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How to File a FOIA Request for Genealogy Records

By Diane Haddad Premium

Want your ancestor’s application for a Social Security Card (called an SS-5), WWII alien registration form, or other federal record that isn’t already publicly available? You’ll need to send a Freedom of Information Act (or FOIA) request to the right agency. Here’s how:

1. Identify the Federal Genealogy Record

You’ll need to know the agency that created it, what the record is, when and why it was created, and the name of the person in question. Then see if the record is already out there on a website like FamilySearch or Ancestry.com, or on microfilm at the National Archives or a library.

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2. Locate the Right FOIA Office

Go to FOIA’s directory and type in the name of the agency that created and/or has custody of your selected record. The resulting page will give you basics about the agency, along with the name and contact details of the FOIA officer. It also gives tips on making a request and links to more information.

3. Write and Send Your Request

The agency might have a fill-in-the-blank sample letter you can use (such as the Bureau of Land Management’s) or an online form. Give as much information as you can to identify the record. Specify how you want to receive it—by mail, fax or email. Agencies may charge you a reasonable fee, and you can say you want to be contacted if the fee exceeds a certain amount. Carefully follow all of the instructions, such as proving the person named in the record is dead (or that he was born more than 100 years ago).

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4. Wait

You can contact the FOIA officer to check on the progress of your request. The request instructions also will tell you what to do if you get turned down, which might include appealing the decision.

Remember, states have their own request processes for their records. For instructions, go to this page and select the state you need.

A version of this article appeared in the September/October 2020 issue of Family Tree Magazine.

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