13 Simple Tips for Using FamilySearch

By Andrew Koch
Elderly woman accessing FamilySearch on a laptop.

FamilySearch, the premier free family history website, has a whole host of features that will help you find your ancestor in online records and learn more about the time and place he lived in. And with the right strategies, your queries on FamilySearch won’t be left to chance. These 13 tips for using FamilySearch will stack the cards in your favor.

1. Browse Online Records

Not all records collections are indexed correctly—though we wish they were! If you’re striking out when keyword-searching for an ancestor’s record, consider paging through images of the record instead. You never know what details may be incorrect or absent from a record’s index, and viewing an image of the original record can help clear up any inconsistencies. FamilySearch makes this easy by allowing you to click through individual pages, or jump to a specific page.

2. Set Up Notifications for Family Tree Profiles

As critics of FamilySearch will be quick to tell you, any user can edit your family tree on the site. While a powerful tool for collaboration, this functionality opens the door for questionable details to be added to your hard-earned research. To counter this, FamilySearch also allows you to receive notifications when someone adds or edits details to an individual’s profile. Simply click the star next to Watch when viewing a profile, and the site will notify you when someone makes changes or adds records. With that, you can get in touch with other users and (hopefully) keep unsourced information from your tree.

3. Dive into the FamilySearch Wiki

The FamilySearch Wiki

Yes, FamilySearch has billions of records and an extensive online family tree. But did you know the site also sponsors a free online encyclopedia? The FamilySearch Wiki boasts more than 90,000 free articles about thousands of research topics, from New York City vital records to German gazetteers. Several articles also contain links to relevant records collections on FamilySearch, making the wiki a useful gateway to the rest of the site.

4. Use Wildcard Characters in Searches

We’ve talked before about using wildcards on FamilySearch. But the tip is worth repeating. By using wildcard characters, you can broaden your search to include spelling variations. This ability is critical when researching records that may have been poorly indexed or transcribed incorrectly. Specifically you can use a question mark (?) to represent one missing letter, and an asterisk (*) to represent zero or more characters. For example, a search for Henders?n will return Henderson, Hendersyn, Hendersan and Hendersen.

5. Switch Browsers

If you have trouble viewing records on FamilySearch, then try looking at them in a different browser. Some browsers play nicer with FamilySearch than others. Simply copy and paste the URL into a different browser window (such as Google Chrome, Firefox or Internet Explorer). You may have to sign in to your account again, but doing so will hopefully allow you to view the records correctly.

6. Re-search Records Collections

List of record collections at FamilySearch, sorted by date updated

If you’re not satisfied with your results on FamilySearch, check back every so often and search again. FamilySearch is continually updating its existing collections (and adding new ones!), so your search results may change over time. Simply go to FamilySearch’s list of collections then sort by date updated.

7. Investigate Individual Collections

Because FamilySearch has so many records, you can easily miss important results if you only search on the site’s main form. Instead, find individual collections that interest you and search them one by one. From FamilySearch’s search page, you can click a map of the world to drill down to collections from a particular place. Alternatively, search for a collection by title or view a huge list of all FamilySearch’s collections.

8. Keep Track of Your Searches

If FamilySearch hasn’t recently updated a collection you’re researching, you’ll want to avoid repeating your searches. To make the most of your time, keep a log of your searches—what collection(s) you searched, what terms and filters you used, and what results you found (if any). This will keep you from doing the same work over again, plus help you better plan your search strategy. We’ve got a free downloadable template.

9. Look for Multiple Kinds of Records

Censuses and vital records make up the bedrock of genealogy research, but they shouldn’t be the only resources you look for. FamilySearch’s database holds all kinds of genealogy records, from tax records to probates to passenger lists. From the main search form, you can filter by record type. Also remember to browse for records collections by location, so you can see what FamilySearch has in your area.

10. Scour Premade Genealogies

In addition to records, FamilySearch also houses published ancestries, created and submitted by users. Genealogies include the Ancestral File (40 million profiles submitted by users before 2003) and the International Genealogical Index (curated by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints). Simply visit the Genealogies landing page then enter your search terms to get started. As the site warns, the accuracy of these trees varies, so be sure to back up any data you find here with sources from your own research.

11. Broaden Your Location Search

Search FamilySearch collections by location

Records weren’t necessarily kept in the same town in which they were created. Study history, then identify where the records you’re looking for are currently held, as this might affect where FamilySearch categorizes them. For example, Austrian archives might hold records from some parts of modern Romania, as Austria-Hungary controlled western Romania until World War I.

Check the FamilySearch Wiki to determine what locations might have the records you’re seeking. Then turn to the Research By Location section on the site’s Search page to identify the relevant collections from that region.

12. Experiment with Match Exactly

In your searches, you’ll have the option of selecting Match All Terms Exactly. A search with this option will return only results that match the text in all fields you filled in. This can be a useful option if you’re trying to narrow down your results, but this can also exclude relevant matches that contain spelling errors or simply omit specific details.

13. Visit a Family History Center

FamilySearch plans to upload all of its records within the next few years. But in the meantime, you may need to access records that haven’t yet been digitized. Check with your local Family History Center to see what resources they hold. These repositories, scattered throughout the world, often hold valuable records in book, microfilm and microfiche formats. Staff members at the facilities will also be happy to help you look for records, and may know key information about local history and record sets.

A version of this article appeared in the September 2019 issue of Family Tree Magazine.

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