Finding Public Records Online

The top free sources for finding public records on the internet

Someone using their computer to create a family tree

Lifewire / Miguel Co

Locating public records is one of the most popular search activities on the internet. Millions of people look for vital, historical, and other publicly registered documents every day online. Find a birth certificate, locate census records, track down land use documents, and much more with this list of the best websites for finding public information on the Web.

These resources only cover publicly available records that are made accessible online. Some kinds of public records, such as birth certificates, are not made freely available online and must be accessed through your local records office. We do not recommend that readers pay for information found online, unless it comes from an approved, secure state or federal resource.

Use Search Engines

The major search engines — Google and Bing — offer an excellent starting point for any search. Think of the search engine as being a ferret: It won't necessarily surface the information you want, but it'll help you figure out which hole to start digging.

A caveat about search engines: Many of these tools will surface websites that reveal some minor tidbit and then expect you to pay for a report or subscribe to a service to get additional information. In general, avoid these sites — most of them reveal poor or inaccurate information. In effect, they're large-scale data aggregators. They value quantity over quality.

VitalRec

Vital-Records screenshot

VitalRec is one of the most comprehensive sites for locating vital records on the web. VitalRec explains how to obtain vital records — such as birth certificates, death records, marriage licenses and divorce decrees — from each state, territory, and county of the United States, as well as an impressive international section.

No registration is required to use this site. One particularly useful feature of VitalRec.com: all fees that might be included in your public records searches are clearly listed and frequently updated.

How can I find what I'm looking for?

VitalRec does not link directly to vital records. However, VitalRec links directly to each state's information on how to obtain vital records. With that in mind, using VitalRec.com as a starting point in your records searches can obviously save you a tremendous amount of time and effort. To find information on how to obtain vital records, you can browse the States & Territories, or the International Records section. Each state and country's page has plenty of information on how to obtain vital records for that particular region; plus, VitalRec has a detailed set of guidelines for ordering these records with all the information you need to include in your request.

Why should I use this site?

VitalRec.com puts all the information you need to find vital records in one convenient place. Instead of trying to find individual state, county, or town records offices in the phone book, this comprehensive directory gives you direct access to exactly what you're looking for, with practical instructions on what you'll need in person, on the phone, or via email when requesting the records you need. If you're doing any sort of genealogical research, VitalRec.com can make your hunt much more enjoyable simply by cutting down on the amount of administrative work you'll have to do in order to find and receive birth, death, marriage, or divorce records.

Finding Obituaries

gravestone detail that reads RIP
amriphoto / Getty Images

You'll find obituaries, both current and historical, with a little bit of sleuthing. Most obituaries are placed online, eventually, through the newspaper that originally published them. It can take some considerable patience and preparation in order to find many obits, though.

In addition, DeathIndexes.com is a (mostly) free genealogy search site that's excellent for researching genealogies in particular. The website is a comprehensive directory of death indexes on the web listed by state and county, with easily navigable links to everything you might be looking for. Death records are included here, as well as death certificate indexes, death notices and registers, obituaries, probate indexes, and cemetery and burial records.

One of the more common public data searches pertains to finding grave information: cemetery records, interment information, even images of the gravesite. The website Find a Grave is helpful in this regard. Celebrity interments can also be found here, with accompanying information and photos.

Family Search is primarily a genealogy tracker, which makes it an invaluable people search tool as well. Input as much information as you know, and FamilySearch will bring back birth and death records, parental information, and more.

Zabasearch

ZabaSearch screenshot

Zabasearch is controversial because it brings back so much information. However, all of this information is publicly accessible; Zabasearch just puts it all in one convenient place. Zabasearch is considered a good jumping-off point — it gives you a lot of publicly accessible information that you can use to track down even more public data using other online search tools.

Zabasearch is run by Intelius, a prominent data broker. People can opt-out of tracking by Intelius, thus making them invisible to Zabasearch (and related) queries.

Detailed information hides behind a paywall. The quality of the information behind that paywall will vary between "highly accurate" (especially for people with rare names) to "so inaccurate as to be effectively fiction" (especially for people with very common names who live in large cities).

The reason that Zabasearch and its competitors offer such an inconsistent data-quality experience is that the many records they join don't share common keys. Some records might link based on a name and date of birth; others by a phone number; others by an address. Failures in one part of the often-weak chain will, therefore, cascade through the entire record.

But it may be better than nothing, at least as a place to get started.

USA.gov

usa.gov screenshot

USA.gov grants users instant access to all sorts of information from the United States government, state governments, and local governments. Every agency that handles public information in the United States can be found somewhere in this huge database. The site can be somewhat overwhelming at first simply because of the volume of information available.

Searchable Public Databases

Hands of Caucasian woman typing on laptop in bed
Dmitry Ageev / Getty Images

Family Tree Now gained quite a bit of popularity simply because it retrieves so much information from a wide variety of public databases and puts it all in one convenient place. 

For the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, Census Finder is a free public records search site that can help you track down all sorts of interesting demographic information. For genealogy researchers or anyone looking to track down vital records, census information can become some of the best and most often used sources for content, especially since most censuses in the last century are recorded or transcribed online.

DirectGov is a searchable public data search database of a wide range of government information and services in the United Kingdom and is considered an excellent source of free online information. All public services in the UK are located here: job search resources, student finance information, taxes, housing, all sorts of governmental resources can be found all in one convenient place. Personal public records are not necessarily available here, but if you're looking for more general bureaucratic resources for the UK, this is the first place to look. 

American Fact Finder offers population, housing, economic, and geographic data for any community in the United States. You can use this database to dig up information on your person's community, schools, and other demographics, which can aid in your genealogy searches.

Sex Offender Registry Searches

If you're thinking about moving into a new neighborhood, one of the first things you'll want to do is check if there are any registered sex offenders in the area. Unfortunately, many people neglect this simple step. However, you can accomplish this very simply and easily with Family Watchdog's registered offender search utility.

Here's how it works:

  1. Visit the Family Watchdog Search. You'll see three fields: last name, first name, and state.
  2. You must have at least a last name in order to use this search. However, you can get around this pretty easily simply by entering the first two letters of a name, such as "sm" or "ar."
  3. Choose the state you want to search in, or, you can just let the utility search all states at once.

Results will come back with clickable links to pictures and profiles of the registered offenders, along with their residential addresses and maps.

Family Watchdog Search is a good way to search for this kind of information; you can also use The National/State Sex Offender Public Website for the most recent information available from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico for the identity and location of known sex offenders.