Foreign Service Officer (FSO) Overview
Foreign Service Officers can be sent anywhere in the world, at any time, to serve the diplomatic needs of the United States. They are the front-line personnel of all U.S. embassies, consulates, and other diplomatic missions.
Historically, FSOs have been generalists who could expect to be assigned to various kinds of jobs, in different parts of the world in the course of their careers. For most FSOs, this is still the case.
But international affairs has changed. Today, the Foreign Service seeks candidates interested in more than political science or international relations to help take American diplomacy into the 21st century; we need people who can manage programs and personnel. Also transnational issues will characterize the diplomacy of the future. Among these new priorities are: science and technology, including the global fight against diseases such as AIDS, and efforts to save the environment, anti-narcotics efforts and trade.
The US Department of State also has an increasing need for candidates with training and experience in administration and management. The Department of State requires that applicants select a "Functional Area of Specialization," or, "cone" when applying to take the written examination. . The Foreign Service cones are: Administrative, Consular, Economic, Political and Public Diplomacy. Regardless of your choice of cone, all officers may represent the U.S. at selected official functions, ceremonies, and meetings, and will likely participate in varied activities such as serving as duty officer, assisting with high-level visits, providing assistance to VIPs, reporting to Washington, and assisting the Ambassador in assessing U.S. policies and programs, and in developing policy proposals.
The choice of a cone is the first important decision potential Foreign Service Officers must make. Career candidates can expect to spend most, if not all, of their Foreign Service careers in the cone selected when registering for the exam. Prospective candidates are urged to read carefully the following descriptions of the five cones before making a decision.
What do FSOs Do?
The Department of State is the nation's oldest "multinational corporation," with representation in over 160 countries, supported by a relatively small staff of professionals headquartered in Washington, DC. Officers who work in the administrative cone exhibit and develop the same skills and abilities their counterparts do in a private sector multinational company: resourcefulness, initiative and leadership, as well as organizational and negotiating skills. Unlike their private sector colleagues, FSOs report to a chief operating officer and CEO who are known throughout the world--the Secretary of State and the President of the United States.
Administrative Officers are the Resource Managers for the Foreign Service. They manage the property, financial, and human resources that keep our Diplomatic and Consular Missions functioning. Administrative Officers often have greater and broader contacts with host country officials earlier in their careers than do officers working in other sections of the embassy. Supervising the host country national employees in an embassy, they have an excellent opportunity to either use the language skills they bring to the service, or develop new foreign language skills.
These officers interact with every section and every agency at a Mission, gaining more insight than most into the inner workings of that Mission, as well as a greater understanding of how all the elements must work together to accomplish U.S. foreign policy objectives in the most efficient, effective, and economical manner. Based on information received from embassy colleagues, the Administrative Officer identifies resource requirements for achieving foreign policy objectives and directs preparation of budget submissions and staffing plans. They do this by utilizing their knowledge of mission goals and available resources.
The Administrative Officer serves as manager of the post's human and material resources and as advisor to the Chief of Mission (Ambassador), Deputy Chief of Mission or Principal Officer, as well as heads of other agencies represented at the Mission--who together make up the embassy's country team--on all aspects of management and post administration. The Administrative Officer is a key member of the Ambassador's management team. He/She must have the ability to develop new perspectives and directions in management practices, often in response to complex or sensitive situations, and learn to find resolution among offices competing for limited resources.
A typical administrative section is comprised of the following units: general services, budget and fiscal, personnel, communications, and security (including Marine Guards, where applicable). The responsibilities will include, but are not limited to, financial analysis; leasing, buying and construction of facilities; supervision, maintenance and upgrading of buildings and fleets of vehicles; procurement of goods and services; issuance of travel orders for official travel; management of high-level official visits; and updating of computers and telecommunications. He/She will need to learn the labor laws of the country regarding employment of local personnel as well as U.S. regulations governing salaries and benefits.
Administrative Officers must establish and maintain contact with officials at all levels in both the local and national governments, other diplomatic missions, banks, airlines, and local business organizations, on a variety of official matters. Officers solve problems or achieve mission objectives concerning customs regulations, immunities and privileges, tax laws, contracts, leases and high-level visits. Administrative Officers also use such contacts to stay abreast of exchange rates, banking laws, and local employment practices.
