10th November 2015 London, UK

Legalisation: a tale of unexpected paperwork

Creating an apostille

Congratulations, you finally got that dream business job overseas! Your bags are almost packed, your cat is in storage and your vinyl collection is at your parents (wait a sec, did you get that the wrong way round?). It’s never simple, it’s always a rush, and here’s another fly in the ointment: you’ve just found out that in order to issue your work permit the overseas visa authority has asked for your birth certificate and degree certificate to be legalised. What?

Welcome to the world of legalisation, the Foreign Office’s largest transactional service. Legalisation is the confirmation that a signature, seal or stamp on an official public document is genuine. It is a convention – the Hague convention of 1961 – which helps governments recognise and accept one another’s documents as long as the signature has been verified. This saves having to know what, for example, a birth certificate looks like in different countries around the world. The FCO legalises 480,000 documents per year.

So on you go to your favourite search engine, and from there to the GOV.UK legalisation pages. After a form is downloaded and filled in, some guidance scanned and an online payment is made your documents are in the post and your fingers are crossed. Will they turn it around it in time? (And come to think of it, were you supposed to send the original or a photocopy? And what was all that certification business about?)

Two days later, the documents arrive at the legalisation office. An officer checks your form, tries to decipher your rushed handwriting, and re-types the details into an internal database. Your degree and birth certificate are scrutinised, the signatures compared with those of public officials on the database. All looks good this time, so the payment is shipped and a certificate printed. This certificate, which is known in the trade as an “apostille”, is then stamped, which is known in the trade as “bonked”.

Creating an apostille
An apostille is bonked. Hand model: Simon Adams

The apostille is then attached to your documents, and sent back to you by courier, your chosen method.

The finished apostille

Your documents are now legalised and you can breathe easy – apart from that business about the cat.

As you may have spotted by now, this process is ripe for modernisation and – while an electronic version of the apostille is some distance away – there are plenty of opportunities for a digital service to improve the experience for users. We know from our research that users can find it stressful to have to get a document legalised, often at short notice, and crave a combination of speed, simplicity and clarity. In addressing these needs, we can also speed up processing for our staff. We can remove rekeying, simplify the steps involved by integrating data electronically, and radically improve the creaking workflow software currently in use. These measures are especially important at a time when recruitment is frozen, and the existing team need to handle a 6% year on year increase in demand – while meeting the ministerial targets of processing postal applications within 48 hours and premium service applications on the same day.
Consequently, in August we embarked upon building a new digital service for legalisation – in my next blog post I will discuss where we have got to a few weeks in, what we have tested and what we have learnt so far.

Follow Mark at @markbarlow

30 comments on “Legalisation: a tale of unexpected paperwork

  1. Thank you everyone who has read this blog, shared your experiences and raised questions. We’re unable to continue to use this blog as a means to receive and respond to questions relating to Legalisation. If you have any questions, at all, about legalisation do please email us at LegalisationEnquiries@FCO.gov.uk and I or a member of our Customer Services Team will assist you as soon as possible.

    Please be aware more complicated enquiries may take up to 5 working days to respond to.

    Customer Services Manager

  2. Mark,
    I need my birth certificate legalised in order to marry in Brazil. I have the original, but I need to get a NEW copy for the marriage process there (certidão atualizada) and then legalised. Your web site says only the original copy can be lagalised. Catch 22!

    What do I do?

  3. Mark
    I sent my birth cert and an ACRO. They sent me an email saying the 20 day issue with unknown signature. Can I assume that the ACRO is OK and it is my b.c., which was issued over 70 years ago?

