How to Use a Genealogical Data Communication (GEDCOM) File

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One of the most common methods used to exchange genealogical information is a GEDCOM file, an acronym for GEnealogical Data COMmunication. In simple terms, GEDCOM is a method of formatting your family tree data into a text file which can be easily read and converted by any genealogy software program. The GEDCOM specification was originally developed in 1985 and is owned and managed by the Family History Department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. GEDCOM is 5.5 and 5.5.1 (legacy GEDCOM) are no longer maintained as development continues on GEDCOM X. 


Almost all major genealogy software packages and websites — including Reunion, Ancestral Quest, My Family Tree, and others — both read and write to the GEDCOM standard, although most of those tools also have their own proprietary formats. Depending on the GEDCOM version and the version of any given genealogy software program, you might encounter some standards problems that lead to imperfect interoperability. For example, Program X might not support a few tags that Program Y supports, so some data loss might occur. You'll want to check each program's technical specifications to see if and how it differs from the GEDCOM standard.

Anatomy of a Genealogy GEDCOM File

If you open a GEDCOM file using your word processor, you'll see a jumble of numbers, abbreviations, and bits and pieces of data. There are no blank lines and no indentations in a GEDCOM file. That's because it is a specification for exchanging information from one computer to another and was never intended to be read as a text file.

GEDCOMs basically take your family information and translate it into an outline format. Records in a GEDCOM file are arranged in groups of lines that hold information about one individual (INDI) or one family (FAM) and each line in an individual record has a level number. The first line of every record is numbered zero to show that it is the beginning of a new record. Within that record, different level numbers are subdivisions of the next level above it. For example, the birth of an individual may be given level No. 1 and further information about the birth (date, place, etc.) would be given level No. 2.

After the level number, you will see a descriptive tag, which refers to the type of data contained in that line. Most tags are obvious — BIRT for birth and PLAC for place — but some are a little more obscure, such as BARM for Bar Mitzvah.

A simple example of GEDCOM records:

0 @I2@ INDI 1 NAME Charles Phillip /Ingalls/ 1 SEX M
2 DATE 10 JAN 1836
2 PLAC Cuba, Allegheny, NY
2 DATE 08 JUN 1902
2 PLAC De Smet, Kingsbury, Dakota Territory
1 FAMC @F2@
1 FAMS @F3@
0 @I3@ INDI
1 NAME Caroline Lake /Quiner/
2 DATE 12 DEC 1839
2 PLAC Milwaukee Co., WI
2 DATE 20 APR 1923
2 PLAC De Smet, Kingsbury, Dakota Territory
1 FAMC @F21@
1 FAMS @F3@

Tags can also serve as pointers — for example, @I2@ — which indicate a related individual, family or source within the same GEDCOM file. For example, a family record (FAM) will contain pointers to the individual records (INDI) for the husband, wife, and children.

Here is the family record that contains Charles and Caroline, the two individuals discussed above:

0 @F3@ FAM
1 HUSB @I2@
1 WIFE @I3@
2 DATE 01 FEB 1860
2 PLAC Concord, Jefferson, WI
1 CHIL @I1@
1 CHIL @I42@
1 CHIL @I44@
1 CHIL @I45@
1 CHIL @I47@

A GEDCOM is basically a connected web of records with pointers that keep all of the relationships straight. While you should now be able to decipher a GEDCOM with a text editor, you will still find it much easier to read with the appropriate software.

GEDCOMs contain two additional pieces: A header section (led by the line 0 HEAD) with metadata about the file; the header is the very first section of the file. The final line — called a trailer — indicates the end of the file. It simply reads 0 TRLR.

How to Open and Read a GEDCOM File

Opening a GEDCOM file is usually straightforward. Begin by ensuring that the file is truly a genealogy GEDCOM file and not a family tree file created in some proprietary format by a genealogy software program. A file is in GEDCOM format when it ends in the extension .ged. If the file ends with the extension .zip then it has been zipped (compressed) and needs to be unzipped first. 

Back up your existing genealogy databases, then open the file (or import it) with your software.

How to Save Your Family Tree as a GEDCOM File

All major family tree software programs support the creation of GEDCOM files. Creating a GEDCOM file does not overwrite your existing data or change your existing file in any way. Instead, a new file is generated by a process called exporting. Exporting a GEDCOM file is easy to do with any family tree software by following the basic instructions offered in the software help tool. Remove private information such as birth dates and Social Security numbers for people in your family tree who are still living in order to protect their privacy. 

