Foreign Service Officer Salary

Foreign Service Officer Salary

So, you're thinking of becoming a Foreign Service Officer and are wondering: "How much do Foreign Service Officers make?". It's okay. I understand. We all want to do something we're passionate about but get a decent paycheck at the end of the month as well. Calculating your Foreign Service Officer salary isn't that simple, though, which is why I've put together this post.
In what follows, I'll show you how different factors affect the Foreign Service Officer's salary so that you can calculate where you'd start in the FSO

The Foreign Service Officer Salary: an introduction

The Foreign Service Officer salary consist of a base wage and additional allowances. These allowances can be divided into two kinds: the allowances that affect all FSO salaries (for example the Overseas and Locality Allowance) and the allowances that can only be applied to some cases (for example Education Allowance for your kids when you're overseas).

In what follows I'll only discuss the allowances that are applicable to every Foreign Service Officer salary. A list of all allowances and benefits can be found on the website of the Office of Allowances.

Base salary: understanding the Foreign Service Pay Scale

The basic Foreign Service Officer salary is determined the Foreign Service Pay Scale, which is a system of pay grades (FP) and steps, plus an attempt by the Department of State's Bureau of Human Resources, Office of Recruitment, Examination and Employment to match your current salary.

Grades and steps

In total, there are 9 pay grades divided into 14 steps. The lower your grade number, the higher you rank as a Foreign Service Officer. The higher your step number, the more you earn within your grade.
An entry level Foreign Service Officer starts at Grade/FP-6, -5 or -4.


To determine what grade and step you enter in as a beginning FSO, the Bureau of Human Resources looks at your previous education and your "qualifying experience" (QE).

Your education level corresponds with your obtained degree while QE can be summed up as work "which is predominantly intellectual in character and which includes work requiring the consistent exercise of discretion and judgment. Advanced knowledge must be in a field of science or learning customarily acquired by a prolonged course of specialized intellectual instruction” (Source:

Only full years of working experience will be counted. If you have 3.5 years of experience, that equals 3 years of QE.

Each year of QE equals a step up within your grade, but you can never go up a grade in the FS Pay Scale simply by having a lot of QE. Thus, if your QE would put you a step higher than 14, you'd stay at 14 within the same grade.


Matching your salary

Once your grade and step within the Foreign Service Pay Scale have been determined, the Bureau of Human Resources will check whether you'll lose money by joining the Foreign Service. This means that they'll check whether the salary linked to your place on the FS pay scale is lower than your current salary*. If so, they'll move you up one or more steps within your grade until you reach an FSO salary that's slightly higher than your current one. They will, however, never move you to a higher grade.

*NOTE: "current salary" means the salary you earned for at least 90 days prior to being appointed as a Foreign Servicer Career Candidate. If you're already a federal government civilian direct-hire employee, you have to have worked as a federal employee up until three days before your appointment.

What about promotion?

An FSO doesn't stay in the same spot on the Foreign Service Pay Scale forever. He or she can acquire a more senior rank when being promoted. Promotions can be obtained once a year and depend on the needs of the State Department and the performance and potential of the FSO's.

How promotion works:

  • If you enter the Foreign Service Pay Scale in Grade 4/Step 14, you won't be eligible for a promotion until after you are tenured. The first tenure review happens after you've been in service for 36 months. However, it is possible to receive a salary increase before that.
  • You can be promoted from any step in a certain grade to the next grade. That means it's not necessary to be on step 14 of a grade to be able to be promoted to the next grade.
  • To know what step in the next grade you'll be promoted to, you need to find the step in that next grade that comes closest to your current salary and then go up two steps or 6%, whichever is greater.

And over time?

Only entry level FSO's receive overtime compensation. Once you're tenured and commissioned by the president, you'll have much better job security (like in academic professions), but you will lose your overtime compensation.

Allowances: how your post affects your salary

Did you calculate what your entry level Foreign Service Officer salary would be? Are you happy with that number? If not, I've got some good news for you: almost no Foreign Service Officer makes just his base salary. That's because there are several kinds of allowances that are added onto your base salary.

Let's have a look at those that affect every FSO's salary.

Overseas and locality allowance

FSO's stationed in the US will receive a locality allowance depending on the area they're stationed in*, while FSO's stationed overseas will receive an overseas comparability pay of 16.14% on their base pay.


