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Immigration Records: Finding People on the Move
Over the course of several hundred years, millions of people flocked to the New World and crossed borders in search of a better life, and immigration records showing their arrival are one of the most useful tools in researching your family history. Of course, immigration records are also available for many other countries as well, helping you trace your family’s migration over time. Fortunately, many of these records are now accessible online, making your search a little easier.

Immigration Records at Ellis Island.
Ellis Island off the coast of New York was one of the largest centers for processing immigrants into the United States and a great source of immigration records. Over 22 million immigration records for the passengers and the crew of the ships that docked at this port between 1892 and 1924 are available to search online. Although there were many other ports through which immigrants may have arrived, if your ancestors came over from Europe during this era and arrived in the US, odds are good their immigration records are in the Ellis Island lists.

This large source of immigration records can be searched for free on the internet, making it easier than ever to search through the large volume of information. It is a common belief that many immigrants had their names changed when they arrived at Ellis Island; this is actually a myth. The immigration records kept by the staff at the port were actually quite accurate, and accurate documentation was required to enter the country. Translators in a wide variety of languages were on staff to ensure accuracy and speak to immigrants in their own language, ensuring that there were few errors as a result of language barriers. Although many immigrants did later change their names for a variety of reasons, for the most part they passed through Ellis Island with the same name by which they left their home country. The immigration records at Ellis Island are therefore generally trustworthy.

Other Ports and Arrival Points.
The vast majority of immigrants to the New World arrived via large ships, either passenger or cargo depending on what they could afford. The passenger lists for these ships were presented to immigration officials by the captains of the ships upon docking. This makes the records kept by the ships and the ports a vital source of immigration records. Knowing where your ancestors landed makes the search easier, but if you are not sure you can try the largest ports on the east and west coasts. European immigrants most often arrived on the east coast, while Asian immigrants generally entered west coast ports. Immigration records are available from many of the large immigration centers on either coast. Angel Island near San Francisco was one of the largest ports for entrance into the US on the west coast and a good starting point.

If you are searching for immigration records within the same continent, central record storage for the country itself might be your best bet. In the US, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, now a part of Homeland Security, handles all of the immigration into the country. Immigrants from Mexico, South America and Canada into the US via land border crossings will be easier to locate through central records. This is also the case for immigration within Europe and other continents. Each country will have its own source of immigration records.

Wartime, Refugees and Lost Records.
In times of war, especially the large wars that took over much of Europe, many refugees crossed borders in secret or without proper documentation. Finding public records for these people can be a major challenge if they exist at all. If you know that someone in your past left their country as a refugee and settled in a new country, you may need to search later years for immigration records. Many refugees sought status as citizens or legal residents of their new country once the fear of being sent back had passed, and you may find the applications in later years.

Many religious and other nonprofit services provided aid to refugees and helped them to seek citizenship or obtain refugee status in their new country, including the US and Canada. These organizations are a good source of records for people who may otherwise have fallen off the radar. They may be able to point you in the right direction to find the later official immigration records for the people in question.

Using Immigration Records to Further your Search.
Once your ancestors passed through immigration and entered into their new country, they may well have scattered far and wide, especially in the US and Canada. Many immigrants quickly disappeared into the masses of people entering the New World. In order to use immigration records to their fullest, it is helpful to follow up with a search of citizenship applications.

Remember that passing through an immigration port into a new country does not automatically convey citizenship but allows the immigrant to enter and apply for status. Thus many immigrants can be located later when they applied for and received citizenship and through other immigration records such as visa and permanent resident applications. Following the paperwork trail can be confusing but will help to keep track of where immigrants went after they passed through the initial entry port. When and where they applied for status will tell you much about where your family settled and where you can search for further records and information.

Immigration records are a highly useful tool for tracking the migration of your family members across time and place and discovering where the various branches of your family wound up. Locating them allows you to move your search for information to new places and uncover entirely new branches of the family tree. Because most immigration records were kept fairly thoroughly, they can be considered a trustworthy source of information.

Whether you are seeking an ancestor who joined the millions entering the US and Canada over a long period of time, or a specific time and place where you know a family member crossed a border, immigration records are the best place to start locating them.


Wuerttemberg, Germany Emigration Index

Selected U.S. Naturalization Record Indexes, 1791-1992

Brandenburg, Prussia Emigration Records

Baden, Germany Emigration Index, 1866-1911

New England Irish Pioneers

New York City Immigrants (Austria, Galicia, Poland), 1890

New York City Immigrants (Austria, Galicia, Poland), 1891

Pennsylvania German Pioneers

New South Wales, Australia 1828 - 1842: Bounty Immigrants List

Australian Convict Index 1788-1868

Philadelphia German Immigration, 1700-75

Iosco County, Michigan Naturalization Index, 1885-1910

US: Philadelphia Bank Immigrant Passage Records, 1890-1949

US: Immigrants arriving at New York from Poland, Austria, and Galacia, 1890-1891

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