Border Crossings. Immigrants traveling to North America typically found better rates on ships sailing to Canada, making it an appealing route to the United States. Until 1894, there were no U.S. immigration records created for immigrants coming to the U.S. through Canada. In addition to the cheaper fares, many immigrants avoided U.S. immigration screening and hassles by choosing the Canadian route. In 1895 the U.S. government closed this loophole by requiring Canadian steamships and railroads to complete manifest forms and only provide transportation to U.S. destinations to immigrants that would have been allowed to enter the country via other U.S. ports.
Immigrants destined for Canada came from the United States or sailed from Europe to American ports on their way to Canada. Prior to April 1908, people were able to move freely across the border from the United States into Canada; no record of immigration exists for those individuals. Between 1908 and 1935 the records consist of border entry lists and Form 30 (individual entry forms). Note that some families are not registered since one or both parents were born in Canada and they would be considered returning Canadians.
Mexican border crossing records begin in 1903, and include aliens and some citizens crossing from Mexico into the U.S. through 1957. A variety of record types are included in this collection, with varying degrees of information.
Passports. The U.S. government has issued passports to American citizens since 1789, albeit through several different agencies throughout the years. For the most part, passports were not required of U.S. citizens for foreign travel until World War I, but immigrants wishing to visit family in the old country were among those who often applied for passports to make it easier to re-enter the country on their return.
For many years, Canada was a colony of the British Isles and did not require passports from immigrants arriving from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
Border crossing records and passports can be rich sources of information on your immigrant ancestors.
In border crossings, you can find details similar to those found on passenger arrival records. Passports can provide birth details, names of relatives, and affidavits, as well as naturalization and immigration details, where applicable.
- Border crossing and passport records may cover more than one page. If you find a record, view the original image (on Border Crossings, note the line number your ancestor is on), then use the arrow keys to view the next page to make sure you’ve seen all the pages.
- Search for your ancestors by name, narrowing the search with their age, dates of arrival, ports of departure or arrival, or country of origin.
- Keep in mind that your immigrant ancestor may not have used the English version of his or her given name and that the surname may also have ethnic variants. Learn the ethnic equivalents and try searches in the immigrant’s native language.
- Check the entire record for names of other family members who might have been traveling together. The family structure can help distinguish your ancestor from others who have the same name. Remember though that the family may not have traveled together. It was not uncommon for one or two members to come over first and then send for the rest of the family once they had secured work and a place to live.
- Learn about pronunciation in your immigrant ancestor’s native language. In some cases clerks may have recorded the name as they heard it.
- Try searching for other variations of your ancestor’s name in case it was spelled incorrectly. Wildcards can be used to search for name variants. Click here to learn more about wildcards.
- When you find an immigration document, it’s important to look at the original image, which may contain information such as the name and address of the immigrant’s nearest relative, their intended destination in their new country, or names of other relatives traveling with them. If you find a record in an index collection or a transcription that is not linked to the actual record, follow the link to "Learn more about this database" to find out how to order the original record.
- If your immigrant ancestor in the U.S. was alive after 1900, locate them in the 1900, 1910, 1920, or 1930 census and look for immigration and naturalization details that can help narrow your search.
- On border crossing documents, be sure to note and research relatives’ names and those crossing with your ancestor who are from the same location as your ancestor. On passports, take note of the witnesses. These names may include relatives from the immigrant’s previous home or in their intended destination. Tracing these individuals in census. Tracing these individuals in census, directory, or immigration records may help you learn about your ancestor’s life before and after they arrived in their new country.