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Content by
Linda Jonas 2006

U.S. Naturalization Records

Naturalization records are some of the most genealogically valuable records of all. This is when your ancestor decided to make the official break with his homeland and to adopt this new country as his own. He usually had been in the United States for five years or more when he took out his final papers. At that time he brought witnesses with him. These people were not like witnesses to a marriage; they had to have known your ancestor for a long time and be able to testify to his moral character. They were almost always close friends or relatives. Locating all of the documents involved in the naturalization process can be difficult, but it is well worth the effort. Even when they don't tell you the specific information you are seeking, they will usually provide clues to other documents. And most importantly, they will enable you to add another pivotal event to your ancestor's life beyond birth, marriage, and death.

Naturalization Before the American Revolution

During the colonial period, there were no citizens of the United States because there was no such country! In order to have all the rights and privileges of a British subject, one had to become a subject of the British monarch. Therefore, because most of the colonial immigrants were from England and were already British subjects, they will not be found in naturalization records. However, some immigrants had previously immigrated to the British Isles from other European countries and were naturalized there before coming to the American colonies. Many others came directly to the colonies and petitioned to become British subjects. Colonial naturalization records may be found in England or in the colonies, or both.

Colonial Naturalization Law

According to English law, an alien could neither hold nor inherit real property, nor pass it to his heirs. If he acquired property it passed to the Crown upon his death. An excellent discussion of the evolution of British and Irish naturalization law can be found in William Shaw's Letters of Denization and Acts of Naturalization for Aliens in England. (See FHL film 0824513.)

Colonial naturalization law was made by Parliament in England. Colonies were not allowed to decide naturalization procedures for themselves. Naturalization was so important to the American colonies that it was one of the grievances in the Declaration of Independence.

Colonial Naturalization Procedures before 1740

Prior to 1740, there were four ways a foreigner could acquire the rights of a natural-born Englishman. They were:

  1. Letters of Denization by the Crown

  2. Acts of Parliament
  3. Acts of Royal Governor or Proprietor of the colonies
  4. Acts of Colonial Legislatures

If your ancestor immigrated to England from another country, he may have obtained a letter of denization from the Crown or received naturalization from Parliament before proceeding to the colonies. Many immigrants were encouraged to go to England before coming to the colonies because naturalization procedures were easier in England. Some stayed there for years and even generations before moving to the colonies. The terms "denization" and "naturalization" were originally synonymous. Eventually, the term "denization" applied to naturalizations granted by the Crown.

Because of the power of the King, he could choose to include or exclude any rights or privileges whatsoever from the Letter of Denization. Because aliens paid double taxes, one of the most common restrictions in a Letter of Denization is that the subject would have all rights of a natural-born Englishman, but would pay taxes as an alien. "Naturalization" was the term used for naturalization granted by acts of Parliament. Parliament did not have the unrestricted power of the Crown, and therefore naturalizations granted all rights of a natural-born Englishman to the immigrant without restrictions. Naturalization by Parliament was expensive and difficult to acquire. Most immigrants received a Letter of Denization.

An immigrant coming directly to the colonies could have become naturalized by an act of the colonial governor acting in place of the monarch, or by act of the colonial legislature. However, the colonial naturalizations prior to 1740 were strictly local in nature and the rights obtained did not extend to other colonies nor to the British Isles. If your ancestor moved to another colony, he would have to also become naturalized there. If the immigrant had obtained his naturalization in England, however, the naturalization extended to all of the colonies.

Colonial Naturalization Procedures after 1740

After 1740, the procedure changed. The 1740 Act of Parliament [13 George II, c.7] was entitled "An Act for Naturalizing such foreign Protestants, and others therein mentioned, as are settled or shall settle in any of His Majesty's Colonies in America." It allowed an immigrant who had lived seven years in a colony to become naturalized by fulfilling certain requirements (such as taking the oaths and producing a certificate that he had taken the Sacrament) in the colony of residence. His naturalization applied in England as well as in all of the colonies. The payment for the naturalization under this act was two shillings. Large numbers of immigrants (excluding Catholics) became naturalized under this act.

Copies of these naturalizations were supposed to be sent to the Office of the Commissioners for Trade and Plantations in London or Westminster at the end of every year. Some colonies complied with the law and others did not. The naturalizations that were sent to England will be found in Naturalizations of Foreign Protestants in the American and West Indian Colonies. (See below.) Those that were never sent may be found in colonial records and may be on microfilm through the Family History Library. They will be cataloged under the name of the current state. Naturalization records during the colonial time can help you determine if your ancestor was really from the British Isles.

