RootsWeb's Guide to Tracing Family Trees No. 16 [an error occurred while processing this directive]

Frog RootsWeb's Guide to
Tracing Family Trees


Guide No. 16


Naturalization Records







Statue of Liberty—
a gift from
France to the United States

28 October 1886

Statue of Liberty

Here at our sea-washed,
sunset gates
shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch,
whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and
her name

Mother of exiles

Emma Lazarus (1849-1887)
The New Colossus











Primer on
Associated Subjects








Ellis Island

Becoming An American:



This and That Genealogy
Tips on
and Passports




Was Great-Grandpa's name changed at
Ellis Island?



Changing Immigrant Names



American Women and Naturalization,
ca 1802-1940


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Canada | U.S.A. | British | Australia

Explore the
Naturalization and
Immigration Information

Immigrant Ship Transcribers Guild


Pledging Allegiance:
Naturalization records

Naturalization is the process by which an alien (foreign-born resident) becomes an citizen of another country. Such papers can be an important source of information regarding the immigrant's place of origin, his or her original name, former residence, and date of arrival in the new country.

Flag Canada. Immigrants to Canada have never been required to apply for citizenship. Until 1947, settlers from Great Britain were considered citizens of Canada and did not have to naturalize. Of those who applied, some did not complete the process. Evidence that the immigrant did complete it can be found in censuses, court minutes, homestead records, passports, voting registers and military papers. Citizenship information is reported in Canadian censuses beginning in 1901.

Ball Prior to 1867, when Canada became a nation, naturalization was completed in accordance with the laws of the provinces or with British law. Between 1763 and 1947, non-alien residents of Canada were considered British subjects. Settlers from England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales did not have to naturalize in Canada.

Ball Prior to War of 1812 — Some colonies had laws that required aliens to declare the length of their residence and the nature of their business. Some immigrants had to take loyalty oaths when applying for land grants and sometimes these records can be found with land records.

Ball After War of 1812 — In New Brunswick, certificates of naturalization date from 1817, but in Upper Canada (Ontario) the law did not take effect until 1828. Laws for the other provinces were enacted later.

Ball After 1867 — Most naturalization was a federal process, although provinces retained some jurisdiction over immigrants. Since 1867 certificates of naturalization normally were granted by the office of the Secretary of State for Canada. Petitions for citizenship were received by judicial courts, and they were then forwarded to that office for approval. Certificates of naturalization were returned to the courts, and then given to the applicants after they took an oath of citizenship.

Ball In 1947 Canadian citizenship was established separate from British. The Family History Library has microfilm copies of many, but not all, Canadian naturalization papers and the National Archives of Canada in Ottawa has microfilm copies of naturalization papers for Upper Canada (Ontario), 1828-1850. The latter are available through interlibrary loan system to public libraries. Many Ontario and Quebec records appear to have been lost, especially for the years 1850-1865. Records made for all of Canada by the Department of the Secretary of State between 1865 and 1917 were destroyed. However, there is an index with information such as name, residence and court of certification at:


Records Control Citizenship Branch

Department of the Secretary of State

P.O. Box 7000 Sydney, NS,

Canada B1P 6G5

Ball Border crossings from the United States to Canada or from Canada to the United States are and were fairly common. The official recording of those who crossed overland from the United States to Canada began in 1908. Border crossing for the time period 1908 to 1918 have been microfilmed. These records are available at:

National Archives of Canada.
The National Archives of Canada
395 Wellington Street
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1A 0N3

Ball In order to request the microfilms, you must first know what films you want to use. To do this, access a finding aid entitled Ships' Passenger Lists and Border Entry Lists in PAC, RG 76 (Records of the Immigration Branch): Microfilm Finding Aid (Ottawa: Federal Archives Division, Public Archives of Canada, 1986). You can request via interlibrary loan through your public library up to three microfilms at any given time. However, these records are not indexed by name, so in order to locate your ancestor you will need to know when he crossed over into Canada and have an idea of what border entry point he went through.

Ball Under a U. S.-Canada agreement in 1894, immigrants destined to the U. S. were inspected and recorded by American immigrant inspectors at Canadian ports of entry. Until 1917 records of all entries at all Canadian ports — Atlantic and Pacific — were filed in Montreal, and are known as the Canadian Border Crossing Records - St. Albans Lists. After 1917, entries at land border ports west of the Montana/North Dakota state line were filed in Seattle, Washington, USA.


