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.

  • Great tips. Also, if your family is Jewish, they may have used their Hebrew name. That happened with my grandmother. Either, she was commonly referred to by her Hebrew name or she did not receive an English name until she arrived here. Finally, the ages may be wrong. Many people lied about their age for various reasons. My grandmother said she was born in 1897 but when I was scanning the Ellis Island list it said she was older, born in 1895. She lied because my grandfather was younger than she. Like geneaology research isn't hard enough.