History of the Declaration of Intention (1795-1956)
The declaration of intention is an American invention and unique aspect of our nation's naturalization history. [i] As its name suggests, an alien “declarant” making a declaration of intention pledged under oath that s/he intended to:
- Renounce all allegiance to any foreign governments; and
- Become a (loyal) U.S. citizen.[ii]
Filing a declaration of intention resulted in a record called (not surprisingly) a Declaration of Intention registering the event. Like all naturalization records, Declaration of Intentions evolved over time.[*]
Making a declaration of intention: The first step in the naturalization process for 157 years.
Filing a declaration of intention was the first formal step toward naturalization for most persons seeking admission to U.S. citizenship between Jan. 29, 1795 and Dec. 23, 1952. For this reason the census and other contemporary sources sometimes refer to filing a declaration as “taking out first papers.”[iii]
Filing a declaration of intention did not make a declarant a U.S. citizen.[iv]
Although its origins are obscure and undocumented, scholarly consensus concludes that the declaration of intention imposed a delay in the naturalization process designed to develop prospective Americans’ affiliation with the nation and understanding of its system of governance before admission to the duties and privileges of our country’s citizenship.[v] For this reason, naturalization laws required that most declarant’s wait a period of years after making a declaration before applying for naturalization. [vi]
Misunderstandings about the declaration of intention and its exceptions caused confusion about citizenship status.
Making a declaration of intention resulted in a somewhat ambiguous nationality state for declarants, and probably no other step in the naturalization process proved such a source of controversy and confusion. Many immigrants mistakenly believed making a declaration made them U.S. citizens. The special rights and obligations of declarants undoubtedly contributed to the confusion. For example, declarants could be conscripted into the U.S. Armed Services and nine states even allowed declarants to vote.[vii]
Many children of declarants, thinking their declarant parent naturalized, also erroneously assumed themselves American citizens by derivation. Congress eventually enacted legislative relief to permit such “misinformed” persons to naturalize (without a declaration of intention) despite their previous false – albeit good faith – claims to citizenship.[viii]
Not every naturalized person filed a declaration of intention.
Further contributing to contemporaries’ – and current researchers – confusion, the naturalization laws allowed many immigrants to naturalize without a previous declaration of intention. Congress recognized that many groups of immigrants already enjoyed special connection to the country. For instance, the personal commitments of veterans of the U.S. Armed Services and spouses of U.S. citizens forged strong ties to the nation.[ix] Accordingly, the naturalization laws exempted these and other immigrants from the declaration of intention requirement to expedite and facilitate their naturalization.[x] Learn more about “One-Paper” Naturalizations.
Filing a declaration of intention became voluntary with passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952.
After 157 years as a necessary prerequisite to naturalization (in most cases), the declaration became optional on December 24, 1952. [xi] Nevertheless, some immigrants still choose to file a declaration of intention for personal or employment reasons.
|Period||Years||Expiration of DOI|
|March 26, 1790 - Jan. 28, 1795||N/A (No DOI)|
|Jan. 29, 1795 - June 17, 1798||3||N/A (No DOI)|
|June 18, 1798 - April 13, 1802||5|
|April 14, 1802 - May 25, 1824||3|
|May 26, 1824 - Sept. 26, 1906||2|
|Sept. 27, 1906 - Dec. 23, 1952|
|Dec. 24, 1952 - Sept. 30, 1991||N/A (No DOI)|
Declarations of Intention are valuable naturalization records for researchers.
Immigrants filed more declarations than Petitions for Naturalization. Thus, the Declaration of Intention record may be the only “naturalization” record for some immigrants. Luckily, Declarations can contain significant and important biographical information about the subject.[xii]
The waiting period between filing a declaration and petitioning for naturalization can also narrow down when (and, therefore, where) an immigrant’s naturalization could have occurred. (See Waiting Period Table .) However, researchers should remember that:
- Declaration of intentions could be filed at any time;
- The declaration and Petition for Naturalization could be filed in different courts,
- Many declarants filed more than one declaration, and
- Finding a declaration does not in itself mean the declarant naturalized.
