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Notes on Naturalization

by Donna Przecha
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Naturalization Records: Where to Find Them and What You'll Learn
Understand why immigrants were naturalized and what the process involved. Find out what you'll learn from a naturalization record.

Since many ancestors of Americans were foreign born, naturalization records are another a source of genealogical information that you might want to investigate. Naturalization is the process through which a foreign born person becomes a citizen of the United States and is eligible to vote.

Not all immigrants became citizens as it is not required. Many obtained their citizenship because of pride in their new country and a desire to participate in democratic elections, a privilege perhaps not accorded to them in their country of birth. Others became citizens for more materialistic reasons, such as the right to acquire free land through homesteading. During times of war, there was often hostility towards people from the enemy country and immigrants may have obtained citizenship to show their loyalty to the U.S., especially if they had children serving in the U.S. military.

Was Your Ancestor Naturalized?

Before beginning a search for a naturalization record, it may save hours of futile research if you try to determine if there is evidence that the individual you are researching did become a citizen. There are several ways to do this:

  1. Location of Birth — Was the person foreign born? Usually there's no need to be naturalized if born in the U.S.
  2. Census — The 1900 and 1910 censuses ask if a person is naturalized and 1920 further asks the year of naturalization. Indirectly, the 1820 and 1830 census provide a clue with the question "number of foreigners in each household not naturalized."
  3. Homesteading Land — The person had to have initiated the naturalization process to be eligible for free land through homesteading.
  4. Voter Registration Lists — Is he/she listed as a voter?
  5. Occupation — Did this person hold a job that required U.S. citizenship?
  Even with the above information, keep in mind the following caveats:
  1. Not all foreign born individuals applied for citizenship and a child born abroad is still a U.S. citizen if his/her parents are. During much of our history, the wife and children automatically became citizens when the husband/father took out citizenship papers.
  2. Naturalization was one of many census questions. The person who provided the answer may not have known in fact if someone else had been naturalized. An individual may have said yes because he felt it was the right thing to say or he intended to begin the process.
  3. A Declaration of Intent, not final papers, was all that was required to homestead.
  4. Not everyone who became a citizen registered to vote. Also, some states allowed people who had filed a Declaration of Intent to vote even if they had not received their final papers.

What Is the Procedure?

By now you might be getting the idea that naturalization documents are not necessarily as easy to use as some other records, such as the census. Generally, for most of our history there are two rules that apply to naturalizations:

  1. It was a legal process handled through the courts.
  2. It was usually a two-part procedure, the first being a Declaration of Intent indicating that the person intended to become a citizen (voluntary after 1952). This may have included as part of the document or as a separate certificate or record information on the individual's date and place of arrival into the United States. After a required period of residency (five years, with some exceptions) the individual would then file a Petition for Naturalization and, if granted, would receive a Certificate of Naturalization. Both or either the Declaration and/or the Petition may contain valuable genealogical information.

The procedures and requirements differed greatly depending on the location and the time period. The first important information the researcher needs to establish is whether the naturalization was before 1906 or afterwards. In 1906 the naturalization process was simplified and taken over by the federal government. It is much easier to find out where to look and what to expect if it took place after 1906.

Where are Records Located?

Prior to 1906, naturalization could take place in any court having common law jurisdiction. The court could be federal, state, or local and be called by many names — circuit, supreme, civil, equity, district, common pleas, chancery, superior. In some cases a municipal, police, criminal, or probate court did not actually have the right to handle naturalization but they issued certificates anyway. Prior to 1905, over 5,000 courts had been handling naturalization. By 1908 that number was reduced to just over 2,000 courts and the Department of Labor began issuing A Directory of Courts Having Jurisdiction in Naturalization Proceedings. This directory, available on microfilm through the Family History Library, can help you determine which court your ancestor may have used. Naturalizations can now be handled in either federal or local courts. Since 1929, most naturalizations have been at federal courts, but earlier records are more likely to be at a local court because it was closer to the individual.

Prior to 1906, the biggest problem confronting a researcher is where to find the record. The two procedures did not have to take place in the same court so the immigrant could have filed a Declaration soon after his arrival in New York, or perhaps he lived in Ohio for a while and filed his Declaration there, hoping to qualify for free land. Then, after settling on land in South Dakota, he may have submitted his Petition to a local court. The Family History Library has microfilm copies of many pre-1930 records. If your ancestor lived in an urban area, there are many rolls of films relating to Chicago (1871-1930), New York (1792-1906), Philadelphia (1793-1911) and New England (1791-1906).

The good news is that copies of all naturalization records from 1906 to 1956 are at the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Washington, DC. This does not guarantee success though. Since you are dealing with a government agency, be prepared for a long wait. I had a copy of one certificate of citizenship which gave the court, location, date, and name of the immigrant, but the INS was never able to locate the file. You may also be able to obtain copies of the file from the court, but some courts will refer you to INS in Washington.

Naturalizations after 1956 are kept at the local INS office. Some records are being transferred to National Archives branches or state archives. See their page "Naturalization Records" for information about records at the National Archives.

