Many documents that originate in the United States and are be used in another country must first be "authenticated" or "legalized." This is a process in which various seals are placed on the document so they will be recognized as legal documents in the other countries. Different countries require different levels of authentication and have different procedures.
There are two different procedures for legalizing documents. A number of countries are part of the Hague Legalization Convention which requires a document called an Apostille. Countries not part of this convention follow what the State Department calls The Chain Authentication Method, a procedure that entails various government offices looking over the document and authenticating that the signatures are valid.
Documents destined for use in countries participating in Hague Legalization Convention should be certified by one of the officials in the jurisdiction in which the document has been executed. Usually this is the office of the State Secretary of State. Said official must have been designated as competent to issue certifications by Apostille. With this certification by Apostille, the document is entitled to recognition in the country of intended use.
Hague Legalization Convention
The Convention abolishes the requirement of diplomatic and consular legalization for public documents originating in one Convention country and intended for use in another. For the purposes of the Convention, public documents include:
- Documents emanating from a court
- Documents issued by an administrative authority (such as civil records); and
- Documents executed before a notary.
Such documents issued in a Convention country which have been certified by a Convention certificate called an Apostille are entitled to recognition in any other Convention country without any further authentication. Since October 15, 1981, the United States has been part of the 1961 Hague Convention abolishing the Requirement of Legalization for Foreign Public Documents. Click Countries participating in the Hague Convention for a list of countries that recognize an Apostille.
Chain Authentication Method
What is needed is the foreign consul's authentication on the document. The foreign consul, however, can only authenticate the seal of an office that they recognize. The highest office in the U.S. is the U.S. Department of State. A document can originate from anywhere in the U.S. and after going through several intermediate offices can get a seal from the U.S. Department of State. The foreign consulate or embassy would only need to recognize one seal that of the U.S. Department of State and they could legalize any document with this seal. This makes it much easier for the consul. Most, not all, of the embassies in Washington D.C. require documents to have U.S. Department of State seals. Some embassies and most consulates located elsewhere only require State Secretary of State seals or in some cases just a notary. It all depends upon the country the document will be used in.
U.S. Department of State
For the U.S. Department of State to put their seal on the document there must already be a seal that they recognize. That seal can be the state Secretary of State seal form any of the 50 states, the seal of a federal agency or the seal from the Justice Management Division, Security Program Staff. Which seal you get depends upon the document. Documents issued by a federal agency have that Agency's seal. Documents issued by a federal court must get the seal from the Justice Management Division. All other documents require a state Secretary of State seal.
State Secretary of State
The state Secretary of State in turn needs a seal it recognizes before it can put it's seal on the document. Documents originating with a state court or agency will have a seal that the Secretary of State recognizes. Other documents will need to have a county clerk of court's seal or in some cases only a notary. Some states keep records of all notaries and will put their seal on a notarized document. Other states require that the document first have a county clerk of court's seal.
County Clerk of Court
The clerk of court will put their seal on a document that has been witnessed by a valid notary registered in their county.
The specific procedure for a notary varies from state to state. However, the basic function of the notary is to witness someone signing a document. The document must be signed in front of the notary and the person signing the document must show a valid ID. The notary will attest that they witnessed the document being signed and put their seal on it.
At The Royal Group International, we keep track of which countries require which seals and what the current cost is. As you can see the process can get complex. To make matter worse, consuls often change which seals they require. We can take care of all the various work or just the part you need help with.