Consular Work

I wrote this response to someone who emailed me about the Consular Track.  I was a Consular officer during my career, I tried to give her an idea from what I experienced in the field.  

I joined the Foreign Service as a consular officer in 1988. I worked in consular sections in Guayaquil (Ecuador) and Lusaka (Zambia). As I hoped, they were very different experiences. Guayaquil had a huge visa volume in Nonimmigrant and Immigrant visas. In NIVs, a typical day involved interviewing 100 applicants. In IVs, there were fewer, maybe around 10, but they were also more complicated, and had it not been for the skilled and experienced locally employed staff, I would have been lost.

Guayaquil had about four or five consular officers, and we rotated as the chief of each section for 6-12 months. I particularly enjoyed the work in American Citizens Services, helping AmCits in various ways, from renewing their passports to visiting them in prison. It was a lot of fun and responsibility for a 20-something. Sometimes scary, too, wandering through the prison yard of a Third World country surrounded by thieves, drug dealers and murderers. Most of the American prisoners were in jail because they deserved to be in jail. If they hadn’t been locked up in Ecuador, they would have been locked up in the United States. Still, they were basically a good lot and I enjoyed getting out of the office to visit them.

I chose Lusaka for my second post because it was such a small consular section, but it could be something I controlled completely. It also got me a seat at the weekly country team meeting, chaired by the Ambassador. As the only FSO, helped again by able LES’s. I handled NIVs (10-20 a day), IVs (3-5 per week) and the myriad ACS cases, including the typical sort of crazy cases. In one, we heard about two elderly AmCit sisters — Madeline and Ruth — who had fallen sick in a faraway corner of Zambia. They had come to Africa to travel on their Social Security checks in part to see the continent, but also to “help the heathen.” Ruth had died quickly of an apparent case of cerebral malaria in Luapula Province.

Madeline was desperately sick and survived because of two Dutch volunteers who cared for her 24/7. She was admitted at a rural hospital whose heyday was probably in the 1950s. The windows were broken, the building was falling apart and it hadn’t been cleaned and painted for 10+ years. The pharmacy had aspirin but not much else. Somehow the Dutchies had scrounged up quinine and IV drips and kept her alive, and, slowly, miraculously, Madeline survived and got better.

We had brought a body bag and coffin from the Embassy to bury Ruth. Embassy workers strapped the coffin to the top of the Land Cruiser. My LES, Jacob, had warned me that we’d have trouble finding a driver. It was a typical African experience. A coffin on the roof was going to bring bad luck. In the end, only 1 driver out of 15 stepped forward, and he admitted later that he did it because they doubled the overtime rate to entice a driver. He too believed it was bad luck, but was a born-again Christian with four children who needed school uniforms.

En route to Luapula Province, we succeeded in scaring the bejesus out of scores of Zambians. In one gas station, everyone including the attendant fled when we pulled in. Emerson filled the tank and left the money on the pump. Finally, after at least 10 hours of driving — Zambia is a huge country — we arrived. I visited with the sister in the hospital and identified the sister in the “morgue,” which had seen better days. Bodies in the tropics don’t last long without refrigeration. Remember, I warned you. I understand they now take consular students to the Arlington morgue to get acclimated.  Ha, nice try…

We squared the death certificate with the hospital and police chief, and organized Ruth’s burial the following morning with an Anglican priest and gravediggers. We went out to look at the graveyard that had a huge new section, the mark of the HIV/AIDS epidemic that was killing thousands of Zambians every year. It was 1992 and tens of thousands more would die before ARVs became available. (That’s another story). , The following day, with Madeline’s permission, we buried Ruth in a small but dignified ceremony.

Madeline continued her recovery. The Dutch volunteers were saints and a couple of weeks later, Madeline flew down to Lusaka. We found her a room at the convent of a local order of Catholic sisters. She continued to grow stronger, and we finally helped her fly back to Kansas. She wrote to thank me six months later me. She said she had ruled out any more trips to Africa, but was interested in Mexico. No problem, I thought, she’s not in my consular district, a phrase you’ll use often as a consular officer overseas.

It’s true what they say — consular work can be dull at times — but it always gives you the best stories (and memories).

Back to your original question:

Consular Track officers usually are promoted quickly through the lower ranks, in part because consular work is mandatory for all new officers and consular officers start managing LES’s from their first tour and FSOs in their third or fourth tour.

— at the FS-03 level, you’re likely to be the NIV, IV or ACS unit chief at a medium-sized embassy. Or a deputy chief at a large embassy (Mexico City, Seoul, any of the PRC jobs, Colombia, etc). Or the lone officer at an isolated consular job, like Lusaka.

— at the FS-02 level, you’re the Consul General at a medium-sized embassies or the unit chief at a large embassy. Technically only an officer at the FS-01 level and higher should be referred to as Consul General, but it’s use is accepted in the Foreign Service.

— at the FS-01 level, you’re the CG at a larger post, but typically not the largest, which are typicallyreserved for Senior Foreign Service officers.

Remember, if you get tenure, you’re guaranteed a career of 20+ years and retirement at the FS-01 level, which is a pretty good deal.

Your overseas tours will be interspersed with stints in Washington, DC. Consular officers serve on country desks and regional or functional bureaus as well as in the Bureau of Consular Affairs, including offices handling visa, child protection, adoptions, passport and other ACS functions.

You’ll also need to put in time at the Foreign Service Institute for advanced consular and management/leadership training as well as language school.

I think there’s a multifunctional requirement now to be promoted into the Senior Foreign Service. Consular and Management officers are supposed to spend at least one tour in the more policy oriented tracks – Political, Economic or Public Diplomacy.

