Immigration and Ships Passenger Lists Research Guide
Section 2.3 -  Last updated Sept 2011

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Section 2.3 - General Approach to Research
Using the World Wide Web, National Archives,  LDS Family History Center and  Libraries to find Records Interactive Table of Contents (click on any link to view)
2.3.1 Types of Passenger Lists   (Before 1820, 1820 to 1890's, after 1890's)

2.3.2 General Research Approach   (The three steps to organized research)
2.3.3 Using the World Wide Web  (Ellis Island on line records and links to other sites)

2.3.4 Getting help on the Web -Using Ship's Mailing Lists  
2.3.5 Searching at the National Archives
2.3.6 Using the Family History Library of the Church of the Latter Day Saints  
2.3.7 Using Libraries 
2.3.8 CD-ROM's relating to Ship Passenger Lists 

Introduction - This latest update to the guide places more emphasis on using  the Web for your research.   However, please note that the amount of information on the web is increasing, but it is still limited.  You may start your search on the web, but you will probably find  that traditional resources still must be used to find most of the information.

Since your chances of succeeding are greatly increased if you follow a prescribed methodology it is suggested that you review the general guidance discussed  in this section.  Then,  it is suggested that you look at the "detailed guidance" ( in Sections 3.0, 4.0, and 5.0) which provide step-by-step descriptions and illustrated examples to conducting your search in the different time periods.

The first question frequently asked by people searching passenger lists on the internet is, "Where can I find a passenger listing for my .......... on the Web?"  When I first started this Guide, my answer generally was ; "You can't!  You will have to research these records at the National Archives, the LDS Family History Center, your library, or by inter-library loan."  However, since then, many passenger lists databases (including the Ellis Island database and the Ship Transcriber's Guild records) and other information have been placed on the Web, and more information is becoming available every day.  Therefore, I can now say that it may be worth while to search the Web before you go to one of the traditional resources.  But, please remember, the amount of this information is still very limited and you may  still end up using those traditional resources.  (Click here for list of links to passenger list databases)

In addition to the databases becoming available on the Web, a number of other resources are becoming available to help in your research.  There are very good ship's mailing lists on-line with knowledgeable people to help answer your queries about researching passenger lists and to provide information about your ancestor's ship.  Also, CD-ROMs  containing passenger lists and other data are becoming available.  Your search can be greatly facilitated since these CD-ROMs are usually fully searchable by the name of the passenger.  

Another great resource has become available when the American Family Immigration History Center opened at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum in April, 2001.  A computerized on-line database that provides automated access to more than 17 million Ellis Island passenger records covering individuals who entered through New York Harbor between 1892-1924 is now available.  Links to the Ellis Island database with search hints is discussed in Section 5.0.

This latest update to this Guide places more emphasis upon using these "new" research tools, and includes many added links to on-line references and databases.  However, the detailed guidance for using the traditional archived resources has also been expanded and clarified since most of your research will generally still involve the use of the National Archives, the LDS Family History Center, or the library.

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2.3.1 Types of Passenger Lists - (Before 1820, 1820 to 1890's, after 1890's)

Prior to 1820, the passenger manifests that were deposited at the ports of entry were not controlled and subsequently you cannot find them in a single archive.  Refer to Section 3.0 of this Guide for guidance on locating the pre 1820 records. 

1820 to the 1890's - The Federal Government began to "control" immigration in 1820 as part of the Customs Service. Customs Passenger Lists were required to be filed with the collector of customs at the port of arrival.  These lists were mainly used for statistical purposes.  These lists contain some limited information regarding the passenger, and were used from 1820 to the 1890's. (See Section 4.0 for details)

After the 1890's - In the 1890's, the control of immigration was shifted to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).  Immigration Passenger Lists began at that time. The implementation of Immigration Passenger Lists started in different years for the different ports beginning in 1891.    These lists contain substantial data about the passenger and were continued until about 1957. (See Section 5.0 for details)  
Note:  The Immigration Passenger Lists for the port of New York prior to 1897 were destroyed  by a fire in 1897.  However, the Customs Passenger lists as described in Section 4.0 did survive,  and these are used for the port of New York until 1897. 

