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4 Posts authored by: Elizabeth Burnes Expert

The Department of State issues visas to foreigners traveling to the United States.  Before World War I, alien visitors did not require visaed passports in order to enter the United States (except for a brief time during the Civil War, 1861-1865).  The practice of requiring all aliens to obtain visas from U.S. officials abroad before departure for the United States began in 1917 as a war measure during World War I, and has continued since then.


The National Archives (NARA) maintains Department of State Visa Case Files covering the period 1914-1940 (Entry A1-705, NAID 1253492).  They are divided into three chronological segments:  1914-1923, 1924-1932, and 1933-1940, each arranged alphabetically by name.  With the exception of precedent cases and files that contain policy materials, individual case files for 1914-1923 and 1924-1932 were destroyed by the Department of State.  For more information visit:


Immigrant visas, both quota and non-quota* (and supporting documentation), issued by the Department of State to aliens at U.S. embassies, legations, and consulates overseas are surrendered to U.S. immigration officials upon admission to the United States.  The immigrant visas and associated documentation accumulated by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) between July 1, 1924, and March 31, 1944, were maintained in INS Visa Files.  Beginning April 1, 1944, the Visa Files series was closed and all new immigrant visas were filed in Alien Files (A-Files).  An immigrant's Visa File may have been removed from the Visa Files series and placed inside a consolidated A-File or Certificate File (C-File) if their case reopened after April 1, 1944.  Visa Files and C-Files are preserved, but remain in the custody of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Genealogy Program (  Transfer of A-Files to NARA for permanent retention has begun.  For more information on A-Files at NARA visit:


*See Sections 4 and 5 of the Immigration Act of 1924 to learn about how quota and non-quota status were defined under the national origins system:

Naturalization is the process by which an alien becomes an American citizen. It is a voluntary act; naturalization is not required.


Prior to September 27, 1906, any "court of record" (municipal, county, state, or Federal) could grant United States citizenship. Often petitioners went to the court most geographically convenient for them. As a general rule, the National Archives does not have naturalization records created in state or local courts. However, a few indexes and records have been donated to the National Archives from counties, states, and local courts. Researchers should contact the National Archives facility serving the state in which the petitioner resided to determine if records from lower courts are available. In certain cases county court naturalization records maintained by the National Archives are available as microfilm publications.  Records from state and local courts are often at state archives or county historical societies.


Beginning September 27, 1906, the responsibility for naturalization proceedings was transferred to the Federal courts. Some lower courts continued  the practice for a while. Therefore, researchers may need to look at lower courts records if the National Archives does not maintain a record of naturalization from the early to middle 20th century.


In general, naturalization was a two-step process* that took a minimum of five years. After residing in the United States for two years, an alien could file a "declaration of intention" ("first papers") to become a citizen. After three additional years, the alien could "petition for naturalization" (”second papers”). After the petition was granted, a certificate of citizenship was issued to the alien. These two steps did not have to take place in the same court.  [*Exceptions can include cases of derivative citizenship, processes for minor aliens 1824-1906, and special consideration for veterans.]


If a naturalization took place in a Federal court, naturalization indexes, declarations of intention (with any accompanying certificates of arrival), and petitions for naturalization usually will be in the National Archives facility serving the state in which the Federal court is located. No central index exists.


To ensure a successful request with the National Archives, researchers should include:

  • name of petitioner (including known variants);
  • date of birth;
  • approximate date of entry to the US;
  • approximate date of naturalization;
  • where the individual was residing at the time of naturalization (city/county/state);
  • and country of origin


In most cases, the National Archives will not have a copy of the certificate of citizenship. Two copies of the certificate were created – one given to the petitioner as proof of citizenship, and one forwarded to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). Certificates of citizenship were issued by the Federal courts until October 1991 when INS took over responsibility for naturalization proceedings.


All INS records are now overseen by the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). USCIS maintains duplicate copies of court records (including the certificate of citizenship) created September 27, 1906-March 31, 1956 within Certificate Files (C-Files). Beginning on April 1, 1956, INS began filing all naturalization records in a subject’s Alien File (A-File). C-Files and certain A-Files can be requested through the USCIS Genealogy Program. If you are a naturalized citizen seeking your own documentation, you may submit a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to USCIS to obtain a copy of your A-File and/or request a replacement certificate of citizenship from USCIS.


