Consulate vs embassy: What’s the difference?

While they share many similarities, the two also have distinct differences.

Muslim woman near US embassy

What's Inside

What's Inside

You may have heard of consulates and embassies. But unless you’re a government employee, you may not understand what these are or the differences between them.

In short, United States embassies and consulates are U.S. headquarters located in other countries. They operate to promote and advance U.S. interests globally, which is part of the U.S. diplomatic mission. They also exist to help U.S. citizens who are abroad. 

This article aims to help you better understand the differences when it comes to a consulate vs an embassy in case you ever need their services. We discuss embassies and consulates in more detail, including what United States embassies and United States consulates do and who runs them.

What is the United States’s diplomatic mission?

The U.S. diplomatic mission consists of its embassies, diplomatic posts and consulates. These entities aim to carry out foreign policy objectives for the U.S. These policy objectives include: 

  • Communication with the media
  • Promotion of international prosperity and peace
  • Representation in international organizations
  • Negotiation with other countries that are United Nations members

The work of the U.S. embassies and U.S. consulates is crucial to achieving these goals. 

At the same time, embassies and consulates also help U.S. citizens and noncitizens. They can protect you during national upheaval or help you travel to a new and foreign destination. We discuss this in more detail below.

What is an embassy?

U.S. embassies act as official headquarters for the U.S. in countries abroad. Each foreign country that houses an embassy is called a host country. The embassy is most often found in the host country’s capital city.

The embassy serves government representatives and U.S. diplomats who are in the host country. It also supports U.S. citizens’ needs while they’re abroad.

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What do embassies do? 

United States embassies are liaisons between the U.S. and the host countries. The functions that an embassy serves include: 

  • Analyzing the political climate and operations of the host country
  • Educating local businesses, host government representatives, the media, educational institutions, nongovernmental organizations, private citizens and the media about the U.S. and its policies
  • Sponsoring professional, cultural and educational exchanges 
  • Training military and law enforcement personnel from the host country (if the host country requests it)
  • Through embassy findings, helping U.S. businesses locate customers and partners in the host country
  • Interviewing citizens of the host country when those citizens want to travel to the U.S. for tourism, business or education purposes
  • Assisting in the process of helping citizens of the host country obtain visas to travel to the U.S.

Along with helping U.S. citizens who’ve crossed borders or traveled overseas, many of the above functions aim to create stronger connections between the U.S. and its host countries and to promote national security.

Who runs the U.S. embassies? 

In general, an ambassador or “chief of mission” leads each United States embassy. This person is a representative of the U.S. president. Ambassadors are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate.

Several government representatives and members of staff work under the ambassador. This may include the deputy chief of mission: 

  • The deputy chief of mission
  • U.S. Foreign Service Officers from the Department of State
  • Specialists from the Department of State
  • Representatives from the U.S. Agency for International Development
  • Representatives from the Department of Defense 
  • Representatives from the Department of Justice
  • Representatives from the Department of Homeland Security
  • Representatives from the Department of Agriculture
  • Representatives from the Department of Commerce

What is a consulate?

A U.S. consulate is a branch of the U.S. embassy in that consulate’s host country. Each consulate follows the leadership of the embassy ambassador in its host country. While there’s only one embassy for each host country, there can be multiple consulates, typically in the country’s large cities. Like the U.S. embassies, U.S. consulates are part of the U.S.’s mission.

What do consulates do?

Generally, United States consulates have the same functions and duties as embassies, but the scale of consulate functions is smaller. U.S. consulates may be responsible for the following: 

  • Working with foreign and U.S. law enforcement to track human rights abuses, verify records and fight international crime
  • Providing birth registrations, passports and other services for U.S. citizens visiting or living in the host country
  • Implementing foreign policy work based on policies devised by the embassies in their host countries
  • Issuing visas to foreign citizens who want to travel to the U.S. for work, tourism or study

Who runs the U.S. consulates?

The leader of a U.S. consulate is called a consul general, and the embassy ambassador leads the consul general. The main reason consul generals follow where embassy ambassadors lead is to maintain a unified U.S. approach to foreign policy. 

How a lawyer may help

Foreign relations can be complex, and some people find attorney assistance beneficial when traveling outside of the U.S. or into the country. If you must interact with a U.S. embassy or U.S. consulate, an attorney can help you identify and complete the necessary paperwork for your official request. They can also help you understand what to expect regarding your immigration status when you travel abroad. With attorney assistance, you might feel more prepared for international travel.

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Frequently asked questions

Where are the U.S. consulates and U.S. embassies located?

U.S. embassies are in the capital city of a host country, and U.S. consulates are typically located in the larger cities of the country. There is one embassy per host country, and there can be multiple U.S. consulates in a country.

What countries do not have U.S. embassies?

Currently, there are more than 190 United States embassies, diplomatic missions and offices providing consular services around the world. However, several nations don’t have U.S. embassies, including North Korea, Andorra, Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Democratic Republic of Sao Tome and Principe, Principality of Monaco, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Tuvalu and Republic of Nauru. The U.S. also halted some embassy services in some countries. For instance, the embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, suspended its operations on August 31, 2021, but continues to serve U.S. citizens and their family members through its officials in Doha, Qatar. For updates on embassy services you can and can’t access in your location, you can check and click on the country of interest for detailed information.

Can I apply for a visa at a consulate or embassy?

Yes, you can apply for a visa at a consulate or embassy. In many cases, you can visit the embassy website of the country where you are to access information about how to apply for a visa. The processing of your visa might be done through your local consulate.

Can a consulate or embassy help me in a foreign country?

Yes. If you’re a United States citizen, a U.S. embassy can help with lost travel documents, and it can help you receive aid or get out of a host country in times of unrest. If you’re not a U.S. citizen, the embassy in your country can help you apply for a visa to travel to the U.S. It may also help you receive aid or leave your country during times of political turmoil.

Disclaimer: This article is provided as general information, not legal advice, and may not reflect the current laws in your state. It does not create an attorney-client relationship and is not a substitute for seeking legal counsel based on the facts of your circumstance. No reader should act based on this article without seeking legal advice from a lawyer licensed in their state.

This page includes links to third party websites. The inclusion of third party websites is not an endorsement of their services.

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