FSO + SO = ?
February 25, 2009 2:06 PM   Subscribe

StateDepartmentFilter: tell me about entering the Foreign Service with a non-FSO significant other.

As someone interested in applying for the Foreign Service, I'm trying to figure out some of the issues involved in maintaining a relationship with/bringing along somebody who does not work for the State Department. Especially at the beginning of your career, the U.S. State Department requires a certain amount of hardship postings, including places where you can't take family members along with you. But I can't figure out what the actual requirements are. More to the point, what does this mean for those in relationships -- is there any way around having to spend a year or more sans better half (excepting two weeks of vacation time or whatnot)?

Secondly, what is the official treatment of different kinds of significant others? If I have a girlfriend (I'm a guy) that I'm not ready to get married to yet, am I going to run into hassles in travel/housing/other areas of life, as opposed to having a spouse?
posted by trouserlouse to Work & Money (5 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: From Mrs. lockestockbarrel:

Dear T,
I am an FSO preparing to go to Mexico for my first tour. You are smart to consider your priorities and how well they will mesh with this exciting but all-encompassing career.

There is definitely an expectation that you will serve at some hardship posts (which means they are recognized for "dangerous, unhealthful, or adverse living conditions"). Factors like air pollution, medical care, access to fresh produce, harsh climate, road conditions, crime levels, and difficulty getting there are all factored in. Some places, like most of Western Europe, are considered to be 0% hardship. The highest are Afghanistan and Iraq posts, which are considered 70% (and you earn 70% higher than your base pay while serving there, half for "hardship" and half for "danger"). While the State Department has deemed that you family can suffer through a permanent dairy shortage or really cold weather, for certain posts you are not permitted to bring your family. Here are the current hardship rates: http://aoprals.state.gov/Web920/hardship.asp

Since 9/11, the State Department has had to adapt to new priorities and needs in diplomacy. Now, there are many, many more unaccompanied posts, and others where adult family members (spouses, but not unmarried partners) are allowed, but not children. Unaccompanied tours last 1 year instead of the typical 2 or 3, and you should realistically expect to complete at least one over your whole career. In fact, it's an important factor in reaching Senior Foreign Service, which is like our super-tenure. The unaccompanied posts represent some of our highest-priority areas: Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Somalia, for example.

When you are on an unaccompanied tour, the State Dept does try to compensate somewhat by giving your family a decent living allowance ($11,300/year for just your spouse), paying you a large hardship differential, and paying for you to fly back for several visits over the year. I know of cases where the spouse of an FSO on an unaccompanied tour was able to go along because the spouse got hired for a job at the post too. But typically the left-behind spouse and kids just buckle down for a year and talk to mom or dad on Skype every night. It's kind of like deploying for the military, except you're going to a desk job.

You are also right to worry about your family status. The State Department will allow your partner to go with you to any accompanied post, but the partner will get no plane tickets, no insurance coverage, no allowances of any type, some but not a lot of language-training opportunities, no diplomatic passport (and all the diplomatic privileges and protections it stands for), etc. Your partner will be just another American citizen abroad in the event of an evacuation crisis, for example. Your partner has to negotiate and pay for all her own tourist/ temporary residence visas to follow you around (and could conceivably be denied), while your diplomatic visas are taken care of for you. Your partner will have great difficulty getting any job in the embassy (spouses have preference), and will not benefit from the bilateral work agreements we have with dozens of foreign countries so that spouses can get work visas. If your partner is not a US citizen, your problems will be multiplied. This is obviously a huge downside for the many gay couples whose marriages aren't recognized by the federal government. For heterosexual couples, it is usually the push either to marry or break up faster than they would have done otherwise. There are just not a lot of compelling reasons to drag out your relationship decision when the benefits of marriage and disadvantages of unmarried couplehood are so abundantly clear in dollar, hassle, and safety terms. Of course you can wait and see, and once you do get married all the benefits kick in right away (with a lot of paperwork!)

Good luck, wherever your path may lead you.
posted by lockestockbarrel at 5:08 PM on February 25, 2009

Response by poster: Thank you so much, that's just what I was looking for! You mention how in some cases "the spouse got hired for a job at the post too" – do you have in mind that the spouse was hired for an embassy job at the unaccompanied post, or that (s)he went through Normal People Channels to find work which happened to be located in that city/country?
posted by trouserlouse at 9:25 PM on February 25, 2009

Hey there -- your question is something I've been dealing with over the last couple months. I made it all the way to getting a foreign service job offer before I could extract an answer from my boyfriend about coming along for the ride, so bravo for starting to talk with this early. So here are some reading materials that may help you, or at least provide conversation topics during your many discussions with your girlfriend:

Spouse and Partner Guide to the Foreign Service. This pretty much lays it all out there, particularly the difference between married couples and boyfriend/girlfriend/partner couples (in government acronym-speak: EFM vs MOH). If you want your girlfriend to have an easier time finding work and actually get a visa to live with you overseas, marry her. Then she's eligible not only for embassy positions but also local jobs through diplomatic bilateral employment agreements with hundreds of countries around the world, as illustrated in this document.

This website
has a bunch of spouse/partner employment-related newsletters with some interesting success stories. I don't know how representative it is of real life, but it's good PR.

Best of luck to you and your girlfriend. In the course of my information-gathering I compiled a couple hundred pages of (mostly depressing) spouse employment-related list-serv messages to show my boyfriend, so send me a message if you'd like me to send you the Word document.
posted by Maarika at 9:28 AM on February 26, 2009

P.S. The testing/hiring process takes FOREVER -- it took almost 2 years for me from test registration to job offer. So you don't have to marry your girlfriend now (I completely understand about not being ready quite yet)... It just helps to be married by the time training starts, and you have a lot of time there.
posted by Maarika at 9:32 AM on February 26, 2009

The jobs at post I've heard of spouses taking are with the federal government, either with State or another agency. I don't think a job on the open market would be enough reason for the State Dept to allow the spouse to come, considering the extremely difficult conditions that got the post the "unaccompanied" designation in the first place.
posted by lockestockbarrel at 8:47 PM on February 28, 2009

« Older Gear needed and/or methods to use to take a decent...   |   Do grades really matter? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.