National Archives and Records Administration

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is the federal agency responsible for the preservation and public access of permanent, non-current federal records of historical, legal and fiscal value. These records date as far back as the late 1700's and include: written materials, photographs, illustrations, blueprints, posters, maps, sound recordings, video and motion picture film. NARA's vast holdings span the full spectrum of records, from the original signed copy of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights (displayed in the rotunda of the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C.), to individual immigration case files from the Chinese Exclusion era (1882-1943, located in the many regional facilities of NARA).

Excerpts from a recent NARA document describe their mandate as follows:

"The records entrusted to us include the nation's great Charters of Freedom, the very foundation of our democracy. But we also are responsible for the accessible preservation of millions of other government records on which people depend - records used by millions of naturalized Americans to verify their citizenship; records used by millions of military veterans to document their entitlement to benefits; records used by the Congress and the courts and the press in assessing agencies' accountability; records that all kinds of scholars study to assess objectively what we have done as a nation, and what we can learn from our national experience."

"Without such records, how can Americans document their rights, their entitlements, their identities? How can citizens inspect what government officials have done and hold them accountable? And how can the children in our schools depend on the textbooks they read for accuracy in describing the history of our great country? As we prepare to re-encase democracy's most important documents, let us also recognize the importance of all documents to democracy."

In addition to the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C. and their administrative headquarters at College Park, Maryland (location of their primary cartography, architectural, motion picture, sound, video and still picture collections), there are a number Regional NARA facilities throughout the United States:

Anchorage, Alaska (Pacific Alaska Region)
Atlanta, Georgia (Southeast Region)
Boston, Massachusetts (Northeast Region)
Chicago, Illinois (Great Lakes Region)
Dayton, Ohio (Great Lakes Region)
Denver, Colorado (Rocky Mountain Region)
Fort Worth, Texas (Southwest Region)
Kansas City, Missouri (Central Plains Region)
Laguna Niguel, California (Pacific Region)
Lee's Summit, Missouri (Central Plains Region)
New York, New York (Northeast Region)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (Mid Atlantic Region)
San Francisco, California (Pacific Region)
Seattle, Washington (Pacific Alaska Region)
St. Louis, Missouri (National Personnel Records Center - 2 Locations)

NARA - Pacific Region, San Francisco

NARA - Pacific Region, San Francisco is actually located in San Bruno, California just 12 miles south of San Francisco. It is located in the Leo J. Ryan Memorial Building, and is opened weekdays to the public. Its holdings include the Federal agency and court records from California, Hawaii, Nevada (except Clark County), the Pacific Trust Territory, and American Samoa. Their collection, among other things, includes Mexican and Spanish land grants, tribal history, naval and merchant seaman information, WW II documents, court records, national park and other public lands files.

Regarding the Chinese Exclusion era in particular, the Pacific Region of NARA contains an immense amount of documentation from the Ports of Hawaii and San Francisco, from which the largest numbers of Chinese passed to and from the United States during this period. The NARA - Pacific Region alone contains the following: over a quarter of a million individual immigration case files (referred to as Record Group 85); important court cases litigated by Chinese in opposition to anti-Chinese legislation or fighting deportation (RG 21); and correspondence and records of the U.S. Customs Service (RG 36), early enforcers of the Chinese Exclusion Act provisions. There is also Merchant Partnership files, used to verify whether certain individuals were exempt under the Chinese Exclusion Act. There are also Passenger Arrival Lists on microfilm, as well as an Index to Certificates of Identity (compiled for select years during the Exclusion era).


NARA - Pacific Region (San Francisco)
1000 Commodore Drive
San Bruno, CA 94066-2350
Phone: 650-238-3501
Fax: 650-238-3510

For valuable links to different NARA Sites, see below.

Researching Chinese Records at NARA

Members of the public are encouraged to visit or contact NARA - Pacific Region and any of the other NARA facilities in the system. There is microfilm viewing and photocopy machines, research rooms, and friendly, helpful staff to assist you with your inquiries. There are also microfilm listings and a few indexes that are of particular relevance to Chinese American genealogy and historical research of the Chinese Exclusion era. In addition, the facility also holds documents regarding other immigrants, such as East Indians, Japanese (including so-called "picture brides"), Koreans, Filipinos, and Eastern and Southern Europeans (e.g. Russians, gypsies).

NARA records are not normally arranged by subject matter as much as by a numbered order as established by different Government agencies that originally processed the documents. As such, researching particular individuals or subject matter may initially seem daunting.

The key to locating an individual case file is determining an individual's case file number. The case file number should be listed next to the individual's name in the Certificate of Identity index. This is usually a 5-digit number composed of the year of arrival and the ship number on the day of arrival, followed by the person's boarding ticket number. This combination of information provides a case file number that can look like the following: 23111/30-22.

If you cannot find the individual in the Certificate of Identity index and you don't have his/her case file number (not an uncommon occurence by any means) it would be most helpful to have any or all of the following:

  • name of the person (in all variations of order and spelling,
    e.g. last name first, first name first, Lew/Liu/Lau);
  • the port (i.e. city) of entry, date of entry, and/or ship of
    arrival to America;
  • names, case file numbers, and/or arrival information
    for other immediate family members (real and/or "paper").

You can perhaps determine one's case file number by recalling or estimating the subject's general age or date of arrival, and their port of entry. By looking at NARA's passenger arrival lists by year and port, you might come upon the person's name (but be sure to keep in mind the variations in name order and spelling). If you have the case file number or can locate the actual file of a relative (by blood or "paper"), this can also be helpful. Often the last page of an individual's case file will be a Reference Sheet listing the names and case file numbers for other relatives, real or otherwise (perhaps of the person you are looking for). This Reference Sheet was used by immigration officials to corroborate information between family members and oher witnesses. For example, you may not have your mother's case file number, but perhaps inside your father's case file is your mother's case file number which was listed as reference to verify their marital relationship.

