National Archives Frequently Asked Questions
These are introductory answers to frequently asked questions about the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and our holdings and services.
- Select a subject from the menu on the left to view questions and answers relating to your selection.
- Links will guide you to further information on our website or to other sources.
What is the National Archives ?
The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is the nation's record keeper. Of all documents and materials created in the course of business conducted by the United States Federal government, only 1%-3% are so important for legal or historical reasons that they are kept by us forever.
Those valuable records are preserved and are available to you, whether you want to see if they contain clues about your family's history, need to prove a veteran's military service, or are researching an historical topic that interests you.
Does NARA lend original documents for research?
NARA does not lend original documents for research use.
Originating Federal agencies or successors in function; courts; and the President, Vice President, former Presidents or Vice Presidents or donors, or their designated representative may request loans of their own original holdings for the conduct of official business. Loans to originating agencies are limited to instances of demonstrated need when copies will not suffice and are subject to conditions that exempt from loan any holdings of high intrinsic value or in need of preservation action.
Does NARA lend original documents for exhibition use?
Yes, original documents or artifacts may be loaned to qualified institutions for exhibition when purpose of loan is to inform and educate the public about NARA, its holdings, or the national experience, while ensuring their continued availability for the future. Exhibitions must be accessible to the public and may not be primarily political or commercial.
Borrowers should submit a written request 180 days prior to the loan date and include an American Alliance of Museums or equivalent. NARA's security, fire protection, environmental, and transport requirements are intended to preserve and protect NARA's holdings and borrowers are expected to comply with them.
What is the Berlin Document Center?
The records of the Berlin Document Center consist of personnel and related records of the Nazi party (NSDAP) and its affiliated organizations and activities from the founding of the Party in 1920 until 1945.
NARA holds more than 70,000 rolls of microfilm reproducing captured German and related records. Reference copies of the microfilm may be viewed free of charge in the Microfilm Research Room, National Archives at College Park, 8601 Adelphi Road, College Park, MD 20740-6001.
Self-service copies from microfilm can also be made in the research room.
How do I get the records for someone who was in the SS or a member of the Nazi party?
This information can be located in the captured German and related records.
How do I get census records?
Federal population census records, 1790-1930, are available for research at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, and in Regional Archives throughout the country. The National Archives at College Park does not have census records.
Some libraries and other research institutions have purchased copies of Federal censuses. Check with your local library or genealogical society to see if the census may be available in your area.Can I order copies of census materials by mail?
NARA will only copy exactly identified pages of the Federal census. To use this service, you must provide the following:
- census year
- name of the individual listed
- exact page number
- enumeration district (1880-1920 only)
What if I don't know the exact page of the census?
You might be able to find census indexes near you. Check with your local librarian or genealogical society. Private firms have produced indexes to census records for specific years, generally 1790-1870. These are widely available throughout the country in libraries that have genealogical collections. In addition to these printed indexes, there are microfilm indexes to the 1900 and 1920 census and partial indexes to the 1880 and 1910 census.
From these indexes, you can determine the exact page on which a family was enumerated. With that information, you can use the NATF Form 82 to order a copy of the page. Use the online Inquire form to request NATF Form 82.
For more information, please visit How to Use NARA's Census Microfilm Catalogs.
What are the Charters of Freedom?
The Charters of Freedom are the founding documents of the United States. They are the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.
Where can I get copies (reproductions) of the Charters of Freedom?
Posters and reproductions are available for purchase. You may also download copies from this website.
How do I get U.S. House of Representatives or U.S. Senate committee records?
Records of Congress in NARA are held by the Center for Legislative Archives in the National Archives Building in Washington, DC.
How do I get U.S. House or U.S. Senate hearing testimony?
Some hearing testimony is available via the Internet on the Thomas web site at the Library of Congress. In addition, published hearing testimony is generally available through the Federal Depository Library system. There are approximately 1,350 Federal depository libraries throughout the United States and its territories, at least one in almost every Congressional District. All provide free public access to a wide variety of Federal Government information in both print and electronic formats, and have expert staff available to assist users. You can find more information about this system on the Government Printing Office web site.
Do you have footage of Congressional hearings and speeches from C-SPAN?
C-SPAN is a private organization not affiliated with the government. You may contact C-SPAN directly.
How long do Congressional records stay closed?
Congressional records remain closed for varying lengths of time depending upon several factors. More information is available in the Records of Congress section of our web site.
May I reproduce images from your web site?
The vast majority of the digital images in the Online Catalog are in the public domain. Therefore, no written permission is required to use them. We would appreciate your crediting the National Archives and Records Administration as the original source. For the few images that remain copyrighted, please read the instructions noted in the "Access Restrictions" field of each catalog record.
Please note that a few images on other areas of our web site have been obtained from other organizations and that these are always credited. Permission to use these photographs should be obtained directly from those organizations.