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has microfilmed the Custom Passenger Lists and the Immigration Passenger Lists, together with their indexes and other records.   It is these records that are available at NARA, the LDS Family History Library, and via inter-library loan.

NOTE:  Microfilms of all ship passenger lists do not exist.  NARA only microfilmed the legible passenger lists that were turned over to it by the Customs Service and the Immigration and Naturalization Service when this federal repository was established in 1935.  It is estimated that about 10% of these records are missing. (This may be one explanation for not finding an immigrant ancestor on the passenger lists records).

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2.3.2 General Research Approach (Three Steps to Organized Research)

Much of the search for your ancestors in the post 1820 time period entails the research of these passenger lists. However, the use of passport records, naturalization records, emigration lists, privately generated indexes, and resources which are becoming increasingly available on-line, can be valuable in your research.   Refer to Section 4.0 for detailed procedures for researching the Custom Passenger Lists (1820 to circa 1891) and Section 5.0  for the Immigration Passenger Lists (circa 1891).

STEP 1. - The first step in searching for your ancestor is generally to locate his/her name on an index.  Most of the passenger lists have been indexed by the WPA in the 1930's during the depression and are available on microfilm.  You must first find the film number of the index containing your ancestor's name. To do this, you may search the NARA web site and/or the Library Catalog at the Family History Center as described below.  (Unfortunately, indexes are missing for significant periods for the ports of  New York and Boston.  For suggestions and on how to perform research in the unindexed periods, see Section 4.0 ).

STEP 2 - The next step is to search the index  to locate your ancestor's name and the ship and date of his/her arrival.  With this information, you again must search the NARA web site and/or the Library Catalog at the Family History Center to locate the film number of the ship whose passenger list contains your ancestor.  You then obtain this microfilm to search for your ancestors.

NOTE:  You will find in the catalogs that there are two types of indexes; those arranged in alphabetical order, and those using the Soundex System.  Refer to Section 2.4 for guidance with the Soundex Index.
STEP 3 - The final step is to find your ancestor's name listing on the Passenger List and extract the applicable information.

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2.3.3 - Using the World Wide Web  (Ellis Island on line records and links to other sites)

This section provides links to Web sites and hints on how to use the Web to research Immigration and Passenger Lists.   NOTE: Throughout this Guide, you will also find numerous links to Web sites that provide information that is directly applicable to the subject being discussed.

New information and databases are appearing on the Web almost daily.  You may want to search the Web before using the traditional archive and library resources.  However, a word of advice - the information on the Web is still limited and except for the Ellis Island database records of 1892 to 1924, YOU SHOULD NOT HAVE HIGH EXPECTATIONS TO FIND YOUR ANCESTORS NAME ON THE WEB AT THE PRESENT TIME

The Web can be used in different ways:

Passenger List Databases
Ellis Island Passenger Lists 1892 to 1924 - A great resource.  A computerized on-line database that provides automated access to more than 17 million Ellis Island passenger records covering individuals who entered through New York Harbor between 1892-1924.  Click here for details, hints, and links to search these records.
Immigrant Ships Transcribers Guild (ISTG)   This site is worthy of special mention. The ISTG is a group of volunteers who transcribe ships passenger lists which are then placed on the ISTG web site.  As of this time,  more than 5,000 transcriptions of passenger lists from the colonial days up to the 1900's have been uploaded to that site.  The passenger lists are searchable by: (1) Date, (2) Ship's Name, (3) Port of Arrival, and (4) Surname.  For information and links to additional resources, see ISTG's "The Compass."
Passenger Lists on RootsWeb.   A searchable database of passenger lists searchable by name, date, port of arrival. port of departure, or ship's name.
Web sites having an extensive number of links to URL's with ships passenger lists are listed below.
NOTE:  The lists at some of these different sites are arranged either in: 1) alphabetical order by the ship's name, 2) chronologically by year, or 3) randomly.  Without an overall index, it may be time consuming to search through these sites.  You should know either the ship's name or the approximate year of arrival before you start searching.
HINT:  After you open a Web page which contains one or more passenger lists, you may use your browser's search (or find) function to look for a particular passenger's name on that page.