Locating Colonial Naturalization Records

1. In England

A. Letters of Denization and Acts of Naturalization are found on the following FHL films:

Dates Covered

FHL Film #

1509 - 1603

824513 Item 1

1603 - 1700

824513 Item 2

1701 - 1800

824514 Item 1


B. For records located in England of aliens naturalized in the colonies from ca. 1740-1773:

Giusepppi, M. S. Naturalizations of Foreign Protestants in the American and West Indian Colonies (Pursuant to Statute 13 George II, c.7) (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1979)

2. In the Colonies

A.  Most colonial naturalizations have been published. An excellent example is Denizations, Naturalizations, and Oaths of Allegiance in Colonial New York by Kenneth Scott and Kenn Stryker-Rodda (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing, 1975.) This book contains a short history of naturalization in Colonial New York and an alphabetical listing of persons naturalized that were found in various documents in England and in New York. Most books of this kind have been indexed in the Filby volumes:

Filby, P. William, with Mary K. Meyer, eds. Passenger and Immigration Lists Index: A Guide to Published Arrival Records of more than 1,775,000 Passengers Who Came to the New World between the Sixteenth and the Early Twentieth Centuries. (Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1981-Present) Originally 3 vols. Annual supplements.

You must check every volume of Filby's indexes, or even better use the most recent CD version of Passenger and Immigration Lists Index to search them all at once. If you do not find your immigrant indexed in the above source, then check the Bibliography below for a list of other sources:

Filby, P. William. Passenger and Immigration Lists Bibliography 1538-1900: Being a Guide to Published Lists of Arrivals in the United States and Canada. 2nd ed. (Detroit: Gale Research Co, 1988).

B.  For unpublished records, check the Family History Library Catalog (FHLC). Look under [STATE] - NATURALIZATION AND CITIZENSHIP. The FHLC will list published sources as well.

United States Naturalization

Although passenger lists were not required until 1820, naturalization records have always been important. During the Revolutionary War, many people took oaths renouncing their allegiance to King George III and swearing allegiance to the state in which they were living. An excellent example is Names of Persons who took the Oath of Allegiance to the State of Pennsylvania between the Years 1777 and 1789 with a History of the "Test Laws" of Pennsylvania by Thompson Westcott (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1996). Individual states could authorize their legislatures to naturalize during this period. For example, the New York State Constitution of 1777 authorized state naturalizations. The 1778 Articles of Confederation decreed common citizenship in the United States.

The first federal naturalization law was the March 26, 1790 Act of Congress. The requirements for naturalization included a two-year residency in the United States, one year in the state where naturalized, and an oath to support the Constitution. No declaration of intention was required.

Changes in federal requirements:

  • Act of Congress January 29, 1795 required a declaration of intention to be filed three years before naturalization, five years residency in the U. S., one year in the state where naturalized. The immigrant had to be of good moral character and renounce any title of nobility.
  • Act of June 18, 1798 increased the residency requirements to 14 years in the U. S. A Report and Registry was now required, copies must be forwarded to the Secretary of State.
  • The Act of April 14, 1802 repealed the residency requirement of the 1798 act, but reenacted the Report and Registry requirement. [The Report and Registry was repealed by the act of May 24, 1828.] The 1802 law required one year residence in a state and five years in the United States. A Declaration of Intention was to be filed three years prior to admission as a citizen. This act (with slight modifications) formed the basic law until 1906.
  • The important thing to remember is that naturalization in the United States was a process involving several documents over a period of time. Before 1906, naturalization could have occurred in any common law court of record. This could be a local, county, state, or federal court. The information found in the many courts and on the various naturalization documents was not standardized.

    In 1906 a major change occurred. The 1906 naturalization law was an act that provided for uniformity of naturalization throughout the United States. The Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization was created. Naturalization records became standardized and more detailed than most pre-1906 records.

    The Naturalization Documents

    The naturalization process generated the following types of documents:

    A.  Report and Registry 1798-1828. If your immigrant came to the U. S. during this period, you should check the records of the courts at the port of arrival as well as the courts surrounding the one where the Declaration of Intention was filed. Both a Report and Registry and a Declaration of Intention had to be shown in order to petition the court for naturalization. The Report and Registry required the "name, birthplace, age, nation and allegiance of each alien, together with the country whence he or she migrated, and the place of his or her intended settlement." 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 regional branches of the National Archives. For example, if your ancestor arrived at the port of Boston, the Report and Registry order books are at National Archives, Boston Branch.

