Doing your family history online – 50 best websites for family history
The internet is packed with websites, large and small, dedicated to helping us trace our family histories. To help ensure that you cover the really unmissable ones, we’ve handpicked a master list of the 50 greatest, mostly free, websites in no particular order. So hop aboard with Karen Clare to set off on a tour of the addictive online world of genealogy and discover which family history website is for you.
Run by FamilySearch International, the largest genealogy organisation in the world, the FamilySearch website not only has more than two billion free digitised records from around the world to help get you started on your family history journey, it also offers free webinars, family tree app, a helpful FamilySearch Wiki and the chance to connect with distant relations online and record and share ancestral stories and memories.
The National Archives (TNA) is the UK Government’s repository for more than 1,000 years of records. Its website is a glorious window into this world, packed with free guides, informative blogs and online collections. From this homepage you can also redirect to the Discovery catalogue to find records held at TNA and more than 2,500 archives across the UK. More than nine million records have been digitised and can be downloaded for a small fee.
Here's another article with video guide you might be interested in: Visiting The National Archives at Kew for family history – top tips
Family historians use birth, marriage and death (BMD) records to trace the major events in their ancestors’ lives, helping to identify new names and family connections along the way. You can use the FreeBMD website to find the General Register Office (GRO) reference number you need to order English and Welsh BMD certificates, which date back to the start of civil registration in 1837. Once you have the number, visit the GRO website to order your certificates and take the next step in your research. FreeBMD is part of the Free UK Genealogy family of websites, run by volunteers – also try FreeCEN for free UK Census records online and FreeREG for parish registers, local baptism, marriage and burial records that pre-date BMD certificates.
GENUKI is an enormous, free, online reference library of genealogical information with particular relevance to the UK and Ireland. A non-commercial website, it is managed by a charitable trust and a team of volunteers and offers an extensive gazetteer for those researching ancestors in England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland and the Isle of Man. Use this resource to find places, view online maps and discover GENUKI pages containing information about locations and the genealogical resources available.
This is the online home of the Federation of Family History Societies, where you can explore a list of British and overseas societies of researchers who share your interests. Many societies have specialist expertise and knowledge available nowhere else; as well as societies based in different locations, there is also the Families in British India Society, for example, along with those focusing on Jewish, Catholic, Quaker, traveller and Romany family history, and more. It’s worth joining a society in your local community as well as a specialist group or one in the area where your ancestors lived, and the annual fees are often low. Find links to organisations in Scotland, Ireland and Wales on the FFHS site too.
The International Society of Genetic Genealogy (ISOGG) was the first society founded to promote the use of DNA testing for family historians and is the place to go for unbiased advice on genetic genealogy and what it could mean for your research. Now with an incredible 10,000 members worldwide, the site hosts a wealth of information, including ISOGG Wiki, DNA test comparison charts, details on DNA projects and companies, workshops, speaker’s bureau, forums, meetings and more. The society is a non-commercial non-profit organisation, with no fees, so anyone with an interest can join, support and network with fellow researchers.
Get your essential digital download Your Guide to DNA for just £2.99
This comprehensive, free genealogy index has been going for more than 20 years and contains nearly 334,000 links to genealogical resources online. It’s a great springboard into what the internet has to offer family historians.
UKBMD has more than 2,500 handy links to websites that offer online transcriptions of UK births, marriages, deaths and censuses. A wide range of other indexes and transcriptions are also available for many counties, including parish records, wills, monumental inscriptions and so on.
This wonderful, fully searchable site presents the largest body of digitised texts detailing the lives of non-elite people ever published. Freely search and view reports of 197,745 criminal trials held at London’s central criminal court 1674-1913, and 4,000 pages of the Ordinary of Newgate’s Accounts – sister publication of The Proceedings – which include biographical details of some 2,500 men and women executed at Tyburn between 1676-1772. There are helpful Getting Started and Guide to Searching videos and tutorials for those trying the site for the first time.
London Lives 1690-1800 is an equally valuable sister site where you can freely search 240,000 manuscripts, from eight archives, giving access to 3.35 million names. You’ll find parish, criminal, coroners’, hospital and guild records, plus miscellaneous archives, such as tax and settlement records, workhouse and fire insurance registers.
This is where you’ll find a rich digital library of local and trade directories of England and Wales, 1766-1919, a hugely useful resource for locating tradespeople between the 10-yearly census records. The resource is part of the University of Leicester’s Special Collections Online.
For those seeking ancestors north of the border, this free site from the National Library of Scotland offers more than 700 digitised directories 1773-1911 covering most of Scotland.