The Olive Tree Genealogy - Ship's Passenger List   Over 1,200 ship listings, listed chronological by year and by numerous other categories.   Don't miss the extensive list of links.

On the Trail of our Ancestors- Ships' Passenger Lists:   Links to many early ships by Donna Speer Ristenbatt:

Passenger Lists on the Internet
An extensive list of links to other pages with passenger lists

Cyndi's Immigration and Ship's List   Links to passenger lists of over 400 ships from the 1600's to 1900's listed alphabetically by subject

Finding Passenger Lists Before 1820
Provides resources for many CDs and online databases.

Irish Passenger Lists 
These are passenger lists for emigrants from Ireland to the United States and Canada, arranged in date order.  You can browse by the name of the ship.  It includes about 50 passenger lists from the 1700's & 1800's. 

Immigrants to Canada
This list emphasizes links to Canadian records, but there are quite a few links for United States and other countries that are not included in any of the previous references.

Directory of Passenger Ship Arrivals
Links to ship information and passenger lists for a large number of ships arriving from the 1600's to 1800's.  You can browse or search  by the name of a ship, or you can search by the US port of arrival and the year of arrival.

NARA Archival Research Catalog (ARC) - ARC is a project of the National Archives which will enable anyone to search NARA's nationwide holdings and databases. By going to the specific site for Genealogists & Family Historians the site provides tips for searching for names of individuals and much more.

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2.3.4 - Getting Help on the Web - Using Ship's Mailing Lists

Another valuable on-line resource are Mailing Lists associated with passenger lists. Queries may be made (or, just by "lurking" you may learn much useful information about particular ships, search procedures, etc.).  Mailing lists currently on-line are:

The ShipsList mailing list- TheShipsList is a mailing list to help those seeking information on which vessel brought their ancestors to their new home.   This is an international list. To subscribe, send a message  to: for the digest mode or for the mail mode
with the one word  SUBSCRIBE in the body of the message.  Do not put anything in the Subject line.

The Emigration-Ships mailing list - To subscribe, send the message SUBSCRIBE EMIGRATION-SHIPS-DIGEST for the digest mode or SUBSCRIBE EMIGRATION-SHIPS-LIST for the mail mode  to: majordomo@genweb.netm
The mailing address for posting messages is:

The Mariners mailing list- A list for the discussion of shipping and seamen rather than emigration.  If you wish to be added to the mailing list for those researching their seafaring ancestors, send your SUBSCRIBE message to:

 BoatFolks - A mailing list for the discussion and sharing of information regarding the ancestors and descendents of immigrants arriving in the United States prior to 1700.  To subscribe, send the message SUBSCRIBE to:

The mailing address for posting messages is

CASTLE GARDEN mailing list.  May be of interest to those researching NY records in the 1855 to 1890 time period.  To subscribe, put the word SUBSCRIBE in the subject line and also in the body snd send to: .


This site provides links to numerous mailing lists on the subject of emigration.

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2.3.5 - Searching at the National Archives

The National Archives and the Family History Library of the Church of the Latter Day Saints have all of the passenger list records.  These are the places where you will probably end up doing most of your research.   The microfilms of the passenger lists can be researched at the National Archives Records Administration (NARA) facilities in the Washington, D. C. area, or at the Regional Archives.  To find the location of these Regional Archives, click on the link.

The NARA "Immigrant and Passenger Arrivals" Web site has the searchable catalog of  microfilms of the passenger lists.  There you can find the NARA microfilm roll number of the index and/or passenger list that you may be interested in.  You will find detailed procedures and examples in Section 4.0 and Section 5.0 of this Guide which will show you how to use that catalog and how to locate and use the microfilms of the passenger lists.

