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Today Mitt Romney called Benghazi the capital of Libya (it's Tripoli) and apparently mixed up consulates and embassies. I thought it'd be a handy question to have on here, for those sorting out visas and the like when wondering about consulates and embassies.

So, the question - from a traveller's point of view, what's the difference between an embassy and a consulate, and what would you use each one for?

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5 Answers

up vote 15 down vote accepted

From the perspective of a traveler, there is almost zero difference.

Both embassies and consulates are representative departments of a foreign country/government within another country.

Technically, an Embassy is where an "Ambassador" is based. As there can only be one Ambassador for a specific country, there can only be (at most) one Embassy. As the Ambassador is the highest ranking representative of that foreign government, the Embassy is thus also deemed to be the highest level of representative location.

A consulate is similar, but generally deemed to be a lower ranking due to the lack of an Ambassador. Consulates will generally be smaller - often being more like an office where the embassy often doubles as the actual residence for the Ambassador and/or some of his staff.

Some countries may not have an embassy in a specific country, but may only have a consulate there. This will occur in the situation where there is no ambassador assigned to the country.

From a travel perspective, both will generally provide the same services, and normally location will be far more relevant than the name. In some cases consulates may be slower to process requests as they may simply pass them onto the Embassy rather than doing them themselves. eg, the Australia consulate in San Francisco does not issue new passports - they are forwarded to the embassy in Washington DC, however all passport requests from people in the San Francisco area must be done via the local consulate and can not be sent directly to the embassy!

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good explanation. I would just add that as a traveler even if you are at an embassy, you will go to the consular section of that embassy, because they deal with passports and visa. There is often a separate entrance for the consular section used by the public, while the main entrance is for official guests. –  Peter Hahndorf Sep 12 '12 at 19:18
    
yes but I think consulates offer way fewer services and opening times in general. On the other hand they offer a closer service (so you don't need to go across your country to get a visa). I also believe embassies usually stand in the capital city of a country (and not in the biggest/economic capital). For example, in Canada, Ottawa has a lot of embassies while Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver are larger cities. –  Vince Sep 12 '12 at 20:06
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Consulates frequently will offer fewer services, but generally these will be services not relevant to travelers. I've never come across any travel services that couldn't be handled at a consulate but could by an Embassy. And yes, Embassy's will normally be in the capital city due to it being the more logical place for the Ambassador to be based. –  Doc Sep 12 '12 at 20:45
    
It's more that like when you're in St Petersburg, Russia, there's only a consulate, and there is no embassy, although my visa was delayed, I was told, because the ambassador was busy, although that could have been translation problems and they just meant "the guy who does it". –  Mark Mayo Sep 12 '12 at 20:56
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-1 It is incorrect to assume that they are more or less synonymous to each other. There are embassies without Ambassadors. –  andra Sep 13 '12 at 15:49
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Man, these answers are confused. Which is understandable, because this is complex, but quoting Wikipedia isn't going to do it. Here's my understanding, based on holding a diplomatic passport for 18 years and seeing all this first hand & up close.

So on a purely practical level, Doc's got it right: embassies and consulates are pretty much interchangeable from a traveller's view, as they normally both provide consular services like visas. All things being equal, it's usually better to deal with an embassy since they're usually larger and better resourced, and on occasion handle things that consulates don't. (There are exceptions, eg. sometimes embassies in awkwardly located capitals outsource visa processing to consulates in bigger cities, but this is rare.) When in doubt, check the website or give them a call.

On a legal level, let me try to straighten out the terminology a bit.

  • An ambassador is a direct representative of a head of state to another country, which is why each country only has one.
  • A consul is a representative of a government to another, and there can be many of these per country.
  • An embassy is a permanent diplomatic mission (read: a delegation of diplomats) led by an ambassador. The term is often also used for the physical building they occupy, but that's more correctly termed a chancery.
  • A consulate is a government delegation led by a consul. Likewise, the word is often used to describe the building itself.
  • Consular services is the umbrella term for services provided to individuals: visas, passports, etc.
  • A honorary consul is a local eminent person, often a citizen of the host country with business ties to the other, who has been granted (very) limited powers to provide consular services in a place that wouldn't otherwise have any.
  • An honorary consulate is wherever said eminent person chooses to hang his or her fancy plaque on the wall. These are usually useless for day-to-day travel, since they generally have no regular opening hours or powers to issue visas, but they can be handy in an emergency (arrested, passport lost, etc).