List of Tags

The GEDCOM 5.5 standard supports quite a few different tags and indicators:

ABBR {ABBREVIATION} A short name of a title, description or name.

ADDR {ADDRESS} The contemporary place, usually required for postal purposes, of an individual, a submitter of information, a repository, a business, a school or a company.

ADR1 {ADDRESS1} The first line of an address.

ADR2 {ADDRESS2} The second line of an address.

ADOP {ADOPTION} Pertaining to the creation of a child-parent relationship that does not exist biologically.

AFN {AFN} A unique permanent record file number of an individual record stored in Ancestral File.

AGE {AGE} The age of the individual at the time an event occurred or the age listed in the document.

AGNC {AGENCY} The institution or individual having the authority or responsibility to manage or govern

ALIA {ALIAS} An indicator to link different record descriptions of a person who may be the same person.

ANCE {ANCESTORS} Pertaining to forbearers of an individual.

ANCI {ANCES_INTEREST} Indicates an interest in additional research for ancestors of this individual. (See also DESI)

ANUL {ANNULMENT} Declaring a marriage void from the beginning (never existed).

ASSO {ASSOCIATES} An indicator to link friends, neighbors, relatives, or associates of an individual.

AUTH {AUTHOR} The name of the individual who created or compiled information.

BAPL {BAPTISM-LDS} The event of baptism performed at age eight or later by priesthood authority of the LDS Church. (See also BAPM, next)

BAPM {BAPTISM} The event of baptism (not LDS), performed in infancy or later. (See also BAPL, above, and CHR.)

BARM {BAR_MITZVAH} The ceremonial event held when a Jewish boy reaches age 13.

BASM {BAS_MITZVAH} The ceremonial event held when a Jewish girl reaches age 13, also known as "Bat Mitzvah."

BIRT {BIRTH} The event of entering into life.

BLES {BLESSING} A religious event of bestowing divine care or intercession. Sometimes given in connection with a naming ceremony.

BLOB {BINARY_OBJECT} A grouping of data used as input to a multimedia system that processes binary data to represent images, sound, and video.

BURI {BURIAL} The event of the proper disposing of the mortal remains of a deceased person.

CALN {CALL_NUMBER} The number used by a repository to identify the specific items in its collections.

CAST {CASTE} The name of an individual's rank or status in society, based on racial or religious differences, or differences in wealth, inherited rank, profession, occupation, etc.

CAUS {CAUSE} A description of the cause of the associated event or fact, such as the cause of death.

CENS {CENSUS} The event of the periodic count of the population for a designated locality, such as a national or state census.

CHAN {CHANGE} Indicates a change, correction or modification. Typically used in connection with a DATE to specify when a change in information occurred.

CHAR {CHARACTER} An indicator of the character set used in writing this automated information.

CHIL {CHILD} The natural, adopted or sealed (LDS) child of a father and a mother.

CHR {CHRISTENING} The religious event (not LDS) of baptizing or naming a child.

CHRA {ADULT_CHRISTENING} The religious event (not LDS) of baptizing or naming an adult person.

CITY {CITY} A lower level jurisdictional unit. Normally an incorporated municipal unit.

CONC {CONCATENATION} An indicator that additional data belongs to the superior value. The information from the CONC value is to be connected to the value of the superior preceding line without a space and without a carriage return or newline character. Values that are split for a CONC tag must always be split at a non-space. If the value is split on a space the space will be lost when concatenation takes place. This is because of the treatment that spaces get as a GEDCOM delimiter, many GEDCOM values are trimmed of trailing spaces and some systems look for the first non-space starting after the tag to determine the beginning of the value.

CONF {CONFIRMATION} The religious event (not LDS) of conferring the gift of the Holy Ghost and, among protestants, full church membership.

CONL {CONFIRMATION_L} The religious event by which a person receives membership in the LDS Church.

CONT {CONTINUED} An indicator that additional data belongs to the superior value. The information from the CONT value is to be connected to the value of the superior preceding line with a carriage return or newline character. Leading spaces could be important to the formatting of the resultant text. When importing values from CONT lines the reader should assume only one delimiter character following the CONT tag. Assume that the rest of the leading spaces are to be a part of the value.

COPR {COPYRIGHT} A statement that accompanies data to protect it from unlawful duplication and distribution.

CORP {CORPORATE} A name of an institution, agency, corporation or company.

CREM {CREMATION} Disposal of the remains of a person's body by fire.

CTRY {COUNTRY} The name or code of the country.

DATA {DATA} Pertaining to stored automated information.