  4. Just to update…after my rather panicky comment posted in December, I sent off my original certificates (without the accompanying translations) for legalisation in the UK, having contacted the office that issued my Police Certificate who informed me that it didn’t need to be verified by a Solicitor. Although the certificate didn’t have a legible signature, all of the staff who issue and “sign”certificates are registered at the Gov.UK department and their “scribble” is identifiable and therefore sufficient. With Christmas looming, I dreaded how long it would take for the originals to return to me with their accompanying Apostilles. Within the week, they were back in Italy, and at that point I was able to organise additional translation and official stamping of the Aspostilles. So, finally, I was able to conclude my online application for citizenship in January and take my original certificates to the local prefecture, phew. When I enquired how long it would take for my application to go through, they said “around 18 months”. So, it’s now just a question of a long, long wait, having done my part! In conclusion, I’d like to thank the GOV.UK legalisation department for being so efficient – wish I could say the same for the situation here in Italy!

  5. Timely piece – I learned a lot from the specifics – Does someone know where my business might get access to a template MD DNR B 201A document to complete ?

  6. What options do I have if a legalisation is turned down because the signature on a change of name deed isn’t in ‘the database’ and the solicitors can’t verify a signature that was carried out by someone in their organisation 27 years ago.

  7. Hi, I have a dual nationality one is British another one is Pakistani and I want my deed poll leagalised ,yesterday I been to solicitor and he certified photocopy of deed poll state that I verifying the true likeness photocopy and sign dated ,as there is option on FCO website I can send my deedpoll photocopy which I did ,now i m just worried is Pakistani embassy will accept the photocopy because nothing mention clearly on Pakistani embassy website just mention before need to legalised documents from Pakistani embassy you need to legalised from FCO .kindly let me know thanks

  8. Hi,

    When the certificates first do go to a solicitor , can you confirm exactly what needs to be written on them ?


  9. Hi Mark. I am currently in the process of trying to get my UK birth certificate legalised by your office for use in Chile. The issue is that I am in Jamaica and I haven’t been back to the UK since I left as an infant. I am seeing where the website is asking for a return address to send the document back to. However, I dont feel comfortable having any of my important documents being delivered through the Jamaican post because they are notorious for losing mail. I would much prefer to use DHL or FEDEX to send and receive the document.

    Can I use DHL to send my birth certificate to your office and have your office send it back to the DHL office for me to collect it? And how long do you anticipate the whole process taking if I use DHL express service?

    Also, the birth certificate has no stamps on it, only a signature from the registrar. Is this sufficient for the Apostille to be done?

    Thanks in advance for your help.

  10. I’ve been living in Italy for over 26 years, married to an Italian. Following the Brexit outcome, I’ve decided to bite the bullet and finally apply for Italian citizenship, hoping that it will guarantee me health care, and maybe avoid potentially worse bureaucratic nightmares etc.
    I’m almost wishing I hadn’t started!! Having submitted my application and documents, my application was rejected because the aspostille was missing on my original birth and police certificates (which was not mentioned in the italian guidelines, I checked). So, looking online, it seemed pretty simple to sort that out…only problem being that I have now discovered that my ACRO police certificate needs to be before by a UK solicitor or notary before sending it for the apostille to the gov.it legalisation site. It seems to be developing into a longer chain of stages.
    Not to mention an increasingly costly process (I don’t work) and time is ticking by…the police certificate is only valid for 6 months and 2 have passed already!!
    I’m sure it’ll all turn out alright and that I shall get my new application off in time but….it’s frustrating to discover obstacles when you’re already in the process.

    Just a query, my original documents are currently stapled together with their translations and have been stamped by the local legal administrative office. Should I remove the accompanying paperwork before I send the original certificates for legalisation?

  11. A friend of mine living in Brazil needs to legalise his degree from the University of Nottingham. The University sent me (in UK) his certificates and I went to a notary public to certify them (originals). The notary said I can not do it on behalf of him. He has to be in person in front of her. Is that correct?
    Thank you very much in advance for your help.

  12. Hi Mark,

    Once the payment is deducted, does it mean that the process has been completed and the documents should be on their way back?

  13. Im curious about this process. Is there a method of authenticating without apostille?
    I believe apostille is to do with a geneva convention so has different legal attachments.

