A consulate is the home and offices of a consul, a representative of a foreign government who is similar to an ambassador. Consuls assist their countrymen while abroad, and they may issue visas and participate in other activities which are intended to facilitate friendly relations between their home and host nations. Ambassadors, on the other hand, are emissaries between heads of state, working to promote peaceful agreements and acting as official government representatives. A country usually has only one embassy in a foreign country, typically located in that nation's capital, while consulates can be found in numerous cities.
Depending on the nation, varying services are available at a consulate. At a minimum, consular staff assist people from their home nation when in need. A consulate might, for example, recommend local lawyers to someone in legal trouble, or contact someone's next of kin when he or she is involved in an accident. Consulates usually also retain useful information on their host country, such as directories of hotels and money-changing services.
Often, consulates also provide services to citizens of the host country, such as granting visas or providing information about their home nations. This encourages positive relationships between the two countries. Just like an embassy, a consulate may host parties and events to promote its home nation, and the guest lists can sometimes be just as star-studded, especially in major cities. Consulates also work to promote trade between the two countries, and they may hold information sessions to attract business to their home countries.
Unlike an embassy, a consulate does not have the power to negotiate diplomatically. Consular employees are also not offered diplomatic immunity, although they may act much like ambassadors for their nations. Staff at a consulate may also keep an eye on activities in their host nation, much like embassy staff do. Consular networks can act as a large informal information gathering system which can also be used as an early warning system, alerting their host nations to upcoming issues.
Staffing at a consulate varies. In some cases, some members of the staff may be citizens of the host country, including the consul. These staffers may have ties with the home nation, or a vested interest in promoting good relationships and trade. In a very small consulate, the staff may actually be volunteers, agreeing to help people from the home nation when they are in need, often at their own expense, in much the same way that generous merchants have been assisting visitors for centuries.