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Consulate and Embassy- what’s the difference?

on March 30, 2018

I recently had cause to consider the title question, and realized that I couldn’t quite answer it.  It was on my mind as I renewed DD’s passport and needed to browse the travel.state.gov website for the appropriate forms.  It popped up again when my parents sent me a box of some childhood documents, including my original application for Naturalization, which had some government addresses on it.  Do you know the difference between a consulate and an embassy?  Let’s find out!

I first conducted an informal poll, asking DH (older than me), a coworker (my age), and DD (16 years old).  These were the results:

DH said: A consulate is never located in a capital city, and is where you can interact with staff that are official employees/agents of the United States government for document processes like obtaining a Consular Report of Birth Abroad (which is what we got for our little guy when he was born in Seville as a US citizen).  An embassy’s grounds are considered US land guarded by the US military, usually the Marines, are located in capital cities, and are where one can talk to the Ambassador.

Coworker said: I remember something about the guy from The Da Vinci Code trying to hide from the French FBI at the US embassy in Paris.  I don’t know what a consulate is.

DD said: What?  Um, I have no idea what those words are.



Yes, my husband is a huge nerd.  Anyway, based on my poll of 3 people, I saw that there was a need for two thirds of the population to become at least slightly more informed about these places, especially if traveling abroad.  First, official definitions:



  1. the place or building in which a consul’s duties are carried out.
    synonyms: diplomatic mission · mission · embassy · consulate · ministry



     1.  the official residence or offices of an ambassador.
          synonyms: consulate · legation · ministry

So…do you see what I see? They are synonyms for each other, but we know they probably perform different functions, or they wouldn’t be 2 separate things with 2 different names.  I shall now deep dive into some government websites- please vouch for me if I wind up on an FBI watchlist.

I first went right to travel.state.gov and clicked “Find U.S. Embassies and Consulates,” and looked at the options for Ecuador and Spain.  True to what my husband said, the Embassies were located in the capital cities (Quito and Madrid, respectively) and the consulates were located in non-capital major cities (Guayaquil and Barcelona).  So, what was the office in Seville I went to for DS’s Consular Report of Birth Abroad?  I dug some more and found a listing of Consular Agencies.  These have many of the same services as the full Consulate, but are conveniently located in smaller regions.  The Agencies seem to have short hours and appointments are recommended; some of Agencies’ websites also have a list of local lawyers and medical resources for Americans.  Not all countries have them- Ecuador has no Consular Agencies listed, for example.

Ok, let’s learn about Consulates!  The website for the Barcelona Consulate has a list of services offered to US citizens visiting or residing in Catalonia, Aragón and Andorra:

  • passport services
  • notarial services
  • birth registration services (like Consular Reports of Birth Abroad), among other services

They provide links/info for the following categories in the event of an EMERGENCY:

    • Immediate replacement for lost or stolen passports
    • Arrests
    • Reporting a Death
    • Assistance for Victims of Crime
    • Emergency Financial Assistance
    • Abduction

The Consulate is also the place to go for Public Diplomacy, whose stated mission is to ” promote and explain U.S. government policies and processes, as well as the values, culture and history of the United States.”   This includes supporting cultural activities and exchange programs. Local community programs will request to have Consulate support or resources, for example.

In Ecuador, most of the provinces are serviced by the Consulate in Guayaquil, but some have to trek to the Embassy in Quito for services.  Interestingly, one can get things delivered to the Consulate or Embassy in Ecuador in their name as long as it is declared as having zero value (mail service is frustratingly slow and inefficient throughout the country- I never mail things to family there).

As for Visas, Consulates have it pretty clear- visa approvals are the responsibility of the Embassy.

Onto Embassies!  The US Embassy Madrid’s site states that:

The United States Mission in Spain comprises the American Embassy in Madrid and the Consulate General of the United States in Barcelona.

So…it seems that the hierarchy is:

  1. Embassy, or more accurately- the Ambassador at the top
  2. the Consulate and its Consul below that
  3. the Consular Agency at the bottom

More definitions:

  • An ambassador is a direct representative of a head of state to another country, which is why each country only has one.  They are engaged in a permanent diplomatic mission between the US and the country in question, which is part of the reason the grounds of the embassy are considered US soil.  Local governments will request support/resources from the Embassy as another government entity.
  • A consul is a representative of a government to another, and there can be many of these per country.  This is why the US can have just the one Embassy in Ottowa, Canada, but have 5 or 6 Consulates across the country.

But what can you get at an embassy that you can’t get at a Consulate?  It seems that some things can get submitted to a Consulate, but are ultimately approved by the Embassy (like travel visas).  This suggests that you may have a faster turnaround time on services or documents if you can submit them right at the Embassy and the location works for you.  Many Embassies contain a Consular Services section/office, which can provide the services listed for a Consulate. 

If you’re a guest visiting the Ambassador, you pretty much have to go to the Embassy.  But for your average traveller, the services provided at a Consulate are generally more than adequate, but could take a bit longer to process. 

I read somewhere that the Embassy is like the main library branch on a college campus- the head librarian’s office is there, it has the longest hours and biggest collection of books,  and you can often perform community errands there like submitting a passport application or paying for a bus pass.  Then, the Consulate is like a satellite library branch- staff librarians, shorter hours, fewer books, and limited community services.  This analogy makes perfect sense to me.


My lesson learned here: add the physical address/phone #/email address of the appropriate Embassy/Consulate in the regions of the countries we are going to visit to my travel planner.  Better to have and not need the info than need it and not have it in a pinch…

Speaking of planning for eventualities…the Department of State urges US citizens to register before they travel as part of the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), which lists the following benefits for those enrolled:

  • Receive important information from the Embassy about safety conditions in your destination country, helping you make informed decisions about your travel plans.
  • Help the U.S. Embassy contact you in an emergency, whether natural disaster, civil unrest, or family emergency.
  • Help family and friends get in touch with you in an emergency.

For what it’s worth, I always register our international trips with STEP. It’s simple and brings me some peace of mind. I know some are wary about giving the government even more information regarding your whereabouts, but I decided that privacy tradeoff is worth it to me.

As an alternative, if you do Twitter, add @TravelGov to your feed. They send out country-specific Travel Alerts, passport reminders, travel safety tips, and more.

Let me know if you have any questions!

One response to “Consulate and Embassy- what’s the difference?

  1. VivaLaDiva405 says:

    The library analogy did it for me, thanks! #knowledge

    Liked by 1 person

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