In theory, the Vienna conventions try to divide the roles of diplomats and consuls, so that diplomats/embassies take care of state-to-state relations and consuls/consulates should handle the day-to-day grunt work of providing consular services. In practice, though, these roles are happily muddled; while consulates don't do state-to-state diplomacy, virtually all embassies handle consular services. Sometimes the embassy has a separate "consular section", which may even be in a different location, but it's still overseen by the ambassador and thus an integral part of the embassy.

Finally, having a full-fledged consulate without a corresponding embassy would be unusual in the extreme. What's more common is that an ambassador is accredited to multiple countries, and the "sub"-countries without an embassy have honorary consulates.

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This is a valuable description of the legal framework but the actual answer to the question at hand is not entirely correct. There are embassies without consular section (admittedly few of them but I have met them!) so it can make a practical difference. –  Annoyed Jun 2 '13 at 9:49
    
I did say "virtually all embassies handle consular services", but exceptions to this are really quite rare. The only case I'm presently aware of is a couple of embassies in Canberra that delegate all their visa handling to their consulates in other (far larger and more convenient) Australian cities like Sydney. –  jpatokal Jun 2 '13 at 12:06
    
I mentioned two other cases below but the simple and fully correct answer is that as a traveler, you need consular services and your country can let you know where to go to obtain them. It's as simple as that. What's the point in getting into the intricacies of whether they are “overseen” by the ambassador or pretending both are interchangeable (with or without adverbs) when they are not? Also, how would you know if embassies provide a better service (apart, perhaps, from those of your own country)? –  Annoyed Jun 2 '13 at 13:24
    
A consulate and the consular section of an embassy are practically interchangeable from a traveller's point of view. And the rule of thumb is that the consular section attached to the embassy usually -- not always, but usually -- has better opening hours, more staff, more powers and faster turnaround than a stand-alone consulate. –  jpatokal Jun 3 '13 at 6:32
    
Sure, but what you wrote is that embassies and consulates are interchangeable. They are not, there are some embassies without consular section. Of course that's not very common and you hedged your statements with adverbs like “virtually” and “pretty much” but the basic point needed to be stressed and is more important from a practical point of view than all the discussions on ambassadors and the like. All that was needed, really, is the sentence you added (+1), not a long argument. –  Annoyed Jun 3 '13 at 13:43
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The two highly voted answers are not entirely correct. Embassies represent the interest of their home country, consulates serve the public (EDITED, see comments below). Of course, each country has some freedom in how to organize their diplomatic network but that's the general idea and it's regulated by international treaties.

To take an example I have first-hand experience with, to get a renewal of my passport or any other official business involving my home country, I have to go to a consulate, not an embassy. The catch is that most embassies also have a “consular section” (something like a consulate within the embassy) but that's not a rule or a given. It's rare but possible for an embassy not to have one. In this case, a stranded traveler who would show up to get emergency documents or a visa wouldn't be received at all and instead sent to a (general) consulate, often in another town, possibly even in another country. It might seem like a somewhat theoretical distinction because it's not very common but it does happen.

Some examples:

  • Belgian embassy in Brazil.
  • French, US or UK embassy in the Netherlands (all in the Hague, all have a consulate general in Amsterdam, UK even handles visa applications in Düsseldorf, Germany).
  • French, US and other embassies in Australia (embassies are in Canberra, consulates are spread all over the country).
  • French embassies in Montenegro (no consulate at all), South Africa (consulate in Cape Town and Johannesburg) and Switzerland (two consulates in the French-speaking part of the country but no consular section in Bern).
  • Swiss embassies in Bratislava, Budapest, Ljubljana, Prague and Zagreb (residents of these countries have to go to Vienna, Austria).

Embassies and consulates are not really interchangeable and in all these cases, it makes a practical difference.

Bottom line, as a traveler, what you need is consular services and the relevant country should provide information on how you go about obtaining them. Even if at the end of the day, that will often mean showing up at the embassy's address, you don't care about and don't need an embassy per se (incidentally, as a EU citizen, under certain conditions, you might get them through another EU member state's diplomatic network).

