What Consulates Do


There are two classes of official international government representatives accepted by U.S. law and covered by two separate international treaties – the Vienna Conventions. They are diplomats and consular officers. Diplomats are posted to embassies in the capital of a country (or to the United Nations), not normally to other cities. Diplomatic missions deal with official relations between nations such as war, peace, alliances, treaties, etc. Diplomats and their families enjoy personal inviolability and are entitled to extensive privileges & immunities under U.S. law.

Consular officers are either members of a country’s foreign service or are local residents who are appointed by the foreign government to perform consular duties. All consuls must then be formally accepted by the U.S. Department of State which issues an exequatur allowing them to act in their official capacity in the United States.

Consular officers have two primary responsibilities:

1) To officially develop economic, commercial, scientific and cultural relations between the country they represent and the area in which they serve. Increasingly this means promoting commerce – trade, technology-transfer and investment – both ways. Consulates facilitate scientific, academic, cultural, business and professional exchange. They make arrangements for official visits in both directions. Consulates are a source of information on the country they represent: the economy, the society, culture, and tourism.

2) To safeguard the interests of the sending country and its citizens traveling or resident in their consular district. Traditionally these include issuing passports and other official documents (and visas for others to visit their country), helping travelers in distress, signing death certificates, legalizing or delivering official documents, and assisting travelers who have trouble with local law enforcement or immigration authorities. Some consulates have considerable responsibility for supervising their national flag shipping. Specific services are listed inside.


* Issue passports and other documents to citizens of their countries. Assist with citizenship matters.
* Issue tourist visas to others visiting the country.
* Issue work or residence permits for the country.
* Assist visitors in distress: illness, accident, disaster, or criminal acts by others.
* Assist visitors in the emergency transfer of funds.
* Assist citizens who are arrested by police or immigration authorities. Arrange for legal representation if appropriate.
* Arrange for the repatriation of citizens.
* Legalize or certify certain documents.
* Issue reports of death or accidents.
* Safeguard citizens’ interests in pension, estate and inheritance matters.
* Trace missing persons.
* Facilitate the collection of debts to their governments.
* Locate interpreters or translators.
* Facilitate expatriate voting.
* Supervise & inspect national flag vessels, aircraft and their crews.
* Promote commercial relations & scientific exchange.
* Promote exchanges in the arts. Arrange for visiting cultural exhibits and events.
* Provide information about their country.
* Promote academic and professional exchanges.


Consular functions vary greatly from post to post. Each government has very different policies as to the duties and responsibilities it will assign to each individual post. The work of a post depends on its location, on the country’s interests, on local requirements (tourism vs. trade promotion vs. registration of shipping vs. assistance to citizens vs. promotion of culture) and sometimes on the individual assigned as Head of Post. Nevertheless the local consular post is a good place to begin inquiries.


To carry out their duties consular officers establish official contact on behalf of their governments with State and local government officials and U.S. Federal officials within their consular district. State, country and municipal authorities and other local leaders utilize consulates as a convenient and direct link with foreign governments for purposes of trade, technology, investment & cultural exchange, and for other negotiations.

Although consulates are primarily concerned with protecting and assisting their own citizens, they can often be of considerable help to local authorities, and individuals, in the resolution of specific problems. See the separate brochure How Consulates Can Help Local Authorities.

The Vienna Convention requires that foreigners be allowed access to their consular officials. State or local law may require authorities to notify the consulate of the arrest of a foreign citizen whether or not the citizen wants the consulate informed.

Under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations consular officers enjoy immunity from local law with regard to their official acts. However outside their job they are in general fully subject to U.S. law, except as may be provided by individual treaties between the U.S. and their countries.


The existence of more than one consul in a given location creates a body known as a consular corps. It is a body sui generis without legal standing to act collectively. (Each government must act for itself). For convenience most consular corps organize themselves to exchange information and meet with local leaders. The senior consul (by rank and/or longevity) is called a dean and usually represents the corps for protocol purposes.


National precedence lists and most books on diplomatic protocol are written primarily for use in the country’s capital. They offer little guidance to the precedence of local officials. Local precedence must be established by local authorities, with due regard to national and international practices, and to the importance – and the sensitivities – of the officials involved (the whole point of protocol). Using the national Order of Precedence as a guide, State and municipal officials should draw parallels appropriate to the local situation. One source of help for local officials is the book Practical Protocol for Floridians, formerly available from the Florida House of Representatives in Talahassee.


As can be seen in the precedence list on the reverse, consular officers rank well below diplomats. Although consular officers may sometimes be assigned quasi-diplomatic tasks, their primary functions are those shown here and they retain their consular status.

Consular Heads of Post are usually the highest ranking foreign dignitaries officially representing their countries outside Washington and New York. Precedence follows the position, not the individual. A diplomat assigned to a consular post carries the rank of the consular position, even though the diplomat may hold a higher rank within his or her own foreign service (eg. Ambassador). A country’s Trade Commissioners, Information Officers, Science & Technology Attaches, and Cultural Attaches are also often given the rank of Consul to give them immunities and official status.

Within the same rank (Consul General, Consul, Vice Consul, etc.) consuls are ranked by their date of exequatur (the date on which they were officially recognized by the receiving country).


As the senior representatives of their governments in each territory, Consular Heads of Post are accorded a special position by the Vienna Convention, regardless of their rank or career status. (The position is analogous to the captain of a ship or aircraft). Article 16 (6) of the Vienna Convention gives all Heads of Post precedence over all consular officers not having that status. This special status is reflected in local protocol.

For example a non-career Vice Consul, Head of Post, has precedence over a career Consul, not Head of Post. However the non-career Vice Consul would rank after a career Vice Consul, Head of Post.


Under the Vienna Convention the Heads of Consular Posts are of four ranks, whether they be career or non-career officials:

  • Consul General
  • Consul
  • Vice Consul
  • Consular Agent*

* Consular agents are part-time consular officials appointed primarily by Italy, France, and the United States. The United States chooses to use paid consular agents rather than to appoint non-career consuls to supplement the consular work of its own Foreign Service officers overseas.

The Convention does not restrict the right of any nation to create other titles “Counselor”, “Chancellor”, “Deputy Consul General” “Consular Attache”, etc. -so long as they are not used to refer to Heads of Consular Posts.

For normal business correspondence the phrase “the Honorable” is usually omitted. “Consul John Doe” or “Consul General Jane Doe” are quite sufficient (and quite important in the case of non-career consuls who, unlike career officials, have legally separate private identities).

Consul General Jane Doe                            or                              Ms/Miss/Mrs Jane Doe
Consulate General of Roxania                                                     Consul General of Roxania
Address                                                                                             (Often seen in the U.S.)

If more formal usage is required for social or official occasions, the accepted form is:

The Honorable John Doe                            or                              The Honorable John Doe
Consul of Roxania                                                                           Consul for Roxania
Address                                                                                              (Sometimes used to indicate Heads of Post)

Following time-honored European custom, the word used in the Vienna Convention to designate non-career consular officers is “honorary”. The word has antique but precise legal meaning under the Convention, but is not part of a consul’s title under the VCCR. Nor does it correspond to the popular usage of the word, “in name only” or “without power or authority”, as both career and non-career officers are accorded equal powers under the Vienna Convention. An equivalent to this is the military where no distinction is made between the titles of regular and reserve officers. (A US Army Reserve colonel’s title is “Colonel”.)