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How to Use FamilySearch.org

By Family Tree Editors Premium
Woman sitting at laptop typing while researching her ancestors on FamilySearch.org

A free website from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormon Church), FamilySearch has a large, growing collection of records, books, photos and family trees. Since going online in 1999, the site has expanded to encompass more than 2,000 historical record collections from around the world, more than 5.5 billion searchable names in old records, and more than 300,000 digitized books.

You can search many of these records by name and other details, thanks to FamilySearch’s volunteer indexing program. All the genealogical bounty is accessible from tabs at the top of FamilySearch.org.

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Wait… Is FamilySearch really free?

When we say, “Everything on FamilySearch is free,” you’re probably waiting for caveats and limitations. Everything really is free! You will never be asked for credit card information or even to make a donation.

FamilySearch is funded by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which has a strong religious commitment to families. But you don’t have to be a Church member to use the site. And creating a free user account will not prompt the Church to send you religious materials (unless you create a Church member account.)

In fact, the only significant caveat is that you do need to create a free FamilySearch user account to maximize access. You can search the record images and Catalog without logging in. But you’ll need that user account to contribute to the Family Tree (anyone can search it). Some collections have stipulations by the records owners that only registered users may view the records on the site.

For a small minority of collections, you actually have to go to the Family History Library or one of its satellite libraries near you to view records, like you would a reference copy of an encyclopedia at your local public library. But that’s the end of the fine print. The site really is free—and everyone should be using it.

Sunny Jane Morton

Use these tips and search strategies for success in finding your ancestors on FamilySearch.org.

1. Search for records.

At last count, FamilySearch is home to more than 4 billion historical record images from around the world. Just take a second to let that figure sink in: 4 BILLION IMAGES. Not just 4 billion estimated names in images, but 4 billion actual images, many with lots of names on each.

These aren’t just a bunch of so-so records. They are high-quality genealogical documents, painstakingly gathered over the course of several decades from repositories around the world. That’s worth breaking down into more detail:

  • High-quality genealogical records: FamilySearch prioritizes acquisition of the most genealogically-rich genealogical collections for each region. They look for the records that most reliably reveal the most names, dates, places and family relationships.
  • Painstakingly gathered: FamilySearch’s predecessor organization began microfilming the world’s historical records in 1938. That gave them a decades-long head start compared to other genealogy websites. Now they’ve got a library of 2.4 million rolls of microfilmed records, which they’ve been digitizing and publishing online as rapidly as possible. And that doesn’t even include the 300 camera crews currently capturing digital record images.
  • Repositories around the world: As a nonprofit organization with truly global scope, FamilySearch has imaged records from more than 200 countries. They don’t have “target markets” that slant their priorities toward the needs of paying customers because there are no paying customers. In fact, FamilySearch actively seeks out records for locations that don’t already have good online coverage on other websites. That’s why you’ll find so many records uniquely on FamilySearch for places in Central and South America, Africa, Asia and elsewhere. (They’ve still got you covered for the United States, the United Kingdom and Europe.)

Record images are going online at FamilySearch so quickly that many are not searchable by name yet. But about 7.5 billion names are searchable. Follow these tips to search for your ancestors’ names on FamilySearch.org. Explore some FamilySearch record highlights we’ve talked about, such as World War I records and these highlights from around the globe.

Sunny Jane Morton

Records search strategy

Under the Search tab, click Records to bring up a search form for a person in indexed records. You can enter the first and last names and the date range and place for one or more life events, such as birth, marriage, death, residence (useful when looking for census records), death or “any,” which could be, for example, an immigration or military enlistment year. Narrow your search with names of the person’s parents, spouse or another person who might appear with him in records. You also can restrict your results to those from a certain country or of a certain type (such as census or military records).  

On the search results page, look to the left for fields where you can adjust your search terms. Below that, you can use filters to narrow your search by collection (which lets you limit results to one or more databases), a birthplace in the record, a birth year in the record, and more. 

A camera icon in the far right column for a match indicates a digital image you can download to your computer and/or add to your tree; no camera icon means it’s an index-only record. In a few collections, due to the wishes of record custodians, you must register with FamilySearch to access record images or use the website at a FamilySearch Center (also called a Family History Center; find one near by searching here online). Some collections, such as the 1901 census of England and Wales, link to a record image on a subscription site. You can view these with a subscription or by visiting a FamilySearch Center.

Rick Crume

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.

Andrew Koch

3. Consistently browse record collections.

List of record collections at FamilySearch, sorted by date updated
List of record collections at FamilySearch, sorted by date updated

Searching a specific record collection that covers a place and time your family lived can help you focus on the most relevant matches. On FamilySearch, this technique also lets you access images of records that aren’t yet part of the site’s searchable indexes. Under the Search tab, click Records, then Browse All Published Collections to see a list of all records, both indexed and unindexed, arranged by place. If “Browse Images” appears in the Records column, none of the collection is indexed by name. If that column gives a record count, the collection is at least partially indexed. On the left, you can filter the list by name (enter any word in the collection title), place, date, record type and image availability. Click a title to search or browse that collection.

