
The State Department remains operational so services such as visa applications that are funded through fees should continue to be processed at relatively normal time frames. However, during the last shutdown in 1996, nearly 30,000 applications went unprocessed per day.
Travel Visas From The U.S. – No Change
Since visas applications for other countries are handled by the consular services of those governments, your tourist visas won’t be delayed or disrupted due to the U.S. shutdown.
Passport Services For U.S. Citizens – It Depends
Although the State Department is processing new passports, renewals, and page additions as normal, several of their passport offices are located within government buildings currently closed due to the shutdown. If your passport is in one of them, it won’t be processed until the shutdown ends.
U.S. National Parks – All Closed
Including the Grand Canyon, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Joshua Tree, Yosemite, and Virgin Islands National Park in the Caribbean. Here’s a Wikipedia page with the full list of now-closed national parks. I’d link to the government pages but they’re all down as well.
Smithsonian Museums And National Zoo – Closed
In Washington DC, 17 Smithsonian Museums, plus the National Zoo, are closed during the shutdown as well as the American Indian Museum Heye Center and National Design Museums in New York City. A shame, because the National Air and Space Museum remains my favorite in the world.
U.S. National Forests – Partially Closed
It’s not practically possible to close all National Forests, which total 769,000 square kilometers (297,000 square miles) so rather, all campgrounds and offices must remain empty. National park rangers and security will still be working though, in case you’re worried about serial killers on your next hike.
Monuments, Capitol, White House Tours – Closed And Canceled Until Further Notice
Pretty much everything on this list of US National Monuments, including the Statue Of Liberty and Washington Monument are closed. Tours of the US Capitol Building, one of 5 popular tourist destinations that won’t disappoint you, are also on hiatus during the shutdown. State monuments and government buildings like the Texas Capitol Building in Austin are open however.
Will The Airlines Refund Me If My Travel Plans Are Ruined?
Having just called a number of major airlines, many will issue vouchers for future travel, if you can prove your trip was to a destination (e.g. National Park) directly affected by the shutdown. (U.S.-based carriers seemed more sympathetic to such concerns; if you’re a furloughed employee, be sure to mention that as well.) In case you can’t cancel your plans, you may want to load up on a few airplane meals since America’s Food and Drug Administration isn’t inspecting food imports during the shutdown. I don’t know how preventing e-coli isn’t essential but look on the bright side, it may just help you overcome traveler’s constipation.
Finally, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (the folks who can inspect your digital assets) and the Transportation Security Administration are both working at near normal capacity. Which means you can expect the delays, long lines, and pat-downs of suspicious children to continue as normal.