Search this digital library of key printed primary and secondary sources for the history of Britain and Ireland, mainly 1300-1800. Founded by the Institute of Historical Research and the History of Parliament Trust in 2003, this constantly growing resource currently comprises more than 1,270 volumes, with surprising riches for family historians. Sources range from assize and subsidy rolls to churchwardens’ accounts, historical gazetteers, more than 150 volumes from the Victoria County History series and the Cromwell Association Online Directory of Parliamentary Army Officers database.
Founded in 1899 and originally dedicated to Queen Victoria, the Victoria County History (VCH) is an encyclopaedic record of England’s places and people from earliest times to the present day. Written by historians across England and published in a series of ‘big red books’ for the University of London, more than 150 titles are now freely available on the sister British History Online website. In the Explore section, researchers can access reliable local history materials such as photographs, artwork, maps, text, transcribed documents and audio files, and discover collections of related materials. Explore by geographical location or theme, such as People and Communities, War and Conflict, Trade and Commerce, Agriculture and Religious Life and Buildings.
Online Parish Clerks (or OPCs) are a fantastically dedicated bunch of volunteers who collect, collate and transcribe records in different parishes for the benefit of genealogical researchers. OPCs exist for various counties including Cornwall, Kent, Devon, Dorset, Lancashire, Somerset, Sussex, Warwickshire and Wiltshire, and there are some smaller ones too. Find all the links on the UKBMD website.
Another beauty from the National Library of Scotland is this site offering the chance to explore high-resolution zoomable images of historic maps of Scotland, England, Wales and beyond in high-resolution, including county maps, town plans and views, military and trench maps, Ordnance Survey maps, coastal charts and more. You can even view selected historic maps as overlays on their modern equivalents.
Put simply, Old Maps Online is a search engine – or digital gateway – for historical maps. More than 400,000 maps are indexed here, with links to archives and libraries providing online content.
Explore Britain from 1801 to the present time on this hugely informative website from the University of Portsmouth and others, which includes maps, statistical trends, tables and historical descriptions. You’ll find census reports (ie the first survey of occupations in 1841), the results of every General Election since 1833 and the web’s largest collection of historical British travel writing. An interactive map converts historical statistics to modern local authority areas, covering themes such as population, social structures, births and deaths, housing, industry, learning and language, and work and poverty, so you can learn more about the communities where your ancestors lived.
The ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Statistical Accounts of Scotland are vitally important reference sources for the country during the critical half-century spanning the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions. The records offer invaluable insights into local and national life in Scotland from 1791-1845 and here they can be explored digitally, enabling researchers with Scottish kin to learn more about all areas of life during this period. Discover maps, boundaries, parish histories and much more. Interactive maps allows you to click on different counties to delve into the location’s past.
The National Archives of Ireland’s Genealogy website offers a wealth of free resources for family historians tracing Irish relatives. Here you can access major collections, including: the 1901 and 1911 Census, census survivals for 1821-1851 and search forms for 1841-1851, Tithe Applotment Books 1823-1837 (a vital pre-famine genealogy source), Soldiers’ Wills 1914-1917 plus other wills and wills calendars and registers, marriage licence bonds indexes, 1623-1866, Catholic qualification and convert rolls, Valuation Office records and shipping agreements and crew lists. All the records are free to access, through searchable databases and linked images of relevant pages.
This free Irish Government-run website is now home to the historic civil records of Births 1864-1915, Marriages 1882-1940 and Deaths 1891-1965 of the General Register Office of Ireland, joining the indexes to the historic records of BMDs already available. View and download images of registrations. A growing database of Catholic church records is also available on the site. Keep checking back to see if your county of interest is covered.
The National Library of Wales has a wealth of free online archives for those tracing their trees, including 15 million articles dating from 1800-1919 in its Welsh Newspapers Online website. Researchers can also choose to search illustrations, photographs, maps, graphs and cartoons on the site. In addition, Welsh Journals, with content from 1735-2006, is freely available and those with Welsh roots can also access more than 190,000 digitised images of pre-1858 Welsh wills for free.
22 Find a will
Visit to search for UK wills:
• Of a soldier who died while serving in the British armed forces between 1850 and 1986
• For relatives who died in or after 1858-1996 in England and Wales.
• Of any person in the UK who died in or after 1996.
Copies of documents can be ordered online for £10 each at the time of writing.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission commemorates the 1.7 million men and women of the Commonwealth forces who died in the two world wars. Here you can freely search the register of war dead to find out where your ancestor is buried or remembered in more than 150 countries worldwide. You may learn service numbers, details of next of kin, download documents recording grave registrations, headstone inscriptions, commemorative certificates and more.
The Imperial War Museums in partnership with Findmypast is running this crowdsourcing site for researchers to tell the life stories of ancestors lost in World War I, to mark the centenary. You can add your own images and known facts, share their stories, and even find their records uploaded and tagged by fellow contributors. Nearly 7.7 million life stories have been added at the time of writing, so this site is already becoming a significant resource as well as a way of honouring ancestors who died in the Great War.
Learn about the soldiers, units, regiments and battles of the British Army of the First World War, and how to research and understand them, using military historian Chris Baker’s dedicated website. Chris was also the architect of the very useful Great War Forum, a spin off from the Long, Long Trail.
Explore more Useful genealogy websites
26 The Gazette
This is the online home of the official UK Government record, The Gazette. Established in 1665 as The Oxford Gazette, today the publication comprises London, Belfast and Edinburgh editions. This fascinating and free digital resource enables family historians to browse ancestors’ military and civilian awards and honours, deceased estates’ notices, insolvency records, civil service appointments, changes of name by deed poll and many more gems of genealogical information. The site has a dedicated WW1 section.
Jam-packed with information and images, Peter Higginbotham’s expansive site is dedicated to the buildings, inmates, staff and administrators of the workhouses of the past. Learn about poor laws, workhouse life, rules, food, memories, locations, tramps, vagrants, migration and resources on this endlessly fascinating resource.
Explore The Children’s Homes sister site for information on thousands of children’s homes, orphanages, reformatory and industrial schools and training ships that your ancestors may have found themselves in as young people or infants.
Search the catalogue of more than 450 original notebooks from Charles Booth’s Inquiry into Life and Labour in London (1886-1903), view 41 digitised notebooks and explore the London poverty maps on this online representation of the Charles Booth Archive held at the London School of Economics. Fascinating for anyone with ancestors in London at the time, to learn about their lives and occupations.
29 Ellis Island
Did your past relatives emigrate across the pond? Here you can search for their arrival at New York’s Ellis Island Immigration Centre in a database containing more than 51 million passenger records, from 1892-1954. As well as tons of information about the history of immigration to the States and the Statue of Liberty, there are also genealogy tips, timelines, ship searches, images and more.
Castle Garden is another free website that offers access to a database recording the details of 11 million people who emigrated to the USA 1820-1892.
The Ships List website can help you find your ancestors on ships’ passenger lists to Canada, USA, Australia and even South Africa. There are immigration reports, newspaper records, shipwreck information, ship pictures and descriptions, shipping-line fleet lists and much more, plus links to other resources.
The National Library of Australia’s Trove site has more than 538 million Australian and online resources waiting to be discovered, including more than 206 million historic newspapers and gazette pages, plus images, maps, diaries, letters, archives and more. Digitised publications include the first newspaper published in Australia in 1803, the Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, as well as overseas newspapers, all available for free.
The extensive collections at the 100-year-old Imperial War Museums (IWM) offer rich research opportunities for family historians, helping to put the wartime experiences of relatives from all walks of life into context. Although the IWM doesn’t hold service records or official documentation, it has useful guides and wonderful image and sound archives that can help you to add colour and fill in the gaps of your knowledge. Begin by visiting the site’s family history section for further information.
Hearth Tax Online provides data and analysis of the records of the hearth tax, which was introduced in England and Wales by Charles II in 1662 and ran until 1689. The tax was levied on each householder according to the number of hearths in their dwelling. Run and maintained by the Centre for Hearth Tax Research, based at Roehampton University London, and supported by The British Academy and others, you can freely search for the names of people/places in several English counties. You can also undertake a more detailed and targeted search of material for London and Middlesex using the site’s surname and parish search facility.
Discover the geography and history of your surnames of interest on this website, which presents the findings of a project based at University College London (UCL) that is investigating the distribution of surnames in Great Britain, both in 1881 and 1998. Search databases and view maps and statistics.
Explore the Society of Genealogists’ website for a wealth of information and guides about the resources, records, courses and events available, both online and at its family history centre in London. You can search the catalogue of the society’s unique library, discover if it holds any documents or pedigrees for the surnames you are tracing, search more than 11 million records in SoG Data Online. Searches are free but you’ll need to be a member to view full record details.
The Guild and its members are dedicated to the advancement of surname studies worldwide. The Guild has more than 2,400 surname studies registered – and more than 6,200 variant names – but you don’t have to register a study to join in. Find an A-Z of registered surnames on the site, discover latest news, resources, webinars and events and links to members’ one-name study websites.
37 Find A Grave
Find the graves of ancestors among 159 million grave records worldwide, search for cemeteries and surnames, add burial records, create virtual memorials and much more, such as photos, famous graves, interesting epitaphs and monuments and posthumous reunions.
