The most surprising formal protocol presidents and first ladies have to follow during official state visits

Reuters/Joshua RobertsPresident Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron shovel dirt onto a freshly planted oak tree gift as first lady Melania Trump watches on the South Lawn of the White House on April 23, 2018..
  • State visits are a key diplomatic tradition and the highest-ranking form of diplomatic exchange, as only heads of state qualify for the lavish public ceremony.
  • Every detail of the visit is carefully coordinated to honour American history as well as the visiting country, from the decorations, food, and colour schemes.
  • Ahead of President Donald and first lady Melania Trump’s hosting of the Australian prime minister at the White House for an official visit and state dinner, take a look at some of the carefully planned pomp and circumstance.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

At the most powerful address in the country, receiving special visitors is not just part of the job, but a long-held diplomatic tradition.

State visits are the highest-ranking form of diplomatic exchange – only heads of state qualify for the lavish public ceremony.

Every president since Calvin Coolidge has held at least one state dinner a year, except President Donald Trump, who waited until his second year to invite French President Emmanuel Macron.

Though each state visit varies to best accommodate the president and first lady’s wishes, much of the walking, standing, and shaking hands is required as distinct ceremonial steps are planned months in advance.

The Office of the Chief of Protocol assists White House staff in making sure the event goes off without diplomatic faux pas or embarrassment.

Ahead of President Donald and first lady Melania Trump’s hosting of the Australian prime minister at the White House for an official visit and state dinner, take a look at some of the carefully coordinated pomp and circumstance, step by step:


The first visit foreign head of state to visit the White House was King David Kalakua of the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii), who former President Ulysses S. Grant hosted in 1874.

Frank Leslie’s Illustrated NewspaperKing Kalākaua of Hawaii meets President Ulysses S. Grant in the Blue Room of the White House in the first state visit for a ruling monarch to the US in December 1874.

The leaders and their 36 guests enjoyed 29 courses, an impressive precursor to the event that would become a widely publicized expected duty of a president.


A state visit includes: a full-honours arrival ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House with a 21-gun salute, a state luncheon at the US State Department, and a White House state dinner.

AP Photo/Manuel Balce CenetaThe State Dining Room at the White House is set for first lady Melania Trump and President Donald Trump’s first State Dinner on April 24, 2018.

Only chiefs of state are invited to state visits, meaning the reigning monarch, ruler, or president of a country.


To kick off a state visit, the president and first lady receive the guest of honour at the South Lawn to demonstrate their role as hosts to their visitor.

Charles Tasnadi, Associated PressPresident Ronald Reagan and first lady Nancy Reagan welcome French President Francois Mitterrand and his wife on March 22, 1984.

Visiting leaders usually greet the president in their native language as they join the American leader outside the White House.

They are accompanied by military footmen before reaching a welcoming committee, then the leaders take the stage together.


The president, first lady, and guests take their places for the national anthems — but no one is supposed to clap after they play.

Andrew Harrer, Getty ImagesUS President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel listen to the national anthems during a state visit on the South Lawn of the White House on June 7, 2011.

As a courtesy, the visitor’s anthem is played first. Heads of state on state visits qualify for a 21-gun salute, whereas heads of government only get a 19-gun salute.


The president and the guest of honour walk the South Lawn to inspect the troops in a ceremony intended to invoke a combination of diplomacy and pageantry.

Scott Stewart/Associated PressUS President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher review an honour guard during a 1988 welcoming ceremony.

Though the state visit is meant to be a friendly one, American protocol dictates the military exercises are a show of the Commander in Chief’s control of American forces.


The president delivers remarks, to which the guest replies with a speech of their own, typically reflecting on the relationship between the two countries.

Here, Queen Elizabeth II stands by as President Bush speaks during the 2007 arrival ceremony in her honour.


The president and his guest are expected to pick and exchange the perfect gift as a symbol of goodwill in their diplomatic relationship, prioritising meaning over cost.

Larry Downing/REUTERSUS President George W. Bush and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, March 17, 2005.

US presidents are limited by law on what they can accept from foreign leaders and have had to pass up dogs, jewellery, and a jewel-encrusted sword.

The current limit on acceptable gift value is $US390, and all gifts are handed over to the National Archives, unless the official decides to purchase it at the end of their term.


