An Overview of the Environment of U.S. Foreign Service Children

The children of Foreign Service employees are as diverse as any other group of children. However, most of them share a global outlook that their compatriots raised in the States may lack. They are accustomed to living in other cultures, to hearing and even speaking different languages and to appreciating points of view other than their own.

The terms “Global Nomads” and “Third Culture Kids” describe these children well. They move frequently (but not more frequently than some of their stateside peers), they lead stable lives within their different environments and they develop a resilience and independence that many of their peers lack.

The typical Foreign Service family moves every two to three years with postings back to Washington or to other U.S. assignments in between overseas assignments. During a 30- year career the family may spend a little less than half that time stateside. (For example, we were posted for a total of 21 years overseas and 18 years in Washington.)

At the end of every overseas posting a Foreign Service family usually has “home leave.” The State Department brings the family home for several weeks in between each assignment. If the overseas post is designated a “hardship” post, the family may have yearly “Rest and Recuperation” trips to another destination. Families stationed in Africa frequently travel to Europe for their R & R, for example.

It is becoming increasingly more common that the employee may have at least one “unaccompanied tour” during which the State Department determines that the post is too dangerous for families to accompany the employee. These tours are generally for one year’s duration with an average of three R & Rs during that year to visit family. During that year most families of unaccompanied employees return to the U.S. to stay near relatives (though some may make other arrangements). The State Department gives the family an Involuntary Separate Maintenance Allowance (ISMA) and the employee also receives extra compensation for service in a dangerous post.

During overseas tours families live in government-owned or leased housing, or occasionally are given a housing allowance to pay for local housing. Most of the time these accommodations are of a similar quality (or better) than housing of a comparable family in the States. In addition, at many overseas posts household help is more affordable than in the States.

Medical care at overseas posts may be provided by an Embassy nurse or doctor or by Embassy- recommended, English-speaking local professionals. There are also regional doctors and psychiatrists who travel to posts to provide care. In cases of a serious illness a medical evacuation flight to the U.S. or to another country with first class medical facilities may be arranged. While overseas, most medical expenses of employees and family members, including insurance co-pays, are covered by the State Department.

Most children of Foreign Service employees attend international schools with tuition paid by the State Department’s Educational Allowance. Schools vary in size and quality but the State Department’s Office of Overseas Schools evaluates and often supports and assists them. Some may offer the International Baccalaureate as well as an American-style curriculum. If a course that is normally required in the States, such as American History or Government, is not offered by the school, the educational allowance covers the costs of a distance learning class or tutoring.

If the schools at post are not considered adequate, the Away-from-Post Educational Allowance will cover the cost, or at least most of the cost, of a boarding school, as well as travel to and from post. There are also allowances for home schooling.

For special needs, including educational difficulties, gifted and talented education, and disabilities, there is a generous allowance for Special Needs children which gives the parent many options to educate the special needs child. The aim of all the educational allowances is to provide the Foreign Service child the same quality of education he or she would receive at home.

Life overseas in most posts is no more dangerous than life in urban America. In fact in many countries it is less dangerous because of strict gun control and other laws. However, embassies are extremely conscious about the safety and security of their families. Every embassy has an evacuation plan which covers natural disasters such as earthquakes (Haiti) as well as civil unrest and rioting (Egypt) and disease outbreaks (Liberia and Sierra Leone). The evacuation plan for Mongolia was the only one in the world which included evacuation in case the ancient heating plants for the capital broke down.

If a short-term evacuation is ordered, families are brought to a “safe haven.” If a longer term evacuation is anticipated, families may be housed, at State Department expense, in temporary quarters in the Washington area or they may choose to go elsewhere to be nearer to their extended families. Evacuation status is reviewed periodically to determine whether families can go back to post.

In the case of divorce, if there is shared or joint custody, the child may be listed on the Foreign Service employee’s orders, travel with him or her to post and receive all the allowances listed. In addition the State Department pays for one trip each year to visit the other parent up to age 21, or at any age if the child is disabled. One exception is that if the non-custodial parent resides in the States and the child attends boarding school in the States, the education allowance, with only a few exceptions, will not apply.

If the divorcing parents are both Foreign Service employees, known as a tandem couple, then the child can only be on one set of orders. Custody may change in this case depending on the overseas or stateside posting. Custody may also change if the Foreign Service custodial parent has an “unaccompanied tour.” The Foreign Service parent, with custody, should be flexible in allowing access of the child to the other parent. Ideally they should encourage frequent visits and e-mail and video communications such as by Skype.

This summary was prepared by experienced volunteers with the Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide (AAFSW), the Foreign Service community volunteer association, as a service to Foreign Service families. We welcome any comments or further questions about Foreign Service life. Please feel free to write to us at

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