DATE {DATE} The time of an event in a calendar format.

DEAT {DEATH} The event when mortal life terminates.

DESC {DESCENDANTS} Pertaining to the offspring of an individual.

DESI {DESCENDANT_INT} Indicates an interest in research to identify additional descendants of this individual. (See also ANCI)

DEST {DESTINATION} A system receiving data.

DIV {DIVORCE} An event of dissolving a marriage through civil action.

DIVF {DIVORCE_FILED} An event of filing for a divorce by a spouse.

DSCR {PHY_DESCRIPTION} The physical characteristics of a person, place or thing.

EDUC {EDUCATION} Indicator of a level of education attained.

EMIG {EMIGRATION} An event of leaving one's homeland with the intent of residing elsewhere.

ENDL {ENDOWMENT} A religious event where an endowment ordinance for an individual was performed by priesthood authority in an LDS temple.

ENGA {ENGAGEMENT} An event of recording or announcing an agreement between two people to become married.

EVEN {EVENT} A noteworthy happening related to an individual, a group or an organization.

FAM {FAMILY} Identifies a legal, common law or other customary relationship of man and woman and their children, if any, or a family created by virtue of the birth of a child to its biological father and mother.

FAMC {FAMILY_CHILD} Identifies the family in which an individual appears as a child.

FAMF {FAMILY_FILE} Pertaining to, or the name of, a family file. Names stored in a file that is assigned to a family for doing temple ordinance work.

FAMS {FAMILY_SPOUSE} Identifies the family in which an individual appears as a spouse.

FCOM {FIRST_COMMUNION} A religious rite, the first act of sharing in the Lord's supper as part of church worship.

FILE {FILE} An information storage place that is ordered and arranged for preservation and reference.

FORM {FORMAT} An assigned name given to a consistent format in which information can be conveyed.

GEDC {GEDCOM} Information about the use of GEDCOM in a transmission.

GIVN {GIVEN_NAME} A given or earned name used for official identification of a person.

GRAD {GRADUATION} An event of awarding educational diplomas or degrees to individuals.

HEAD {HEADER} Identifies information pertaining to an entire GEDCOM transmission.

HUSB {HUSBAND} An individual in the family role of a married man or father.

IDNO {IDENT_NUMBER} A number assigned to identify a person within some significant external system.

IMMI {IMMIGRATION} An event of entering into a new locality with the intent of residing there.


INFL {TempleReady} Indicates if an INFANT—data is "Y" (or "N").

LANG {LANGUAGE} The name of the language used in a communication or transmission of information.

LEGA {LEGATEE} A role of an individual acting as a person receiving a bequest or legal devise.

MARB {MARRIAGE_BANN} An event of an official public notice given that two people intend to marry.

MARC {MARR_CONTRACT} An event of recording a formal agreement of marriage, including the prenuptial agreement in which marriage partners reach an agreement about the property rights of one or both, securing property to their children.

MARL {MARR_LICENSE} An event of obtaining a legal license to marry.

MARR {MARRIAGE} A legal, common-law or customary event of creating a family unit of a man and a woman as husband and wife.

MARS {MARR_SETTLEMENT} An event of creating an agreement between two people contemplating marriage, at which time they agree to release or modify property rights that would otherwise arise from the marriage.

MEDI {MEDIA} Identifies information about the media or having to do with the medium in which information is stored.

NAME {NAME} A word or combination of words used to help identify an individual, title or other items. More than one NAME line should be used for people who were known by multiple names.

NATI {NATIONALITY} The national heritage of an individual.

NATU {NATURALIZATION} The event of obtaining citizenship.

NCHI {CHILDREN_COUNT} The number of children that this person is known to be the parent of (all marriages) when subordinate to an individual, or that belong to this family when subordinate to a FAM_RECORD.

NICK {NICKNAME} A descriptive or familiar that is used instead of, or in addition to, one's proper name.

NMR {MARRIAGE_COUNT} The number of times this person has participated in a family as a spouse or parent.

NOTE {NOTE} Additional information provided by the submitter for understanding the enclosing data.

NPFX {NAME_PREFIX} Text which appears on a name line before the given and surname parts of a name. i.e. (Lt. Cmndr.) Joseph /Allen/ jr.

NSFX {NAME_SUFFIX} Text which appears on a name line after or behind the given and surname parts of a name. i.e. Lt. Cmndr. Joseph /Allen/ (jr.) In this example jr. is considered as the name suffix portion

OBJE {OBJECT} Pertaining to a grouping of attributes used in describing something. Usually referring to the data required to represent a multimedia object, such as an audio recording, a photograph of a person or an image of a document.

