Tech Tip: Finding Your Roots, Free

28th Sep 2022


Q. Why do genealogy sites charge money for access to public records that are supposedly free? Is there any easy way to get to this information anyway?

A. Viewing public records is typically free if you go to the municipal or religious archives and look them up yourself, or the organization has digitized and posted them. However, if a genealogy company took the time to scan paper-based records from various sources around the world, index them and make it easy to search through mountains of material from the comfort of your own home, you will mostly likely be charged at some point.


The National Archives site has a selection of free public records and guides to help document the branches of a family tree.

The New York Times

A company’s custom software for creating a visual family tree and access to community forums are also perks of being a paid customer. Many of the bigger services, like Ancestry and MyHeritage, have a free trial membership you can use to see if a subscription is worth it to you. But you may be asked to provide a credit card up front.

You can find many types of public records free online with some searching. For example, the National Archives site has a “Resources for Genealogists” page with links to research guides and free online databases like passenger lists from the Ellis Island immigration center and the scanned images from the 1940 census. If you are using a computer within one of the National Archives buildings around the country, you can browse the records in several of the subscription services free; some libraries may also have free access., a free site run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has a big collection of digitized records available online for general use, too. (Knowledge of ancestral history is part of Mormon ideology).

The online Genealogy In Time magazine has a list of the top 100 family research sites. You can also find news and resources there, like a genealogy search engine page that can plow through four billion free records.

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