What Is a Notary?

Definition & Examples of Notaries

A woman in business attire is showing another woman where to sign a document.

Liudmyla Supynska / Getty Images 


A notary is an official appointed by their state to serve as an impartial witness to those signing important documents.

Learn more about notaries and how to become one.

What Is a Notary?

A notary manages and witnesses signatures on official documents. They verify the identity of the individuals signing the documents and check to make sure they're signing without any pressure or intimidation. They are impartial and their work helps to prevent fraud.

How a Notary Works

While the work of a notary might seem simple, they actually perform a range of duties, including:

  • Witnessing legally binding signatures on documents
  • Affirming the state of mind of all signees
  • Identifying fraud or coercion
  • Completing the notarial certificate on all documents
  • Verifying the identification of contract participants
  • Being present when documents are signed, which may include traveling
  • Administering oaths
  • Handling affidavits, contracts, loan documents, marriage certificates, and other legal documents
  • Bearing witness to items within a safe deposit box or the equivalent
  • Maintaining a notary journal
  • Scheduling related appointments

The demand for notary services depends on the availability of notaries in a given area. In high-demand areas, self-employed notaries do quite well. They can work from their home or vehicle (i.e., mobile notaries) as their own boss. However, because many banks and stores now supply notary services, demand in some areas is low.

Work Environment

Notaries who work primarily in a traditional office role have the same work environment as any other office worker. Self-employed notaries (full-time or part-time) have more opportunities to be mobile. They may provide notary services in their own office or travel to customers for scheduled signings. Mobile notaries are allowed to charge for mileage.

Notaries may also work in another profession where notary skills are useful. Real estate agencies, banks and other financial institutions, and law offices all regularly use notaries to witness documents.

Work Schedule

The schedule of a notary varies depending on whether they're self-employed or working at a company where notarizing is one of many duties. If they're self-employed, they may have a flexible schedule. If they're employed by someone else, they may keep traditional business hours. Mobile notaries are often required to work odd hours, including evenings and weekends, to accommodate their clients.

Requirements for a Notary

Qualifying as a notary can be as simple as passing a background check. However, in some states, you will need to pass an exam to become a notary. Because every state varies in its requirements for notaries, you must check with your state of residence to see what is required.

All states require that notaries be a legal resident of that state, at least 18 years old, and without a criminal record.

There is no official certification for notaries. Most states require you to complete an application and pay a fee. If a notary wishes to qualify for extended duties as a notary signing agent, there may be additional fees and background checks to obtain certification. Notary signing agents are specially trained to notarize loan documents, which can be lengthy and confusing.

Some states also require licensing, which involves passing a state-administered exam. Some states also require notary training, which can often be completed online. Visit a local community college’s website or the National Notary Association website for more information.

You may also need to get a surety bond to work as a notary. A surety bond is a contract purchased from a surety company that guarantees you'll meet your obligations as a notary.

Notary Skills

Many of the skills required of notaries are similar to those of legal secretaries, bankers, and loan officers. Notaries must be comfortable with procedures, state law, paperwork, and the red tape associated with bureaucracy and government processes. Notaries should have the following skills:

  • Compliance: It's the notary’s responsibility to uphold the integrity of the signature process and inform the parties involved of state laws pertaining to the signing of the document.
  • Record-keeping: Notaries must keep journals. By recording names, times, locations, and more, all signing parties can be held accountable to their agreement. Failure to record relevant details may render signatures null and void.
  • Familiarity with legal documents: Evidentiary documents, loan documents, passports, affidavits, and more fall into a notary’s realm of responsibility. While it's not necessary to know how to compose or dissect all parts of legal documents, they must be able to identify what people are signing and what notary responsibilities apply to a given situation.
  • Flexibility: While not every notary has to travel, many notaries are mobile for the sake of their customers. Often, formal agreements must be signed in a quick time frame and at inconvenient times and places. You need to be prepared to work with a customer’s schedule and location while bringing all the necessary tools required of a notary.

Key Takeaways

  • A notary is an official who serves as an impartial witness to those signing documents. 
  • They perform a range of duties, including witnessing signatures, identifying fraud, and administering oaths. 
  • Some notaries are self-employed while others are employed in professions where notary skills are useful. 
  • To become a notary, you may need to pass an exam and pay an application fee. The exact requirements vary by state. 
  • Notaries must be compliant, familiar with legal documents, and flexible.