Searching public records in the US

First name Last name Middle initial City State

There are dozens of different public records that are available for you to search, whether you are trying to find a long-lost friend or family member, checking out the background of a prospective employee or just trying to find out if your new partner has any skeletons in their closet. Whatever the reason that you have decided to search public records for information on an individual in the US, there are some restrictions and rules that you should be aware of, even though the Freedom of Information Act has opened up many of these documents to the public for the first time. For example, in some states documents relating to an individual's birth, marriage and death may only be available to close family, until a certain number of years pass after the record was created. Also, while employers may be able to search for details such as criminal records and arrest records relating to applicants, some states don't allow you to use this information when deciding whether to employ someone; unless they have given you their permission to carry out the search, or if they are going to be working with children. If you want to know exactly what information you can expect to gain access to in your local state or county, the staff at your local courthouse and library will be able to give you help and advice.

In fact these people are the experts no matter what your query is on searching public documents and records. Although most people these days use Internet searches, there are some people who prefer to dig through archived documents, while others are looking for records that are so old they haven't yet been transferred to computer systems. This is more common amongst genealogists researching their family tree than those who are checking out if a new boyfriend is telling the truth about being divorced!

Conducting searches online

Although you can still find all the documents you need by going to the archives of your local courthouse or library, most people now use Internet searches to find the public records they are looking for. Some of these are available through official state and county websites, while others are restricted in the kind of information they have available on digital systems. Luckily, there are many specialist commercial sites in existence that have collected information on these public records from all over the US, making it easy for people to carry out widespread searches without leaving the comfort of their own home. Not only are these search sites much more convenient, but they are also likely to be more comprehensive. Whereas the state and county sites only allow you to search for court cases, arrests or births, marriages and deaths that took place within their borders, the specialist sites can give you the option of casing your net wider, even across the whole country. Of course, it is much easier to find the right public record if you have some idea where the person you are looking for was living at the time, but sometimes this knowledge isn't available. These commercial sites are very user-friendly, requiring that you only input a few details, and they will then return a list of "hits" or records that match the information you have provided.

Of course, these kind of searches don't come for free, but many sites will only charge you if you want to see all the details of a criminal record, marriage or divorce. If the list of results that your data produces is obviously nothing to do with the person you are looking for, or there are no results at all, most sites will not charge you a cent. There are dozens of these sites to choose from, depending on what kind of public record you are looking for, so make sure you shop around and look for the website that will provide you with the most information for the least amount of money and effort.

Other ways to find records

Online searches and digging through local archives can always be supplemented by other sources of information. Many people forget that local newspapers often feature family announcements of births, deaths and marriages, while news stories mentioning the person you are looking for can help you track them down or help you find out, what they have been doing in the past. Most of these are also available on searchable websites and as they are not subject to the same rules and restrictions as the official records, you can often find more information from these sources, especially if you are not a close relative of the person concerned. Along with searching online, most local newspapers also have archive copies in their offices or local libraries. Of course, this is only useful if you know where someone is or has been living; if you don't have this kind of information, then your best option, certainly as a starting point, is to use what details you do have to conduct an online search with one of the many commercial websites available.