A diplomatic mission is an office of one national government located in another nation's territory. There are two main types:
- An embassy is usually in the capital city at the destination; its main function is to deal with all the government-to-government issues. If there are trade negotiations to be done or one government wants to complain about some action by the other, the embassy handles that.
- Most embassies also provide consular services; that is they can also do everything a consulate can. There are some exceptions in countries where the capital city is not a major city; for example the US embassy in Canberra, Australia does not provide consular services but there are consulates in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth.
- A consulate can be located in any major city and provides consular services for individuals or businesses. If you need a visa for some country, then their nearest consulate is where you apply. If you are abroad and need a new passport, go to the nearest consulate for your home country. If you are in business and need advice about regulations, your consulate is one good source for that.
The basic rule for travellers is that if you need anything from a government other than that of the country you are in, you should contact their nearest mission.
Most nations have some system that lets a citizen who is abroad long-term register so that their home government has a record of their presence. For many countries, you can do this online but for some you may need to actually visit a consulate. Registration is generally not recommended for tourists except in high-risk areas, but it is suggested for all expatriates and overseas students.
Registering will usually get you on a mailing list that brings notifications from your government; these are sometimes rather boring but some are useful or interesting. This can be very important in some circumstances; for example if a war or epidemic breaks out, your country's mission may be the best source of information and aid. Registering can also be very useful if you need services from the home country, for example being able to vote in an election back home or wanting to ensure that your health insurance there remains valid.
Also, the missions give fine parties and may invite any citizens who are about. Diplomats tend to live rather well, with good stocks of booze (even in countries where alcohol is illegal except for diplomats), excellent cooks and good supplies of imported foods. Of course, most of their parties are only for other diplomats, local government officials and other important people; the average traveller will not be invited, though a visiting business person or journalist might be. However, they also host celebrations on their national day or other important holidays — for example, Christmas or Thanksgiving for Americans — and almost anyone with the right passport can be invited to those. If you are abroad at such a time, it is certainly worth asking. An oddity about this is that the more out-of-the-way the place is, the better your chances are. An embassy in a major capital may already have its guest list filled, but one in Back-of-beyond-istan is very likely to welcome visitors.
Help from consulates and embassies
These missions may provide a variety of services, which could include:
- If you lose your passport or it is near expiry, they can arrange a replacement. For many countries, processing time is several weeks.
- If you lose your passport and have time constraints, they can arrange for a temporary replacement in order for you to be able to head home.
- If you need a visa for the country they represent, they can issue that.
- If you marry abroad, there may be special procedures to get a visa for your spouse.
- If you are engaged, some countries, such as the USA, have a special fiancée visa; others, such as Canada, do not.
- If you have a child abroad, they can register his or her citizenship and issue a passport.
- If there is an election back home, they may be able to help you vote remotely. If not, they can at least provide advice on the procedure.
- If you want to marry abroad then some countries, such as China, require a document from your country's mission certifying that you are single. The mission may require that you produce documents such as a divorce decree or death certificate for former spouse before they will issue their document.
Details vary a lot from country to country. All missions will charge a fee for most or all these services.
Travellers should not expect too much from their country's missions abroad, though this does vary both with where you are from and where you are visiting. Most missions do not have staff or funding for various things you might think they should do.
- If you are broke and stranded they generally will not fly you home, though most will contact family or friends for you and provide a channel for them to send money.
- If you have a serious accident or illness, they should help to ensure you can receive suitable medical attention or repatriation. If you die they can contact your family (provided you filled out the emergency contact space in your passport or gave contact info when you registered with them) and may help with arrangements. They will not pay the costs of these services.
- If you are jailed, they may visit, provide a list of reputable lawyers and/or translators that can speak your own language, and can inform your family if you wish, but they are quite unlikely to provide a lawyer or translator, pay for one, or post bail. They are generally not able to directly interfere in the judicial process of the host country.
- Whether they will bring any pressure on the host government to release you or treat you well is largely a political question. If you are accused of something where supporting you might make them look bad — perhaps drugs or pedophilia — they probably will not take the risk; both civil servants and politicians tend to consider covering their own butts high on any priority list.
- Even if they do ask the host government to release you, the host government is under no obligation to do so under international law. For instance, in 1994, an American teenager was jailed and caned in Singapore for vandalism despite pressure from the US government. In other cases, an American was publicly flogged for smuggling booze into Saudi Arabia, and both China and Indonesia have executed foreigners for drug smuggling.
- There are often limitations on what they can do for people with dual nationality (see Passport); the host government may consider these to be its own citizens and prevent or limit consular involvement.
In general, they can provide information and often advice, but they will not cover your expenses.
If someone takes your passport for any reason except visa processing (for example an employer who wants it "for safekeeping" or a rent-a-whatever place that requires it "as security") this is not allowed under international law and, at least in theory, your consulate can ask the host government to lean on local law enforcement to ensure its prompt return. If this fails, the consulate is best-placed to add the document to lists of stolen passports and issue an emergency replacement.
In the event of unexpected war or very serious civil disorder, embassies may arrange evacuation flights for their own citizens and sometimes others.
Complications and variations
There are a number of complications and variations, which will only occasionally matter to travellers.
Some of the smaller or poorer nations have few missions abroad. To get a visa for Tajikistan, for example, you may have to go to a major center like Moscow or London. New York is also good for this since almost every country has a mission to the UN. The bright side is that in these cases it's often possible to apply by mail, although this means letting go of your passport for several weeks.