Rick Crume

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.

Andrew Koch

4. 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.

Andrew Koch

5. 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.

Andrew Koch

6. Find relatives in the FamilySearch Family Tree.

Over the past few years, FamilySearch has been inviting the world to contribute to what’s become the biggest community-based family tree around. So far, over 5 million people have participated. Whether you contribute or not, you can still learn from this massive tree.

First, you’ll need to understand the community-based tree model. Like Geni.com and WikiTree, the FamilySearch tree is a single, public tree. The idea is to promote full collaboration instead of populating the site with millions of individual trees that duplicate effort (but maintain control and privacy). As you can see from this screenshot of the top of a personal profile, there are dedicated spots to collaborate and contribute personal memories.

There are drawbacks to this approach, such as when less-knowledgeable researchers change well-supported data. But there are powerful upsides, too. Not least, it’s easy for anyone to search the FamilySearch Tree for specific ancestors to see what others have already discovered about them. Ideally, among the 1.2 billion personal profiles, you’ll find only one profile of any given ancestor, with all user-contributed data neatly organized within: life events, relationships, sources, record images, photos, memories. In reality, there’s some duplication, but far less than you’ll find at sites with individual trees. And all data about deceased individuals is public to anyone with a free FamilySearch guest account.

FamilySearch Product Manager Ron Tanner talks about why you might want to participate in the Family Tree:

Sunny Jane Morton

FamilySearch Family Tree search strategy

In an effort to increase accuracy and decrease duplication, FamilySearch has designed its tree with one profile per ancestral person, that anyone can edit. Unlike most of FamilySearch, you must register to use the Family Tree, but it’s still free.

To search the tree, look under the Family Tree tab and click Find. You can enter a name; gender; dates of birth, christening,  marriage, death and/or burial; and family members’ names. 

Adding your relatives to the tree can help you find their records, as FamilySearch automatically searches its records for matches to people in the tree. Click the Family Tree tab to start your tree and either manually enter the information, or use “FamilySearch-approved” genealogy software that can reconcile data between the family file on your computer and Family Tree. Those programs include Ancestral Quest, Legacy Family Tree, RootsMagic and MacFamilyTree. To avoid duplicating people already in the tree, FamilySearch looks for a profile for each person you’re adding.

Click on an icon beside a name in landscape or portrait tree view for research help. Record hints are blue, research suggestions are purple, and data problems are red. Record hints and research suggestions also appear under the Details tab in Person view. You can review and verify possible matches, and attach the records to personal profiles. 

Now you can search four large genealogy collections—FamilySearch, Ancestry.com, Findmypast and MyHeritage—from Person view. You still should try searching on other combinations of terms, such as a woman’s married name, and searching individual record collections.

Rick Crume

7. 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.

Andrew Koch

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.

Andrew Koch

9. 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.

Andrew Koch

10. 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.

Andrew Koch

11. 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.

Andrew Koch

12. Explore the FamilySearch Wiki.

Wikipedia for genealogy?! Yes! The FamilySearch Wiki hosts nearly 100,000 articles to get you started (or help you break through a brick wall) with your current research question. Like Wikipedia, the FamilySearch Wiki is crowd-sourced, so its expertise may be uneven and some pages may be outdated. It’s still a go-to resource when it’s time to learn something new, especially about a really specific topic.

For example, the FamilySearch Wiki has learning pages for countries around the world, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. Most regions have focused articles on specific states/provinces, counties and even cities. Find articles on specific record types, such as U.S. probate records or Swedish household examination rolls. Need help reading Swedish (or other languages) or understanding genealogy terminology or abbreviations? There’s probably a word list you can use.

The following screen shot shows you a typical layout of a FamilySearch Wiki page. See how it points you to related content you might want?

FamilySearch Wiki page example
FamilySearch Wiki page example

A related how-to FamilySearch resource is more interactive: the FamilySearch Communities. These are social hubs for people with common interests (think German research) to exchange ideas or ask questions. Some questions may be fielded by the experts at the venerable Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Sunny Jane Morton

13. Find family photos.  

Click the Memories tab to see at a glance all the photos, stories, documents, audio and albums you or someone else has submitted and linked to your relatives. To search the Family Tree’s photos, stories and documents for any term (such as a name, place or other topic), look under the Memories tab and select Find.

Rick Crume

14. Broaden your location search.

FamilySearch map showing collections by location
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.

Andrew Koch

15. Search user-submitted genealogies. 

Individual family trees are still valuable, and many are accessible on another part of the site. The Genealogies portal allows users to upload preservation copies of their personal family trees, which remain intact. (Scroll to the bottom of the page to upload your tree file. You can delete or replace it anytime.) Users can also search among millions of names in these trees for their ancestors’ names, to see what others have learned about them. When you open a search result, you’ll see the name shown within the context of that tree.

