Boundaries and Territory

France shares borders with Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Andorra and Spain. These borders have not always been fixed throughout history.

If you have ancestors from border regions, please start by researching the area’s history and geography.


Le Havre on the English Channel and Marseille on the Mediterranean were important ports of departure.

  • Smaller ports include: Cherbourg, Bordeaux and Nantes.
  • Immigrants also traveled through other ports, such as Liverpool.

Vital Records

Vital records are divided into two categories:

(1) Civil registers (etat-civil)

  • Civil registration of births, marriages and deaths began in 1792.
  • Records less than 100 years old are typically found in registries at the local town hall.
  • Copies of civil registers older than 100 years are typically available from departmental archives.
  • Local town halls and archives both hold copies of 10-year indexes (tables decennales) of births, deaths, and marriages registered in the community.
  • Women are almost always recorded by their maiden surname, even after marriage.

(2) Parish registers (registres paroissiaux)

  • Catholic registers begin in the mid-1600’s in many areas. However, some 14th and 15th century records have survived.
  • Lutheran parish records date back to the early 1500s.
  • Many of these registers are located in municipal or departmental archives.
  • Records may be in French, Latin German, or Gothic script.
  • Some protestant records have been microfilmed by FamilySearch.


Most records will be in French. However, there are some exceptions.

  • Roman Catholic parish registers are typically in Latin.
  • Records from Alsace-Lorraine, may be in German.
  • Pre-1860 records from the southeaster parts of France may be in Italian.

Most young men were required to register for military service. Recruitment records (registres matricules) date back to the 19th century.

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