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A Unique Source for Photos of Your Ancestors

HoudiniHarry-1919-USPassportAppNeed photos of your grandparents or great-grandparents? Here is a unique source that you have likely never considered. It is not going to work for everyone but if your ancestors lived in the United States and either immigrated in the 20th century or had the means to travel abroad you just may be in luck.

(image courtesy of, used with permission)

United States Passport Applications

A great source of 20th century photos is the U.S. Passport Applications, 1795-1925 database from If your family had the means to travel abroad there is a good chance that they were included in this database. In addition to the wealthy, the staff and servants might have accompanied their employers abroad. And let's not forget about recent immigrants! They had a tendency to go back and forth to the old country. They are good candidates for passports as well.

There are almost 2 million records of passport applications on There are another 6,000 in a companion database for emergency passport applications. One thing to watch out for when using this database is indexing errors. There seem to be an unusually high number of indexing errors. If you don't find your ancestor with an initial first name - surname search try getting a little creative. Search instead for the first name plus the birth town (but exclude county). Also try the first name and residence combination. If you still strike out with that try using the keyword field in addition to the first or last name.

What many people don't realize is that the later passports contain photos. The photos started appearing in the 1915 passports and continue to the end date of the database with 1925. Some 1915 passport applications may be without photos, some may have a photo on the front page and others will be found on the back page. By 1916 all passport applications are at least two pages with the photo on the second page.

When you find your ancestor in the Passport Applications database you will be brought to page one of the passport application. This will contain information about your ancestor's birth date, who they are travelling with, where they are travelling and why they are going abroad. Be sure to press the forward arrow to go to the next page. Your ancestor's photo will appear on the second page. Note, however, that when you save the page with the photo that the left hand side relates to your ancestor but the right hand side of the page is an unrelated person. The same will be true if you save the first page but in that case your ancestor will be on the right hand side and an unrelated person's photo will be on the left.

Another unique feature of that page of passports was that family members could all travel under one passport. It is not unusual to find photos of both a husband and wife in the same passport application. Likewise you could find a photo of a mother and all five of her children.

Not searching for photos in the passport applications database could be a real missed opportunity to come face to face with your more recent ancestors. Spend some time searching this database and see if you can locate photos of your family members.

Passport2- Note from Geoff: Great article Marian! I quickly searched for Hans Rasmussen, my 2nd great-grandfather and found his application. Although he did not have a photograph, it was fascinating seeing this document of his.


Guest blogger, Marian Pierre-Louis, is a historical researcher who loves to share, encourage and inspire others on their genealogy research journey. You can see her upcoming webinars on Legacy Family Tree and read her blog, Marian's Roots and Rambles. She is the author of Ten Brick Wall Tips for BeginnersDiscovering Your Massachusetts AncestorsBrick Walls: Cracking the Case of Nathan Brown's Parents and Researching Your Connecticut Ancestors.


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I found the photo of my Great Grandfather in this database not more than a week ago. I was so surprised when I stumbled upon it.

I found this out accidentally, what a good idea to publicize the fact. I have a photo of my husband's great grandfather, who doesn't look so swell, but I also provided friend with photos of her kids' great parents and she was quite amazed. For my husband's great grandfather, I found a better photo of him in the Eastman archives. I had to pay for a copy, which was beautiful, but if you have an ancestor in there, it's worth a shot.

Do you know if there is a way to get a copy, as when I go to look at the picture, it's just one big black blob? This isn't the first one I've found like this either, just a black spot in the shape (if you're lucky) of the person.

Found my Great Uncle's picture as of 1922! It's the only photo any of the family has ever seen! Was able to see some resemblance to my father. Great resource!

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