French ancestors – going there

Before you visit France, make sure you do the necessary research.

As there is no central record depository in France, it is essential that you know the town where the event occurred, an approximate date (within one or two years) and name of the subject.

The internet is a good place to start. In France there are more than 300,000 family history researchers and there are many websites devoted to the subject (see the Useful Information page for more details). Many departmental archives have put records online and can be searched free of charge – though they may not be indexed by name.

It’s worth joining a local French family history society: see www.genealogy.tm.fr/cercle/as-liste.htm (website in French). There are more than 300 of them so you will be able to find one in your area of research. Membership fees are about 20 euros, but members will be happy to help you.

When you have examined all the online resources and know where in France your ancestors came from, you can work out where to focus your search.

Before organising visits to a specific archive or city hall in France, check its website for opening times, address and contact details for the archivist. There’s usually no need to make an appointment, unless you’re visiting a city hall. Always take some form of identification as you may have to register for a reader card at departmental archives.

In some archives, records are held in digitised form, but in many they are still only available on microfilm; occasionally, they will be originals. To order these you will need a reference number, which you can find in the archives’ indexes – either computerised or in books.

Researchers are often limited to 10-20 documents per day. The French Série E covers civil status, parish records and notaries records, while the census records are in Série M.

It is worth noting that your first morning at an archive will be taken up with administration (getting your reader card), familiarising yourself with the organisation of the archives and working out which records you want to view.

French ancestors – the French census
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French ancestors – passenger lists
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