Flag United States. In the U. S. naturalization is a voluntary act; naturalization is not required — has never been required. Of the foreign-born persons listed on the 1890 through 1930 censuses, 25 percent had not become naturalized or filed their "first papers." However, if your ancestor applied for U. S. citizenship those papers might reveal some important information. These records are, in many instances, much more valuable — genealogically — than ship passenger lists.

Gavel The Courts

The first naturalization law was passed by U. S. Congress in 1790 and through much of the 20th century, an alien could become naturalized in any court of record. People usually went to the court most convenient to them, which usually was a county court. While the names and types of courts vary through the years, they may include the county, supreme, circuit, district, equity, chancery, probate, or common pleas court. Most researchers will find that their ancestors became naturalized in one of these courts. A few State supreme courts also naturalized aliens, such as the supreme courts of Indiana, Idaho, Iowa, Maine, New Jersey, and South Dakota. Aliens who lived in large urban areas sometimes became naturalized in a federal court, such as a U. S. district court or U. S. circuit court.

BallAs a general rule, naturalization was a two-step process that took a minimum of five years. After residing in the United States for two years, an alien could file a "declaration of intent" (so-called "first papers") to become a citizen. After three additional years, the alien could "petition for naturalization." After the petition was granted, a certificate of citizenship then was issued. These two steps did not have to take place in the same court. As a general rule, the DI (Declaration of Intent) generally contains more genealogically useful information than the Petition, but a search for both should be conducted. Sometimes declarations include the alien's month and year (or possibly the exact date) of immigration into the United States and even the name of ship.


Derivative citizenship was granted to wives and minor children of naturalized men. From 1790 to 1922, wives of Mother and Children naturalized men automatically became citizens. An alien woman who married a U. S. citizen automatically became a citizen. (Conversely, an American woman who married an alien lost her U. S. citizenship, even if she never left the United States.) From 1790 to 1940 children under the age of 21 automatically became naturalized citizens upon the naturalization of their father. Unfortunately, however, names and biographical information about wives and children are rarely included in declarations or petitions filed before September 1906. From 1824 to 1906, minor aliens who had lived in the United States five years before their 23rd birthday could file both their declarations and petitions at the same time.

Soldier Special consideration was given to veterans. An 1862 law allowed honorably discharged Army veterans of any war to petition for naturalization — without previously having filed a declaration of intent — after only one year of residence in the United States. If your ancestor filed for a Homestead claim under the Homestead Act of 1862, or applied for a passport, the application for either may give the name of the court where the naturalization took place.

DoughboyAn 1894 law extended the same no-previous-declaration privilege to honorably discharged five-year veterans of the Navy or Marine Corps. Under an act in 1918 aliens serving in the U. S. armed forces during World War I were allowed to file a petition for naturalization without making a declaration of intent or proving 5 years' residence. More than 192,000 aliens were naturalized between May 9, 1918, and June 30, 1919. Other laws later enacted continued various preferential treatment provisions for veterans.


Canada | U.S.A. | British | Australia


Flag Where to find the records

BallNaturalization records from county courts may still be at the county court, or in a county or State archives, or at a regional archives. Some of these records or indexes have been published.

Ball As a general rule, the National Archives does not have naturalization records created in state or local courts. However, some county court naturalization records have been donated to the National Archives.

Ball If the naturalization took place in a federal court, naturalization indexes, declarations of intent, and petitions will usually be in the National Archives serving the state in which the federal court is located. Some of these indexes regional records services facility and records have been microfilmed.

BallNot all of our immigrant ancestors became U. S. citizens. Some filed the first papers, but never completed the process. Before starting the search for naturalization records, American researchers should trace their ancestors through the federal censuses. The 1930, 1920, 1910, 1900, and 1870 censuses all have columns pertaining to citizenship. While the information is not always 100 percent correct, it does provide clues. Under the question of whether or not an individual was naturalized, you are likely to see one of three abbreviations:

BallAL — this abbreviation was used to signify that the individual was still an alien (was not naturalized and had not begun the naturalization process).

Ball PA — this abbreviation was used to signify that the individual had gone through the declaration of intent and had filed his "first" papers.

Ball NA — this abbreviation was used to signify that the individual had completed the naturalization process and was a naturalized citizen.

Three important time frames pertaining
to American naturalization records:

  • Colonial period. If your ancestors arrived prior to the Revolutionary War non-British ancestors may have taken an oath of allegiance in the colony in which they resided. Many of these records have been published.
  • Revolutionary War to 1906. Before 1802, the records are limited in value and availability. After 1802 they are more complete, but could have been filed in any federal, state or local court. Check first in court records in the county or counties where your ancestor resided. People normally did not go great distances to file the papers.
  • After Sept. 27, 1906. While naturalization proceedings could have taken place in any U. S. District Court, or in any court of record, all proceedings were required to be recorded by the clerk of the court and a copy sent to a central office maintained by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (formerly the INS), 75 Lower Welden St, Saint Albans, Vermont 05479.

