Online genealogy records, where they exist, are usually scattered across several internet locations. If you do find a record, the website itself can be confusing at best. If you’re just starting out researching your family history, start at these 25 best genealogy websites for beginners.
We’ve included icons so you can see at a glance whether access to core content is FREE or not ($) or some of each FREE/($), and what services are offered: H ?=how-tos, R =records; S =share your data and T =tools.
Dive into dozens of how-to articles on research basics, online searching, and sharing and preserving the past. You won’t do actual research on this site, but you’ll learn a lot. Because each article leads to more detailed and related articles on the same site, it’s easy to lose track of what you’ve read. Refer back frequently to the three main topics tabs (Learn How, Search Online, Share and Preserve) if you want to read systematically through everything offered.
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Take the most-used genealogy data subscription site for a spin. Anyone can click on the Learning Center tab and then First Steps for a site orientation. Many how-tos in the Family History 101 section are free to use, too. Once you have a membership, you can search digitized records and indexes from around the world. Use the Family Tree tab (if you’re a member—not if you’re using Ancestry.com at a library) to create your family tree and post photos and stories, which you may share with others.
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Providing education and resources for those researching African-American roots, this unique site hosts regular opportunities for users to communicate with one another. Start with the Beginner’s Guide under the Records tab, then search marriage, death, surname and slave data databases under the same tab. (Also check AfriQuest.com <afriquest.com>, a free online archive for users to share items relating to African-American genealogy and history.)
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This service gives you access mainly to US censuses, vital records and old newspapers in the United States, and some in the United Kingdom. The Help Center answers basic questions about searches and account information. The Learn tab leads you to how-to articles and video tutorials on many topics, including how to construct a family tree to share with relatives or post on Facebook. This inexpensive site is a fantastic beginner option.
You’ll come back to this tool again and again. Many genealogical records are created by counties, the boundaries of which may have changed over time. On this site, click a state, then View Interactive Map, and enter the date for which you want to see county boundaries. Then you’ll be able to identify which county that town was part of during the time your ancestors lived there. Click to add layers showing modern maps so you’ll know where it is today.
Search an enormous GPS-tagged database of tombstone images. You also can upload tombstone photos you’ve snapped with a free iPhone/Android camera app. Users can add personal history information to individual photos and link them to other tombstone images. This is a fantastic tool to use on the virtual highway and fun to use when you’re on the “real” road, snapping pictures of tombstones in your family cemetery.
The Library of Congress’ portal to historical newspapers has two important areas of content: digitized newspaper pages (1836-1922) from 25 states and Washington, DC, and an index to all known newspapers published in the United States and where to find them today. Check back frequently for new content. To learn more about using the site, including what’s on it and what’s not, click on the Help section.
8. Cyndi’s List
Consider Cyndi Howells’ site your table of contents for online genealogy. You’ll find lists of sites dedicated to researching particular places, types of records, ethnic and religious groups, and more. Check out the Beginner’s category for guides and tips just for newbies.
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This is one of the best free online resources available. Search millions of digitized and indexed records from around the world. Some results point to offsite sources for digitized records. Don’t ignore the Learn tab; it’s packed with keyword-searchable articles and online courses. The Catalog tab takes you to the most extensive genealogy library catalog in the world. Microfilmed holdings can be rented for use at a FamilySearch Center near you (see the FamilySearch Centers tab). Share your family tree at the bottom of the home page; learn how you can contribute to online records access under the Indexing tab.
Our own website offers abundant tools and how-tos for beginners. The Get Started tab introduces you to the research process. Find free forms and cheat sheets under the Research Toolkit tab. An online archive of how-to articles is keyword-searchable and packed with content from past issues of the magazine and web-only extras. A lot is free; paying Plus members have access to even more.
11. Find a Grave
Dig up ancestral burial information from millions of tombstone images here. Search by an individual or cemetery name. Users are encouraged to upload additional tombstone photos and submit biographical information for memorial pages. You can even create virtual cemeteries to connect loved ones buried in different places.