The reverse can apply as well. If you are in an out-of-the-way place and need consular assistance, your country may not have an embassy there so you might need to contact another mission; for example, most visitors to Bhutan would need to contact their embassy in Delhi. Alternately, your government may have an arrangement with some friendly country by which that country's mission in the country will also provide consular service for citizens of your nation. Australians may be directed to a Canadian embassy, or vice versa. A British embassy may assist citizens of another Commonwealth nation in some cases, or a European Union member nation may provide assistance to another EU member state's citizens. This is one more thing to check when planning a trip that goes far off the beaten path.
Some countries' missions have a system of dividing the destination country up into zones and requesting or even requiring that people use the consulate for their zone. In China, for example, Canada will tell someone in Wuhan to use the Beijing embassy and someone in Fuzhou to use the Guangzhou consulate, even though the Shanghai consulate might be more convenient for both. Typically, this does not apply to tourists, only to people living in the country, but it does apply to both locals and expatriates.
An honorary consul can be located anywhere and provides very limited consular services. Often the position is granted by a foreign government to a person with business interests in that location; they may not even be a citizen of the country they represent. For the traveller this may be of use for notary services (such as the signing of legal documents), and if you are in jail or hospital they might visit and contact the consulate for you. However, they are usually not authorized to grant visas or issue passports.
In addition to embassies and consulates, there are diplomatic missions that use other names for various reasons:
- A mission from a Commonwealth country to another is a High Commission.
- A mission from any country to the United Nations is a Permanent Mission.
- A mission from the Vatican City to any country is called an Apostolic Nunciature.
- A mission representing a non-sovereign entity (such as a province or federated state) is a delegation; its activities are classed as paradiplomacy.
- Countries that lack worldwide formal diplomatic recognition may still deploy embassies under another name. Taiwan has "Taipei Representative Offices" in many countries.
- Where direct diplomatic relations have been terminated, an interests section in a third country's embassy may be the only formal representation. Direct US-Iranian diplomatic relations ended abruptly in 1979; Pakistan is now the protecting power for an Iranian interests section in Washington, DC.
In at least 90% of cases, all a traveller has to know is how to find the nearest embassy or consulate — the one for the destination in his or her home country to get a visa and the one for his or her home at the destination for help while abroad.
For travellers, the simple rule is that unless you are an employee of your home government and travelling with a special diplomatic passport, or are a family member of someone who does, then diplomatic immunity doesn't apply to you. If you do have some official diplomatic status, then it becomes a more complex legal question and your employer should be able to provide expert advice.
Diplomatic missions have special status under international law.
- An embassy is considered entirely under the control of the sending nation, and local laws do not apply inside it. Note that an official Consulate building does not enjoy this same privilege, and local laws do still apply.
In a well-known example, British authorities cannot touch Julian Assange as long as he is in the Ecuadorian Embassy.
- Some diplomats are immune to prosecution by the host country, whether for spying or more mundane offenses; the most the host can do is expel them from the country, or intern them if the two nations go to war. However, only a relatively few senior diplomats actually enjoy full diplomatic immunity. Some mission staff may have only a weaker "consular immunity"; they cannot be prosecuted for anything done on the job, but can be for other things. Honorary consuls are not entitled to any diplomatic or consular immunity.
During the Cold War, expelling diplomats for "activities incompatible with their status" (a diplomatic euphemism for espionage) was a common practice on both sides. At one point, the British threw out 90 Russian officials in one day.
- Diplomats' luggage or things shipped in a "diplomatic bag" are immune from customs inspection, though of course intelligence services are quite interested in them and routinely try various ways to sneak a look.
There have been instances where customs officials simply ignored this restriction; for example some decades back, the Shah of Iran's sister had her luggage searched at a Paris airport — even though she vigorously protested that she had diplomatic status — and several kilos of heroin turned up. Her diplomatic status kept her out of jail, but did not save the merchandise.
- Some cars have diplomatic license plates, usually a conspicuously different colour than other plates and/or with a specific alphanumeric sequence. For example in Ottawa, these plates are white-on-red and have "CD" (from French corps diplomatique) as the first two letters. They cannot be stopped for traffic violations and in some places some of them flagrantly ignore "no parking" signs. This is particularly noteworthy with United Nations diplomats in New York City
- Diplomats are usually exempt from taxes imposed by the host country; some missions to London insist that city's "congestion charge" is a tax, which they refuse to pay.
- Reciprocity is often required as a baseline for respect, and a good deal of diplomacy is basically tit for tat. A members of a representative country's diplomatic staff refuse to pay parking tickets then the host country will likely instruct their staff in their corresponding mission to do likewise. Expulsion by the host nation of another nation's diplomatic staff may well result in their staff being correspondingly expelled. This can extend to visa policy for standard travelers, with fees and requirements often demanding the same treatment between two countries.
There are a set of rather complex rules covering how far these protections extend. Not all embassy staff have diplomatic privileges but some staff outside the embassy — for example, at a trade mission or an aid agency — may.
Employees of international organisations are not typically covered by a separate and different set of rules. Foreign military bases sometimes have a status of forces agreement or visiting forces agreement that allow its military police to turn disputes between soldiers on the overseas base over to their own country's courts martial without reference to local law. Soldiers are not considered diplomatic staff unless they work directly for an embassy.