Please Note:

  • National Archives staff can only issue a certified copy of a document in our custody (see 44 USC 2116 and 44 USC 3112).
  • The National Archives does not have authority to issue an apostille. The US Department of State has the authorization to issue an apostille of a copy of a document certified by the National Archives.
  • The National Archives does not have the authority to issue a certification of non-existence of a record, and can only issue a negative search letter. Negative results for a search of National Archives holdings only indicates that a naturalization record is not in the possession of the National Archives. It does not verify that a file does not exist elsewhere.
  • USCIS has exclusive authority over matters concerning citizenship records after 1906 and can provide a Certification of Non-Existence of a Record of Naturalization (see “About Further Research”).

What is an A-File?

The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) began issuing aliens an Alien Registration number in 1940, and on April 1, 1944, began using this number to create individual case files, called Alien Files or A-Files.

A-Files contain all records of any active case of an alien not yet naturalized as they passed through the United States immigration and inspection process. An A-File might also be created without any action taken by the alien, for example if INS initiated a law enforcement action against or involving the alien.

In a few instances there are files on aliens who registered between 1940 and 1944. These files document aliens who received an Alien Registration number and form prior to 1944, and had an A-File created due to the re-opening of the case after 1944. Files from other series, such as visa files, were withdrawn and placed in the A-Files when cases were reopened in instances such as the filing of applications to replace a document, obtain a border crossing card, or petition for an immigrant relative.

Although the files were created beginning in 1944, documents and information included may be much older than that, and could date to the birth of the person. Documents may also be included that date up to the time of any final action related to the alien which could be deportation, permanent resident status, or citizenship.

A rich source of biographical information, A-Files may include visas, photographs, affidavits, and correspondence leading up to an alien's naturalization, permanent residency, death, or deportation.

Who should have an A-File:

Does my immigrant ancestor have an A-File?

Died before August 1, 1940


Will not have an A-File or an Alien Registration Number. Research other National Archives resources of genealogical interest, such as ship passenger manifest lists, for information about this individual.

Became a naturalized citizen between September 27, 1906 and August 1, 1940

Will not have an A-File or an Alien Registration Number. Inquire with the USCIS Genealogy Program regarding a possible Certificate File (C-File).

Became a naturalized citizen between August 1, 1940 and March 31, 1956

Will not have an A-File. Inquire with the USCIS Genealogy Program regarding a possible Certificate File (C-File) or 1940 Alien Registration Form.

Immigrated to the United States after April 1, 1944

Will have an A-File. Check National Archives holdings if born in 1918 or prior. Otherwise, inquire with the USCIS Genealogy Program.

Naturalized on or after March 31, 1956

Will have an A-File. Check National Archives holdings if born in 1918 or prior. Otherwise, inquire with the USCIS Genealogy Program.

Registered in the United States as an alien in 1940 but never came back to the Immigration and Naturalization Service for any reason

Was likely assigned an Alien Registration Number but will not have an A-File. You can obtain a copy of their 1940 Alien Registration Form from the USCIS Genealogy Program.

Registered in the United States as an alien in 1940 and came back to the Immigration and Naturalization Service for any reason (other than naturalization) after 1944

Will have an A-File. Check National Archives holdings if born in 1918 or prior. Otherwise, inquire with the USCIS Genealogy Program.


A-Files for the entire United States and its territories are being centralized at the National Archives at Kansas City. Because of strong interest and advocacy for the A-Files by local research communities and their congressional representatives, the National Archives at San Francisco will maintain some of the available A-Files from the INS district offices located in San Francisco, Honolulu, Reno, and Guam. Researchers seeking individuals who may have lived in these areas should check both the National Archives at San Francisco and Kansas City records for A-Files.

NARA's holdings of A-Files will grow as the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) continues to transfer records.


How to Search for A-Files at NARA


Before submitting a request we ask that you search for the individual in the National Archives Catalog ( The catalog contains the names of every individual presently contained in our A-Files holdings. If you do not have access to a computer, members of our staff can aid in this process.


You can search by First Name and/or Surname OR Alien Registration Number (ex. A1234567) from the main page. 


