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Immigration Records

Updated February 1, 2010

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Table of Contents

Part 1: Introduction

Immigration records, more popularly known as "ship passenger arrival records," may provide evidence of a person's arrival in the United States, as well as foreign birthplace. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has immigration records for various ports for the years 1800-1959.

Part 2: 1538-1819

What We Have:

Until January 1, 1820, the U.S. Federal Government did not require require captains or masters of vessels to present a passenger list to U.S. officials. Thus, as a general rule, NARA does not have passenger lists of vessels arriving before January 1, 1820. There are, however, two exceptions to this general rule:

Arrivals at New Orleans, Louisiana, 1813-1819, are reproduced in NARA microfilm publication:

Roll 1 of M2009, Work Projects Administration Transcript of Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at New Orleans, Louisiana, 1813-1849 (2 rolls)


Arrivals at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1800-1819, are reproduced in two NARA microfilm publications:

Rolls 1-29 of M425, Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1800-1882 (108 rolls), which is indexed by M360, Index to Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1800-1906 (151 rolls). Note, however, that M425 undoubtedly does not include everyone arriving at Philadelphia during 1800-1819.

What We Don't Have:

To locate other passenger lists from 1538-1819, consult these books (among many others), which are found in libraries with genealogical collections:

  • Indexes

    Filby, P. William, ed. Passenger and Immigration Lists Index: A Guide to Published Arrival Records of ... Passengers who Came to the United States and Canada in the Seventeenth, Eighteenth, and Nineteenth Centuries. 3 volumes plus annual supplements. Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1981-__. This series is a finding aid to published passenger lists. Be sure to read the "front material" to understand how to use the information you find.
  • Bibliographies

    Filby, P. William, ed. Passenger and Immigration Lists Bibliography, 1538-1900. 2d ed. Detroit, MI: Gale Research Co., 1988.

    Lancour, Harold, comp. A Bibliography of Ship Passenger Lists, 1538-1825; Being a Guide to Published Lists of Early Immigrants to North America. 3d ed. New York: New York Public Library, 1978.

    Wood, Virginia Steele. Immigrant Arrivals: A Guide to Published Sources. Revised. (Washington, DC: Library of Congress, Local History & Genealogy Reading Room, n.d.).
  • Compilations

    Carl Boyer and Michael Tepper, each using a different format, have undertaken to publish the names in Lancour's lists. Tepper's coverage of Lancour is not comprehensive: an inventory of those articles omitted appears on pages viii, ix and x of New World Immigrants.....

    Boyer, Carl. Ship Passenger Lists, National and New England (1600-1825). Newhall, CA: C. Boyer, 1977. Covers Lancour entries 1-71.

    Boyer, Carl. Ship Passenger Lists, New York and New Jersey (1600-1825). Newhall, CA: C. Boyer, 1978. Covers Lancour entries 72-115.

    Boyer, Carl. Ship Passenger Lists, Pennsylvania and Delaware (1641-1825). Newhall, CA: C. Boyer, 1980. Covers Lancour entries 116-197.

    Boyer, Carl. Ship Passenger Lists, the South (1538-1825). Newhall, CA: C. Boyer, 1979. Covers Lancour entries 198E-243.

    Tepper, Michael. New World Immigrants: a Consolidation of Ship Passenger Lists and Associated Data from Periodical Literature. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1979.

    Tepper, Michael. Passengers to America: A Consolidation of Ship Passenger Lists From the New England Historical and Genealogical Register. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1977.

    Tepper, Michael. Emigrants to Pennsylvania, 1641-1819: a Consolidation of Ship Passenger Lists from the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1978

    Tepper, Michael. Immigrants to the Middle Colonies: a Consolidation of Ship Passenger Lists and Associated Data from The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1978
  • Ethnic Groups

    There are numerous published name indexes to 16th through 19th century arrivals of persons of various ethnic groups, including persons of Czechoslovakian, Dutch, English, German, Irish, Italian, and Russian descent. For a listing of some of these indexes, see:

    Wood, Virginia Steele. Immigrant Arrivals: A Guide to Published Sources. Revised. (Washington, DC: Library of Congress, Local History & Genealogy Reading Room, n.d.).

    Two online guides to immigration by particular ethnic groups are:

    Douglas, Lee V. Danish Immigration to America: An Annotated Bibliography of Resources at the Library of Congress. Research Guide No. 28. (Washington, DC: Library of Congress, Local History & Genealogy Reading Room, n.d.).

    Douglas, Lee V. A Select Bibliography of Works: Norwegian-American Immigration and Local History. Research Guide No. 6. (Washington, DC: Library of Congress, Local History & Genealogy Reading Room, n.d.).

Special Immigration Topics Described on Other NARA Web pages

Great Lakes Crew Lists describes records of crew lists arriving at U.S. ports from Canadian or other foreign ports.

