Apostille vs. Authentication Certificate: Learn the Key Differences for Document Legalization

November 24, 2023
7 min

Documents you send to a foreign nation must be verified as valid copies of the original. There are two main ways to do this: get an apostille or get an authenticated copy through the legalization process at the embassy or consulate.

The 1961 Hague Convention made a standard method for confirming documents and made it possible to accept apostille certificates as valid proof for the countries involved. If a country does not accept apostille stamps, papers need Embassy or Consulate processing. This is to make sure the stamps, signatures, and seals on public documents are valid. 

Understanding the distinction between apostille and authentication is crucial for international document validation.

flowchart with the process and steps for authenticating a document

Apostille: What Is It?

An apostille is a certification issued under the Hague Convention of 1961. It simplifies the process of legalizing public documents for use in foreign countries. The word "apostille" comes from the French word meaning "to affix to." This certificate confirms where the document came from. It usually has a signature or seal from a notary public or government official.

The Hague Convention created a standard process to prove something is real among all member nations. This process replaces the need to get documents certified by consulates, which takes a lot of time and money. The planning of this convention has changed how documents are recognized worldwide. This makes it easier to communicate and work together across countries.

Member countries of the Hague Convention

Currently, 126 countries, including the United States, are part of the Hague Convention. These nations work together to ensure that apostilles are accepted in all countries.

The list of Hague Convention countries is dynamic, with new members joining periodically. To find the most recent list, check the official website of the Hague Conference on Private International Law.

The Role of the Secretary of State in Apostille Issuance

In the United States, the authority to issue apostilles lies with the Secretary of State. Each state has an office called the "Designated Issuing Authority" (DIA), which handles apostille requests for State issued documents. Documents issued by Federal agencies (such as  IRS, FBI, etc.) are required to be submitted to the Department of State for apostille.  

The DIA checks if the document is valid and falls within the apostille scope. Then, they attach the apostille stamp or certificate. The Secretary of State being involved makes apostilled documents more credible and authentic.

Embassy or Consular Authentication: What Is It?

Embassy authentication is used when a country does not accept apostilles but still requires documents to be validated for international use. This usually involves first submitting your document to the State Secretary’s office for authentication and then submitting your documents to the US Department of State. Then, the destination country's embassy or consulate applies their stamp approval through a process called consulate legalization.

Non-Hague Convention countries and their requirements

Countries that are not part of the Hague Convention don't recognize apostilles. Instead, they have their authentication requirements. Typically, these requirements involve going to the embassy or consulate. This prevents fake documents from being accepted by international governments.

The specific requirements can vary significantly from one country to another. Some common requirements in non-Hague Convention countries may include:

  • Documents have to go through an extensive verification procedure in many nations to verify signatures and seals. This may involve having notaries or officials examine and verify the paperwork.
  • For Consular legalization, the document is first authenticated by the issuing country. Then, it goes to the destination country's embassy or consulate for further validation. The embassy or consulate will add a certificate or seal to confirm the document is legal.
  • If the country you're visiting is not part of the Hague Convention, you may need to translate documents in foreign languages into the official language. It might be necessary to notarize or verify these translations by an authorized body.

The role of the embassy or consulate in US document legalization

The embassy or consulate is important in making US documents legal for use in other countries. It's especially important when dealing with non-Hague Convention countries that don't recognize apostilles.

In short, the process involves the following three steps:

  1. Authentication by the Issuing State Secretary's Office
  2. Authentication by the US Department of State
  3. Authentication by the Embassy or Consulate of the Destination Country
county official stamping government document

Differences Between Apostille and Embassy Authentication

Documents must have an apostille certificate to be legalized in countries like the USA, South Korea, Portugal, Italy, and Spain. However, countries like Thailand, Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar need Authentication certificates as these countries are not part of the Hague Convention.

According to Vikas Bhatia, a partner at US Authentication Services, “Certain state secretary offices have started issuing a joint certificate which has both the apostille and authentication certificate, however not all states have adopted this model. Technically, a country will require either an Apostille or Authentication but not both types of certifications in one document.”

Recognition and acceptance in foreign countries 

Apostilles make document legalization easier in countries that follow the Hague Convention. On the other hand, authentication certificates are needed for non-Hague Convention countries. Authentications require a more complex process, which can take longer and cost more. Both types of certificates serve similar purposes for international recognition.

Cost and processing time

Apostilles are typically quicker to obtain, with processing times ranging from 1-2 weeks in most cases. Some states also offer same-day services for Apostille issuance.

Authentication certificates require a longer process. Before embassy authentication, documents need to go through State Secretary and US State Department validation. The timeline for processing authentications can take up to 12-15 weeks due in part to major delays at the US State Department. The US State Department has announced that they are addressing their backlog, and improvements are expected in 2024.

Common Misconceptions and Challenges

Some states have specific requirements, such as documents issued within a certain time frame (e.g., the last 1 year) or signed by a state registrar. To clarify, Mr. Bhatia noted, “Occasionally we come across documents which are 10-15 years old and for certain states, they may not be eligible. At that point, there is an option to order a new certified copy of a document from the Office of Vital Statistics which will then be eligible for an apostille seal in most cases.”

Potential challenges and how to overcome them

When legalizing documents, it's important to meet the issuing state’s specific requirements. To overcome this, it's essential to research and understand these requirements beforehand. Additionally, the potential delays and backlog issues at the US State Department can be challenging, but planning and staying informed about their status can help manage these challenges.

For a smooth document legalization experience, be proactive and gather all necessary information. Consult experts if needed. To make things easier, learn about your document's needs and determine your country’s category

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Apostilles are recognized certificates that make the process easier for Hague Convention countries. On the other hand, Embassy authentication is needed for non-Hague Convention countries.

Selecting the correct method ensures that documents can be used overseas and legally recognized. To have an easy time validating foreign documents, you must know the requirements and recognition of these certificates beforehand.

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Who needs an apostille or authentication?

Anyone who needs to use a public document in a foreign country may wish to have it verified first. This includes individuals who are:

What documents can be apostilled or authenticated?

Almost any public document, including:

  • Birth certificates
  • Marriage certificates
  • Death certificates
  • Diplomas and transcripts
  • Court orders
  • Powers of attorney
  • Commercial invoices
  • Affidavits

Can I get both an apostille and authentication on one document?

Technically, a country will require either an Apostille or Authentication but not both types of certifications in one document.

How do I get an apostille?

The way to get an apostille changes depending on the country where the document came from. However, the general process is as follows:

  1. Check to see if the country where the document will be used is a member of the Hague Convention. If it is, then you can get an apostille from the Designated Issuing Authority (DIA) in your state.
  2. If the country is not part of the Hague Convention, you need to get the document authenticated at their embassy or consulate.
  3. To get an apostille, fill out an application and give it to the DIA or embassy/consulate. You'll need to include the original document or a certified copy.
  4. Pay the apostille fee.

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