French embassy in ViennaI love clearing confusion for myself, and if I happen to clear the fuzziness for someone else while I’m at it, yay me :) So, this installment of such difference-acknowledgement will aim to explain the difference between various diplomatic missions, such as embassies and consulates.

I live in New York City, and here we have diplomatic missions to well over 100 countries. I’ve called these – incorrectly – “embassies,” but in all reality, they are usually “consulates,” what I’m referring to. Most embassies are located in capitals of nations, and so Washington, D.C. has all the literal embassies, save for a few, such as the ones for the countries of Andorra, Maldives, and Nauru.

Diplomatic Missions

In our globalized world today, countries tend to host residents of other countries – whether for trade or for relocation or some other reason. One of the most important tasks that a diplomatic mission carries out is to see to the safety and wellbeing of its country’s citizens, their diaspora. A diplomatic mission is essentially any of the terms that we are trying to clear up in this article, like embassies or consulates, which sets up shop in one country, state, or governing body to represent the citizens and interests of another. The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, a treaty accepted by 189 nations (as of June, 2013), sums it up as follows:

“The functions of a diplomatic mission consist, inter alia, in representing the sending State in the receiving State; protecting in the receiving State the interests of the sending State and of its nationals, within the limits permitted by international law; negotiating with the Government of the receiving State; ascertaining by all lawful means conditions and developments in the receiving State, and reporting thereon to the Government of the sending State; promoting friendly relations between the sending State and the receiving State, and developing their economic, cultural and scientific relations.”

– Resident Mission vs. Non-Resident Mission

A resident mission is what one normally considers when thinking of various diplomatic outposts. A resident mission is one where the state or nation that plays host to the diplomatic mission recognizes the sovereignty and existence of the state that it represents. It has a permanent representative office in its host state. On the other end, you may find an organization seeking to represent the people and interests of its state in another, though its host does not fully-recognize the sovereignty or existence of that state which it represents – this is a non-resident mission. An example of a non-resident mission might be Somaliland’s Representative Offices, which has outposts in cities such as London and Rome; Somaliland is recognized by most of the international community as a part of the country of Somalia, though it functions as a sovereign state, self-declared.

Embassy

An embassy is sometimes referred to as a permanent (diplomatic) mission. Often confused with consulates, like in my case, embassies are the more important representative body. Embassies represent their country or state abroad in diplomatic interests, as well as the interests of its citizens that may be living, working, or visiting the host country. To be completely technical though, embassy is defined as the diplomatic delegation itself, though most people harmlessly call their physical building such; the name for the building is actually a chancery. Its head is called the ambassador. Functions of embassies include:

  • Consular services – Services that a diplomatic mission provides for its citizens abroad; most of the time in cities other than where the embassy is established, these are handled by the embassy’s satellite offices, called consulates.
  • Representing political positions – An embassy will its diplomatic delegation will officially represent its country’s political positions and interests.
  • Messaging capacity – The embassy plays a role as an official messenger between its country’s government to its host country’s government; likewise, the embassy may, from time to time, take up the same function between its citizens abroad and their families or government back home. It also informs its own government to the conditions and states of affairs in its host country.
  • Commercial interests – Just like it represents the health, wellbeing, and interests of its citizens abroad, it does so with businesses and their assets abroad.
  • Promoting its country’s traditions, culture, and education of its history. 
Deutschland UN Mission
Consulate-General of Germany, located at 871 United Nations Plaza in New York City.

Consulate

A consulate is essentially a satellite office of the embassy, but its roles are limited in scope, usually pertaining to and prioritizing the interests and concerns of its people and businesses abroad. The head of a consulate is called a consul. If a country hosts both an embassy and one or more consulates, the consulates will take over those consular duties, which include:

  • Emergency assistance – If a citizen who is abroad has an emergency, the consulate is there to support them; these could include missing persons, medical emergencies, etc. Also, if the host country begins to get dangerous, the consulate will help with evacuation of its citizens abroad.
  • Passport services – A consulate will help their citizens renew or replace lost, stolen, or damaged passports and various other official documents.
  • Citizen liaison – A citizen of the consulate’s home country may seek consular assistance in communicating between themselves and family back home, and vice versa.
  • Legal help – The consulate will also look after any of their detained or imprisoned citizens, making sure that they are fairly represented and justly tried.

– Consulate-General

A consulate-general is something of a mix between a regular consulate and a full-fledged embassy. Located in most of the major cities where the embassy isn’t, a consulate-general may handle consular duties for its region, as well as additional items, such as promoting its country’s cultural events and activities in the host city. The head diplomat of the consulate-general is called the consul-general, and this diplomat may be in control of other, smaller consulates in the same host state.


• This is part of our ongoing series, “Versus: ‘What’s the Difference?’” With this series, we aim to promote a better understanding and love of the differences that make us unique while at the same time casting out doubt; hopefully, this will make us better travelers, better citizens, and better people. For more, check out the “Versus: ‘What’s the Difference?'” category »

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