North American Government Records about your Chinese Immigrant Ancestors

April 22, 2019  - by 

In the mid-1800s, Chinese immigrants arrived in North America in increasing numbers. Most were working men who found jobs on railroads and in other labor-intensive but low-paying occupations.

As their numbers grew, so did prejudice against Chinese immigrants. Eventually the governments of both Canada and the United States restricted Chinese immigration and created special records to document residents of Chinese descent. Today, these records can help you learn more about the identities and experiences of your Chinese ancestors in North America.

Chinese Canadian Immigrant Records

In 1885, the Canadian government passed the Chinese Immigration Act, meant to discourage Chinese workers from coming by imposing a tax of $50 on each (well over $1,000 in today’s currency). By 1903, the head tax had increased to $500 per person, making it extremely unlikely that working men could pay it.

Certificates were issued to Chinese-born immigrants and travelers, including those who had arrived previously or who otherwise didn’t have to pay the tax. The purpose of these certificates was to prove the holder’s identity and permission to be in Canada. Original certificates may have been handed down within families; the government did not keep copies.

However, the Canadian government did keep a register of certificates issued at the Chinese Immigration Service headquarters in Ottawa. According to Library and Archives Canada, “These registers list all immigrants of Chinese origin arriving in Canada between 1885 and 1949. Some entries for residents arriving in Canada date back to 1860. The names in the registers are arranged numerically by serial number, in approximate chronological order by the date the notice of the immigrant’s arrival was submitted to Ottawa. They include information such as age; certificate number; place of birth; occupation; date and port of arrival in Canada; and head tax paid.” These records are searchable in the free Immigrants from China, 1885–1949 database at Library and Archives Canada.

a register certificate from Chinese Immigration Service in Canada.

Chinese American Immigrant Records

In 1882, the United States government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned Chinese workers from entering the country. After this act was extended in 1892, Chinese-born residents of the United States were required to register with immigration authorities and obtain certificates of residence. United States citizens of Chinese descent who wanted to travel overseas also had to register.

Individual case files were packed with identifying information, such as a person’s name, date, and place of birth; physical description; occupation; residences in the United States, and, if applicable, deportation or international travel.

According to Patricia Hackett Nicola, Chinese exclusion files also “usually include the name of the village and province or city and state where the person was born. Sometimes included are lists of family members with cross-references to their files, return-certificate applications, affidavits from witnesses, birth, marriage or death certificates, drawings or descriptions of a home or village in China.” Later records even included photographs. Chinese merchants also had to submit lists of their United States business partners to prove their commercial interests in the country.

The 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed many key documents for United States residents of Chinese descent. Subsequently, some Chinese-born residents began to claim inflated numbers of children in China, who could be eligible to join them. These residents used their exaggerated claims to bring additional Chinese friends and relatives into the country, who came to be called “paper sons.” To prevent this deception, authorities began interrogating Chinese immigrants; transcripts of interrogations are also included in many Chinese exclusion case files.

A United States proof of residence.

Chinese exclusion case files are generally now in regional branches of the National Archives and Records Administration. They number over 200,000. Individuals’ case files were created at their initial port of entry (or, for residents who were born in the United States, their port of first return). Information from some collections has been put online. Those searching for records can do the following:

Chinese-born residents sometimes ended up in court over problems relating to residency status, deportation orders, and other issues. These court cases may be mentioned in their exclusion case files. Court files are also researchable in the correct jurisdictions, which may vary but which include United States district courts. FamilySearch has indexed images for California, San Francisco, Register of Chinese Immigrant Court Cases and Foreign Seamen Tax Cards, 1883–1924;’s collection U.S., Chinese Immigration Case Files, 1883–1924 includes records from courts in El Paso, Texas; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and overlapping records for San Francisco, California.

Explore a more comprehensive list of National Archives and Records Administration collections relating to Chinese exclusion and court case files.

Learn more about your Chinese immigrant ancestors in Canada and the United States in other North American records.

Your Chinese American Heritage

Sunny Morton

Sunny Morton teaches personal and family history to worldwide audiences. She's a Contributing Editor at Family Tree Magazine, past Contributing Editor at Lisa Louise Cooke's Genealogy Gems, and the author of How to Find Your Family History in U.S. Church Records (co-authored with Harold Henderson, CG); Story of My Life: A Workbook for Preserving Your Legacy; "Genealogy Giants: Comparing the 4 Major Websites," and hundreds of articles. She has degrees in history and humanities from Brigham Young University. Read her work at

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