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Authenticating Documents

A person stamping and authenticating documents for foreign paperwork.

Untangling The Web Of International Document Authentication

There’s no escaping it, and there’s no shortcut. What’s more, your foreign attorney can’t do it for you.

We’re talking about the international document authentication that’s required when you submit official documents in another country.

As you begin to expand your horizons beyond the shores of your home country, there are an increasing number of occasions when you’ll need to submit some sort of document to an official authority overseas.

You need these submittals when you apply for a visa, for example, but we’ve also encountered the requirement when opening a bank account, asking for credit, or initiating a brokerage account abroad… as well as when bringing in pets into a foreign country or a shipment of personal household effects.

The most commonly required documents include birth certificates, marriage certificates, proof of income, and veterinary health certificates. But you may also need authenticated documents for things like professional licenses, professional affiliations, or school records.

When these documents originate in your home country, they’re almost always subject to an authentication process. Simply put, the foreign entity receiving your document will want to know that the document is authentic and that whoever issued it was authorized to do so.

International document authentications can consist of four reviews:

  • Local Certification is the “first level” authentication, often performed by a local notary.
  • Originating Country Authentication is the “seal of approval” received before a document leaves the country where it originated.
  • Translation is required when the document is not in the official language of the country where you intend to use it.
  • Receiving Country Verification is a process within the country where you are submitting the document. This step may not be required in every case (more on this below).

In order to do this timely, you will need to know the steps you will need to take.

Step One: Local Certification

This is the first-level authentication and not every document requires it. Local Authentication is usually needed for documents provided by a non-government entity, such as sworn statements by you, pension statements by your employer, diplomas, transcripts, and sometimes even local police record checks.

The requirements for Local Authentication are provided by the Secretary of State in the state that issued the document, combined with any requirements imposed by the Receiving Country where you intend to submit the document.

The exact requirements vary state to state and depending on the document types. Here are examples for Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Wyoming.

Generally, state-issued documents that have an official signature and seal (like most birth or marriage certificates) do not need any Local Authentication; they can go directly to Step Two, below.

For federal records, the federal government provides the authentication. They will do both the Local Certification and the Originating Country Authentication described in Step Two.

In Canada, requirements can vary from one province to the next. See these provincial examples from Alberta and Ontario. Follow this link to see the Canadian federal requirements.

Occasionally, a second-level review can be required to complete Local Authentication. For example, after getting a document notarized, you may be required to obtain a review by the county clerk, attesting to the fact that the notary is currently licensed. Normally, this requirement is imposed by the Receiving Country; it happens most often when that country does not use the apostille process (more on this later).

For pets, the International Health Certificate supplied by your vet (non-notarized) must be endorsed in the United States by one of the USDA-APHIS Veterinary Services offices, which will affix a raised seal.

After Local Certification, the originating country must give the document its final seal of approval, in Step Two.

Step Two: Originating Country Authentication

There are two ways to validate a document prior to international use—the consular legalization process… or the simpler apostille process.

The apostille process is used when both the issuing and receiving countries are signatories to the treaty that initiated that process. If either country is not a participant, the consular legalization process must be used.

The apostille process is formally known as the Hague Convention Abolishing the Requirement for Legalization for Foreign Public Documents. (Apostille means “certification” in French.) Since 1961, signatories to this convention can issue public (or notarized) documents to each other without having to legalize these documents at the destination country’s consulate.

To use this process, both the issuing and receiving countries must be signatories to the Apostille Convention. The United States, the UK, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand, for example, are all participants, as are many countries in Latin America. Canada is not, and Canadians must use consular legalization, explained below. You can check out The Hague Convention website to see a current list of signatories.

Apostille certifications are handled by the office of the Secretary of State in the state that issued the document (or your state of residence, in the case of a document sworn by you). You simply present your documents to the agent at the Secretary of State’s office (notarized, if required), and they’ll apply the apostille certification, signature, and seal. Most states allow you to submit documents for apostille certification by mail. To find the requirements for your state, refer to the National Association of Secretaries of State, which provides a link to each state’s authentication office.