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The flexible membership options (like a la carte pricing for looking at search results) will appeal to many beginners. You don’t have to be a member to access the site’s Get Started section, which offers a user-friendly guide to the research process, or its Learn More section with more advanced how-to articles. Search records collections (strongest for the United Kingdom and growing for the United States) and build your family tree on the site.
This is the go-to source for digitized US military records from the Revolutionary War forward. Anyone can go to the bottom right of the home page to “report for training.” Here you’ll learn basic finding strategies and how to add tributes or even organize a gallery of cool family content. This section may help you decide whether to subscribe so you can search and see a lot of records that used to be accessible only through the National Archives.
GenealogyBank is best known for its 6,000-plus historical newspaper titles. Search results are labeled as historical or modern obituaries, marriage notices, immigration records, and the like, making it easier to find what you’re looking for. Click on the Learning Center for tutorials on searching the site and using newspapers in genealogy research.
Find many records generated when our ancestors bought land from the federal government, especially in the Midwest and West. Access images of more than 5 million land title records dating back to 1820. Click on the Reference Center for more information about public land sales, patents and survey plats. No state land sales are located here.
In addition to the ability to search for names and places, Google offers several genealogy-friendly tools. Google Translate helps you translate text and websites into or out of English. Google Books includes an online library of out-of-print resources such as local histories and compiled genealogies. Google Maps and Google Earth help you locate ancestral addresses.
Access this resource free if your local library offers it. The home page isn’t fancy: Just click to search US censuses, Freedman’s Bank records (for African-American ancestors), Revolutionary War materials, local and family history books, articles and more.
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Make this your first stop for tracing Jewish roots. Under the Get Started tab, choose First Timer for an intro to Jewish research and the site. Free tutorials and paid classes are available. Search databases of Jewish surnames, family trees, towns, Holocaust victims and burials. Contribute your data to the centralized “family tree of the Jewish people.”
Discover several innovative features tech-savvy genealogists like, and many are free. Click on Genealogy for an overview of those features: build a family tree, run simultaneous searches across major genealogy databases, create a family website, find help on message boards and more. MyHeritage charges for some search results and once your family tree reaches a certain size.
This search engine is just for genealogy. It provides a central tool for searching records in other relevant locations on the internet, and lets you upload your own trees and documents. Basic searches are free (great for uncommon names); more-detailed searches require a subscription.
Here’s your portal to the US repository for most federal military, census, immigration and other records. Read excellent descriptions of these record sets and order copies online. Some have been digitized or indexed; click on Online Research Tools, then Access to Archival Databases or Records Digitized by Partners. At the first, find databases to selected records at the National Archives. At the second, find a list (by microfilm number) of records now on Ancestry.com and Fold3.com.
Access more than 120 million newspaper pages dating to 1607. The site is easy on the eye and easy to navigate. Browse newspapers by state and city, or enter names and other keywords along with desired dates and locations. Click on Help to take tutorials on using the site.
23. USGenWeb Project
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Explore a directory to websites containing free genealogical resources for every US state and most counties. Quality, content and design varies from site to site. You’ll commonly find what local resources exist and how to access them, along with indexes to cemetery, marriage and other local records. Share your own records on these sites, too.
Don’t let the complicated appearance fool you: Beginners looking for passenger and immigration information won’t want to pass up this site. Morse has created better search tools for data found on other websites. Click on About This Website and How to Use It for a primer, or just scroll down to the various search forms and the accompanying explanations. Where search results lead to paid subscription sites (including Ancestry.com), that site will charge you.
A budget-friendly beginner option, World Vital Records provides digitized and index data from many parts of the world (find an interactive map on the home page). Find censuses, vital and military records, yearbooks, newspapers, and more. A lot of results point to third-party websites. Search family trees and a user-contributed historical photo collection from MyHeritage.com on this site, too.
A version of this article appeared in the March/April 2013 issue of Family Tree Magazine.