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Overheard in GenForum: Where Do I Find Naturalization Papers?
by Rhonda R. McClure

Each week Rhonda answers a question from the GenForum message boards and gives her expert answer here. We'd love to hear anything you have to add. Go ahead and leave your comments on GenForum with the original message.

March 29, 2001
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: If my grandparents settled in the Cleveland Ohio area in the mid 1900s, would I find their naturalization papers at the County Courthouse? If not, then where? -- Bev

A: Depending on when a naturalization took place, naturalization records can be a wealth of information. More recent naturalizations include more information, often listing the exact date and place of birth for an ancestor.

Included below is a list of important dates when the naturalization process was changed. While most of the dates do not affect your specific research right now, they may be pertinent to other ancestors you may be researching.

After 1906 look to national records.

The Naturalization Process

The naturalization process was not accomplished quickly. At most times in the history of the United States, this process has required minimum years of residency before applying and sometimes additional waiting periods before the final certificate was awarded. In some instances the immigrant was required to wait a minimum of five years before applying. That is, they had to be a resident in the United States for five years before they could begin the naturalization process.

The records generated through the act of an immigrant becoming naturalized resulted in three papers:

  • Declaration of Intent
  • Application for Naturalization
  • Final Certificate

After 1906

For most of our naturalization research, the critical date is 1906. Naturalizations before 1906 are generally located at the county level. From 1906 on, the records are collected and maintained by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Writing to them is the first step. You will need to request the appropriate form, which is usually the Freedom of Information Act form.

To get the needed forms and additional information, you will want to visit the INS Web site.

Important Dates in Naturalization

Through the years there have been additional acts passed by Congress that have affected the naturalization process:

Declaration of Intention needed 5 years before citizenship; residence of 14 years.
Declaration of Intention needed 3 years before citizenship; residence of 5 years; children automatically citizens when parents were naturalized.
Children of foreign birth who had lived in the U.S. for at least 5 years could be naturalized on their 21st birthday.
Law allowing the expulsion of aliens was passed.
The Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization created, and records are centralized.
Alien women who were married to U.S. citizens could apply for naturalization after one year of residency.
The National Origins Act - first immigration quota law.
The Immigration and Naturalization Act passed.

These are just a few of the milestones over the years that affect the naturalization process.

In Conclusion

Naturalization records can take some time to discover, but they are often worth the effort. They often supply you with additional information on your ancestry. That information may be enough to take you back further into the old country.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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