How To Find Immigration Records

When I started my genealogy research many years ago, I had no idea about the rich heritage I would discover. I knew a bit about my father’s line and grew up believing that our surname was Pennsylvania Dutch. I didn’t know what that meant, but that’s at least something.

I never knew my mother until I was much older and grew up with my half-sibling’s mother’s family. So, as a result, I hung on to what I knew about my father’s family, which was not much, just a few names and a couple of visits from them when I was in my early teens.

Enough of my trip down memory lane; my point is to imagine my excitement when I discovered. That I came from and had a wonderful heritage that results in an enormous amount of pride.

My Discoveries

What was discovered was accomplished first by my half-sister. She has done most of the research on our father’s line and found immigration records from Amsterdam to New York in 1660.

They were involved in the building of new settlements in the State of New York.

What I have discovered about my mother’s line is my 6th great-grandfather, born about 1763. My next task is to find the information. And if he was born in the State of Virginia like his children or did he immigrate. If this is true from where, and find the same information about my 6th great-grandmother.

Now the purpose of this article is how to find immigration records for yours and my ancestors. The task can be quite a time-consuming event, so be prepared to give your full attention and taking lots of notes when you begin your search.

For this article, our focus will be primarily Immigration to North American.

Town of Origin – Where to Look First

What do you think is the first step, yes you guessed it organize what you have already. Gather all the information you can about the ancestor or ancestors in question before looking for immigration records. Create a timeline; see where there might be gaps in your research.

Look for details in your home resources; check with family members watching for the following:

  1. Vital records of each descendant in the line you are focusing on, probable answers could be in those records for extended family members.
  2. Church records of the various ethnic group could provide some hints of origin.
  3. Obituaries may contain a place of origin for one or more of the family members preceded or left behind by the deceased individual.
  4. On occasion, Headstones include hints of the old country; it could come in the form of a mark on the stone or in the cemetery records.
  5. Military records are an excellent place to look for an origin; check for family members’ records born between 1872-1900.

Now that we have gathered as much information as possible through our living family members, we are ready to continue our search.

A Peek at American Immigration

If you are of Native American Heritage, your history in North America is primarily that of migration, not immigration. The rest of us are among the millions who immigrated from Europe, Asia, Oceania, Central, and South America to the North American continent. Ellis Island, one of the most recognized immigration ports in North America, was not the first port of entry. Europeans were landing on North American shores in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and possibly the late fifteen century. Ellis Island didn’t open until 1892 as it welcomed a surge of immigrants arriving in the early twentieth century.

In 1819 US congress passed legislation that required ships arriving to have a passenger manifest. The law became mandatory in 1820, and the manifest had to be presented to customs before anyone could depart the ship.

Later these records came under the scope of the National Archives and Records Administration.


Before North America witnessed three eras of immigration, French trappers explored Canada. Spanish held settlements in Florida plus the Southwest, Russians, and British challenged for ownership of the Pacific Northwest.

The First Era, called the Colonial Era, began around 1600 lasted for about two hundred years; during this era, colonies grew along the Eastern seaboard with established Jamestown, Virginia in 1607, New England in 1620, and New Amsterdam in 1624; the majority were English, Dutch, and German.

The Second Era began around 1800–1900. During which Ireland was in the potato famine, free land enticing Scandinavians towards the Great Plains, Chinese workers arrived to build the transcontinental railroad. And the California Gold Rush attracting people from all over the world. Many Irish and German immigrants found work by joining the army; a report covering the years 1865 through 1874 showed half of all recruits were born in a foreign country.

If you are looking for an Irish or German ancestor’s immigration records first, check military records.

The Third Era began around 1892–1954 with the immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, including many Jews seeking asylum. Ellis Island processing more than twelve million immigrants. Higher social status immigrants were processed on-board steamships arriving through New York Harbor.

Where to Begin the Search

Using the about dates and suspected origin country you arrived at when looking through family records for hints. And through your created timeline, you are ready to search using the above immigration eras dates.

Below is a list of the type of records to consider in your search.

Naturalization Records

Naturalization is the process a foreign person takes to become an American citizen. The Naturalization process gives us clues to the name of the filing person’s ship, age, place of residence, and birthplace. The record created is called the Declaration of Intention; these records after 1906 were detailed, showing the physical description, birthplace, occupation, the date, and port of immigration in 1929; a photo was required. With laws for naturalization established in 1790. Various groups had exceptions, first from 1790-1922, wives of naturalized men were granted citizenship. Up until 1940, children under the age of twenty-one automatically became naturalized following their fathers’.

  • Ancestry has more than two hundred thousand records in collections “New York, New York County Supreme Court Naturalization Petition Index, 1907-1924.” These records could include spouse information, occupation, birth location, addresses, and witness names.
Image of United States Immigration Document. Declaration of Intention Example

US Census Records

The 1900-1930 census required those who had immigrated to declare the year and if naturalized. The 1920 census asked for naturalization, 1940 census ask for citizenship with the following codes.

  • Na: Naturalized
  • Pa: Having first papers
  • Al: Alien
  • Am Cit: American citizen born abroad

The 1870 census had a column for Male U.S. citizens 21 years and upwards. If a foreign-born male checked this column, he naturalized before 1870.

Census can give us clues to immigration origins, but be cautious; census records often have inconsistencies in naturalization questions’ answers. Other evidence for finding the root is to check the person’s mothers’ language. If it takes you to Canada or Ireland, you could see Can(English), Can(Fr.), or Irish(English).

