Why you need it: To enroll in schools or the military; to obtain a passport; to get a driver’s license or a marriage license if you don’t have a passport; to apply for government and private benefits (such as insurance and retirement benefits). You also need your child’s birth certificate as proof of age to sign him or her up for elementary school or Little League.
Where to get a new one: Don’t call the hospital where the birth took place. Instead, “start with the vital statistics office in the birth state,” says Sandra Smith of the National Center for Health Statistics. Go to cdc.gov, a website run by the NCHS, to get the phone number and address of your state’s office. Or check the government pages of the phone book.
What you need to get it: As many vital statistics―name, gender, parents’ names, place of birth, and birth date―as possible. Some states also require a photo ID. Replacement fees range from $5 to $30.
How long it takes: In-person requests could yield the certificate within minutes. By mail you can expect to wait about four weeks, or two weeks if you pay an additional fee for expedited service. Some states offer overnight service, too. There may be longer waits in late summer, when parents are requesting birth certificates for children starting school.
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How to Get a New Social Security Card
Why you need it: To apply for a job or a driver’s license; to register for college classes; possibly to apply for insurance or Medicaid. “Usually your Social Security number alone will suffice these days,” says Jane Zanca, a senior public-affairs specialist at the Social Security Administration, but some places may still want to see the original card as assurance that the number is legitimate.
Where to get a new one: At your local Social Security office. (Click on socialsecurity.gov to find locations; there are about 1,300 offices around the nation.) You can also download the application form from the site. While you can mail in your request and supporting documents, Zanca warns against it, citing concerns about stolen mail and identity theft.
What you need to get it: A completed one-page application, as well as one original identifying document, such as your driver’s license, passport, or marriage or divorce record. If you were born outside the United States, you may need to show proof of citizenship or lawful alien status. Photocopies are not accepted. There is no charge for replacement cards.
How long it takes: If you go to your local Social Security office in person, it could take as little as five minutes to process your request. Your card will be mailed to you within two weeks. If you can’t wait for the replacement, the Social Security Administration can give you a printout on its letterhead that verifies your number, says Zanca.
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How to Replace Your Passport
Why you need it: To travel internationally; for identification purposes in place of a driver’s license or a nondriver’s photo ID.
Where to get a new one: If your passport has been lost or stolen, you must appear in person at a passport-processing facility to request a replacement. The U.S. Department of State’s website, travel.state.gov, has a list of locations, plus forms and instructions (or call 877-487-2778). If your passport needs to be renewed, you can do so by mail.
What you need to get it: Proof of U.S. citizenship (such as a birth certificate), proof of identity, two passport photos, and completed application forms. See the website for additional requirements for children under 14 and expedited requests. The fee for in-person renewals is $95 for a new book, or $70 for children under 16. Renewals by mail (adults only) cost $55 (plus an execution fee of $25).
How long it takes: About four to six weeks for regular service. Two weeks for expedited service, which costs an additional $60, plus delivery. Nongovernment expediting services, such as Passport Express (passportexpress.com) and Passports and Visas.com (passportsandvisas.com) are reliable and can get your replacement in one to three days, but they charge more than $199.
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How to Get Copies of Your College Diploma
Why you need it: For psychological validation; to prove to skeptical friends and relatives that you really did graduate. Particularly proud (or insecure) grads might even want two copies: one for home and one for the office.
Where to get a new one: Your school’s student-services department. No one else can give you a real copy of your diploma. Ignore websites that claim they can get one for you―their “diplomas” are just novelty items.
What you need to get it: A written, signed request, stating why you need a copy, accompanied by your vitals (most likely your signature, Social Security number, address, year of graduation, and degree), plus a check for the replacement fee, which varies by school (Arizona State University West charges $35; Harvard Business School, $115).
How long it takes: It depends. Some universities process replacement diplomas only at certain times of year―and good luck getting one in May, when schools are busy churning out diplomas for graduation ceremonies. If you avoid such peak times, your request could be processed in a day. Call your school to get an idea of its time frame.
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How to Get Copies of School Transcripts
Why you need it: To apply for graduate school or professional regulatory boards, and to take certain graduate-school admissions tests (like the LSAT). Occasionally potential employers will request an academic transcript.
Where to get a new one: Go through your college or university’s student-services department. Websites that claim to expedite the process can be unreliable or just plain fraudulent.
What you need to get it: A transcript-request form (check the school’s website, or ask for one from your student-services office) or a written request that includes your Social Security number, year of graduation, degree, and address, plus a check to cover the fee, if any. Some schools require an applicant’s actual signature, not a copy, in which case you’ll have to make the request in person or by mail.