Gavel For pre-1906 naturalization records pinpoint the locations via census, land, tax records, and city directories in which your male ancestor lived from the time of his arrival in the United States through to his naturalization. Once you have plotted this, search each county courthouse for his naturalization papers. It is possible that the records you seek may be available on microfilm through your local Family History Center. Or you may need to actually contact the county about the records. Finally, it is always possible that your ancestor went to federal court. In which case, the records you need may be housed at one of the branches of the National Archives.


Some records have been transferred to regional branches of the federal archives or may be found in state archives.

County court employees may tell you that their naturalization records are at the National Archives or that their court never conducted naturalizations. Many current employees are not genealogists and may not be familiar with the court's older records. It is up to you to determine the location of older court records

Ball Prior to the opening of Ellis Island in 1892, immigrants coming through the Port of New York City usually went through Castle Garden. While there are documented customs lists or passenger lists for New York City going back as far as 1820, Castle Garden was not opened until 1855. In the 40-year period from 1820 to 1860, according to The Source, two-thirds of the 5.4 million immigrants to the United States passed through New York. Castle Garden was an old fort and was located on the lower tip of Manhattan. By 1890 it was obvious that it was outgrowing its capabilities as more and more immigrants flooded in. So, in 1892, Ellis Island was opened. There are passenger lists for New York beginning in 1820 and going on up into the 20th century, but they are not all indexed. There is a 50-year gap in the indexing of New York passenger lists for New York from 1846 to 1897.

Ball Immigration Records at the National Archives

Ball See Guide 15 for more on ship passenger lists.

Ball Naturalization Records at the National Archives

Ball Alien Records at the National Archives

Ball Passport Applications at the National Archives

Ball Passport applications can be an excellent source of genealogical information, especially about foreign-born individuals. The National Archives and Records Administration has passport applications from October 1795-March 1925; the U. S. Department of State has passport applications from April 1925 to the present.

Ball Foreign travel in the 19th century was much more frequent than one might expect. Overseas travelers included businessmen, the middle class, and naturalized U. S. citizens who frequently returned to their homelands to visit relatives.

Ball Although 95 percent of mid-19th century passport applicants were men, many women traveled overseas. If the applicant was to be accompanied by his wife, children, servants, or other females under his protection, their names, ages, and relationship to the applicant were stated on the passport application. One passport was then issued to cover the whole group. Likewise, when children traveled abroad solely with their mother, their names and ages were indicated on the mother's passport application.

Ball Many U. S. residents traveled overseas without holding a U. S. passport because:

  • Not Required. As a general rule, until 1941, U. S. citizens were not required to have a passport for travel abroad except for particular periods during the Civil War and World War I.
  • Aliens Were Ineligible. As a general rule, the U. S. government only issued passports to U. S. citizens, but aliens who had declared their intent to become a naturalized citizen could, at certain times, obtain a passport.

Ball Passport applications for naturalized citizens may state the court and date of naturalization and the date and ship upon which the applicant immigrated to the United States. Evidence of the applicant's naturalization as a U. S. citizen may be detailed or cursory. Photographs have been required with applications since December 21, 1914.

Ball Passport applications (1795-March 1925) may be searched at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

Ball Some National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) regional facilities have selected microfilmed passport records.

Ball Copies of passport applications (1795-March 1925) can be ordered by mail from National Archives and Records Administration, Attention: Archives I Research Support Branch (NWCC1), 700 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20408-0001. You can also make an online request at and then clicking on the links in the following order:

  • "I have a question about research and records"
  • "People & Groups"
  • "State Department Files"
  • Select "Passport applications" from the drop-down box, and hit "Go".
  • Then click on the "Reference Request" link in the upper right.
Your letter or email must include: your name and mailing (postal) address; the passport applicant's name, year of birth, place of residence at the time the application was made, and the approximate year of travel.

Flag British Denization

Some records of immigrants to Great Britain are in the Public Records Office and are described in PRO Records Information leaflets (see below). There are records of aliens becoming British subjects, by the processes of denization or naturalization.

Crown A person who was a subject of the British Crown was known as a denizen, whether he obtained that status by birth or by grant. Aliens in Britain (particularly merchants) were subject to various disabilities, so denization was advantageous and could be granted by the Crown (by Royal Charter or by Letters Patent under the Great Seal). According to Mark D. Herber in Ancestral Trails, from the 16th century the rights of a denizen could also be granted by a private act of Parliament, but these parliamentary grants became known as naturalization because the person was then deemed to have always been a subject of the Crown.

