What is the Foreign Service?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 02 April 2020
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The foreign service is the collective consular and diplomatic staff of a nation. Many people use the term “foreign service” to refer specifically to the United States Foreign Service, part of the Department of State. Members of the diplomatic and consular corps serve a number of functions abroad, representing the interests of their home nation and working to foster understanding and cooperation in the international community.

Historically, positions in the foreign services were granted by appointment, and they were highly competitive. Appointees tended to be wealthy, powerful, or both, and they sometimes utilized their positions to promote their own business interests abroad, in addition to representing the interests of their nations. Most countries have abandoned the appointment system, instead selecting only key positions for appointment, with candidates being selected on the basis of experience rather than political clout, and hiring other members of the foreign service through competitive job searches.

To join the foreign service, candidates usually need to perform well on both written and oral exams. They tend to have excellent resumes which include fluency in at least one foreign language, with many possessing at least a bachelor's degree which may have included extensive study of foreign relations, political science, and related topics. Members of the service also need to be adventurous, outgoing, and committed to the interests of their nations.


Consular and diplomatic staff are often given special privileges abroad, with host nations recognizing their importance and the need for privacy and secure communicationse. Because there is a possibility for abuse of these privileges and for foreign service positions, candidates for foreign service positions also need to pass background checks which are used to confirm that they will not have conflicting loyalties, and that they do not have obligations or conflicts at home which could distract them from their work.

Foreign service test dates occur on a regularly scheduled basis, and people who are interested in joining the consular or diplomatic corps can contact the government agency which oversees the foreign service in their nation for information about the next test date. Numerous guides to the foreign service exam have been published to help people study, increasing their chances of performing well on the test and giving them an idea of what kind of content is covered. If hired, candidates will also undergo training by the government so that they can learn how to assist citizens abroad, the nuances of creating and implementing foreign policy, and how to deal with the wide variety of situations which can arise for members of the consular and diplomatic corps both overseas and at home.


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