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What is a Birth Certificate?

By Alan Rankin
Updated May 16, 2024
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A birth certificate is an official document denoting an individual’s date and location of birth and other information relating to identity. It is used to prove a person’s eligibility for legal rights such as citizenship. Most nations require the issuance of a birth certificate for this reason, although in practice many people go undocumented due to war or other infrastructure issues. Many governments allow people to request copies of their birth certificates, which are required to acquire other legal documents, such as passports.

Records of birth have been required for hundreds of years, particularly by nations with highly established hierarchies. The ancient empires of Egypt, Greece, and Rome required such records for tax and military conscription purposes. Starting in the 1500s, England documented such information in church records. In later centuries, England developed a birth certification system that provided the model for other nations around the world.

In most nations, the health professional who aids a birth is required by law to register a birth with the appropriate government agency. This agency will retain the record of birth indefinitely. A birth certificate is not this official record; it is proof that the government legally affirms, or certifies, the information in the birth record. In nations such as the U.S., the birth certificate must be officially notarized by a government official to constitute such legal proof.

Information contained in a birth certificate can include the date and location of birth, the names of the parents, and the identity of the health professional present. In many nations, this information is essential for establishing legal rights; for example, any child born in the United States is eligible for U.S. citizenship, regardless of the parents’ nationalities. The birth certificate also establishes date of birth, which can determine a person’s eligibility for driving, military service, and voting or marriage rights.

In many countries, a person can request a copy of a birth certificate, which is required to establish identity. In the United States and some other nations, birth records are sealed if a child is adopted; the adopted person can instead request an adoption certificate that includes most required legal information, but not the identity of the birth parents. In other nations such as Senegal, where birth information may have been lost or never recorded, individuals can register such information retroactively. Despite this, millions of children are unregistered every year because of war, immigration, or a lack of official governing bodies.

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