NOTE: The regional archives generally only hold microfilm records pertaining to ports of entry located in the area of that regional facility. For example, the New England Regional Archive has records for the port of Boston and a few others.  The New York Regional Archive has records pertaining mostly to the port of New York and some other eastern ports.  Refer to the above Web site to see which microfilms are available at each of these locations.  You may also call the Regional Archive to determine what their holdings are (The telephone numbers and addresses are listed on the above Web site)
NOTE: Passport  and Naturalization records may also be available at these archives.  (See Section 8.0 of this Guide for guidance on using Naturalization records and Section 9.0 for Passport records)


Obtaining Single Copies of Passenger Lists from NARA
For a researcher who doesn't wish to buy an entire roll of film to look for a single name, the National Archives will provide, for a fee, copies of single pages of passenger lists. If the list is indexed, the Reference Services Branch of the National Archives in Washington, D.C. will consult the index to find the correct page of the passenger list to copy. Philadelphia Index starts in 1800, Baltimore 1820-1952, Boston Jan 1 1902-Dec 31 1920, Aug. 1, 1891-1935, book indexes 1899-1940 etc.; New Orleans is indexed for 1853- 1952. New York is indexed 1820-1847 and 1897-1954.

The minimum information required for a search of the index is:
   Full name of the person being researched
   The port of arrival
   The approximate date of arrival
    Either the name of the ship or the exact date of arrival
    Additional information such as the age of passenger and names of accompanying passengers can be useful. 

 The fee for this service is indicated on the NARA site.

Order Online! You can now request reproductions of the passenger arrival records and pay for your order with most major credit cards.

You can still make your requests on a paper form, NATF Form 81, "Order for Copies of Passenger Arrival Records." 
Paper forms can be ordered by e-mail to or by calling the toll free number, 1-86-NARA-NARA (1-866-272-6272).Be sure to provide your name and mailing address and specify "NATF Form 81" and the number of forms you need. 
Alternatively, you can obtain the NATF Form 81 by going to  or by writing to: National Archives and Records Administration, Attn.: NWCTB, 700 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20408-0001.

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2.3.6 - The Family History Library of the Church of the Latter Day Saints (LDS)

The Family History Library (FHL) located in Salt Lake City has the microfilms of all of the NARA Passenger Lists.  These microfilm records are available for distribution to the individual Family History Centers (FHC) located throughout the country.

The Family History Centers (FHC) are normally located at a local Church of the Latter Day Saints.  You may find the location of a local FHC in the phone book  under Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints or on-line at the LDS Web page:

Use of these facilities is free.  It is advisable to call ahead to find out what hours they are open since these centers are staffed by volunteers.  If you have never visited a Family History Center, review the following information., You may also want to visit the Web sites listed below for further information.  Don't worry, they will not try to proselytize you. All faiths are welcome.

NOTE: The FHL uses different numbers for their passenger list microfilm rolls than are used by NARA. You must refer to the Family History Library Catalog at the FHC libraries to find the FHC microfilm number (See the procedure in the following box).

Family History Library and Its Branches 
The Family History Library, found in Salt Lake City, Utah, is one of the best libraries for researchers of their family history.  With over 2 million reels of microfilm (many with more than one source on them), that encompasses records worldwide, a researcher can accomplish large amounts of research without having to spend large amounts of money.

While the Family History Library (FHL) is in Utah, there are Family History Centers worldwide which act as branches of the FHL. The Family History Centers (FHC) are normally located at a local Church of the Latter Day Saints.  By visiting your local  FHC, you can request many of the materials available at the FHL, including the passenger lists and their indexes, to be sent to your local FHC. 

Each FHC has certain standard resources available in their local collection.  Among these are the FamilySearch data CDs, the "International Genealogical Index" (IGI), and the AIS census index.  They may also have other resources that may be of local interest including the Social Security Death Index.

The Family History Library Catalog (FHLC) is the catalog to all of the holdings of the FHL.  It is available onlineYou refer to the FHLC to find the FHC microfilm number of the passenger lists by searching under Emigration and Immigration for the port of interest  (EXAMPLE - New York, New York - Emigration and Immigration). 

