An individual's date of arrival into the United States can usually be found on any of the documents listed below. If you have the minimum information required to find one of these documents, select the name of that document. The items in the list are ordered from most to least important. If you do not have the minimum information required, read the paragraph below this list.
Make sure to check photo albums, scrapbooks, diaries, and family Bibles at home. See the topic Finding information at home for more information. Also check for local histories. See the topic Finding previous research.
Finding a date of arrival with passenger lists
Passenger lists generally give you an individual's date of arrival into the United States. However, when using passenger lists, you should be aware of their limitations:
- You may not find your ancestor on an arrival list because many lists have been lost or destroyed over the years.
- The government did not require passenger lists until 1820, so the records for pre-1820 immigrants are more sporadic, and the information on these lists varies greatly.
- Some lists may be difficult to locate. The National Archives collection mainly includes lists for Atlantic and Gulf ports in the post-1820 period, and there are large gaps in the records for most ports. Pre-1820 lists are scattered in libraries, historical societies, and other archives throughout the nation. You may need to check with several libraries and genealogical societies before you can locate the list that you need.
- Records for individuals entering through Canada and Mexico were not kept until the 20th century, so if an individual first went to one of those countries and then entered the United States, you may not find them on a list at all.
To locate your ancestor on a passenger list, you must first find his or her name in an index. There is no single index for all passenger lists, but one of the most complete indexes is Passenger and Immigration Lists Index by P. William Filby and Mary K. Meyer. There are many other indexes, some of which concentrate on a specific group of people, such as Germans, or on a specific port of arrival, such as New York. It is possible that you will need to search through several indexes before you locate your ancestor. Check with your local public library, genealogy library, and other resources to see what types of indexes they have. A few examples of specialized indexes are in the list below.
To use most indexes, you need to know the name of the immigrant and the approximate date of arrival into the United States. From the index, you can find different types of information, often including the individual's age and port of entry, as well as the source of the information.
- The Famine Immigrants: Lists of Irish Immigrants Arriving at the Port of New York, 1846-1851 , Ira A. Glazier, editor
- Germans to America: Lists of Passengers Arriving at US Ports, 1850-1872 , Ira A. Glazier and P. William Filby, eds.
- Dutch Immigrants in United States Ship Passenger Manifests, 1820-1880 , Robert P. Swierenga
- The Wuerttemberg Emigration Index, 1750-1900 , Trudy Schenk and Rutch Froelke, compilers
- Alsace Emigration Book , Cornelia Schrader-Muggenthaler
- Baden Emigration Book , Cornelia Schrader-Muggenthaler
- Antwerp Emigration Index, 1855 , Charles M. Hall
Once you locate the list and are certain that the individual on the list is actually your ancestor, you will know either your ancestor's ethnicity, last place of residence, birthplace, or place of departure, depending on the passenger list.
- If the arrival was after 1820, the source of information normally includes a microfilm roll number that you can look up through the National Archives.
- If the arrival was before 1820, the index will give you information about where the list was published so that you can locate it. To find a pre-1820 list, you may have to contact several libraries or archives.
To look at passenger lists held by the National Archives, you must either go to or contact the National Archives regional branch in your area or the National Archives in Washington, D.C. The passenger ship list holdings for the regional branches vary, so you should call before you go. For more information about contacting the National Archives, see the topic The National Archives and regional centers.
You can also order copies of passenger lists from the National Archives themselves. Chapter 2 of the Guide to Genealogical Research in the National Archives, published by the National Archives, lists all of the ports of entry for which the National Archives has lists and/or indexes. Write to: Reference Services Branch (NNIR), National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C. 20408. Request a copy of NATF Form 81. You will need to fill out and return this form to order a copy of a particular list.
In addition, the Family History Library of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has passenger lists. You can access the lists through the library itself, as well as through your local Family History Center.
Finding the minimum information for passenger lists
To find an individual's date of arrival into the United States on a passenger list, you must at least know the individual's full name and the approximate date of arrival. However, the more information you know, the better. For example, if you know the individual's nationality or the port of arrival, you will be able to narrow down your search.
