The Foreign Service Officer salary is dynamic and ever-changing. Along with your promotion, each assignment can bring with it different danger pay, hardship pay, and cost-of-living adjustments that affect what you take home.
Depending on international geopolitics, the strength of domestic and national currencies, and the size of your family, to name a few, your salary can rise or decline between posts.
With this resource and the use of interactive maps, this FSO Salary Guide serves as a comprehensive introduction to how your income is determined, and the three primary modifiers that affect it between posts.
Updated January 2020
FSO Salary Ladder
Every organization has a system in place to track seniority, the Foreign Service is no different.
In order to understand this guide, you must first learn the foundation before adding layers to it. Let’s dive in…
You are a brand new Foreign Service Officer. After over a year of going through the application process (test, essays, orals, clearances, and the Register), you finally received an offer to join the State Department.
Among one of the many thoughts running through your mind, you may begin to think about salary. Just how much will I make?
The Foreign Service allocates salaries based on a ‘ladder’ system made up of grades and steps.
As an incoming entry-level FSO, you are eligible for one of three grades
FP-4 is the highest (most senior) of the three grades.
Within each grade, there are 14 steps. Step 1 is the lowest step of each grade and step 14 is the highest.
In short, the lower the grade number the more senior you are. The higher the step number, the more senior you are within that grade. Your salary follows this progression as well: within a grade, the higher the step then the higher your salary.
In table form, it looks like this:
As you progress in your career with the Foreign Service, your promotions will follow “up” this ladder.
Takeaway 1: FP-4 is the highest of three entry-level FSO grades (4, 5, or 6).
Takeaway 2: Within each grade, there are 14 steps. Step 1 is the lowest step of each grade and step 14 is the highest – the higher the step, the more senior within that grade.
Determining FSO entry grade and step
Now that you know the basics, let’s determine the grade and step you could enter as a brand new Foreign Service Officer.
This is the biggest and most important chapter, so pay extra close attention!
The Department of State’s Bureau of Human Resources, Office of Recruitment, Examination, and Employment determines entry-level FSO’s grade and step in two parts. These parts take into account the level of education attained, your qualifying experience, and your salary prior to joining the Foreign Service.
PART 1: Education and "Qualifying Experience"
The first part is determined by combining the level of education you have achieved and the number of full years of Qualifying Experience (QE) you have attained. The image below, by the Department of State, shows how different combinations affect your grade and step.
The level of education achieved is straightforward, the degree you have in hand. But how is QE determined? The definition of QE is found at the Bureau of Human Resources, and the bulk of it follows:
The employee’s primary duty must be, or must have been, the performance of work requiring advanced knowledge, defined 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.
Each year of QE is equal to one additional step.
If you do not have a full year of professional experience, your QE rounds down. For example, 2.5 years of experience is considered 2 years of QE.
However, if the addition of QE would put you at a step higher than 14, your step is 14, you do not move to the next grade.
In order to best illustrate a salary from now on in this guide, we will need the help of Sarah, the newest member of the FSO family.
Sarah is in her early thirties, works as a consultant making $69,000, is single, has no children, earned her Master’s degree, and has two years of QE.
Let’s determine what her grade and step are!
First, education. With a Master’s Degree, Sarah will either enter as a grade 4 or 5.
Second, QE. With two years of QE, Sarah falls in the 0-5 ‘full years of QE’ row and column.
Putting it all together, Sarah attains the grade FP-5. To determine her step, we just need to add her two years of QE to the minimum step in the range (i.e. 5).
Sarah’s grade and step are thus FP-5/Step-7.
Take a moment and look at the image above to get an idea of what your grade/step may be if you were to enter the Foreign Service today.
Takeaway 3: Entry-level FSO grade and step are determined by combining education achieved and years of QE attained.
Part 2: Attempt to match salary
Once grade and step are calculated, the Bureau of Human Resources’ next attempts to match your current salary.
Once the candidate’s grade and step are determined based on education and qualifying experience, the Registrar will review the candidate’s “current salary” to see if it is higher than the candidate’s projected salary as provided in the Foreign Service “Overseas” Salary Table. If so, the candidate’s starting salary will be raised to the step in the grade for which he/she is qualified that is closest to, but not less than, their current salary. If the current salary is too high to be matched in the Foreign Service grade for which the candidate is qualified, step 14 of that grade is the starting salary.
So what does this mean?
If your initial grade and step result in a loss of salary, you will advance within a grade until you reach a step that corresponds slightly higher than your current salary.
However, if your current salary is higher than the step 14 salary within the grade you were assigned, you will be assigned to step 14. One does not advance to the next highest grade.
