Posted by Lou Szucs on October 14, 2014 in Website

A Brief History of the Naturalization Process in the United States

Naturalization is the legal procedure by which an alien becomes a citizen of a state or country. Every nation has different rules that determine citizenship. In the United States, naturalization is a judicial procedure that flows from Congressional legislation. However, from the time the first naturalization act was passed in 1790 until 1906, there were no uniform standards. As a consequence, before September 1906, the various federal, state, county, and local courts generated a wide variety of citizenship records that are stored in sundry courts, archives, warehouses, libraries and private collections.

What Can I Learn from Naturalization Documents? 

Because almost everyone is curious about where their ancestors and relatives came from, as well as if, when and where they became American citizens, naturalization records are in high demand. The biographical information in citizenship papers assumes importance as a link to the past, and sometimes represents the only way to discover the Old World origins of an individual or a family.

Another value of citizenship papers is that they often fill the gaps where other records are missing. For example, most states did not require the registration of births and deaths until well after 1900 and in some cases a date on a naturalization document may be the only means of discovering when an individual was born.

Inconsistencies of Information Provided in Naturalizations Documents Created Before 1906 

Generally speaking, most pre-1906 naturalization papers contain little information of biographical value. In the absence of standardized naturalization forms, federal, state, county and other minor courts of record created their own documents, which varied greatly in format. In the majority of cases, only the name of the individual, his or her native country, and the date of the naturalization are given; rarely is the exact town of origin named. There are, however some wonderful exceptions so it is worth seeking pre-1906 citizenship documents. Depending on the state and county, a number of early records do include the name of the town, exact birthdate, date of departure from home country, and arrival date in the United States.

Naturalization for Mathias pre 1906
Naturalization for Mathias pre 1906


Standardized Information Provided in Naturalization Documents Created After 1906 

Petitions for naturalization, particularly after 27 September 1906, provide the full name of the applicant, his or her current address (in the U.S.), occupation, age, birth date, birthplace, sex, complexion, eye color, hair color, height, weight, visible distinctive marks, and current and former citizenship. Post-1906 naturalization forms ask for marital status. If married, the applicant was asked the name of the spouse, marriage date, marriage place, birth date and birthplace of spouse date and place of spouse’s entrance to the United States, and current residence of spouse. The form also asked whether or not the spouse was a naturalized citizen and, if the answer was yes, where and when the naturalization took place. The applicant was further asked the number of children born to him or her and the date and place of birth of each, and where and when his or her lawful admission for permanent residence in the United States took place. The signature of the applicant completed the first section of the petition. The second part of the petition consisted of the affidavit of witnesses.  It included their names and addresses and sworn and signed statements of their knowledge of the applicant. Beginning in 1929, declarations of intention included a photograph of the individual.

Maria Von Trapp Declaration of Intent
Maria Von Trapp Declaration of Intent, courtesy of the National Archives at Boston


Where Do I Start? 

To begin the search for an immigrant’s origins, learn as much as you can about that person, including full name, approximate birth date, native country, approximately when that person came to the United States, and where that person lived after his or her arrival in the United States.

Before 1906, any federal, state or local court of record could naturalize citizens, so tracking down the court is usually the first course of action.  Fortunately, many naturalization indexes are available online.

Click on the “Search” tab at Ancestry and then on the link to the Citizenship & Naturalization Records category to search the millions of naturalization records that have been indexed and some naturalizations documents that have been digitized. To honor your ancestor’s decision to become a citizen, you can also attach these records to your online tree at Ancestry.

To help you track many of the online collections of naturalization records, visit Joe Beine’s website.

While millions of naturalization records are online at Ancestry and elsewhere, not all court records or their indexes have been digitized.  In some cases, you may need to search by state, county or at the local level to find the court where your ancestor was naturalized. Almost every state, most county and many local governments have great archives and websites where you can learn more about the records that were kept for the area where your immigrant ancestors lived. Many have detailed descriptions of any naturalization record holdings.

