United States Foreign Service

Seal of the US Department of State

The United States Foreign Service is a component of the United States federal government under the aegis of the United States Department of State. It consists of approximately 11,500 professionals[1] carrying out the foreign policy of the United States and aiding U.S. citizens abroad.[2][3]

Created in 1924 by the Rogers Act, the Foreign Service combined all consular and diplomatic services of the U.S. government into one administrative unit. In addition to the unit's function, the Rogers Act defined a personnel system under which the United States Secretary of State is authorized to assign diplomats abroad.

Members of the Foreign Service are selected through a series of written and oral examinations. They serve at any of the 265 United States diplomatic missions around the world, including embassies, consulates, and other facilities. Members of the Foreign Service also staff the headquarters of the four foreign affairs agencies: The Department of State, headquartered at Harry S Truman Building in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of Washington, D.C.; the Department of Agriculture; the Department of Commerce; and the United States Agency for International Development.


Historical background

On September 15, 1789, the 1st United States Congress passed an Act creating the Department of State and appointing duties to it, including the keeping of the Great Seal of the United States. Initially there were two services devoted to diplomatic and consular activity. The Diplomatic Service provided ambassadors and ministers to staff embassies overseas, while the Consular Service provided consuls to assist United States sailors and promote international trade and commerce.

Throughout the 19th century, ambassadors, or ministers, as they were known prior to the 1890s, and consuls were appointed by the president, and until 1856, earned no salary. Many had commercial ties to the countries in which they would serve, and were expected to earn a living through private business or by collecting fees. In 1856, Congress provided a salary for consuls serving at certain posts; those who received a salary could not engage in private business, but could continue to collect fees for services performed.

Rogers Act

The Rogers Act of 1924 merged the diplomatic and consular services of the government into the Foreign Service. An extremely difficult Foreign Service examination was also implemented to recruit the most outstanding Americans, along with a merit-based system of promotions. Since the Rogers Act, about two-thirds of U.S. ambassadors appointed by the President of the United States have come from within the ranks of the Foreign Service.[citation needed] The Rogers Act also created the Board of the Foreign Service and the Board of Examiners of the Foreign Service, the former to advise the Secretary of State on managing the Foreign Service, and the latter to manage the examination process.

In 1927 Congress passed legislation according diplomatic status to representatives abroad of the Department of Commerce (until then known as "trade commissioners"), creating the Foreign Commerce Service. In 1930 Congress passed similar legislation for the Department of Agriculture, creating the Foreign Agricultural Service. Though formally accorded diplomatic status, however, commercial and agricultural attachés were civil servants (not officers of the Foreign Service). In addition, the agricultural legislation stipulated that agricultural attachés would not be construed as public ministers. On July 1, 1939, however, both the commercial and agricultural attachés were transferred to the Department of State under Reorganization Plan No. II. The agricultural attachés remained in the Department of State until 1954, when they were returned by Act of Congress to the Department of Agriculture. Commercial attachés remained with State until 1980, when Reorganization Plan Number 3 of 1979 was implemented under terms of the Foreign Service Act of 1980.

Foreign Service Act of 1946

In the meantime, in 1946 Congress at the request of the Department of State passed a new Foreign Service Act creating six classes of employees: chiefs of mission, Foreign Service Officers, Foreign Service Reservists, Foreign Service Staff, "alien personnel" (subsequently renamed Foreign Service Nationals and later Locally Engaged staff), and consular agents. Officers were expected to spend the bulk of their careers abroad and were commissioned officers of the United States, available for worldwide service. Reserve officers often spent the bulk of their careers in Washington but were available for overseas service. Foreign Service Staff personnel included clerical and support positions. The intent of this system was to remove the distinction between Foreign Service and civil service staff, which had been a source of friction. The Foreign Service Act of 1946 also repealed as redundant the 1927 and 1930 laws granting USDA and Commerce representatives abroad diplomatic status, since at that point agricultural and commercial attachés were appointed by the Department of State.

The 1946 Act replaced the Board of Foreign Service Personnel, a body concerned solely with administering the system of promotions, with the Board of the Foreign Service, which was responsible more broadly for the personnel system as a whole, and created the position of Director-General of the Foreign Service. It also introduced the "up-or-out" system under which failure to gain promotion to higher rank within a specified time in class would lead to mandatory retirement, essentially borrowing the concept from the U.S. Navy. The 1946 Act also created the rank of Career Minister, accorded to the most senior officers of the service, and established mandatory retirement ages.[4]

Foreign Service Act of 1980

The new personnel management approach was not wholly successful, which led to an effort in the late 1970s to overhaul the 1946 Act. During drafting of this Act, Congress chose to move the commercial attachés back to Commerce while preserving their status as Foreign Service Officers, and to include agricultural attachés of the Department of Agriculture in addition to the existing FSOs of the Department of State, U.S. Information Agency, and U.S. Agency for International Development.