Image Snippet of Census record. Showing Immigration Status

Ports Of Entry

When one thinks of US immigration and entry ports, Ellis Island usually pops up but don’t limit your search to New York City.

Other ports of entry include:

  • San Francisco, California – Angel Island; mainly from China
  • Baltimore, Maryland – pre-American revolution
  • Boston, Massachusetts
  • Castle Garden, New York City – operated before Ellis Island.
  • Charleston, South Carolina – 1820 records
  • Philadelphia, Pennsylvania – a major entry port, began 1815
  • Port Townsend, Washington – from China
  • St. Albans, Vermont – from Canada

In addition to arrivals in America, there are collections of the immigrant list from Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia. has the most extensive online collection of immigration records, their “Immigration and Travel” category consists of six significant subcategories:

  • Passenger Lists
  • Crew Lists
  • Border Crossings and Passports
  • Citizenship and Naturalization Records
  • Immigration and Emigration Books
  • Ship Pictures and Descriptions

These subcategories have unique features; some contain images, original documents, digitized copies of books, and indexes.

Passenger Lists

In 1820 ships started to keep passenger manifest lists; the first passenger list included necessary information about immigrants. Such as name, age, occupation, nationality, and gender; in 1892, they added the town of residence and final destination in the US. After 1906 you will also find the physical description.

All details vary by Ship or by Era here is what you can find:

  • Full name
  • Date of birth
  • Birthplace
  • Last residence
  • Occupation
  • Associates already in America
  • Intended destination in America
  • Traveling companions

When searching these list, check for other names as well, sometimes it leads to finding other family members.

Also, in this subcategory of, you will find Swedish, German, Australian, Canadian, and Irish collections.

You can use’s Card Catalog to filter by Passenger list and Location, be creative in your filters. You may want to add keywords to your search.

Image of Search in Passenger List. Shows countries and number of documents for each location.

Crew Lists

This collection contains the crew, passengers, masters’ and mates’ certificates, and crew list of airplane departures. Some crew list span decades, others only a few years.

These lists include:

  • Age
  • Place of birth
  • Name of ship
  • Date and Place of joining the vessel and of discharge from the ship
  • Capacity (e.g., master, mate)
  • Time, Place, and cause of death or leaving the boat
Image of Ship Crew List Example. Records Name of Ship and Date.

Border Crossings

Here is the most popular collection, crossings from the United States, Canada, Mexico. Also in the group are passport applications.

Border Crossings from Canada to the U.S. 1895-1956 include the person’s name, age, residence, race, physical description, and destination. The crossing records bordering Canada include the following:

  • Idaho
  • Maine
  • Minnesota
  • Montana
  • New York
  • North Dakota
  • Vermont
  • Washington

You will have to check your timeline and a map to see which crossing they might have used.

Image of Border Crossing Record.

Citizenship, Naturalization Records has an impressive collection of documents by state, records of intention. (as mentioned earlier) Several of these collections are indexes only, while some contain images of original documents.

Immigration and Emigration Books

This category contains various passenger lists, documents from the Emigrants Savings Bank, criminal registers, records of wives and children of Irish convicts in Australia, and a list of early Scottish Colonists in America. Because of its diversity, best searched by making liberal use of keywords and filters.

Ship Description and Pictures

This subcategory contains only a few collections; even if you don’t find a picture of your ancestors’ ship, you will find a similar vessel. Ancestry has over a million records. If you choose the collection “New York Port, Ship Images, 1851-1891,” you can select a specific year, month, or even ship name.

A large ship in a body of water. Example of Ships used to transport Immigrates.

Now that we’ve gone over a few collections within the Immigration and Travel category. It’s time to look at a few search samples.

Searching Immigration Records

Using, I was able to find two ancestor’s immigration records a 13th generation grandfather with his family and one of his sons, my 12th generation grandfather. Who immigrated from England to Virginia in the US in 1638. The record is Index only record; the images are not available as of yet.

I started the search using a timeline of Thomas Carter(Son) and William Carter(Father). Thomas was born in England in 1630, Married in Virginia in the US in 1670.

Thomas’s father William was born in England in 1591, Married in England in 1618, Died in Virginia in the US in 1644.

Image of Ancestors Timeline. With dates to use for immigration record search.
Image of Ancestors Timeline. With dates to use for immigration record search.

From the above information, I determined that Thomas and William had to arrive between 1630 and 1644.

Immigration List Index

I found an index for both men in 1638, making Thomas about eight years old when his family immigrated from England to Virginia in the US. Following you can see the two in the Passenger and Immigration List Index, with Thomas and his Father William on the same list. My next step will be to check the other records and see if they appear anywhere else in the hopes of getting detailed information. Later, I will look for other family members.

Image of Search. Ancestors immigration from England.
Image of Search. Ancestors immigration from England

The following shows the search results and shows the Annotation of the record and the Source bibliography. As you can see, there is no image as it is an Index only collection.

Image of Ancestry Results from Search. Ancestors Record of immigration.
Image of Ancestry Results from Search. Ancestors Record of immigration.

I will venture further to see where and if I can view the abstracts mentioned above.

As you can see, there is much to consider when searching immigration records of any type. It is a process to derive any precise conclusion. I feel I am onto something in the above ancestors’ case, but until I dig for more information, it is still only a possibility, but an exciting one. Accuracy is the top priority; I will log the data and continue my search.

Thank you for taking the time to follow this research journey. It is nice to have friends that have the same passion for genealogy research.

Have you had success in finding your ancestors through any of the immigration processes mentioned above?

If you have, please leave your experience in the comment section below, I would love to hear your story.

Kindest Regards


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