History and Genealogy
Alien Files, or "A-Files," are individual files identified by subject's Alien Registration Number ("A-number"). An A-number is a unique personal identifier assigned to a non-citizen. A-Files became the official file for all immigration and naturalization records created or consolidated since April 1, 1944.
The Immigration and Naturalization Service ("INS") started issuing each non-citizen a unique A-number in 1940 as part of the Alien Registration Program (see Alien Registration Forms). On April 1, 1944, INS started using A-numbers to create individual files, called A-Files. INS opened or consolidated A-Files for every immigrant who arrived after April 1, 1944 or naturalized after April 1, 1956, and for immigration law enforcement matters.
Before A-Files, many aliens had more than one file with the agency. For example, an immigrant might have a Visa File, an AR-2, and a C-File. Accessing all agency records for an alien often required INS personnel to search multiple records systems and indexes. INS introduced A-Files to streamline its record keeping. Issuing each immigrant an A-number allowed INS to create one file for each immigrant containing all the agency's records for the subject.
From April 1, 1944 to March 31, 1956, A-Files contained all INS records of any active case of an immigrant not yet naturalized. When the agency opened an A-File for a non-citizen with previous agency records, INS consolidated its other records for the subject into the new A-File. Upon naturalization, INS consolidated (refiled) all agency records of the new citizen in his or her Certificate File ("C-File") and the A-File ceased to exist. Beginning April 1, 1956, INS started filing all agency records for active cases, including naturalization records, in the subject's A-File. USCIS continues this practice today.
INS opened A-Files below 8 million for:
• All immigrants arriving between April 1 1944 and May 1, 1951;
• Reopened cases of immigrants already in the country and registered through the Alien Registration Program; and
• Other purposes (e.g., criminal investigations).
INS created an A-File numbered below 8 million for all immigrants admitted to the United States between April 1, 1944 and May 1, 1951. Between April 1, 1944 and March 31, 1956, however, INS moved all agency records for a new citizen into his or her consolidated C-File and the A-File ceased to exist. Accordingly, immigrants who naturalized prior to April 1, 1956, will only have a consolidated C-File.
Immigrants issued an Alien Registration Number through the Alien Registration Program will have an A-number below 8 million and an Alien Registration Form ("AR-2") on microfilm. However, these immigrants will only have an A-File if their case re-opened after April 1, 1944. INS reopened cases when an immigrant filed any kind of application (e.g., to replace a document, obtain a border crossing card, or petition for an immigrant relative).
INS also created A-Files without any action taken by the immigrant. For example, an A-File would be started if INS initiated a law enforcement action against or involving an immigrant.
A-Files below 8 million are just the oldest fraction of the USCIS’ immense A-File series of more than 60 million case files. Inactive A-Files are stored in various locations, with the majority held by USCIS.
A-Files were rescheduled in 2009 for permanent retention and USCIS has transferred more than 350,000 A-Files to the National Archives (NARA) since 2010. A-Files transferred to NARA all relate to immigrants born prior to 1909. Researchers can search the A-Files at NARA by name or A-number in the National Archives Online Public Access (OPA) Catalog.
The oldest A-Files, numbering approximately from the 1 million series to the 5.5 million series, are often consolidated A-Files. They document immigrants who arrived prior to 1940 but whose cases re-opened after 1944. When re-opened, any prior files (Visa Files, Registry Files, etc.) were consolidated with (placed inside) the A-File and ceased to exist in their original series.
A-Files are a rich source of biographical information. A-files contain relatively modern immigration documents collected together in one file. The United States collected increasing amounts of information from immigrants through the 20th century. A-Files from mid-century hold a wealth of data, including visas, photographs, applications, affidavits, correspondence, and more.
Just as each immigrant received a singular A-number, each immigrant's A-File is special. Like other USCIS files, A-File content depends on the history of interaction between the immigrant and the agency. Some A-Files are only a few pages. Others contain scores or hundreds of pages in multiple folders.
Index Search Issues - A-Files are indexed by name, date of birth, and place of birth. Many A-File index entries also include the port and date of arrival, and may indicate the INS district where the immigrant lived.
Record Request Issues - Remember that only A-Files numbered below 8 million may be requested via a Genealogy Record Request. A-Files numbered 8 million and above must be requested via the USCIS Freedom of Information/Privacy Act Program. Also be aware of the following:
- Processing Times – Because A-Files are stored off-site away from USCIS Headquarters and the nearby Federal Records Center, retrieval of the files may take longer than files from other series.
- Privacy Restrictions – A-Files may include documents containing personal information about other persons (called "third parties") who may still be living, such as the immigrant's children, other family, or neighbors. Such records received from the Genealogy Program may have some information redacted because a document containing third party personal information is not releasable outside the Freedom of Information (FOIA) process. For example, if the immigrant had minor children living at the time of immigration, his or her children's personal information may be redacted.
Some researchers find A-numbers among an immigrant’s personal papers. If an immigrant naturalized after ca. 1942, they may find the A-number noted on a court naturalization records index card. A-numbers below 8 million for deceased persons may be obtained by submitting an Index Search Request on form G-1041.
- Genealogy Brochure (770 KB PDF)