Naturalization Information for Genealogists
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By Ilene Kanfer Murray

Naturalization is the legal procedure by which a foreign-born person becomes a citizen of a new country. The laws determining citizenship vary from country to country, and in our own country, as in others, the laws changed depending on circumstances. Many genealogists spend years seeking their ancestors’ citizenship papers only to be terribly disappointed to find that there is little genealogical information in them or, worse yet, not to find them at all.

Sometimes those naturalization papers can’t be found because the immigrant did not get naturalized. Many people filed an intent to become a citizen but never completed the process. “Many aliens lived their lives as positive contributors to their community and new nation without formally acquiring citizenship. . . constitutions of some states allowed aliens who had filed only declarations of intention to vote, and, except for certain periods when full citizenship was required, to own land. . . and many individuals believed themselves to be citizens by derivation from parent or spouse.” 1

Early Naturalization

Becoming naturalized was not an important concern to the first European colonists. They simply were trying to survive in a hostile, strange environment. Prior to the American Revolution, most early citizenship records were oaths of allegiance signed by individuals as they left from their ships. The administration of the oaths as well as the words in them were under the jurisdiction of the British Parliament. As the colonies became independent states, residents who were British citizens had to choose between British and American citizenship. Many who remained loyal to England were forced to move, as the locations in which they were living became part of the new country and their lives were sometimes in jeopardy.

The First Naturalization Act in the new nation was passed on 26 March 1790. This act stated that “any free white person over the age of twenty-one who had resided for at least two years in the United States might be granted citizenship on application to any common law court in any state where he/she had resided for at least one year.”2 That meant that an applicant could visit any common law court, prove he/she was of good moral character, and take an oath of allegiance to the U.S. Constitution. A judge then ruled on the applicant’s petition. Citizenship was granted to those who satisfied the court. Married women and children under twenty-one derived citizenship from their husbands or fathers. Children of unsuccessful applicants could apply for citizenship independently when they reached the age of twenty-one. Because of large numbers of immigrants fleeing Europe, on 29 Jan 1795 Congress repealed the 1790 act and passed a stricter law.

This new law turned naturalization into a multi-step process, which it still is today.

  • Free white aliens had to declare in court their intention to become citizens of the U.S. and to renounce any allegiance to a foreign ruler.
  • The residency requirement was increased from two to five years, including one year in the state/territory in which the court of application was located.
  • Aliens who had “borne any hereditary title, or been of any of the orders of nobility” had to renounce that status.
  • The naturalization procedure was changed from a one-step to a two-step process requiring a declaration of intention (first paper) and then a petition for admission to citizenship (final or second paper).
  • Such actions must be taken before the supreme, superior, district, or circuit court of any state/territory or of the U.S.

Various acts were passed between 1790–1802 to regulate naturalization of the new immigrants from Ireland and France. The 1802 act was the last major change in naturalization laws until 1906.” 3 During the 1800s, waves of immigrants found their way to the United States. The first group consisted of Germans, Irish, and British citizens motivated to leave their countries because of war, famine, and unemployment. Between 1841 and 1860, more than 87 per cent of immigrants coming to American shores came from these three countries. 4

As turmoil in Europe caused the number of emigrants to increase, and as more Asians, lured by good wages and employment opportunities began to arrive on our shores, new laws were passed to control immigration. During the 1880s and 90s various acts were passed and committees were established, ultimately leading to the formation of the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization under the umbrella of the U.S. Treasury Department. The fledgling bureau opened the inspection station at Ellis Island in January 1892, along with other stations at various ports of entry.

27 September 1906: The Turning Point in Naturalization Law

The creation of the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization (INS) provided for the first uniform naturalization laws in the country. On 29 June 1906 Congress passed a naturalization act which became effective on 27 September. The “intention of the Basic Naturalization Act was to provide a uniform rule for the naturalization of aliens throughout the United States.” 5

After 27 September 1906, all courts had to use standard naturalization forms. These included a declaration of intention, a petition for naturalization, and a certificate of naturalization. Duplicate copies of these papers were to be sent to Washington, D.C. The new citizenship papers now included the applicant’s age, occupation, personal description, date and place of birth, present and last foreign addresses, port of embarkation and entry, name of vessel, and date of arrival in U.S. For the first time in the country’s history, verification of arrival was a required part of naturalization.