What Do the Records Contain?

In 1906, the process was standardized and uniform forms were issued. The forms have been revised periodically, but generally contain at least the following information:

  • Declaration of Intention — The court date and location; the individual's name, age, occupation, personal description, birth date and location, and residence; their date and vessel of arrival and last foreign residence. From 1929 to 1941, it asked for the spouse's name, marriage date and place, and birth information, plus names, dates, and places of birth and residence of each child. It also includes a picture of the applicant. After 1941, it requests the spouse's name (no details on birth) and doesn't mention children. After 1929, the last foreign residence is omitted. A separate Certificate of Arrival giving details of arrival was required for arrivals after 1906, with some exceptions.
  • Petition for Naturalization — The court date and location; name, residence, occupation, birth date and place; immigration departure date and place; U.S. arrival port, date, and ship; date and place of Declaration of Intention; spouse's name, birth date and place; children's names, dates and places of birth; residence, witnesses, and oath of allegiance. From 1929 to 1941 it also asked race, marriage date and place, date of spouse's entry into the U.S. and naturalization information, last foreign residence, and name used on arrival. After 1941, a personal description was added, as well as details of any trips longer than six months out of the U.S.
  • The actual certificate — This is the document given to the new citizen and the one a researcher is most likely to find in old family papers. It contains little information: court, date. and name of new citizen. It may contain other information, but the Declaration and Petition are the papers the researcher should try to locate.

Prior to 1906

There is no predicting what you might find in naturalization papers prior to 1906. Until 1828, the immigrant had to report to a court to register. This report was supposed to contain information on the birthplace, age, and nationality. These alien registry books were separate volumes in many areas, especially in the northeast. The registry may be found in later records combined with the Declaration. After 1911, the immigrant was issued a certificate of arrival.

A Declaration of Intention was usually required, again with exceptions. It may contain little more than the name of the immigrant, but may also have some of the details incorporated in the post-1906 form described above. These are also called "first papers."

Early Petitions are part of the court record and may even be recorded in separate ledgers called "second papers" or "final record." Information varies greatly. Certificates of Naturalization were given to the new citizen. The information was recorded but duplicates of the certificate were not kept on file.

Derivative Naturalization

Spouses and children may derive their citizenship from their husband/father and not have to go through the procedure themselves. Up until 1922, a foreign born woman who married an American citizen became naturalized upon marriage or, if her husband was foreign born, when he became a citizen. No separate filings were required. Prior to 1906, they usually were not even mentioned in the husband's petition.

After 1922, a woman had to be naturalized on her own. However, from 1907 to 1922, if a woman married an unnaturalized alien, she took his citizenship. This created one particularly bizarre situation for a woman who was born in Poland in September 1901. In November of that same year she came to the U.S. with her parents. Her father obtained citizenship in 1906 and she automatically became a citizen as well. In 1918 she married a man who had immigrated from Russia in 1913, but was not yet a citizen. She lost her citizenship because of this rule. In November 1922, her husband became a citizen. This did not help her because on September 22, 1922, the law was changed to say that any alien woman who married an American does not become a U.S. citizen automatically. She applied on her own and again became a U.S. citizen in 1942!

Children under the age of 21 automatically become citizens by the naturalization of a parent. However, there are many exceptions to this law regarding residence, whether or not a Declaration is required, what happens if the parent dies or becomes insane, adopted children, illegitimate children, step-children, and children born abroad.

Military Service

Obtaining citizenship generally has been made easier for aliens who served in the U.S. military. Filing of the Declaration of Intention was often not required and the period of residency eliminated or reduced. However, in 1894 the law was changed and during times of peace no one (except Indians) could serve in the military unless he or she was a U.S. citizen or had filed a Declaration of Intention. Aliens were allowed to serve during times of war and to become naturalized.


Some states had laws forbidding aliens from owning land unless they had filed a declaration. Homesteaders were able to qualify for free public land after filing the declaration. The National Archives has homestead records prior to May 1, 1908 and Bureau of Land Management after that date. BLM can be accessed at

Obstacles to Research

Besides identifying the court (or courts) that handled the various steps in the procedure, there are other pitfalls. Some immigrants filed the Declaration, perhaps for homesteading, but did not follow through with the final papers. If they could vote and obtain land with the Declaration only, they had no need to complete the process. Others were allowed to skip the declaration and only had to file the final petition. In addition, fraud occurred on a large scale. Thousands of fraudulent certificates were issued in 1868 in New York because votes were needed in an election. These certificates had no court records documenting the citizenship. If you cannot locate the naturalization record in the court where it was supposed to have occurred, your ancestor may have had a fraudulent certificate.

Further Information

For further information, see the National Archives and Records Administration "Naturalization Records" page; the LDS Research Outline on the U.S. (p. 38-41) and the excellent 43-page booklet American Naturalization Processes and Procedures 1790-1985 by John J. Newman (Indianapolis: Family History Section, Indiana Historical Society 1985).

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