If you think about it, that’s really cool on the State Department to make this adjustment.
To help explain this further, let’s take a look at Sarah once more, who currently makes $69,000, and determine how this may affect her salary.
For further illustration, below is the 2020 Foreign Service Salary Table Base Schedule, effective January 5, 2020.
From the steps we completed above, we know Sarah’s grade and step are FP-5/Step-7.
Knowing this, we can determine her base salary: $56,297. You can see this by looking at the below table (red highlighted box).
But wait! Sarah’s current salary is $69,000. Working as an FSO would mean a loss of $13,000. Fortunately, DOS matches salary and her step should be raised to step 14 within FP-5…right?
Let’s review the above quote once more:
The Registrar will review the candidate’s “current salary” to see if it is higher than the candidate’s projected salary as provided in the Foreign Service “Overseas” Salary Table.
That’s right, we need to look at the “Overseas” table, which is below and has been highlighted at Sarah’s current step and grade.
Taking into account Overseas Comparability Pay, at FP-5/Step-7, Sarah’s salary would be $67,737.
This is still lower than her current $69,000 salary. As such, we need to determine the next step within the grade that has the closest highest salary, which is…?
The very next step! Step 8 has a salary of $69,769.
This means that Sarah’s new entry-level grade and step are FP-5/Step-8.
Go ahead and determine how salary matching affects you!
Takeaway 4: The Bureau of Human Resources will attempt to match your current salary by increasing your step level, up to step 14, within your assigned grade.
PART 3: Promotions
Once you’re in the system, you may wonder about the general process of moving between grades and steps, a.k.a. being promoted.
First, promotions are considered once a year and are based on the needs of the State Department, your performance, and your potential.
There is an exception to this, and that is if you enter the Foreign Service as an FP-4/Step-14, you will not be eligible for a promotion (grade or step) until after you are tenured (the first tenure review is after 36 months). This does not mean you may not receive a salary increase within those three years.
Second, for promotion between grades, it is not a requirement to be at step 14 to advance to the next grade.
Third, when you are promoted between grades you are not promoted to the same step level you currently hold. For example, holding all other things equal, if Sarah is promoted a grade from FP-5/Step-8, she would not be promoted to FP-4/Step-8.
Instead, when you go up a grade your step level is found by finding the step that matches your current salary the closest and then going up two steps or 6%, whichever is greater (Promotion of Foreign Service Members in FAH).
For Sarah, within the next grade, the step that closely matches her current Grade/Step is FP-4/Step-1 (Base salary at FP-5/Step-8 is $57,986, base salary at FP-4/Step-1 is $58,186.
The following table helps illustrate this movement:
We must then compare our two options, and choose the greater of the two: (1) go up two steps or (2) 6%.
A 6% raise is $61,677.
A two Step increase (FP-4/Step 3) is $61,730.
The two Step increase is greater, and Sarah would be promoted to FP-4/Step 3.
Takeaway 5: Promotions are considered once a year.
Takeaway 6: If promoted to a new grade, the step you are assigned will first correlate with your former step salary, not the step number.
In the next three chapters, we will talk about the three most common allowances that affect all FSOs.
Foreign Service Officer Danger Pay Allowance
Unfortunately, not all assignments are safe and some carry extra danger.
I bet if you think really hard… you’ll figure out a few of them.
The State Department thanks you for taking on these dangerous assignments by bumping your pay.
Thanks, Uncle Sam!
PART 1: What is danger pay allowance?
Danger pay allowance may be the monetary supplement most of you have heard.
Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen… get sent to one of these countries, and the question of whether or not you will be paid more for it will definitely cross your mind.
And the answer is YES.
Which posts are considered dangerous, and not just difficult, is an important distinction. Additionally, the State Department defines danger pay with the understanding that this designation can change depending on the current state of affairs in that country.
For a post to be designated for danger pay allowance, it must be:
Established by the Secretary of State when, and only when, civil insurrection, civil war, terrorism or wartime conditions threaten physical harm or imminent danger to the health or well being of a majority of employees officially stationed or detailed at a post or country/area in a foreign area.
Further, to earn danger pay, you must first spend 4 cumulative hours at that post. After the four-hour mark, you will receive a danger pay allowance for the full day.
This means if you fly into Yemen from Egypt, do three hours of work, and then are wheels up before the four-hour mark, you do not receive danger pay.
Danger pay designation, and the amount of allowance, is reviewed annually.
For more information, visit the online page on the rules and stipulations concerning danger pay.
PART 2: Danger pay allowance rates
Danger pay allowance is a taxable supplement that is designated at 15%, 25%, or 35% and is based on overseas comparability pay.
