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Exploring the Alien Files (A-Files) at the National Archives

The following is reprinted from a recent issue of The Archivist, The GSBC's quarterly newsletter distributed to our Members. If you enjoy this sample article, genealogy, or local NJ history, please consider joining the GSBC. Your membership dollars ($20 per membership year) help us provide a wide array of programming, research, indexing, and education — benefits which are designed to inspire your own research progress.

Research Tips (Updated January 2015)

On 23 January 2011, Education Specialist at the National Archives (NARA) in New York City, Christopher Zarr, spoke to the GSBC about finding and obtaining Alien file (A-Records).

Summary by Nancy Klujber

Alien Files (A-Files) are a little known, and incredibly rich, source of genealogical information only recently made available to the public.

In 1940, each non-naturalized immigrant was issued an Alien Registration Number (A-Number). In 1944, an individual case file was created containing records documenting all interactions between these aliens and the U.S. government.

These records originally were to be kept for 75 years after the last change to the file, and then destroyed. However, in 2009, NARA and the Citizens and Immigration Service (USCIS) who are the current custodian of these files, agreed to keep these records permanently. Periodically, the USCIS will transfer to NARA the A-Files for individuals born at least 100 years ago.

A-Files are available to the public (research fee, see website) through NARA.

Certificate Files (C-Files) contain all papers related to those who applied for U.S. Citizenship and are available from the USCIS through a different application process (research fee, see website). C-Files have not been transferred to NARA, and the USCIS search process begins with an index search conducted by the USCIS. Researchers must fill out a form and pay a search fee as the indexes are not open to the public.

What Is in an A-File?
There is no standard format for the contents of an A-File. Documents are kept in letter sized folders in archival boxes. File sizes range from one to hundreds of pages, depending on the amount of interaction between the immigrant and the U.S. government.

Most A-Files contain documents like alien registration forms (AR2), immigrant visas, and address cards that document an alien’s current address. They may also contain foreign birth certificates, marriage certificates, permits to enter the U.S., reports of deportation proceedings, certificates of exemption from military service, results of medical examinations for visa applicants, applications for refugee status, correspondence, and death records — even a passport photo!

Applications for refugee status often contain detailed descriptions of the circumstances that lead to the request for asylum. A-Files may also contain naturalization paperwork, such as Declaration of Intention, Petition for Naturalization, and Naturalization Certificate. Many of these files contain facsimiles of documents that may have been lost to time to modern-day researchers.

Who Should have an A-File?
The following table lists those individuals who should have an A-Number and/or A-File. It is possible to have an A-Number without having an A-File, but the converse is not true.

A-Number A-File
Died before 1 August 1940 No No
Naturalized between 27 September 1906 and 1 August 1940 (likely a C-File) No No
Naturalized between 1 August 1940 and 31 March 1956 (likely a C-File) Yes No
Registered in 1940 but never came back to the INS for any benefit or reason Yes Possibly
Immigrated after 1 April 1944 and did not naturalize prior to 1 April 1956 Yes Likely, Yes
Naturalized on or after 1 April 1956 Yes Likely, Yes

Requesting A-File Records
All A-Files that are available to the public are kept at NARA in Kansas City, with some files also available at the NARA office in San Francisco. To access an A-File, the following information is necessary:

  • complete name of the immigrant, including aliases and maiden name, if known
  • Archival Research Catalog id (ARC id) – this is an identifier number issued by the National Archives
  • Alien Registration Number (A-Number)
  • any additional information, such as date and place of birth, date of entry to the U.S., and names of spouse and/or parents.

The ARC ID and the A-Number may be found an online search by name at Nara's OPA (Online Public Access) website. (Note that the previous ARC search database was folded into OPA in 2012.)

Search on full name and/or surname, using variant spellings if necessary. Some information may be restricted for privacy reasons.

A-Files may be viewed in person by written appointment at least three business days in advance, or copies of files may be ordered for a fee. Information on requesting files can be found at NARA's website, or by contacting the National Archives in Kansas City by mail, email, or fax.

National Archives at Kansas City
Attn: A-Files Request
400 West Pershing Road
Kansas City, MO 64108


Fax: (816) 268-8038

A-Files are a rich source of biographical information. They bring together information from many sources in addition to information not found elsewhere. Currently, NARA has only a small percentage of the 55 million existing A-Files, but more will be transferred as time constraints are met. If your ancestor should have a file but does not, check back with NARA periodically.