In international law, document legalization is the process of authenticating or certifying a document so it can be accepted in another country.
Rationale and procedure
Due to the lack of familiarity with foreign documents or the entities that issue them, many countries require that foreign documents be legalized to be accepted there. This legalization procedure generally consists of a chain of certifications, by one or more authorities of the country of origin of the document and of the destination country. The first authority certifies the issuer of the document, and each subsequent authority certifies the previous one, until the final certification is made by an authority of the destination country that can be recognized by the final user there.
The certifying authorities generally include the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or equivalent of the country of origin and an embassy or consulate of the destination country located in the country of origin. For example, an Egyptian document to be used in the Netherlands must be certified by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Egypt and then by the Embassy of the Netherlands in Egypt.
Some cases may require more certifications. For example, to be accepted in Thailand, a document from the U.S. state of Maryland not issued by a government official must be certified by a notary public, who must then be certified by the clerk of the circuit court in the notary's county, who must then be certified by the state of Maryland, which must then be certified by the U.S. Department of State, which must finally be certified by the Embassy of Thailand in the United States. In some countries, an additional certification by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the destination country is also required.
Not all countries require legalization of foreign documents. For example, Canada, Japan, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States generally accept documents from any country without any certification.
Some countries have agreements eliminating the legalization requirement for certain documents issued by each other, such as between Argentina and Italy, between Brazil and France, and between parties of the Convention on the Issue of Multilingual Extracts from Civil Status Records. The European Union also has a regulation eliminating the legalization requirement for certain documents of its member states to be accepted by each other.
The Apostille Convention is intended to simplify the legalization procedure by replacing it with a certification called an apostille, issued by an authority designated by the country of origin. If the convention applies between two countries, the apostille is sufficient for the document to be accepted in the destination country.
Ideally the apostille would be the only certification needed, but in some cases additional certifications in the country of origin may be required before the apostille is issued. For example, documents not issued by a government official may need to be certified by a notary; in some U.S. states, documents certified by a notary or city official must then be certified by the respective county or court; finally the apostille may be issued, certifying the previous official. In any case, after the apostille, no certification by the destination country is required.
The Apostille Convention requires that countries part of the convention direct their embassies and consulates to no longer perform legalizations of documents where the convention applies. The removal of this service is intended to prevent excessive certifications potentially required by overzealous institutions, but in cases where a consular certification alone would otherwise be sufficient to legalize a document and the apostille procedure requires more steps or higher fees, the convention may actually result in a more complex or more costly procedure to certify the document.
- Apostille Handbook, Hague Conference on Private International Law, 2023.
- Legalisation of documents from Egypt for use in the Netherlands, Government of the Netherlands.
- Certifications and Authentication, Maryland Secretary of State.
- Legalization, Embassy of Thailand in the United States.
- Canada, Apostille Questionnaire 2021, Hague Conference on Private International Law.
- Japan, Apostille Questionnaire 2021, Hague Conference on Private International Law.
- Republic of South Africa, Apostille Questionnaire 2021, Hague Conference on Private International Law.
- United Kingdom, Apostille Questionnaire 2021, Hague Conference on Private International Law.
- United States of America, Apostille Questionnaire 2021, Hague Conference on Private International Law.
- Agreement between the Argentine Republic and the Italian Republic on the exchange of civil status records and the exemption of legalization of documents, Government of Argentina (in Spanish).
- Agreement of cooperation in civil matters between the government of the Federative Republic of Brazil and the government of the French Republic, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Brazil (in Portuguese).
- Convention (No.16) on the issue of multilingual extracts from civil-status records, International Commission on Civil Status.
- Convention (No.16) on the issue of multilingual extracts from civil status records, International Commission on Civil Status. Article 8.
- Administrative cooperation: circulation of public documents, European Commission.
- Apostille or Certificate of Authentication, New York Department of State.
- Explanatory Report on the Hague Convention of 5 October 1961 Abolishing the Requirement of Legalisation for Foreign Public Documents, Hague Conference on Private International Law, 15 April 1961. Article 9.