If you are wondering what an apostille certificate really is, it is the name for a specialised certificate that verifies ONLY the stamp and signature on official documents. This certificate is attached to an original document in order to verify the legitimacy and authenticity of the stamp and signature on the document, so that it can be accepted and used in member countries of The Hague Apostille Convention (not quite the correct name, but we’ll get there later).
Knowing your way around the legalisation of official documents is imperative for success if you want to move or travel abroad and submit approved visa and immigration applications. In most cases, you will need to have your documents apostillised or authenticated (group under the term legalisation) for official use abroad. And more often than not, this calls for the apostille process. But what exactly is an apostille and how can you obtain one?
Understanding what an apostille certificate really is
In order to obtain an apostille certificate for your South African documents, you will first need to verify that the country you intend to use the documents in, is a member country of the “Apostille Convention” (properly called the Hague Convention or Convention de La Haye du 5 Octobre 1961).
Under this Convention, member countries (contracting states) have agreed to abolish the old legalisation process and to replace it with a single formality: The issuance of an authentication certificate (i.e. the apostille) by an authority designated by SA (as the State of Origin) called the “Competent Authority”. The Convention thus facilitates the exchange and verification of public documents; an apostille will be required for all contracting states of the Hague Convention.
South Africa signed the convention agreement on August 3, 1994 and enforced it on April 30, 1995. Seeing that South Africa is a member country of the Apostille Convention, documents originating from South Africa can be apostillised and often must be apostillised in other countries for use in South Africa.
Here is a recent infographic showing all the countries that are signatories of the apostille portion of the Hague Convention (click to enlarge).
If a country is not a signatory of the Apostille Convention, then the document can still be legalised for that country by being “authenticated”, not apostillised. The authentication process is multi-tiered, but it is still performed by the same governing bodies responsible for the apostille process. An authentication certificate looks very slightly different to an apostille certificate.
Usually, it must be attested thereafter at that country’s embassy based in South Africa.
Here is an infographic showing the authentication and embassy attestation process (click to enlarge).
Where can I get documents apostilled in South Africa?
This depends on what document is required to be apostilled. Only two places generally can apostille and authenticate documents – DIRCO (Department of International Relations and Communication) and a High Court (there are 14 High Courts in South Africa).
As a general rule, documents issued by a governmental department (SAPS, DHA, SANDF, etc.) must go to South Africa’s foreign office to be apostillised. The only place in the country where this can be done is at DIRCO in Pretoria.
If, however, it is a document issued elsewhere, no legalisation can be done on the document. You can pay for a notarised copy that contains the stamp and signature of a Notary, then that document must go to the High Court where that notary is registered. If the document contains the stamp and signature of a Sworn Translator, it must go to the High Court where that Sworn Translator is registered. The same rings true for a Decree of Divorce seeing that the Magistrate is registered with a specific High Court.
It has been widely seen that people apostille their documents at a High Court through a notarised copy instead of at DIRCO, to save time, but this is incorrect and very risky. In addition, the foreign government official viewing the document will most likely reject both the document and your visa application, so don’t run the risk!
What is an apostille then actually?
What an apostille really does is ONLY verify the stamp and signature of a document, not the contents thereof. It only proves to another country’s authorities that the document was issued by the correct government body and person within that department.
Let’s suppose, for example, your unabridged birth certificate gets stamped by a Home Affairs (DHA) official called John Doe. The Department of International Relations and Communication (DIRCO) then inspects the stamp and verifies it as an authentic DHA stamp. After this, they verify the signature of John Doe on their database of Home Affairs officials’ signatures.
An apostille is an extra page that is bound/attached to your original document stating that the person issuing and/or signing the document is legitimate, as well as the stamp thereupon. The apostille page is attached by a ribbon, verifying the signature on the document and/or the stamp affixed thereto.
How long does it take for an apostille in South Africa?
Getting your documents apostillised is an easy route in theory, but not always that quick! The legalisations of official documents in South Africa (and other countries) can take more than a month due to long queues, backlogs and more.
At the time of writing, DIRCO takes around 4-6 weeks to apostille a document, whereas in 2019 it took only 1-5 days. There are huge backlogs caused by the coronavirus pandemic, loadshedding and other delay factors.
At the High Court, apostilles are often much faster, with Cape Town’s High Court often doing it on the same day while you wait in a queue. That unfortunately doesn’t mean you can skip DIRCO and use the High Court if your document requires an apostille at DIRCO.
Planning a timeline for your documentation is always recommended, in order to meet interview or application deadlines.
Why do some documents have to be notarised before being apostillised?