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Finding passenger lists
Knowing the port of entry may help you find the passenger list that you need. Contact the state archives or National Archives branch in the vicinity of the port of entry and find out what type of ship arrival records they have for that port. Once you know the names and dates of ships that came through the port of entry, you can begin looking up passenger lists under various ship names. You don't have to look up the lists for all of the ships that came through that port, but only for those that came from a likely port of exit and arrived on the date you think your ancestor entered the country. Eventually, you may come across the passenger list that contains your ancestor's name.
If you don't know the port of entry, then you can make some educated guesses. For example, many people moved hundreds of miles away from their port of entry, but others stayed in the general area. If you can make an educated guess, you at least have a possible place to start looking for passenger lists. If you don't know exactly where an individual lived when they arrived in the United States, you may be able to take a guess at it by finding out where they were at other points in their life. For example, where did they get married? Where were their children born? Where did they die? Where were they at the time of each census? The answers to these questions may help you out. For assistance finding any of this information, return to the main Step-by-Step topic.
If you know that your ancestor departed from Hamburg, you should check the departure records that are available through the Family History Library of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The departure records for Hamburg are indexed by year from 1850-1934, and usually give the individual's town or village of residence in Europe.
Finding a date of arrival with naturalization records
If the individual whose date of arrival you are looking for became a naturalized citizen, then you should be able to find the date from their naturalization papers. Please note that women were not naturalized prior to 1923. They became naturalized citizens with their husbands.
Before September 27, 1906, a person could apply to a local, state, or federal district court to become a naturalized citizen. Therefore, if your ancestor was naturalized before that date, contact the local, state, and federal district courts in the area(s) where your ancestor lived. The clerk of the court should be able to direct you in your search for naturalization papers. In some cases the court will still have the records, and in other cases, the records may have been transferred to a local library or archive. Many federal district court records may have been transferred to the National Archives or to a regional branch of the National Archives. Chapter 3 of the Guide to Genealogical Research in the National Archives lists the location of district court records by state. To contact the National Archives or regional centers, see the topic The National Archives and regional centers.
After September 27, 1906, copies of naturalization papers were sent to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) in Washington, D.C. If your ancestor was naturalized after this date, you can write to the following address and ask for a copy of the form G-641, Application for Verification of Information from Immigration and Naturalization Service Records: Immigration and Naturalization Service, 425 Eye Street N.W., Washington, D.C. 20536.
Finding the minimum information for naturalization records
To find an individual's date of arrival into the United States on a naturalization record, you must at least know the individual's full name and approximate date of birth.
Get help finding some of the minimum information by selecting one of the following items:
When you're checking for naturalization records, make sure that you check with the courts in all locations where your ancestor lived during his or her lifetime. The naturalization process took several years, because individuals first had to file papers of intent, then fill the residency requirement, and then file final papers. This means that the papers that you need may not be located in the area where the individual was living at the time that he or she became a citizen. If you would like help locating different places where the individual may have lived see the topic Places the family has lived.
Finding a date of arrival with church records
You can sometimes find an individual's date of arrival into the United States on church records such as certificates of removal, letters of transfer, letters of admission, and certificates of membership.
The books listed below can help you locate your ancestors' church records by telling you who currently has the records belonging to your ancestors" church. You can find these books in a public or genealogical library. Depending on the book that you use, you can look up either the name of your ancestors' church or the name of the clergyman and find out who currently has the records belonging to your ancestors' church. Of course, if you live close to your ancestors' church, you should go directly to the church and ask the staff for assistance in locating the records that you need.
- The Handbook of American Denominations, by Frank Mead
- The Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches and Reformed Churches , edited by the National Council of Churches
- List of Historical Records Survey Publications , by the Works Projects Administration
- State Historical Records Surveys , by the Works Projects Administration
Once you locate the records that belong to your ancestors' church, the current custodian of the records should be able to direct you in your search for the record that you need.
Another good place to look for both American and foreign church records is among the microfilm records at the Family History Library of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Their church records are organized first by state, then county, and then town. Unless the town that you are searching for had very few churches, knowing a denomination will make your search easier.
Finding the minimum information for church records
To find an individual's date of arrival in church records, such as certificates of removal, letters of transfer, letters of admission, and certificates of membership, you must at least know the individual's name, and the name of the church that your ancestor belonged to in the United States or the name of the clergyman of that church.