Another duty of Administrative Officers is to develop and direct a wide variety of staff support activities designed to promote the morale and well being of U.S. Government employees and their dependents. Such activities may include recreation, health care, and U.S. Government-supported schools and commissaries. The administrative officer also negotiates administrative support arrangelments with the chiefs of other U.S. agencies serviced by the administrative section and resolves any questions arising from services requested and services received. These Officers play a leadership role in the local American community (both official and private) to foster good will and cooperation on matters of mutual interest. This is especially important for employee morale at posts where living conditions are difficult and community facilities are limited. The Administrative Officer may also perform a similar function in the larger international community when it is in the best interest of the Mission.
Consular work is one of the oldest forms of diplomatic service. Traditionally, Consular Officers were appointed to look after U.S. commercial and shipping interests overseas. Gradually this role evolved into looking after the interests of U.S. citizens abroad, issuing visas to foreign applicants, and monitoring migration issues.
A Consular Officer provides both emergency and non-emergency services to American citizens residing or traveling abroad. He/She will help with replacing a passport, finding medical assistance, securing funds from family members for citizens in need, locating citizens in an emergency, visiting an arrested American, making arrangements in the event of the death of an American citizen, and helping in a disaster or evacuation. The Consular Officer serves as a "life raft" for American citizens who experience problems while overseas.
In non-emergency situations the Consular Officer will report the birth of an American citizen abroad and issue a Consular report that serves as proof of citizenship. He/She will issue a passport if one expires or is lost or stolen, distribute federal benefits checks such as social security or pension, assist in child custody disputes, issue U.S. voting registration materials, supply tax forms and serve in other ways that make living overseas easier for American citizens.
Consular Officers play leadership roles in the local American community (both official and private) to foster good will and cooperation on matters of mutual interest.
Consular Officers must master a complex set of laws and regulations, develop the interpersonal and investigative skills to be able to combat fraud, understand and manage new technologies, and write clearly and persuasively on a wide variety of issues. The Officer often meets a broad range of host country residents, maintaining official contacts not only with the foreign ministry, but also with people in the immigration, justice, customs, health and social service ministries. Important contacts are nurtured also within local business, trade, legal, education, and religious institutions, as well as with the expatriate, immigrant or refugee populations.
A Consular Officer's daily workload may appear formidable, with large numbers of visa or U.S. citizen services applications and inquiries to process. Good Consular Officers must be resourceful and know how to prioritize, as well as how to make available technical and personnel resources to cover the workload. In many cases, professional-level foreign language skill is required in order to interview clients or to speak in public. An ability to read documents in the local language is always beneficial. Knowledge of one's locale and the ability to quickly analyze and report on situations within or outside the office are essential. In addition to routine duties, the Consular Officer works with embassy colleagues on the visits of U.S. officials, international conferences, and meetings. Logistics, as well as preparing information for and working with the principal visitors, fall within each officer's duties on these occasions.
Many consular functions--passports, visas and federal benefits payments--follow strict guidelines and regulations. Other functions, such as assisting American citizens in distress, depend on judgment, ingenuity, common sense, cultural sensitivity, and strong interpersonal skills. Consular work combines the skills of lawyers, judges, social workers, reporters and investigators in addressing the vast range of human interactions and problems requiring a consular response. The Consular Officer is often the only U.S. official with whom foreign nationals or U.S. citizens come into contact and has an important public, representational role.
Consular Officers at U.S. missions oversee a variety of tasks, many involving providing services to U.S. citizens. The officer must determine an applicant's eligibility or non-eligibility for the consular services requested, and he/she explain any legal and documentary requirements.
Consular Officers review applications for passports and passport renewals, extensions, and amendments. They verify the information presented and provide or refuse to provide the requested passport service based on all available facts, applicable laws, and regulations.
Consular Officers register births and marriages of U.S. citizens, maintain locator information on resident American citizens in compliance with the post's emergency and evacuation requirements, visit U.S. citizens in prison, provide services in connection with illness and death, aid destitute Americans, and provide notarial services.
Almost all Foreign Service Officers serve their first tour as Vice Consuls adjudicating visa applications. Consular Officers review visa applications (usually by conducting a brief interview with the applicant), verify the information presented, and issue or refuse visas based on all the available facts, applicable U.S. laws, and regulations.
After a morning of adjudicating visas, a Consular Officer will likely spend the afternoon drafting replies to inquiries regarding consular activities from U.S. citizens, attorneys, U.S. government agencies, members of Congress and other interested parties. Consular Officers may confer with appropriate host government officials on consular matters, maintain cordial relations with officials and consular officers of other nations, and establish and maintain working relationships with the resident American community in general.
Finally, a Consular Officer advises embassy colleagues on significant developments in current consular work. An officer also provides appropriate advice regarding all areas of consular affairs, including local immigration laws affecting U.S. citizens and all other pertinent laws, policy regulations, and processing procedures. A Consular Officer will, as appropriate, prepare written reports on matters affecting U.S. citizens in the host country, such as travel warnings or instances of mistreatment of U.S. citizens.
Economic Officers concentrate on issues such as money and banking, trade and commerce, communication and transportation, economic development, and government finance, reporting significant developments to the State Department. In addition, Economic Officers deal with environmental, scientific and technology matters such as ocean fisheries, cooperation in space, acid rain, global warming, population, health, biodiversity, and intellectual property rights. In addition to dealing with these issues bilaterally they also deal with them multilaterally when assigned to or attending international organziations or conferences..
These officers are alert to the promotion of U.S. national interests in many areas, and intervene with foreign governments and multilateral organziations when circumstances warrant. Sometimes they are given precise instructions on an intervention; sometimes they are left to their own ingenuity.
Economic Officers may also accompany more senior embassy officials as note-takers at high level meetings. Economic Officers are expected to be knowledgeable in all aspects of economics and in how economic systems work, in policy issues that are important in an economic context, in how the U.S. economy and U.S. government function, and in host country commercial practices and opportunities. They must understand the culture of the host country and be conversant in its language in order to see the world through its eyes. This may also involve trade within the country. Economic Officers stationed abroad are both information gatherers and analysts, informing Washington agencies of important developments and their implications.
In Washington, Economic Officers work with various policy elements of the State Department, and with other agencies (Treasury, U.S. Trade Representative, the White House, Commerce, Energy, Interior, Environmental Protection Agency, Federal Aviation Agency, the Congress, etc.) and organizations such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the local and/or U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other trade entities. At home and abroad, Economic Officers need to develop extensive public and private sector contacts to be effective in their work. To do this well, they need good inter-personal skills and common sense in addition to formal training in economics.
Economic Officers are responsible for providing the post and Washington with information and analysis on significant economic developments in the host country and for advancing U.S. economic and commercial policies, interests, and goals, including assistance to U.S. business representatives.
General duties of an Economic Officer include developing published and unpublished sources of information on significant economic and commercial developments in the host country, establishing and maintaining contacts with knowledgeable host country officials and key members of public and private institutions and enterprises. Economic Officers also engage in in-depth economic analyses of macro and microeconomic problems involving important sectors of the host economy and report to other post officers and to Washington through cables, memoranda and oral briefings. An Economic Officer recommends alternative courses of U.S. Government action and new policy directions in order to meet changing economic and commercial circumstances in the host country. An Economic Officer serves as the post's working level expert from whom senior officers at the post seek information and guidance on economic and commercial developments.
Economic officers are often required to convey official statements or requests for information from the U.S. Government to officials of the host government. The proper handling of the message is among the most important duties an Economic Officer has. It must be presented accurately and completely, and the response must be reported precisely to avoid potential international misunderstanding. If negotiation is required, the Economic Officer must carefully adhere to instructions from Washington.
The Economic Officer provides assistance to the local American and foreign business communities and is often the first contact for local business representatives interested in doing business with the U.S. He/She may brief visiting American business representatives on economic and commercial conditions and developments in the host country and assist them in developing their marketing and investment goals. The Economic Officer speaks for the U.S. Government on economic and commercial issues to host government officials, private sector interests, and newspaper or other media representatives.
Economic Officers may support or conduct bilateral negotiations on economic and commercial issues; participate in the development of the Embassy's export promotion efforts; provide support for specific U.S. trade promotion programs; supervise the Embassy's commercial library; and participate in other post activities. The Economic Officer works with the Political Officer and the Public Diplomacy Officer at post to evaluate local media reports, to develop programs to influence public opinion, and to identify actual and potential local leaders to be reached through the post's International Visitors Program. Economic Officers write analytical reports on the significance and influence of economic, financial, and business figures and travel with the country to establish and maintain contact with local officials and others in order to report significant economic developments.
