State visit versus official visit: What’s the difference?

French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte, arrived in Washington April 23 for a three-day state visit, at the invitation of President Trump.

While Trump has hosted many foreign leaders in Washington, Macron was welcomed in the first state visit of the Trump presidency. What distinguishes a state visit from an official visit, and why is it considered a special honor?

Only a head of state (like Macron) can be accorded a state visit.

A band marching on the South Lawn of the White House as Presidents Trump and Macron, their wives and others look on (© Evan Vucci/AP Images)
A military band performs during the ceremony welcoming French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife to the White House on April 24. (© Evan Vucci/AP Images)

When Trump hosted British Prime Minister Theresa May in January 2017 and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in October 2017, those leaders were accorded official visits because they are heads of government rather than heads of state. (Canada and Britain are both Commonwealth countries, whose head of state is Queen Elizabeth II of England.)

In addition to numerous meetings, official visits sometimes include an official dinner — but not a glittering state dinner, with guests in formal eveningwear. A state visit, by definition, involves more pomp and ceremony than an official visit.

The Macrons were guests of honor at an April 24 state dinner at the White House, hosted by Trump and his wife, first lady Melania Trump.

Table settings for a state dinner at the White House (© Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP Images)
First lady Melania Trump selected the menu, place settings and flowers for the April 24 state dinner at the White House. (© Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP Images)

A state dinner, always the social high point of a state visit, is planned meticulously, often months in advance. The menu typically features food and wines that reflect the culinary traditions of the guests of honor, but with an American twist. It represents the friendship between the nations of the hosts and the honored guests.

Trump and Macron, who met previously in France, have forged a friendship as well as a strategic partnership. The two leaders speak regularly on the telephone, and their rapport — an extension of the U.S.-French alliance, dating back more than 200 years — likely played a role in Trump’s choice to honor France’s leader with a state visit.

During the state dinner, business is set aside in favor of bonhomie (as the French might say).

President Trump raising his glass in front of seated diners (© Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post/Getty Images)
President Trump and his guests raise their glasses in a toast at the April 24 state dinner at the White House. (© Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post/Getty Images)

“Tonight, I ask that we raise our glasses as I offer this toast to President Macron and Brigitte, to the French delegation, and to every proud citizen of France,” Trump said in his dinner remarks. “May our friendship grow even deeper, may our kinship grow even stronger, and may our sacred liberty never die.”