How long it takes: Three to five business days from the time the school receives your request, provided there’s no hold on your account. If you’re in a rush, request FedEx service. But Veronica Primrose, a student-services specialist at the University of Notre Dame, warns that if the request comes at a busy time (January and May are the worst), you may have to wait longer.
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How to Get Copies of Tax Returns
Why you need it: “You’ll need these to secure a competitive rate on a loan or for any real estate transactions,” says Zenna Lim, a broker at the Barron Mortgage Group, in New York City. And your accountant will need them to prepare your taxes. “We usually ask for the tax returns for at least one year prior,” says Jackie Perlman of H&R Block in Kansas City, Missouri.
Where to get a new one: Start with your accountant or tax preparer, who usually keeps copies of your returns on file. You can also get copies of federal returns directly from the Internal Revenue Service. Visit irs.gov to download the required forms, or call 800-829-1040 to request them.
What you need to get it: Fill out and mail in IRS form 4506. The cost is $39 for each return requested.
How long it takes: It could take up to 60 days to get the returns, so plan ahead. (It’s the IRS―what did you expect?)
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How to Get a Copy of Your Car Title
Why you need it: To sell your car.
Where to get a new one: Your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles. (Go to dmv.org to find your state's website to download the form or bureau locations and hours.)
What you need to get it: A completed DMV application form and the application fee, which varies by state (Utah charges $6; Oregon, $55). You’ll also need to show ID and proof that you own the car, such as your vehicle registration or your license-plate number and VIN (vehicle identification number).
How long it takes: As little as four days, depending on the state.
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How to Get a Copy of Your Property Deed
Why you need it: “You need the deed to show evidence of ownership,” says Michael Landsman, a real estate attorney at the New York City law firm of Holm & O’Hara. This would be necessary if you’re selling or refinancing your house or property, or transferring the title for estate-planning purposes.
Where to get a new one: Check with the lawyer who handled your closing. (When your deed is recorded by the county, your copy is returned to either you or your attorney.) If your attorney doesn’t have the title, call the county clerk’s office, where deeds are usually recorded. You could also hire a title company to do the search for you. Look in the Yellow Pages under “Title Search.”
What you need to get it: The street address of the property. “If you want better service, also provide the tax map ID number,” says Jim McEvoy of the LandAmerica Financial Group, in New York City. There is no fee if you request the title yourself (there may be a small charge for copying); title companies usually charge around $100 to do a search.
How long it takes: The process takes about 10 business days in most cases, says McEvoy.
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How to Protect Important Papers
If you think you outgrew the need for lamination way back when your ID became legal, you're wrong. The protective plastic coating can keep important papers from aging.
Lamination is best for: Papers that you handle regularly or want to preserve, such as recipe cards, kids' artwork, luggage tags, newspaper clippings, frequently used work documents, auto insurance cards, prescription cards, emergency phone lists, and wallet-size photos.
Not recommended for: Important cards and papers that become worthless if altered, such as baseball cards, birth certificates, and Social Security cards.
How: Instead of investing in a bulky, often unreliable machine of your own, bring your item to an office store, such as Kinko's (kinkos.com for store locations).
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Where to Keep Important Documents
Now that you have all your vital documents, where’s the best place to keep them safe?
Safe-deposit box: Consider stashing original documents at a bank safe-deposit box (annual fees for small boxes start at about $45). Keep copies in your house if you might need to refer to them, and consider giving another set to a family member who doesn’t live with you or a trusted friend. Keep one key to the box in the house and another with a trusted friend or relative.
Fireproof safe: Another option is to purchase a fireproof safe for your home (from $37, bizchair.com). “It’s a heck of a lot more convenient than running to the bank,” says Barry Izsak, president of the National Association of Professional Organizers. “Look for a safe that can be bolted to the floor and has at least a one-hour fire rating. And if you live on a high floor, opt for one with impact protection as well.”
Accordion file: If that’s too much of an investment, Lisa Zaslow, founder of Gotham Organizers, in New York City, suggests keeping all your most important documents in a single accordion file in a file cabinet (a bright color will make it easy to spot), so you can grab everything quickly in an emergency.
Dry spaces: Consider your home’s location when you pick the right spot to store your key documents: “If you live near the coast or in any other flood-prone location,” says Zaslow, “don’t put them in the basement―think attic.”
A known location: Let someone else know where your key documents are located, in case you’re unable to access them when needed.