Genealogy Web Guide

By Sunny Jane Morton Premium
Web address:    
Owner: FamilySearch International     
Launched: 1999 provides free access to billions of records from the world’s largest genealogy collection at the Family History Library (FHL) in Salt Lake City. The site also provides tools for constructing family trees and facilitates a huge volunteer records-indexing program. Online record collections are strongest for the United States. Canada, Australia, Europe and South America are well-represented and other international content is growing. About 35 million new records are added per month. This guide helps you make the most of a free, growing resource that every genealogist should use regularly.


  • Registered users: 1 million
  • Visits: 712 million since the site launched
  • Page views: more than 16.6 billion since the site launched
  • Names in searchable databases: more than 3.5 billion
  • Historical records added: more than 35 million each month
  • Indexed names added: more than 200 million per year
  • Digital books: 100,000+
  • Records in user-submitted genealogies: 280 million+
  • User-submitted images: more than 1.2 million

Membership Levels

Account Type Cost Benefits
LDS account (for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints)
FamilySearch account (for the general public)
both types of accounts are free view and download record images
search photos submitted by other users
upload a GEDCOM file or build a family tree in FamilySearch family tree
attach family stories, documentation and images to profiles in your tree
request research assistance by phone for beginners and specialized topics
contribute information to the FamilySearch Wiki
place an online order for microfilm to view at a FamilySearch Center
volunteer to index historical records



Major Content Collections

United States

  • Censuses: US, 1790-1940 (indexes and/or digital images); some nonpopulation schedules; some state and territorial
  • Vital records: State, county and city data; Social Security Death Index 
  • Immigration: Passenger lists, border crossings, naturalizations
  • Military: WWI and WWII draft registrations; WWII Army enlistments; Revolutionary War compiled service records and pension/bounty land warrant applications; Civil War federal and state service records, pension files and more
  • Probate and court: Various state and county tax, will, estate and court records
  • Other: Freedman’s Bank records, IRS (federal direct tax) lists, US Public Records Index, International Genealogical Index, Oklahoma Applications for Five Civilized Tribes


  • Censuses: 1825-1916
  • Vital records: From various sources for most provinces 
  • Migration/citizenship: Passenger lists, naturalizations
  • Probate and court: Land grants and registers, estate files, wills, deeds; mostly for British Columbia

United Kingdom and Ireland

  • Censuses: England and Wales, 1841-1911; Scotland, 1841-1891
  • Vital records: England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Channel Islands, Isle of Man
  • Probate and court: England and Ireland, various
  • Military: UK pensioners’ service records, merchant navy seaman records, militia service records, WWI service records

International (strongest for Europe and South America)

  • Emphasis on civil and church vital, census, immigration, military, court and tax records
  • Largest other international indexed collections include Mexico baptisms, Germany births and baptisms, Hungary Catholic Church records, Slovakia church and synagogue books


1894: Library of 300 books opens in Salt Lake City to dues-paying members
1938: Microfilming of historical records around the world begins
1944: Library opens to the public
1963: Granite Mountain Records Vault opens to preserve microfilm
1988: FamilySearch data CD released
1985: Library moves to new $8.2 million facility (current location)
1998: Records digitization begins
1999: launches
2005: FamilySearch Indexing starts

Searching records

The home page of the multifaceted directs traffic to searches of various types: online digitized and indexed records, photos, user-submitted family trees, digitized books, and other resources. To search the historical records for your ancestors, click Search or go to You’ll see a screen that looks like the one below.
Searching from here captures results from more than 3.5 billion names in databases. A basic search from this screen may yield thousands of potential results. The more specific your search, the more targeted the results. However, an overly specific search may not find the records you need. The trick is to find the balance that yields the most meaningful results. Try entering multiple parameters about the person you want to research, then using the site’s filters to focus your results by location or types of records.

The default search is by first and last name, restricted by country, with a birthplace and year (or year range). You can ignore parameters and filters by leaving fields blank. Click on a parameter, such as Marriage or Spouse, to add that parameter to your search.

