A birth certificate is a document that is issued when a baby is born in the United States as proof of the child’s birth and identity. The certificate contains the date and time of birth, the name of the hospital and the physician who delivered the baby, and the names and addresses of the known biological parents. Birth certificates are issued by the states rather than nationally, and each state has its own procedures for obtaining a certified copy.
What Is a Birth Certificate?
When a child is born in the United States, birth certificates are issued by state and local governments. The parents or the hospital will complete a form that includes the child’s name (if available), the date and time of the birth, the name of the hospital and the doctor who attended the delivery, and the names and addresses of the parents, if known.
The states use birth certificates to report vital statistics to the federal government. Birth certificates are also proof of citizenship and identity, and they are very important documents. While many people keep their children’s original birth certificates or even their own, sometimes, they get lost or destroyed. If you need a copy of a birth certificate, it’s available from the government.
Reasons to Obtain a Copy of a Birth Certificate
Birth certificates may be necessary to obtain certain documents, such as a driver’s license, a state-issued photo ID, a voter registration or a U.S. passport. Employers may require a birth certificate to prove citizenship and identity. Schools may require them for enrollment. Birth certificates are required to enlist in the military, and they may be required to obtain private and government benefits.
If you need a birth certificate as official proof of identity and/or citizenship, you must have a certified copy with a raised seal from the appropriate agency in the state in which you were born.
Birth Certificate Seal: Certified Copies
Certified copies of birth certificates have a raised seal and a stamp that is particular to the issuing government. Any time a birth certificate is required to prove identity, a certified copy is a must, because the raised seal shows that the record is authentic. A photocopy of a birth certificate without a raised seal will usually be deemed insufficient to establish identity for important purposes.
The state agency will charge a fee for obtaining a certified copy of a birth record. An eligible person may order the records by providing the identification and paying the fee. Some states have records that are available to order online; other states require an in-person order from the agency office during business hours.
Finding the Appropriate State Agency
Birth certificates are filed with and kept by the states, not by the federal government. Each state will have a department responsible for keeping vital records, which are records of births, deaths, marriages and divorces. In New York state, for example, these records are maintained by the New York Department of Health (although births in New York City are filed with a separate agency). In Michigan, they’re kept by the Department of Health and Human Services.
Only eligible persons may obtain birth records. In most cases, if you aren’t the person on the birth certificate or one of the parents on the birth certificate, you have no access to these records without a court order.
Eligibility for Obtaining Birth Records
Each state has its own requirements for obtaining a birth certificate. The eligibility requirements protect the privacy of the “child” on the birth certificate. In all states, the person named as the “child” is eligible to obtain a copy, as is any parent named on the birth certificate. The state’s website usually lists eligibility requirements and procedures.
As a sample, New York, Michigan and Pennsylvania have some requirements that are similar and some that are dissimilar. Pennsylvania allows grandparents to obtain copies, while in New York, the child’s grandparents would need a court order, because anyone who is not the child or a named parent needs a court order.
Examples of State Requirements: New York State
In New York state, a birth certificate may be obtained only by the “child” on the birth certificate or one of the named parents on the birth certificate. Anyone else needs a court order. The requesting party will need a driver’s license, a state-issued photo ID, a passport or a military ID. If these aren’t available, she’ll need either a utility bill or a phone bill and a recent letter from a government agency (within the last six months) showing her name and address.
The New York Department of Health does not keep records for New York City. They are kept by the New York City Health Department and must be requested directly from them.
Examples of State Requirements: Michigan
In Michigan, if a birth record is more than 100 years old, anyone can obtain a copy. If less than 100 years old, the certificate may be obtained by the “child” on the record and any parent named on the record, upon proof of identity. The following may also obtain copies by providing proof of their status and paying the fees:
- The legal guardian of the “child” on the record.
- A legally licensed representative of the “child” on the record.
- An heir of the “child” on the record if the “child” is deceased.
- A court, by order.
Michigan will also accept a driver’s license, state-issued photo ID or passport. Military IDs, however, are only acceptable if they also have a photo and a signature. If these are not available or are expired, there are lists of other items that can be used in combinations of two or more items, such as employee IDs, inmate IDs, pay stubs and W-2 forms, voter registration cards, and signed Social Security cards.
Examples of State Requirements: Pennsylvania
In Pennsylvania, birth certificates for individuals born after 1906 may be obtained by the “child,” an immediate family member of the “child,” a parent or legal guardian of the “child,” or an attorney or legal representative of the “child.” Any government-issued photo ID with an address is acceptable. If not available, the state maintains a list of documents that contain names and addresses that may qualify, such as utility bills, bank statements, pay stubs and vehicle registration.
Birth Certificates for Adopted Children
Adopted children born in the United States can access their birth certificates through the usual process. If a child was adopted from another country, he will not have a U.S. birth certificate and will need to contact the embassy or consulate within the U.S. for the country in which he was born. He may need to obtain a copy translated into English to use the certificate as proof of identity.
Read More: How to Read a Birth Certificate
Birth Certificates for American Children Born Overseas
If U.S. citizens are overseas when they give birth to a child, that child is still a U.S. citizen. However, these children will not have a U.S. birth certificate. In these cases, the parents would need to report the birth to the U.S. embassy or consulate in the country of the birth. The embassy or consulate would issue a Consular Report of Birth Abroad, which is the equivalent of a birth certificate.
If the birth was not reported to the embassy or consulate, the child will need to contact the hospital in which she was born to obtain proof of the birth and obtain a copy that’s in English to use for identification purposes.
To obtain a certified copy of a birth certificate, anyone who meets the eligibility requirements may apply at the appropriate state or county agency that maintains vital records.
- American Bar Association: Birth Certificates
- Michigan Department of Health and Human Services: Birth, Death, Marriage, and Divorce Records - Eligibility Requirements
- Michigan Department of Health and Human Services: Certified Copies
- U.S. Government: Get a Copy of Your Birth Certificate
- New York Department of Health: Birth Certificates
- Pennsylvania Department of Health: Birth Certificates
- Michigan Department of Health and Human Services: Acceptable ID
- Pennsylvania Department of Health: Application for a Birth Certificate
Rebecca K. McDowell is a creditors' rights attorney with a special focus on bankruptcy and insolvency. She has a B.A. in English from Albion College and a J.D. from Wayne State University Law School. She has written legal articles for Nolo and the Bankruptcy Site.