Onto the state dinner — the evening begins with cocktails for the president, first lady, and select guests upstairs in the family residence of the White House.

White House Photo OfficeRonald and Nancy Reagan, Margaret and Denis Thatcher, among others, upstairs prior to a state dinner.

Just off the presidential bedroom, the Yellow Oval Room is a private space for the head table to mingle.

It’s usually a private study for presidents and is where former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt heard the news about the attack on Pearl Harbour.


Once the rest of the guests arrive downstairs, the heads of state descend the grand staircase to the song “Hail to the chief” and the visiting country’s national anthem.

Bill Allen, Associated PressPresident John F. Kennedy with President Habib Bourguiba of Tunisia descend to the State Floor May 3, 1961.

US protocol only allows four reasons for rejecting the president’s invitation to a state dinner: death in the family, serious illness, “unavoidable” absence far away from D.C., or a family wedding.


The president and guest receive the rest of the state dinner attendees. Every single one.

Samantha Appleton, White HousePresident Obama greets members of the public who notably turned out to be crashing the state dinner

Guests are individually announced by a military aide upon entering the Blue Room and greeted by the president and visitor before being seated at dinner.

Dress is formal, white- or black-tie attire. Women are expected to wear formal gowns or cocktail dresses, and men should be in tuxes.


The president and the head of state exchange toasts, the highlight of the dinner.

Pete Souza, White HouseXi Jinping and Barack Obama toast at a White House state dinner for a 2015 state visit.

The president and his guest’s remarks may come as part of the celebration part of the evening, but are considered important diplomatic statements and kept on record by the White House.


Ornately decorated tables fill the East Room, State Dining Room, or the Rose Garden, depending on the first lady’s plans.

YURI GRIPAS/AFP/Getty ImagesTable settings in the State Dining Room of the White House in advance of the state dinner honouring the visit of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore.

Every single detail of the dinner’s decorations is chosen thoughtfully to equally honour American history and the visiting country.

For the Australian state visit, the chosen colours were green and gold, the Australian national colours. The dinner was slated to be held in the Rose Garden, which pool reports said was filled with American yellow and white roses and gold woven baskets filled with yellow garden roses and the Australian national flower to “signify the combined friendship and long-lasting relationship between the United States and Australia.”

The tables were also covered in yellow and green, and dinner was set to be served on a china collection featuring alternating patterns from the administrations of Presidents William J. Clinton and George W. Bush.


Guests then eat a four- or five-course meal, which the first lady meticulously selects with White House staff.

White HouseA preview of the food first lady Melania Trump chose for the French state dinner on April 24, 2018.

First lady Melania Trump apparently only served three courses for the Australian visit. White House press pool reports said the menu included:

First CourseSunchoke Ravioli Reggiano Cream Shaved Summer Vegetables Main CourseDover Sole with Parsley Crisps Zucchini Squash Blossoms Fennel Mousseline Baby Garlic Rouille DessertLady Apple Tart Calvados Ice Cream


After dinner, it’s up to the president and first lady to continue the party with entertainment.

Pete Souza, White HouseAmerican president Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe at an April 2015 state dinner recession.

After the dessert course, the president and visitor lead guests down the Cross Hall to the East Room of the White House, where performers like Gwen Stefani, Frank Sinatra, and Kenny Chesney have entertained past guests.

For the Australian prime minister’s visit, a combined band of musicians from the United States Army, Marine Corps, Navy, and Air Force provided after-dinner entertainment.


Former President John F. Kennedy banned champagne and non-American wines from being served at the White House, even after dinner.

APPrince Charles gives a toast during a dinner at the White House Saturday night, Nov. 9, 1985 as first lady Nancy Reagan looks on.

Only American bubbly, like California sparkling wine, can fill the glasses.

Melania Trump chose a Crémant from California for the sparkling wine at the Trump’s first state dinner, a popular choice at official White House events.


Dancing is a casual diplomatic tradition meant for guests and heads of state alike to mingle.

Pete Souza, White House Photographic CollectionPrincess Diana dancing with John Travolta at a White House dinner for the Prince and Princess of Wales.

Live music fills the East Room, where guests enjoy sparkling wine and dancing.

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