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If you can find out the denomination of your ancestor's religion, you can try contacting all of the churches of that denomination in the area where you believe your ancestor lived. If they have records from the corresponding time period, they should be able to tell you whether or not your ancestor was a church member. If their records do not go back far enough, they may be able to tell you if any other churches of that denomination existed in the area at the time and where their records may be.
Finding date of arrival with census records
Beginning in 1900, the census recorded how many years the individual had been in the United States. Beginning in 1920, the census recorded if the individual is a naturalized citizen, and if so, the date of naturalization.
To find out if your ancestor appears in an 1850 or later census, it's easiest to search databases online. Ancestry's census collections have both digitized and scanned copies of every US Census. Even if you don't find the exact name that you need in the index, it is worth it to start looking at all records for families with that surname in the state, as long as the surname isn't too common. For example, if you are looking for Roberto Zubilaga, but only find John Zubilaga and Gianni Zubilaga in the index, look at those records. Using this method, you may come across the family that you are looking for.
At many libraries you can find bound indexes for pre-1880 censuses. These indexes are organized by state and list individuals in alphabetical order by surname, so you don't need to know the county. Different indexes contain different information that will help you find the census record. Some just give you the county that the person lived in; others tell you more. You can find bound indexes at the National Archives and the National Archives regional centers , the Family History Library of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and branch Family History Centers , and many other libraries. Different locations have different indexes, so check more than one library if you don't find the index that you need. In addition, Soundex indexes are available, with some exceptions, for the years 1880 to 1920. For information about Soundex, see the topic Soundex: what it is and how to use it.
Once you locate your ancestor's name in an index, you will want to look at microfilm copies of the original census records. The original records will help you find the information you need and verify that you have found your ancestor, and not just someone with the same name. Pre-1930 census records are available at the National Archives and National Archives regional centers. Also check with your local public and genealogy libraries, because they may have census records or be part of an interlibrary loan system. In addition, your local Family History Center of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints may either have census records or be able to get copies of them for you.
Access to post-1920 census records is restricted to immediate relatives and descendants. If the individual whose records you are searching for is still living, you must have their written permission to obtain a copy of the record. If the individual is deceased, you must have a certified death certificate. Write to: Bureau of the Census, P.O. Box 1545, Jeffersonville, IN 47131. They will send you a form that you must fill out and return with a fee.
You may also want to check the information contained in state and local censuses. Not all states and localities took their own censuses and the contents vary from state to state. However, sometimes the information is quite valuable. Ancestry has a selection of state census records online , and you can also contact libraries, state archives, and genealogy societies in the area where your ancestors lived. They should be able to tell you if any exist and where you might find them. The Family History Library of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is another possible source.
Finding the minimum information for census records
To find an individual's date of arrival into the United States in census records, you must at least know the individual's name, the state, and the county in which the individual lived when the census was taken. If you are using census records for 1870 or earlier, you can probably use an index that only requires the state and surname.
Get help finding some of the minimum information by selecting one of the following items:
Finding a date of arrival with a passport application
Passport applications can be excellent sources of genealogical information. The information that passport applications contain varies, but can include an individual's name, age, personal description, date and court of naturalization, place of birth, and date and port of arrival into the United States, as well as the name of the ship.
Passport applications from 1791 to 1925 are available through the National Archives. However, applications less than 75 years old may have viewing restrictions. The National Archives has indexes for many applications from 1834-1923. For information about contacting the National Archives, see the topic The National Archives and regional centers.
The National Archives will search their records for you if you have the required information. To send for a request form, write to the National Archives, Civil Reference Branch, Washington, D.C., 20408
You may be able to access post-1925 passport applications through the Research and Liaison Branch of the Department of State Passport Office. Simply write a letter to the address below, and include the name, birth date, and birthplace, and the type of information that you are looking for. If the individual is deceased, you must include their death date and a copy of their death certificate: Department of State, Passport Office, Research and Liaison Branch, Room 316, 1425 K Street N.W., Washington, D.C. 20522-1705
Finding the minimum information for passport applications
To find an individual's date of arrival into the United States on a passport application, you must at least know the individual's name and the year that the application was filed.
Get help finding the minimum information for: