The Freedom of Information Act

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) became law on July 4, 1967. However, it only applies to Federal agencies, not state, county or city governments for providing data in federal files on private citizens.

The following are some of the agencies with files available to genealogists. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Social Security Applications and Death Indexes, Military veteran records, National Archives and U. S. Immigration and Naturalization records.

There are some exclusion items not available to the public, mostly relating to national security and law enforcement. Obtainable items are general records, including photos, letters, papers and films.

Checking with the FBI on their files concerning an ancestor, especially one who lived over the last 60 years could prove fruitful. Use of the Social Security Death Index is very common now by researchers for ancestors who have died since 1962. An order for a copy (a fee is charged) of the ancestor’s original social security application contains personal information at the time the person applied for their social security card.

For ancestors who arrived after 1906, besides the Family History Center, there is the Federal National Archives under their “Naturalization Records,” who can provide copies to researchers.
Any records of naturalization done after September 27, 1906 are available from the U. S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Visa files for immigrants, alien registration and files for certain time periods are procurable as well. Records on arrivals before 1906, those are on microfilm with the Family History Centers Of the Latter-Day Saints Church.

If a United States passport application was completed by an ancestor from 1795 to 1923, those records are accessible. Such information as to where an ancestor was living, their birth, parents and occupation are on the application.

Using the Department of Veteran Affairs can provide data on U. S. veterans. Information such as medical records, benefits and burial at national cemeteries are obtainable through the Department of Veteran Affairs because of the Freedom of Information Act.

A written request must be made to obtain copies of any of these records. In the request, provide all information known on the ancestor along with why and how the information is to be used. Some of the agencies do require a fee for the copies. Include your full name, address and contact information in case the agency has questions. Place in the written request that the solicitation is being made because of the Freedom of Information Act.

Each agency’s web sites carry the details. The web sites are the United Sates Department of Justice and the United States Department of State. For the National Archives there is the Social Security applications, S. S. Records, U. S. passport applications, some older military service, military pension records, land records, federal census records (from 1790 to 1930), income tax records from 1861 to1865, federal benefit program for railroad workers, immigration along with naturalization records and post office records.

Many states agencies have a similar policy as the Federal Freedom of Information Act and can also offer state documents for researchers. These resources can prove to be very worthwhile.

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