Naturalization and Citizenship Records

Did Your Immigrant Ancestor Become a Naturalized Citizen?

Learn how to locate naturalization, citizenship and other documents related to US residency
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Naturalization, the process by which an alien (foreign-born resident) becomes an citizen of another country, can a number of papers and records of interest to genealogists. Naturalization papers can be a valuable source of information regarding an immigrant's place of origin, his or her original name, former residence, and date of arrival in the new country. Beyond that, they represent an important time in the life of our ancestor.

Naturalization records are often overlooked by genealogists, however, because they can be difficult to locate and understand. To gain a better insight into these records, it is helpful to understand the three-step process involved in gaining U.S. citizenship:

STEP ONE: Declarations of Intention or First Papers

Prior to 1952, a two-step application process was required before an immigrant could become a U.S. citizen. Filing a Declaration of Intention was the first step. Sometimes referred to as the "first papers," the Declaration of Intention could be filed at any point after the immigrant's arrival in America. After 1862, those who were honorably discharged from the U.S. Army were excused from this first step in the naturalization process (a privilege also added for the Navy & Marine Corps in 1894). In 1952, a Declaration of Intent was no longer required for anyone, although some immigrants filed them.

While the content found on the declaration of intention varies dramatically by time period and location, pre–1906 declarations rarely contain much in the way of biographical information. Post-1906 declarations are more useful to genealogists, however, and generally containing the following information: name, address, occupation, birthplace, nationality, country from which emigrated, birth date or age, personal description, date of intention, marital status, last foreign residence, port of entry, name of ship, date of entry, and date of document.

They sometimes include a picture of the applicant. From 1929 to 1941, the declaration of intention also asked for the spouse's name, marriage date and place, and birth information, plus names, dates, and places of birth and residence of each child. A separate Certificate of Arrival giving details of arrival was usually required for arrivals after 1906.

STEP TWO: Petition for Naturalization - Second or Final Papers

Naturalization petitions were formal applications submitted to the court by individuals who had met the residency requirements (generally 5 years, though this varied by time period) and who had previously declared their intention to become citizens by filing first papers. As with the declarations of intention, the information contained in naturalization petitions varies dramatically from one court and time period to another. Most petitions created prior to 1906 offer little in terms of personal information. After 1906, petitions contain generally the same information as the Declaration of Intention, plus additional detail on spouses and children.

STEP THREE: Certificate of Naturalization

A certificate of naturalization was issued to new citizens upon completion of all citizenship requirements.

As in the cases of declarations of intention and the petitions, the amount of information provided on the certificate may vary greatly from one year to another. In most cases, it contains little information other than the court, date, and name of new citizen. Beginning in 1929, naturalization certificates also included a photograph of the new citizen. They may contain other information, but the Declaration and Petition are generally the most helpful papers for genealogy researchers.

Notable Exceptions to the Naturalization Rules

Naturalizations in the U.S. generally followed the three-step, 5-year process discussed above. There are, however, several notable exceptions:

  • Derivative citizenship was granted to wives and minor children of naturalized men. Wives of naturalized men automatically became citizens from 1790-1922, either upon the naturalization of their husband, or marriage to a man who was already a U.S. citizen. From 1790-1940, minor children under the age of 21 automatically became citizens upon the naturalization of their father.
  • From 1824 to 1906, minor alien children who had lived in the United States for 5 years prior to their 23rd birthday could file both their declarations and petitions at the same time.

Where can I find naturalization records?

The US Naturalization Service was formed on September 27, 1906, thus they do not have any naturalization records dated before September 1906. Prior to that date, any "court of record" (municipal, county, state, or federal) could grant U.S. citizenship.

Find Naturalization Records After 1906
September 27, 1906 and later

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (formerly known as the INS) holds naturalization certificate files, known as C-Files, for all naturalizations date after September 26, 1906.

C-Files are duplicate copies of the original naturalization records and should contain at least a copy of the Declaration of Intention to become a US Citizen (to 1952), Petition for Naturalization, and Certificate of Naturalization. Occasionally, C-Files contain additional documents or correspondence.

USCIS maintains an index to the C-Files, and can retrieve individual records based on name, date of birth, and place of birth. C-Files from 1906 to 1956 have been microfilmed, and are available via Freedom of Information/Privacy Act request to USCIS Headquarters in Washington, D.C. For naturalization records after 1956, Freedom of Information requests should be sent to the appropriate USCIS District Office.

  • Request the "Naturalization Certificate File (C-File)"
  • Provide the name, date of birth, place of birth (at least the country) and residence (city or county and state) of the naturalized citizen. If the individual was born less than 100 years ago, you'll also need to provide proof of death (such as a death certificate), or notarized permission from the individual.

    Requests to the USCIS can often take several months.

    Find Naturalization Records Prior to 1906
    Before September 27, 1906

    As a general rule, the National Archives does not have many naturalization records created in state or local courts (prior to 1906), however some county court naturalization records have been donated to the National Archives.

    This list of National Archives microfilm publications details their available naturalization records. These can be ordered through the Order Online! on the National Archives Web site.

    Naturalizations prior to 1906 can also be requested from the USCIS, but these requests can often take several months. You may find it quicker to try these other options for pre-1906 naturalization records:

    • Look for the naturalization record in the local (usually county) court which served the immigrant's place of residence. If not found in the county court, then look next to district and even state courts. Older naturalization records may also have been sent to the county or state archives.
    • The Family History Library has microfilmed many naturalization records. Check the Family History Library Catalog to see what's available. These microfilms can be ordered and viewed through your local Family History Center.