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Is anything here actually false or bad advice or is the minus vote merely some petty comeback because I am not particularly diplomatic? –  Annoyed Jun 2 '13 at 13:25
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just ignore it. Some people just don't have the guts to have a proper open discussion. –  andra Jun 2 '13 at 20:23
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I agree with this answer, I asked a cousin who works in my country's embassy in a foreign country, he said that having two buildings in different locations in a foreign country is expensive, providing security and other stuff.. so embassies usually have consulates within them... but no the opposite. –  user1712 Jun 2 '13 at 20:44
    
@Annoyed - you can jump into the Travel Chat and discuss if you'd like. Unfortunately there are often downvotes anonymously without reason on SE sites - you just learn to have a thick skin ;) –  Mark Mayo Jun 2 '13 at 23:28
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@Annoyed: Since you seem to like nitpicking, consulates do not serve "citizens of this country", they serve the public. As a traveler, I've needed visas a lot more often than I've lost my passport, and have thus spent a lot more time dealing with other countries' embassies than with my own. At the end of the day, though, the whole question that kicked this off is pretty hypothetical: if you need to know what an embassy or consulate can or cannot do, check their website or call them up. –  jpatokal Jun 3 '13 at 6:36
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Embassy represents country dealing with the host's government. There is always only one embassy per country, it's lead by an ambassador.

Consulate represents country dealing with individuals. There may be numerous consulates per country, there may be numerous consuls.

Confusion arises from the fact, that most often the building housing an embassy (diplomatic mission) also called embassy. And most often also houses the main consulate. From traveler point of view, you are interested only in consular services.

From Wikipedia:

The political title Consul is used for the official representatives of the government of one state in the territory of another, normally acting to assist and protect the citizens of the consul's own country, and to facilitate trade and friendship between the peoples of the two countries. A consul is distinguished from an ambassador, the latter being a representative from one head of state to another. There can be only one ambassador from one country to another, representing the first country's head of state to that of the second, and his or her duties revolve around diplomatic relations between the two countries; however, there may be several consuls, one in each of several main cities, providing assistance with bureaucratic issues to both the citizens of the consul's own country travelling or living abroad and to the citizens of the country the consul resides in who wish to travel to or trade with the consul's country.

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I disagree with Doc. There is a difference even from a travelers perspective.

The main difference can be described as follows: The embassy is a representative of its government in a foreign country. Whereas a consulate is a representative of its public administration. So as a traveler you should only be concerned with a consulate. The embassy typically acts as a communication channel between governments.

Both bodies could reside in the same building, but are usually distinct authorities with their respective responsibilities and hierarchies.

Embassies are typically only situated in the same city as the hosting government. A consulate could be located anywhere preferably at a location where many of its citizens are located.

There is also this notion of a honerary consul, where the consul is not a citizen of the country it represents.

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I also disagree with Doc. For travelers or expatriates it is the consulate that is responsible for citizens living or traveling in the host country. It is the consulate that handles emergency situations, passports, detention or arrest, as well as registering births, deaths, marriages, adoptions etc. The embassy handles diplomatic relations between two countries and a normal traveler would not need their services. Confusingly the consulate is often (but not always) located in the same building as the embassy and in this case can be referred to as the consular section. –  user27478 Sep 13 '12 at 12:11
    
A honorary consul could be the citizen of the country it represents, but he's not the professional member of the foreign service or government employee (often doing the consular work part-time). Often, honorary consuls have limited authority (e.g. they can't issue certain types of visas). –  dbkk Sep 13 '12 at 12:32
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Please provide even a single example of a location to claims to be BOTH an embassy and a consulate (as per your claim that they can reside in the same building) to back up your claim. Embassies and Consulates both provide "consular services", but that does NOT mean that an Embassy is also a consulate. –  Doc Sep 13 '12 at 16:43
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@Doc that is exactly what I am saying. They are different. –  andra Sep 13 '12 at 16:45
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Well the Dutch embassy in Paramaribo to start with, but there are dozen other examples –  andra Sep 13 '12 at 19:22
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