Find Your Ancestor in U.S. Naturalization Records

By Sherry Stevens, professional genealogist

If you’re looking for your ancestor’s birthplace, arrival port, or date of arrival, Naturalization papers may be the answer.
To find your ancestor’s naturalization record, it’s easiest to start with the U.S. census. The1900-1930 census records list whether a person was naturalized. The exact year of their naturalization is even listed in the 1920 Census. From these census records, you can narrow down the date and place where your ancestor probably filed his or her naturalization papers.

Before filing for naturalization, a person was described in the censuses as an “Alien”, and you will see the word “Al” in the census column pertaining to citizenship. Generally, after two years of U.S residency, a person was then eligible to apply for citizenship. Exceptions were made for a person who entered the country as a minor, those with honorable military discharges, and those married to a citizen.
Three steps were involved with the Naturalization process:

1. The Declaration of Intent (also called "First Papers")
To start the naturalization process, the applicant for US citizenship declared their intent to become a citizen and renounced their allegiance to a foreign government. This Declaration of Intent contains the most genealogical information of all the naturalization documents. The important date to remember about naturalization papers is 27 September 1906. Why is that date important? Because before that date, the application form simply asked for the immigrant’s name, country of birth or allegiance (but not the town), and the date of the application. Very few applications prior to this date will list the exact birthplace, arrival port, and date of arrival in the U.S. But after 27 September 1906, the form included the place of birth, the port, and the date of arrival.

After the Declaration of Intent was filed, you will see in the census the notation of “Pa” for “Papers”, in the column regarding citizenship.

2. The Naturalization Petition
After three more years, the applicant was then free to file his petition, or formal application for US citizenship. The content of the petition varied, but it usually listed the applicant’s age, how long they had resided in the U.S., their current address, and their country of origin.

3. The Record of Naturalization
The Record of Naturalization is the document actually granting US citizenship. It is sometimes called the Certificate of Naturalization. It generally contains very little genealogical information. After a person was granted citizenship, you will see the letters “Na” in the census citizenship column, meaning “Naturalized”.

Where to find Naturalization records

Before 27 September 1906, an immigrant could file for naturalization in any court in the U.S., be it county, state, district, or national. All records were retained at the original court. However, applications were usually filed at the county level. You will find links to some of these records by state if you scroll to the bottom of this web page:

After 27 September 1906, a copy was required to be sent to the Citizenship and Immigration Service (CIS) in Washington, D.C. This means you do not need to search various courts to find the records. You simply request a search from the CIS.

The search is a two-step process. First, you must find the file number. You can have CIS perform this search for a fee, or you can search for it yourself online at, on microfilm from the Family History Library, or by contacting the county courthouse. Once the file number is found, the second step is ordering a search for copies of the actual documents. Both types of CIS search requests are made on their website at