How to view Ancestry records for free

How can you view Ancestry records for free? Although you can access the Library Edition of Ancestry for free from most libraries, there are benefits to creating your own free Ancestry account from home.

One important myth to dispel about Ancestry is that you have to part with cash to create an account. In fact, it is completely free to sign up as a ‘registered guest’. Not only will this give you access to free records on Ancestry but also free indexes and access to a powerful free family tree builder.

To sign up as a registered guest on Ancestry for free, select ‘Sign-in’ in the top right-hand corner of the home page and then either use the sign-in details you have used previously (even if you don’t have an active subscription they should still work) or click on ‘Sign up today for free’.

One important myth to dispel about Ancestry is that you have to part with cash to create an account

One of the first tasks a new registered guest will be prompted to undertake is to simply add a family tree: either by uploading a GEDCOM file or creating one from scratch.

This may seem like a waste of time if you already maintain an active tree elsewhere. However, the key benefit lies in Ancestry’s ‘hint’ technology, which means that their search algorithms are constantly whirring away in the background. Whenever Ancestry adds a new batch of records and there’s a potential match, the hint system will flag it up.

Another important reason to have a tree on Ancestry is the hints based on information added by other users. Although it’s not possible to carry out a manual search of Ancestry’s public member tree collection without a subscription, you can still see hints relating to photos that others have chosen to share publicly. In these cases, the username of the person who has uploaded the photo will be displayed, allowing you contact them via Ancestry’s messaging facility and find out more.

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Ancestry also displays user-submitted information for free via its ‘Potential Father’ and ‘Potential Mother’ feature – a special type of hint that gathers all of the information about a mutual ancestor found in a public member tree. These hints should always be accepted with a degree of caution, but the tool enables you to copy the ancestor’s full details across to your own tree, including the names of any records the researcher has saved.

Best free records sets on Ancestry

Ancestry has a surprisingly large number of useful free indexes and record sets available for any registered user to access. Here are some of our favourites:

This Caribbean slave record is among the free records on Ancestry
This Caribbean slave record is among the free records on Ancestry

1. England and Wales, Civil Registration Birth Index, 1837-1915

Drawn from the General Register Office’s (GRO’s) quarterly indexes, Ancestry also offers a similar free index for marriages and deaths.

Record count: Births, 66,659,714; marriages, 32,698,349; deaths, 38,198,735

2. 1881 census, England, Wales, Channel Islands and Isle of Man

Although you need a subscription to view images, this index to the 1881 census records is still a useful record set for anyone looking for English and Welsh family.

Record count: 26,497,674

3. Slave Registers from Former British Colonial Dependencies, 1813–1834

Records of people who still remained 'lawfully enslaved' in British colonies in the Caribbean after the slave trade was abolished in 1807.

Record count: 3,178,595

4. England and Wales Criminal Registers, 1791–1892

An index to criminal records from series HO 26 and HO 27 at The National Archives. Details of sentences are usually listed.

Record count: 1,556,259

5. British Postal Service Appointment Books, 1737-1969

A vast index of postal workers. Mostly just name (including both married and maiden name where applicable), date appointed and place or position. Although images are not included, the actual records do not always offer more information than the index.

Record count: 1,466,409

6. Liverpool Crew Lists 1861–1919

Details of sailors from 912 ships that had their home port registered as Liverpool. Age and birthplace often included.

Record count: 1,064,441

7. Warwickshire Occupational and Quarter Session Records, 1662–1866

A mixture of records created by the Warwickshire Quarter Sessions, ranging from jurors’ lists to names of boat owners and even hearth and hair powder tax records. The index, created by Ancestry World Archives Project (AWAP) volunteers is basic, mostly recording just name, date and parish. Images are available but for subscribers only.

Record count: 282,680

8. Dorset Quarter Sessions Order Books, 1625-1905

A basic index to these fascinating records created by volunteers as part of AWAP. There are also other free Dorset indexes including militia lists and Poor Law records. Unfortunately only subscribers can see the images, but the index may still encourage further investigation.

Record count: 115,173

10. West Yorkshire Alehouse Licences, 1771–1962

A West Yorkshire Archive Service collection of records listing people licensed to serve alcohol, along with the name of their pub.

Record count: 76,239

Jon Bauckham is a freelance journalist based in Bristol, UK. He holds a degree in history and was previously the features editor at Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine and a section editor at BBC History Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter.