A Primer on United States Naturalization Records


Naturalization records can be difficult for genealogists to navigate. Researchers are often left wondering if they’ve searched for the right records in the right places, given the various types of naturalization records and courts that generated them. Genealogists who can grasp the basics of the naturalization process and the records it created will become better researchers.

Naturalization Laws
Beginning with the first federal naturalization act passed by Congress in 1790, free white immigrants were eligible to file a petition for naturalization after residing in the United States for two years and in the state of jurisdiction for one year. In 1795, a new law increased the U.S. residency requirement to five years and the state requirement to two years. Also in 1795, a two-step naturalization process was introduced, requiring immigrants to file a declaration of intention three years prior to filing a petition for naturalization. For a short time beginning in 1798, aliens were not eligible to naturalize unless they had fourteen years of residency in the United States; however the residency requirement was changed back to five years in 1802. Naturalizations took place in a number of local, county, state, and federal courts. The Naturalization Act of 1906 established the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization, and called for the federal government to oversee the naturalization process. Standardized naturalization forms were introduced and were used in all courts—both federal and otherwise—that handled naturalization actions.

The Records
The information provided in pre-1906 naturalization records varies significantly by jurisdiction. Some of these early records provide more detail than others, but in general, they do not include significant amounts of information about the person seeking citizenship. Nonetheless, some seemingly unimportant details can prove to be useful. For example, the date that an individual declared their intention to naturalize or became a naturalized citizen can sometimes be used to help prove or disprove whether they are a distinct individual whose arrival date is known. Additionally, pre-1906 naturalization records sometimes include signatures, which can be used to compare against other known signatures of an individual.

Beginning in 1795, the naturalization process began with a declaration of intention—commonly known as “first papers.” Declarations of intention from before 1906 rarely offer specific information on the alien, such as their date or place of birth. Records from 1906 through 1929 include the alien’s name, age, occupation, place and date of birth, address, date and port of entry, last foreign residence, date of declaration, and a personal description including race, complexion, height, weight, hair color, eye color, and distinctive marks. Beginning in 1929, spouse and children’s names, ages, and places of residence, as well as the alien’s photograph, were added to the form. If the declarant later completed the naturalization process, a copy of the declaration of intention can usually be found with the naturalization petition.

Even after 1795, some applicants did not need to file a declaration of intention. Minors who lived in the United States for five years prior to their twenty-third birthday were able to file their declarations of intention and naturalization petitions at the same time. Also, veterans of the military and current members of the armed forces often did not have to file declarations of intent. (Naturalization laws regarding the military and veterans changed frequently over the years; more information can be found on the National Archives Naturalization Records page.)

The petition for naturalization was an “application” to the court to become a naturalized citizen of the United States. Like declarations of intention, naturalization petitions from before 1906 usually do not provide detailed information on the applicant, such as date or place of birth, or names of family members. These early records typically include the date of naturalization, date of declaration, and the alien’s native country. Specific origins in the applicant’s native country are rarely provided. Records from 1906 and later include the petitioner’s name, address, occupation, age, date and place of birth, date and place of marriage, date and port of entry, spouse’s name, spouse’s date and place of birth, spouse’s date and port of entry, and spouse’s address, as well as the names of children, dates and places of birth for children, last foreign residence, names and addresses of witnesses, signature, and personal description including gender, race, complexion, eye color, hair color, height, weight, and distinctive marks. Some naturalization petitions after 1929 include photographs.

Naturalization petitions for individuals who arrived in the United States after 1906 are appended with certificates of arrival. Issued by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), these records served as proof of lawful admission to the United States. They include the alien’s name (as it appeared on the record of their immigration), the date and port of entry, and the manner of arrival (for example, a vessel name or railroad company).

Upon completion of the naturalization process, new citizens were issued certificates of naturalization. Pre-1906 certificates include the individual’s name, the court that processed the naturalization, and the date of naturalization. Naturalization certificates issued after 1906 include the individual’s name, address, previous allegiance, date and court of naturalization, a personal description, and sometimes the names, ages and residences of the individual’s spouse and minor children. Beginning in 1929, photographs were included on naturalization certificates.

Evidence of Naturalization
Several commonly used genealogical records can be used to help identify an individual’s naturalization status at a specific point in time. These records, when used together, are useful for narrowing down the timeframe in which a person was likely naturalized. The 1870 census includes a column to check for “male citizens of the U.S. of 21 years of age and upwards.” Additionally, the 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930, and 1940 censuses each have columns that indicate a person’s naturalization status; responses include “Al” for alien, “Pa” if first papers have been filed, and “Na” for naturalized citizens. For the 1917 to 1918 time period, World War I draft registration cards document the registrant’s citizenship status. Some passenger manifests also provide details on the traveler’s citizenship status.

Even if it appears that an ancestor was not naturalized, it may be worthwhile to search for a declaration of intention or naturalization petition. Some aliens declared their intention to naturalize but never completed the process, and some filed naturalization petitions that were rejected. Ancestors who lived past 1940 and never naturalized, or who naturalized sometime after 1940, should have alien registration cards or A-files.

Finding Naturalization Records
Early naturalizations took place in various types of courts, including supreme, circuit, district, equity, chancery, probate, and common pleas courts. In most states, the majority of these early naturalizations took place in county-level courts, but it is always worthwhile to determine whether there were other courts that also granted citizenship. As time went on, some county courts—especially those in counties that were home to a federal district court—no longer granted citizenship. In these cases, people were often naturalized in a nearby county court or in a federal court. Ancestors who moved from state to state during the years prior to their naturalization may have filed their declaration of intention with one court and their naturalization petition with another, or may have filed multiple declarations of intention with different courts as they moved.

Local court naturalization records (including declarations of intention and naturalization petitions) and their indexes are commonly found at county clerks’ offices, courthouses, and state or county archives. Some counties have made indexes available online through their websites or through genealogical and historical societies. Federal court naturalization records and their indexes are available on microfilm or in hard copy through the National Archives regional facility that holds court records for the geographic area of interest. Many of the federal court naturalization records and indexes have also been digitized and made available through Ancestry.com, Fold3, and FamilySearch.

Beginning in 1906, local and federal courts were required to send duplicate copies of naturalization records to the INS (which was dismantled in 2003, and whose records are now in the custody of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service—known as USCIS). These “federal copies” of naturalization records can be found in the Certificate files (C-files) for naturalized citizens, and can be useful when a county’s records have been lost or destroyed, or if the specific location of the naturalization is unknown. C-files include duplicate copies of the declaration of intention, naturalization petition, and certificate of arrival, in addition to the naturalization certificate (which is not retained by the local or federal court, and which often includes a photograph). C-files may be obtained by first requesting a search of the USCIS indexes. This search will identify which USCIS records are available for the research subject (C-files and other files), and those records can be ordered through USCIS.

Naturalization records can provide valuable information for researchers looking to trace the origins of their immigrant ancestors, learn about their journeys to the United States, and document their families and relatives. Several other resources can provide additional information on naturalization records and the naturalization process, including:

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