Apostilles: What they are, when they prove nothing

By Korea Herald
  • Published : Jul 22, 2014 - 21:11
  • Updated : Jul 22, 2014 - 21:11
If you have dealt with Korean immigration, you have likely dealt with the apostille, which was demanded on your criminal record and degree. Or if you traded in your driver’s license an apostilled copy was required. But many people have questions about what an apostille is and why it is necessary.

It is probably easiest to understand an apostille ― French for “seal” ― if we ask what purpose it might serve. Let’s begin by talking about other kinds of seals.

Picture your home state. You can go to several different government offices to get official documents. Every nation has a government of the state, province or the nation doing the same or similar functions and so everywhere there are equivalents of the DMV, the secretary of state, the police and so forth. Each of these government bodies has an official seal they affix, to assure those who see the documents that the documents are real. If a person wants to confirm the seal is accurate, they can contact the government body.

This is fairly simple if you are a person dealing with one or two states or nations. But just for the three bodies I mentioned ― the DMV, SOS and police ― there are three seals, and each of those bodies is a state body, so those three seals are going to be different for every state, at least in the U.S., giving us 150 seals. Then there would also be federal seals for the FBI and Washington-based organizations, and we would have to multiply our total by all the seals of the hundreds of states and nations around the world. Thousands of seals. Would you like to look all of those up?


That is where the apostille comes in. The apostille is affixed by some authority in each nation, when that authority is convinced that the document is official. Then the government officials at immigration (or whomever is receiving the apostilled document) don’t have to spend thousands of hours looking up seals ― they only need to recognize one, the apostille. It saves everybody time.

This also explains why you have to get two certifications to receive an apostille ― first, the issuing government body (for example, the FBI or DMV) seals the document to mark that it is official. Then the body that issues apostilles (in the U.S., the SOS) confirms the first seal is official and adds the apostille. Again, it is more efficient for the U.S. SOS to recognize U.S. seals (which it deals with frequently) than for a foreign official to try to learn all the seals of the world.

The exception to this is when an apostille is attached to a notarized photocopy. This proves nothing. In the hopes that certain policies will be revisited we now explain why:

First, we need to ask what “local seal” is the basis for the apostille when talking about a photocopy of your driver’s license or degree. The basis is the notary’s seal that he affixed when he made a copy. A notary’s seal states that the copy is a true copy of the original, or states that he watched you sign the document. But it does not guarantee that the original is real. When the notary copied your degree did he call the university to confirm it was real? Did he call the DMV to check your license was authentic? Did he compare your documents to sample documents on file? No. It wasn’t his duty.

So the apostille confirms that the notary is a notary, and the notary confirms the photocopy is an accurate reproduction, but nobody has inquired into the authenticity of the original document. You could use a fake driver’s license, or forged degree as the original, and unless you had a particularly zealous notary, there would be no barrier to your receiving an apostille.

Of course, the DMV could also print out your driving record ― which includes an indication of whether you are licensed to drive. That could not be faked (or at least not with more ease than forging other government documents), would be sealed by the DMV, and could qualify for an apostille.

As for degrees, if you sign a release of privacy, then a third party can contact your alma mater and confirm that the degree (and transcript, if needed) matches the university’s records. I have had to sign such a waiver each time I was trusted with lecturing to students, but not when entering the country or enrolling for classes. Employers are more thorough because they have a direct financial stake, I guess.

But before these policy holes are fixed, it may be time to receive that Harvard Ph.D. in Fraudology, 10.0/4.0 GPA transcripts, a driver’s license issued by AlasCanada (I’ve always wanted to go), and get them all copied, notarized and apostilled.

By Darren Bean and Yuna Lee

Yuna Lee is a Korean attorney at Seowoo & Minyul Law Firm in Seoul. You can read her blog at If there is a legal issue you would like to be addressed, email ― Ed.

This column is not intended as legal advice. No action should be taken or avoided based on this column, no attorney-client relationship is formed by reading this column or contacting the authors, and the authors expressly disclaim any liability for the content of this column. Those with legal problems in Korea should seek advice from an attorney.