Some foreign countries require documents to be “legalized” before you can use those documents in court or administrative proceedings. What exactly does that mean?
If a document has been legalized, the document has gone through the proper channels to ensure authenticity. For example, if I were given a document and told it’s a Power of Attorney notarized and legally binding in Kazakhstan, I wouldn’t have an easy time determining if that document is authentic. Courts and administrative bodies often face a similar problem. That’s where legalization comes into play.
If you need to legalize a document, you should be aware of the legalization process and the time it takes to complete.
How To Get Started
First, you must determine if the foreign country (where you’re planning on filing the document) is a signatory of the 1961 Hague Treaty, also known as the Apostille Convention. The treaty currently has 124 contracting states. If the foreign country is a signatory, an Apostille is used for the legalization process. If not, you’ll have to do things the long way.
Using an Apostille
An Apostille is an international certification, comparable to an international notarization. The signatories of the Hauge Treaty have agreed to accept Apostilles as authentic documents without a need for further certification. A Secretary of State for a U.S. State (or the equivalent thereof) can provide the Apostille.
To obtain an Apostille, a document must first be notarized. The original notarized document is then sent to the Secretary of State for the state in which the document was notarized. Be sure to check your local Secretary of State’s office for any specific procedures, paperwork, or fees required. This process can take 1-2 weeks, depending on the state. A typical fee is about $20 per document but it does vary per state. The Secretary of State will then provide a certification (the Apostille) to the applicant. This Apostille along with the original document can now be submitted by the applicant to the foreign office for filing.
Be aware, that some countries will require a certified translation. This certified translation may also have to be authenticated by the Secretary of State for acceptance by a foreign country.
If the Foreign Country is not a Signatory of the 1961 Hague Treaty
This is where things get tricky. If the country did not sign the 1961 Hague Treaty, the process begins the same as using the Apostille (certification by the Secretary of State) but then requires extra steps: authentication by the U.S. State Department and then finally legalization by a foreign consulate.
Some Secretary of State Offices will provide the Apostille for certification regardless of if you’re submitting to a Hague Treaty signatory or not. However, some states use different paperwork for non-signatories. Check with your local Secretary of State to ensure you’re requesting the proper paperwork/using the proper forms. A short phone call can go a long way.
Once you have the certification from your Secretary of State, the certified document is sent to the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C. for authentication.
The U.S. State Department only accepts applications by mail due to restrictions set in place during COVID. Walk-ins are no longer welcome. The U.S. State Department takes about 5-6 weeks and costs $20 per document. While the U.S. State Department website indicates in-person meetings are available for urgent cases, if you call their office, you’ll learn they are in fact not accepting any in-person meetings or expedite requests.
More information can be found at their website here.
Once the U.S. State Department has authenticated the document, it is sent back to the applicant. The applicant must then send the authenticated document to the foreign consulate of the country where the document is to be filed. The foreign consulate reviews the U.S. State Department’s authentication for legalization. Once the foreign consulate legalizes the document, it is sent back to the applicant.
Legalization by the foreign consulate can take 1-2 weeks. Always check with the foreign consulate for any specific procedures, paperwork, or fees required. The fee is generally about $20. However, a consulate may charge drastically more for business documents (often over $500 per document). If you’re not sure if your document qualifies as a business document, call and ask. Better to get it right the first time than to have to go through the process all over again.
A Timeline for Legalizing a Document with a Non-Signatory of Hague Treaty
Now that the document has been legalized by the foreign consulate, it’s ready to file, right? Not so fast! Some countries still require additional steps. For example, the UAE requires the legalized document to be submitted to its Ministry of Foreign Affairs for further certification. This only adds more time to the already lengthy process. Be sure to check with the specific country to determine if an extra step is needed.
The entire process can take a couple of months. More time may be needed if a certified translation is required. Apostille agencies exist and can help cut through the red tape, saving on effort and time. However, they will charge extra for their services.
Takeaway: If you may need to legalize a document, get started immediately, especially if there is a deadline approaching. Make sure you have an attorney who understands the process to ensure timely filings.