The Process of Becoming a U.S. Citizen

Aliens intending to be naturalized citizens first filed a declaration of intention to become a citizen of the United States and renouncing allegiance to a foreign sovereign. The declaration usually preceded proof of residence or a petition to become a citizen by two or more years.  After five years (except for a brief period when the laws changed) an alien could petition a court to be naturalized.  Many individuals waited for more than the required five years to complete the naturalization process and in some years, those honorably discharged from the military service did not have to file a declaration of intention and the waiting period was shortened.  Some filed their declarations and for one reason or another may never have completed the process with the petition to be naturalized. The final step was the actual naturalization. The alien received a certificate of naturalization, and that record would have gone with him or her, and a “stub” was typically retained by the court.

Women and children generally did not need to apply for separate citizenship as they derived citizenship either from their fathers or their spouses. Non-native children became citizens when their father was naturalized. Between 1855 and 1922, an alien woman became a citizen automatically if she married an American citizen. Relatively few single women became naturalized before 1922, and married women could not be naturalized unless they were widowed or divorced. Women twenty-one years of age were entitled to citizenship in 1922 and derivative citizenship was discontinued. For more information on women and the naturalization process, see this article from the National Archives’ Prologue magazine.

Search for your ancestor’s naturalization record on Ancestry.

Lou Szucs

Loretto Dennis (“Lou”) Szucs, FUGA, holds a degree in history, and has been involved in genealogical research, teaching, lecturing, and publishing for more than thirty years. Previously employed by the National Archives, she is currently executive editor and vice president of community relations for, Inc.. She has served on many archives and genealogical boards, and was founding secretary of the Federation of Genealogical Societies. Currently, she serves as a director on the Board of the Federation of Genealogical Societies. She has edited newsletters and quarterly journals for several genealogical societies, including the Federation of Genealogical Societies’ Forum. She authored The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy (with Sandra Luebking), as well as They Became Americans: Finding Naturalization Records and Ethnic Origins; Chicago and Cook County Sources: A Genealogical and Historical Guide; Ellis Island: Tracing Your Family History Through America’s Gateway; The Archives: A Guide to the National Archives Field Branches (also with Sandra Luebking), and Finding Answers in U.S. Census Records (with Matthew Wright). Lou was also the executive editor of Ancestry magazine. Since 1980, Lou has lectured at numerous genealogy workshops and national conferences. She has presented at the American Library Association conference and has been interviewed for the Ancestors series, ABC News, CNN news, and most recently on ABC television show, The View. In 1995, she was awarded the designation of fellow of the Utah Genealogical Association and has received numerous other awards. Note: Lou Szucs used to pay her daughters to find names in microfilm.


  1. Great insight, answers many questions I had about where to find these records.

    Would you happen to know what types of records would be used if someone was extradited to the U.S.? Since he wasn’t really an immigrant seeking legal status, I’m not sure exactly what I’m looking for.

  2. I looked in ancestry. com under birth marriage and death for my mother’s name with no avail. She was puertorican. Are there records where puertorican’s can research their roots?

  3. Linda Brooks

    I am looking for a David Patterson/Paterson. He was born between 1845-1847 in Scotland. He is living in Buffalo, New York when he says he was naturalized, but I can’t find a record for it. He came here between 1868-1870. Both dates come up in census records.

  4. James Wilkinson

    The information found at is amazing. I only wish my own grandparents had been more open about their owns pasts; finding information is difficult and frustrating.

    I grew up thinking my paternal grandfather was a naturalized US citizen from England, but I have not been able to find his records, so I wonder this:

    Is there a way for me to determine if he was, indeed, a US citizen?

  5. Carol Hall

    I’m looking for Frederick Oskar Erkenbrecher immigrated in 1846 to New York, moved to Cincinnati, OH in about 1852 (birth dates of children indicate this dates) I have his Declaration of Intention of Citizenship, but cannot actually find the citizenship papers. Also cannot find anything on his wife Catherine Fischer-Erkenbrecher. Would she be exempt from applying citizenship because of husband? I don’t even know if they married in Germany or in New York City. Any suggestions?

  6. Nancy

    I am looking for Izidor Csizmar who can to the USA about 1912 and settled in Coopersburg, PA any help will be appreciated Thank you

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