Genealogy Q&A: Finding Naturalization Records

By Allison Dolan Premium

Q. Several branches of my family came to United States in the 1860s from Sweden and Germany and England—before Ellis Island. Were these people automatically made citizens or did they have to apply for naturalization? Where would one go to learn of this procedure?

A. Any immigrant coming to the United States in the mid-1800s would’ve had to be naturalized to become a citizen. Not everyone filed for naturalization, so keep this in mind when looking for records.
For those who did file, the process was twofold: First, the newcomer would have filed a declaration of intent for citizenship (referred to as “first papers”). After fulfilling the residency requirement, he could then file his petition for naturalization. He had to sign these “final papers”—so if you can find that petition, you’ll have the added treat of seeing your ancestor’s John Hancock.

When male immigrants were naturalized, their minor children also automatically received citizenship. Between 1855 and 1922, their wives did, too.

The federal government standardized the naturalization process (including the paperwork) in 1906. Since your ancestors arrived before that, they could’ve filed for citizenship in any court—they might even have started the process in one location, then completed it in another. To cover all your bases, you’ll need to hunt for records at the local, county and state levels.  
Fortunately, naturalization indexes and record collections on websites such as, and include some applications from before 1906. It’s easiest to start by searching online collections. If you find your ancestor in a naturalization records index, use the source information provided to track down the original record.
If you don’t find your ancestor online, your next step is to run a place search of the FamilySearch online catalog for locations where your ancestors might have petitioned, then look under the naturalization heading to identify records available on microfilm. You can rent the microfilm for viewing at your local FamilySearch Center.

If your online and microfilm searches are fruitless, check archives at all three levels. The records may still be with the court where your ancestor filed, or they may have been sent to a state archives or other repository. Some archives and other official stewards of naturalization records have posted indexes and documents online. A Google search could turn these up, and is also helpful.

US Citizenship and Immigration Services has copies of all post-1906 naturalization records. To request those, use the agency’s online Genealogy Program.

Naturalization records can be a gateway to finding your ancestor’s passenger arrival list, as they often tell port and date of immigration (though the earlier the records, generally the less detail they contain). In fact, that’s how I confirmed the family story of my great-grandfather Henry Essel’s 1888 arrival through Philadelphia, enabling me to locate the ship manifest recording him and his family.

You can learn more about the naturalization process in They Came in Ships by John Philip Colletta (Ancestry). Download our step-by-step guide to finding naturalization records in Family Tree Shop.
Library and Archives Canada provides information on Canadian naturalizations.