Using Immigration Records For Genealogy

Finding Information about Migration and Relocation

What Are Immigration Records?

Immigrations records are a list of names of people who immigrated and became citizens of a new country. Usually, these were written on a ship’s passenger list at the port where they arrived.

What Is The Difference Between Immigration And Emigration?

Immigration and emigration are similar in that they both involve traveling from one place to another, but there is one major difference between the two. “Immigration” is when you arrive in a country, while “emigration” is when you depart from a country.

For example, let’s say you are a U.S. citizen and you travel to a European country. As you leave your home country, you’d be called an “emigrant”. But, as you arrive in that European nation, you’d be called an “immigrant”.

What Are The Contents In Records Of Immigration?

The content in immigration records may vary depending on when the record was created, what country it was recorded in, and the mode of transportation. That said, there are some general pieces of information you’d likely find across different records:

United States Immigration Records

Any passenger list before 1820 includes:

  • Name (names of immediate family members were not necessary)
  • Departure information
  • Arrival details

Immigration records between the early 1800s and late 1800s (referred to as a list of custom passengers) included:

  • Age
  • Sex
  • Occupation
  • Nation of origin (specific birthplaces were not necessary)

From the late 1800s to the mid-1900s, the information on the list expanded to include the following:

  • Basic passenger information (e.g., name, age, sex, and nationality)
  • Complete information on the passenger’s previous residency
  • Employment status
  • Civil status or marital standing (e.g., whether the passenger was a polygamist)
  • Health status
  • Ability to read and write
  • Amount of money in possession
  • Permanent place of residency in the U.S.
  • Any previous travel history in any state in the United States (if yes, what additional itinerary information)
  • Any additional person (if yes, what is their name, residency, and relationship to the passenger)
  • Any possession of additional travel passage (e.g., train tickets and who sponsored or purchased them)
  • Any criminal history or record of stay in government housing or mental institutions

And in the early 1900s, the list included the following details:

  • Physical description
  • Complete birthplace information
  • Address of traveler’s nearest living relative in their nation of origin

Other Countries’ Immigration Records

For other countries, the contents of the immigration records may vary. But generally, they include the following:

  • Name
  • Age
  • Sex
  • Nationality
  • Occupation
  • Place of birth
  • Marital status
  • Health status
  • Any previous travel history in the country (if yes, when, where, and how long)
  • Any criminal history or record of stay at a poorhouse or insane institution

Where To Search For Records Of Immigration

You can find immigration records at the National Archives or file a request through the United States government’s Freedom of Information Act. This is most useful if you’re trying to find immigrant ancestors in the U.S via immigration records, naturalization records, visas, alien files, enemy alien records, and other documents.

Though, it’s important to note that only some records have been digitized and made available online. Most records are still only available in paper or microfilm format.

There are also online genealogical records from both the United States and other countries. However, most of these records require you to know the year your immigrant ancestor arrived in the country and where exactly they settled.

How To Request Your Immigrant Ancestor’s Information

For U.S. citizens, the FOIA or the Freedom of Information Act allows people to access their immigration information in government records. Through this, you can obtain copies of your immigration records, including identifying documents of your ancestors such as birth certificates and proof of original residency.

To request this information, you have to file a G-639 Form by yourself or through a lawyer. This form ensures that you get accurate information and relevant immigration records. After that, you need to fill up a request for a FOIA stating the purpose of your request. 

How To Use Immigration Records For Family History

You can use immigration records to learn the name of your immigrant ancestor, their birthplace, and other interesting information about your family. Here’s how:

1. Search Local Records

Once you learn the name of your ancestor’s place of birth, search local records for any information about them. Maybe they were in the local news, or perhaps they were from a prominent family in the area.

2. Make Sure The Information Lines Up

After that, make sure the information you have is accurate. There were a lot of people with similar first names and last names, so you have to do your due diligence here.

Double-check your information by asking your relatives about any information they might have about your ancestor, such as their hobbies or specific physical features. If available, you can match family photos of them to pictures contained in immigration records.

3. Continue Your Search Even When The Going Gets Tough

When there’s a knowledge gap or a lot of information to sift through, it’s very likely that you’ll encounter challenges during your genealogy work. It’s normal to experience setbacks while reconnecting with your immigrant ancestry, and you can get around many of these by being persistent and creative in your search.

When you hit a roadblock, try looking for unconventional clues, such as the name of the ship your ancestor boarded or any family members you may not have known about. Then, attack your search from a new angle and reconnect the dots later.