U.S. Naturalization Records Class Handout

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Courtesy of Jill Shoemaker, Riverton Family History Library


Naturalization is the legal process our immigrant ancestors went through to became citizens of the United States. Becoming naturalized meant our foreign-born ancestors could vote, run for a government office, serve on a jury, pay taxes, receive the protection of the law. *The choice of an ancestor to become a citizen of the United States affected their lives and is an essential part of their story that and that you will want to document.

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  • Various records were created during the naturalization process that will help you learn more about your ancestor. If your ancestor naturalized after 1906, records may provide information about your ancestor’s birth date and place and other family members in the country from which they immigrated.

BACKGROUND INFORMATION[edit | edit source]

When searching for naturalization records remember it was not mandatory that immigrants apply for citizenship and some chose not to become citizens. Some immigrants started the process but did not complete it. As the family migrated to a locality, the naturalization process was often not completed in the same court or location where it was started.

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  • In making any search of an immigrant ancestor, remember their surname may have changed from what it originally was or how it was originally spelled due to language differences, misunderstandings due to a foreign accent, or to Americanize the name.
  • Search through family documents, censuses, homestead records, passports, military papers, newspapers and obituaries, cemetery records, occupational records, libraries and archives, local histories, vital records, voting registers, and tax records to determine whether your immigrant ancestor became a citizen of the U.S. 
  • Your family may have kept the Citizenship Certificate of your ancestor. This would show your ancestor had completed the naturalization process and was a citizen of the United States. The certificate shows the court where the petition was filed and it is important to locate a copy of the petition for naturalization, which usually contains more information than certificate itself.

CENSUS INFORMATION[edit | edit source]

  • The 1820, 1830, 1840, and 1870 censuses have a column asking if a person was an alien or a citizen.
  • The 1900, 1910, 1920, and 1930 censuses each ask the year an immigrant arrived to the United States and if the immigrant had begun or completed naturalization.
  • The 1920 Census asked for the year the individual was naturalized.
  • Abbreviations in the 1910, 1920, and 1930 census were as follows:

AL meaning the immigrant was not naturalized and had not begun the process. PA meaning the individual had started the naturalization process with a declaration of intention (first papers)
Riverton 28.png NA meaning the individual has completed the naturalization process and is a US Citizen
NR meaning the census taker did not report the citizenship information.

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Another place to find your immigrant ancestor’s naturalization papers is in Land Entry Case Files for homestead land. In order to acquire land under the Homestead Act of 1862, a person had to prove they were a citizen of the United States or had declared their intention to become a citizen. The naturalization process or the completed citizenship certificate could be found in the Land Entry Case Files at the National Archives. (See the Wiki article United States Land Records at FamilySearch.org.)

If your ancestor had a U.S. passport, your ancestor was a naturalized citizen. The first passports were issued in 1795. A passport was required for travel outside the United States during World War I and World War II. By the end of 1915, passports were recommended, but were optional until 1952. From 1952 to 2009 passports were required for travel in every country except some countries in North, South, or Central America. Passports have been required for U. S. citizens for all travel since 2009.

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Information in early passports included the individual’s name, a description of the individual, and their age. Later passports included a birth place and birth date, naturalization information, and arrival information if foreign born. Passport records from 1795-1925 are available at Ancestry.com.


In colonial times, British immigrants were automatically citizens of the colonies which belonged to the British Empire. One type of colonial naturalization for an individual who was not a British subject was denization which was a type of naturalization used by those who wished to obtain land, but not full privileges. For denization records see Lloyd de Witt Bockstruck’s, Denizations and Naturalizations in the British Colonies in America, 1607-1775, at Ancestry.com.

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Immigrants to colonial America from countries other than Great Britain were required to make an oath of allegiance and renounce loyalty to their former country which gave immigrant full privileges, including the right to vote and hold public office. Sources that list early published oaths of allegiance are William P. Filby’s Passenger and Immigration Lists Index, 1500s- 1900s, and Names of Foreigners Who Took the Oath of Allegiance to the Province and State of Pennsylvania, 1727-1775, both available at Ancestry.com.


This is where an entire group is collectively granted United States citizenship through an act of congress or treaty and there are no individual naturalization papers. In 1776 all those living in the United States were automatically made U. S. citizens. The exception was Native Americans (who were considered a separate nation) and African Americans.

