Millions of immigrants to the United States filed for citizenship or became naturalized citizens. In the process, they created a paper trail of records that are invaluable in helping us determine where they came from and when and where they arrived in the U.S. It's important to know that immigrants weren't required to become citizens, so many were never naturalized. Also, some began the process, but never completed it. And from 1790 to 1922, a wife was automatically granted citizenship when her husband was naturalized, so women rarely appear in naturalization records prior to 1922 (although they may be mentioned in their husband's files after 1903). Even with all these caveats, if your male ancestor came to the U.S. after 1790, it's definitely worth a search to see if they applied for naturalization.
Although the details of the process have changed over the years, the overall naturalization process has remained a fairly stable one with two major steps: 1) the filing of a declaration of intent or "first papers," and 2) the petition for naturalization or "second papers" or "final papers." For the most part, an immigrant could file first papers after having lived in the U.S. for two years and for second papers after having lived here for five years.
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Prior to 1906, naturalization papers do not contain as many details as most of us would like, but they do have the name of the immigrant, the country that they forswear their allegiance to, the town or court where the naturalization took place (although it is possible for the declaration of intent and petition for naturalization to have been filed at different courts), and the name of a witness, often a friend or relative. These records were filed and maintained on a local level, often at county courthouses.
After September 27, 1906, the federal government, through the Immigration and Naturalization Service, introduced standard and more detailed forms for the naturalization process. Additional information that can be found in post-1906 naturalization records includes birth date, birth place, date and port of departure, date and port of arrival, name of ship, occupation, address, and if married, names, ages and birthplaces of wife and children as well as the year and place of marriage. In later years, even a photograph of the immigrant may be included in the file.