May I reproduce other NARA records?
In general, all government records are in the public domain and may be freely used. We do have some donated or other materials that might be copyrighted. If you have questions about the records you are interested in, speak to the archivist or reference staff that handles those records.
Can I get a signed permission form from NARA to use materials?
NARA as a policy does not sign documents stating that particular records are not copyrighted because government records are in the public domain. For other materials, it is the user's responsibility to determine copyright.
What court records does NARA have?
NARA only has records of Federal courts. We do not have records from state or county courts. Federal court records are kept in the Regional Records Services Facility that covers records from that state.
The one exception is the District of Columbia. These court records are in the National Archives Building in Washington, DC. Please contact us if you have questions.
Please see information on how to obtain bankruptcy records.
Where can I research Supreme Court decisions?
Many sources exist for locating Supreme Court decisions both in print and electronic format.
The Court itself provides an excellent finding aid, Where to Obtain Supreme Court Decisions, on its web site. Textual Supreme Court records are also held in the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, while recorded oral arguments are in the National Archives at College Park. Please contact us if you have questions.
Most research into Supreme Court decisions can be done with printed sources at Federal Depository Libraries. In addition, please be aware of the following caution from the Supreme Court concerning electronic versus print versions of decisions:"Only the bound volumes of the United States Reports contain the final, official text of the opinions of the Supreme Court of the United States. In case of discrepancies between the bound volume and any other version of a case--whether print or electronic, official or unofficial--the bound volume controls."
Can you tell me about digitizing projects going on at the National Archives?
NARA recognizes that the expectation of easy online access to our holdings continues to grow. Research is no longer relegated to libraries and research rooms, but is being done around-the-clock on computers around the world. To meet this need, we will create, to the greatest extent possible, an “archives without walls.”
We plan to create digital versions of selected records, including those most requested by researchers. Digitizing materials from our holdings will improve access to those holdings, and will help preserve and protect the original materials from excessive handling.
To help achieve those goals, we are in discussions with several private companies and non-profit organizations to explore mutually-beneficial opportunities to digitize -- and make available -- our holdings. The resulting non-exclusive partnerships will become an important component of our effort to further expand online public access to our nation’s archival records.
As we expand and enter into more of these partnerships, we will provide news about these pilot and longer-term projects; see more information about Digitization at the National Archives.
Can you tell me about or appraise my historic document?
The National Archives does not appraise or look at privately owned documents or artifacts. To find an appraiser in your area, you may wish to contact the ABAA (Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America).
How do I preserve a photo or other family documents?
Personal documents are no less valuable than government records and care should be taken for their proper storage. You can find more information in the Preservation section of this web site.
Does NARA purchase old, historic pictures or accept them as donations?NARA does not add to its holdings through purchase. We may accept offers of donations when the documentary materials involved are closely related to Federal records already in our custody. When documentary materials don't have a close Federal connection, we direct potential donors to other appropriate archival facilities.
What is the Electronic Records Archives?
In the Federal Government, electronic records are as indispensable as their paper predecessors for documenting citizens' rights, the actions for which officials are accountable, and the nation's history. Effective democracy depends on access to such records.
But we will lose the millions of records being created in electronic forms unless we find ways to preserve and keep them accessible indefinitely. The Electronic Records Archives (ERA) is NARA's vision for a comprehensive, systematic, and dynamic means of preserving and providing continuing access to authentic electronic records over time. You can read more about the Electronic Records Archives on this web site.
What is the CFR?
CFR is the commonly used name for the Code of Federal Regulations, an annual codification of the general and permanent rules published in the Federal Register by the executive departments and agencies of the Federal Government. The current edition is available on the U.S. Government Printing Office web site.
You can search the CFR and browse through the editions.
The CFR is also available in Federal Depository Libraries.
Can NARA help me find someone?
The National Archives does not have information to help you locate living individuals. The records in the custody of NARA are usually at least 20-30 years old. Information on living individuals is protected by the Privacy Act. NARA records, therefore, are not helpful in providing current information about individuals.
Other government resources are available that may be useful in locating individuals. The Consumer Information Center has created a list of resources for locating persons of unknown whereabouts.
In addition to this resource, there are many online telephone directories that may be useful for locating individuals. You can also find them via most of the popular Internet search engines.
It seems the forms change regularly. How long do they last?
NARA has close to 600 forms, and some forms change regularly.
Forms last until the office that created them cancels them.
If there is a particular form that you have used but can no longer locate, you may contact us for assistance in determining the form's status.
How can NARA help me with genealogy research?
The National Archives is a treasure trove of materials that can be used to trace your family lineage. More information is available on Beginning Your Genealogical Research.
How do I get started with genealogy?
Experts often suggest beginning with your oldest living relatives. Find out more on Beginning Your Genealogical Research.