Mexican Border Crossing Records describes records of alien and citizen arrivals at the U.S.-Mexican border.


Part 3: 1820-1959

Early records relating to immigration originated in regional customhouses. The U.S. Customs Service conducted its business by designating collection districts. Each district had a headquarters port with a customhouse and a collector of customs, the chief officer of the district.

An act of March 2, 1819 (3 Stat. 489) required the captain or master of a vessel arriving at a port in the United States or any of its territories from a foreign country to submit a list of passengers to the collector of customs, beginning January 1, 1820. The act also required that the collector submit a quarterly report or abstract, consisting of copies of these passenger lists, to the Secretary of State, who was required to submit such information at each session of Congress. After 1874, collectors forwarded only statistical reports to the Treasury Department. The lists themselves were retained by the collector of customs. Customs records were maintained primarily for statistical purposes.

On August 3, 1882, Congress passed the first Federal law regulating immigration (22 Stat. 214-215); the Secretary of the Treasury had general supervision over it between 1882 and 1891. The Office of Superintendent of Immigration in the Department of the Treasury was established under an act of March 3, 1891 (26 Stat. 1085), and was later designated a bureau in 1895 with responsibility for administering the alien contract-labor laws. In 1900 administration of the Chinese-exclusion laws was added. Initially the Bureau retained the same administrative structure of ports of entry that the Customs Service had used. By the turn of the century it began to designate its own immigration districts, the numbers and boundaries of which changed over the years.

In 1903 the Bureau became part of the Department of Commerce and Labor; its name was changed to the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization when functions relating to naturalization were added in 1906. In 1933 the functions were transferred to the Department of Labor and became the responsibility of the newly formed Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). Under President Roosevelt's Reorganization Plan V of 1940, the INS was moved to the Department of Justice. The INS was abolished, and its immigration and naturalization recordkeeping functions were transferred to the new Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services within the new Department of Homeland Security, established January 24, 2003, by the Homeland Security Act of 2002 (116 Stat. 2135, 2205).

Part 4: Sample Immigration Records

Partial list of survivors of the Titanic who were taken aboard the Carpathia, which arrived at the Port of New York, NY, April 18, 1912. This list was erroneously filed by the INS with June 18, 1912, arrivals, and can be found in NARA microfilm publication T715, Passenger and Crew Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, New York, 1897-1957, Roll 1883, Vol. 4183.


Part 5: Available 1800-1959 Immigration Records

Many of NARA's immigration / passenger list records have been digitized by our partners. See our list of all the digitized records that are available on our partner's websites is a free site. Ancestry and Fold3 are both subscription services that allow free searches of some or all index terms for each title. Free access to and is available in all Research Rooms at the National Archives, including those in our regional archives and Presidential libraries.

Agreements with our partners are such that there will eventually be free access online to all these digitized records, as the records will be put into the National Archives Catalog.

Various NARA microfilm publications reproduce passenger arrival records and/or vessel crew lists from the water or land border ports listed below. This section was last updated February 1, 2010.


Part 6: Where to Find These Records

Washington, DC

You may do research in immigration records in person at the National Archives Building, 700 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20408-0001. Staff is available there to answer your questions. NARA microfilm publications may be examined during regular research room hours; no prior arrangement is necessary.

NARA Regional Facilities

Some National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) regional facilities have selected immigration records; call to verify their availability or check the online Microfilm Catalog.


Libraries with large genealogical collections also have selected NARA microfilm publications.


Commercial genealogy vendors such as have some NARA immigration microfilm publications online.

To obtain immigration records by mail

Order copies of passenger arrival records online, or with NATF Form 81

You can also obtain the NATF Form 81 by writing to: National Archives and Records Administration, Attn: NWCTB, 700 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20408-0001.

Part 7: For more information

For useful guides on the historical and legal background of passenger arrival records, explanation of what information they contain, and search strategies, see:

Colletta, John P. They Came in Ships. 2d ed. Salt Lake City, UT: Ancestry, Inc., 1993.

Tepper, Michael. American Passenger Arrival Records. Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 1988.

For more detailed examinations of immigration in U.S. history, see:

Handlin, Oscar, ed. Immigration as a Factor in American History. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1959.

Handlin, Oscar, ed. The Uprooted: The Epic Story of the Great Migrations that Made the American People. Reprinted, 2d edition enlarged, Boston: Little Brown & Co., 1973.

Higham, John. Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925. Rutgers, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1955. Reprint, New York: Atheneum, 1963-1981.

Konvitz, Milton R. Civil Rights in Immigration. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1953.

Wittke, Carl. Refugees of Revolution: The German Forty-Eighters in America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, Press, 1952. Examines German immigration to the U.S. following the failed 1848 revolution in Germany.