Tips for Researching Your Family History in a Foreign Country

One of my biggest challenges in family history research is finding information on my family in Germany. But through my own struggles to find information, I’ve learned a lot about research family history in a foreign country along the way. Today I’d like to share a few of those things I’ve learned.

Here are five tips for research your family history in a foreign country (assuming you can’t physically be there).

  1. Pick the brains of absolutely everyone living. You’d be surprised at what your parents or grandparents might remember, and just as surprised by what they forget. Talk to aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings, great-aunts and uncles, etc. They might remember stories differently, remember things others forgot, or even have contact information for distant relatives still living in the other country.
  2. Get research guides for the specific country your ancestors came from. Plenty of these books exist on anything from Jewish history to researching your Irish roots. You can probably find several at your local library. One of the biggest perks of these resources is that they often contain form letters in the foreign language which you can use to request necessary documents.
  3. Tap the Web. In addition to things like paid international database subscriptions (like those from Ancestry.com), look to basic tools like search engines. For example, if you’re searching for information about your German family, search for names and places using Google.de instead of your usual Google.com. You can always use online translation tools to sort through the information. They’re not perfect, but they do help.
  4. Take a second look at maps. If you’re struggling to find information in a certain country, it might be that national lines have moved. For example, while I’ve struggled to track my German roots, I know that parts of Germany where my family came from are now parts of Russia and Poland. That can certainly complicate matters, but it’s better that you start searching in the right places. If borders moved, try to find out if older records stayed with the previous country, remained in local control, or went to a federal archives system in the new country.
  5. Team up with a local. One of the greatest things about the Web is the fact that you can meet people from all over the world. Find someone you’re able to communicate with (either they can speak English or you can speak their language) and see if they’re willing to assist you. You might have a friend or colleague who can track down local contact info for government offices for example. Or they might be able to help you translate a request for documents. If you can’t find someone willing help for free, you can always consider hiring a professional genealogist in the foreign country to do some deeper digging for you. This is my last resort due to the high costs involved, but if I can’t find the information I need on my own, I’m willing to do it.

Do you have any other tips for researching your family’s history in a foreign country? Other than visiting and looking for records personally, how do you handle this kind of research? Tell me in the comments below.

1 thought on “Tips for Researching Your Family History in a Foreign Country”

  1. Your tips are very valuable and in my case, pretty much covered all the bases. I would only add looking at old photos as a start.

    In my own case, my parents were long deceased and I wasn’t sure where to start. I had to locate my father’s birth certificate (amongst many other documents), but I didn’t know where he was born.

    Through an old photo album and hours of Googling, and plain luck, I came into contact with a long-lost cousin in Germany on the web and through him, obtained many of the documents I needed.

    Sometimes it’s a matter of digging through old family papers. When my cousin could not locate my parents’ marriage certificate after writing to government offices in Berlin, Poland, and even the Czech Republic, I thought I’d never be able to prove that my parents were married. I decided to go through some of my mother’s old papers, and bingo, I found my parents’ Stammbuch that recorded my parents’ marriage and my birth. (The reason I didn’t dig deeper into old family records to begin with was because I thought I’d found them all and I was living in another country at the time I started to collect the necessary documents.)

    With persistence and luck, I not only learned about my past family history but also about the more recent history that I thought had been lost to me upon the death of my father and mother. And in the process, I reconnected with a cousin I last saw when I was 3 years old.

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