The more dangerous a post, the higher the allowance you receive.
Seventeen countries are currently allocated with danger pay allowances, including Afghanistan, Iraq, and Yemen.
Instead of just listing the countries and their allowances (boring), below you will find an interactive map you can play with.
Color-coded, you can visualize the different danger pay posts (the darker the shade of red, the higher the danger pay allocation), and see which countries share the same danger pay allowance.
Additionally, if you hover over Yemen, then Iraq will change to a light blue color to represent that it shares the same danger pay allowance (as will the others that share the same allocation).
Going back to our recent FSO employee, if Sarah were stationed in Nicaragua her danger pay allowance would be 15%. With overseas comparability pay of $69,769, a 15% allowance comes out to $10,465.
If you would like to see a complete listing you can view the Department of State Danger Pay Allowance Table.
Takeaway 7: Danger pay allowance, if given, is set at 15%, 25%, or 35% of overseas comparability pay and is initiated when a majority of employees stationed in a post are under conditions that threaten physical harm due to political upheaval.
Two disclaimers regardings the maps
1. The United States does not have diplomatic relations with Bhutan, Iran, North Korea, and Syria. These countries are left “blank” (i.e., appear ‘off white’ on the maps).
2. The allowances allocated to the countries in all the maps on this page are the allowances allocated to where the U.S. Embassy, or the predominant U.S. diplomatic mission, is located. For example, Bamako, Mali has a danger pay allowance of 25% and this is what is attributed in the map above. However, if you are posted somewhere else in Mali, the danger pay may be higher.
Foreign Service Officer Hardship Post Allowance
Citizens in the U.S. are fortunate to live in a country with a higher standard of living compared to others, and her people have grown accustomed to a higher standard of living.
Posts that are designated with hardship allowance, are much more common. However, unlike danger pay, hardship doesn’t mean life-threatening.
For example, is the country’s pollution too toxic? If it is, then here is a bonus for you…
PART 1: What is hardship post allowance?
As defined by the Office of Allowances, a hardship differential is established:
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 the differential determination.
In order for hardship post differential to begin, an FSO must be stationed and living at a post for at least 42 continuous days. On the 43rd day, hardship post differential will begin and the FSO will also be paid the differential for the previous 42 days.
Hardship post allowance allocation is reviewed at least biennially.
PART 2: Hardship post allowance rates
Like danger pay, hardship post is a taxable allowance and ranges from 0-35% of overseas comparability pay.
If Sarah were stationed in China, her hardship post allowance would be 20%. With overseas comparability pay of $69,769, a 20% allowance is $13,954.
Take a look at the map and let me know your thoughts are on hardship allowance.
If you would like to see a complete list you can view the Department of State Hardship Post Allowance Table.
Takeaway 8: Hardship post allowance ranges from 0-35% of overseas comparability pay and is broadly based on unhealthy living conditions, which are measured at least biennially.
Foreign Service Officer Cost-of-Living Allowance (COLA)
Compared to the rest of the world, many goods in the U.S. can be bought for cheap – again, she is a land of plenty.
Some countries though, especially once you take into consideration geographic location (think islands) or currency conversion, are quite expensive to make a living at.
Gas costs how much?! Oh my, here’s some extra $$$.
PART 1: What is a Cost-of-Living Allowance?
A cost-of-living allowance (COLA) differs from the previous two allowances by not being a percentage of your overseas comparability pay, and it is also not taxable.
Instead, COLA is a percentage of spendable income, which is the portion of salary used to purchase the goods and services in the cost of living “market basket”.
The market basket is an index of categories comprising of percentage weights comparing the costs of goods and services in foreign posts to the costs of goods and services in Washington, D.C.
COLA is granted to an FSO who is officially stationed at an overseas post where the cost of living, excluding housing and education, is “substantially higher than in Washington, D.C.” (at least 3% more).
More information on the rules and stipulations concerning COLA can be found here.
The “market basket” includes the following categories:
- Food at Home
- Food Away from Home
- Household Furnishing and Operations
- Medical Care
- Auto Purchase
- Alcohol and Tobacco
- Personal Care
- Domestic Service
These weighted categories are then compared to those of foreign posts. The categories remain the same, but the weights may differ.
