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Naturalization & Immigration Records: Step 4: Common Problems

Locating Women's Records

Women in clothing of early immigrants, 1895.

Finding information about women in naturalization records can be very difficult.  This is because until the 1920s most women did not file their own naturalizations but were instead automatically granted "derivative citizenship" based on their husbands' citizenship status.  

  • 1790 to 1906: Women are automatically naturalized when their husbands are naturalized, but they are almost never listed by name on the husband's paperwork.  Women who marry citizens gain citizenship without any additional paperwork.  US-born women who marry non-citizens automatically lose their citizenship.   
  • September 1906 to 1922: New rules standardizing naturalization forms and processes are instituted by the federal government.  Under these new rules, women still take their citizenship from their husbands but now they should be listed by name on their husands' naturalization papers.  
  • 1922: Cable Act/Married Women's Act allows women to apply for citizenship separately from their husbands.  Law includes a clause that says US-born women who lost their citizenship by marrying foreigners could regain it by filing petitions for citizenship (Final Papers).
  • 1936: Act of Congress allows US-born women who lost their citizenship by marrying foreigners between 1907 and 1922 to regain it by taking an oath of allegiance.   

Although it was uncommon, the laws before the 1920s didn’t prevent all women from becoming naturalized individually.  Unmarried women could apply independently and widows whose husbands died while in the process of naturalization could pick up the process where their husbands left off.  Before the 1920 passage of the 19th amendment gave women the right to vote, however, many women did not see the point in gaining citizenship.     

Locating Children's Records

Finding information about children in naturalization records can also be very difficult.  Until 1940, minors under the age of 21 automatically were granted "derivative citizenship."  This meant that they gained their citizenship from their parents and generally did not file their own paperwork.  

  • 1790 to 1906: Immigrant children under the age of 21 are automatically naturalized when their fathers are naturalized, but they are almost never listed by name on the father's paperwork.
  • September 1906 to 1922: New rules standardizing naturalization forms and processes are instituted by the federal government.  Under these new rules, children are still automatically naturalized when their fathers are naturalized, but now they should be listed by name on their father's papers.  
  • 1922 to 1940: Federal laws change again in 1922 and since women can hold citizenship separately from their husbands, children are automatically naturalized when either of their parents are naturalized.  They should be listed on both their parents' papers.  
  • 1940 to present: Children must be naturalized separately from their parents.

One exception to these rules was in place from 1824 to 1906.  It stated that immigrants who arrived in the US before they were 21 years old, had lived in the United States for at least 5 years before their 23rd birthday, and whose fathers were not already naturalized could file for naturalization independent of their families.  They were also allowed to file their First and Final Papers at the same time.  The paperwork varied, but almost all courts had a special form for minors that combined the First and Final Papers into one step.    

Records for People Living Close to County/State Borders

For a very long time, people were allowed to file their naturalization papers at any court. Most people went to the county court in their home county.  However, a number of people filed in neighboring county or state courts if it was closer or more convenient for them. 

  • If you cannot find your ancestor's naturalization in their home county, try neighboring counties or counties where they may have done significant business or had family that they visited regularly.
  • If your ancestors lived in a border county, you may want to try searching for their records in Wisconsin, IowaNorth Dakota, or South Dakota.    

Impact of Military Service on Naturalization

At various points in history, the US government has used citizenship as a military recruitment tool, making major exceptions to the normal naturalization rules for aliens who served in the U.S. military.  Military service has never automatically granted citizenship, as immigrants still had to actively renounce their allegiance to other countries.  However, the naturalization process could be simplified and/or made significantly shorter for veterans or those in service.  

Hans Mattson, ca. 1864.

  • Starting 1862: Honorably discharged U.S. Army veterans--of any war--who had lived in the U.S. for at least 1 year could petition for naturalization without filing First Papers.  Confederate Army veterans did not qualify.
  • 1894: 1862 law extended to cover 5-year veterans of the Marine Corps. and Navy.
  • May 9, 1918: Law enacted that allowed non-citizens serving in any branch of the U.S. Armed Forces during World War I to file Final Papers of naturalization without filing First Papers.  It also waived the 5 year residency requirement.    
  • 1919, 1926, 1940, and 1952: Additional laws passed, providing exceptions to naturalization rules for veterans seeking citizenship

Many--but not all--of the military men who received preferential treatment during their naturalization process filed their papers at military bases or in the federal or county courts located closest to military bases.  

Military naturalization petitions tend to contain much less information about the immigrant than do regular naturalization papers.  

Spelling Issues

Spelling on naturalization documents can vary widely and quality/clarity of handwriting can impact the spellings used in indexes.  If you cannot find your ancestor under the spelling or name you expect, try thinking creatively.  Your ancestor may have spelled his name in various ways over time and/or officials may have recorded the spelling of his name incorrectly on documents.  Some people purposely altered their names or used legal first names for records and only nicknames in their daily lives.    

Here are some hints for finding names that may not match the exact spelling you are expecting:

  • Search directly using any known alternate spellings of family names
  • Try using the SoundEx option (this allows you to search for names that sound similar at the same time, like Smith and Smyth)  
  • Try using "Contains," "Starts With," and "Ends With" options if they are available
  • Search using a first initial rather than a first name
  • Search using only a last name and a county
  • Try using middle names as first names

Lack of Information on Records

Many people seek naturalization records because they are looking for information on their ancestor's hometowns, family members, and/or other specific pieces of information. Depending on the year of the records, naturalization records may not provide much detail.  

It is also important to note that Declarations of Intent (First Papers) generally provide more detail than Final Papers.  

Pre-1906: every court used their own forms for First and Final Papers.  This meant that they all gathered different data on each immigrant who filed papers.  Some only recorded the name and country of origin of the applicant on the First Papers.

September 1906 to 1929: the federal government introduced standard forms for First and Final Papers.  These forms gathered significantly more information that the older versions and information on the applicant's entry into the United States was checked by the new Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) before citizenship was granted.

 Declarations of Intent filed after September 1906 include the following information:

  • Name
  • Age
  • Occupation
  • Physical Description
  • Place and date of birth
  • Current residence
  • Method of arrival to U.S. (ship name, rail line, etc.)
  • Location of last foreign residence 
  • Name and birthplace of spouse
  • Location and date of arrival to U.S.

1929: the Declaration forms were changed again, to also require a photograph.  

Where are the certificates of citizenship?

The official certificates were given to the new citizens by the court when the naturalization process was finished.  They were supposed to keep this certificate for their own records.  

Some courts kept copies of the certificate stubs, but none of them kept duplicates of the actual certificates.

Certified copies of records?

The Minnesota Historical Society cannot issue certified copies of any naturalization records from our collections.  However, we can stamp each page, demonstrating that your copy came from the Minnesota State Archives collections.  Stamped copies have been accepted for various U.S. and international purposes.  

To get your copies stamped:

  • If you are at the Library and make the copies from our microfilm machines, bring them to the Copy Services window in the main Reading Room before you leave for the day.  Our staff will happily stamp the back of your pages. 
  • If you order records through our Historic Naturalization Record Search Request service, select the “Printed, stamped, and mailed” delivery method. Due to the added staff time and necessary mailing fees, there is an additional $7 fee per packet of stamped naturalization papers.  If you need two copies of the records, please add an additional Naturalization service to your cart.



Replacement Copies of Modern Naturalization Records

Modern citizenship records are held by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office, a part of the Department of Homeland Security.  If you need an official copy of your own record, you should request a copy through their office.  

Common Problems Links

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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