How to Become a Foreign Service Officer

Foreign Service Officers are diplomats that work under the U.S. Department of State to promote peace and prosperity while advancing U.S. interests abroad.

However, it’s important to note that not all diplomats are classified as Foreign Service Officers, as this prestigious title requires qualified candidates to meet very specific requirements before being able to represent the United States.

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Foreign Service Officers serve at one of the more than 270 embassies, consulates, and diplomatic missions throughout the world, conducting diplomacy by communicating U.S. foreign policy objectives to foreign government representatives and intergovernmental panels.

Their work may take them from the Americas to Africa, East Asia, the Pacific, the Middle East, and beyond, allowing them to connect with the global community while living and working abroad.

Among the locations where Foreign Service Officers lend their expertise and work to promote US interests include:

Western Hemisphere

  • Argentina
  • Bahamas
  • Barbados
  • Haiti
  • Guyana
  • Mexico
  • Jamaica
  • Canada
  • Guatemala
  • El Salvador

Europe/Eurasia

  • Armenia
  • Luxemburg
  • Croatia
  • Czech Republic
  • France
  • Switzerland
  • Spain

Africa

  • Nigeria
  • Chad
  • Rwanda
  • Sudan
  • Kenya
  • Zambia

Near East

  • Iraq
  • Saudi Arabia
  • Yemen
  • Israel
  • Tunisia

South and Central Asia

  • Afghanistan
  • Pakistan
  • Nepal
  • India
  • Bangladesh

East Asia/Pacific

  • Australia
  • Laos
  • South Korea
  • Malaysia
  • China
  • Indonesia
  • Japan

The Various Specialized Roles for Foreign Service Officers

The U.S. Department of State assigns its staff of Foreign Service Officers one of the following titles as determined by their area of specialization:

Consular Officers

Consular officers are crisis managers that use their problem-solving skills to address challenges facing U.S. citizens traveling, working, or living overseas. These strategic thinkers and natural leaders are required to handle any number of diverse challenges, ranging from overseas child custody disputes to arrests, emergencies, and travel advisories affecting U.S. citizens.

On any given day their work may require them to facilitate an overseas adoption, evacuate Americans from unsafe countries, or fight cases of human trafficking.

The duties and responsibilities of consular officers include:

  • Working with foreign officials to conduct and facilitate legitimate business, education, and tourist travel
  • Becoming experts on local laws, culture, and economic and political conditions
  • Connecting U.S. citizens with their families during medical emergencies and evacuations
  • Ensuring Americans have access to legal counsel when overseas in the event of an arrest
  • Working with a host country to find solutions to problems affecting U.S. citizens abroad
  • Overseeing activities that strengthen border security
  • Keeping Washington current on consular issues, such as visa and passport activity, security issues, and fraud trends

Economic Officers

Economic officers maintain positive economic and trade relations between the U.S. and foreign partners. These Foreign Service Officers work with U.S. and foreign government officials, business leaders, and international organizations on a daily basis, promoting national security through economic stability.

Economic officers promote U.S. economic and commercial interests, and are required to report on economic conditions and trends that may affect U.S. policy development and implementation within a host country.

The job duties and responsibilities of economic officers include:

  • Resolving market challenges and promoting fair practices with members of the international community
  • Resolving science, environmental, and health issues of foreign countries that affect the U.S.
  • Ensuring that U.S. businesses can compete for foreign investment and trade by reducing obstacles and identifying global opportunities
  • Promoting economic development in developing or emerging countries
  • Negotiating agreements and policies with foreign partners that enhance the safety, security and efficiency of U.S. travel and transportation
  • Promoting international standards related to emerging communications technology and other technology critical to infrastructure development

Management Officers

Management officers are the in-charge Foreign Service Officers that manage all of the operations of an embassy or consulate. They may be involved in any number of tasks on a daily basis, from human resources to budgetary to security matters.

Management officers must develop solutions in mission-critical situations. Their duties and responsibilities include:

  • Managing real estate and other assets related to an embassy or consulate, which may include the construction of new facilities
  • Coordinating and communicating with other U.S. agencies in embassies so as to ensure a seamless, team approach to any number of issues
  • Coordinating visits with senior officials
  • Overseeing the professional development of staff
  • Negotiating with host countries on a wide array of issues, from taxation to social security
  • Ensuring the safety and security of U.S. personnel in overseas installations

Political Officers

Political officers must interpret situations and negotiate/advise on any number of international issues. These Foreign Service Officers are responsible for remaining current on the political climate of their foreign post and on any event related to U.S. interests, negotiations, and policies.

Political officers communicate with foreign governments with the ultimate goal of achieving shared goals. Their duties and responsibilities often include:

  • Developing and maintaining relationships with foreign contacts in order to advance U.S. political interests
  • Reporting on political developments as they relate to the U.S. and making recommendations for U.S. government action
  • Advising U.S. policymakers on ways to communicate with foreign governments
  • Monitoring the activities of and engaging with international organizations

Public Diplomacy Officers

Public diplomacy officers are experts of cross-cultural relations that build public awareness and promote U.S. interests abroad. Public diplomacy officers broaden the understanding of American values and policies with other host nations, thus shaping their perceptions about the U.S.