For these reasons, tracking down a “wild” declaration of intention can be very difficult even though the 1900, 1910, 1920, and 1930 U.S. Census records noted the immigrant’s citizenship and whether “First Papers” (i.e., a declaration) had been filed.
The content, format, and current location(s) of a Declaration of Intention record depend upon when an immigrant filed the declaration and whether the immigrant ultimately naturalized.
Like all naturalization records, the Declarations of Intention developed over time. The watershed date in naturalization records’ history came on Sept. 27, 1906; on that date, the Basic Naturalization Act of 1906 took effect and the effects of that legislation divided Declaration records into two chronological groups:
- “Old Law” Declarations of Intention (Jan. 29, 1795 – Sept. 26, 1906) – Content and format varied between courts and only the naturalization court kept the record.
- “Standard Form” Declarations of Intention (Sept. 27, 1906 – April 1, 1956) – Standard forms made content and format of records uniform across the country and the Federal Naturalization Service received a duplicate copy.
(Probable) Present Location of Declaration of Intention Records
Did the Immigrant Naturalize?
Record's Likely Current Location
On or before
Sept. 26, 1906
Naturalization Court Only
On or after
Sept. 27, 1906
(or naturalized on different declaration)
Court AND USCIS (“C-File”) (copy)
Declaration of Intention records’ content and format varied between courts before Sept. 27, 1906.
“Old Law” Declarations usually offer less biographical information than their Standard Form successors but can contain more information about the subject than “Old Law” Petitions for Naturalization, court orders conferring citizenship, or Certificates of Naturalization.
Filing and recording an “Old Law” declaration was a very straightforward undertaking.
Making an “Old Law” declaration required no proof of actual eligibility for naturalization; any alien, aged eighteen or older, could file a declaration with any naturalization court at any time. The declarant simply paid the prescribed fee, appeared before the court (or often the clerk), and made a declaration of intention under oath. [xiii]
The clerk of the court created a Declaration of Intention to document the event and entered it in the court’s permanent records. Without statutory guidance or administrative oversight, the design and quality of “Old Law” Declarations differed by court and each clerk filed and indexed naturalization records according to local recordkeeping practice.
The declarant usually received a receipt (or “Certificate of Intention”) showing that the declaration had been made. (If the declarant later applied for citizenship, this proof of the receipt was attached the Petition for Naturalization as proof the declaration had been made.) If a receipt was not issued, or if it was lost, an immigrant might make a new declaration in a court at a new location. Many immigrants made multiple declarations.
The new Naturalization Service tightened rules for filing and recording declarations after September 27, 1906.[xiv]
The Basic Naturalization Act of 1906 imposed administrative oversight on the nation’s naturalization process. Some of the new Federal Naturalization Service’s most important changes standardized naturalization courts’ recordkeeping.[xv]
Beginning on September 27, 1906, the Naturalization Service required that every court in the country issue Declarations of Intention on its triplicate standard form. The clerk of court retained the original in the court’s permanent records, sent the duplicate copy to the Naturalization Service in Washington, D.C., and gave the third copy to the declarant. [xvi]
If the declarant later naturalized, the Naturalization Service created a Certificate File (“C-File”) to hold all of the naturalized citizen’s naturalization records (including a copy of the Petition for Naturalization and Certificate of Citizenship and, often, other administrative naturalization records). The Basic Naturalization Act of 1906 also imposed a time limit on Declarations on Intention. Declarations not followed by a Petition for Naturalization (“second papers”) within seven years expired and became invalid. If the declarant did not complete the naturalization process within the time specified, the Naturalization Service declaration copy was treated as a temporary record after it expired (i.e., scheduled for destruction).[xvii]
The use of standard forms brought uniformity to naturalization records, ending the geographic content and format variations seen in “Old Law” Declaration of Intention records.
In the half century between 1906 and 1956, the Naturalization Service issued three (3) standard Declaration of Intention forms.
