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RootsWeb's Guide to Tracing Family Trees
Guide No. 16:  Naturalization Records

Pledging Allegiance:

Naturalization records

Explore the Naturalization and Immigration Information at
Immigrant Ship Transcribers Guild

Naturalization is the process by which an alien (foreign-born resident) becomes an citizen of another country. Such papers can be an important source of information regarding the immigrant's place of origin, his or her original name, former residence, and date of arrival in the new country.


Immigrants to Canada have never been required to apply for citizenship. Until 1947, settlers from Great Britain were considered citizens of Canada and did not have to naturalize. Of those who applied, some did not complete the process. Evidence that the immigrant did complete it can be found in censuses, court minutes, homestead records, passports, voting registers and military papers. Citizenship information is reported in Canadian censuses beginning in 1901.

Prior to 1867, when Canada became a nation, naturalization was completed in accordance with the laws of the provinces or with British law. Between 1763 and 1947, non-alien residents of Canada were considered British subjects. Settlers from England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales did not have to naturalize in Canada.

Prior to War of 1812 — Some colonies had laws that required aliens to declare the length of their residence and the nature of their business. Some immigrants had to take loyalty oaths when applying for land grants and sometimes these records can be found with land records.

After War of 1812 — In New Brunswick, certificates of naturalization date from 1817, but in Upper Canada (Ontario) the law did not take effect until 1828. Laws for the other provinces were enacted later.

After 1867 — Most naturalization was a federal process, although provinces retained some jurisdiction over immigrants. Since 1867 certificates of naturalization normally were granted by the office of the Secretary of State for Canada. Petitions for citizenship were received by judicial courts, and they were then forwarded to that office for approval. Certificates of naturalization were returned to the courts, and then given to the applicants after they took an oath of citizenship.

In 1947 Canadian citizenship was established separate from British. The Family History Library has microfilm copies of many, but not all, Canadian naturalization papers and the National Archives of Canada in Ottawa has microfilm copies of naturalization papers for Upper Canada (Ontario), 1828-1850. The latter are available through interlibrary loan system to public libraries. Many Ontario and Quebec records appear to have been lost, especially for the years 1850-1865. Records made for all of Canada by the Department of the Secretary of State between 1865 and 1917 were destroyed. However, there is an index with information such as name, residence and court of certification at:

Records Control Citizenship Branch
Department of the Secretary of State
P.O. Box 7000 Sydney, NS,
Canada B1P 6G5

Border crossings from the United States to Canada or from Canada to the United States are and were fairly common. The official recording of those who crossed overland from the United States to Canada began in 1908. Border crossing for the time period 1908 to 1918 have been microfilmed. These records are available at:

National Archives of Canada.
The National Archives of Canada
395 Wellington Street
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1A 0N3

In order to request the microfilms, you must first know what films you want to use. To do this, access a finding aid entitled Ships' Passenger Lists and Border Entry Lists in PAC, RG 76 (Records of the Immigration Branch): Microfilm Finding Aid (Ottawa: Federal Archives Division, Public Archives of Canada, 1986). You can request via interlibrary loan through your public library up to three microfilms at any given time. However, these records are not indexed by name, so in order to locate your ancestor you will need to know when he crossed over into Canada and have an idea of what border entry point he went through.

Under a U. S.-Canada agreement in 1894, immigrants destined to the U. S. were inspected and recorded by American immigrant inspectors at Canadian ports of entry. Until 1917 records of all entries at all Canadian ports — Atlantic and Pacific — were filed in Montreal, and are known as the Canadian Border Crossing Records - St. Albans Lists. After 1917, entries at land border ports west of the Montana/North Dakota state line were filed in Seattle, Washington, USA.


United States

In the U. S. naturalization is a voluntary act; naturalization is not required — has never been required. Of the foreign-born persons listed on the 1890 through 1930 censuses, 25 percent had not become naturalized or filed their "first papers." However, if your ancestor applied for U. S. citizenship those papers might reveal some important information. These records are, in many instances, much more valuable — genealogically — than ship passenger lists.

The Courts

The first naturalization law was passed by U. S. Congress in 1790 and through much of the 20th century, an alien could become naturalized in any court of record. People usually went to the court most convenient to them, which usually was a county court. While the names and types of courts vary through the years, they may include the county, supreme, circuit, district, equity, chancery, probate, or common pleas court. Most researchers will find that their ancestors became naturalized in one of these courts. A few State supreme courts also naturalized aliens, such as the supreme courts of Indiana, Idaho, Iowa, Maine, New Jersey, and South Dakota. Aliens who lived in large urban areas sometimes became naturalized in a federal court, such as a U. S. district court or U. S. circuit court.

