Certification of corporate documents for international use typically follows one of two paths.
Between countries party to The Hague Convention #12, documents can be certified through a streamlined process known as apostille (pronounced “ah-pa-steel”). In countries that are not party to The Hague Convention #12, which require apostille certificates, documents must undergo a more involved process known as authentication and legalization of documents. In both cases, government agencies must review the notary acknowledgments or signatures on the documents in question.
In the U.S., offices of county clerks, secretaries of state or equivalent state filing offices, and even some courts may be involved in the certification process. Documents that require legalization are routed for certification by the U.S. State Department’s Office of Authentications before continuing on to the embassy or consulate of the country of intent.
APOSTILLE OR AUTHENTICATION?
In the past, certifying documents as authentic for use in foreign countries was even more difficult than it is today. The provisions of the 1961 Hague Convention #12 (“Abolishing the Requirement of Legalization of Foreign Public Documents”)* did away with much of that complexity, at least in the countries where it applies.
There is a distinct process for how to get an apostille. The document certification follows these steps: A competent authority in the country of origin affixes its seal to the document (or a certified copy of it), or affixes its seal to a separate sheet, called an allonge, and attaches the allonge firmly to the document. In the U.S., competent authorities include the secretary of state or equivalent in U.S. states and the District of Columbia, the clerks and deputy clerks of U.S. federal courts, and the U.S. Department of State Office of Authentications. Once a document is fixed with an apostille, it is acceptable for use in the foreign jurisdiction. Note, though, that for an apostille to be accepted, the document must have been issued in one country party to the Hague Convention for use in another country party to the Hague Convention.
In those cases where apostille is not an option, business documents must be authenticated. Authentication usually begins with the relevant party signing a document and having it notarized. Then, county or state officials examine the notary acknowledgement. Finally, the U.S. Department of State certifies the document.
Once a document is authenticated, it must be certified by the foreign jurisdiction to be valid there. This process, called legalization, usually occurs at the country’s embassy or consulate, and can be considered the final step in the authentication process.
* You can find a list of Hague Convention member and non-member states here.
Keep in mind that each embassy or consulate has its own rules and hours of operation, and most require certification requests to be accompanied by specific documentation. Civic and religious observances (for instance, Ramadan in majority Islamic jurisdictions) can affect transaction handling speed.
Each country also has its own standards of proof. China, for example, requires the driver’s license of the person requesting the service when applying for document legalization.
Legalization and authentication can be very time-consuming processes, and requests for apostille, while easier, still brings its own set of demands. To increase the chance of success, be sure to do the following:
Anticipate delays: Getting a document legalized can take a while. You will be at the mercy of government agency and embassy schedules. And you’ll have little to no control over a document once it’s been submitted, even when it’s with a domestic agency. Plan ahead and allow ample turnaround time for any request.
Have the right information: Gather complete contact information and signature requirements for the secretary of state and consular ahead of time and stay current on the latest policies. Changes occur frequently. For instance, in 2012, the U.S. Department of State instituted a new policy requiring all documents to be held for up to three days before they are released for submission to the embassies.
Know what you’ll need: Before you submit documents for authentication and legalization or apostille, get familiar with the jurisdiction requirements. For instance:
What fees are involved?
What form of payment does the office accept?
Will courier service be required? At what cost?
What are the expected turnaround times?
Please note that CSC, like all U.S. businesses, is subject to U.S. Department of the Treasury Office of Foreign Asset Controls (OFAC) sanctions against Cuba, Iran, the Darfur area of Sudan, and other countries from time to time, which may prevent CSC from fulfilling an order for legalization of documents for use in those countries.