How do I find ancestors of Native American descent?
NARA holds a great deal of information useful in tracing Native American descent.
Where can I get a copy of my ancestor's passport?
Passport applications can be an excellent source of genealogical information, especially about foreign-born individuals. NARA has passport applications from October 1795 through March 1925; the U.S. Department of State has passport applications from April 1925 to the present. More on Passport Applications.
What is Soundex, and how does it work?
The Soundex is a coded surname (last name) index based on the way a surname sounds rather than the way it is spelled. Surnames that sound the same, but are spelled differently, like SMITH and SMYTH, have the same code and are filed together. The Soundex coding system was developed so that you can find a surname even though it may have been recorded under various spellings. More information on Soundex.
How do I research my family name?
NARA is not able to help you with broad research on a family name. However, you can hire an independent researcher.
How do I research when my family entered the country?
You can find out about NARA's immigration records holdings in the genealogy section's Immigration Records or Naturalization Records. When researching in this area, working backward from the present should provide you with a manageable time frame in which to conduct research.
Where can I get copies of ship passenger lists?
NARA has some ship passenger arrival records.
There are many other sources for these records, including an online guide at the Library of Congress. Your local library, historical society, or genealogical society can be helpful. For online research, simply begin by choosing a search engine and entering the words "ship passenger lists."
Can I see Ellis Island or other immigration records online?
NARA does not hold those records, but some Ellis Island records are available online from the Ellis Island Foundation.
How do I get a copy of a Homestead application?
The publication Research in the Land Entry Files of the General Land Office describes NARA's holdings on this topic.
Reproductions of land entry files (such as credit, cash, homestead, and mineral) or surrendered military bounty-land warrants files (Acts of 1788, 1812, 1847, 1850, and 1855) can now be ordered online, as well as through the NATF Form 84.
How can NARA help me trace my Canadian lineage?
The Fall 2000 issue of NARA's Prologue magazine describes the materials available for this topic. Please see the information on NARA's holdings related to Canadian border crossings.
How can NARA help me trace my Latin American lineage?
Please see the information on NARA's holdings related to Mexican border crossings.
How do I find information about a lighthouse or a lighthouse keeper?
The document Basic Search Path for Records Relating to Lighthouses describes NARA's holdings on this topic.
How do I find information about a postmaster?
Which military records should I use for genealogical research?NARA has many military records that can be used for this purpose. More detailed information is available on the Military Records FAQ.
I worked for the Federal government at one time. How can I get a copy of my personnel file?
Information on this topic is available at the National Personnel Records Center.
Where can I find Federal Laws?
The general and permanent laws of the United States can be found in the U.S. Code.
The Office of the Federal Register's Public Laws is a good place to research, or sign up for email notification of, recently enacted laws.
New laws can be further researched on the Thomas web site at the Library of Congress. Thomas has the complete text of laws from the most recent Congress back to the 101st Congress (1989-1990). You can find summary and status information, but not the full text, back to the 93rd Congress. (1973-1974). GPO Access' Legislative Information website provides additional information.
The first 42 Congresses (1789-1873) are available online in the Library of Congress' American Memory Project.
Federal laws are codified in the United States Code, the most recent edition of which is available to search or browse.
Laws that are not online are available in the printed Statutes at Large, which is available in the Federal Depository Libraries.
Where can I research State laws?
State laws are generally available in larger public and academic libraries. In addition, most state codes are available on line at each state's web site. State web sites can be searched on the USA.Gov web site.
I have a document that may be a Federal government record. I wonder if it should be in the National Archives. What should I do?
Occasionally, a document in private hands actually belongs in a government archives. If it is a Federal, congressional, or presidential record, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) may be interested in recovering the document. Learn more about missing or stolen documents. NARA also has tips online for identifying historical U.S. government documents.
If you know of a document that you believe is a Federal record and belongs to the National Archives you can also contact us via e-mail at MissingDocuments@nara.gov.
Does NARA have motion picture, sound, and video recordings?
NARA holds materials in a wide variety of formats including:
Why aren't all the records online?
NARA tries to make as many records as possible available via the Internet. This is a daunting task, even with records that were created in electronic format. More information on this effort is available at Digitization at the National Archives.
The volume of records in NARA's possession that pre-date electronic formats is so vast, that costs and resource availabilities will most likely preclude the conversion of all of them to electronic formats. However, as resources permit, NARA will continue to select records to be digitized and made available electronically.
Do you have records from the construction of the Panama Canal?
Yes. Please contact us with a question about the specific records or information you are looking for.
Is photocopying allowed at NARA?
Self-service copying by researchers is permitted under specified conditions in most research rooms, using:
- National Archives in-house equipment such as coin or card-operated electrostatic copiers and microfilm printers, and, less frequently, snapshot copiers, dubbing devices, and others;
- Researchers' own equipment ranging from cameras to scanners, that has been specifically approved by the National Archives for work with the records in question. See also our information on using scanners.
