Census Records: Find Your Family in Censuses From All Over the World

Census records are invaluable resources for genealogists. Conducted by the governments of every developed country in the world, censuses are official counts of the population of a country, used to evaluate changes and make crucial decisions and set policies for each region. Since the purpose of a census is to record every single person residing in that country, the chances of discovering our ancestors in censuses from years past is quite high. Because they are conducted regularly, they can often provide multiple snapshots of our ancestors over the course of their lives, allowing us to build timelines for our ancestors and understand how their lives changed over time.

In the United States and many other countries, the census is taken every 10 years. In some countries such as Canada, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, and Japan, the census is taken every 5 years.

Censuses have been used to administer governments and empires for millennia. The first known census was taken in the Babylonian Empire in 3800 B.C.E., but the first surviving census records are from China’s Han Dynasty, which recorded 57.7 million people from 12.4 million households in 2 C.E. In the year 1400, in lieu of a writing system, the Incas recorded census data using a system of knots tied on strings from llama or alpaca wool. The first U.S. census was taken in 1790.

Why censuses are done

Censuses have two main purposes:

  • To help calculate governmental representation: Knowing how many people live in a given area helps the government ensure that communities are properly represented in local, federal, and national governments.
  • To inform government decisions about funding: Defining the number of residents in a given area helps the government create budgets for schools, hospitals, and infrastructure.

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Because having an accurate population count is so important, filling out the census is mandatory and required by law. Failing to fill out the census, or entering false information, carries a fine — a hefty one in some countries. In the United States, the fine for refusing to fill out a census form is around $100. In the U.K., it’s £1,000, and in Australia it’s AU$222 per day.

Usually, however, if a resident forgets to send in a census form on time, the census authority will contact them and encourage them to complete it before they open any legal proceedings against them. It’s in the government’s interest to help people comply with the census.

Questions on the census

Censuses vary widely in terms of the information they record. In some places and time periods, they are very detailed, and in others, they will be quite sparse. Censuses will contain the name and address of the head of each household, and many will contain the names, ages, and occupations of all household members. The information provided in the census will often reflect the norms of that period. For example, the first U.S. census divided household members into free white males above the age of 16, free white males under the age of 16, free white females, all other free people, and slaves. Native Americans were not counted until 1870.

Census records on MyHeritage

MyHeritage offers hundreds of census and voter list collections containing more than a billion records from all over the world. These include the full set of United States censuses since 1790 as well as censuses from the U.K. and Wales, Ireland, Scotland, Canada, Australia, France, Germany, Iceland, Finland, Denmark, Norway, Argentina, and more.


Get more tips by watching Preparing for the 1950 Census: How-to Search the U.S. Census Records:

Search these collections today and discover your family in censuses records on MyHeritage.