NATURALIZATION FROM 1790-1906[edit | edit source]

Over 150 naturalization laws have been enacted since 1790. The process of applying for citizenship generally consisted of three major steps:

  • Declaration of Intent -
    First Papers. The declaration of intent is sometimes referred to as the "first papers" and could be filed any time after the immigrant arrived. In a declaration of intent an immigrant would renounce allegiance to foreign governments and by filing the intent would document they had resided in the country long enough to apply for citizenship. In 1952, a declaration of intent was no longer required, although some immigrants continued to file them.
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  • Petition for Naturalization -
    Second or Final Papers. After filing a declaration of intent and meeting the residency requirements (2 years from 1790-1795, 5 years from 1795-1798, 14 years from 1798 to 1802, and 5 years from 1802 to present) an immigrant could petition the court to become a citizen. Most often the petition was filed in a court nearest to the town where the immigrant had settled.
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  • Certificate of Citizenship-
    After all requirements were completed, the immigrant was sworn in as a citizen and issued their certificate. The court where the petition was filed kept a record of those receiving citizenship certificates.
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  • Derivative citizenship is obtaining one’s citizenship from or through another person. Starting in 1790, children under the age of 16 or 18 (depending on the year) received derivative citizenship from their father and no paperwork was created.
  • Beginning with the Act of May 26, 1824 an immigrant who arrived before their 18th birthday was allowed to petition for naturalization when they had reached the age of 21 without filing a declaration of intent.
  • From 1804 until 1922, derivative citizenship was granted to wives upon naturalization of their husband, or marriage to a man who was a U.S. citizen, but her name would usually not be mentioned in the naturalization documents. To prove her citizenship a woman would have to supply a marriage certificate and her husband’s naturalization certificate. From 1866 to 1907, a woman lost her U.S. citizenship by marrying an alien AND leaving the United States.
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  • Immigrants were required to register their arrival to the U. S. from 1798 to 1828, so that they could prove their residency later when applying for citizenship. These records could be recorded in the court minutes or in a report and registry book at the port of arrival or at the court where the Declaration of Intention was filed.
  • The Report and Registry included the following information: name of immigrant, birthplace, age, nation of allegiance, county of migration, place of intended settlement, and occupation.
  • The Report and Registry was often combined with the Declaration of Intention. If the Declaration of Intention during this period does not include the information required in the Report and Registry, search for a separate registry document.
    Many of the Report and Registry documents have been transferred to the National Archives.
  • Collective naturalization occurred for residents of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, Florida (which included Mississippi & Alabama) in 1819, Texas in 1845, Alaska in 1867, and Hawaii in 1898.
  • Congress passed naturalization laws making it easier to become a citizen for those immigrants serving in the military. Beginning in 1862, an immigrant soldier in the army who had received an honorable discharge could waive the declaration of intent and become naturalized after just one year of residency. Beginning in 1894, those immigrant soldiers with an honorable discharge from the navy and marines could also waive the declaration of intent and become naturalized after just one year of residency.


Before 1906, immigrants could naturalize in any of 5,000 federal, district, state, or local courts that had the authority to grant citizenship. You may need to search the court records of each place where your immigrant ancestor lived to locate all their naturalization records. He may have filed the declaration of intention in one court and state and filed the petition several years later in another court and state. Look first for the petition (second papers), because they are usually found in courts nearest where the immigrant eventually settled.

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A few county court naturalization records have been donated to the National Archives and can be ordered from the National Archives. Some local naturalization records were donated to state archives. More information about state archives can be found on individual state wiki pages at FamilySearch.org.

NATURALIZATION AFTER 1906[edit | edit source]

After September 26, 1906 county, state and federal courts were allowed to naturalize using specific forms created by the Bureau of Naturalization—later the Immigration Naturalization Service or INS, and presently the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services or USCIS. All forms were required to be sent to the USCIS.

In addition to the 3-step naturalization process of declaration of intent, petition for naturalization, and the certificate of citizenship, additional documents were created in 1906. These records included:

  • Certificate of Arrival- After 1906, the immigrant had to have a certificate that showed place of entry, manner of entry (name of ship), and the date of arrival. A governmental official would verify the arrival date with the original passenger list and a copy of the certificate of arrival was kept in the immigrant’s file with their petition.
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  • Certificate of Registry-
    A certificate of registry was created to document immigrants who arrived prior to July 1, 1924 to the United States when no original arrival record could be located. The immigrant was required to supply information about their arrival and each place they had resided in the U.S. Other biographical information may be listed in the certificate of registry.
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  • Visa-
    Beginning with the Immigration Act of 1924 and continuing until 1944, all immigrants had to have a Visa to enter the United States. Visas were obtained at United States Embassies and Consulates and include birth information, parents, children, previous residence and, beginning in 1929, a photograph of the individual.
  • Alien Registration Form-
    The Alien Registration Act of 1940 required every non-citizen of the United States, age 14 years and up, to register and fill out the Alien Registration form. An alien registration form listed the immigrant’s name, their name at time of entry to the United States, other names used, address, date of birth, citizenship/nationality, gender, marital status, race, height & weight, hair & eye color, port, date, ship, and class of admission at last arrival in United States, date of first arrival in United States, years lived in United States, intended stay in United States, usual occupation, present occupation, present employer (including address), club, organization, or society memberships, military service (country, branch, dates), date and number of Declaration of Intention (if filed), and city and state where filed, date of Petition for Naturalization (if filed), and city and state where filed, arrest history, fingerprint, signature, date and place of registration.