BE AWARE: You are searching ALL of the records found in the catalog, so you will be looking for results with “Alien Case File (A-File) for [individual’s name]” as the title on the results page.


If you find a result that does not have the Alien Case File title, it is not an A-File and you will need to read the Scope and Content Note and location listed under Contact(s) to determine how to proceed.


You can also search for “Alien Case Files” from the main page.  You will open the entry with that title in the results list and can click on the “Search within this Series” button to limit your search to ONLY A-Files.


Once you click to search within the series you can then type the First Name and/or Surname OR Alien Registration Number (ex. A1234567).  The only results that populate will be A-Files.















A-File entries in the National Archives Catalog may contain:

Alien Registration number

Country of Birth

Last Name

Father’s Name

First Name

Mother’s Name


Naturalization Date

Date of Birth

Naturalization Court


Naturalization Location

Date of Entry



If you cannot find your individual in the catalog, it is because the National Archives does not currently maintain the record you are seeking.

To continue your search contact the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) through their Genealogy Program:


The National Archives will accession new A-Files annually, so you can also continue to check back in the catalog to see if your individual has been added to our holdings.


To learn more about requesting copies of A-Files from NARA, visit:

Passenger arrival lists are a wonderful resource for genealogists.  There are a number of useful search tricks and common errors that researchers should keep in mind to ensure success in locating an ancestor.


Passenger List Research Tips


  • TIP: If you are having trouble using name searching, but have a general idea of when and where someone may have entered the US, it can be worthwhile to browse the lists.  When browsing, it is often beneficial to read the lists from back to front because they are normally ordered based on cabin class (first, second, third). Unless you know your ancestor had the means to pay for first class, it is more common that individuals traveled third class meaning their entries would be closer to the end of the passenger list.
  • TIP: Port names are often misremembered as the name of the ship (Example: SS Bremen, Hamburg, or Rotterdam).
  • TIP: If you aren’t sure what name an individual used when entering the US, check “last residence” and “destination” columns to narrow options.
  • TIP: If an immigrant was rejected and returned from Ellis Island, check to see if they arrived approximately two weeks later at Philadelphia, Baltimore, or via a Canadian border crossing.  Ellis Island was known to be a very stringent port, and you can sometimes find immigrants who failed to pass through Ellis Island successfully entering at another location a couple weeks later.  Keep in mind that a rejection at Ellis Island was not deportation as the individual never officially entered the country, so they were readily allowed to attempt entry at another location.
  • TIP: Look for the Instructions to the Collector within the manifest forms for a given arrival as these can be a valuable tool for understanding notes that the collector may have added to entries at the time of travel.
  • TIP: Remember name variations are common.
    • Example: Scandinavians often traveled under the father’s given or middle name, or under the city/village where born.
    • Try interchanging letters:
      • a-o-ud-ntg-h (Russian)k-c
        b-v-mp (Greek)f-vi-j-yv-w


Common Misconceptions and Research Errors


  • It is FALSE that all passenger list records survive and are available for online research.  Unfortunately, for any number of reasons including fire, water, etc not every record survives.
  • It is FALSE that there is a list for every ship that arrived at a US port and that all passengers were listed.  In some cases you see that only the first cabin passengers are listed, or the list may be very clearly incomplete because it only records a handful of names for a vessel that obviously carried hundreds of passengers.
  • It is FALSE that passengers participated in creation of the lists and it is also FALSE that the lists were created at Ellis Island (or at the port of entry).  Lists of individuals purchasing tickets were kept by the ticket brokers and these lists were submitted at the port of departure where the captain created the vessel’s passenger list.  This also means that any change in name did not occur at Ellis Island, but rather at the point of ticket purchase.
  • Researchers need to be careful about any assumptions regarding ship or port, as a recounting of arrival was often many years removed from the event and it was common to confuse ship name with port of arrival or departure. 
  • Researchers also need to be careful about blanket statements that “this record is not my immigrant because the name/age/gender/date/nationality/destination/etc is wrong.”  Just as with any genealogical research, you have to come in with an open mind and look at all of the clues in context before making an assumption that a record couldn’t possibly match the person you are seeking.


Be sure to visit for more information about immigrant records at the National Archives.