March 26, 1795 - Sept. 26, 1906
NONE - Design and content of naturalization records left to local courts.
Sept. 27, 1906 - June 30, 1929
July 1, 1929 - Jan 12, 1941
Form 2202 L-A
Jan. 13, 1941 - Dec. 23, 1952 (and after)
This first edition of the standard Declaration of Intention form required the following biographical information from a declarant:
- Full name;
- Personal Description – color (race), complexion, height and weight, hair and eye color, and “other visible distinctive marks;”
- Place of birth;
- Date of birth;
- Last foreign residence and country of allegiance;
- Marital status and spouse’ name and birth location;
- Date of arrival;
- Port of arrival;
- Name of the vessel which brought the immigrant to the United States (if s/he came by ship); and
- Present place of residence.
The Form 2202 also required the declarant to avow that s/he was neither an anarchist ("disbeliever in or opposed to organized government") nor a polygamist. All three copies of the 1906 form bore the naturalization court's seal.[xviii]
Declarations of Intention records issued on or after July 1, 1929, included a photograph of the declarant (signed by the immigrant and partially indented with the court's seal) on the duplicate (Bureau of Naturalization) and triplicate (declarant) copies. (The picture will not appear on the court's original copy).[xix]
The 1929 form also asked for the declarant’s:
- Marital status;
- Whether s/he had children;
- The spouse’s and children’s name/s (if applicable); and
- Whether the declarant had previously filed a declaration of intention and, if so, where.[xx]
In 1940 Congress passed a new naturalization act and transferred the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS)) from the Department of Labor to the Department of Justice. The Naturalization Service renumbered and updated its standard forms to reflect these changes, resulting in several minor content changes to the Declaration of Intention (now Form N-315).[xxi]
Form N-315 required declarants to report any absences from the country since admission as an immigrant. The 1941 form also dropped the polygamy clause.
The Department of Justice continued to use Form 315 long after the declaration became voluntary on Dec. 24, 1952, and the Certificate File (“C-File”) record series closed on April 1, 1956.[xxii]
Making a declaration has been voluntary for over half a century, but remains an option even today. Many 21st Century declarants file for employment, rather than naturalization, reasons. Some states still require aliens to file a declaration of intention if they wish to engage in certain occupations or professions, or obtain various licenses. U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services uses Form N-300 (PDF, 405.07 KB) (“Application to File Declaration of Intention”).[xxiii]
[*]To distinguish between the act of making a declaration of intention and the resulting record, this article capitalizes Declaration of Intention when referring to the record.
[i] The declaration of intention was clearly the brainchild of our nation’s our Founding Fathers; James Madison, instrumental Framer of the Constitution, and our nation's fourth President, served as chairman of the Third Congress’ committee which drafted the second Naturalization Act of 1795, the law which introduced the declaration, and President George Washington signed the bill into law. The declaration of intention is also a Congressional innovation; the original Naturalization Act of 1790 omitted this step and no other country and none of the individual States or colonies had a similar procedure. U.S. Congress, House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization, Report to the President of the Commission on Naturalization (“1905 Report of the Commission on Naturalization”), 59th Congress, 1st Session, Vol. 44, document No. 46, submitted Nov. 8, 1905 (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1905), 10; see also (First) Naturalization Act of March 26, 1790, 1 Stat. 103; (Second) Naturalization Act of Jan, 29, 1795, 1 Stat. 414, § 1 (requiring a declaration of intention as a prerequisite to naturalization in most cases).
