Honorary consuls, ‘consules electi’ in Latin, are an — in certain cases, important — instrument for developing stronger relations between nations. Honorary consuls, who are generally nationals or permanent residents of the receiving state, are appointed to safeguard the interests of the sending state with the formal consent of the receiving state. 

Typically, honorary consuls have two primary tasks: firstly, to protect the commercial interests of the sending state and, secondly, to assist its nationals in the receiving state. They are appointed mainly because they are highly esteemed, have financial resources and strong ties to the sending state. They contract with the sending state upon their appointment. They do not receive remuneration in respect of the exercise of consular functions since they are not civil servants of the sending state. The title and status associated with the consular post and the right to use the flag and emblem of the sending state may give prestige and provide moral and financial benefits for honorary consuls. It is mainly high-profile businesspeople, lawyers and professors who undertake to perform honorary consular functions.

The honorary consular institution has its roots in the ancient Greek institution of ‘proxenos’ who represented, without remuneration, the interests of foreign prisoners. The institution was originally created out of necessity, and its origins can be traced back to 8th century China, India and the Middle East. The main task of consuls was to represent the interests of the sovereign and subjects of the sending state in the receiving state, primarily by promoting social and economic relations. The role of honorary consuls increased over time as international relations, intercontinental trade and shipping developed, and, consequently, they were granted certain prerogatives in recognition of their service.
The career or professional consular institution was established as late as the end of the 18th century. France was the first state to employ career consuls, and other states soon followed suit. This is also why French was for centuries—and is partly still—the predominant official language of diplomacy. While states send their diplomatic agents mostly to the capital or other major cities of the receiving state, consuls can successfully perform their functions in smaller towns, since their most important duties include the protection and representation of the interests of the sending state and its nationals but exclude political dialogue with the executive arm of the receiving state. There were no substantial differences between honorary consuls and career consuls in essential functions and duties.
Honorary consuls were governed by customary law for centuries until the adoption on 24 April 1963 of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. The Convention divides consular officers into two categories, i.e. career and honorary consular officers, and the legal status of honorary consular officers is different than that of career consular officers under the Convention. Honorary consuls are recognised under international law and enjoy several privileges and immunities pursuant to the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. However, the privileges and powers of honorary consuls in particular depend on the relations between the receiving state and the sending state and on reciprocal treatment. Moreover, some states mutually grant, by custom or by agreement, more favourable treatment to honorary consuls sent by the other state.
Honorary consuls are usually highly respected nationals or permanent residents of the receiving state and cover their operating costs related to the protection of the interests of the nationals of the appointing foreign state and to the promotion of inter-state relations from their own resources, while they carry on for personal profit professional or commercial activities. It is more than a title since it requires honorary consuls to have dedication and a sense of mission. In addition, they must also be long-time renowned personalities in the receiving state and keen to do.

They also play a major role in promoting economic, scientific, educational, cultural, sports and tourism relations in the receiving state.

The honorary consular institution is gaining significance and may be an effective instrument to successfully achieve foreign policy aims and to implement the foreign economic strategy, building on the dedication of actors and on the appropriate recognition of the institution under international law.

In the 21st century, there has been a worldwide resurgence of the honorary consular institution due, on the one hand, to the ever-improving communication in all the areas and, on the other hand, cuts to diplomatic and foreign services. Honorary consuls can in many cases relieve career consuls of their duties or even replace them. Today, there is in particular a strong need for their work and relations, as shown by the constant expansion of the scope and volume of honorary consular service. This kind of internationally and nationally regulated civic diplomacy can significantly enhance the extensive relations of the sending state.