Filing a declaration of intention was the first step toward naturalization for most persons seeking United States citizenship between January 29, 1795, and December 23, 1952. As its name suggests, an alien “declarant” making a declaration of intention (also called “first papers”) pledged under oath that they intended to renounce all allegiance to any foreign governments and become a loyal United States citizen.

Evolution of the Declaration Process

The origins of the declaration of intention are largely undocumented, but the objective was to impose a delay in the naturalization process. This time was designed to develop prospective Americans’ affiliation with the nation and understanding of its system of governance before admission as a citizen. Naturalization laws required that most declarants wait a specific period of years after making a declaration before applying for naturalization.

Declaration of Intention Filed Between

Waiting Period Following the Filing of a Declaration of Intention

January 29, 1795 and June 17, 1798

3 years

June 18, 1798 and April 13, 1802

5 years

April 14, 1802 and May 25, 1824

3 years

May 26, 1824 and December 23, 1952

2 years

Immigrants filed more declarations of intention than petitions for naturalization. In light of this, the declaration of intention record may be the only “naturalization” record for some immigrants. Researchers should keep in mind:

  • Declarations of intention could be filed at any time
  • The declaration of intention and petition for naturalization could be filed in different courts
  • Many declarants filed more than one declaration
  • Finding a declaration does not in itself mean the declarant naturalized

Filing a declaration of intention became voluntary with passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 (effective December 24, 1952). Some immigrants still choose to file a declaration of intention for personal or employment reasons.

The “3-Record Rule”

Courts generally followed the “3-Record Rule” requiring prospective citizens to obtain a declaration of intention, petition for naturalization, and certificate of naturalization in order to receive United States citizenship. Naturalization laws contained numerous exceptions to the “3-Record Rule.” Most of these exceptions included provisions that permitted prospective citizens to petition for naturalization without a declaration of intention.

Exemptions Allowed Many Aliens to Naturalize Without a Declaration of Intention

Some naturalization legislation waived the declaration of intention requirement for special classes of immigrants, providing a simplified naturalization process. These exemptions included exceptions for spouses of United States citizens, and veterans and active members of the United States Armed Services.

The Married Women’s Citizenship Act (or “Cable Act”) of September 22, 1922, waived the declaration requirement for women married to United States citizens. An Act of May 24, 1934, amended this provision, and extended an expedited naturalization to the foreign-born husbands of American women.

Congress enacted many exceptions to facilitate the naturalization of veterans as a reward for their service to the nation. Many of these laws dispensed with the declaration requirement for active service members and/or honorably discharged veterans.

Other less common exemptions include:

  • Aliens misinformed about their citizenship status – A 1910 law did not require a declaration from petitioners who always thought they were citizens, only to learn later they had been “misinformed.”
  • Children expatriated by actions of a parent – Legislation in 1940 made it easier for those whose United States citizenship had been lost through their parent’s naturalization elsewhere, or some other act of expatriation performed by their parent while they were a child.
  • Widow and orphans of declarants – One of the oldest exemptions, dating from 1804, allowed the widow or orphan of a deceased male declarant to “finish” the naturalization he began.
  • Wives and minor children of those who were termed as "insane" declarants – A 1911 law allowed homesteading wives and minor children of male declarants to naturalize without making a declaration if the declarant "becomes insane before he is actually naturalized."

Only the Courts Kept Copies of “Old Law” Declarations of Intention

Prior to the Basic Naturalization Act of 1906, courts did not submit a duplicate copy of declaration of intention records to the federal government. After the 1906 law, immigrants who declared under the “old law” could file petitions for naturalization based on the old declarations. In those cases, the court where the naturalized citizen originally declared their intention will have the only copy of the declaration document.

Repatriating Former Citizens Did Not Need to Make a Declaration of Intention

Repatriation is the resumption of citizenship voluntarily abandoned. The proceeding was equivalent to the naturalization process. Many former citizens (“expatriates”) could repatriate without a declaration of intention by taking an oath of allegiance and renunciation. Most repatriations involved:

  • Women who lost citizenship by marriage to an alien before September 22, 1922
  • Citizens who took an oath of allegiance to another government while serving in an allied foreign military
  • Citizens who voted in a foreign political election

Evolution of the Declaration of Intention Form

The passage of the Basic Naturalization Act of 1906 marked a significant shift in how naturalization records were created and kept. Taking effect on September 27, 1906, the legislation divided declarations into two chronological groups:

  • “Old Law” Declarations of Intention (January 29, 1795September 26, 1906) - The content and format varied between courts and only the naturalization court kept the record.
  • “Standard Form” Declarations of Intention (September 27, 1906April 1, 1956) - Standard forms made the content and format of records uniform across the country, and the Federal Naturalization Service received a duplicate copy.

“Old Law” Declarations of Intention (January 29, 1795September 26, 1906)

Declarations of intention record content and format varied between courts before September 27, 1906. Prior to September 27, 1906, any "court of record" (municipal, county, state, or federal) could complete naturalization proceedings. Declarants often went to the court most geographically convenient for them. Making an “Old Law” declaration required no proof of actual eligibility for naturalization; any alien, aged eighteen or older, could file a declaration with any court of record at any time. The declarant paid the prescribed fee, appeared before the court (or often the clerk), and made a declaration of intention under oath.

The clerk of court created a declaration of intention to document the event and entered it in the court’s permanent records. Without statutory guidance or administrative oversight from the federal government, the design of the “Old Law” declarations differed by court. Each clerk filed and indexed naturalization records according to local recordkeeping practices (often entries in a volume).

The declarant usually received a receipt (or “certificate of intention”) showing that the declaration had been made. If the declarant later applied for citizenship, this receipt was attached to the petition for naturalization as proof the declaration had been made. When a receipt was not issued or was lost, an immigrant might make a new declaration in a court at a new location. As a result, many immigrants made multiple declarations.  

The quantity of information recorded on these early declarations is often limited and may include only the name of the individual, their country of origin, and date. “Old Law” declarations usually offer less biographical information than their Standard Form successors.

“Standard Form” Declarations of Intention (September 27, 1906–December 23, 1952)

The Basic Naturalization Act of 1906 imposed federal administrative oversight on the naturalization process, including standardized recordkeeping.  

Beginning on September 27, 1906, the Naturalization Service required that every court in the country issue declarations of intention using its triplicate standard form. The clerk of court retained the original in the court’s permanent records, sent one duplicate copy to the Naturalization Service in Washington, DC, and gave one duplicate to the declarant.

If the declarant later received United States citizenship, the Naturalization Service created a Certificate File (C-File) to hold all of the new citizen’s naturalization records (including a copy of the declaration of intention, petition for naturalization, and certificate of citizenship and, often, other administrative records). 

The Basic Naturalization Act of 1906 also imposed an expiration date for declarations of intention. Declarations not followed by a petition for naturalization (also called “second papers”) within seven years expired and became invalid. This often resulted in individuals submitting multiple declarations, as those petitioning for naturalization were required to have a valid declaration of intention.  

Between 1906 and 1952, the Naturalization Service issued three standard declaration of intention forms:

  • Form 2202 (September 27, 1906June 30, 1929)
  • Form 2202-L-A (July 1, 1929January 12, 1941)
  • Form N-315 (January 13, 1941December 23, 1952)

Declarations of intention records issued on or after July 1, 1929, included a space for a  photograph of the declarant.