    B. Declaration of Intention, "First Papers" 1795 to present. These are usually the documents that contain the most information about your ancestor. The Declaration was filed when your ancestor went to court and declared that he intended to become a citizen. It was his first step in the naturalization process. Declarations of Intention can be very detailed, or may give little information beyond the name of the immigrant and nation of origin. They may tell you the name, date of birth, birthplace, date and port of emigration, date and port of arrival, name of spouse, marriage date and place, names and dates of birth of children, physical description, place of residence, and many other items of information. Generally, the more recent the document, the more detailed it will be. Declarations of Intention filed after 1906 will contain all of the above information and more. Recent Declarations contain photos of the immigrant.

    C.  Petition, "Second Papers" or "Final Papers". Your immigrant has now complied with the residency requirements and is ready to complete the process. He now petitions the court to become a citizen. After 1906 these documents contain information similar to the Declaration of Intention.

    D. Certificate of Arrival, 1906 - Present. After 1906, the immigrant had to have a certificate that showed the name of the ship on which he arrived and the date of arrival. A governmental official would go back to the original passenger list to verify that your immigrant arrived on that date and issue the certificate. The official would indicate naturalization on the passenger list. When you examine U. S. Passenger lists, you will see handwritten numbers by the passenger's name. These are naturalization numbers.

    E.  Oath of Allegiance. Immigrants always had to renounce their all allegiance to their former sovereign and swear an oath of allegiance to the United States.

    F.  Affidavits of Witnesses. As mentioned before, these were people who knew the immigrant well. They were almost always close friends or relatives. The witnesses had to swear that the immigrant had been in the country the required amount of time and that he or she was of good moral character.

    G. Court Order. Upon satisfaction to the court that the immigrant had complied with the requirements, the court would order the naturalization and record it in the records of the court.

    H.  Naturalization Certificate. This was the document given to the citizen verifying his naturalization.

    Types of naturalization

    Some of your ancestors may have been naturalized without completing all of the above requirements. There are three other types of naturalization:

    A.  Collective citizenship is the granting of citizenship to an entire group of people. For example, when the government acquires a new territory, it can grant citizenship to all people currently living in that territory. This occurred when the U. S. acquired the Louisiana Purchase.

    B.  Derivative citizenship is citizenship based upon the citizenship of another. Children under 21 became citizens automatically upon the naturalization of the parent since 1790. Wives became citizens by naturalization of the husband from 1790-1922. Since 1922, a woman has to be  naturalized on her own.

    C.  Military - An 1862 act of Congress provided that any alien 21 years of age and upwards who had enlisted or would in the future enlist in the U. S. Army and had been honorably discharged could be admitted a citizen without any previous declaration of intention. He did not have to prove more than one year's residence. An act of 1894 extended the privilege to those who served five consecutive years in the U. S. Navy or one enlistment in the Marine Corps. About 200,000 aliens were naturalized because of the act of May 9, 1918 which provided for the immediate naturalization of any alien engaged in U. S. military or naval service during World War I. They were naturalized at military camps or in courts nearby without declarations of intention, certificates of arrival, or proof of residence.

    Major Sources of information regarding naturalization laws and procedures

    1. John J. Newman's American Naturalization Processes and Procedures 1790-1985 (Indiana Historical Society, 1985.) has an excellent overview of the naturalization process including a summary of naturalization laws and many examples of documents. Overall, this is the best concise source to the subject of naturalization.

     2. The United States Statutes at Large contain the complete text of all laws passed by Congress. The statutes are arranged in chronological order. The U. S. Statutes at Large can be found in law libraries, such the Los Angeles County Law Library which is open to the public.

    How do you know if your ancestor was naturalized?

    There was no requirement for an immigrant to become naturalized and many never bothered. However, a majority of immigrants did become naturalized. The 1820, 1830, 1870, 1900, 1910, and 1920 Federal censuses all have categories indicating citizenship status. The 1920 census is the only one that gives the actual year of naturalization.