*NOTE: If you are already a federal government civilian direct-hire employee receiving a locality allowance, you can add that allowance to your salary and use that as the "current" salary upon with your salary matching by the Bureau of Human Resources will be based.

Danger Pay Allowance

What is it?

If you're assigned to a post overseas, you'll receive an extra allowance depending on how dangerous your destination is considered to be. A FSO can acquire a Danger Pay Allowance if the Secretary of State has established that the health and well-being of the majority of the employees of a foreign post are threatened by civil insurrection, civil war, terrorism or wartime conditions.

It's important to know that you'll only receive a Danger Pay Allowance for a day if you've spent at least four hours of that day at your post/in your host country.

Once every two years, the foreign posts submit a Dangers Pay Factors Form so that the Department of State can review the Danger Pay Allowance allotted to them. This can also happen sooner if the situation demands it.

The Danger Pay Allowance is a taxable supplement of 0-35%, calculated based on the total of the Foreign Service Officer base salary + the overseas comparability pay.
For a complete list of foreign posts and their Danger Allowance Pay rates, check the Department of State's Danger Pay Allowance Table.

Hardship post allowance

A Hardship Post Allowance or Differential will be approved...
“For any place when, and only when, the place involves extraordinarily difficult living conditions, excessive physical hardship, or notably unhealthful conditions affecting the majority of employees officially stationed or detailed at that place. Living costs are not considered in differential determination” (Source: Office of Allowances).

FSO's who are stationed at a Hardship Post receive a hardship differential of 5-35%, depending on the severity of the hardship, when they are at the post for at least 42 consecutive days. On the 43rd day, the differential will be allowed, both for the following and for the previous 42 days.
Foreign posts need to fill in a Post Hardship Differential Questionnaire twice a year on the basis of which the Department of State determines if and how high of a Hardship Post Allowance they receive.

Just like the Danger Pay Allowance, the Hardship Post Allowance is a taxable supplement of 0-35% of the overseas comparability pay.

For a complete listing of foreign posts and their Hardship Post Allowance rates, check the Department of State Hardship Post Allowance Table.

Cost-of-living allowance (COLA)

Unlike the Danger Pay Allowance and the Hardship Post Allowance, COLA is not taxable and not calculated based on the FSO's overseas comparability pay. Instead, it is a percentage of his/hers spendable income.

Spendable income is that part of the Foreign Service Officer Salary that is used to purchase goods and services. It is calculated on an annual base by combining the FSO's overseas comparability pay and his/her family size.


All goods and services are categorized in the Cost of Living Market Basket. This market basket is an index in which the different categories are assigned percentage weights. The categories of the market basket are the same for every post, but the weights of the categories may vary. It is based on those weights that the cost for goods and services - the cost of living - in foreign posts is compared with that in Washington D.C.. Thus, you could say that the market basket of Washington D.C. acts as the standard here. The greater the weight, the higher the COLA the FSO will receive for his spendable income.

[EXAMPLE TABLE MARKET BASKET INDEX - see how path to foreign service did it]

The market basket weights for foreign posts are calculated once every four years. Not every foreign post receives COLA, but most do.

For a full list of Cost of Living Allowances, check the Department of State COLA Table.

The total picture: a Foreign Service Officer salary example

I realize the above can be a bit overwhelming, so I've put together an example calculation of a fictional FSO's salary.

Our fictional FSO is called Mark. He has a master's degree in political science and 1.5 years of relevant working experience. In his previous job as a consultant he earned an annual income of $53,000. For his first job, Mark has been assigned to a post in Russia. His wife and two kids will go with him.

Base salary:
Master's degree > Grade 4 or 5
1.5 years of working experience = 1 full years of QE > Grade 5, Step 5-10
Each year of full QE is an extra step > Mark starts in Grade 5, Step 6.
This would give him a base salary of $50,287.
However, Mark's current salary is $53,000, so the Bureau of HR will move him up to the step that's closest to his current salary, which is Step 8 at $53,349.
Mark's base salary = $53,349.
Overseas comparability pay for Grade 5, Step 8: $61,960
Danger Pay Allowance Russia: 15% > 15% of $61,960 =
Hardship Post Allowance Russia: 15% > 15% of $61,960 =
Spendable income for a family of 4 with the FSO's base salary being $53,349 = $30,600
COLA RUSSIA: 25% > 25% of $30,600 =

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