A Traveler in the Foreign Service: Get paid to travel as a diplomatic courier

If you see an advertisement offering a chance to get paid to travel, odds are it’s a scam. But there are a few legitimate jobs that actually pay you to travel and the diplomatic courier profession is one of them. The Foreign Service has two main branches — generalists and specialists.

Generalists serve in more traditional diplomatic functions, and specialize in one of five career tracks: consular, management, public diplomacy, political and economic. Specialists also have diplomatic status but work in fields you might not associate with embassies — administration, construction engineering, facility management, information technology, international information, medical, office management and security.

The Diplomatic Courier Service is in the security branch, along with special agents who look after the security of our overseas embassies and personnel. Dale Cazier, a native of Syracuse, has been a diplomatic courier for 19 years and is currently the Deputy Director of the Diplomatic Courier Service. We spoke to Dale to get the scoop on the life of a diplomatic courier.

What does a diplomatic courier do?

We’re the only entity authorized by the federal government to carry classified information over international borders.

Do other countries have diplomatic couriers?

Yes, but not as many as we have. Right now we have about 100. But of those, about 20-25 are managers or supervisors like me.

Where have you served?

My first assignment was Frankfurt. In those days first tour couriers were given six-year assignments, now they’re usually three. After that I was based in Miami and then did two tours based in Washington.

In a good year, how many frequent flyer miles can you accumulate?

When I was based in Miami, within a year and a half, I got a million miles on American Airlines.

And you’re allowed to use those yourself, right?

Oh yes, they’re long gone now. When I first joined, you couldn’t keep your frequent flyer miles but that changed in the mid-’90s.

So how much classified cargo are you carrying on these flights?

It ranges from a piece of paper in a small orange pouch all the way up to a generator, which is massive.

What are the cities that U.S. diplomatic couriers are based in?

There are ten places; the offices vary from one-person offices to about 30. The four main regional offices are Frankfurt, Bangkok, Washington and Miami. And then there are hub offices in Seoul, Syndey, Manama, Dakar, Pretoria and Sao Paulo.When you join the service, can you express a preference of what city you want to be based in?

When you first join, you don’t get a choice. The career development officer meets with new recruits and says, ‘Here are the positions we want to fill with new recruits,’ and they can choose from those, but they don’t really bid on them.

There are a lot of pretty scary airlines in the developing world. Are diplomatic couriers required to fly on any of those airlines?

We don’t fly on those kinds of airlines if we can avoid it.

But there are some out-of-the-way posts serviced by dodgy airlines. How do you get to those places?

We try to avoid the more hazardous airlines but we don’t just fly, we also use ships, trains, whatever means of transportation is available.

But I imagine more than 90% of your trips are via planes, right?

90% is pretty close but we don’t just fly on passenger planes. We’re moving away from passenger flights toward cargo carriers.

Do you still get soft drinks and peanuts on cargo flights?

No. You’re lucky if you get a seat. Sometimes the only place to sit down is those little fold down seats. They’re about one square foot and it’s just like a piece of hard wood.

Is there time for sightseeing once you get to your destination?

There’s very little time for sightseeing. You might not arrive in a place until very late at night, and then you typically leave very early the next day to go to the next destination or back to your base.

How many days are you traveling in an average month?

You travel about 75% of the workdays in a month, so that could be 15 days or so.

Mostly day trips or do you stay overnight?

Over time that has changed. We used to go on 2-3 week trips at a time. Nowadays, most of the trips are down and back on the same day, if it can be done. That saves the taxpayers a lot of money on hotels.

O.K., so there isn’t a lot of time for sightseeing but you get loads of frequent flyer miles. But if you travel for work do you still want to fly in your off time?

When you fly day after day it can get tedious. I’d be home for a day or two and my wife would say, ‘Let’s go somewhere.’ But I’d just want to stay home.

What makes a good diplomatic courier?

The whole job is based on personal relationships and you’re completely independent. You need to be personable, flexible with different personality types. You’re always dealing with foreigners, most of whom don’t speak your language. People who can keep themselves entertained and don’t get upset easily and can make good judgments under stressful conditions do well.

And if you don’t like to fly I guess this a bad career option?

Right. And it’s not as glamorous as people think. It’s exciting and there’s lots of adventure, but it’s hard work too. If you don’t like traveling, or dealing with stress, or being on your own all the time, it’s probably not the job for you. But lots of people like it.

Ever had any close calls with foreign officials during your career?

I have. There was one time in Africa, when an official at the airport asked me what I was doing there and wanted to see my passport. Next thing I know, I was taken into a detention office.

I tried to explain my situation but he didn’t get it. So I was in a crowded room with a bunch of people I didn’t belong with. The guy told me to wait in the room but my outgoing flight was about to leave and the next flight out of the country wasn’t for another week. I didn’t want to stick around to see what they were going to do to me, so when the guy left the room I just sidled out into the hallway, very slowly, thinking that he’d catch me. I just kind of slinked over to the check in and snuck back onto my plane. But the whole time, I was expecting the security guards to come after me with their AK 47’s. When the plane took off, I was greatly relieved.

What does your passport look like as a courier?

It’s full. You have to keep getting extra pages added to your passport. My passport got huge. I had to carry about 4 passports usually, because 1-2 would always be out at embassies waiting on visas. We’d usually have a few diplomatic passports plus one regular tourist passport for situations when we didn’t want to show our diplomatic passport.

How hard is it to become a diplomatic courier?

We just brought in five new couriers in a training class, and we plan to hire nine more. We had four or five thousand applicants for 14 job openings. It’s very competitive.

Note: The State Department isn’t currently recruiting couriers, but you can sign up for an email update here, and you’ll be notified the next time there is a vacancy.

Read more from “A Traveler in the Foreign Service” here.