Their work involves maintaining contacts with key people that influence public opinion, such as leaders, local non-government groups, and leaders of government, academic, and think tank organizations. Their ultimate goal is to promote mutual understanding and support for U.S. policy goals.

Therefore, their duties and responsibilities often include:

  • Educating foreign audiences on American history, traditions, and values and how they shape our foreign policy
  • Creating, developing, and overseeing informative programs that connect with foreign audiences
  • Coordinating exchange programs as to strengthen relationships between the U.S. and its foreign partners
  • Using the media to promote U.S. interests abroad (e.g., embassy and consulate websites and social media)

How to Become a Foreign Service Officer with the US Department of State

To be eligible to become a Foreign Service Officer, the U.S. Department of State requires candidates to be:

  • A U.S. citizen
  • At least 20 years old and no older than 59 years old on the day the registration is submitted
  • At least 21 years old and not yet 60 years old on the day the appointment as a Foreign Service Officer takes place

Candidates for Foreign Service Officers do not need to possess any type of education or post-secondary degree; however, the Department of State recognizes that possessing a degree, foreign language proficiency, and international experience may prove useful when completing the personal narrative and the oral assessment. Further, candidates with proficiency in one or more languages are considered highly qualified.

The following majors, either at the undergraduate or graduate level, are ideal for individuals interested in a career as a Foreign Service Officer:

  • International business
  • International relations
  • Global affairs
  • Political science
  • Economics
  • International studies
  • International affairs
  • History

All applicants must be willing and able to relocate to anywhere in the world, including Washington D.C.

Foreign Service Officer candidates should be ready and willing to:

  • Serve as a representative of the United States to businesses and governments worldwide
  • Protect America’s interests through diplomatic efforts
  • Take on high levels of responsibility
  • Work and interact with a wide variety of important and interesting people
  • Work closely with foreign governments on issues of global importance
  • Travel overseas on a frequent basis
  • Learn about and live in different cultures
  • Learn at least one (if not several) foreign languages
  • Change jobs and locations every 2 to 4 years
  • Work long or unusual hours

Steps to Becoming a Foreign Service Officer

The first step to becoming a Foreign Service Officer involves registering for and taking the Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT), which consists of multiple-choice and essay questions.

Candidates that pass the FSOT must submit a personal narrative to the State Department’s Qualifications Evaluation Panel for review. The next step includes taking the oral assessment, a daylong assessment that measures a candidate’s ability to demonstrate the 13 dimensions essential to performing Foreign Service work. These include:

  1. Composure: Ability to stay calm, poised, and effective in stressful situations
  2. Cultural adaptability: Ability to work and communicate effectively with people of different cultures
  3. Experience and motivation: Ability to demonstrate knowledge, skills, and other attributes from previous experience
  4. Information integration and analysis: Ability to absorb and retain complex information drawn from a variety of sources
  5. Initiative and leadership: Ability to recognize and assume responsibility for work that needs to be done
  6. Judgment: Ability to discern what is realistic, appropriate, and practical in a situation
  7. Objectivity/integrity: Ability to be fair and honest
  8. Oral communication: Ability to speak fluently in a concise and grammatically correct manner
  9. Planning and organizing: Ability to prioritize and order tasks effectively
  10. Resourcefulness: Ability to formulate creative alternatives or solutions to resolve problems
  11. Working with others: Ability to interact in a constructive and harmonious manner
  12. Written communication: Ability to write concise, well-organized, and grammatically correct English
  13. Quantitative analysis: Ability to draw correct conclusions from pertinent data

Candidates that pass the oral assessment will receive a conditional offer of employment, as well as instructions on how to apply to obtain medical and security clearances.

Finally, a Suitability Review Panel reviews the candidate’s completed file. All approved candidates are then placed on the Register, a rank-ordered list of successful candidates organized by career track.

Foreign Service Assignments

After new Foreign Service Officers have completed their orientation and training in Washington D.C., they must typically complete an overseas assignment. The first two overseas tours (usually at two years each) are the time when new Foreign Service Officers develop their talents in a variety of working environments.

Foreign Service Officers must also ensure they attain foreign language skills within the first few years. New employees hold a variety of positions in the first five years (considered the probationary period) to ensure that the Foreign Service is a good fit. This probationary period includes at least two to three years of consular work and at least one hardship post.

Salary Potential for Foreign Service Officers

According to the U.S. Department of State’s salary schedule, Foreign Service Officers, as of January 1, 2015, can expect to earn the following minimum salaries:

  • Foreign Service Officers who possess a bachelor’s degree and no professional experience (FP-6, Step 5): $44,082
  • Foreign Service Officers who possess a master’s degree or law degree (JD) OR a bachelor’s degree and at least six years of professional experience: (FP-5, Step 5): $49,311
  • Foreign Service Officers with a doctorate OR a master’s degree/law degree and at least six years of professional experience: (FP-4, Step 5): $60,855

The U.S. Department of State reported earnings for senior Foreign Service Officers, as of January 1, 2015, to be between $121,956 and $183,300.

As of January 2015, the executive pay schedule for Foreign Service Officers serving as ambassadors was:

  • Executive I: $201,700
  • Executive II: $181,500
  • Executive III: $167,000
  • Executive IV: $157,100
  • Executive V: $147,200

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