Not until 1906 were wives and children listed by name on naturalization documents. If relevant, the names of an applicant’s spouse and children, their birthdates and places, and current residence were required on citizenship papers.

An interesting twist in the laws pertaining to women occurred in 1922. Until that year, women and children were automatically granted citizenship with their husbands/fathers. On 22 September 1922, an act was passed that required women to become citizens in compliance with current naturalization laws, although no declaration of intent was required. The 1922 act also stated that a woman who married an alien would lose her citizenship! She would then have to go through the naturalization process to regain it. It took nine years for the decision-makers to come to their senses, and that section of the law was repealed in March 1931.

Military Service

An act of 17 July 1862 said that aliens who served in the U.S. military and received an honorable discharge could become citizens without a declaration and with just one year’s residence. This act was extended into World War I. Aliens in the military could be naturalized without a declaration or proof of five years’ residence. “Members of the armed forces were naturalized at military posts and nearby courts instead of at their legal residences.” 6

The Naturalization Process

Prior to 1906, an alien could be naturalized in any court of record. Generally, immigrants took their first papers out in the county where they first lived in the U.S. Second papers could be anywhere the immigrant had settled in any court that was close to where he lived. Pre-1906 naturalization forms (declarations and petitions) varied in content and wording from court to court, county to county, year to year. After 1906, naturalization could only be done in a federal court, and, at last, there was standard information required on all the forms.

Certificates were issued to naturalized citizens when they completed all citizenship requirements. Post 1906, these contain the names, ages, and residence of all family members. After 1929, a photograph was attached to the final certificate. These certificates came in books much like a modern check register with stubs. Some courts kept copies of these numbered stubs and they sometimes contain genealogically useful information.

From 1906–1924, the INS checked ship manifests to verify the arrival of each applicant. (The handwritten verifications often appear on passenger ship records during that time period and can provide a clue to the date of a person’s naturalization.) The alien was then issued a certificate of arrival which was filed with his citizenship papers attesting to the fact that he did indeed arrive on the date and the ship and at the port at which he said he had. After 1924, aliens were required to have visas upon their arrival to this country, so certificates of arrival were no longer issued.

Where are these records?

Many early naturalizations have been scattered, warehoused, moved, donated, or lost. Indexes are not necessarily with the actual documents. Those early naturalizations which survive are generally preserved in the states in which they were created. Some printed indexes to naturalizations have been published and/or microfilmed. State historical societies and archives are the best places to begin searching for these early records.

The Family History Library has millions of court records on microfilm. Genealogical societies and libraries have been rescuing early records, indexing them, and making them available to researchers. Many are now starting to appear online.

Many post-1906 naturalizations and indexes are microfilmed and available at National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) regional offices. Others are at the INS.

Immigration & Naturalization Service
Dept. of Justice
425 I Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20536

National Archives & Records Administration

Regional offices are located in:
Northeast Region: Boston, Pittsfield, MA, and New York City
Mid-Atlantic Region: Philadelphia
Southeast Region: Atlanta
Central Plains: Kansas City
Great Lakes: Chicago
Southwest: Ft. Worth
Rocky Mt.: Denver
Pacific: Laguna Niguel, San Francisco
Pacific/Alaska: Seattle, Anchorage


1 Loretto Dennis Szucs & Sandra Hargreaves Luebking, The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy, Revised Edition (Salt Lake City, Utah: Ancestry, Inc., 1997), 473.
2 Loretto Dennis Szucs, They Became Americans: Finding Naturalization Records and Ethnic Origins (Salt Lake City, Utah: Ancestry, Inc., 2001), 22.
3 Ibid., 25.
4 Ibid., 29.
5 Ibid., 155.
6 Ibid., 43.

Recommended Reading

Szucs, Loretto Dennis. They Became Americans: Finding Naturalization Records and Ethnic Origins. Salt Lake City, Utah: Ancestry, Inc. 2001

Szucs, Loretto Dennis and Luebking, Sandra Hargreaves. The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy, Revised Edition. Salt Lake City, Utah: Ancestry, Inc. 1997


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