[ii] Between Sept. 27, 1906, and December 23, 1952, declarants also swore to their “bona fide intention… to reside permanently" in the United States. See Basic Naturalization Act of June 29, 1906 (“1906 BNA”), 34 Stat. 596, § 27 (describing content of Form 2202); Naturalization Act of 1795, supra, § 1 (requiring a naturalization applicant to “have declared on oath or affirmation, before… [a court of record his or her] bona fide… intention to become a citizen of the United States, and to renounce forever all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty whatever, and particularly, by name, the [state or ruler]… whereof such alien may, at the time, be a citizen or subject”); Naturalization Act of April 14, 1802, 2 Stat. 153, § 1; Act of March 4, 1929, 45 Stat. 1545, § 1 (requiring declarant to "declare on oath… it is his bona fide intention to become a citizen of the United States and to reside permanently therein"); Nationality Act of Oct. 14, 1940, 54 Stat. 1137, §§ 331-2; see also Leigh L. Nettleton, "Naturalization Procedure, Including Certificate of Arrival, Declaration of Intention, Petition for Naturalization, and Certificate of Citizenship," Lecture No. 12 (April 23, 1934) Immigration and Naturalization Service (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1935): 3 (stating that “[t]he declaration of intention is a sworn statement by the alien that it is his intention in good faith to become a citizen of the United States, to reside permanently therein, and that he will before being admitted to citizenship renounce forever all foreign allegiance and fidelity and particularly by name to the sovereignty of which he is a citizen or subject”)(citing BNA, § 4, Subdiv.1, as amended by Act of March 4, 1929, 45 Stat. 1545, § 1 (which added the requirement of permanent residence to this section of BNA although this had already been on the standard Form 2202 since 1906).
[iii] See Naturalization Act of 1795, supra, § 1; Immigration and Nationality Act of June 27, 1952 ("1952 INA"), 182 Stat. 66, § 334(f) (making the declaration of intention voluntary). Learn more about census records at the National Archives.
[iv] 1905 Report of the Commission on Naturalization, 59th Congress, 1st Session, Vol. 44, document No. 46, submitted Nov. 8, 1905, 16 ("The American citizenship of one who has declared his intention is said to be in an inchoate state – that is to say, it is in its beginning,. It has not, however, been acquired, and the person who has made the declaration is still an alien.").
[v] The framers of the second Naturalization Act of 1795 left no legislative history or private commentary regarding their reasons for the abrupt injection of an additional step into the naturalization process. Nevertheless, the additional waiting period and binding aspect of an oath in open court strongly suggest the declaration of intention’s proponents sought to foster declarant’s deliberation and prevent “impulsive naturalization by those who have only a passing desire to become American citizens.” 1905 Report of the Commission on Naturalization, supra, 16.
[vi] Naturalization Act of 1795, supra, § 1; Naturalization Act of June 18, 1798, 1 Stat. 566, § 1; Naturalization Act of 1802, supra, §1; Act of May 26, 1824, 4 Stat. 69, § 4; 1906 BNA, supra, § 4, part 2; 1952 INA, supra, § 334(f). Unfortunately, some unscrupulous persons resorted to perjury to circumvent the period between filing a declaration and petitioning for naturalization. Availing themselves of the so called “Minor’s Act,” these fraudsters lied about their age of arrival in the country to secure faster – often same day – naturalization. See Act of 1824, supra (providing “that an alien who comes to the United States under the age of 18 years may, after five year’s residence, be admitted to citizenship without having made the preliminary declaration of intention)(codified at U.S. Rev. Stat. § 2167; repealed by 1906 BNA, supra); 1905 Report of Naturalization Commission, supra, 12 (asserting “that more perjury is committed under this  law than under any other naturalization law”).
[vii] 1905 Report of the Commission on Naturalization, supra, 17 (noting that questions also arose under international law; declarants were not American citizens, but could hardly expect the protection of the government of their former allegiance when travelling outside the United States); Selective Service Act of 1917, 40 Stat. 76, § 2 (stating “Such draft as herein provided shall be based upon liability to military, service of all male citizens, or male persons not alien enemies who have declared their intention to become citizens, between the ages of twenty-one and thirty-years.”); see also Act of July 9, 1918, 40 Stat. 845 ("That a citizen or subject of a country neutral in the present [First World] war who has declared his intention to become a citizen of the United States shall be relieved from liability to military service upon his making a declaration… withdrawing his intention to become a citizen of the United States, which shall operate and be held to cancel his declaration of intention to become an American citizen and he shall forever be debarred from becoming a citizen of the United States").
