Embassy and Consulate - An Overview

Embassies and Consulates Are the Diplomatic Offices of a Country

Russian Embassy in Washington D.C.
The Russian Embassy building is seen March 2001 in Washington, D. C. According to news reports, the United States built a secret tunnel under the the building, formerly the Soviet Embassy. Getty Images

Due to the high level of interaction between countries in our interconnected world of today, diplomatic offices are needed in each country to aid in and allow such interactions to occur. The result of these diplomatic relationships are the embassies and consulates found in cities worldwide.


Embassy vs. Consulate

Often, while the terms embassy and consulate are used together, however, the two are very different. An embassy is the larger and more important of the two and is described as a permanent diplomatic mission which is generally located in a country's capital city. For example the United States Embassy in Canada is located in Ottawa, Ontario. Capital cities like Ottawa, Washington D.C., and London are home to nearly 200 embassies each.

The embassy is responsible for representing the home country abroad and handling major diplomatic issues, such as preserving the rights of citizens abroad. The ambassador is the highest official in the embassy and acting as the chief diplomat and spokesperson for the home government. Ambassadors are typically appointed by the highest level of the home government. In the United States, ambassadors are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate.

The member countries of the Commonwealth of Nations do not exchange ambassadors but instead utilize the office of High Commissioner between member countries.

Usually, if a country recognizes another as being sovereign, an embassy is established to maintain foreign relations and provide assistance to traveling citizens.

By contrast, a consulate is a smaller version of an embassy and is generally located in the larger tourist cities of a country but not the capital. In Germany for instance, the U.S. consulates are in cities like Frankfurt, Hamburg, and Munich, but not in the capital city of Berlin (because the embassy is located in Berlin).

Consulates (and their chief diplomat, the consul) handle minor diplomatic issues like issuing visas, aiding in trade relationships, and taking care of migrants, tourists, and expatriates.

In addition, the U.S. has Virtual Presence Posts (VPPs) to assist people around the world in learning about the US and the areas in which the VPP is focused. These were created so that the US could have a presence in important areas without physically being there and the areas with the VPPs do not have permanent offices and staff. Some examples of VPPs include the VPP Santa Cruz in Bolivia, the VPP Nunavut in Canada, and the VPP Chelyabinsk in Russia. There are about 50 total VPPs worldwide.

Special Cases and Unique Situations

Though it might sound simple that consulates are in larger tourist cities and embassies are in capital cities, this is not the case with every instance in the world. There are special cases and several unique situations making some examples complicated.


One such case is Jerusalem. Though it is the capital and largest city in Israel, no country has its embassy there. Instead, the embassies are located in Tel Aviv because most of the international community does not recognize Jerusalem as the capital. Tel Aviv is identified as the capital for embassies instead because it was the temporary capital of Israel during the Arab blockade of Jerusalem in 1948 and much of the international sentiment on the city has not changed since. Nonetheless, Jerusalem remains home to many consulates.


In addition, the many countries' relationships with Taiwan are distinctive because few have an official embassy there to establish representation. This is due to the uncertainty of Taiwan's political status with regard to the mainland China, or the People's Republic of China. As such, the U.S. and United Kingdom and many other countries do not recognize Taiwan as independent because it is claimed by the PRC.

Instead, the U.S. and the U.K. have unofficial representative offices in Taipei that can handle matters such as issuing visas and passports, providing assistance to foreign citizens, trade, and maintaining cultural and economic relationships. The American Institute in Taiwan is the private organization representing the U.S. in Taiwan and the British Trade and Cultural Office fulfills the same mission for the U.K. in Taiwan.


Finally, Kosovo's recently declared independence from Serbia has caused a unique situation in terms of embassies to develop there. Since not every foreign country recognizes Kosovo as independent (as of mid-2008 only 43 do), just nine have established embassies in its capital of Pristina. These include Albania, Austria, Germany, Italy, the U.K., the U.S., Slovenia, and Switzerland (which also represents Liechtenstein). Kosovo has not yet opened any embassies abroad.

Mexican Consulates

For consulates, Mexico is unique in that it has them everywhere and they are not all confined to large tourist cities as is the case with the consulates of many other countries. For example, while there are consulates in the small border towns of Douglas and Nogales, Arizona, and Calexico, California, there are also many consulates in cities farther from the border such as Omaha, Nebraska. In the U.S. and Canada, there are currently 44 Mexican consulates. The Mexican Embassies are located in Washington D.C. and Ottawa.

Countries without Diplomatic Relations to the U.S.

Though the United States has strong diplomatic ties to many foreign nations, there are four with which it does not current work. These are Bhutan, Cuba, Iran, and North Korea. For Bhutan, the two countries never established formal relations, whereas relations were cut off with Cuba. However, the U.S. is able to maintain varying levels of informal contact with each of these four nations by using its own embassies in nearby countries or through representation by other foreign governments.

However foreign representation or diplomatic relationships occur, they are important in world politics for traveling citizens, as well as for the economic and cultural matters that result when two nations have such interactions. Without embassies and consulates these relations could not occur as they do today.