How Birth Certificates Work

Everything new parents need to know about birth certificates.

Getting that newborn a birth certificate is probably the last thing on a parent’s mind — but it’s important. The document will trail your child throughout their life because, according to the U.S. government, it “is the most important document you’ll need to prove your legal identity and age.”  You’ll need your birth certificate to apply for a passport or government benefits, enroll in school, join the military, or claim a pension or insurance benefits — just to name a few things. Currently, the U.S. Standard Certificate of Live Birth looks like an application, with boxes asking for specific pieces of information that clocks in at two pages and 58 questions long. The information requested on a birth certificate includes full name, the time and date of birth, the place of birth, and information about the parents of the child. Additionally, you’ll need to provide information regarding ethnicity and demographics.

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How To Get A Birth Certificate

So how do you get a birth certificate? If you have a birth at a hospital, they will provide the forms before you are discharged to go home — and usually a nurse or a midwife will help you fill everything out. If you give birth at home or in a birthing center, a midwife there will also have the forms on hand.

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While filling out the paperwork for your child’s birth certificate, both parents will have to provide information such as Social Security numbers, full name, maiden name, and supply proof of identification — as well as include a mailing address (so bring your driver’s license or passport to the hospital with you!). At this time, you’ll pay for your birth certificate, which is usually between $15 and $30.

Don’t worry if you haven’t quite settled on a name by the time of birth. While it is required for you to choose the child’s name to fill out on the certificate, the child’s last name does not have to be the same as that of either the mother nor the father. Plus, the entire name can be changed within the first six months of filing with no questions asked. This is especially helpful if you’re indecisive about double-barrel last names or the name of your child in general.

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How Long Does It Take To Get a Birth Certificate?

Once the paperwork is filled out and sent off, you can expect to get the birth certificate in the mail a few weeks later. But exactly what you will get in the mail is hard to determine — and largely hinges on where you live. Since there is one standard birth certificate application form for the entire U.S. but no standard birth certificate document, the National Center for Health Statistics estimates that there are 14,000 different birth certificate documents circulating in the United States. This can be confusing.

Birth certificates and the rules surrounding them vary from state to state since each state has its own vital records office. Even though the United States has a standardized birth certificate application, there is no is no national birth registry like there is in other countries, such as the United Kingdom. Because of this, each state is responsible to report annual vital statistics data to the federal government — which is compiled to create census data. The only instance in which birth info is collected by the federal government is if a child is born to two parents who are U.S. citizens overseas. Other than that, it’s up to state vital records offices to keep track of births and to work with parents to issue birth certificates. You can find out the cost, address, and instructions for obtaining a birth certificate in your state on the National Center for Health Statistics website if you don’t file for a birth certificate in the hospital.

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How To Make Changes In A Birth Certificate

Figuring out how to initially apply for a birth certificate is convoluted enough, but what if you want to make changes down the line? The state, county, or municipality where your child’s birth certificate was issued has the ability to make changes per requests, but each vital records office has its own protocols to make these changes possible. Therefore, the laws about what can be changed on a birth certificate — and for what reasons — vary widely. If a birth certificate contains an error, a phone call to your state vital records office to request a change could turn out to be a simple correction.

Changes to names and gender can be trickier. Currently, every state has laws in place that allow for corrections and name changes, but not every state has a law allowing for a change of gender to be issued on a birth certificate. However, things change rapidly, and there’s no guaranteeing what can and can’t be done to change a birth certificate. So call your issuing vital records office and ask questions about what’s possible.

Luckily, requesting copies of birth certificates is much easier than requesting changes. You can make requests electronically — or visit USA.gov to find your local issuing office and get a replacement sent to you in the mail. Easy, right?

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