Consular Corps 101

The Diplomats Among Us

Did you know that over 90 countries have official representation in Houston through consulates?  This number is often touted as an example of the international nature of our city and rightfully so.  But what does it really mean and what advantages and opportunities does Houston have as a result? 

Who are consular officials?

Consular officials are appointed by foreign governments to officially represent that country’s interests abroad.  Consular officials fall into two categories: career or honorary (also called non-career). Career consular officials are members of a nation’s foreign or consular service and are appointed by their government to reside abroad.  Honorary consular officials are citizens of the United States or permanent residents who represent a foreign government on a part-time basis. While only on a part-time basis, they perform essential functions and many that are similar to that of a career consul.  However, they are not employees of the foreign government and do not receive a salary.

What do consular officials do?

The primary responsibilities of consular officials are to develop ties between the countries they represent and this area and to safeguard the represented countries’ interests and the citizens from these countries residing in or traveling through their districts.   Consuls based in Houston may have a district that includes the state of Texas, the southern United States, or an even larger district in some cases.  Having a Houston-based corps of consular officials working to develop ties between the countries they represent and this region results in numerous benefits for Houstonians ranging from increased opportunities for international trade and collaboration to opportunities to access wide-ranging cultural programs.


Useful Terminology

Consul: A member of a country’s foreign or consular service.

Consulate: The office or premises occupied by a consular official. (Consulate General is the term describing a consular office where the head of post is a consul general)

Consul General: The highest position in a consulate. The head of post of a consulate general.

Head of Post: The consular official in charge of a consulate.

Diplomatic Corps: Usually used in reference to the corps of ambassadors posted in a nation’s capital city

Consular Corps: The corps of officials posted in cities throughout a country performing consular services.  This includes career and honorary consuls.


How does the work of consular officials benefit the Houston area?

Consular officials seek to develop economic, commercial, cultural and scientific relations between this area and the countries they represent.  This translates into bilateral trade missions that can bring increased business to our area.  In fact, it is estimated that more than one-third of jobs in Houston are directly or indirectly linked to international trade. Consuls also facilitate interactions between the scientific community and educational institutions in our area and those abroad, leading to new programs and collaborations.   With regard to cultural relations, consuls have assisted in bringing countless exhibitions to Houston-area museums, as well as performances, and culinary experiences to our city.  These officials regularly work with the Houston mayor’s office, bilateral chambers of commerce, universities, performing arts organizations, sister city associations, cultural organizations, and many others to create programming that promotes friendly relations and understanding of countries around the world.

Many Houston-based consulates provide U.S. citizens and citizens of other countries with visas to travel abroad and notary services. Having consulates based in the city saves Houstonians valuable time when in-person interviews are required to obtain travel documents.

With regard to protecting the nationals of the countries they represent, consular officials provide many services.  For example, should a national from the country represented be arrested, local law enforcement agencies have a duty to notify the consulate in that jurisdiction at the detained person’s request.  Consuls also provide the nationals they represent with documents such as passports, temporary travel documents, birth certificates and national identification cards.

The Vienna Convention

The Vienna Convention on Consular Relations of 1963 is an international treaty that defines a framework for consular relations between nations.  The document describes the privileges that consular officials are to be afforded. For example, the offices (consulates) of consular officials are inviolable; however, residences and cars of consuls can be searched. If a consul has consular files at home or in the vehicle, those particular files can’t be searched.  Likewise, we would not expect local authorities abroad to violate U.S. consulates or embassies.

U.S. State Department Office of Foreign Missions

Congress mandated the creation of the Office of Foreign Missions (OFM) to serve the interests of the American public, American diplomats serving abroad, and the foreign diplomats residing in the U.S.  This office is charged with ensuring that diplomatic benefits and privileges are properly exercised in accordance with U.S. law and international agreements.

Reciprocity is a fundamental concept on which diplomatic relations are based. OFM closely monitors how members of the U.S. Foreign Service are treated abroad which informs the treatment of foreign consular officials this country.  For example, career consular officials from most countries are not required to pay sales tax just as U.S. officials abroad do not pay taxes to the country in which they are posted in most cases.  Locally posted officials who are not subject to pay sales taxes will have a sales tax exemption card issued by the U.S. Department of State to present to merchants at the time of sale.  Tax exemption for consular officials is a useful tool that saves U.S. taxpayers millions of dollars annually. The program is based on reciprocity and directly benefits the U.S. government when sales taxes for support materials needed to build and run overseas installations does not have to be paid.

Do consular officials have diplomatic immunity?

The purpose of the privileges and immunities described in the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations is not to benefit individuals, but to ensure the efficient performance of functions by consular posts on behalf of their respective nations.  Consular officials are expected to abide by the laws of the receiving nation.  With that said, the level of immunity afforded to consular officials posted in the U.S. is based on guidance within the Vienna Convention and what level of immunity U.S. consular officials are afforded in the sending country.

Generally speaking, consular officials only have immunity with regard to their official acts and their dependents have no immunity at all.  A notable exception is that U.S. consular officials and their dependents posted in the People’s Republic of China and Russia are given immunity and the U.S. government reciprocates based on bilateral agreements with these countries. There is no diplomatic immunity for traffic and parking tickets; they must pay all fines.  OFM serves as the liaison to local enforcement with regard to questions about immunity.

Conclusion

Houston’s consular corps is an integral part of our community, contributing immeasurably to the cultural and economic life of the city. Consular officials wear many hats – they promote the countries they represent to Houstonians, promote Houston to the nations they represents, protect foreign nationals residing here, develop trade ties, promote friendly relations among the people of different countries, and find synergies between two nations across a variety of fields for mutual benefit.  These officials, both career and honorary help connect Houston with the world.


Guide to addressing consular officials

“The Honorable” is extended to consular heads of post in Houston and many other cities as a courtesy.  In international protocol, consular officials who have obtained the rank of ambassador are afforded the honorific His or Her Excellency.

Addressing career consular heads of post

In conversation: Consul General Smith (title + last name).

In correspondence:

The Honorable

  John Smith

    Consul General of Canada

Addressing honorary (non-career) heads of post

In conversation: Mr./Ms. or Honorary Consul General Smith (Mr./Ms. or title + last name).

In correspondence:

The Honorable

  Jane Doe

    Honorary Consul General of Canada

Addressing career consular heads of post with the rank of ambassador

In conversation:  Ambassador Smith (Ambassador + last name).

In correspondence:

Her Excellency

  Jane Doe

    Consul General of Canada


Deanea LeFlore serves as chief of protocol, Mayor’s Office of Trade and International Affairs and is a certified corporate etiquette and international protocol consultant.

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