Diplomatic Pouch Defined
A diplomatic pouch (or “bag”) is any properly identified and sealed package, pouch, envelope, bag, or other container that is used to transport official correspondence, documents, and other articles intended for official use, between:
- Embassies, legations, consular posts, and the foreign office of any government;
- The headquarters or any other office of a public international organization and its regional offices in the United States or in a foreign country; or
- The foreign office of any country with full membership in a public international organization and its mission to that organization.
Inviolability of Diplomatic Pouches
In accordance with Article 27.3 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (VCDR), properly designated diplomatic pouches “shall not be opened or detained.” Although inspection of a pouch by X-ray would not physically break the external seal of the shipment, such an action constitutes the modern-day electronic equivalent of “opening” a pouch. As a result, the United States does not search properly designated and handled diplomatic pouches, either physically or electronically (e.g., by X-ray) and considers it a serious breach of the clear obligations of the VCDR for another country to do so.
Size and Weight of Diplomatic Pouches
International law does not set any limits on the permissible size, weight, or quantity of properly designated diplomatic pouches. Therefore, it is the view of the United States that size, weight, and quantity restrictions imposed by the receiving state on properly designated diplomatic pouches are inconsistent with the obligations under Article 25 of the VCDR.
Proper Identification of Diplomatic Pouches
Diplomatic pouches must bear “visible external marks of their character.” (VCDR, Article 27.4) Therefore, a diplomatic pouch moving into, within, or from the United States must:
- Have readily visible markings on the exterior of the pouch, bag, envelope, crate, or container clearly identifying it in English as a “Diplomatic Pouch”;
- Externally bear the official seal of the sending entity;
- This may be a lead or plastic seal that is attached to a tie that closes the pouch or a seal affixed to the pouch’s exterior.
- Be addressed to or from the sending government’s ministry or department of foreign affairs, its embassies, legations, consular offices, or the headquarters or offices of an international organization; and
- When applicable, all associated shipping documents, such as bills of lading and Air Waybills, should describe the shipment in English as a “Diplomatic Pouch”.
Accompanied Diplomatic Pouches
Properly designated diplomatic pouches, transported in either the cabin or cargo-hold of an aircraft, vessel, train, or motor vehicle, are considered by the United States as being “accompanied” by a diplomatic or non-professional diplomatic courier when such couriers travel as a passenger on the same mode of transportation.
Whenever a properly designated diplomatic pouch is accompanied or delivered by a diplomatic or non-professional diplomatic courier, the courier must be provided with an official document indicating his/her status and the number of diplomatic pouches that he/she is responsible for transporting. (VCDR, Art. 27.5) For the information requirements of such document, see the Department’s note No. 12-306, dated November 9, 2012.
Diplomatic couriers enjoy personal inviolability and are not liable to any form of arrest or detention. However, a diplomatic courier’s person and personal baggage are subject to normal security screening and customs procedures. Absent accreditation by the receiving State as a diplomatic agent, as a member of a diplomatic mission’s administrative and technical staff, a consular officer, or subject to the provisions of a bilateral agreement, non-professional diplomatic couriers will enjoy personal inviolability only during the time in which he/she has a properly designated diplomatic pouch in his/her charge.
For more information on specific scenarios involving the accompanied transport of pouches, see the Department’s note No. 12-306.
Unaccompanied Diplomatic Pouches
Properly designated diplomatic pouches are considered by the United States as being “unaccompanied” when a diplomatic or non-professional diplomatic courier is not traveling as a passenger on the same aircraft, vessel, train, or motor vehicle that is transporting the pouch.
For more information on specific scenarios involving the unaccompanied transport of pouches, see the Department’s note No. 12-306.
Diplomatic Pouches Entrusted to Captains of Commercial Aircraft
Properly designated diplomatic pouches may be entrusted to the captain of a commercial aircraft, when transporting such shipments into, within, or from the United States. However, in such instances, the captain of a commercial aircraft shall not be considered to be a diplomatic or non-professional diplomatic courier.
For more information on specific scenarios involving the entrustment of pouches to the captain of a commercial aircraft, see the Department’s note No. 12-306.
Diplomatic Cargo & Diplomatic Mail
The U.S. Department of State wishes to emphasize to the Chiefs of Missions that shipments designated as either “diplomatic mail” or “diplomatic cargo” are not considered by the Department to be properly designated diplomatic pouches. Therefore, “diplomatic mail” or “diplomatic cargo” shipments are not entitled to the protections afforded properly designated diplomatic pouches under Article 27 of the VCDR.