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Frequently Asked Questions -- Sister Cities, Flag Protocol and Diplomatic Ranking

Question:  What is a Sister City relationship and why is it important?

Answer:  The Office also manages the Sister City relationships and all communication between the executive branch and foreign government representatives such as Ambassadors, Ministers, foreign delegations, international organizations, embassies and officials from other countries.

Question:  What is Protocol?

Answer:  Protocol is an established and official set of rules or guidelines that must be followed regarding affairs of State or diplomatic occasions.  Protocol covers the formal code of behavior observed by diplomats and constitutes the code of correct behavior observed in the diplomatic/international world.

Protocol must be observed when dealing in many areas, these include:

  • Flag protocol
  • Orders of precedence
  • Forms of address
  • Seating for meetings and events
  • Invitations, place cards, program listings
  • Dining Etiquette
  • Order of speaking at events
  • Gift exchanges
  • Business etiquette
  • Greetings and Introductions
  • Travel

Question:  What is US Flag Protocol?

Answer:  The Office of Protocol and International Affairs receives many questions regarding US flag protocol.  While there are many observances one must follow regarding the use of the flag, some general rules are as follows:

  • The flag must be treated with dignity and respect at all times
  • A US flag stands always to the right of the speaker or a line-up of other flags
  • The US flag must never touch the ground
  • No flag on display with the US flag should be taller or larger than the US flag
  • The US flag should never be worn as clothing
  • No logos, sayings, emblems or other symbols must be written on a flag
  • The US flag is placed behind and to the right of people in a receiving line
  • Small miniature replicas of foreign flags may be placed on a conference table as a sign of respect for foreign visitors

Question:  Where can I find out more about Flag Protocol?

Answer:  You can call the National Flag Foundation at (412) 261-1776, visit the website, or research Public Law 94-344 for more information about when and how to use the flag, when to lower the flag to half-staff or half-mast and for what period of time, and who has the responsibility and authority to order the flag to half-staff.

Question:  How do I know what Ambassador is more important than another?

Answer:  Diplomatic rank is a system that is used in the diplomatic world to help one know what country’s Ambassador, flag, or listing occurs ahead of another.  This is determined in the United States by the length of time the Ambassador has spent in the United States in that post and when that Ambassador presented his (her) papers to the President of the United States – the only person in the United States who can accept them.  The dates when papers are presented result in rankings reflected in a list of Precedence that is published by the Department of State.

Question:  I do not understand what the titles of diplomats mean and what they imply.  Could you please explain these to me and how to address them.

Answer:  The Congress of Vienna of 1815 formally established a system of diplomatic ranking. The full title of an Ambassador is Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary.  An Ambassador is a diplomatic representative with full authority to represent the head of State of that country that (s)he represents.  The Holy See Ambassador, while addressed as His/Her Excellency, is known as the Papal Nuncio.  You address an Ambassador as Your Excellency or Ambassador and then his last name.

Any diplomat who heads an embassy (diplomatic mission) is known as the chief of mission.  Chiefs of mission hold the rank of Ambassador, or as stated above, Papal Nuncio.

The deputy chief of mission is the chief deputy to the chief of mission and is the second-highest post of the embassy.

Ranking in an embassy-broadly speaking:

  • Ambassador
  • Minister
  • Minister-Counselor
  • Counselor
  • First Secretary
  • Second Secretary
  • Third Secretary
  • Attaché
  • Assistant Attaché

Question:  What do you mean when you refer to the Diplomatic Corps?

Answer:  All diplomats that are assigned to a nation are known collectively as the diplomatic corps.  The diplomatic corps in Washington, DC is one of the largest in the world.