Preparing for Your Exit – Oh, That Pesky Apostille!

Sample Florida Apostille with Birth Certificate

So you need to flee the country.
No worries.
You have gathered all your documents: birth, marriage, and divorce certificates, with all the requisite seals, signed and delivered by your states of birth, marriage, and divorce (if applicable).
Your Passport is in order, freshly obtained or renewed (or current for more than one year until its expiration date).
(If not, see How to Apply for a U.S.Passport which offers the pertinent links for the website.)
You’re good to go, right?
Not so fast.
Depending on your destination, your supporting documents may still not comply with local requirements.
There is a little-known document – at least in the U.S. – that most foreign countries require for all official documents: the dreaded Apostille, a cover document that authenticates

“…the seals and signatures of officials on public documents such as birth certificates, court orders, or any other document issued by a public authority so that they can be recognized in foreign countries that are members of the 1961 Hague Convention Treaty.” (See also 12: Convention of 5 October 1961 Abolishing the Requirement of Legalisation for Foreign Public Documents)

In other words, the apostille confirms that your documents are genuine.
“Why do I need this?” you might ask. “After all, the state has already applied its seal; shouldn’t that be enough?”
Here’s why.
Say you were born in 1945.
Once your cuddly little self emerged from your mother’s womb, the hospital issued to your parents an interim birth certificate with your parents’ names (maybe), including your mother’s maiden name (maybe), your parents’ cities of birth (maybe), your date of birth, and your city of birth. In some cases, your starting weight and height –
Sample Hospital Birth Certificate (1940)

Totally useful pieces of information for 2020. I sure have gained many a pound and a few inches since my birth, albeit not enough height and far too many pounds.
Some hospital birth certificates don’t even show the baby’s first name because some parents didn’t quite have their act together in selecting a name for their little bundle of joy, so that first certificate might just indicate “Baby Boy or Girl Doe.” After the parents duking it out and finally arriving at a name – usually before Mother and Baby left the hospital – the hospital would send a corrected version to the state’s Bureau of Vital Statistics, where a weary public servant would record the birth in a big fusty book.
1945, right?
Later, perhaps, your official, raised seal birth certificate arrived in the mail with all the pertinent information needed for a 1945 world, not necessarily compliant for 21st century needs, and placed in a parental strong box, where it remained dusty and forgotten until you graduated from high school/college or wed the love of your life. Or if it was lost in the shuffle of life, you, circa 1965, probably needed to replace it for college applications or marriage license.
Still not quite compliant for today – in the 1960’s, some states were still issuing reverse-image (negative) photostat copies and applying seals to those.
Photostat of Birth Certificate (Hawaii, 1961)

Yikes! Amateur City.
Moreover, the signer of your 1945 birth certificate is likely to be very old and spending his or her golden years rocking away in a nursing home or, more likely, has already slipped under the sod – unable to verify his/her own signature.
Institutional memory is short and fleeting.
Birth certificates, signatures, seals, etc., can be faked.
To be authenticated, that signature on your birth certificate (and other documents) will need to be researched by a current state employee who will be tasked to reach back into that fusty old book (or if digitized, a computer search) to verify that, in fact, the signer of your document was, indeed, qualified to sign that document.
Got it?
This is where the apostille comes in.
When you receive that apostille, basically an official cover sheet with a seal and even more signatures, it will arrive with a spanking, brand new document, usually printed on a special shimmery and colorful paper that is designed to be fraud and copy resistant – signed, sealed, and delivered (see first photograph).
Apostille Birth Certificate (Virginia, 2009)

It will also be compliant for the 21st century international community.
So don’t fail to apply for apostilles for all your official documents: birth, marriage, divorce, adoption, legal name change – anything necessitating an official seal – even if your residence in a foreign country is temporary.
Which is your hope and certainly the impression you want to leave behind.
When fleeing for your life, you don’t broadcast your intentions, now do you?
To set up residence – temporary or permanent – in a foreign country, you will absolutely need apostilles to authenticate all your official documents. Even if your destination is not a member of the aforementioned Hague Convention Treaty, you should apply for apostilles for all your official documents anyway.
The good news: even if you are not, states are familiar with the apostille – the State Department obtains them for their Foreign Service employees who live abroad: Ambassadors all the way to lower-level policy wonks. Also, U.S. and foreign employers who send U.S. citizens overseas will assist their employees in applying for apostilles.
But you are on your own.
The apostille is not difficult to obtain, although you may to jump through some legal hoops, especially if your yellowed 1945 birth certificate does not quite comply, despite its (barely raised) seal: a lot of old birth certificates lack some information because they were issued at a time when legalities were fluid. This verification process usually requires someone to vouch for your identity, for example, a notary public who can compare your birth certificate with other documents not requiring an apostille, such as your Passport (See also How to Apply for a U.S. Passport), Real ID driver’s license, and Social Security card.
The bad news: if you try to do this after you have left the U.S., it can be a nightmare, involving getting a third party – usually a reluctant relative – to do this on your behalf.
Call this first-hand experience via the School of Hard Knocks.
Other official documents may require additional authentication, for example,
Powers of attorney
Diplomas (especially if you need to get working papers abroad)
Certificates of good standing
Courier letters
Banking documents

Before you are released to pursue those apostilles, here’s another little fun fact about your documents, with or without apostilles:
Once you settle into your new community, you may need to get your documents translated into the local language (if it’s not English, which it won’t be because our English-speaking cousins don’t want or need native speakers of English fleeing oppression).
It’s not enough to translate your documents yourself or pay your favorite language teacher to do it.
Oh, no.
You must hire an official translator, approved by the government of your destination country, who will translate your documents and stamp them with official seals (Europeans love purple stamps) and signatures – not cheap, so save up.
But that’s far into the future and something that can’t be done in the U.S., unless you are willing to visit or call the destination country Embassy in Washington, D.C. for further information.
I suggest that you wait until you are in-country – this is easier done when you can get a local to help you navigate “the process.”
Still, as the Boy and Girl Scouts say: Be Prepared – and Aware.
Okay, so that last bit was added by Yours Truly.