Documents are often only recognized by the authorities of another state if their authenticity and evidentiary value has been determined by a special procedure. But even formally authentic foreign documents have on occasion been discovered to contain inaccurate information. It must therefore be confirmed in the process of international recognition that documents that are to be used abroad were both issued from the responsible agency and are factually correct.
A range of internationally accepted rules of procedure have been developed for this purpose. These will be listed below.
These procedures apply to public documents, i.e. civil status documents, judicial and notarial documents, documents and certificates from administrative authorities. They do not apply to privately executed documents. Private documents include wills written by the testator by hand, form-free contracts of sale or powers of attorney. However, if a document concerning a private legal matter is authenticated by a notary or an official authority, it becomes a public document.
The term "legalization" must be understood in this context: legalization is the confirmation of the authenticity of a foreign public document by a consular officer of the state in which the document is to be used.
Legalization is not required for documents from/for many countries with which treaties have been concluded abolishing the requirement or replacing it with the "Hague apostille".
The "Hague apostille" is – just like legalization – the confirmation of the authenticity of a public document. But, unlike legalization, it is conferred by a designated authority of the state which issued the document. It is no longer necessary to contact the consular officers of the state in which the document is to be used.
The above-mentioned procedures are designed solely to confirm the authenticity and, if applicable, the accuracy of public documents. Whether a foreign public document complies with domestic requirements of form is a separate question.
If, for example, German property law stipulates that certain declarations must be certified by a notary, as a rule this means a notary or consular officer in Germany. The equivalence of notarial acts performed abroad has to date only been accepted under certain narrowly defined conditions. It is thus necessary to review, in each individual case, whether a foreign attestation is able to meet German requirements of form. The mutual recognition of notarial attestations and certifications at international level has however only been regulated in a few fields (e.g. in social insurance agreements).
The recognition of school and university certificates likewise does not depend solely on proof of their authenticity. The question of equivalence also arises, this time with respect to the courses of study certified. Information on the equivalence of foreign school and university certificates can be obtained from the Central Office for Foreign Education of the Secretariat of the Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs of the Länder in the Federal Republic of Germany (Zentralstelle für ausländisches Bildungswesen des Sekretariats der Ständigen Konferenz der Kultusminister der Länder in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Lennéstrasse 6, 53113 Bonn).
Procuring civil status documents from abroad
Foreign civil status documents are often requested by German authorities or courts to prove changes in personal status that have occurred abroad (births, marriages, deaths).
Should any difficulties, linguistic or otherwise, arise in procuring such documents from another country which make direct contact with the issuing authority in the foreign country impossible, the document can be acquired via the German mission responsible for that district. This procedure is open to German nationals only. The applicant must moreover prove that he/she has a legitimate interest in obtaining the document and must be able to provide detailed information (the full names of those involved, place, date, and if possible the registry number of the civil status issue in question).
Special procedures for procuring documents have been agreed with all the states of Central and Eastern Europe. Standardized forms were drawn up in the process, which are available from the Federal Foreign Office (Division 505) or from German missions in the relevant states. Experience however shows that you must be prepared for long waiting times (six months or more is not uncommon), due to the number of applications made to the civil status registries of the host countries. The German missions have no power to accelerate the processing time.
If normal postal channels do not appear reliable enough for communicating with the German mission abroad, a private international courier service should be used instead. The diplomatic bag between the Foreign Office and its missions abroad is solely for the purpose of transporting official correspondence pursuant to the Vienna Conventions on Diplomatic and Consular Relations, and therefore cannot be used by private individuals.
A fee is payable for procuring civil status documents. The fee (currently EUR 15 to EUR 100) and any costs incurred (e.g. fees charged by local authorities) are to be paid by the applicant.