Legalization or Apostille?


Moving to another country is not easy. You have to worry about packing your bags, getting airplane tickets, looking for a new home, a new job, perhaps learning a new language (or not). And definitively, you will need to get legal residency unless you are planning to be a mojado, which is obviously not recommended.

In order to obtain legal residence in Costa Rica, you are required to bring a set of papers with you, such as a birth certificate, police records. Additional documents will be required depending on the residency category and your situation. For instance, you may be required to produce divorce decrees, college diplomas, letters from your bank, so on and so forth.

The Immigration Department, will require those documents to be authenticated. What this means is that they need those documents to be legitimate and authentic.

Let me explain further. Documents issued in a certain country are only valid in that country. For instance, documents issued in Canada are only valid for use in Canada, documents issued in the US are only valid for use in the US, documents issued in France are only valid in France, son on and so forth. Thus, if you have a birth certificate from Canada and you would like to use it (for whatever legal procedure) in Costa Rica, you will need to authenticate the document for use in Costa Rica.

Then the question: do you obtain a legalization or an apostille?

The purpose of both the legalization and the apostille is to authenticate the document for use in another country. The difference is that the legalization is a long process to authenticate the document, while the apostille is a simple process.

You do not get to choose which method to use as it has been determined by each country. For instance, documents from Canada will need to go through the legalization process, while documents from the US can be apostilled. Why the difference? Well, traditionally all documents required to go through the legalization process, but in 1961 some countries decided that it was time to make things easier. Let’s review.


As noted, traditionally all countries required the legalization process in order to validate the use of documents from another country.

In October 5th 1961, a group of countries assembled in the Hague in the Netherlands (or Holland if you may). The purpose of the convention was to simplify the process to authenticate documents for use in other countries. This event is called The Hague Convention of the Apostille.

The Hague convention for the apostille is not applicable to all countries, only to countries who signed the treaty. All other countries still need to use the legalization method, such as Canada. Please  click here to see the list of countries members of the Apostille Convention.

Costa Rica previously used the legalization process. But in March 2012, the apostille was put into effect. So, some people believe that it is still required to legalize foreign documents. Well, it is, but only if your documents come from countries not members of the convention. For example, the US is a member of the treaty, therefore, documents from the US do not require a legalization. Instead, documents from the US to be used in Costa Rica (or any other member of the apostille convention) will only need to be apostilled.

Who issues the apostille?

In the case of documents from the US, the apostille is issued by Secretary of State where the document was issued. Documents issued in California will be apostilled by the Secretary of State of California; documents issued by New York will be apostilled by the Secretary of State of New York; documents issued by the federal government such as a background check from the FBI will be apostilled by the Secretary of State of the United States.

Each state may have different rules when it comes to issuing the apostille for a given document. For instance, if you have a birth certificate from Texas, you can just send it to the Secretary of State of Texas to obtain the apostille, but if your birth certificate is from New York, the birth certificate will first need to be certified in order to obtain the apostille.

Expiration Date of Documents

For the purposes of immigration to Costa Rica, foreign documents will only have a validity of six months. Previously, the Immigration Department was allowing certain documents, such as the birth certificate and divorce decrees to be more than six months old, while other documents needed to be issued within six months prior to filing. Section 10 of the Immigration Regulations Decree Nº 37112-G, establishes the six-month rule, but as noted, they allowed documents to be older than six months and then stopped for some reason. Currently, all documents should be issued within six months prior to filing to be valid for immigration purposes.

For the naturalization process to obtain citizenship in Costa Rica, the birth certificate does not expire, but the background check is only valid for three months.

Please note that the clock for the expiration date starts to click on the date the original document was issued, and not on the date the apostille or legalization was issued.

Some people ask: how come that my birth certificate is expired if I am still around? Well, remember that this is Costa Rica and common sense is a super power here.

I hope for this information to be helpful. However, Please note that this information is for documents to used in Costa Rica only, and the examples provided here are for documents from the US and Canada only. Documents from other countries may require further attention.

Author: Rafael Valverde

Attorney and Entrepreneur with more than 15 years experience in: immigration law in the US and Latin American countries including Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Brazil, Costa Rica and Panama. In addition, Rafael has extensive experience in Business Law, Estate Planning, and Real Estate. Lastly, Rafael has developed experience in people management, talent development and business development.