Embassies, expats and expectations

17 April 2018

Embassies and consulates are extremely important institutions and can be found in all major cities around the world.

The difference between the two is clear: embassies are only found in the capital city and are chiefly involved with major diplomatic issues, whereas consulates can be found wherever there is a significant expat community to be served and concern themselves more with local administration than high-level politics. (Notable exceptions to this rule include Jerusalem and Taipei, which are not universally recognized as capital cities, and therefore have consulates for diplomatic reasons.)

Ambassadors are the most senior representatives of foreign governments, and ultimately responsible for representing the legal and diplomatic interests of nationals living, working and traveling in the host country.

But, it is worth clarifying what embassies will and won’t do before you travel abroad.

They are not there to bail you out

Many Western nationals may get used to the idea of a ‘nanny state’ being there for them at all times. This is not the job of the embassy. While you are on your assignment, you will be subject to the rules and regulations of your host country and the embassy cannot change that.

You (and in many cases your employer) are responsible for ensuring you can meet all financial and legal obligations while you are abroad. The embassy can offer advice but do not expect them to come running to the rescue if you get yourself in financial or legal trouble.

The embassy will put you in touch with lawyers and other professionals who can help (for a fee) but will not normally help you directly. Nor will they offer financial support except in the most extreme situations. Either way, your relocation allowance should suffice to keep you out of financial trouble.

Embassies, expats and expectations

Administrative support

The reason that most expats contact their embassies is connected to their passport or visa documentation.

If your passport expires while you are abroad, embassies have the authority to renew them for you. If you have the good fortune to have a baby whilst overseas, the embassy will also register births and issue the necessary documentation that will enable your child to benefit from dual nationality. In case of serious illness or accident or death, they will also recommend doctors or help with repatriation, but this will not happen at the expense of the State.   

The administrative support offered by embassies also extends to elections, where embassies will help you with absentee voting processes. Larger cities can be very well organized in this respect: famously, Emmanuel Macron described London as “France’s sixth largest city”, as he appealed in 2017 for the support of the 250,000 French nationals living in the UK capital.

For the good times…

Days of national celebration are often very important to expat communities. The celebration of St Patrick’s Day in New York is a famous example. But wherever you go in the world, keep an eye out for communications from the local embassy or consulate, who may host events to commemorate national celebrations.

Embassies, particularly the larger ones in major cities, often have community liaison officers (CLOs) dedicated to expat communities. They will be responsible for communicating important information to the community, so it is a good idea to establish a relationship with the CLO as soon as you arrive. Especially if the good times turn bad…

Evacuation orders

In times of political upheaval, embassies come into their own. With knowledge of local conditions and politics, and as the overseas agents of national governments, they will offer the best possible advice on whether (or when) expats should leave the country.

Embassies may offer temporary protection if the situation requires it, but don’t expect them to arrange transport except in the direst of circumstances. Their aim is to advise you to leave before the situation worsens.

Embassies, expats and expectations

Find your local embassy or consulate before you go

While it is unlikely that you will need their support, it is good practice to find your local embassy or consulate before you leave. There are many of them: the US alone maintains 285 consulates and embassies around the world, and all major expat destinations are well catered for by most national governments.

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