The Foreign Service Act of 1980 is the most recent major legislative reform to the Foreign Service. It abolished the Foreign Service Reserve category of officers, and reformed the personnel system for non-diplomatic locally employed staff of overseas missions (Foreign Service Nationals). It created a Senior Foreign Service with a rank structure equivalent to general and flag officers of the armed forces and to the Senior Executive Service. It enacted danger pay for those diplomats who serve in dangerous and hostile surroundings along with other administrative changes. The 1980 Act also reauthorized the Board of the Foreign Service, which "shall include one or more representatives of the Department of State, the United States Information Agency, the United States International Development Cooperation Agency, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Labor, the Office of Personnel Management, the Office of Management and Budget, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and such other agencies as the President may designate."

This board is charged with advising "the Secretary of State on matters relating to the Service, including furtherance of the objectives of maximum compatibility among agencies authorized by law to utilize the Foreign Service personnel system and compatibility between the Foreign Service personnel system and the other personnel systems of the Government."[5]

Members of the Foreign Service

The Foreign Service Act, 22 U.S.C. § 3903 et seq., defines the following members of the Foreign Service:[6]

  • Chiefs of mission are appointed by the President, with the advice and consent of the Senate.
  • Ambassadors at large are appointed by the President, with the advice and consent of the Senate.
  • Senior Foreign Service (SFS) members are the senior leaders and experts for the management of the Foreign Service and the performance of its functions. They are appointed by the President, with the advice and consent of the Senate. SFS may come from the FSO or Specialist ranks and are the equivalent to flag or general officers in the military.
  • Foreign Service Officers are appointed by the President, with the advice and consent of the Senate. These diplomat "generalists" have primary responsibility for carrying out the functions of the Foreign Service.
  • Foreign Service Specialists provide special skills and services required for effective performance by the Service (e.g., Special Agents of the Diplomatic Security Service). They are appointed by the Secretary of State.
  • Foreign Service Nationals (FSNs), also known as LES (Locally Engaged Staff), are personnel who provide clerical, administrative, technical, fiscal, and other support at posts abroad. They may be native citizens of the host country or third-country citizens (the latter referred to in the past as Third Country Nationals or TCNs). In some cases LES are Americans living abroad as expatriates.
  • Consular agents provide consular and related services as authorized by the Secretary of State at specified locations abroad where no Foreign Service posts are situated.

Foreign affairs agencies

While employees of the Department of State make up the largest portion of the Foreign Service, the Foreign Service Act of 1980 authorizes other U.S. government agencies to use the personnel system for positions that require service abroad. These include the Department of Commerce [7] (Foreign Commercial Service), the Department of Agriculture (specifically the Foreign Agricultural Service, though the Secretary of Agriculture has also authorized the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to use it as well), and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).[8] USAID, Commerce, and Agriculture senior career FSOs can be appointed to ambassadorships, although the ranks of career ambassadors are in the vast majority of cases drawn from the Department of State, with a far smaller sub-set drawn from the ranks of USAID Mission Directors.

Foreign Service size

The total number of Foreign Service members (excluding Foreign Service Nationals) from all Foreign Service agencies (State, USAID, etc.) is about 15,150.

  • State Department Foreign Service employees number approximately 13,000 which is a total of both Foreign Service Officers and Foreign Service Specialists.
  • The USAID Foreign Service currently numbers about 1,700.
  • Members from the other Foreign Service agencies number approximate 450: Foreign Commercial Service numbers about 250, Foreign Agriculture Service numbers about 175, and the International Broadcasting Bureau numbers about 25.



The process of being employed in the Foreign Service is different for those applying for Generalist positions and those applying for Specialist positions.

