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Or, How Much is Enough?

September 2005

Just a Piece of Paper

Most vital statistics documents (birth, death, marriage, divorce, etc.) can be ordered as a non-certified document. Why would you want one, instead of an officially certified one? They are usually cheaper, and they might not take as long to process. But they can't be used for any official purpose (like for obtaining a passport, or for dual citizenship).

One popular use for non-certified documents is genealogy. In addition to a date or name, they can contain numerous other facts that help fill in gaps and missing links.


Specific state organizations and state officials have been given the authority (i.e., by law) to certify documents. A certified document will be recognized in any federal or state court. If they weren't certified, they would not be recognized.

If you need a vital statistics document for official purposes, when you request the document, you need to state that you want it to be 'certified.' When you receive it, it will have a seal of some sort issued by the state that maintains the document. The seal will be raised, or embossed into the paper. This is what makes it certified.

If you scan the document, or get a color copy, it may look exactly like the original, but it won't have the raised/embossed portion of the seal.

Documents for International Use

But, just because a U.S. law says a document is valid does not mean that it satisfies laws in other countries. And, it works the other way around, too. Just because a document from Italy or some tiny village in Uzbekistan or somewhere else is 'certified' with a stamp or signature in Cyrillic or Mandarin or whatever, doesn't mean that document is legal/legitimate in its home country, or that it satisfies requirements in the U.S.

Laws within countries usually have little effect outside those countries. The process of legalizing a document in a foreign country, where laws, culture and customs are different, can easily be complex, time consuming, and expensive. It involves placing a series of seals from different authorities on the document, and is called the "chain authentication method." Authorities have to attest to the validity of a succession of seals beginning with the document and ending with the seal of the foreign embassy or consulate in the U.S.

A better solution is to have a "higher authority," an international body that each country participates in, and agrees to, that establishes regulations for activities between countries.

Thus the Hague Conventions

Most people remember the Hague Conventions for outlawing the use of certain types of weapons in warfare. But over the years they have done much more.

The 1961 Hague Convention established a way to allow for the simplified certification of public documents to be used in countries that have joined the convention.

Hague Convention Abolishing the Requirement for Legalisation for Foreign Public Documents

In 1981 the U.S. became a part of that agreement. (http://www.state.gov/m/a/auth/c1267.htm)

Since then, this is the method by which a U.S. governmental department authenticates a document as genuine, thereby legalizing it for use in another member country.

Enter the Apostille!

Under the convention, signatory countries have agreed to recognize public documents issued by other signatory countries if those public documents are authenticated by the attachment of an internationally recognized form of authentication: the apostille (from French Apostil; English pronunciation: ah-poh-STEEL; means "a marginal note on a letter or other paper; an annotation.") The apostille ensures that public documents issued in one signatory country will be recognized as valid in another signatory country. The apostille certifies the signature and the position of the official who has executed, issued or certified a copy of a document.

The sole function of the apostille is to internationally certify the authenticity of the signature on the document; the capacity in which the person signing the document acted; and the identity of any stamp or seal affixed to the document.

When requesting the apostille, it is important to identify which country will receive the document since different countries require different types of certification. Italy is also a signatory to the convention, so it accepts an apostille issued in the U.S.

In the U.S., vital statistics documents are created, maintained and issued by one office of the government of the state in which they originated; they are authenticated (apostilled) by a different office of the same state. So, you will send a request for your document to one place. Be sure to request a certified document.

When you get the document, you need to send it off to another place with a request for the apostille. You will get back your document with an 8 ½" x 11" page affixed to it ?the apostille.

General Steps to Certify Documents

To internationally certify a document (e.g., a U.S. birth certificate to be used for Italian dual citizenship), follow these steps:

  1. steps to obtain the certified document
    1. fill out the form (if available) or write a cover letter requesting the document
      1. include any necessary data: name, date
      2. include identification (of yourself), if needed
      3. include any fees
      4. include a stamped, self-addressed envelope if needed
      5. specify the document you are looking for (birth, death, marriage, divorce)
      6. specify "certified," and "long form"
    2. mail to the proper state office
    3. wait to receive the document
  2. steps to obtain the apostille
    1. fill out the form (if available) or write a cover letter requesting the apostille
      1. include the original document
      2. include any fees
      3. include a stamped, self-addressed envelope if needed
      4. specify "for Italy"
    2. mail to the proper state office
    3. wait to receive the document with the apostille attached

You may want to request more than one copy of these documents ?when you submit them along with your dual citizenship application, they are sent to Italy and you won't get them back.

An individual can usually request copies of his or her own documents. But it's not always possible to obtain the vital records of someone else. Some states limit access of records to close family members (e.g., you may be allowed to request records of your parents, siblings and children only). When some types of records reach a certain age (50 or 100 years), they become public records and anyone can request them.

Links to Specific States

Below are some links to the web pages of a few states that explain how to obtain certified vital statistics documents and how to have them authenticated with an apostille. If you have information on other states please let us know cristina@expatsinitaly.com

Actually, it helps to read the web pages of states that you don't intend to do business with. Some states have clear explanations, some are not so clear. Some provide background info and the 'why,' while others only go into the 'how.'

Records in the State of Pennsylvania

">Vital statistics documents in PA:

Apostilles in PA:


Records in the State of California

Vital statistics documents in CA:


Apostilles in CA:


Records in the State of New York

Vital statistics documents in NY:


Apostilles in NY:



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