Hear more about the Genealogies portal from FamilySearch’s Ron Tanner:

Sunny Jane Morton

Genealogies search strategy

Under Search > Genealogies, you can search the old Ancestral File and Pedigree Resource File, two collections of family trees that researchers submitted over many years. Pedigree Resource File includes notes and sources, but Ancestral File doesn’t. Neither collection shows the submitters’ names. It’s worth mining these family trees for clues, but always try to verify the information with original sources.

A Genealogies search now covers several other collections, too: Community Trees were an effort to cover the genealogy of entire towns or communities. Oral Genealogies were obtained with personal interviews. The International Genealogical Index (IGI) has information on 430 million ancestors contributed by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Rick Crume

16. Browse through the FamilySearch Catalog.

Speaking of the Family History Library, that research mecca is the bricks-and-mortar partner of the FamilySearch website. As a FamilySearch.org user, you’ll want to know this, even if you don’t plan to visit the Family History Library anytime soon.

That’s because the Catalog of the entire Family History Library is searchable on FamilySearch.org. Maybe you’d like to find an old atlas, the membership records of a specific church or online deed indexes for your ancestor’s county. Search the Catalog by place to explore what resources are available for your locale of interest. If an item has been digitized at FamilySearch, the Catalog likely points to it (though updates are still ongoing). Even if the resource isn’t available online, you can click from that item’s entry to see what other libraries may have a copy.

Sunny Jane Morton

17. Find microfilmed records. 

It took years to digitize and index the massive holdings of microfilmed records at FamilySearch’s Family History Library in Salt Lake City. If you can’t visit the library, you can access the microfilm that has been indexed online from the comfort of you own home.

Under Search>Catalog, run a Places search to find books and microfilmed records about a place. Search on all the towns, cities, counties, states and countries where your ancestors lived. Run a Surnames search to find family histories. Note that this search covers only surnames mentioned most often in a book, not every name. You can search on multiple terms, such as a surname and a place, but you’ll probably have better luck by entering these terms in the Keywords box. 

Three icons are used in the Format column for microfilms in the catalog: 

  • A magnifying glass icon appears if the film is indexed and searchable by name. Click it to search for a name. 
  • A camera icon indicates that the film has been digitized. Click it to browse the images online. 
  • A film roll icon lets you you know that the film has not yet been digitized and can only be viewed at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. Printed books don’t circulate to Family-Search Centers; click the link to “View this catalog record in WorldCat” to find the book in a library near you.

18. Search digitized books in the FamilySearch Digital Library.

A lesser-known portal at FamilySearch is its Digital Library. In addition to the shelves of the Family History Library, the Digital Library offers titles made available by the Allen County Public Library Genealogy Center, Midwest Genealogy Center, The Ontario Genealogical Society and other major public and university libraries. Last time we checked, the book count was nearing half a million titles.

Search bar for the FamilySearch Digital Library
Search bar for the FamilySearch Digital Library

The Digital Library is a good place to keyword-search ancestral names, locations and the names of schools, churches, businesses and other organizations connected with which your family. You may find local histories, family histories, articles from periodicals and more.

Here’s a tip: You can search the collections of an individual contributing repository. So if your family lived in Alabama or Texas, for example, you might try running a focused search in materials from the Birmingham Public Library or the Dallas or Houston Public Libraries. Read more tips for exploring the FamilySearch Digital Library.

Digital Library search strategy

Under the Search tab, click Books to search almost 500,000 digitized publications, including family and county histories, transcribed records and more. Using the Advanced Search, try searching on a name using the “Any is (exact)” option. To view a match, you must download the entire book (a PDF file), then use your PDF reader to search for the term in the book. Some digitized books can be viewed only in the Family History Library or a FamilySearch Center.

Rick Crume

19. Look for indexes in imaged volumes.

Browsing an unindexed collection? Digitized volumes may contain handwritten or typed name indexes. Look for a volume with “index” in the title, and check the beginning and end of individual volumes.

Rick Crume

20. Search from a Family Tree profile.

FamilySearch can help you find records faster by filling in the search form with details on someone in the Family Tree. In the person’s Details view, look under the Search Records section of the right column and select FamilySearch, Ancestry, Findmypast or MyHeritage. You can attach a matching record from FamilySearch to everyone it pertains to in the tree. Now MyHeritage can do that, too. Look for the link at the bottom of the record to “Attach source to FamilySearch.”

Rick Crume

21. Get more help.

To find articles and videos about using FamilySearch, Click on Get Help, then Help Center and search on a topic. For example, search for Civil War, and the matches include an article on South Carolina Civil War service records of Confederate soldiers, videos on researching Civil War records and more.

Rick Crume

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22. Volunteer to index records.

If you have a few minutes, you can index digitized records on your home computer and make them searchable. Click on Indexing > Overview to get started with FamilySearch Indexing. You never know what you might turn up just by volunteering your time!

Rick Crume

Some information in this article appeared in the March/April 2017 (Crume) and September 2019 (Koch) issues of Family Tree Magazine.

Learn how to capitalize on FamilySearch.org’s search form and get the most out of its vast historical databases.
Learn how to start a FamilySearch tree that’ll help you find cousins and keep track of FamilySearch.org records and sources with your ancestral informaiton.

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