How to Access Public Records for Free

Man asking about how to access public records for free

Birth record laws vary by state, but if you are building a family tree or want to discover or connect with distant family members, we can help you determine the best way to access their birth records.

In most states, you can get a copy of any of your immediate family member’s U.S. birth certificate, you just need to know a few basic details about them.

If you have more information, it will be easier to access a relative’s birth records. However, the following basic information is a good start:

  • Full name – as it appears on their vital record.
  • Date of birth – the age of the record will determine whether the birth record is public or closed)
  • Place of birth – knowing the birth state will help you determine the application process and requirements to apply for the birth certificate

Differences between public and closed birth records

If you know your relative’s birth state, you can determine whether their birth records are public or closed. This is very important, since the process to access closed records is much different than the process to find public records. If the records are closed or private, then you may not be able to access them at all, or you may only be able to apply for a copy that contains limited information. While this may seem inconvenient, closed records exist to protect privacy and prevent identity theft.

Birth record laws are little different in each state, however, nearly all states keep their birth records private for 75 years. While death certificates typically remain closed for 25 years. After that time has passed, they become public records, which anyone can easily access.

However, if the records you need are still closed, then they can only be accessed by eligible individuals, usually immediate family members. If you do qualify to access the records, you can get a birth certificate copy easily online.

Keep in mind that some states, such as Illinois, require applicants to provide a valid, government-issued ID to prove their relationship to the certificate holder, when applying for another person’s birth certificate. For example, if you need to get a copy of your parent’s birth certificate, you can include a certified copy of your own birth certificate. Since certified birth certificate copies include the parents’ information, this will prove that the person on record is your parent.

How to find public birth records

Most public records, such as birth certificates, are created, filed, and stored at the corresponding office in the city, county, or state where the event happened.

The following resources can help you locate public records:

If a birth record is public, you should be able to access the birth certificate online at no cost. However, printed copies may carry a fee. The same goes for death certificates.

If you need an official copy of a birth certificate, you can order a certified birth certificate copy online, as long as you know the individual’s basic information and you are eligible to apply.

How long are birth records kept?

Depending on the state, the Vital Records Office will keep birth records on file for anywhere from 80-120 years.

However, more recent records are usually closed and can only be accessed by immediate family members or individuals with a proven tangible interest.

There are fewer restrictions for accessing older records, and they are typically kept in the state archives. For records dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries, you may want to try your local historical society.

When were birth records first recorded in the U.S.?

It depends on the state, but most U.S. states started recording births and deaths in the early 1900s. However, some states have maintained records since as far back as the 1600s.

Birth records are generally kept by the state Department of Health where the birth took place.

The following table shows when each state started recording birth, death, marriage, and divorce records. If you need an earlier record, you can contact the city where the record was filed.

Oldest Vital Records Available in Each State
StateBirth RecordsDeath RecordsMarriage RecordsDivorce Records
AlabamaJanuary 1908January 1908August 1936January 1950
AlaskaThe 1890s (events before 1930 may not been registered)The 1890s (events before 1930 may not been registered)The 1890s (events before 1930 may not been registered)1950
ArizonaJuly 1909July 1909  
ArkansasFebruary 1914, (some Little Rock and Fort Smith records from 1881)February 1914, (some Little Rock and Fort Smith records from 1881)19171923
CaliforniaJuly 1905July 1905Only available from 1905-2001 and 2010 to presentOnly available from 1962 to June, 1984
ConnecticutJuly 1, 1897July 1, 1897July 1, 1897July 1, 1897
District of Columbia1874185518101810
Florida1917 (some records available from 1850 and later)1917 (some records available from 1850 and later)June 6, 1927June 6, 1927
GeorgiaJanuary 1919January 1919June 9, 1952 
Hawaii190918961909From July 1951 to December 2002
IdahoJuly 1911July 1911May 1947May 1947
IllinoisJanuary 1916January 1916January 1962January 1962
IndianaOctober 1907January 19001958 
IowaJuly 1880July 1880July 1880 
KansasJuly 1911July 1911May 1913July 1951
KentuckyJanuary 1911January 1911June 1958June 1958
MarylandJanuary 18751969January 1990January, 1992
MinnesotaJanuary 1900January 1908  
Mississippi19121912Records available from January 1926 to July 1, 1938, and since January 1942January 1926
MissouriJanuary 1910January 1910July 1948July 1948
Montana19071907July 1943July 1943
Nebraska19041904January 1909January 1909
NevadaJuly 1911July 1911January 1968January 1968
New Hampshire163116541652 
New Jersey191819181918 
New Mexico1920 (some records available from 1880 and later)1920 (some records available from 1880 and later)  
New York State188018811881January 1963
New York City191019491950 
North CarolinaOctober 1913193019621958
North Dakota1870July 1893  
OhioDecember 20, 1908January 1, 1964  
OklahomaOctober 1908October 1908  
PennsylvaniaJanuary, 1906January, 1906  
Rhode Island19181918  
South CarolinaJanuary 1915January 1915July 1950July 1962
South DakotaJuly 1905July 1905July 1905July 1905
TennesseeJanuary 1914Records only available for 50 years.Records only available for 50 years.Records only available for 50 years.
Texas19031903January 1966January 1968
VermontState office has records for the last five years.State office has records for the last five years.State office has records for the last five years.State office has records for the last five years.
VirginiaJanuary 1853 to December 1896 and since June 14, 1912January 1853 to December 1896 and since June 14, 1912January 1853January 1918
WashingtonJuly 1, 1907July 1, 1907January 1968January 1968
West Virginia1917191719211968
WisconsinOctober 1907October 1907October 1907October 1907
WyomingJuly 1909Records only available for 50 years.Records only available for 50 years.Records only available for 50 years.

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