Crown Parliamentary naturalization required the applicant to receive the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper and take oaths of supremacy and allegiance. Some people (for example Jews and Catholics) were therefore unable to use this process and instead relied on the denization procedure until the requirements for the oaths were withdrawn in the 19th century. A third procedure was introduced in 1844 when the Home Secretary was empowered to grant naturalization to aliens by a certificate. Letters Patent of denization were published in the London Gazette and enrolled on the Patent Rolls. The Huguenot Society has published indexes to letters of denization and acts of naturalization from 1509 to 1800.

Crown Under the Aliens Act 1792 all foreigners arriving in England were suppose to register with a Justice of Peace, providing their name, rank, address and occupation. Such surviving registration records can be found at the County Registry Offices.

Public Record Office's Family History publications are available for a nominal price. Check the various ones available by searching via the radio button at the PRO's bookstore.

Flag Australian Denization

BallImmigrants to Australia who were not British subjects could elect to apply to the government for naturalization, also called denization. It was not compulsory. Those immigrants who were officially naturalized received certain rights and privileges, one of which that they were entitled to own land. The first naturalizations in Australia occurred in New South Wales in 1825. A previous residence in the colony of five years was required.

BallNaturalization became a federal government responsibility in 1903 and all "Applicants Files and Enrolled Certificates for naturalizations in all states and territories in Australia from 1904 are held by the AACT [Australian Archives, PO Box 447, Belconnen, ACT 26216], with an index to these maintained by the DOI [Department of Immigration & Ethnic Affairs, Central Administration, Benjamin Offices, Chan St., Belconnen, ACT 2617].

BallThere is an alphabetical surname "Index to Naturalizations, 1849-1903" at the AONSW [Archives Office of New South Wales, 2 Glove St., Sydney, NSW 2000] that gives a register number and page reference for each person listed.

Canada | U.S.A. | British| Australia



Books Suggested Reading
& References

Family History Library. Research Outline: Canada. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: Salt Lake City, Utah, 1993.

Greenwood, Val D. The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy (2nd edition). Baltimore, Maryland.: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 1990.

Hall, Nick Vine. Tracing Your Family History in Australia: A Guide to Sources. Adelaide, Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, New York, London, Auckland: Rigby Publishers, 1985.

Herber, Mark D. Ancestral Trails: The Complete Guide to British Genealogy and Family History. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 1998.

Meade, Bishop William. Old Churches, Ministers, and Families of Virginia Reprinted with Digested Index and Genealogical Guide Compiled by Jennings Cropper Wise (two volumes). Originally published: Philadelphia, 1857. Reprinted: Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 1966, 1978, 1995.

National Archives and Records Administration. Guide to Genealogical Research in the National Archives. Washington, D.C. (Revised 1985.) Available for purchase.

National Archives and Records Administration. Microfilm Resources for Research: A Comprehensive Catalog of National Archives Microfilm Publications. Washington, D.C., 1996. Available online or for purchase.

Newman, John J., American Naturalization Processes and Procedures, 1790-1985. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1985.

Potter, Dorothy Williams.Passports of Southeastern Pioneers 1770-1823: Indian, Spanish, and other Land Passports for Tennessee, Kentucky, Georgia, Mississippi, Virginia, North and South Carolina. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 1982. [Chapter I—Spanish Passports in the Mississippi Valley, British and Spanish Passports in West Florida; Chapter II—War (Indian Agencies) and State Department (Territorial Agencies) Passports; Chapter III—State Passports.]

Schaefer, Christine, Guide to Naturalization Records of the United States. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 1997.

Scott, Kenneth and Kenn Stryker-Rodda. Denizations, Naturalizations and Oaths of Allegiance in Colonial New York. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 1975. [Introduction—Denization and Naturalization; source references; alphabetical listing of Denizations and Licenses (75 pp.); Oaths of Allegiance; Index of Persons Incidentally mentioned and in the Oaths of Allegiance]

Szucs, Loretto Dennis. They Became Americans: Finding Naturalization Records and Ethnic Origins. Salt Lake City, Utah. Ancestry, Inc., 1997.

Szucs, Loretto Dennis and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking. The Archive, A Guide to the National Archives Field Branches. Salt Lake City, Utah. Ancestry, Inc., 1988.




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Dot RootsWeb Guides to Tracing Family Trees are written & compiled by professional genealogists Julia M. Case, Myra Vanderpool Gormley, CG & Rhonda McClure

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