A Political Officer's primary responsibility is to follow political events within the host country and to report significant developments to the State Department. These officers are alert to the promotion of U.S. national interests in many areas, and intervene with foreign governments and entities when circumstances warrant. Political Officers also convey official communications from the U.S. Government to host country officials and may accompany more senior officials of the Embassy as note-takers when they meet with host government officials. Similar functions are performed within multilateral organizations.
As all Foreign Service Officers, a Political Officer must know the people and customs of the host country, travel widely within that country, and be able to speak the local language. He/She needs not only to report accurately what happened but also to explain why events unfolded as they did. Reporting is often done under considerable time pressure. To report successfully, a Political Officer must know informed host country individuals in politics, government, academia, journalism, the legal profession, business, and labor, to name only some sources of political information. A good Political Officer must be able to distinguish among the many who have opinions, the few who can analyze developments thoughtfully, and the rare individual who can provide accurate advance information.
Political Officers are often required to convey official statements or requests for information from the U.S. Government to officials of the host government. The proper handling of the message is among the most important duties a Political Officer has. It must be presented accurately and completely, and the response must be reported precisely to avoid potential international misunderstanding. If negotiation is required, the Political Officer must carefully adhere to instructions from Washington.
Finally, a Political Officer must be prepared to assist visiting U.S. officials. Every aspect of a visit, from hotel reservations to requested meetings to social events, must be planned and executed. The official visitor may be of any rank, including the President and/or Secretary of State. If the visit is at such a high level, the Political Officer will be a vital part of a coordinated embassy effort.
Political Officers follow, analyze, and report political developments in the host country or in multilateral organizations. They promote U.S. policy objectives with key government officials, members of influential organizations, leaders in the private sector, and counterparts in international multilateral organizations. Political Officers maintain contact at an appropriate level with host government officials, political party leaders, trade unionists, other diplomatic missions, and private individuals.
The Political Officer monitors and/or consults with host government officials and reports information and recommendations on international and bilateral agreements or programs in which the U.S. participates or has an interest. Political Officers negotiate, as required, with appropriate officials in the host government on issues of concern to the U.S. Government.
The Political Officer works with Economic Officers and Public Diplomacy Officers at post to evaluate local media reports, to develop programs to influence public opinion, and to identify actual and potential local leaders to be reached through the post's International Visitors Program. Political Officers write analytical reports on the significance and influence of political figures and travel within the country to establish and maintain contact with local officials and others in order to report significant political developments.
Public Diplomacy Cone
Officers who serve in the Public Diplomacy cone are charged with building bridges of communication between the United States and the host country in support of U.S. national interests. They carry out both cultural and information programs to explain to foreign audiences the complexities of U.S. society and culture and the current Administration's foreign policy agenda. The overall management of the public diplomacy program at an embassy is in the hands of the Public Affairs Officer (PAO). The Information Officer (IO) is charged with explaining and defending the content of U.S. foreign policy. The Cultural Affairs Officer (CAO) provides audiences with an understanding of the social and cultural context of U.S. foreign policy by presenting a fuller picture of the values, beliefs, and principles held by Americans which influence not only domestic political life but foreign policy decisions as well.
Much of what a Public Diplomacy Officer does depends on the size and location of the Embassy in which the officer is serving. Many posts around the world are staffed by just one Public Diplomacy Officer, the PAO, who handles both information and cultural affairs functions, and who, with the assistance of locally hired staff, carries out the entire range of public diplomacy programs in the host country. The PAO in any post is responsible for advising the Ambassador and the country team on the effect of public opinion on U.S. interest and on ways that public diplomacy can advance those interests. The PAO works with the Political and Economic Officers at post to evaluate local media reports, to develop programs to influence public opinion, and to identify actual and potential leaders to be reached through the post's International Visitors Program.