The term “legalization” is commonly used to describe the process for verification by a foreign consulate in the country where the document originates. For example, if you are submitting an Illinois birth certificate for your visa to Guatemala, you’d take it to be legalized at the Guatemalan consulate in Chicago.

You simply present the document (notarized, if required), and the consulate will apply the legalization signature and seal. As with apostille certifications, many consulates will process legalizations by mail.

Requirements for legalization in a consulate are found on the consulate’s website. Here’s a good example of legalization requirements from the Guatemala consulate in Chicago. Also, your in-country attorney will know the requirements for his country.

In both Canada and the United States, the federal government can provide authentication of some state records. But there’s usually no value in doing this, it’s an extra, non-necessary step.

Unless told otherwise by the Receiving Country, we recommend that you use the federal government to authenticate only federal records; let the states authenticate state records. Note that in Canada, the federal authentication is limited to the validity of the signature, rather than the document’s content.

Step Three: Translation

After authentication, most countries require that English documents be translated into the local language.

This includes birth certificates, marriage certificates, and anything else that’s used officially. Some countries require that you use a certified public translator; even if you’re a fluent or native speaker, you cannot do this yourself. Other countries have no such requirement, so you could do it yourself or enlist the help of a friend. We’ve heard of people doing their own translations for visas, but we always recommend having them reviewed by a native speaker.

When applying for a visa at a consulate, check the requirements for translation of any given submittal. Often, they can recommend a translator.

Step Four: Receiving Country Verification, When Required

Sometimes, documents that are legalized by a consulate in their country of origin require an additional certification in the country where they are destined to be used. For example, if you get your birth certificate authenticated and legalized in Canada to be used for your visa in Uruguay, the Uruguayan government will require an in-country review by the ministry of exterior relations before the document is accepted in Uruguay. This is normally a cursory review, just to verify that that consular official who signed the legalization in the originating country is authorized to do so.

Some countries waive this review when the apostille process was used.

After Step Four, your documents are ready to be submitted for their intended use.

A Simple Way To Get Started With Authentication

First, obtain the requirements from the country where you are going to submit the document, from their consulate’s website in your home country, or your in-country attorney. If the document is for a bank, broker, or other non-government entity, then they will provide you the requirements in accordance with their policies. Next, go to the Secretary of State (or provincial) website for the state or province where the document was issued, to get their requirements.

Then, get the apostille certification or consular legalization of your document, as appropriate… followed by any required translations. Finally, check with the receiving country to see if the Receiving Country Verification is required, by reviewing the consular website or consulting your in-country attorney.

Here are a few examples of situations, showing both apostille and legalization situations:

Example 1: As an Arizona resident, you are applying for a visa in Colombia (an apostille country), and you need to supply proof of income. You’ve received a statement from your employer stating that your pension is US$1,200 per month, which is more than enough to qualify for Colombia’s retirement visa.

First, you’d take a copy of the letter to a notary (with the original), where you’d swear that the copy is true and correct. You’d then proceed to the Secretary of State office (or send the document in to them by mail), where the official would check the notary’s license and apply the apostille certification. Once the document enters Colombia, it must be translated by a certified public translator prior to use.

Example 2: As a Pennsylvania resident, you intend to get your spouse a visa in Uruguay (an apostille country), based on your income. You need to provide a marriage license.

Marriage licenses in Pennsylvania are signed by a state official and bear an official seal. Per Pennsylvania law, they do not require notarization and can go straight to the apostille certification. Per Uruguayan law, the marriage license must be translated by a certified public translator. It also must have the Receiving Country Verification described in Step Four.

Example 3: You are a resident of Wyoming, and you need a pension verification for your visa in Chile, a non-apostille country. You’d first get a statement from your employer and acknowledge it before a Wyoming Notary Public. Then you’d go to the Chilean consulate that serves Wyoming and have them legalize the document.

Once in Chile (per Chilean law), you’d need to have the document officially translated by the Department of Exterior Relations. Once translated, the document must also have a Receiving Country Verification, per Chilean regulations.

Remember Who Has The Final Word

The ultimate authority for what’s required for authentication is the Receiving Country. They are the ones who need to accept the document, and they can omit any part of this process, at their discretion.