Your results are ranked by how closely they match search parameters, with more “points” given to the most important matching fields, such as a surname. After you run your initial search, you can refine your search parameters and check or uncheck filters to broaden or narrow results.

When you click on a matching record, you can print the summary page showing the indexed information about your family member, or click Copy to copy the information for pasting into your genealogy software or research notes. If you’re logged into your FamilySearch account, you can save the record and citation information to your Source Box for later viewing.

All results come from indexed records, many of which are also linked to images. About 80 percent of the images referenced in search results are free and accessible on Family­ For the remaining 20 percent, you’ll see indexed information from the record, but the record summary page will link to the original record on another website. In some cases, that website will require a subscription to access the record. You can view such records for free by visiting a Family­Search Center near you.

If you have a family tree on FamilySearch, you can search for records from an ancestor’s profile and attach matching records to ancestral profiles.

1. Search by the first and last name of your target relative. You can enter a middle name or initial along with the first name in that field.

2. To see matching records only from a particular location, enter the country. You’ll be prompted for more-specific regions, states, etc., depending on available records for those areas. You also can select the type of record you want to find (birth/baptism/christening, marriage, death, census/residence/list, immigration/naturalization, military, probate or other). A few users may want to search by microfilm number or batch number (records indexed at the same time).

3. Click one or more life events, then enter a year and/or place for that event. Use a range if you’re unsure of the year. Click Any to search by a location and date (or date range) without specifying a life event. This search may pick up military, court and other records.

4. Click to enter the name of the target person’s spouse, parent and/or other associate. This will give higher ranking to records in which the individuals are linked. If you choose Other Person, you could enter the name of anyone else who might appear in the record, such as a traveling companion or witness.

5. By default, the site will find spelling variations of names you enter, as well as nearly matching places and dates. It also will find records for which some terms, but not others, match what you entered. But if you click the “Match all terms exactly” box, the site will look only for exact matches to every search term you entered. To find exact matches for only some terms, click the boxes (not labeled) in those fields.

6. Click here to browse the collections on, including record images that aren’t yet indexed and thus won’t be captured in searches.


Browsing records

Browsing databases helps you locate collections from the times and places your ancestors lived, and lets you access unindexed record images. To browse an unindexed collection, click the Browse Images link by a database title. You’ll see subdivisions of “browse points,” such as places or year ranges. These subsections depend how the original records are organized, such as by place, chronologically or alphabetically. Click a subdivision to jump to what you’re looking for. For example, in a church records collection, you might first select the parish, then the record type, then a year range.

If you want to browse an indexed or partially indexed collection, use the Browse link on the collections search page.  “Page” through the records using the arrows by the image number, or type in a number.

1. Go to FamilySearch’s Historical Records Collections list. From the Place filters, select a region, country, state or other geographic division. You’ll see only the collections associated with the place specified. 

2. To view collections from a specific time period or of a specific type, apply filters, such as date range and type of collection (military, probate and court, etc.).

3. Alternately, use the “Filter by collection name” field to search for words in collection titles. Note that this might miss collections that aren’t titled as you might expect.

4. A camera icon next to the database title means results are linked to digitized record images.

5. Numbers under Records show how many indexed records are in each dataset. A Browse Images link means the collection isn’t yet indexed. Some databases are partially indexed, so you still may need to browse to find a record.

6. Click on a collection name for a brief description of it and to link to details about the records in the collection. Many older datasets came from multiple sources (such as baptismal records and government birth records). FamilySearch staff are gradually separating these combined datasets.


Top search strategies

Experiment with search criteria. When searching for people, enter a variety of name combinations. Search by first and/or middle name, initials and nicknames, alone and in various combinations. Also search by maiden, adoptive, and all married surnames that apply. Search variant name spellings and names in both native and adopted languages (for example, Juan and John). Add more data (such as a middle name) or search parameters (a relationship, for example) to improve the odds of getting meaningful search results. If you get too few search results, remove some criteria or make them more general: broaden a year range, for example, or use the country instead of the state as the location of a life event.