The quarterly reports by the U.S. Department of State go into the methods of how each figure was determined. For further detail, the following is from the U.S. Department of State’s Indexes of Living Costs Abroad January 2014 Report that helps explain the comparison further:
To compute the indexes, the average price of each item on the Retail Price Schedule for the foreign post is converted into U.S. dollars using the prevailing foreign currency exchange rate. The foreign price is then divided by the average price of the corresponding item on the Washington, D.C. schedule to obtain a ratio of the foreign price to the Washington, D.C. price… To obtain foreign post expenditure weights, the basic expenditure pattern weights for the Washington, D.C. area are adjusted to reflect necessary modifications in consumption made by Americans living abroad. For some posts, weights for major expenditure categories are increased… These weight adjustments increase the base expenditure weights so that they total more than 100 index points.
To determine these weights, foreign posts complete a Retail Price Schedule once every four years.
The greater the weight then the higher the COLA allocated to spendable income.
Not every post will have a COLA, but the majority of posts do.
Fun fact: the highest COLA is currently allocated to Zimbabwe at 70% of spendable income!
PART 2: Spendable income
Now that you know how percentages are derived, and how COLA compares internationally, let’s take a look at how your spendable income is determined.
Annual spendable income is determined by your base pay and family size.
Let’s revisit Sarah once more. Sarah has a base pay of $57,986, is single, and has no children.
Given the information we have on Sarah, her annual spendable income is $24,800.
PART 3: COLA Example
If Sarah were posted in Australia, her COLA would be 25% of spendable income ($24,800), which comes out to $6,200. This income is then added to her pay.
Takeaway 9: COLA is a percentage of your spendable income and is not taxable.
Takeaway 10: As your base pay increases and (possibly) the number of persons in your family, so too will your annual spendable income.
Hardship pay, danger pay, and COLA - putting it all together
Just like a puzzle, by putting together a little bit of information we now have a better understanding of what goes into the FSO salary.
Let’s see the image we are creating by combining everything we have learned into one final map.
We’ve now discussed the three major allowances that affect a Foreign Service Officer’s salary: Hardship pay, danger pay, and Cost-of-living.
Quite a bit of information!
From reading the sections above, you know how each allowance is allocated to each country and how each country stacks up against each other.
This information individually is already interesting, but viewing the entire picture at once makes for an exciting analysis.
The map below is a comparison of the diplomatic posts that takes the information above and adds it up.
One last time, to our new Foreign Service Officer Sarah:
Sarah has just completed the first part of her training in Washington, D.C., and on ‘Flag Day’ finds out she will be posted in Nairobi, Kenya.
Now let’s try and determine what her salary (at minimum) will be from the information we have learned above.
|Overseas Pay:||$69,769||Overseas Comparability Pay|
|Danger Pay:||$0||No danger pay|
|Hardship Pay:||$13,954||20% of overseas pay|
|COLA:||$2,480||10% of spendable income: $23,700|
|Total||$86,203||Overseas Pay + allowances|
The combined map below will help to visualize all this information.
When you scroll over a country you will see two outputs. The first is the annual salary Sarah would receive if she were stationed there. The second is the percentage increase in salary when compared to her overseas comparability pay.
I find this dynamic map to be very interesting and I hope you do too. There is just so much information! For instance, all four of these countries have the same salary, and yet are in different parts of the world: Algeria, Greenland, India, and Indonesia.
Also, just in case you are wondering, the nine posts with the highest percentage increases are:
|2||CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC||$123,567||77%|
The complete list
Well, that does it. Phew…
There is still a lot that goes into salary, and we have not even gone into the benefits… and we won’t.
BUT, I do suggest reading the conclusion as there are some important bits of information in there concerning this guide and other details.
Thanks for reading!
This guide should be used as a launching pad to any other questions you have on the Foreign Service Officer’s salary. Feel free to bookmark this page so you can return for reference and click on the external links.
I put this resource together because I could not find one location discussing all the information above. Instead, there were many sources describing only separate parts. Now, a comprehensive guide exists.
For those who have not read the “about” page, it is important to note that I am not an employee of the State Department. However, the information and figures used are accurate as of the posting date.
I do my best to make sure the information is reliable, but please speak with the Office of Allowances for more detailed questions on salary and the factors the affect it.
Having read this guide, you should now understand how to determine your base salary, overseas comparability pay, and the three primary allowances that affect all FSO salaries.
However, there are other allowances that will alter your salary between posts.
Three examples not discussed in this guide are:
- Education allowance (if you have children then their education is covered overseas)
- Difficult-to-staff incentive differential
- Quarters allowance (free housing overseas or a generous stipend)
Again, for questions outside of the allowances discussed in this post, please contact the Office of Allowances. Otherwise, I am happy to have a go with any questions you have.
If you are not in the Foreign Service but interested in joining, I hope this information has been useful to you! If you are in the Foreign Service, I look forward to your insights.
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