The Information Officer (IO), sometimes also known as the Press Attaché, serves as the Embassy spokesperson, and handles all media inquiries concerning official U.S. government policy. Information Officers set up and conduct press conferences for the Ambassador and other high-level officials, place material with local TV, radio, and print media, and maintain an active dialogue with both information media officials and opinion-makers and the wider public of the host country. The IO is frequently assigned the task of writing speeches for the Ambassador, and setting up media coverage of events in which the Ambassador or other high-level U.S. government officials take part. During bilateral negotiations, international conferences, residential, Secretary of State, or other VIP visits, the IO becomes the main point of contact for both the host country media and the traveling U.S. press who accompany the President or the Secretary.
Information Officers must be prepared to respond to questions from the local media on a variety of issues, most of them germane to U.S. policy in the host country, but many far afield. The IO is tasked with closely following local media coverage as it pertains to U.S. presence in the host country and keeping the Embassy's country team, as well as appropriate offices in Washington, abreast of media reaction. Successful IOs must have a good grasp of the local language, a solid understanding of the customs and culture of the host country, and an ability to get out and meet personally with reporters, editors, news anchors, officials at the Ministry of Information or equivalent institution, and others who can be potentially influential in presenting the U.S. point of view to a mass audience.
It falls to the Cultural Affairs Officer (CAO) to put U.S. foreign policy into context. The CAO arranges and conducts programs that address specific themes identified at the beginning of the programming year as key issues in either a bilateral or multilateral context. Traditionally, the CAO employs visiting American lecturers with special expertise to speak directly to selected audiences on these topics, and American academic or cultural specialists to work with a specific university or organization on programs lasting from 2-12 weeks. Increasingly, CAOs are turning to electronic means to meet the challenges of the new telecommunications environment. Officers routinely use Worldnet Dialogues--audio and video linkups between the host country and the United States--and other forms of both audio and video teleconferencing to interpret and explain U.S. policy for both elite and mass audiences. In a different medium, Public Diplomacy Officers have pioneered the use of the World Wide Web as a direct and efficient communications tool for reaching self-selecting audiences. The public diplomacy section is responsible for maintaining and coordinating the home pages for all embassy offices and functions, and the CAO's input is important in shaping the overall U.S. message in a way that will be intelligible to an overseas audience.
Because a fundamental role of the CAO is to establish linkages at personal, institutional, and governmental levels, exchanges continue to be a primary area of interest on the CAO agenda. Among the most important programs managed directly or indirectly from the cultural affairs office are:
The overarching goal of all such exchange programs is a multiplier effect; the CAO seeks to build relationships, to encourage the expansion of bilateral networks, and to develop influential support for programs linking the U.S. with the host country. The CAO meets many challenges from obtaining support for cross-cultural communications to seeking out private sector co-sponsors for programs ranging from speakers to performing artists.
The work of a Public Diplomacy Officer is varied and demanding. It involves a high degree of outside contact work across a wide spectrum of endeavors, dealing with the independent media, Ministry of Information, universities, cultural and arts institutions, libraries, think tanks, and non-governmental organizations. A good Public Diplomacy Officer must be resourceful, politically sensitive, and flexible, with the ability to understand a culture quickly and to deal easily with a variety of people. Strong interpersonal skills are vitally important for success in the Public Diplomacy cone.
Prerequisites for Performing Well in the Cones
A 1997 Job Analysis of the Department of State identified certain knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) that prospective Foreign Service Officers should possess prior to entry into the Foreign Service. The KSAs are considered essential for success on the job, regardless of which cone is selected.
Knowledge of the following areas was identified as essential for success on the job across all cones: proper English usage; U.S. society, culture, history, government, political systems, and the Constitution; and world geography, historical antecedents of international affairs, and world political and social issues. In addition, all Foreign Service Officers should know basic accounting, statistics and mathematics, principles of management, interpersonal communication, and basic economic principles and trends.
The 1997 Job Analysis also identified the following skills and abilities as important in the work of a Foreign Service Officer across all cones: strong interpersonal and communication skills; adaptability and stress tolerance; good problem solving and decision making; integrity and dependability; ability to plan and set priorities; and initiative and leadership.
Please refer to our "Salary and Benefits" page for more information.
The Department of State is committed to equal opportunity and fair and equitable treatment for all without regard to race, color, national origin, sex, religion, age, sexual orientation, disabling condition, political affiliation, marital status, or prior statutory, constitutionally protected activity.