Generalist candidates take the Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT), a written exam consisting of three sections (job knowledge, biographical information, English grammar and usage) and an essay. Those who pass the FSOT are invited to submit short essays called Personal Narrative Questions (PNQs) for review by the Qualifications Evaluation Panel (QEP). Approximately 25 to 30 percent of candidates pass both the FSOT and the PNQ/QEP phase of the process.[10][11]. [10] After the screening process, less than 10% of those that pass the FSOT are invited to an oral assessment, administered in person in Washington, D.C. and other major cities throughout the United States. Approximately 3% of the original applicants at the written exam will ultimately pass the oral assessment.

Since the 1950s, Foreign Service Officer applicants who passed a full-day written exam were invited to an oral assessment. In mid-2007, the full-day written exam was shortened and the PNQs were added. The PNQs, along with the Qualifications Evaluation Panel (QEP) (which is composed of three current Foreign Service Officers), was one of the most significant changes to the Foreign Service hiring process in decades. To be invited to take the Oral Assessment an applicant must not only pass the FSOT but also the QEP review. The Department of State's Board of Examiners can find some candidacies unacceptable despite the fact that they passed the FSOT.

Those candidates who receive official offers of employment must attend a 6-week training/orientation course known as A-100 at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) in Arlington, VA.

Foreign Service Specialist (FSS) candidates are evaluated by Subject Matter Experts for proven skills and recommended to the Board of Examiners for an oral assessment based on those skills. FSS positions are currently grouped into seven major categories: Administration, Construction Engineering, Information Technology, International Information and English Language Programs, Medical and Health, Office Management, and Security.[12]

Even when a candidate passes all of the required examinations, several other conditions of employment must be met. Foreign Service candidates undergo a security background check for a TOP SECRET Security Clearance and must obtain a Class 1 (Worldwide Available) Medical Clearance. Failure to obtain a TS clearance or a Class 1 medical clearance can result in a candidate's eligibility being terminated. It can be difficult for a candidate to receive a TOP SECRET clearance if they have extensive foreign travel, dual citizenship, non-United States citizen family members, foreign spouses, drug use, financial problems or a poor record of financial practices, frequent gambling, and allegiance or de facto allegiance to a foreign state. Additionally, it can be difficult for anyone who has had a significant health problem to receive a Class 1 Medical Clearance.

Previously, the Foreign Service automatically rejected anyone with HIV. However, the landmark case of Taylor v. Rice mandated that the Foreign Service cannot discriminate against applicants who have stable chronic medical conditions. Taylor v. Rice allows HIV-Positive applicants to become Foreign Service Officers, provided they meet the other criteria required for employment.[13][1] Other conditions, such as mental illness and diabetes, are still considered severe enough to warrant rejection for the Foreign Service.[2]

Once an applicant passes the security and medical clearances, as well as the Final Review Panel, they are placed on the register of eligible hires, ranked according to the score that they received in the oral assessment. There are factors that can increase a candidate's score, such as foreign language proficiency, Veteran's Preference, and Peace Corps service. Once a candidate is put on the register, they can remain for 18 months. If they are not hired from the register within 18 months, their candidacy is terminated. Separate registers are maintained for each of the five Generalist career cones as well as the 23 Specialist career tracks.

All Foreign Service personnel must be worldwide available-that is, they may be deployed anywhere in the world based on the needs of the service. They also agree to publicly support the policies of the United States Government.

Service terms and conditions

Members of the Foreign Service are expected to serve most of their career abroad, working at embassies and consulates around the world. By internal regulation the maximum stretch of domestic assignments should last no more than five years before resigning or taking a foreign posting. By law Foreign Service personnel must go abroad after eight years of domestic service. The difficulties and the benefits associated with working abroad are many, especially in relation to family life.

Dependent family members usually accompany Foreign Service employees overseas.[14] The children of Foreign Service members, sometimes called Foreign Service Brats, grow up in a unique world, one that separates them, willingly or unwillingly, from their counterparts living continuously in the states.

While many children of Foreign Service members become very well developed, are able to form friendships easily, are skilled at moving frequently and enjoy international travel, other children have extreme difficulty adapting to the Foreign Service lifestyle. For both employees and their families, the opportunity to see the world, experience foreign cultures firsthand for a prolonged period, and the camaraderie amongst the Foreign Service and expatriate communities in general are considered some of the benefits of Foreign Service life.

Some of the downsides of Foreign Service work include exposure to tropical diseases and the assignment to countries with inadequate health care systems, unaccompanied tours of duty, and potential exposure to violence, civil unrest and warfare.