1. After 1907 a woman lost her U.S. citizenship by marrying an alien. Beginning in 1922, women were required to go through the same naturalization process as men unless her husband was a U.S. citizen, in which case she only needed to go through the petition step.

2. An act passed on 2 March 1929 allowed immigrants who had derived citizenship because of a parent’s naturalization could receive a Certificate of Citizenship in their own name once they turned 21. Application was made directly to the Bureau of Naturalization (later the INS, now the USCIS) and no courts were involved. These certificates are only available from the USCIS.

3. Collective naturalization occurred for residents of Puerto Rico in 1917, and the Virgin Islands in 1927. Other collective naturalization groups include African-Americans who were made citizens by the Fourteenth Amendment and Native Americans who were made citizens in 1924.

4. During World War I in 1918, immigrant soldiers were naturalized at military posts and the declaration and residency requirements were waived. An index for these soldiers is available at Fold3.com. Citizenship through military service still happens today.

5. In 2000 the Child Citizenship Act provided automatic United States citizenship to certain foreign-born children, including adopted children of U.S. citizens. At least one parent or legal guardian had to be a United States citizen. This act applies to orphans with a full and final adoption abroad or adoption finalized in the United States, biological or legitimate children, children born out of wedlock to a mother who naturalizes, and adopted children meeting a two-year custody requirement.

Locating Naturalization Records after 1906 at the USCIS[edit | edit source]

All naturalizations after September 26, 1906 that are more than fifty years old can be ordered online from the USCIS. These naturalization certificate files, known as C-files, generally contain a copy of the declaration of intent (to 1952), the petition for naturalization, and the certificate of naturalization. Occasionally, C-files also contain additional documents or correspondence.

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To order naturalization records of your family from the USCIS click here. Read the “Genealogy,” “Record Requests,” and “Search the Index” FAQs before ordering a search of the USCIS index. There is a fee for the index search and any copies of records you wish to purchase. Available records that can be requested are:

Certificate files (C-files) from Sept. 1906-Apr. 1956 Alien Registration Forms from Aug. 1940 – March 1944 Visa Files from July 1924 – March 1944 Registry Files from March 1929 – March 1944 Alien Files (A-files) prior to May 1951

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  • FamilySearch Wiki At FamilySearch.org, one of the quickest ways to find online naturalization records is to go to the Wiki page United States Naturalization Online Records. The naturalization online records page provides links to naturalization collections and additional websites having naturalization collections. At the Wiki page United States Naturalization and Citizenship, click on a subheading to learn more about types of naturalization records, or click on the state you are researching to learn about that particular state’s naturalization records.
  • Another way to search for naturalization records at the FamilySearch.org is to click on the United States interactive map. A drop down list of states will appear—click on the state in which you are interested. Scroll through the indexed records to find available indexed naturalization records for that state. Also scroll down and look for any “image only” naturalization record collections to search. Be sure to look for digitized state archive records.
  • Fold3.com (free at any FamilySearch History Center or Library) has a collection of online digitized indexes and naturalization records for several U.S. states and for World War I soldiers. Click on Naturalization 1700- mid 1900s. At the bottom of the screen, use the "search within" box to type in a name. Then choose “Indexes” or “Documents.”
  • For naturalization records found on various archives and personal sites, Joe Beine has created a webpage of Online Searchable Naturalization Records and Indexes. The webpage gives the countywide indexes and records first and then lists statewide indexes and records. This website is updated regularly and is a great source to begin searching for naturalization records on the Internet.
  • Olive Tree Genealogy provides links to several websites, many of them free, for naturalization records, passport applications, alien registrations, oaths or allegiance, and voter’s registrations.

FAMILYSEARCH LIBRARY[edit | edit source]

Search by state
Search by county

The Family History Library has microfilmed many naturalization records. Check the FamilySearch Catalog to see what's available. These microfilms can be ordered and viewed through your local family history center. Naturalization records at the library are listed in the Place-names search of the FamilySearch Catalog under one of the following:


SUMMARY[edit | edit source]

Your ancestor’s decision to become a citizen of the United States was an important part of their story. As more naturalization records become available online, it is easier to find these records. If your ancestor naturalized after 1906, more detailed information will be given about him or her than before 1906. Add the naturalization information of your ancestors to their stories to help make their story complete.

GOOD REFERENCE BOOKS:[edit | edit source]

American Naturalization Records 1790-1990, What They Are and How to Use Them, John J. Newman They Became Americans, Loretto Dennis Szucs Locating Your Immigrant Ancestor: A Guide to Naturalization, James and Lila Lee Neagles Women and Naturalization, Marian L. Smith