Beginning Research in United States Naturalization Records

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What are naturalization records?

  • 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.
  • The process of applying for citizenship generally consisted of three major steps:
  • Declaration of Intent -
    First Papers. The declaration of intent to become a citizen is sometimes referred to as the "first papers".
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  • Petition for Naturalization -
    Second or Final Papers. After 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.
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  • Certificate of Citizenship-
    After all requirements were completed, the immigrant was sworn in as a citizen and issued their certificate.
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  • Passports - 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.

What time periods do they cover?

Naturalization records began in 1790 and go up to the present. However, they are much more detailed after 1906. They are found throughout the United States.

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.

What can I find in them?

  • Before 1906, a 'declaration of intent will give name, the home country, and the date.
  • A petition will give name, date and place of birth, occupation, date and port of arrival, and names of witnesses (frequently relatives).
  • Starting in 1907, the information in the petition became much more detailed, including:
Name
Date and place of birth
Spouses's name
Date and place of birth
Date of arrival
Port of arrival
Ship's name
All children's names and ages, and whether foreign born or U.S.
  • 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.

How do I access them?

  • Before 1906, immigrants could naturalize in any of 5,000 federal, district, state, or local courts that had the authority to grant citizenship. A few county court naturalization records have been donated to the National Archives and can be ordered from the National Archives.
  • The Family History Library has microfilmed many naturalization records. These microfilms can be ordered and viewed through your local family history center. For more help, see FAMILYSEARCH LIBRARY
  • Passport applications from 1795-1925 are available at Ancestry.com.

Search strategies

  • 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.
  • Different parts of the process might show up in courts at the various locations where the ancestor lived, so you might have to check several places.
  • There are several clues in census records that may help you.
    • 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)
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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.