More details are available on the reproductions overview page.
I'm interested in Presidential materials such as speeches, proclamations, Executive Orders, etc. Where can I find them?
Presidential materials are first published in the daily Federal Register. They are then issued by the Office of the Federal Register in the Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents. The Weekly Compilation is published every Monday by the Office of the Federal Register, and contains statements, messages, and other Presidential materials released by the White House during the preceding week. The White House web site is also a useful source for current Presidential documents.
Presidential materials are codified as Title 3 of the Code of Federal Regulations. The publication is available in both electronic and print formats and can be found in Federal Depository Libraries. The online Weekly Compilation is full-text beginning with the Clinton Administration.
Executive Orders (EOs) can be difficult to research. The full text of EOs is available online beginning with the Clinton Administration. Bear in mind, however, that they are not static documents. They often change over time. In addition, they can be repealed or superseded by subsequent Executive Orders. The Executive Orders disposition tables on this site can be very helpful in locating an Executive Order and in determining its current status.
Executive Orders published between April 13, 1945, and January 20, 1989 can be found in the publication Codification of Presidential Proclamations and Executive Orders. This document is out of print, but in addition to the online version, it can be found in most Federal Depository Libraries.
Find a Federal Depository Library near you.
Executive Orders and Presidential Proclamations have also been commercially indexed and filmed on microfiche by the Congressional Information Service (CIS index to presidential Executive Orders & proclamations. Washington, DC: Congressional Information Service, 1986-). These indexes and/or microfiche may be available in a local library.
Or visit a Presidential Library and learn more about their holdings and educational programs.
Does NARA have a sales catalog?
Where can I get copies (reproductions) of items displayed in one of your exhibits (online or not)?
NARA sells reproductions of some of the materials it exhibits. The Publications section describes the items available and provides ordering instructions.
Do you sell exhibit catalogs?Yes. NARA does sell catalogs for many of its exhibits.
Where can I find the text of a treaty?
The printed series U.S . Treaties and Other International Agreements is the best source. It is not online, but should be available in most Federal Depository Libraries.
Until 1948, treaties passed by the U.S. Senate appeared in the Statutes at Large, which should also be available in a depository library.
Various other compilations and sources also exist. These may be available in a local library. Other single treaties may be available online and can be found using your favorite search engine.
What is the U.S. Code?
The U.S. Code is a consolidation and codification by subject matter of the general and permanent laws of the United States.
How do I get to an online copy of the U.S. Code?
A searchable version can be found on the Office of the Law Revision Counsel web site at the U.S. House of Representatives. The Code is also available for sale by the U.S. Government Printing Office in a variety of formats.
How can I find something specific on your web site?
We have tried to organize the web site to make our most often accessed offerings easily findable via browsing. You can also look in the Subject Index.
In addition, we have made many improvements to our search engine to make it an effective and efficient means of locating information. Search the site.
If you have any problems with our web site, please contact us so that we can make any necessary improvements.
Where is the National Archives located?
The headquarters of the National Archives is located in Washington DC. In addition, a system of Regional Records Services facilities and Presidential libraries spans the entire country. Information on locations and hours can be found at NARA Facilities.
How can I best use the National Archives for research?
Often research can be conducted in local libraries or historical societies. Our Getting Started document can explain differences and similarities between NARA and libraries.
How can I best prepare to conduct research in the National Archives?
To best use your time at NARA, please review our tips for planning your visit.
Who can use the National Archives?
Anyone can use the National Archives. You do not need to be an American citizen or to present credentials or a letter of recommendation. Please refer to the synopsis of the Regulations for Using the National Archives or to the complete NARA regulations as published in the Code of Federal Regulations.
Can I bring and use cameras, scanners, and laptops?
In the Washington area, you may bring equipment. All bags and carrying cases must be left in lockers outside of the research room.
Cameras may be used only with natural light.
Flatbed scanners without sheet feeders are allowed. When you are using a scanner, you must show it to the research room staff and receive special instructions. More information on using scanners.
Contact each facility directly for their policies on equipment.
Can I use my pen and notebook?
Because of the fragility and irreplaceability of many archival materials, restrictions for their protection are in place. We will provide blank paper and pencils.
When can I do research?
What are vital records?
"Vital records" most commonly refers to records such as birth and death certificates, marriage licenses and divorce decrees, wills and the like. These records are created by local authorities, and with possible exceptions for events overseas, in the military, or in the District of Columbia. They are not considered Federal records; therefore they are not held by NARA. For more information:
In a Federal records management context, the term "vital records" refers to records essential to an agency's continued operations during a national emergency. NARA provides an instructional guide, Vital Records and Records Disaster Mitigation and Recovery, to assist agencies with developing and implementing a vital records program...