To understand what an Honorary Consul is, we must first come to understand what a Occupational Consul, or Career Consul is.
Career consuls are government representatives assigned to diplomatic posts in foreign countries, and are recognized diplomats. Each consul represents his or her government (the “sending country”) in a foreign land (the “host country”). A consul of Mexico in Los Angeles, for example, would be a government official of the country of Mexico, authorized to carry out specific duties on behalf of the Mexican government in the U.S. There are many thousands of consuls, residing in virtually every country in the world, representing their sending country’s interests in the host country.
Consuls operate from official offices called consulates. Consulates are part of the diplomatic foreign mission of the sending country, and are officially recognized by the receiving country as diplomatic in nature, and exempt from certain laws in the receiving country. You may have seen such things as consular license plates, flags or residences. These are used with specific permission of the receiving country in its recognition of the foreign mission of the sending country. Various immunities, exemptions and special treatments are designed to enable the consul to expeditiously carry out the duties required by both the sending and receiving countries, and in recognition of the importance of international business and diplomatic relations by most nations.
Larger consulates are headed by a Consul General. A Consul general typically reports directly to his or her ministry of foreign affairs, and their embassy in the receiving country. In the U.S, embassies are typically in Washington, D.C. Diplomatic duties carried out by consuls and consuls general are typically delegated by their embassies or ministries of foreign relations. Such duties may include such tasks as hosting the head of state, ambassador, business magnates or other dignitaries of the sending country when they are visiting the area of the consulate. These visits often involve a close working relationship between the consul and local government officials, as well as U.S. government officials such as the Secret Service.
Consuls advocate for their citizens located in the host country, including specific duties and privileges when criminal charges are brought against the citizenry of the consulate in the host country. In such events, consuls have a right to visit incarcerated nationals to be sure they have received legal representation, among other things.
Consulates may be very large, with hundreds of employees, or very small, with only the consul working from a small office, depending on the size of the sending country’s population in the area of the consulate, and depending on the budget of the sending country.
Most countries have diplomatic relations with each other. Those which do not have diplomatic relations do not send foreign missions to one another.
Like their counterparts the standard consuls and consuls general (often referred to as “career consuls”), the honorary consul is an official of the sending country. Unlike regular consuls however, the honorary consul is not a government employee of the sending state, and therefore does not change posts based on changes of administration in the sending country.
Honorary consuls are generally dignitaries or persons of position in business and society in the receiving state, while having some connection to the sending state. Honorary consuls are not necessarily citizens of the sending states; rather, they are recognized by the sending states as persons of influence, capable of furthering the objectives of the sending state in the receiving state.
Honorary consuls may represent large and densely populated counties, or, as is often the case, small countries in the developing world which seek to promote business diplomacy. As big business often seeks to establish itself in the developing world, honorary consuls are often chosen for their acumen in such environs.
Most honorary consuls are people of means or independent wealth who do not receive monetary compensation for their service as consul. They may have other business interests. Many hold the title for life. Such long term establishment of official representation is invaluable to the sending state. Honorary consuls are often called upon to provide back channel information or communications, diplomatic advance team logistics, local reputation perceptions and government relations. Many come from previous careers in trade, business or elected office.
Honorary consuls are unique in that they are officials of both the sending state and the host state. Honorary consuls in the U.S. are confirmed by the State Department and issued a State Department Consular ID. They are provided many of the immunities of standard consular position. Most honorary consuls are appointed by the president of their sending state, rather than the minister of foreign relations as is the case with standard consuls. Effective standard consuls will often call upon honorary consuls to familiarize and introduce the standard consul within an area where the honorary consul resides.
Many honorary consuls have the same capabilities as standard consuls regarding identification and document legalization. This capability is referred to in the honorary consular community as “powers”. Those with powers legalize documents and provide identification (passport) assistance to the citizens of the sending countries. Honorary consuls without powers will often refer such needs to the nearest consul general of their sending state, or will help citizens obtain Hague apostilles when appropriate.
In cases when a developing or small country does not have the budget to maintain an embassy in a given country, they may establish an honorary consul instead. In such cases, the honorary consul fulfills the duties otherwise assigned to ambassadors or consuls general. Such individuals usually hold the title of Honorary Consul General.