And occasionally, but not often enough, the Department nominates a SFS consular officer to be an Ambassador, usually at a small, fairly isolated place in South America or Africa.

So, I’ve given you both — the crazy, if sad, consular story and the path upward in the Consular Cone or Track. I hope it helps. You should also visit the and read about ACS and Visa issues. It won’t help you on the exam, but it will give you a better idea of the work you’ll do as a consular track officer.

My path was different, and yours will likely veer too. It all depends on what work you like. I enjoyed managing people as well as writing cables and analyzing politics, economics, social issues, etc.

As for me, I did back-to-back consular tours in Guayaquil and Lusaka, and then returned to Washington to work in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs focusing on African security issues.

Next, I went back overseas as the Political/Economic chief in Bamako. From Mali, I went to Hermosillo, a good-sized consular post in Mexico made even larger by the new Border Crossing Card program.

I left consular work again to serve as Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) in Lomé. After three years, I became DCM in Kampala. Following those tours, I returned as a Deputy Assistant Secretary (DAS) in the refugee bureau.

Three years later, the Assistant Secretary in African Affairs hired me to serve as DAS in the AF Bureau. After three years — a lifetime in Washington — I retired in 2012.

No one follows a predictable path in the Foreign Service. But that’s why it’s such a wonderful and exciting job. The world’s wide open, and if you don’t like your job you only have to wait a year or two to go to another.

Best of luck in taking the exams. Serving as an FSO is the best job in the Federal Government…



  1. Hi, thanks for the helpful posts. I am scheduled to take the exam in a couple of weeks and keep reading all I can about the day-to-day life of an FSO. I find it all very illuminating. My question is – in your experience or knowledge – does foreign language ability have any effect at all on the posts you are sent to? For instance, if I have native proficiency in Russian, would I be more likely to be sent to Eastern Europe, or is it determined just by where need for officers is experienced at any given time? Thanks!!

    • Yuliya–

      Yes and no. The Foreign Service would definitely want to take advantage of your Russian language skills during your career. But they won’t force you.

      At the beginning, the Department wants to find out if you can cut it in the Foreign Service. They want to see you working in an overseas environment and how you handle the pressures of the lifestyle (away from family and friends, working on the pressure-cooker visa line, etc). After a tour or two, when you’ve proven your mettle, so to speak, the EUR (Europe) Bureau may reach out to see if you’re interested in working in a Eastern European Embassy. HR might ask, too. But if you have no desire to work in the former Soviet Union countries, they won’t force you. It’s ultimately up to you where you want to serve.

      Good luck,


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    • Bernice–

      Sorry, but I’m the wrong person to ask. I am no expert on WordPress. Try going through the full list of plug-ins, check on Google for negative reviews, and see what you end up with.

      Good luck,


  3. Really enjoy this site, as it’s first of all fascinating, and a superb resource. This post in particular was really interesting to me, as I’m interested in the consular cone.

    What are your feelings on the DoS willingness to hire from the military ranks? I’m active duty military, and likely to retire in 2016. With that in mind, I’m beginning the FSOT application process, and am wondering if military service will be considered a benefit or detriment to joining the FS. If all things go as planned (passing FSOT and other application milestones), will 25 years in the Army with multiple deployments (Somalia, Haiti, Afghanistan) and overseas postings (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Japan, and currently Germany) be looked at as an asset, or is there an assumption that you’re a rigid, inflexible warmonger who wouldn’t really fit in? Obviously, I assume that through the interview/application process, etc., any reticence would be alleviated. Or, is my assessment of the gulf between the DoD and DoS completely off? I have at least 2 colleagues of mine who have made the jump, so at least there’s precedent.

    Is there any advantage gained by expressing willingness to start off in less desireable posts (Baghdad, Kabul, and Monrovia come to mind with the current state of affairs) to get a foot in the door, so to speak?

    Finally, you mention tenure above…at what point does one gain that status?

    Thanks for your insight.


    • Dave–

      The State Department hires dozens of former military personnel every year at all ranks and services.

      State is eager to find folks who’ve already served overseas and who won’t have a problem adjusting to some of our more rigorous postings.

      Trust me, there are plenty of warmongers in the State Department. Folks of all parties and stripes can and do serve in the Foreign Service. In fact, I find most FSOs, having served on the front lines, tend to want the Department to be more assertive, even aggressive, in our foreign policy.

      Meantime, your military service should help at some point in the hiring process, probably the PNQ, the oral assessment, and the Final Review. I would highlight your military service heavily in the first two hurdles. The Final Review, well, that’s a crap shoot.

      Good luck to you. I really do hope you get in.

      Best, Bill

  4. Hi, Bill…

    Took the FSOT on Monday, and overall felt pretty good about it for a first go of it. I am moderately optimistic, but as it was the first time, am not expecting too much. Who knows.

    Appreciate the advice found here on this site, and I’ll let you know what the results are when they eventually come in (4-5 weeks).


    • Dave–

      I hope you did well on the FSOT and are wending your way through the exam process.

      Do keep me posted.

      Many thanks,


  5. Bill –

    Alas, I’m wending my way down the road to November when I can register for the exam once again. Did fine on the general knowledge and english expression, but poorly on the personal questions, and missed getting the essays graded by 0.28. Submitted for a rescore, but no change at all. So, back to the drawing board.

    Rough year by all accounts, though; hiring only to replace attrition. Also, looking at the Yahoo Group postings, lots of problems with Pearson. I didn’t have any thankfully, but frankly, I more or less went in with the expectation that it would be the first of a few attempts. Never having taken a test like that (pencil and bubbles in all my other experiences back in the old days…), I feel better now about what to expect, and know a bit better how to manage my time.

    Thanks again for the great site…I’ve passed it to others who are considering the journey as well.


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