January 5, 2016

Certifying Documents under the Apostille Convention

Not as difficult as you think.

By Rich Alossi in Immigration, Planning 4-minute read

California Secretary of StateSince we are new to the process of moving abroad, it’s no surprise that neither of us had heard of the term “apostille” before. We just know that we needed to get it done within six months of moving to the Netherlands and that it was going to involve a trip to a couple government buildings. Getting these documents certified is something I’ve been putting off for a while as I imagine an endless queue at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

That said, it ended up being one of the most pleasant and pain-free experiences I’ve ever had with government agencies.


What is an apostille stamp?

According to the text of the Convention de La Haye du 5 octobre 1961 (“Apostille Convention”):

Each Contracting State shall exempt from legalisation documents to which the present Convention applies and which have to be produced in its territory. For the purposes of the present Convention, legalisation means only the formality by which the diplomatic or consular agents of the country in which the document has to be produced certify the authenticity of the signature, the capacity in which the person signing the document has acted and, where appropriate, the identity of the seal or stamp which it bears.

Clear as mud, right? In layman’s terms, the convention provides for a system to certify that the document in question was signed at the time and place and by the official purporting to have signed it. Note that it doesn’t guarantee that the contents of the document are actually true — just that it was signed by that official.

This helps prevent a complete breakdown of international transactions, moves, marriages, work holidays and all the other good things that are so important to modern-day expats. Imagining the alternative gives me quite a nightmare.

Below we’ve given you a breakdown of the steps to get your vital records affixed with an apostille stamp, which of course applies to those living in California but should also not be too different if you live in another state.

First step: Get your documents in order

As a practical matter, getting an apostille stamp for your vital records is straightforward and should only require a few days but can take up to two weeks, depending on your situation. It took only a couple of hours for me because I live in the county in which I was born.

I called up a mobile notary to ask about rates for apostilled documents and was told that I need to have certified copies of my birth and marriage records in my possession, and that once I did, she can handle it for me at a rate of $125 for the first document and $50 for each additional document, for a total of $225.

If you have a certified copy of your vital records already, you’re in luck, but remember that the document must be a copy from within the previous five years. Older documents are not valid for apostille.

la county registrar recorder / county clerk

The easy way is to do this in person at the County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk for the county or parish in which you were born. I’ve lived in Los Angeles County for most of my life and was married here as well, so it involved a quick trip to the LA Airport Courthouse. There have been heavy rains here in Los Angeles today, so there was no wait and no line whatsoever. Easy! I just had to show my ID and pay the fee for instant copies. Jacob got a copy of his birth certificate a couple years back when he applied for a replacement U.S. passport; since it’s within the five-year time period, it’s valid for apostille.

If you don’t live in the county or state of your birth, however, don’t fear — all you need to do is fill out the birth certificate copy request form that is likely posted on the County Registrar-Recorder/Clerk’s website of the county of your birth, get that notarized with proper ID (meaning you can prove that you are who you say you are) and mail or fax it in along with whatever payment is required.  The officials in that county should have it mailed to you within a week or so.

Second step: Apostille stamp


California apostille stamps must be obtained at the Sacramento or Los Angeles branches of the Secretary of State. After a little bit of research and a desire to save money, I found that I could do it myself by going down to the regional office of the Secretary of State and requesting the stamp in person. Fully expecting a huge line typical of government buildings, I prepped myself mentally and left the county courthouse, certified copies in hand.

Well, Los Angeles is being extremely nice to me now that we’ve decided to leave, and my luck continued! There was no one in line at the regional office, and I was in and out in 15 minutes flat after filling out a small form and paying the $26 fee for a smart-looking red stamp on each of the three documents.

Total expenditure for apostille process: $43 for certified copies of my birth and marriage certificates, plus $78 for the apostille stamp, for a total of $121. The apostille/notary service was going to charge me $225 for the apostille alone, not counting the certified copies. I saved nearly $150 by doing it myself on a day off from work, and it couldn’t have been easier. Truly an example of government efficiency (and no sarcasm this time).

These documents are what we will present to immigration officials in the Netherlands upon our move at the end of March to prove that we are who we say we are and that we’re legally married. I don’t anticipate there will be any issues with the documents, but never say never.

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