[viii] Act of June 25, 1910, 36 Stat. 829, § 3 (allowing aliens “otherwise qualified to become a citizen of the United States” who, “because of misinformation regarding… citizenship status erroneously exercised the rights and performed the duties of a citizen of the United States in good faith,… [to] file the petition for naturalization prescribed by law without making the preliminary declaration of intention required of other aliens”) (adding Part 10 to § 4 of the Basic Naturalization Act of June 29, 1906, 34 Stat. 596), amended by Act of May 9, 1918, 40 Stat. 545, § 1.
[ix] Act of July 17, 1862, 12 Stat. 597 (Army veterans); Act of July 26, 1894, 28 Stat. 124 (sailors and marines); Married Women’s Citizenship Act (the “Cable Act”) of Sept. 22, 1922, 42 Stat. 1021, §§ 2 and 3 (allowing women married to U.S. citizens to naturalize without a Declaration of Intention)(§ 2 amended by Act of May 24, 1934, 48 Stat. 797, § 4, to extend privilege to men married to U.S. citizen women, too).
[x] Learn more about Certificate Files which (“C-Files”) do not contain a Declaration of Intention record. Other groups exempted included:
- Long term residents. Naturalization Act of 1795 Act, supra, § 2 (no declaration required of persons in the country before the Act's passage); Naturalization Acts of 1798, § 1, and 1802, § 1, Part 4; Act of March 26, 1804, 2 Stat. 282, § 1; Act of May 2, 1828, 4 Stat. 310, § 2.
- Repatriating former U.S. citizens. Expatriation Act of March 2, 1907, 34 Stat. 1228 (enumerating the grounds for expatriation); Act of May 9, 1918, 40 Stat. 545, § 1 (amending Act of June 29, 1906, supra, § 4) (allowing resumption of citizenship (repatriation) by oath before "any consul of the United States" for soldiers who lost U.S. citizenship by Oath of Allegiance to foreign nation as part of service in its armed forces); Nationality Act of 1940, supra, § 317(b) (permitting women who lost citizenship by marriage to take the Oath of Allegiance "abroad before a diplomatic or consular officer of the United States, or in the United States before the judge or clerk of a naturalization court"); 1952 INA, supra, §§ 324 and 327.
- Widows and orphans of deceased declarants. Act of July 26, 1894, 28 Stat. 124.
[xi] 1952 INA, supra, § 334(f).
[xii] 1905 Report to the President of the Commission on Naturalization, supra, 17.
[xiii] Id., 15-17. “Old Law” naturalization acts actually compelled naturalization courts to accept a declaration from any adult that wanted to make one.
[xiv] The new Federal Naturalization Service issued regulations requiring declarants to file a Preliminary Form A-2213 with the Service before making a declaration and reducing courts’ flexibility when interacting with declarants. See Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization (“BIN Regs 1906”), Regulations of October 1906, Rule 21 (imposing racial restrictions on who could make a Declaration of Intention)(rule subsequently relaxed to allow because of confusion and difficulty faced by clerks in enforcement); BIN Regulations of Sept. 23, 1907, Rule 5 (requiring applicants complete Preliminary Form 2213 “Facts for Declaration of Intention”). Between 1907 and 1941, Naturalization Service regulations stated that a declaration could only be filed at a naturalization court with jurisdiction over the declarant’s residence. 1906 BNA, supra, § 4, Part 2; Nationality Act of 1940, supra, § 331; BIN Regs 1907, Rule 21; 8 C.F.R. §§ 320.3, 322.2(b) (1947); INS, Nationality Manual: For the Use of Officers and Employees of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1944). Between 1906 and May 25, 1926, making a declaration on Election Day or 30 days preceding any election with the court's jurisdiction was prohibited. BIN Regs 1906, § 4, part 7 (repealed by Act of May 25, 1926 (validating any declarations so made)). After July 1, 1929, declarants needed to present a Certificate of Arrival issued by the Immigration