Three particular resource booklets are extremely helpful in beginning any research into Chinese American records:

Lowell, Waverly B. (comp). Chinese Immigration and Chinese in the United States:
Records in the Regional Archives of the National Archives and Records
National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) Reference
Information Paper 99, 1996.

Greene, Bill. (comp). A Preliminary Guide to Records of Asian Americans and
Pacific Islanders at NARA's Pacific Region (San Francisco)
. National
Archives and Records Administration - Pacific Region, 2002.

Low, Jeanie W. Chooey. China Connection: Finding Ancestral Roots
for Chinese in America.
San Francisco: JWC LOW COMPANY, 1994.

The first two are available by contacting NARA - Pacific Region, or through NARA's homepage (at The last booklet may be available or ordered through bookstores, see RESOURCES on this web site.

Record Group 85 and Alien Registration Case Files

Record Group 85 is comprised of individual case files from the Chinese Exclusion era (1882-1943, though some documents may actually date as late as the 1960's). RG85, as a collection, is officially designated as inactive INS case files deemed of historic value and a part of NARA'S permanent holdings. They can be found at 11 of the 12 regional NARA facilities. A typical individual case file not only contains biographical data on an individual subject, but it commonly contains certificates of identity and residency, INS hearing transcripts and findings, legal documents, testimony by witnesses, and even valuable personal artifacts (e.g. marriage certificates, personal letters, family photographs, "coaching" maps and books).

Another collection of individual case files of extreme importance to Chinese American genealogical and historical research is the Alien Registration Files, commonly referred to as A-Files. A-Files are those files that INS have used or are using to deliberate over issues of entry into the United States or any other matter regarding immigration and/or citizenship status, rights and/or benefits.

Where RG 85 files and A-Files become "joined at the hip" so-to-speak is when RG 85 files of early Chinese immigrants are pulled out of the permanent NARA collection for use by INS officials and not returned to the RG 85 collection, but instead, transferred into INS's A-File collection. Therein lies a fundamental problem.

There is an estimated 1,000,000 cubic feet of A-Files classified as "temporary" under INS's jurisdiction. As temporary records, the A-Files are only required to be kept for 75 years and then they become eligible for destruction. Of those A-Files, 650,000 cubic feet are relatively current files in INS's own storage, the remaining 350,000 cubic feet are relatively non-current files. INS contracts NARA to store a majority of its non-current files at Lee's Summit, Missouri. However, as a result of local community protest, approximately 35,000 cubic feet of A-Files were not consolidated at Lee's Summit but instead, remains stored at NARA - Pacific Region.

In addition to the many A-Files which contain original Chinese Exclusion Act era case file material (designated for preservation as a permanent resource), other A-Files include those pertaining to Holocaust survivors; the Alien Enemy Parolee Files for Japanese Americans during WWII; Filipino Freedom Fighters; WWII war brides; Chinese Americans in the "confession and amnesty" program; political refugees from WW II to the Vietnam War; deportation files and copies of the Certificats of Naturalization. At present, materials from A-Files can only be obtained through electrostatic copies or personal review by submitting a Freedom of Information/Privacy Act (FOIA) Request Form G-639. These FOIA forms are sent to INS, together with a copy of the requestor's notarized identity and an agreement to pay any required fees to INS (see below for how to download the FOIA G639 Form).

If you are interested in protecting the A-Files from destruction, NARA has the authority to designate any inactive federal agency records older than thirty years for its permanent historical collection [Code of Federal Regulations, 36 CFR Ch XII (7-1-97) Sec.1228.28-32; Sec.1228.164; Sec.1228.180-183]. However, as of May 2002, NARA has not made any decision on the future of the A-Files.

To urge the designation of A-Files thirty years or older for permanent historic preservation, PLEASE WRITE:

1) U.S. Archivist
National Archives and Records Administration
8601 Adelphi Road, Rm. 4100
College Park, MD  20740-6001

2) USCIS Commissioner
U.S. Citizenship
425 I Street, N.W.
Washington, DC  20536

Historians, genealogists, immigration attorneys, scholars, researchers, and the general public should also write their local congressional representatives about preserving the A-Files as a valuable collection of American Immigration history.

Searching the Web for NARA Info
This is a more direct online address for the University of California, Berkeley's Haas School of Business website pertaining to the Chinese immigration records at NARA - Pacific. The Institute of Business and Economic Research (IBER), in cooperation with the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), has launched a website specifically designed to search records on nineteenth and early twentieth century immigrant arrivals at the Port of San Francisco and Honolulu. The actual records can be accessed at the NARA branch in San Bruno, California, but the Early Arrivals Records Search (EARS) page provides a fundamental database for some 250,000 individual case files from the Chinese Exclusion era (1882-1943,) located at NARA-Pacific (in San Bruno).

This web page allws you to download a copy of the Freedom of Information/Privacy Act (FOIA) Form G639 including directions to request copies of Alien Registration case files, i.e. A-Files for any individual who was a naturalized U.S. citizen from 1940 to the present. You may also call the nearest U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) office for copies of the FOIA Form G639.


EFFECTIVE June 1, 2002 are the following additional NARA web addresses:
The home page for NARA - Pacific Region, San Francisco (in San Bruno).
The home page for NARA in general.
Basic information for researchers to NARA.
A guide to NARA - Pacific Region's archival holdings.
A NARA-wide guide to archival holdings throughout the system.
A NARA-wide guide to microfilm holdings throughout the system.

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