Diplomatic missions

A diplomatic mission is an office of one national government located in another nation's territory. There are two main types:

Canada House in London.
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.

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:

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.

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.

In general, they can provide information and often advice, but they will not cover your expenses.

Another time when they may be able to help is 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 pressure the host government who have no choice but to lean on local law enforcement to ensure you promptly get it back. Of course, that is only in theory; in some countries it may be quite different in practice.

Another is that 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:

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.

Diplomatic immunity

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.

In a well-known example, British authorities cannot touch Julian Assange as long as he is in the Ecuadorian Embassy.
During the Cold War, expelling diplomats for alleged spying (euphemistically, for "activities incompatible with their status") was a common practice on both sides. At one point, the British threw out 90 Russian officials in one day.
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.

There are a set of rather complex rules covering how far these protections extend. Not all embassy staff may have diplomatic privileges but some staff outside the embassy for example, at a trade mission or an aid agency may. 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. Employees of international organisations are covered by a separate and somewhat different set of rules. Honorary consuls are generally not entitled to any diplomatic immunity.

In rare cases, a diplomat who is immune from prosecution in the host country may be prosecuted back home. Some years back a Russian diplomat driving drunk killed someone in Ottawa and all the Canadian authorities could do was boot him out, but he was jailed when he reached Moscow.

See also

This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Sunday, February 21, 2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.