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Naturalization & Citizenship Records

Did Your Immigrant Ancestor Become a Naturalized Citizen?


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:

  • Declarations of Intention - First Papers
    Prior to 1952, a two-step 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 anytime after the immigrant arrived. After 1862, those who were honorably discharged from the U.S. Army were excused from this first step in the naturalization process (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, 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.

  • 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 declared their intention to become citizens (filed first papers). As with the declarations of intention, the information they contain varies dramatically from one court to another. Most petitions created before 1906 offer little in terms of personal information. After 1906, petitions contain generally the same information as the Declaration of Intention, with additional detail on spouses and children.

  • Certificate of Naturalization
    Certificates were 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 usually the most helpful papers for genealogy researchers.

Notable Execeptions 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.

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