Immigration Records

Immigration records, more popularly known as "ship passenger arrival records," may provide evidence of a person's arrival in the United States, as well as foreign birthplace. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has immigration records for various ports for the years 1800-1959.


What NARA Has.

Until January 1, 1820, the U.S. Federal Government did not require require captains or masters of vessels to present a passenger list to U.S. officials. Thus, as a general rule, NARA does not have passenger lists of vessels arriving before January 1, 1820. There are, however, two exceptions to this general rule:

Arrivals at New Orleans, Louisiana, 1813-1819, are reproduced in NARA microfilm publication:

Roll 1 of M2009, Work Projects Administration Transcript of Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at New Orleans, Louisiana, 1813-1849 (2 rolls).

Arrivals at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1800-1819, are reproduced in two NARA microfilm publications:

Rolls 1-29 of M425, Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1800-1882 (108 rolls), which is indexed by M360, Index to Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1800-1906 (151 rolls). Note, however, that M425 undoubtedly does not include everyone arriving at Philadelphia during 1800-1819.

What NARA Does Not Have.

To locate other passenger lists from 1538-1819, consult these books (among many others), which are found in libraries with genealogical collections:

Filby, P. William, ed. Passenger and Immigration Lists Index: A Guide to Published Arrival Records of ... Passengers who Came to the United States and Canada in the Seventeenth, Eighteenth, and Nineteenth Centuries. 3 volumes plus annual supplements. Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1981-__. This series is a finding aid to published passenger lists. Be sure to read the "front material" to understand how to use the information you find.

Boyer, Carl. Ship Passenger Lists, National and New England (1600-1825). Newhall, CA: C. Boyer, 1977.

Tepper, Michael. New World Immigrants: a Consolidation of Ship Passenger Lists and Associated Data from Periodical Literature. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1979.


Early records relating to immigration originated in regional customhouses. The U.S. Customs Service conducted its business by designating collection districts. Each district had a headquarters port with a customhouse and a collector of customs, the chief officer of the district.

An act of March 2, 1819 (3 Stat. 489) required the captain or master of a vessel arriving at a port in the United States or any of its territories from a foreign country to submit a list of passengers to the collector of customs, beginning January 1, 1820. The act also required that the collector submit a quarterly report or abstract, consisting of copies of these passenger lists, to the Secretary of State, who was required to submit such information at each session of Congress. After 1874, collectors forwarded only statistical reports to the Treasury Department. The lists themselves were retained by the collector of customs. Customs records were maintained primarily for statistical purposes.

On August 3, 1882, Congress passed the first Federal law regulating immigration (22 Stat. 214-215); the Secretary of the Treasury had general supervision over it between 1882 and 1891. The Office of Superintendent of Immigration in the Department of the Treasury was established under an act of March 3, 1891 (26 Stat. 1085), and was later designated a bureau in 1895 with responsibility for administering the alien contract-labor laws. In 1900 administration of the Chinese-exclusion laws was added. Initially the Bureau retained the same administrative structure of ports of entry that the Customs Service had used. By the turn of the century it began to designate its own immigration districts, the numbers and boundaries of which changed over the years.

In 1903 the Bureau became part of the Department of Commerce and Labor; its name was changed to the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization when functions relating to naturalization were added in 1906. In 1933 the functions were transferred to the Department of Labor and became the responsibility of the newly formed Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). Under President Roosevelt's Reorganization Plan V of 1940, the INS was moved to the Department of Justice.

Available 1800-1959 Immigration Records

Various NARA microfilm publications reproduce passenger arrival records. You may do research in immigration records in person at the National Archives Building, 700 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20408-0001. Go to Room 400, the Microfilm Reading Room. Staff is available there to answer your questions. NARA microfilm publications may be examined during regular research room hours in Room 400; no prior arrangement is necessary.

NARA Regional Facilities

Some National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) regional facilities have selected immigration records; call to verify their availability or check the online microfilm locator.

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