Unfortunately because the holdings at the FHL are so massive, they cannot be kept in entirety at every local FHC.  However, for a minimal rental fee (of about $6 in the U.S.), primarily to cover the cost of postage and handling, you can request most of the films.  These films are ordered from the FHL at Salt Lake City and shipped to the local FHC. When the materials arrive, you can look at them on the microfilm and microfiche readers that are located at the FHC. 

You can borrow the films for an initial period of 30 days.  Then you can renew for an additional 60 days.  Subsequently, if your FHC allows, you can renew a second time which makes the film reside at your local FHC indefinitely. 

For further information on the Family History Centers and their usage, this link describes the Family History Centers and their usage.

There is  a list of available free research publications in PDF format are located at this link. These publications are available for downloading or printing.

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2.3.7 - Libraries  

A few large libraries, such as the New York Public Library and the Allen County Public Library (in Fort Wayne, IN) have the microfilms of the passenger list records in their collections.  Other libraries may obtain these microfilms by interlibrary loan.  You can then research these films using the library's microfilm readers.  Some libraries may not charge for this service, however, many libraries may charge a small fee for the rental. Contact your library to find out what their policy is regarding renting these films.  If they will not rent these films, the librarian may find a nearby library library that will.

You will have to do your homework before you go to the library.  You should find the NARA Record Group Number, Microfilm Publication Number and Roll Number of the film that you want.  This information can be obtained by using procedures discussed in Sections 4.0 and 5.0 of this guide. 

You may find that various libraries may respond differently to your request for a microfilm of a ship's passenger list. Such a request may generally be handled differently than a request for a book that may be available via interlibrary loan (ILL). (The book is obtained from another library -via ILL- that has it available to circulate to your library.)  However, most, if not all, major libraries that have the NARA microfilms in their collections, do not loan them out on interlibrary loan to other libraries. 

Therefore, your library has to obtain these microfilms from a service.  Some libraries will search for an ILL source for the microfilms, and if they cannot find one, they may order it from an alternative source and pass the rental charges on to you.  Some libraries do not charge those people living in the same town and having a valid library card. 

It should be noted that microfilms of Canadian passenger lists may be obtained by routine inter-library loan. 

THE BOTTOM LINE IS -- talk to the reference librarian at your local library and try to convince  him/her to order the film at no charge (or if required by the library, at a nominal cost).  As a minimum, they should be able to find the closest library that will do this.

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2.3.8 - CD-ROM's relating to Passenger Lists

Different commercial companies are releasing CD-ROM's containing scan's of passenger lists and other databases related to immigration and passenger lists.  You may purchase these CD-ROM's.  You may also place a query on one of the ship mailing lists as previously suggested; there is usually someone willing to do a look-up for you.  Following are some examples of what is available.  Links to the Web pages of these companies are shown so you may look for recent CD-ROM releases.
This company has CD-ROM's available for different genealogical subjects.  View passenger list CD-ROM's that are available.

Of special interest is CD-Rom number 354.    This CD-ROM contains listings of approximately 2,750,000 individuals. The information was collected from published passenger lists, naturalization records, church records, family and local histories, as well as voter and land registrations.  You must use it in conjunction with Family Tree Maker or with Family Archives Viewer for Windows.  The index is searchable by name, place, year, source code, or source page number. This CD-ROm is no longer listed as available, but may be found for sale of other sites such as Amazon.  This CD may also be availalbe in library genealogy collections.

For each individual listed on that CD-ROM, you will find the following information:
         Name and age of immigrant
         Year and place of immigration
         Full source information
         Source code of immigration record **
         Names of family members with whom they traveled

  This knowledge may help you determine additional information such as the name of the ship on which your ancestors sailed and the location of their naturalization. For your convenience and to make this important reference accessible, 

** Remember: As with any genealogical index, the records on this CD-ROM are "pointers" to where the original entries were found. Indexes are great resources, but you always have to look at the source that is cited to obtain all the details.

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Continue to Section 2.4 - Guide to the Soundex System

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Copyright © Arnold H. Lang 2002