How To Find Immigration Records & Passenger Lists

by Diane L. Richard | Aug 13, 2010

Diane L. Richard

Many of us have an immigrant somewhere in our ancestry, whether a great grandmother who arrived in 1907, along with numerous others, or a more distant ancestor who arrived in the late 18th or early 19th centuries. As a result of their moving from one place to another, paperwork was generated. Sometimes this paperwork survives, and sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes it is full of interesting information, other times it is not. Let's talk about some of the records that are created, how they are important to your research and where you might find them!

In the interest of brevity, this article will focus on the late 19th and 20th century emigrants. Whole different types of records were created to handle and/or acknowledge earlier immigrants - many more of these are not extant (e.g., do not survive) and are only found at local archives in colonial or early 19th century court minutes, though many have been abstracted and published in books.

And, before getting started, let's talk about the confusion that exists between Emigrant and Immigrant. Basically, both terms apply to our wandering ancestors and understanding how they are different will help you as you do your research. An Emigrant leaves their land to live in another country. An Immigrant is a person who once resided somewhere else and now lives in your country. These two terms are often used interchangeably because typically an emigrant becomes an immigrant though the distinction of leaving and arriving is important when considering what records to consult.

The flowchart graphic gives a rough (and not complete) overview of the emigrant to citizenship process and the records involved in the process as well as those that might document an immigrants status. This overview helps us focus our discussion though not all the documents mentioned will be covered.


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Search Passenger Records

For most of us, our immigrant ancestors got on board a ship and sailed or steamed to the US. And, as with airlines today, many of these were not "direct" trips where the emigrant left port A and next arrives in port B. For example, many Europeans and Scandinavians left from German ports, arrived in a UK port and then traveled to the US - sometimes switching ships and sometimes not. All of this, after traveling via train, wagon et al overland to get to a port.

Passenger lists are a great resource since often family members and/or neighbors traveled together and information on where the emigrant "came from" and/or "to whom" s/he is going is included.

The amount of information that is available depends largely on the time period of the emigration and the requirements of the applicable governments. Pre-1900 passenger records will typically have names, ages and maybe from "where" though typically the latter is just the country. As the immigration wave of the late 1800s and early 1900s gathered steam, passenger records started to include much more information - occupation, who and where "leaving", who and where "going to," how the passengers are related, how much $ on that person and so much more. Often, during these years, information on both town and country where coming from will be included. For example, my paternal great-grandparents are listed as coming from Deszno Galicia and Wola Pietrusza Galicia - with that information, learning more about them and extended family members (using the passenger records) was a snap.

The blank forms available at Rootsweb and will give you a sense of what information was supposed to be collected for each immigrant. And, do you see notations on the found passenger list? If you see a string of numbers on a passenger record over or above your ancestors name, this strongly suggests that this individual filed to become a citizen. The notations were added to the passenger record as part of verifying that the applicant emigrated as they said. For an excellent overview of this topic, read a Guide to Interpreting Passenger List Annotations by Marian L Smith.

Some things to keep in mind:
  • Not everybody entered the US via ships, or if they did, they did not always come directly to the US. Many who eventually emigrated to the US, first arrived in Canada and then migrated into the US. Select Canadian Naturalization and Immigration records can be found here.
  • Not all passenger records have survived. For example, most of the Bremen (Germany) departure records were destroyed and only a few from 1920-1939 have survived.
  • Ancestors sometimes took circuitous routes to get to the US. For example, my Finnish ancestors first traveled from Hanko/Hango to Stockholm Sweden, then traveled to Copenhagen Denmark where they caught a boat to the US. Another branch traveled from Finland to Hull England, overland to Liverpool England and then to the US. And, my ancestors from Galicia, all traveled in different years via different European ports (Bremen, Hamburg. So, the port of departure listed on these passenger lists might not always the original port of departure. Often, the port of departure found on these lists is the most recent port the ship was located at prior to arriving at the port of New York.
  • Passenger information was typically provided at the time of the emigrant's departure - name spellings are going to more closely match those of their native tongue, though, I have had forenames and surnames reversed and because so many did eventually board a ship, not in their native country, the shipping clerks often could not read an "alien" passport
  • Many passenger list forms, especially those from the twentieth century, were two pages long.

Immigration Record Resources

As you can imagine, this article just "scratches" the surface of what one needs to know about immigration and Passenger Lists.

Besides the resources already mentioned, do check out these additional resources:

  • US Immigration Records, Their History, Content and How To Find Them by Jim W Faulkinbury and posted on the Federation of East European Family History Societies website.
  • FamilySearch Research Helps ( You will want to look under Emigration and Immigration and also Naturalization and Citizenship.
  • Immigration to the United States, 1789-1930, is a web-based collection of selected historical materials from Harvard that documents voluntary immigration to the US from the signing of the Constitution to the onset of the Great Depression.
  • These two articles (Passenger Records & Naturalization Records & US Passport Applications Online) on related topics will give you some more information on how these records can benefit your research and examples of how each type of record can give you clues to how/where you might find other "related" records.

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