  14. Hi Mark,
    My partner and I want to legalise our HMRC A1 certificates and sent them as advised via post. I have two questions for you:
    1. I noticed that the HMRC employee filled in the A1 form and signed electronically, will that there be any issues during authentication? Do you have the capacity to double-check with HMRC the employee’s signature?
    2. I combined post for the two applications and enclosed a combined payment receipt of £60 issued on my name for both application. Is there any issue with combined post and payment under one name?

    Thank you in advance,

  15. Thanks for this article. This was useful mainly for confirming that “legalisation” is the same thing as getting an “apostille”. Could I suggest that you explicitly state that on the page https://www.gov.uk/get-document-legalised ? It seems it’s common for public offices in other countries to use the word “apostille”. Even though the legalisation webpage appears when searching in Google for “apostille”, that word is not mentioned on the page, so I wasn’t certain (until I read this blog post) that’s what the Legalisation Office is offering. I guess that leads many people to use the (presumably unnecessary) private apostille services that also appear in a Google search.

    1. Rob, thanks for your comment – we are about to revamp that GOV.UK page as part of the work on a new digital application service, and in the new version we explain how ‘apostille’ relates to ‘legalisation’ for exactly these reasons.

  16. Recently when renewing a South African passport I have been asked by the South African High Commission for an Apostile to be attached to my marriage certificate (I was married in a church by a registrar in the UK). They said I had to register my marriage with them.

    My wife said she didn’t want any modifications to the original marriage certificate so I have ordered and recently received a certified copy of this certificate. I plan to get this legalised and hopefully this will be sufficient. The South Africa House website is not too clear.

    Is a certified copy issued by the general register office as good as the original certificate?

  17. Dear Mark

    We are now on our second sumissiin of documents for our wedding in the Dominican Republic in October, now less than two months away. Our first submission was with the translated bundle and original birth certificates and GRO extract but we had them returned.

    The originals had been legalised but because there were photocopies in the bundle, hey were returned for that reason it seems.

    It’s frustrating as on the website, it says we would receive an email if there was a problem before their return. We were not contacted, just a standard number 8 letter attached and try again, but we didn’t know why? So we have gambled and removed the photocopies and resent them with a covering letter to please phone or contact before we waste more time and money on couriers and postage for something that was actually in the package in the first place.

    Our plea is to make contact before a ‘thanks for coming’ letter is sent so we know or can explain and so we understand what is required exactly as with no counter service, we are desperately aware of further rejection, cost and timeline as these still have to be submitted to Dom Rep embassy.

    Thanks for your time

  18. Great article Mark. Thank you for enlightening the legalisation process and the problems one can face in the paperwork. I will recommend this article to my friends who would be in need of this service while working overseas.

  19. Hello Mark,
    Thanks for the article.
    I came across it while looking for an Apostile service.
    I have a UK divorce from an Italian and it has to be sent to the Anagrafe in Rome.
    But firstly it needs to have an apostile.
    I found a service that will do it for 70 pounds, but then I came across the .gov website that says I can get the document ‘legalized’ by posting it into a government department and they’ll issue one and post it back (can’t remember the name of the dept now).
    Is this legalization the same as the apostile?
    It’s a bit confusing.
    Any advice is greatly appreciated.

    1. Hi Toni
      Yes, they are the same – legalisation is the process which issues a certificate called an ‘apostille’

    1. Sianda, the delivery times vary depending on the country the documents are being returned to.

      If it is a delivery to a UK address, then we’ll deliver the next working day after your application is completed. If your documents are being sent outside of the UK it can vary, but is usually about 1 week.

  20. I have sent my marriage certificate to FCO for legalisation. The marriage certificate was certified by UK solicitor but FCO have now emailed me to say that the process could take 20 working days as the solicitor who verified my marriage certificate is not on there database and they need to confirm solicitor’s signatures. It is now over a week since I received this message from FCO. I have been in contracted with the solicitor to get an update on whether she has received anything from but FCO haven’t sent anything yet. My question is does FCO gain verification of signatures by contacting the solicitor directly or do they contact the Law Society to get signatures verified?

