Naturalization Basics

The quality of information varies greatly for the three broad periods of naturalization record keeping – 1790-1850’s, 1850’s-1906, and after 1906.

Six methods of becoming a citizen of the United States:

  1. By birth in the United States
  2. By naturalization in a court exercising naturalization jurisdiction, through October 1, 1990
  3. By derivation through the naturalization of one’s parent(s) or from 1855-1922 by marriage to the petitioner
  4. By acquisition at birth through citizen parent(s) if born abroad, as in military service
  5. By legislation collectively naturalizing certain groups of persons
  6. By annexation of territory to the United States.

Acquisitions were awarded citizenship en masse:

Louisiana – 1803 / Florida – including Mississippi and Alabama – 1819 / Alaska – 1867

By Joint resolution of Congress:

Texas – 1845 / Hawaii – 1900 / Puerto Rico – 1917 / Virgin Islands – 1927 / Former slaves were made citizens by the 14th amendment in 1868 / American Indians were made citizens by laws passed in 1887 and 1924 / Allotment act of 8 February 1887 – conferred citizenship on (1) every Indian born in the US to whom allotments were made by the act or any law or treaty or (2) every Indian born in the US who had voluntarily taken up within its limits a residence that was ‘separate and apart from any tribe of Indians’ and had ‘adopted the habits of civilized life’

Determining which of the six methods likely applies to your ancestor will help you to determine what paperwork was required and may be available for research.  (Only option 2 is likely to have a paper trail and there are MANY exceptions to that generalization.)

Basic Process for Naturalization Through the Courts:

Step one – file a declaration of intention / Step two – petition to become citizen / Step three – take oath and be given citizenship

Naturalization Regulations:

  • 1802 – declare / wait 3 years / oath of allegiance / reside 5 years in US & 1 in state / Petition for citizenship
  • 1860 – women lost citizenship if they married and left US to reside in foreign country
  • 1882-1943 – no citizenship for aliens from China, Japan, and other east and south Asian countries
  • 1906 – begin to issue certificates of arrival
  • 1907 – woman lost citizenship if she married an alien
  • 1922 – woman must naturalize on her own & not by marriage; did not lose citizenship by marriage
  • 1924 – first quota laws passed

Naturalization in US Courts:

  • Locate any and all courts that naturalized within a county or state – what courts naturalized, when, and did such jurisdiction overlap
  • Often it was a matter of the alien simply choosing to travel to the most conveniently located court.
  • Boundaries and jurisdictions of courts have changed frequently over the years


Soundex is an indexing system created before computers.  It was partially motivated by the many ways something could be spelled that generate a common sound.  There are Soundex based indexes for several federal records based on work done after the Great Depression.

Letters & EquivalentsB, P, F, VC, S, K , G,  J , Q, X, ZD, TLM, NR

National and Regional Archives:

  • Most federal naturalization records are found in the national archives regional archives serving the state in which the federal court is located.
  • Items at regional archives are national resources in local settings
  • Each regional archives in the system has historical records from federal courts and from regional offices of federal agencies in the geographic areas each serves



Alice Eichholz, editor, Ancestry’s Red Book: American State, County and Town Sources, rev. ed., (Ancestry, 1992)

John J. Newman, American Naturalization Records 1790-1990 – What They Are and How to Use Them, (Heritage Quest, 1998)

Loretto Dennis Szucs, The Became Americans – Finding Naturalization Records and Ethnic Origins, (Ancestry Publishing, 1998)