OCCU {OCCUPATION} The type of work or profession of an individual.

ORDI {ORDINANCE} Pertaining to a religious ordinance in general.

ORDN {ORDINATION} A religious event of receiving authority to act in religious matters.

PAGE {PAGE} A number or description to identify where information can be found in a referenced work.

PEDI {PEDIGREE} Information pertaining to an individual to parent lineage chart.

PHON {PHONE} A unique number assigned to access a specific telephone.

PLAC {PLACE} A jurisdictional name to identify the place or location of an event.

POST {POSTAL_CODE} A code used by a postal service to identify an area to facilitate mail handling.

PROB {PROBATE} An event of judicial determination of the validity of a will. May indicate several related court activities over several dates.

PROP {PROPERTY} Pertaining to possessions such as real estate or other property of interest.

PUBL {PUBLICATION} Refers to when or where a work was published or created.

QUAY {QUALITY_OF_DATA} An assessment of the certainty of the evidence to support the conclusion drawn from evidence. Values: [0|1|2|3]

REFN {REFERENCE} A description or number used to identify an item for filing, storage or other reference purposes.

RELA {RELATIONSHIP} A relationship value between the indicated contexts.

RELI {RELIGION} A religious denomination to which a person is affiliated or for which a record applies.

REPO {REPOSITORY} An institution or person that has the specified item as part of their collection(s)

RESI {RESIDENCE} The act of dwelling at an address for a period of time.

RESN {RESTRICTION} A processing indicator signifying access to information has been denied or otherwise restricted.

RETI {RETIREMENT} An event of exiting an occupational relationship with an employer after a qualifying time period.

RFN {REC_FILE_NUMBER} A permanent number assigned to a record that uniquely identifies it within a known file.

RIN {REC_ID_NUMBER} A number assigned to a record by an originating automated system that can be used by a receiving system to report results pertaining to that record.

ROLE {ROLE} A name given to a role played by an individual in connection with an event.

SEX {SEX} Indicates the sex of an individual — male or female.

SLGC {SEALING_CHILD} A religious event pertaining to the sealing of a child to his or her parents in an LDS temple ceremony.

SLGS {SEALING_SPOUSE} A religious event pertaining to the sealing of a husband and wife in an LDS temple ceremony.

SOUR {SOURCE} The initial or original material from which information was obtained.

SPFX {SURN_PREFIX} A name piece used as a non-indexing pre-part of a surname.

SSN {SOC_SEC_NUMBER} A number assigned by the United States Social Security Administration. Used for tax identification purposes.

STAE {STATE} A geographical division of a larger jurisdictional area, such as a state within the United States of America.

STAT {STATUS} An assessment of the state or condition of something.

SUBM {SUBMITTER} An individual or organization who contributes genealogical data to a file or transfers it to someone else.

SUBN {SUBMISSION} Pertains to a collection of data issued for processing.

SURN {SURNAME} A family name passed on or used by members of a family.

TEMP {TEMPLE} The name or code that represents the name of a temple of the LDS Church.

TEXT {TEXT} The exact wording found in an original source document.

TIME {TIME} A time value in a 24-hour clock format, including hours, minutes, and optional seconds, separated by a colon (:). Fractions of seconds are shown in decimal notation.

TITL {TITLE} A description of a specific writing or other work, such as the title of a book when used in a source context, or a formal designation used by an individual in connection with positions of royalty or another social status, such as Grand Duke.

TRLR {TRAILER} At level 0, specifies the end of a GEDCOM transmission.

TYPE {TYPE} A further qualification to the meaning of the associated superior tag. The value does not have any computer processing reliability. It is more in the form of a short one- or two-word note that should be displayed any time the associated data is displayed.

VERS {VERSION} Indicates which version of a product, item, or publication is being used or referenced.

WIFE {WIFE} An individual in the role as a mother or married woman.

WILL {WILL} A legal document treated as an event, by which a person disposes of his or her estate, to take effect after death. The event date is the date the will was signed while the person was alive. (See also PROB)

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Powell, Kimberly. "How to Use a Genealogical Data Communication (GEDCOM) File." ThoughtCo, Sep. 8, 2021, Powell, Kimberly. (2021, September 8). How to Use a Genealogical Data Communication (GEDCOM) File. Retrieved from Powell, Kimberly. "How to Use a Genealogical Data Communication (GEDCOM) File." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).