Researching your overseas ancestors

A guide to researching ancestors who emigrated to Australia from countries other than the United Kingdom


The Library has a range of genealogy databases that index census data, indexes to births, deaths and marriages, parish registers, electoral rolls and immigration records. Most of our databases focus on Australian collections however we also have a number of eResources for Britain and New Zealand.
Many databases can be accessed online from home by registered Victorian members of the State Library of Victoria, but some can only be used here in the Library.

The following genealogy databases are the most useful for researching your non-British overseas ancestors. If you're interested in exploring our full range of databases and indexes you can find them via our Family History eresources page.

The Ancestry Library Edition database provides access to 11 billion family history records, covering mainly North America, the United Kingdom, Australian and New Zealand records. Records may include census, land, immigration, church, birth, death & marriage records, directories, and electoral rolls. The European content is limited but there are indexes to select births, deaths and marriage records, census, immigration and military records for Austria, Belarus, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.
Licence restrictions mean that libraries can’t make Ancestry available to Library users at home, but it’s available free on-site at the State Library and at all Victorian public library services. 

The FamilySearch database is an essential online source of information for international genealogy and can be accessed from home, for free. You will need to create a free personal account to access search and other features. Access is then available from home.

Developed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) the database indexes millions of international genealogical records, including indexes to parish records, births, deaths and marriages records, census data, cemetery records, military service records and immigration records.

FamilySearch has an excellent collection of resources for Continental Europe, the Americas and the United Kingdom and has smaller collections for Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Search across the whole Family Search database or browse by location through the many published collections that make up Family Search. If you are interested in discovering what records exist for a specific country then go to their Historical Records Collections page and filter by country (on the right-hand side of the screen).

Using websites

There are tens of thousands of genealogy websites now available providing access to millions of records. Genealogy websites can include official government archives and agencies, libraries, indexed collections of digitised records, family history blogs, family trees, online newspapers and discussion lists. Some websites provide free access to their records but many offer access through a pay-per-view subscription.

Much of the information on the internet is unfiltered and there is little control over what is posted so as you carry out your research we recommend that you always carefully evaluate what you find. The following criteria might help you with your evaluation:

  • Author - who wrote the page, what is their area of expertise?
  • Institution - is it from a government agency, library, university or other reputable source?
  • Accuracy - is the information reliable. Are their facts and citations included to support the information listed?
  • Purpose - does it provide factual information or just a personal opinion?
  • Audience - who is the target audience?
  • Currency - when was the information last updated?

Family history websites

It's not possible to include a comprehensive list of international genealogy websites in this research guide as there are too many excellent sites that we could include. To find out what's available for your country we suggest you use one of the following sites, which include detailed lists of websites from around the world.

Cyndi's List
Cyndi's List contains a cross indexed list to over 300,000 genealogical resources on the internet. Go to the Categories page and browse by country or region. You will then find a list of any available or relevant websites. Categories include birth, death and marriage records, census. directories, language, names, handwriting & script, maps; military, religion & churches and societies.

Family Search
You can find a list of key international sites by going to the FamilySearch Helpful international websites page.

The FamilySearch Research Wiki is a fantastic resource for international family history research. No login is required to access the wiki. You can navigate via the interactive map on the home page to the area where your ancestor lived, and see listings of possible resource types and themes, as well as tips and tutorials specific to the area being researched. The wiki will then link you to the place that those resources are held, even if they are on another website such as Ancestry. 

RootsWeb is the oldest free online community genealogy research site in the world. It uses online forums, mailing lists, and other resources to help people research their family history. The RootsWeb surname list has over 1 million names listed and is one of the primary tools on that online genealogists use to contact each other and share information.

WorldGenWeb Project
WorldGenWeb is a non-profit, volunteer based organization dedicated to providing genealogical and historical records and resources for world-wide access.
This site includes over 50,000 genealogy link include specific collections for Europe, IndiaChina, South Africa, Canada and Jewish genealogy,

Language and letter writing sites

The FamilySearch research wiki contains basic language guides for a number of countries. These guides include alphabets, numbers basic words and phrases. If there is a language guide for your country you will see a link to Languages under the Background heading.

Under the research wiki page you will find letter writing guides for many countries. These excellent guides explains how to compose genealogical query letters to international addresses using their native language. They list typical phrases in English and the same phrase in the native language and include example letters and information on how to request and pay for research. If there is a letter writing guide for your country, it will be listed under Research Tools. 

Cyndi's List
Go to the categories page and browse by country to locate tips of languages and translations.

Translation tools
There are several translation services now freely available on the internet including, Google Translate and Babelfish.  You can use these tools to translate text and web pages into other languages. Or translate search terms into another language, use these search terms to retrieve websites in that language and then use the same online translation service to translate the relevant websites back into English.