Researching your overseas ancestors

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

Where do you start?

Set yourself a goal
Before you start looking for overseas collections you should set yourself a specific research goal, to help make your research more manageable. Your goal may be to research your great grandmother and find out when she was born and who were her parents. Or your goal may be to find out the occupation of your great grandfather. Once you have defined your goal you should explore the genealogy collections relevant to the country you are researching to identify the most relevant sources.

Find collections and repositories
As you attempt to locate overseas archives it's important to remember that every country has a different method of collecting and storing records. Some countries have centralised agencies for all of their major collections and some still have decentralised collections that are stored in regional collections - in churches, municipal offices etc. If you know the name of the town where your ancestors lived you will be able to find the relevant region or jurisdiction and will definitely have a better chance of finding the right records.

Use relevant guide books and websites to identify how each country's records are organised, where they are housed and what dates they cover. A particularly good tool for finding international resources is the FamilySearch wiki. Search by country to display a list of available collections including, civil registration records, cemeteries, census, military records, archive collections, church records, etc. 

Contact the relevant agency
Your next step is to try and find websites, guides and contact details for the relevant archives and see if any of their collections have been digitised. Many places are slowly digitising their historical collections so its worth checking back regularly or try and add your details to a mailing list. If the records are not available online then you will need to write to or email the archive to request assistance or to order copies of the relevant records. When writing to foreign archives we suggest that you keep your correspondence short and to the point and if possible, write in the language of that country. This can be a daunting task but there are a number of excellent letter writing guides and translation tools now available and we have listed them on our eResources & websites page.

Hire a professional researcher
If you find the task too difficult or you've hit too many brickwalls you might choose to hire a professional researcher who specialises in the country you are researching. To find a list of relevant associations and lists of international genealogists go to Cyndi's List, choose the country/region you are researching and select the heading `Professionals. Volunteers & Other Research Services'.

A final word of warning - as you research overseas collections it's important to remember that many of the countries you will be researching have at some time been affected by war, by natural disaster, by boundary changes and by political and religious turmoil and that in many cases, valuable collections of genealogical records have been lost or destroyed.

Sources of information

Here are some of the key genealogy sources that may be available in the country you are researching.

To find out what collections exist and how to access them, go to the FamilySearch wiki and select the country you are researching. The Wiki may include such resource categories as cemeteries, civil registration offices, newspapers, church records, land and property, census records, archives and family history societies.

Don't forget that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) have microfilmed and digitised millions of genealogy records from around the world. So before you approach overseas agencies it's worth checking the Family History Library Catalog to find out what records are available for your country.

Birth, Death & Marriage records
Birth, death and marriage records are legal documents and a valuable source of accurate information about an individual. They are vital records that usually include key names, dates, places and relationships.

Civil Registration is the system where the government registers these details into a registry. Many countries house their civil registration records in their national archive however there are still several countries that keep their records in local municipal offices. If civil registration does not exist in the country you are researching or for records that were kept before civil registration was introduced you should use church records.

The International vital records handbook by Thomas Jay Kemp is a particularly useful guide for locating the repository of birth, death and marriage records from around the world.

Census records
Census records record the population of a country or region and can include such details as the address of the household, name of individuals, ages, relationships, occupations and place of birth. For many countries the early census records only list the head of the household.

National census records are usually housed at the national archive level, however it's worth noting that many census records have been destroyed and many countries have not made their records available. For regional census records check with with municipal archives.

Church records
Church or parish records include records of baptisms, marriages and deaths and can also include confirmations, first communions and church census records. They are an excellent source of information and for many countries the records go back centuries - long before civil registration was introduced. Many church registers are still housed in the actual church, otherwise try diocesan archives or in the regional archives.

Family Registers
Many European and Asian countries produce Family or Household Registers which record the details of the whole family unit. These registers are used for genealogical and legal purposes and may include the names of the husband and wife,their birth dates and places, marriage date and place, parents' names, children, occupations, and residence. Some registers also include migration details.

Military records
These records can provide details for any individuals who served in the military. They can include service records, conscription details, correspondence, muster rolls personnel records etc. Individual records may include personal details such as age, birthplace, names of parents, occupation and  physical description, dates of service, injuries, medals received etc. Draft or conscription records exist in the countries that instituted national military service.

For many countries military services records are kept at a national level. However some are still held by the municipal government or by separate regiments of the army, navy and air force.

Directories are alphabetical lists of names and addresses of individuals and businesses.The may include town maps, lists of major government buildings and archives, cemeteries, churches and street information. Many libraries are digitising city directories, so check with the library of the town you are researching, or with the country's national library.

Land records
Land records can include details on land ownership, transfer of land and land lease titles. Many records include the details of land owners and tenants. Land records can be difficult to locate and in many cases are held in regional or state archives. If your ancestors were from a rural area the land may still be owned by other family members.

Cemetery records can include names, dates and details of relationships. For some countries it's difficult to find cemetery records as entire cemeteries were destroyed by wars or have had older graves replaced by new graves.

To find a cemetery check the cemetery listings for the town where you ancestors lived and contact cemetery officials, the municipal council or town hall for records. Also check to see if there was a family plot where all family members were buried?

Go local
If you're still having trouble finding information and you know the area where you ancestors lived, why not go local. Consider writing a letter to the local newspaper asking if there are people who might know of your ancestral family, or who have the same name.