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Naturalization & Immigration Records: Step 1: Learn

What are naturalization records?

Naturalization is the process by which an immigrant becomes an American citizen.  Historically, the naturalization process had two steps: 

  1. Declaration of Intent: Also called First Papers or just a Declaration, this step generally could be completed after a person had lived in the United States for at least 2 years.  

  2. Final Papers: Also called Petition for Naturalization or Petition and Record, this is the step that actually granted full citizenship.  

Applicants had to wait a specified period of time between filing their Declaration of Intent and Final Papers.  Over the years, these residency requirements have changed, but the shortest wait-time was 3 years. 

Did all immigrants file naturalization papers?

No.  Many immigrants completed the process and became citizens.  Others filed a Declaration of Intent but no Final Papers.  And some immigrants never filed any naturalization papers at all.   In fact, according to the National Archives, 25% of the foreign-born persons listed on the 1890 through 1930 censuses had not completed any part of the naturalization process.  

In addition, children usually did not file their own papers until after 1940 and women did not usually file their own papers until after 1922.

How do I know if my ancestors filed naturalization papers?

Census records are a great place to start!  Many years of the US Census asked about naturalization status. 

  • P or Pa meant that First Papers had been filed
  • N of Na means that Final Papers had been filed and the person was a fully naturalized citizen

Where did people file their papers?

For many years, naturalization papers could be filed in any court of law.  

  • Most of the immigrants who became citizens were naturalized by the Court in their county of residence.
  • Some people filed their papers in the Court of a neighboring county because it was closer or more convenient.   
  • Some people--mostly residents of Ramsey and Hennepin Counties--were naturalized by the Minnesota Supreme Court.

If a family moved around in the midst of their naturalizaiton process, it is possible for Final Papers to be filed in a different court than First Papers

County courts stopped granting naturalizations at various times between 1906 and the 1970s, so the ending dates for the records vary from county to county.  

After the county courts stopped granting citizenship, all naturalizations went through the federal courts.  The Minnesota Historical Society does not have federal records.  For more information on Federal Naturalization records, please see the More section of this research guide.    

Useful Terms

Alien - A citizen of one country living in another country 

Alien Registration - One of several efforts by state or federal governments to record information about all non-citizens, conducted during World War I and World War II 

Declaration of Intent - First step to legal citizenship in the U.S., requiring the alien to declare his true intent to become a citizen and renounce his previous loyalties; also called "First Papers"

Derivative Citizenship - When a person's citizenship status is based on that of another person (children from their parents, for example).  

Naturalization - Process by which an alien becomes a citizen 

Petition for Naturalization - Final naturalization step in the U.S., requiring a formal application for legal citizenship ; also called "Final Papers

Records of Naturalization and Oaths of Allegiance - Document that grants U.S. citizenship; also called the "Certificate of Naturalization"

SoundEx - An indexing system that allows simultaneous searching for names that sound similar, but are spelled differently

Visa - Official document allowing a non-citizen to enter the country, issued by U.S. embassies or consulates

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