    During the War of 1812 lists of enemy (British) aliens were compiled. They can be very detailed and include a wealth of genealogical information. These lists are published in British Aliens in the United States During the War of 1812. The lists are organized by state of residence. Many of the immigrants had been in the U. S. for 30 years or more, but if they were not naturalized, they had to register as "enemy aliens." If your ancestor's name appears in this book, he had not yet been naturalized.

    Locating Naturalization Records 1790-1906

    1.  Filby indexes and Bibliography (see colonial naturalization section.)

    2.  Family History Library Catalog (FHLC): Many naturalization records have been microfilmed and are available through the Family History Library. ALWAYS check the Family History Library Catalog before writing to the court. If you do not know the court where the naturalization occurred, work from "specific to general." Check for naturalization records in the local city or county court first, then check state and federal courts. Look under [STATE] [COUNTY] - NATURALIZATION AND CITIZENSHIP.

    3.  If the records you want are not on the FHLC, look for the location of the court records in: Neagles, James C. and Lila Lee Neagles. Locating Your Immigrant Ancestor (Logan, UT; The Everton Publishers, 1986). Check for the holdings of a local (usually county) court first. This book tells you which records are held by each court and the type of index, if any.

    There are also separate guides to naturalization records in some states. Because so many immigrants came through the port of New York, a very useful guide is Naturalization Records of New York State by the New York State Council of Genealogical Societies, 1996. This book gives the address and telephone number of the clerk of each county, the exact holdings for each county, the photocopying costs, and the years held at the Family History Library on microfilm. The book was published by The Leaded Pane, 487 Huffer Road, Hilton NY 14468.

    4.  If the records are not in the custody of the original court, look to see if the records you want have been transferred to regional archives. Use The Archives: A Guide to the National Archives Field Branches See also Genealogical Research in the National Archives.

    5. has indexed some naturalization records in their collection of online databases.

    Other Sources for locating naturalization records

    1.  Military Records: Military records often contain naturalization documents. If your ancestor was naturalized in the military, he may not have needed to file a Declaration of Intention. The service records and pension records, however, will usually give the information that would have appeared on a Declaration of Intention.

    2.  Federal Land Records: The Homestead Act of 1862 provided for 160 acres of land to be given to citizens or those filing declarations of intention. Homestead records provide a wealth of genealogical information, including copies of naturalization records. Although only the National Archives has copies of completed land entry files, approximately 50% of land entry applications were never completed. The incomplete files for Southern California, for example, were never sent to the General Land Office headquarters and are in the possession of the National Archives - Pacific Southwest Region (Laguna Niguel). These are among the records microfilmed by the Genealogical Society of Utah and available through the Family History Library. These records can be even more valuable than the completed land entry files, especially in the case of a contested claim. Always determine not only if your ancestor obtained a land grant, but if he ever filed an application for a grant. If the entry was never completed because of a contested claim, examine the files of both parties to the contest, not just the one belonging to your ancestor.

    Locating Naturalization Records After 1906

    Since 1906, two copies of naturalization records are kept: one with the court and another filed with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). The INS maintains a comprehensive index to all naturalization records in its possession. Records since 1960 have a computerized index. Naturalization files from 1904-1956 are filed by type of record. These are known at the INS as "Action-based Systems." The INS has the following records through World War II:

    1. Naturalization files (Known as Naturalization C-files)
    2. Visa files 1924-1944
    3. Registry files for those wishing to be naturalized but for whom no passenger arrival list could be found (1929-1944.)
    4. Various ID cards
    5. Alien Registration forms compiled during World War II (1940-1944).

    Records from 1944 to the present, and naturalization papers since 1956 are collected and filed by immigrant. They are known as "Alien A-Files." You may request copies of documents in all of these files by writing to the INS. You may either complete Form G-639 or write a letter. The only information you MUST have is the immigrant's name, date of birth, and place of birth. This is so that the INS can identify your immigrant from the many others of the same name. If you know the date and port of arrival, the name of the vessel, or the naturalization date, court, and certificate number, include each of these items. Write to the INS district office that covers the area where you live, attention "FOIA/PA." This is a request under the Freedom of Information Act. Ask for a search of all of the above files and indicate that your request may involve a "manual search." You may also write to the INS in Washington D.C. no matter where you live, but a response will take much longer than writing to the INS district office. The INS address in Washington, D.C. is:

    Immigration and Naturalization Service

    425 Eye Street, NW

    Washington, D. C. 20536

    Where to go next

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