Attacks on US embassies around the world—Beirut, Islamabad, Belgrade, Nairobi, Dar es Salaam, and Baghdad, among others—underscore the considerable danger these public servants face. FSOs stationed in nations with inadequate infrastructure risk injury or death due to natural disasters that would be relatively minor in the U.S.; for instance, an FSO was one of the first identified victims of the 2010 Haiti earthquake.[15]

For members of the Foreign Service, a personal life outside of the U.S. Foreign Service can be exceptionally difficult, especially when it comes to friends or relations that qualify as Foreign Contacts.[16] Personal relationships with foreign nationals in countries that are considered high-level Human Intelligence threat posts are even more rigorously enforced by Diplomatic Security.[16] In addition to espionage, there is also the danger of personnel that use their position illegally for financial gain. The most frequent kind of illegal abuse of an official position concerns Consular Officers. There have been a handful of cases of FSOs on Consular Assignments selling visas for a price.[17]

Members of the Foreign Service must agree to worldwide availability. In practice, they generally have significant input as to where they will work, although issues such as rank, language ability, and previous assignments will affect one's possible onward assignments. All assignments are based on the needs of the Service, and historically it has occasionally been necessary for the Department to make directed assignments to a particular post in order to fulfill the Government's diplomatic requirements. This is not the norm, however, as many Foreign Service employees have volunteered to serve even at extreme hardship posts, including, most recently, Iraq and Afghanistan.[18]

The State Department maintains a Family Liaison Office to assist diplomats, including members of the Foreign Service and their families, in dealing with the unique issues of life as a U.S. diplomat, including the extended family separations that are usually required when an employee is sent to a danger post.[19]

Foreign Service career system

The Foreign Service personnel system is part of the Excepted Service and both generalist and specialist positions are competitively promoted through comparison of performance in annual sessions of Selection Boards.[20] Each foreign affairs agency establishes time-in-class (TIC) and time-in-service (TIS) rules for certain categories of personnel in accordance with the provisions of the Foreign Service Act. This may include a maximum of 27 years of commissioned service if a member is not promoted into the Senior Foreign Service, and a maximum of 15 years of service in any single grade prior to promotion into the Senior Foreign Service. Furthermore, Selection Boards may recommend members not only for promotions, but for selection out of the service due to failure to perform at the standard set by those members' peers in the same grade. The TIC rules do not apply to office management specialists, medical specialists, and several other categories but most members of the Foreign Service are subject to an "up or out" system similar to that of military officers.[21]

This system stimulates members to perform well, and to accept difficult and hazardous assignments.[22]

Directors General of the United States Foreign Service

Name Assumed Office Left Office President served under
Selden Chapin November 13, 1946 April 30, 1947 Harry S. Truman
Christian M. Ravndal May 1, 1947 June 23, 1949 Harry S. Truman
Richard P. Butrick September 7, 1949 April 1, 1952 Harry S. Truman
Gerald A. Drew March 30, 1952 October 18, 1954 Dwight D. Eisenhower
Raymond A. Hare October 19, 1954 August 29, 1956 Dwight D. Eisenhower
Joseph C. Satterthwaite May 6, 1957 September 1, 1958 Dwight D. Eisenhower
Waldemar J. Gallman November 17, 1958 January 31, 1961 Dwight D. Eisenhower
Tyler Thompson May 14, 1961 February 15, 1964 John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson
Joseph Palmer II February 16, 1964 April 10, 1966 Lyndon B. Johnson
John M. Steeves August 1, 1966 July 31, 1969 Lyndon B. Johnson
John H. Burns August 1, 1969 June 15, 1971 Richard Nixon
William O. Hall July 5, 1971 September 30, 1973 Richard Nixon
Nathaniel Davis November 13, 1973 March 17, 1975 Richard Nixon
Carol C. Laise April 11, 1975 December 26, 1977 Gerald Ford
Harry G. Barnes, Jr. December 22, 1977 February 8, 1981 Jimmy Carter
Joan M. Clark July 27, 1981 October 24, 1983 Ronald Reagan
Alfred Atherton December 2, 1983 December 28, 1984 Ronald Reagan
George S. Vest June 8, 1985 May 3, 1989 Ronald Reagan
Edward J. Perkins September 22, 1989 May 7, 1992 George H. W. Bush
Genta H. Holmes September 7, 1992 August 18, 1995 George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton
Anthony C. E. Quainton December 29, 1995 August 22, 1997 Bill Clinton
Edward Gnehm August 25, 1997 June 14, 2000 Bill Clinton
Marc Grossman June 19, 2000 Bill Clinton
Ruth A. Davis June 15, 2001 June 30, 2003 George W. Bush
W. Robert Pearson October 7, 2003 February 27, 2006 George W. Bush
George McDade Staples May 25, 2006 June 27, 2007 George W. Bush
Harry K. Thomas, Jr. September 21, 2007 August 2, 2009 George W. Bush and Barack Obama
Nancy Jo Powell August 3, 2009 Barack Obama

