Diplomats in the US Foreign Service work in one of five career tracks. Even though they are called "generalists", which means they can work on almost any issue during their 20+ year career, they have to specialize in something. The choices are consular, economic, management, political or public affairs.
The State Department has published a quiz, which is more or less a list of job descriptions designed for potential candidates to figure out which career track is best for them.
In this post I’d like to talk about the career track I chose when I applied for the Foreign Service, after much deliberation: consular. I always thought I’d choose the political career track, because of my degree in International Relations, but after some soul-searching I realized that I liked both the substance and the day-to-day work of a consular officer better.
I have since followed the rigorous 6-week consular course at the Foreign Service Institute, and I found it absolutely fascinating. A lot of people might think that consular work is just about “issuing visas”, but in reality there is a lot more to it.
What consular officers do
Consular officers work on a variety of travel and migration-related topics, including visas, immigration, travel documents, human trafficking, adoptions, evacuations, fraud, child custody, arrests, travel advisories, and emergencies.
To do this effectively, consular officers need to understand the local language, local conditions, and make local contacts. They need to learn all about immigration law and how to apply it, develop solid interview skills, make quick decisions and have excellent judgment.
There are two sides to the consular shop in most diplomatic missions: visas and American citizen services.
On the American citizen side, consular officers help US citizens obtain official documents, and help out with things like family reunification, medical emergencies, and evacuations. They also monitor security issues that threaten the safety of Americans abroad, and make sure they have access to information to make decisions about travel and activities in the host country.
Consular officers visit prisons where American citizens are held and make sure, among other things, that they have access to legal counsel. In some countries, there may be only a few American prisoners – in others, hundreds.
On the visa side, consular officers interview applicants who want to visit the US for tourism, business, or study. Diplomats use their knowledge of the host country and US immigration law to make decisions on each individual case. The fact that American diplomats interview most potential visitors to the US is kind of unique, because many other countries don’t do that (they receive applications through the mail or use local administrative staff to do interviews).
How do consular officers advance U.S. interests?
The work consular officers do is pretty much the epitome of protecting America’s interests overseas every day, all day. Diplomats are acutely aware that their decision to allow someone to travel to the US may have severe implications, especially if the individual is dangerous. As the saying goes, “every consular decision is a national security decision.”
I’m not exaggerating when I say that millions upon millions of foreign nationals want to go and live in the US, even illegally. For example, I worked in Nigeria – a country of 170 million people – and everyone I talked to was interested in going to the US. In other words, if everyone who wanted to check out the US would be able to travel, without proper vetting and certain restrictions, it would be total chaos.
At the same time, consular work is all about customer service. For many foreigners and traveling Americans, the consular officer is the only diplomat they will ever interact with. Moreover, people who come to the US embassy often have a lot at stake; for example, they want to request US citizenship, or apply for a visa to study at an American university. These events are important to people’s lives, and often applicants are totally stressed out for the interview. I know I was when I applied for a US visa back in 2008! So it’s very important how consular officers handle cases and treat everyone.
Consular officers also act as crisis managers, for both big and small emergencies. Small emergencies include things like helping Americans who lost their belongings, or locating someone who appears to have gone missing. Bigger emergencies include things like hostage situations and evacuations after natural disasters like earthquakes.
Who can become a consular officer?
You don’t need a special degree to become a consular officer. Like in other career tracks within the Foreign Service, diplomats learn the necessary skills after they are hired.
The consular career track might be the more natural choice for people who are good at customer service and, at the same time, are interested in identifying fraudulent and illegal activities. There are a lot of legal aspects to the job, so perhaps lawyers would find consular work particularly interesting. At the same time, there is a lot of process-related work, which always needs improvement. Consular officers at higher levels also do a lot of staff management and training, since consular operations in some posts are enormous.
I often heard people say that the consular career track is the “easiest” career track, in the sense that it is easier to get hired if you choose consular. This may have been true during the 2009-2010 hiring surge, when the State Department desperately needed more consular officers to deal with the increasing caseloads in countries with emerging economies (like China and Brazil).
But there is no official source that confirms that this is true today. Consular officers (who are generalist Foreign Service Officers, I’m not talking about Consular Fellows) take the same entry exams as other diplomats, and the number of consular career officers in the Foreign Service is not (much) greater than officers in other career tracks like political or public diplomacy.
Being a consular officer – what it's really like
No matter their chosen career track, all diplomats have to complete at least one consular tour at the entry-level (in the first four years). The good news for consular officers is that they often get to work in their chosen career track right away!
It’s often said that, more than other career track, consular work is a nine-to-five job. Consular officers don’t often find themselves at evening receptions, speaking to crowds, meeting with civil society actors, or evaluating local projects. Still, they do talk to local officials, do some public outreach activities, and communicate with law enforcement agencies and service providers for specific cases.
At the same time, nobody in their right mind claims that consular officers don’t work hard – because they do. In most countries there are more consular requests (for visas, passports and other issues) than there is time for in a day. In some countries, people have to wait weeks to get an appointment. This means that consular officers are often very busy and work at set schedules to keep the workload under control.
A typical first job for an entry-level consular officer is adjudicating visas, or working at American citizen services. At busy posts, this means they may interview a hundred people per day and have to complete all related tasks in a timely and accurate manner. At smaller posts, or countries where people don’t need a visa to go to the US (visa waiver countries), consular officers may do a wider variety of tasks including fraud prevention.
Adjudicating (issuing or refusing) visas is actually much harder than it sounds. Especially since the 9/11 attacks, there are lots of laws and security checks in place to make the process as secure and accountable as possible; the last thing we want is for another terrorist to get on a plane to America. Also, every applicant’s story and background is somewhat different, so there is always some level of personal judgment involved.
On a personal level, consular work can be emotionally draining. Nobody likes to say “no” to someone who seems like a perfectly nice individual; however, consular officers are bound by US immigration law and have to make tough decisions all the time.
Many consular officers have told me that providing American citizen services is their favorite part of the job, which makes sense, because it really is about creating solutions to problems people face. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean they always get a lot of credit for their work, because some people really expect miracles to happen. In the end, no matter how helpful and creative diplomats try to be, there are laws that dictate what they can and can’t do.
The next step up is to be a mid-level officer, which is when consular officers typically manage a certain number of staff, and are in charge of at least one section of the consulate. They manage and train both locally hired staff and entry-level American staff.
Managers are in charge of the more complex decisions regarding visas and services, of which there are always plenty. Also, they are responsible for answering questions from a range of people including congressional offices, business contacts and host government officials. US visas and immigration documents are hot commodities and typically get lots of attention from all levels of society!
The higher up you get as a consular officer, the more you become part of the embassy’s senior management. Although the consulate is typically somewhat “separate” from other embassy operations, there are plenty of overlapping issues that draw the attention of the front office (the Ambassador) and many others. Consuls also do public outreach and draft press statements, and talk to local or American audiences.
Where to find more information
Below are a few external links to help you find out more about the consular career track for Foreign Service Officers:
(State Department) Overview Of A Potential Progression In Your Career Track