Some documents, like transcripts and Police Clearances/Certificates of Good Standing, cannot be apostillised, since they are not issued by a government body in South Africa. The only way to satisfy the criteria of getting them apostillised, is to have a copy of the document notarised first. An apostille can then be issued on the Notary’s stamp and signature. This can be used in cases where the country you wish to use your documents is also a member country of the “Apostille Convention”.
Not all South African documents are recognised by all other foreign countries. Therefore, the apostille process serves as an authenticity indicator. Consular notarial services are also offered for South Africans abroad that want to use their official documents outside of South Africa. If the country you wish to use your documents in is not a member of the Apostille Convention, your documents will be authenticated with a certificate of authentication (as mentioned above), also known as embassy authentications or attestations.
Legalisation (Apostille) Method
|Type of Document||Apostille Body|
|Police Clearance Certificate||Apostilled at DIRCO|
|Birth Certificate||Apostilled at DIRCO|
|Marriage Certificate||Apostilled at DIRCO|
|Death Certificate||Apostilled at DIRCO|
|Divorce Decree||Apostilled at High Court where divorce took place|
|Letter of No Impediment||Apostilled at DIRCO|
|South African University Degree Certificate||SAQA and DIRCO|
|South African Diploma Certificate||SAQA and DIRCO|
|Matric Certificate||Umalusi/SAQA and DIRCO|
|Driver's Licence Verification Letter (RTMC)||Apostilled at DIRCO|
|SANDF Military Exemption Certificate||Apostilled at DIRCO|
|TEFL Certificate||Notary and High Court|
|Foreign Degree Certificate||Notary and High Court|
|Background Check||Notary and High Court|
|Single Status Affidavit||Notary and High Court|
|Power of Attorney||Notary and High Court|
|Copy of Passport||Notary and High Court|
|Copy of Driver’s License||Notary and High Court|
|Transcripts||Notary and High Court|
|Authorisation Letter||Notary and High Court|
|Travel Consent Letter||Notary and High Court|
|Articles of Incorporation||Notary and High Court|
|Certificate of Good Standing||Notary and High Court|
|Certification of Free Sale||Notary and High Court|
|Certification of Origin||Notary and High Court|
|Corporate Power of Attorney||Notary and High Court|
|Commercial Invoice||Notary and High Court|
Can I have my South African academic qualifications apostillised?
Yes, you can. More often than not, South Africans rely on their academic qualifications to help them secure employment and/or residency visas abroad. But this can be tricky since South African educational documents are not publicly issued documents by government departments. This means that they cannot be apostillised or legalised before they are verified by a government department – usually SAQA (South African Qualifications Authority).
To repeat, for South African academic qualifications to be certified or verified, you will need to go through one of three processes. These include Umalusi (for Matric certiifcates), a division of The Department of Higher Education and Training called SAQA (as just mentioned) or notarisation by a Notary Public. These bodies certify copies of South African educational documents. Once certified, your documents can be legalised by apostille or authentication certificates from DIRCO or a high court.
Can I have my South African medical certificate apostillised?
Yes, again, you can. The medical certificate itself cannot be apostillised, but once the government/statutory body called the HPCSA (Health Professions Council of South Africa) has stamped and signed it, confirming the registration number of the doctor who issued the document, then an apostille can be done at DIRCO.
What is the validity period of an apostille?
While apostille certificates or stamps do not have expiry dates, depending on who or what authority has requested the certificate, the apostille might only be valid for a certain period. Countries such as Spain, for example, tend to hold apostilles valid for as little as three months, whereas other countries allow them for up to 12 months.
Apostilles can also be restricted to the validity of the document they are placed upon. One example of apostilles having a specific validity period is a police clearance certificate. A visa authority may request that your police clearance certificate and apostille combined are less than three or six months old. This is understandable since a certificate verifying your criminal records must be recently issued.
Another document that typically must be issued with an apostille no older than three to six months is a letter of no impediment. This certificate confirms that nothing is preventing a couple from getting married. If South Africans get married abroad or wish to get married to foreigners in South Africa, the letter of no impediment is a vital document that must form part of their documentation pack, to be presented to the foreign marriage officer in another country.
Aside from the apostille’s signature page, it is the actual date stamp on the original document that matters. Therefore, the date stamp on the apostille does not always matter as much as that of the original document, since it will certainly be a date after the document stamp’s date. Nor does the date on which you applied for the original document matter. The only critically important date is the date on which the relevant government department issued the original document.
Wrapping up on South African apostilles
Apostil.co.za can assist you with all your document apostillisation and legalisation needs. We can help you better understand these processes. Our services also extend to assistance with document packs for international travel or emigration purposes.
Get in touch with us today to learn more about our wide range of services.