See also


  1. ^ "General Information - Our Employees at Work". U.S. Department of State. http://careers.state.gov/general/about-us.html. Retrieved 2010-09-03. 
  2. ^ Kopp and Gillespie, Career Diplomacy, pp. 3-4
  3. ^ "What is the American Foreign Service Association?". http://www.afsa.org/whatis.cfm. Retrieved 2010-02-06. 
  4. ^ Evans, Alona E. (April 1948). "The Reorganization of the American Foreign Service". International Affairs, vol. 24/2, pp. 206-217. 
  5. ^ Foreign Service Act of 1980, Section 210.
  6. ^ Foreign Service Act
  7. ^ Foreign Service Personnel Management Manual
  8. ^ See for example 15 FAM 235.2, which specifically refers to the foreign affairs agencies as "each Foreign Affairs Agency (U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Foreign Agriculture [sic] Service of the Department of Agriculture (FAS), and U.S. and Foreign Commercial Service of the Department of Commerce (US&FCS)) and the U.S. Defense representative."
  9. ^ "Diplomacy Post-9/11: Life in the U.S. Foreign Service". http://thekojonnamdishow.org/shows/2011-09-22/diplomacy-post-911-life-us-foreign-service. Retrieved 26 September 2011. 
  10. ^ a b "Becoming a Foreign Service Officer". ACT's Activity Publication. Spring 2009. http://www.act.org/activity/spring2009/become.html. Retrieved 2009-06-16.  "Only about 25 to 30 percent of candidates pass the initial examination and screening and move onto the oral assessment phase"
  11. ^ "U.S. Department of State Careers". United States State Department. Archived from the original on 2005-01-06. http://web.archive.org/web/20050106051359/http://www.careers.state.gov/officer/faqs.html.  "There is no set percentage that pass. The "passing score" depends on hiring needs."
  12. ^ "Who are the Specialists? What do they do?". United States State Department. http://careers.state.gov/Specialist/index.html. Retrieved 2009-06-16. 
  13. ^ "Taylor v. Rice". http://www.lambdalegal.org/our-work/in-court/cases/taylor-v-rice.html. Retrieved 2009-06-16. 
  14. ^ Inside a U.S. Embassy. American Foreign Service Association. 2005. ISBN 0-9649488-2-6. http://www.afsa.org/inside/. 
  15. ^ "L.A. Now". Los Angeles Times. January 19, 2010. http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/lanow/2010/01/la-police-honor-guard-will-escort-body-of-diplomat-killed-in-haiti-earthquake.html. 
  16. ^ a b Important information on revision of rules for reporting FOREIGN CONTACTS AND INTENT TO MARRY OR COHABIT WITH FOREIGN NATIONALS. American Foreign Service Association. May 11, 2009. http://www.afsa.org/contactreporting.cfm?CFID=2260503&CFTOKEN=a01629522e304822-68F7BD64-D097-4DDC-D90AD8FE1108F937. 
  17. ^ STATE DEPARTMENT CONSULAR OFFICER PLEADS GUILTY TO VISA FRAUD. United States Department of Justice. May 31, 2009. http://www.usdoj.gov/opa/pr/2003/February/03_crm_078.htm. 
  18. ^ Dorman, Shawn (January 2008). "Iraq "Prime Candidate" Exercise Cancelled". AFSANEWS (American Foreign Service Association): pp. 1. http://www.afsa.org/fsj/jan08/afsa_news.pdf. Retrieved 2008-03-02. 
  19. ^ "Family Liaison Office". www.state.gov. United States Department of State. http://www.state.gov/m/dghr/flo/. Retrieved 2008-03-02. 
  20. ^ Careers
  21. ^ Kopp and Gillespie, Career Diplomacy, pp. 135-137
  22. ^ ibid., pp. 138-139


  • Kopp, Harry W.; Charles A. Gillespie (2008). Career Diplomacy: Life and Work in the U.S. Foreign Service. Washington: Georgetown University Press. pp. 266. ISBN 978-1-58901-219-6. 

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