Search through millions of free out-of-copyright books – covering a mind-blowing variety of topics, from parish registers and village histories to old industries and occupations, maps, architecture – in this extensive non-profit digital library, along with films, audio files and billions of saved web pages. This website is very easy to use but alternative digital libraries include Project Gutenberg and Google Books.
ZoomPast is ideal for exploring, building and sharing genealogies for free, and is part of a project based at Imperial College London. What makes it stand out from the crowd is its zooming interface and innovative layout algorithms, which enable huge and complicated family trees to be easily explored – so it’s ideal for more advanced family historians with lots of names on their trees. Users can view their trees from the perspective of any person in them, upload and download Gedcom files or build their genealogy from scratch. Multiple genealogies can be stored, with images, merging connected family trees, and a built-in social network enables you to share your trees with relatives or make them public for all.
40 Social media
This might not be so obvious for some, but social media offers a fantastic way of advancing your family history research. On Facebook, try searching for your ancestral surnames or placenames of interest to locate long-lost relatives, potential new cousins or local history and community groups, which may all offer new clues for you to follow. If approaching a potential new relative, however, use tact and sensitivity – they may not know about skeletons in the family cupboards. However, they may be able to share new information or family records and photos with you! You can also like and follow your favourite family history societies, archives, genealogy companies and, of course, Family Tree, so you don’t miss any helpful news or search tips.
Likewise, Twitter has great potential for family historians. Here you can follow your favourite genies, archives, genealogy companies and historians, share snippets of your research and chat about your latest finds. Join fellow family history fans in the popular #AncestryHour every Tuesday at 7pm, and don’t forget to tag us @familytreemaguk
41 Family Tree
Well, we couldn’t forget our own website, could we?! You’ll find daily news updates, an expanding archive of essential how-to guides, event listings, expert blogs and more. Enjoy exploring all the learning opportunities we have on offer to help you trace your family tree.
Subscription & pay-as-you-go genealogy websites
ScotlandsPeople is the first port of call for those wishing to search Scottish Government records and archives. Maintained by the National Records of Scotland, it gives access to the statutory registers of births, marriages, deaths, census returns, church records, valuation rolls and legal records. Apply via the site for copies of official BMD certificates and research family, local and social history and biographies of renowned Scots.
Scottish ancestors? Here's another free website you might be interested in, Family Tree's sister magazine, History Scotland
Ancestry hosts millions of digitised family history records, such as BMD, census, military, parish, occupational, criminal, probate and tax, migration, newspaper records and many, many more, along with submitted online trees and really useful member connect network, plus a DNA-testing service that can link you to distant cousins across the world.
TheGenealogist is a UK-focused site with all the basic census and BMD records as well as a complete tithe maps collection for England and Wales, parish, wills, educational and occupational, peerage, non-parochial BMD Nonconformist and many more unique records. It also has an extensive Image Archive, surname concentration map and TreeView tree-building software.
Similarly, Findmypast hosts all the basic family history records and much more, announcing new record releases every Friday. As well as a comprehensive collection of military records, it has partnered with family history societies around the UK to make region-specific records available, which can be difficult to find elsewhere online. Findmypast also hosts Irish records, 1939 Register, and British Newspapers 1710-1953.
Delve into the delights of the British Library’s British Newspaper Archive (also available at Findmypast) to discover a wealth of stories from your ancestors’ lives. From court appearances and inquests, to marriage announcements and murder, all manner of life and death is here. At time of writing, 756 titles were available, featuring more than 19 million pages back to 1710.
Another giant in the genealogy world, MyHeritage has a strong global focus and encourages researchers to use the site to access billions of international family history records, grow trees online with its free Family Tree Builder software and collaborate with its 86 million members to explore, share and preserve their families’ past and reunite with long-lost relatives. MyHeritage DNA can help you find relatives based on shared DNA.
This website offers a central database for UK burials and cremations. Searches are free but you’ll need to buy vouchers or subscribe to view records, which may include digital scans of registers and photographs of graves and memorials. Cemetery maps show grave locations too.
This site, run by the Irish Family History Foundation, boasts more than 20 million, mostly Catholic, Irish records, with data from 34 county genealogy centres across Ireland. Records range from baptismal and birth records to gravestone inscriptions and Irish passenger lists. Sources vary for each county, so check the Irish Online Sources for details of what is available online.
This site has carved a niche for itself in the genealogy sector by focusing on military records, often including supplementary information.
A drop in the ocean
These are just a few of our favourite websites for family historians, to feed your genealogy addictions. Of course, there are many, many more, from genealogy blogs to film, photo and local and national archives, libraries, museums, societies, institutes, universities, charities and local history groups. They are far too numerous to mention here, so do investigate what’s on offer in your local area and further afield. You will soon find yourself enjoying many happy hours of family history research and, with so many records now coming online, you really can hold the world in your hands.