Know how historic shifts in international borders may affect
your search. It is important to recognize that many national
borders, particularly in Europe, have changed over the years.
Germany, for instance, was just a region of kingdoms and principalities
prior to unification in 1870. From 1870 to 1949, the borders of
the country changed several times as the result of wars. Historically,
German lands (and those with large German minorities) were incorporated
into Czechoslovakia, Denmark, France, Lithuania, Poland, and the
former Soviet Union. After the war, Germany was divided into two
distinct countries for more than 40 years. Similar circumstances
prevailed in parts of the Americas, Africa, Asia, the Middle East,
and Oceania, where international conflict and colonial rule by
European and other powers had dramatic effects on populations
and governments. These events, mirrored in various ways throughout
the world, mean that your ancestors and their home towns may have
come under numerous different jurisdictions over the centuries.
Always keep in mind that you may have to check for records in
more than one country before locating those that you need. It
might be helpful to learn a little about the history of your ancestors'
countries before leaping into your research.
Prepare yourself for any linguistic difficulties you
may encounter. While in most cases the records are standard,
and you will only need to know a few key words such as birth,
death, and marriage, there are other cases where you will
need more language skills. In many cases, even if you know
the modern language of the home country, you won't speak
the language of your ancestors. For instance, in Great Britain,
you may encounter documents in an old dialect of English
or perhaps even in Welsh. Similarly, in Korea, you may come
across writings in the dialect of Chinese used prior to
the introduction of the Korean writing system. In these
cases, you may wish to purchase a dictionary or other reference
to aid your translation. You could also copy the documents
by machine or hand in order to consult an expert in the
language at some later point.
you only need to know a few key words in order
make sense out of a foreign record.
Navigate carefully through the population and bureaucracy.
Government officials in almost all countries are busy, and assisting
you with your genealogical research may not be at the top of their
list. For the most part, you will find that people will be very
willing to help you in your search. However, you will fare best
if you remember that you are a guest in their country (or the
letter you send is your ambassador). Always be polite and patient,
exploring all avenues for finding the information you seek.
Be aware of what's available. If you do go overseas,
be aware of the different types of records that are available
in foreign countries. In most countries, you can find vital records,
church records, census or tax lists, and land records. You may
not find all of these records for any one locality, but usually
there will be some records such as these that will help you get
started in tracking your foreign ancestors.
Check the validity of your documents. As a final reminder,
be sure to check the validity of the documents you discover. Do
the dates and places cited in the documents agree with each other?
Don't be afraid to challenge documents, particularly those from
old sources this is crucial to piecing together an accurate
picture of your ancestry.
for Learning More
Even though foreign research may seem overwhelming, you will
find that there is lots of information available to help you along
the way. Here are just a few of the offerings here at Genealogy.com:
- Tracing Immigrant Origins
This free, self-paced, online course by Genealogy Research Associates
takes you step-by-step through the process of locating your
overseas ancestors. Topics include which records to use in the
U.S. and overseas, as well as how research techniques change,
depending on the time frame of your search.
- But I Don't Speak the
It's possible to find your overseas ancestors, even when you
don't understand the language of their records. Learn the tricks
for exploring these records like a pro.
- Coming to America
Did your ancestors come through Ellis Island? What was it like
for them? Take a peek into the world of the "island of hope,
island of tears."
- European Migration &
Your Family Origins
Your ancestors said they were German or Italian, but maybe they
didn't come directly from those countries. When the records
suddenly dry up, explore the possibility of migration within
- Immigrant Ancestors in
Published Passenger Lists
A quick inventory of books that might help you locate your immigrant
ancestors in passenger lists.
- Irish and English Research
A special selection of ideas and tips for those of you who have
family roots in England and Ireland.
- Locating Ship Passenger
How-tos for using the ship passenger list resources available
through the National Archives and Family History Library.
- Notes on Naturalization
Once your ancestors arrived in the U.S., did they become citizens?
The information in these records can be invaluable. Discover
how to find it!
Once you determine a possible location for records about your
foreign ancestors, and you also know that those records aren't
readily accessible to you here in the U.S., you will want to write
letters to overseas offices. Form letters
in English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish may give you
a helping hand. Even if you need a letter written in a different
language, don't forget to take a look at our letter-writing
So the Hunt Continues...
Best of luck with your journey. Wherever it may take you, you're
sure to learn a lot along the way.