What is the Best Way to Search Immigration Records?

T. L. Childree

There are a number of ways to search immigration records, but the best method usually depends on the date and manner of entry into the country. In the U.S. for example, post-1906 immigration records must be viewed in person at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.. Prior to 1906, immigration information typically consists of privately compiled ship passenger lists and the naturalization records of individual states. The Ellis Island Immigration Records Online Database also contains a great deal of information. and several online companies will perform a comprehensive ancestral search for a fee.

Some immigration records are stored in microfilm archives.
Some immigration records are stored in microfilm archives.

Information concerning immigration that took place by ship can often be found at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. The records in this database can be accessed on microfilm at the central office. Information such as the immigrant’s name and port of entry is usually required for effective searching. This extensive database is also referred to as ship passenger arrival records and covers the period of time from 1906 to the early 1980s. The National Archives also maintains several regional branches throughout the U.S.

Records of immigration prior to 1906 can sometimes be obtained by searching the archives of individual states.
Records of immigration prior to 1906 can sometimes be obtained by searching the archives of individual states.

Immigration records kept by the National Archives are arranged according to a ship’s port of entry. These records are not available for online viewing at the present time. A list of microfilm for each port of entry can be viewed online by entering the keyword “passenger” in the search box. These passenger lists are usually available at regional branches of the National Archives. It is best to contact the branch to determine the availability of a particular passenger list.

The information contained in these immigration records typically includes the nationality, age, height as well as eye and hair color. Other information such as place of birth, profession, and the ship’s name and arrival date may have also been recorded. In certain instances, a person’s last place of residence and the amount of money possessed are included in these records. Additionally, the records often contain the name and address of any U.S. relatives.

Records of immigration prior to 1906 may sometimes be obtained by searching the archives of individual states. These state archives contain the naturalization records of each city, town, and county. Various kinds of ship passenger lists have also been privately compiled and typically include information gathered prior to 1906. Many of these lists are available for viewing online or at local libraries.

The Ellis Island Immigration Records Online Database may also be a good source of information. A free online account must be created before a search can be conducted. This account allows users to save their search results from each visit. Records can be searched in a number of different ways including age, port of departure, and year of arrival. For best results, try alternate surname spellings and maiden names.

Several companies specialize in searching immigration records for a fee. These searches are usually very comprehensive and may yield better results than self-searches. This type of search can usually be conducted online. Most companies will perform a single search for a one-time fee or multiple searches if an annual membership is purchased. The fees are usually nonrefundable even if no results are found.

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Discussion Comments


@heavanet- If you are searching for information about people in your local community, sometimes you can find a lot of good immigration information at your local library. There are often databases and books available that trace the steps of families that ended up moving to the town.

Also don't forget the benefits of talking to older members of your family. You may be surprised at how much information they have about the generation that immigrated, and that they have immigration records to back up their knowledge.


There are also several online genealogy sources that have a lot of good information about immigration records. You just need to have some details about the person or family you are searching, such as name, country of origin, and an estimated year of immigrations. Searching these websites can be very educational and helps you learn a lot about your family's history.

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