Service verifying his or her date of arrival and lawful admission for permanent residence before making a declaration. [Previously, since 1906, the Certificate of Arrival was not required until filing of the Petition for Naturalization.] Act of Mar. 2, 1929, 45 Stat. 1516, § 4; see also BIN Regs of July 1, 1929, Rule 6, Subdivision A (requiring prospective declarants to submit a Form A-2213 "Application for Certificate of Arrival and Preliminary Form for Declaration of Intention" to the Naturalization Service to obtain a Certificate of Arrival before making a declaration). Filing a declaration in the clerk’s office (instead of before a judge) became required practice in 1929. Act of Mar. 4, 1929, 45 Stat. 1546, § 1; see also Act of February 1, 1876, 19 Stat. 2 (amending the Naturalization Act of 1802, 2 Stat. 153, § 1)(The 1876 law allowed filing a declaration with the clerk of court instead of in open court before a judge; Owing to confusion about the 1802 law’s requirements, some clerks of court prematurely permitted this expedited procedure, so the 1876 law validated all such declarations previously made before a clerk); Nettleton, “Naturalization Procedure,” supra, 3-4 (noting the 1929 change requiring “The declaration is made before the clerk of the court or his authorized deputy. The declaration can be made only in the office of the clerk of the court”)
[xv] See 1906 BNA, supra, § 12; see also BIN Regs 1906, supra, Rule 5 (imposing uniform recordkeeping requirements on local courts for the first time and ordering that original court copy of Declaration of Intention be “bound, … paged in consecutive order, … indexed” and numbered consecutively).
[xvi] 1906 BNA, supra, § 12; see also Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization, Regulations of October 1906, Rule 5 (imposing uniform recordkeeping requirements on local courts for the first time and ordering that original court copy of Declaration of Intention be “bound, … paged in consecutive order, … indexed” and numbered consecutively).
[xvii] The 1906 BNA set an expiration date of seven years on Declarations which (after some confusion) was held to apply retroactively to old law declarations, too. Accordingly, the federal government did not permanently retain Declarations of declarants who were not admitted to U.S. citizenship. 1906 BNA, supra, § 4, Part II; United States v. Morena, 245 U.S. 392 (1918) (resolving split of authority and holding that seven-year limitation also applied to "old law" declarations). After July 1, 1929, the law required a Certificate of Arrival evidencing "lawful entry for permanent residence" before filing a declaration. Act of March 2, 1929, 45 Stat. 151, § 9.
[xviii] 1906 BNA, supra, §§ 4 and 27, Part 1; Form 2202 (Sept. 27, 1906).
[xix] The Naturalization Service formed an independent Bureau of Naturalization between 1913 and 1933. See Act of March 4, 1913, 37 Stat. 736; Executive Order 6166 of June 10, 1933.
[xx] Act of March 2, 1929, 45 Stat. 151, § 9 (amending/adding § 36 of the 1906 Act) (“Two photographs of himself shall be furnished by each applicant for a declaration of intention.... One of such photographs shall be affixed by the clerk of the court to the declaration of intention issued to the declarant and one to the declaration of intention required to be forwarded to the Bureau of Naturalization"); Form 2202-L-A (July 1, 1929).
[xxi] Nationality Act of 1940, supra, § 331; Form N-315 (Jan. 13, 1941). See also Reorganization Plan No. V of 1940, eff. June 15, 1940; 5 F.R. 2223; Act of June 4, 1940, 54 Stat. 230, ch. 231, § 1 (Prepared by the President and transmitted to the Senate and the House of Representatives in Congress assembled, May 22, 1940, pursuant to the provisions of the Reorganization Act of April 3, 1939, 53 Stat. 561).
[xxii] 1952 INA, supra, § 334(f) (making the declaration of intention voluntary).
[xxiii] See 8 CFR §§ 334.11 and 499.1 (2010); Form N-300.