    1. Imran, the answer is a bit of both. We confirm the signature with the solicitor, or their firm, directly but also make some checks with the Law Society. I’m pleased to say we’re usually able to resolve any signature issues within 2 weeks, but it is proving to be more challenging at the moment.

      If for any reason you’re still having problems do please contact our Customer Services Team directly by emailing LegalisationEnquiries@FCO.gov.uk and one of the team will look into this for you.

  21. Charlotte, I’m sorry if any part of our website is unclear, hopefully our modernised service will make things easier. Until that’s ready, I’ll try to clear-up any misunderstandings.

    Our office can legalise either the original degree certificate, or a certified copy, however just as with Barbara (above) the key is to understand what the country you’re going to wants. Every country expects a slightly different combination of documents, which can (and do) change without us knowing. So you need to contact the Chinese authorities and ask them directly – What do they want; A certified copy, the original, or (as in in some cases) will they accept either one?

    If it is the certified copy you need, you don’t also need to send us your original document as well. If it is the original document you need, you will need to get the original certified before we can legalise it. With either original or copy, we can accept a certification from the British Consul. It is if a document is certified by the British Council, it must be on the original only.

    I hope this is helpful, but if for any reason you have more questions do please get in touch using the contact details on our website. My team I would be happy to help further.

  22. I’m having the same issue for a Chinese Z Visa. The question I have is whether I am supposed to send the original degree or a certified copy for legalisation? If it is the original degree, does this have to be certified/notarised i.e. signed and stamped on the original document for legalisation? I was always under the impression original documents are left untouched, and it is therefore a certified copy which must be sent for legalisation. The info on the FCO website really doesn’t make this clear. So, if it is the certified copy that is to be legalised, do I have to also send the original too (untouched)??
    To add to the complications, I am in Vietnam, and have had a copy certified at the consulate in Ho Chi Minh City by the British Consul here, but again the FCO website appears to be contradictory as to whether this is acceptable or not. Any assistance would be received gratefully!

  23. yes all of the above, my daughter is going to south Africa on Saturday for two weeks, 5 days after she returns she is taking up a post in Dubai. she had heard nothing from her new employer so thought she would email them yesterday to make sure they had all the necessary documents for her permit and visa, only to be asked for her attested certificates, I sent my certificates (but they are not attested) Whats that. hence me just being amused by the above, cats are indeed in storage along with her worldly goods at mums for two years. Now after three months of getting her house in order to rent out we have to panic to try and get these degree certificates legitimized. They didnt mention her birth certificate is this to be done also?

    1. Barbara, you’ve expertly (if possibly unintentionally) hit the nail on the head; there are so many different words that are being used to describe legalisation work. The challenge we face is that different countries call the process different things; certification, legalisation, apostillisation, verification, all of which are really confusing for the customer. The vital thing is to get the UAE authorities to confirm exactly what they want (as many countries have different – and changing – requirements). At a guess I think they’d want her education certificates legalised; to do that they’d need to first be certified by a UK Solicitor or Notary, then sent to us to legalise (we do that by adding a small certificate – the apostille – to the document), before being submitted to the UAE Embassy in London. It’s bureaucratic, but unfortunately a requirement of many countries before they’re willing to accept ‘foreign’ documents.

      1. Is there still no streamlined process in place for this? The procedure of sending original documents from abroad to a UK based solicitor for a certified copy to be made, then sending them for the Apostille, then for translation and then to the Consulate along with other original documents (and paying hefty fees and courier costs at each stage) really doesn’t feel reasonable in 2017… Is there no agreement in place between a UK solicitor and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office? Surely, it would be more efficient if the first two stages in this procedure could be combined into one? (Unfortunately my university in Italy – where I’m doing a PhD – does not accept the NARIC/CIMEA procedure, which certainly is much less bureaucratic and straightforward). Thanks in advance – still hoping to find an alternative procedure that would leave me some time to spend on my PhD…

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