Don’t overload search parameters, though. No one document is likely to contain every possible data point. Entering multiple names in the name field will prioritize results containing all the names, pushing entries with just one of the names lower on the list. Similarly, entering dates and places for multiple life events (such as birth and death) will prioritize results containing both pieces of information and give a lower priority to a birth record, which doesn’t have death data.
Use wildcard characters to search for names with variable spellings. Use a question mark ? to take the place of a single character, and an asterisk * to replace any number of consecutive characters. For example, the first name search Jo*n would return results for Jon, John, Jonathan and Joan. The search Jo?n would return results for Joan and John, but not longer names.
Search only on a relationship. If you’re having trouble finding someone, try searching without the name. Instead, enter just names of a spouse and/or parent(s). This may capture a poorly indexed or misspelled name. You also can use this strategy to find multiple children of a couple in one search, or a person’s previous spouses. If you’re not sure of a woman’s original surname, leave it blank: The first name may be enough. Watch for other relatives in your search results.
Start small. Review the databases has for the times and places you’re researching to identify collections that may have records you need. Searching one collection will keep you from having to wade through so many irrelevant results. See the previous page for instructions on browsing to record collections related to your research. Click a database title to search or browse a collection. The search form will eliminate fields for data not in the record set, such as the death date for a birth records collection. You’ll also find information about places and dates the database covers.
Filter it out. Search with relatively broad terms, then use the filters on the left side of your search results to narrow the matches to those from specific collections (such as the 1920 US Census); those related to births, marriages or deaths from specific eras (1700s, 1800s, 1900s) or locations (such as the United States or Germany); or those for males or females. This makes it more manageable to view your search results. If you want to keep the filters but refine your search terms, check the Lock Filters box (above the filters) before you hit Search again.

More Searches to Try on

Photos: You must be logged into your FamilySearch account to search photos others have submitted. From the main Search page, click Photos, then Find Photos of Your Ancestors. If you have a FamilySearch family tree, you’ll see others’ images matching the identities of people in your tree. Click on Find to search for names or keywords associated with photos. Click the PDF icon at the upper right to create a PDF with captioned thumbnail-size images.

Digitized books: From the main Search page, click Books. Then enter keywords (such as names of people or places) to full-text search more than 100,000 genealogy and family history books. Use Advanced Search to refine your parameters.
User-submitted genealogies: Accuracy varies for user-submitted trees, so treat findings as clues to verify through research. Enter the names of a person and/or his relatives and life events. Look for a match’s submission ID number, which you can click to see others in the same tree.
Online catalog: Click Catalog to search the FHL online catalog by place, surname, keyword and more. Results will show microfilmed records and books that may be relevant to your research. Log into your FamilySearch account to order microfilm for viewing at a FamilySearch Center near you. For complete instructions, click on “Learn more about using the catalog and how to access materials.”
FamilySearch Wiki: To see genealogy how-to articles for places or topics, click Wiki on the main Search page. Then enter a keyword, such as England or slave records.

Quick Tips

  • Use Exact check boxes sparingly. Even if you have the right name and date, old records about your ancestor may not have it right. Also, the search won’t return records that lack the type of data designated exact. If a search with Match Exactly selected is unsuccessful, repeat the search without requiring an exact match.
  • Search on a date range if you’re unsure when a life event happened, or you want to find records from anytime in an ancestor’s lifetime. Fill in the date range boxes with the beginning and ending years. If you fill in just one box, results will target only that year.
  • If a certain record type (birth, census, etc.) doesn’t show up in your search, it means doesn’t have matching records for that location or time period. Try broadening your search parameters. For example, look for vital records for the state or county instead of the city.
  • To delete a filled-in search field (other than the first and last name) on the search form, mouse over that area of the form and click the X in the upper right corner of the gray box that appears.
  • To preview a matching record without leaving the search results page, click the down arrow in the Preview column of your results.
  • To find known spelling variations for names and places you’re searching, use the FamilySearch Labs Standard Finder. 
  • If you have a family tree on and you run a search from the main search page, you can attach search results or sources to people in your tree by clicking the appropriate box next to a matching record. 


More Online

From the March/April 2014 Family Tree Magazine