As a general rule, naturalization was a two-step process that took a minimum of five years. After residing in the United States for two years, an alien could file a "declaration of intent" (so-called "first papers") to become a citizen. After three additional years, the alien could "petition for naturalization." After the petition was granted, a certificate of citizenship then was issued. These two steps did not have to take place in the same court. As a general rule, the DI (Declaration of Intent) generally contains more genealogically useful information than the Petition, but a search for both should be conducted. Sometimes declarations include the alien's month and year (or possibly the exact date) of immigration into the United States and even the name of ship.


Derivative citizenship was granted to wives and minor children of naturalized men. From 1790 to 1922, wives of naturalized men automatically became citizens. An alien woman who married a U. S. citizen automatically became a citizen. (Conversely, an American woman who married an alien lost her U. S. citizenship, even if she never left the United States.) From 1790 to 1940 children under the age of 21 automatically became naturalized citizens upon the naturalization of their father. Unfortunately, however, names and biographical information about wives and children are rarely included in declarations or petitions filed before September 1906. From 1824 to 1906, minor aliens who had lived in the United States five years before their 23rd birthday could file both their declarations and petitions at the same time.

Special consideration was given to veterans. An 1862 law allowed honorably discharged Army veterans of any war to petition for naturalization — without previously having filed a declaration of intent — after only one year of residence in the United States. If your ancestor filed for a Homestead claim under the Homestead Act of 1862, or applied for a passport, the application for either may give the name of the court where the naturalization took place.

An 1894 law extended the same no-previous-declaration privilege to honorably discharged five-year veterans of the Navy or Marine Corps. Under an act in 1918 aliens serving in the U. S. armed forces during World War I were allowed to file a petition for naturalization without making a declaration of intent or proving 5 years' residence. More than 192,000 aliens were naturalized between May 9, 1918, and June 30, 1919. Other laws later enacted continued various preferential treatment provisions for veterans.

Canada | U.S.A. | British | Australia

Where to find the records

Naturalization records from county courts may still be at the county court, or in a county or State archives, or at a regional archives. Some of these records or indexes have been published.

As a general rule, the National Archives does not have naturalization records created in state or local courts. However, some county court naturalization records have been donated to the National Archives.

If the naturalization took place in a federal court, naturalization indexes, declarations of intent, and petitions will usually be in the National Archives serving the state in which the federal court is located. Some of these indexes regional records services facility and records have been microfilmed.

Not all of our immigrant ancestors became U. S. citizens. Some filed the first papers, but never completed the process. Before starting the search for naturalization records, American researchers should trace their ancestors through the federal censuses. The 1930, 1920, 1910, 1900, and 1870 censuses all have columns pertaining to citizenship. While the information is not always 100 percent correct, it does provide clues. Under the question of whether or not an individual was naturalized, you are likely to see one of three abbreviations:

Three important time frames pertaining to American naturalization records:

For pre-1906 naturalization records pinpoint the locations via census, land, tax records, and city directories in which your male ancestor lived from the time of his arrival in the United States through to his naturalization. Once you have plotted this, search each county courthouse for his naturalization papers. It is possible that the records you seek may be available on microfilm through your local Family History Center. Or you may need to actually contact the county about the records. Finally, it is always possible that your ancestor went to federal court. In which case, the records you need may be housed at one of the branches of the National Archives.

Do Your Homework

Some records have been transferred to regional branches of the federal archives or may be found in state archives.

County court employees may tell you that their naturalization records are at the National Archives or that their court never conducted naturalizations. Many current employees are not genealogists and may not be familiar with the court's older records. It is up to you to determine the location of older court records

Prior to the opening of Ellis Island in 1892, immigrants coming through the Port of New York City usually went through Castle Garden. While there are documented customs lists or passenger lists for New York City going back as far as 1820, Castle Garden was not opened until 1855. In the 40-year period from 1820 to 1860, according to The Source, two-thirds of the 5.4 million immigrants to the United States passed through New York. Castle Garden was an old fort and was located on the lower tip of Manhattan. By 1890 it was obvious that it was outgrowing its capabilities as more and more immigrants flooded in. So, in 1892, Ellis Island was opened. There are passenger lists for New York beginning in 1820 and going on up into the 20th century, but they are not all indexed. There is a 50-year gap in the indexing of New York passenger lists for New York from 1846 to 1897.

