What is a U.S. Embassy?

Inside the U.S. Embassy in Pretoria, South Africa

Inside the U.S. Embassy in Pretoria, South Africa.
(© Elizabeth Gill Lui)

Originally, an embassy referred to an ambassador and staff who were sent to represent and advance the interests of their country with another country’s government,

Today, an embassy is the nerve center for a country's diplomatic affairs within the borders of another nation, serving as the headquarters of the chief of mission, staff and other agencies. An embassy is usually located in the capital city of a foreign nation; there may also be consulates located in provincial or regional cities.

U.S. embassies and consulates abroad, as well as foreign embassies and consulates in the United States, have a special status. While diplomatic spaces remain the territory of the host state, an embassy or consulate represents a sovereign state. International rules do not allow representatives of the host country to enter an embassy without permission --even to put out a fire -- and designate an attack on an embassy as an attack on the country it represents.

Within the embassy, the ambassador is supported by a deputy chief of mission, Foreign Service Officers and Specialists who perform the full range of mission activities, and representatives of many other U.S. agencies, such as USAID and the Departments of Defense, Commerce, Justice and Agriculture among others. The staffs of all of these agencies report to the ambassador.

Consulates, headed by a Consul General who reports to the Ambassador, carry out many of the same functions in provincial or regional capitals that the embassies do in national capitals.

Besides the more obvious functions of issuing visas and assisting American citizens abroad, Embassy and consulate staff interact with host governments, local business and nongovernmental organizations, the media and educational institutions, and private citizens to create positive responses to U.S. policy and the U.S. in general. Mission staff report on political and economic issues that affect bilateral relations and possibly impact the U.S. directly, help U.S. businesses to find partners and customers, and sponsor American scientists, scholars, and artists to promote professional, educational and cultural exchanges.

Since American officers normally are only assigned to a foreign country for a few years, it is necessary to hire citizens from the host country to fill jobs at both embassies and consulates. These foreign employees are essential to the success of an embassy’s mission, both for their professional skills and for the institutional memory they provide for new officers. They used to be known as Foreign Service Nationals, but are now officially called Locally Employed Staff and may include U.S. citizens who are long-time residents of the country.

Inside the residence of the U.S. Ambassador to Bangkok, Thailand

Inside the U.S. Ambassador's residence Bangkok, Thailand. (© Elizabeth Gill Lui)

The main embassy building, known as the chancery, is often complemented by other buildings, that may house the consular section, an information resource center, or a conference hall, as well as the offices of other agencies. The ambassador’s residence, which is used for many diplomatic and public functions, is sometimes located on the embassy compound but more often elsewhere in the city. As the public face of the United States of America in the host country, the chancery is usually architecturally impressive—either a historic building or a striking newer structure.

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