What's the Difference Between an Embassy and a Consulate?

The Diplomatic Offices of a Country

American Embassy in London being built

 

Lynda Morris Photography / Getty Images 

Due to the high level of interaction between countries in our interconnected world of today, diplomatic offices, such as embassies and consulates, are needed in each country to aid in and allow such interactions to occur. Ambassadors are their country's government representatives abroad in matters between the two countries. As well, the offices provide services for potential emigrants and international travelers. Although the terms embassy and consulate are often used interchangeably, the two are different.

Definition of an Embassy

An embassy is larger and more important than a consulate 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 such as Ottawa, Washington, D.C., and London are home to nearly 200 embassies each.

An embassy is responsible for representing the home country; for handling major diplomatic issues, such as negotiations; and for preserving the rights of its citizens abroad. The ambassador is the highest official in the embassy and acts 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.

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

Consolates and Virtual Presence Posts

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 such as Frankfurt, Hamburg, and Munich but not in the capital city of Berlin. The embassy is located in Berlin.

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

In addition, the United States has Virtual Presence Posts (VPPs) to assist people around the world in learning about the United States and the areas in which the VPP is focused. These were created so that the United States could have a presence in important areas without physically being there. The areas with the VPPs do not have permanent offices and staff and are run from other embassies. 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 VPPs worldwide.

Special Cases

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.

Jerusalem

One such unique case is Jerusalem. Though it is the capital and largest city in Israel, no country had its embassy there until president Donald Trump decided to move the U.S. Embassy there in 2018. Instead, most of Israel's embassies are in Tel Aviv because most of the international community does not recognize Jerusalem as the capital. Tel Aviv is identified as the capital because it was the temporary capital of Israel during the Arab blockade of Jerusalem in 1948. Jerusalem remains home to many consulates.

Taiwan

Few countries have an official embassy in Taiwan to establish representation due to the uncertainty of Taiwan's political status with regard to mainland China, or the People's Republic of China. As such, the United States, the United Kingdom, and many other countries do not recognize Taiwan as independent because it is claimed by the PRC.

Instead, the United States and the United Kingdom 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 United States in Taiwan, and the British Trade and Cultural Office fulfills the same mission for the United Kingdom there.

Kosovo

Not every foreign country recognizes Kosovo as independent (as of late 2017, 114 do), and just 22 have established embassies in its capital of Pristina. There are several other consulates and other diplomatic posts in the country as well. It has 26 embassies abroad and 14 consulates.

Former British Empire

The member countries of the Commonwealth of Nations (mostly former British territories) do not exchange ambassadors but instead, use the office of high commissioner between member countries.

Mexican Consulates

Mexico is distinct in that its consulates are not all confined to large tourist cities as is the case with the consulates of many other countries. For example, although 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 United States and Canada, there are currently 57 Mexican consulates. The Mexican Embassies are located in Washington, D.C., and Ottawa.

Countries Without U.S. Diplomatic Relations

Though the United States has strong diplomatic ties to many foreign nations, there are four with which it does not currently work. These are Bhutan, Iran, Syria, and North Korea. For Bhutan, the two countries never established formal relations, and Syrian relations were suspended in 2012 after the war started there. However, the U.S. is able to maintain varying levels of informal contact with each of these 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.