Document Apostille and Embassy Legalization in the USA

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The USA and the Hague Apostille Convention of 1961

The USA has been a party to the Convention of 5 October 1961 "Abolishing the Requirement of Legalisation for Foreign Public Documents", hereinafter the "Hague Apostille Convention", as a member since 1980 but it started issuing apostilles for public documents on/after October 15, 1981.

In accordance with the Convention, documents destined for use in participating countries should be apostilled by one of the officials in the jurisdiction in which the document has been executed (Competent Authorities). The information about Competent Authorities in the USA can be found here. The aforementioned link also has information about all the Offices of Secretaries of States who are usually the Competent Authorities at a state level. Alternatively, you can find links to websites of Secretaries of the 50 States on

The clickable diagram to the right shows how apostille system greatly simplifies public document circulation and acceptance between countries that are parties to the Convention. The Competent Authorities in the USA who can issue apostilles are based on a 3-tier system. Below table shows examples of how this 3-level system works in the USA.

Please note that both countries (of document issue and document use) need to be party to the Convention whether as a member or as a non-member. In this case your public document should be accepted by the country of use with just an apostille from the appropriate Competent Authority above.

3-tier system in the USA for apostille of public documents
Document Issued By Example of a Document U.S. Competent Authority
U.S. Federal Agencies (e.g., Department of Homeland Security, Food and Drug Administration, Department of Agriculture, Patent and Trademark Office, Environmental Protection Agency) USDA Animal/Plant Certifications and Animal Health Certifications, FBI Police Certificates (Background Checks), FDA Certificates for Products for Export/Certificates of Free Sale, IRS US Residency Certificates U.S. Department of State
U.S. (Federal) courts Any documents issued by those courts U.S. (Federal) courts or as alternative: US Department of Justice may authenticate the seal of the Federal court and the US Department of State will then place an apostille over that seal
State documents, including documents executed before notaries Any public documents issued by U.S. states, the District of Columbia and other U.S. jurisdictions. State Secretary of State

It may get a little complicated so if you need any clarification on the Hague Apostile Convention or how it applies to your documents/situation, please do not hesitate to contact us.

What if a Country of Document Use/Issue is Not a Party to the Hague Apostille Convention

If your public document was issued or is to be used in a country where the Apostille Convention above does not apply, then the chain legalization process must be followed (hover or click on the diagram to the right for general diagram). There may be initial certification requirements depending on the country and agency who issued the document or the type of document but the 2 most important completion steps usually occur in Washington, DC with the authentication by the US Department of State and the legalization by the foreign embassy/consulate/mission.

For example, let us assume you have an original document from a country that is not a party to the Hague Apostille Convention but you intend to use it in the USA. First thing you would need to do is to find out the exact certification requirements from where you intend to use it in the States (organization, company or individual). If they confirm that it has to be properly legalized, then as a minimum you are possibly looking at authentication at the embassy/consulate/mission of the country that issued the document with subsequent authentication at the U.S. Department of State. That embassy/consulate/mission might require that you need to first authenticate the document in the actual country at the agency that issued this document. This is often the case for educational credentials. Additional translation requirements may apply.

Alternatively, the ministries of foreign affairs of many countries have departments that legalize the documents for overseas use. So, if you happen to be in your home country prior departure to the USA, then you might as well legalize your documents to avoid future hassles with the embassy/consulate/mission and the U.S. Department of State.

You might have heard also about the, so called, "reverse chain legalization". This would be applicable if you have a document from country "A" (not the USA), and you intend to use that document in Country "B" (also not the USA) but you permanently reside in the U.S. Let us further assume that either the country "A" or the country "B" is not a party to the Hague Apostille Convention. In accordance with usual practices per the Convention, the reverse chain legalization steps in the U.S. would be as follows:

  • Document certification/authentication at the embassy/consulate/mission of country "A" that issued the document. The embassy/consulate/mission may require pre-authentication in the actual country "A" by either the entity who issued the document or by the relevant government agency.
  • Document authentication at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, DC.
  • Consular legalization at the embassy/consulate/mission of country "B".

Thus, in reverse chain legalization, the U.S. Department of State acts as the certification intermediary because they should have on file all samples of authorized signatures and stamps by accredited officials (i.e. consuls) at foreign embassies/consulates/missions to the USA.

In any case, you can contact us if you have any questions about the Hague Apostille Convention or your specific document situation.

Our Certification, Authentication and Apostille/Legalization Services

WDC Apostille & Legalization Services can assist you with all your document needs in the USA including finding the right translator. We can provide you full package of services whether it is the U.S. Department of State authentication/apostille or legalization at a foreign embassy/consulate/mission located in Washington, DC. Please use the respective links in our right or left sidebars for specific requirements or contact us for additional information.