Embassies, High Commissions and Consulates

What is the difference between Embassies and High Commissions?

British Embassies and High Commissions together comprise the UK’s “diplomatic missions” overseas.

The role of a UK diplomatic mission is to function as the channel of communication between the British government and that of the host country, to act as the official representative of the UK (in general, and in respect of specific public agencies with local interests) in that country, and to promote the interests of the UK and its citizens in that country.

Diplomatic missions are also sent to international organisations and conferences, with similar roles.

Embassies are diplomatic missions sent to non-Commonwealth countries.

High Commissions are diplomatic missions sent to Commonwealth countries.

The “head of mission” at an embassy is called an Ambassadors.  At a High Commission, the head of mission is called a High Commissioner.

As well as referring to diplomatic missions themselves, the terms “Embassy” and “High Commission” refer to the buildings in which those missions are based.

In order to carry out their work, diplomatic missions must have a strong grasp of the host country’s politics, society and culture. They must be able to explain British policies, identify potential threats to and opportunities for British interests, and provide political and economic analysis of local conditions to inform decision-making at home. Much of the day-to-day work carried out by diplomatic missions involves promoting UK trade interests.

The positions and work of diplomatic missions are governed by the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations 1961. Under Article 31 of the Convention, members of diplomatic missions are exempt from the criminal and much of the civil law of the host country. Article 22 forbids the entry of agents of the host country from entering diplomatic posts without the permission of the head of mission.

One of the functions of diplomatic missions is to look after the interests of British citizens in their host countries. This work is carried out by the “Consular Section” of the mission, which is usually headed by a Consul-General.

Consular posts are located in the host country’s capital city (usually at the Embassy or High Commission) and also in other major cities. Depending on whether the post is headed by a Consul-General, Consul, Vice-Consul, or Consular Agent, they are known as Consulates-General, Consulates, Vice-Consulates and Consular Agencies, respectively.

Typical consular duties performed by consular posts include issuing passports and emergency documents; registering births and deaths; handling cases of child abduction and forced marriages; and assisting Britons detained or imprisoned, who have fallen ill or been the victim of a crime. Their activities are governed by the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations 1963.

Diplomatic and consular missions are the responsibility of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

The British Embassy in Moscow

The history of diplomatic missions

The stationing of ambassadors in foreign countries has its roots in medieval times, whereby the kings of Europe would send trusted lords and courtiers to one another’s courts. Indeed, today British diplomats in foreign countries and foreign diplomats in the UK are formally appointed as diplomats to or from the Court of St James (the UK’s Royal court) rather than the British state.

The presence of a diplomatic mission in a country is the formal symbolic sign of friendly relationships between countries. The importance of diplomatic missions to a country’s identity and interests is recognised in the UN Charter, whereby attacks on missions are equated with attacks on “the state” for the purposes of self-defence.

In the modern era diplomatic relations are governed by the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations 1961. This recognises three grades of diplomatic representative: ambassadors, legates, and papal nuncios, who are always accredited to heads of state; envoys, ministers, and other persons accredited to heads of state; and chargés d’affaires who are accredited to ministers of foreign affairs.

This replaced the system put in place by the Congress of Vienna of 1815 (amended by another Vienna Convention in 1863), which had begun the process of standardising and professionalizing diplomatic relations.

Due to their symbolic importance, diplomatic missions became a key battleground in the Cold War. Many intelligence operatives on both sides worked under diplomatic cover. This resulted in periodic mass expulsions; for example in 1971, the British government decided to expel 105 Soviet diplomats from London on spying charges.

The withdrawal of an ambassador, or a diplomatic mission, is one of the strongest signals a country can give of its displeasure. In the modern era it is often the precursor to some sort of sanction being taken against the country.


The present system of diplomatic missions is not regarded as controversial, having been proven by the tests of time. Nonetheless, specific concerns about the role of diplomatic staff and premises in espionage remain an issue, given the protections provided by diplomatic immunity, despite the end of the Cold War. In 1996, for example, nine British diplomats were expelled from Russia following accusations of spying.

History is replete with a long list of high profile incidents involving diplomatic missions, stemming from their position as the jurisdiction and territory of one country in the midst of another. These include in particular, the Iranian hostage standoff, lasting for 444 days, at the American embassy in Tehran in 1979, followed in 1980 by a siege of the Iranian embassy in London, which culminated in a six-day standoff before SAS troops dramatically stormed the building. More recently, a diplomatic incident was sparked by the accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade by NATO, during the 1999 Kosovo campaign.

The role of diplomatic missions again leapt into prominence in the post-Cold War era, even before the “War on Terrorism”. In 1998 Al-Qaeda first gained prominence with orchestrated attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed a total of 219 people. Since the 9-11 attacks on the USA, diplomatic missions are considered to be likely targets of terrorists, and security at posts worldwide has been dramatically increased.

Ambassadors and High Commissioners themselves are occasionally sources of controversy. In 2002, Iran refused to accept the appointment of David Reddaway as the British ambassador, claiming falsely that he was Jewish and an MI6 spy. In response, the UK downgraded the status of the Iranian ambassador to that of chargés d’affaires.

While most diplomats generally display the discretion characteristic of the old British civil service, incidents have been sparked by outbursts and indiscretions. A row was caused in 2002 by the British Ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, making allegations of human rights abuses in that country.


There are over 1,350 people working in British embassies/high commissions worldwide who assist with processing entry clearance applications.

Source: UK Visa Bureau – 2011

Top 20 countries where British nationals required the most consular assistance from 01 April 2008 – 31 March 2009:

Spain, USA, France, Australia, Germany, Thailand, Greece, China, Italy, South Africa, Portugal, Turkey, Cyprus, New Zealand, Canada, UAE, India, Ireland, Egypt, Pakistan.

The FCO runs a global network of offices (Embassies, High Commissions and Consulates) in more than 170 countries

Source: FCO – 2011


“The functions of a diplomatic mission consist inter alia in:

(a) representing the sending State in the receiving State;
(b) protecting in the receiving State the interests of the sending State and of its nationals, within the limits permitted by international law;
(c) negotiating with the Government of the receiving State;
(d) ascertaining by all lawful means conditions and developments in the receiving State, and reporting thereon to the Government of the sending State;
(e) promoting friendly relations between the sending State and the receiving State, and developing their economic, cultural and scientific relations.”

Article 3: Vienna Convention On Diplomatic Relations

1.The establishment of consular relations between States takes place by mutual consent.
2. The consent given to the establishment of diplomatic relations between two States implies, unless otherwise stated, consent to the establishment of consular relations.
3.The severance of diplomatic relations shall not ipso facto involve the severance of consular relations.

Article 2: Vienna Convention on Consular Relations

“My job and that of the people in the Embassy is to get results which improve the conditions of life for people back in the UK and also here.”

Mark Kent, Ambassador to Vietnam – 2011