History and Genealogy
About Visa Files
Visa Files are the official arrival records of immigrants admitted for permanent residence between July 1, 1924, and March 31, 1944. The photograph, large amounts of biographical information, and attached vital records make Visa Files among the most valuable immigration records for genealogical research.
The Immigration Act of 1924 took effect on July 1, 1924. That law required all arriving non-citizens to present a visa when applying for admission to the United States. Immigrants requested visas at U.S. Embassies and Consulates abroad before their departure. The State Department only issued visa documents to approved immigrants and the Immigration Service only admitted immigrants arriving with a visa. In this way, visas allowed the Federal government to both select and limit the number of immigrants legally admitted for permanent residence.
Upon arrival, Immigrant Inspectors at the ports of entry collected “visa packets” from non-citizens and handled them in one of two ways:
- Non-Immigrant (visitor) visas remained at the ports of entry; these temporary records were later destroyed. (Passenger lists and border port manifests remained the official record of non-immigrant admissions).
- Immigrant (i.e., permanent admission) visas went to the Central Office in Washington D.C. for filing. The Central Office stamped each with a unique Visa File number, and arranged the visas by date and port of arrival. Visas were indexed by name, date of birth, and place of birth.
Between July 1, 1924 and March 31, 1944, Visa Files served as immigrants' official arrival records. The Immigration Service used its Visa Files on a daily basis for verification of lawful admission for naturalization and other purposes. Beginning April 1, 1944, all new visas were filed in Alien Files ("A-Files") and the Visa Files series closed. The Immigration and Naturalization Service ("INS") retired the Visa Files series to storage in 1952.
Today the Visa Files record series consists of more than 3.1 million paper files filling nearly 7,000 boxes. USCIS routinely retrieves Visa Files from storage in response to applications for naturalization or other benefits and Freedom of Information Act and Genealogy requests.
Researchers should note that an immigrant’s Visa File may have been removed from the series and placed inside a consolidated A-File or Certificate File ("C-File") if his or her case re-opened after April 1, 1944. If that file consolidation occurred between 1944 and 1975, the index will only refer to the A-File or C-File. If the consolidation took place after 1975, the Genealogy will perform additional steps to identify the file containing the visa packet. (see Record Request Issues).
Visa Files are among the most valuable immigration records for genealogical research. The application form itself contains the immigrant’s complete name, date of birth, and place of birth, as well as the names of his/her parents. The form will also contain the immigrant’s address(es) for the five-year period prior to emigration. Of most value to many researchers is the photograph on the front of the visa packet.
Vital records required by the Immigration Act of 1924 are also attached to the visa application. In most cases, these include a certified copy of a birth certificate, health certificate, and police or “moral” certificate (the results of a record check done by the authorities in the immigrant's country of origin). Some Visa Files also contain marriage certificates, military service records, affidavits of support, and/or correspondence. When the birth record is absent, there is usually an affidavit explaining the lack of official or church records and offering the testimony of an individual in a position to know the circumstances of the immigrant’s birth.
Researchers often mistake the immigrant visa number shown on a passenger list for the USCIS (INS) Visa File number. The example below illustrates the number shown on the passenger list is not the Visa File number needed to request the file.
Index Search Issues - The most common problem in searching for Visa Files involves the immigrant’s name. Many Visa Files relate to immigrants who did not naturalize and so there is no index cross-reference to an alias or Americanized name. As a result, the file remains indexed under the name of the immigrant upon arrival (i.e., the "old country" name).
Researchers who have found the passenger list or manifest record of an immigrant arriving after July 1, 1924, should always provide the name as it appears on that arrival record. All requesters should provide all possible name variations or spellings.
Record Request Issues - You should always submit an Index Search Request before your Record Request for a Visa File.
- Visa File numbers are not available outside USCIS – To obtain a Visa File number submit a Index Search Request on Form G-1041. As noted above, the Immigration Service assigned unique Visa File numbers after the immigrant arrived. Thus, the Visa File number did not appear on the visa at any time while in the immigrant’s possession.
Many researchers become confused because visa documents bear a number assigned by the Department of State (DOS). The DOS visa number may also appear on a ship passenger manifest under the column heading “Immigration Visa Number.” However, this is not the USCIS Visa File number and should not be used to request a Visa File from the USCIS Genealogy Program. If the number provided in a Records Requests relates to a file where the name is not the same name provided in the request, no file will be returned and there is no refund.
- Consolidated Files – When an immigrant's case re-opened after 1975 and the visa packet was consolidated into an A-File, INS could not update the microfilmed index. Accordingly, locating and retrieving a consolidated Visa File requires extra processing time.
- Privacy Restrictions – Visa 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 was listed on one page of the four-page visa application but may be redacted.
- Genealogy Brochure (770 KB PDF)