Immigration Records at the National Archives

See Guide 15 for more on ship passenger lists.

Naturalization Records at the National Archives

Alien Records at the National Archives

Passport Applications at the National Archives

Passport applications can be an excellent source of genealogical information, especially about foreign-born individuals. The National Archives and Records Administration has passport applications from October 1795-March 1925; the U. S. Department of State has passport applications from April 1925 to the present.

Foreign travel in the 19th century was much more frequent than one might expect. Overseas travelers included businessmen, the middle class, and naturalized U. S. citizens who frequently returned to their homelands to visit relatives.

Although 95 percent of mid-19th century passport applicants were men, many women traveled overseas. If the applicant was to be accompanied by his wife, children, servants, or other females under his protection, their names, ages, and relationship to the applicant were stated on the passport application. One passport was then issued to cover the whole group. Likewise, when children traveled abroad solely with their mother, their names and ages were indicated on the mother's passport application.

Many U. S. residents traveled overseas without holding a U. S. passport because:

Passport applications for naturalized citizens may state the court and date of naturalization and the date and ship upon which the applicant immigrated to the United States. Evidence of the applicant's naturalization as a U. S. citizen may be detailed or cursory. Photographs have been required with applications since December 21, 1914.

Passport applications (1795-March 1925) may be searched at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

Some National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) regional facilities have selected microfilmed passport records.

Copies of passport applications (1795-March 1925) can be ordered by mail from National Archives and Records Administration, Attention: Old Military and Civil Records (NWCTB), 700 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20408-0001. You can also make an online request at and then clicking on the links in the following order:

Your letter or email must include: your name and mailing (postal) address; the passport applicant's name, year of birth, place of residence at the time the application was made, and the approximate year of travel.


British Denization

Some records of immigrants to Great Britain are in the Public Records Office and are described in PRO Records Information leaflets (see below). There are records of aliens becoming British subjects, by the processes of denization or naturalization.

A person who was a subject of the British Crown was known as a denizen, whether he obtained that status by birth or by grant. Aliens in Britain (particularly merchants) were subject to various disabilities, so denization was advantageous and could be granted by the Crown (by Royal Charter or by Letters Patent under the Great Seal). According to Mark D. Herber in Ancestral Trails, from the 16th century the rights of a denizen could also be granted by a private act of Parliament, but these parliamentary grants became known as naturalization because the person was then deemed to have always been a subject of the Crown.

Parliamentary naturalization required the applicant to receive the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper and take oaths of supremacy and allegiance. Some people (for example Jews and Catholics) were therefore unable to use this process and instead relied on the denization procedure until the requirements for the oaths were withdrawn in the 19th century. A third procedure was introduced in 1844 when the Home Secretary was empowered to grant naturalization to aliens by a certificate. Letters Patent of denization were published in the London Gazette and enrolled on the Patent Rolls. The Huguenot Society has published indexes to letters of denization and acts of naturalization from 1509 to 1800.

Under the Aliens Act 1792 all foreigners arriving in England were suppose to register with a Justice of Peace, providing their name, rank, address and occupation. Such surviving registration records can be found at the County Registry Offices.

Public Record Office's Family History publications are available for a nominal price. Check the various ones available by searching via the radio button at the PRO's bookstore.


Australian Denization

Immigrants to Australia who were not British subjects could elect to apply to the government for naturalization, also called denization. It was not compulsory. Those immigrants who were officially naturalized received certain rights and privileges, one of which that they were entitled to own land. The first naturalizations in Australia occurred in New South Wales in 1825. A previous residence in the colony of five years was required.

Naturalization became a federal government responsibility in 1903 and all "Applicants Files and Enrolled Certificates for naturalizations in all states and territories in Australia from 1904 are held by the AACT [Australian Archives, PO Box 447, Belconnen, ACT 26216], with an index to these maintained by the DOI [Department of Immigration & Ethnic Affairs, Central Administration, Benjamin Offices, Chan St., Belconnen, ACT 2617].

There is an alphabetical surname "Index to Naturalizations, 1849-1903" at the AONSW [Archives Office of New South Wales, 2 Glove St., Sydney, NSW 2000] that gives a register number and page reference for each person listed.

Canada | U.S.A. | British| Australia

Suggested Reading & References

Additional Resources

Links in this Guide
(in order they appeared)