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An apostille is an authentication of an official document that allows it to be used in a different country, provided both countries have signed the Hague convention on apostilles (technically, the Hague Convention Abolishing the Requirement for Legalisation for Foreign Public Documents).
Any document that will be submitted to Italy during the jure sanguinis application process that comes from a Hague convention signatory will generally need an apostille. What is actually being authenticated by the apostille is the signature of the official who signed the underlying document.
The apostille is a separate piece of paper that is added to the document, usually with staples. On this piece of paper is written the country for which the document will be used (Italy) and the name of the person whose signature is being verified. The signatures of local officials are kept on file at the department that issues the apostille.
In the US, each state issues its own apostilles for documents from that state, the apostilles being issued by the Secretary of State's office for that state. The US Department of State issues apostilles for federal documents. At the state level, the signatures of only some public officials, such as county clerks, the state registrar, or Superior Court judges, and public notaries are kept on file by the Secretary of State, so a document issued by a municipality would need to first be certified by a county clerk or state registrar (depending on the state) before it could then be apostilled.
Look at this topic for more detailed information about apostilles and how to obtain them in the US: requesting-apostilles-for-u-s-documents-t267.html
Apostilles are required for vital records issued by Hague convention countries (such as the US, but not Canada), except for some documents from select European countries that have an agreement with Italy obviating apostilles. Exactly which submitted documents will require an apostille varies from consulate to consulate, but as a rule of thumb birth, marriage, and death certificates for anyone in your line with require them and sometimes such documents for people not in your line as well. Court records, including official name changes, divorce decrees, certificates of no appeal for divorces, and declaratory judgments, all usually require apostilles. A church-issued marriage or baptismal certificate, when used as a substitute for a missing government-issued vital record, sometimes requires an apostille, and if this is the case, one would first have the document notarized, by the diocese or a public notary, and then have that notary's signature authenticated with an apostille. Sometimes a translator's certification of accuracy is required to be apostilled, especially if it is for a translation of a court record (the NY consulate is known to ask for this). (Note that for a single divorce often 2 or more documents will have to be apostilled - the divorce decree or judgment and the certificate of no appeal, and sometimes the translator's certification as well.) Naturalization-related documents from the US are not required to be apostilled if they are being submitted to a consulate in the US, but consulates in other countries, as well as comuni in Italy, may ask for them for US-issued documents and conversely consulates in the US require apostilles on naturalization documents from outside the US. If necessary, just about any document can be apostilled by having it notarized first, which is sometimes necessary when using older copies of documents that were issued long ago. However, no records letters and the like don't require apostilles.
For a compilation of what was and was not required to be apostilled at various consulates, look at this topic:
Apostilles can be obtained for documents by walking them into the proper office, without an appointment, and getting them back the same day or by mailing them to the proper office and having them mailed back, generally in a few weeks. The costs is typically several dollars per document. The topic linked to above as well as the following one (particular to NY State) have more information on how and where to obtain them:
Be careful not to remove the staples that attach an apostille to the underlying document. If you have a document amended, you should obtain a new apostille for it, so it is probably a good idea to make sure all corrections are completed before obtaining apostilles. When a document has to be authenticated by a consulate, the apostille will have to be done beforehand, since one of the things they will be verifying is the apostille.
Since an apostille is an authentication of a signature, some offices will not apostille documents more than a few years old, or those signed by someone no longer in office. Exactly where the cut-off is varies by state or country, but if you have a very old copy of a document, it is usually necessary to order a new one. Also keep in mind that since it is the county clerk's signature that in most cases (in the US) is being authenticated, even an older document that was issued locally could theoretically be certified now by a county clerk and then apostilled with no difficulty.
If a country, such as Canada, Brazil, or most African countries, does not issue apostilles, there still may be some sort of governmental legalization process required for a document in order for it to be used in another country. The topic linked to above on documents that require apostille also discusses these sort of legalizations when they have arisen. In general, when using a document from a foreign country (other than Italy of course) for your application, ask the consulate in the issuing country, which will have to authenticate the document, what sort of legalization will be required from that country's government.
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I'm Natalia Bertelli, an English/Spanish to Italian legal translator. Since 2008 I have been working on contracts, judicial deeds, certificates, corporate translations for foreign clients who want to do business in Italy, get a dual citizenship or simply settle in my beautiful country.