Geneanet > Resources > Blog > Genealogy News

NYC Vital Records Are Online Now in New York: A Guide

Posted by Sean Daly on Apr 29, 2022
zoom of NYC marriage certificate

Last month, New York City made available online over 9 million birth, marriage and death certificates! Previously, these images were only available at a FamilySearch Family History Center or as a certified hardcopy from the archives. Read our guide to get the most out of the portal’s new search screen. Hint: find the certificate number first! We’ll show you how.

From 1892 to 1924, over 14 million immigrants landed on Ellis Island in New York Harbor

Were your ancestors European immigrants? It is estimated that 85% of immigrants in the century starting in 1820 arrived in New York City, which progressively displaced Boston as the chief port of entry to the United States. Some families arrived from the old country and headed west right away, joining relatives already established, or enticed by amazing claims about land made by the American railroads. However, many others arrived young, found work, married someone from their home country (or not), and started families. Germans, Irish, English, Italian, Polish, Eastern Europeans… their stories are told in the vital records — the civil registrations — begun in the cities of New York and Brooklyn in 1866, and in all 5 boroughs of NYC — New York County or Manhattan, the Bronx, Kings County or Brooklyn, Queens County, and Richmond County or Staten Island — by the time of “consolidation” in 1898. Note that because of its huge volume, New York City vital records are kept in the city; all other New York State vital records are in the local town records and in the central repository in Albany.

9 million certificates online!

Last month, New York’s Department of Records & Information Services (DORIS) which manages the Municipal Archives suddenly opened online to the publicwithout charge — 9.3 million digitized birth, marriage, and death certificates, some 70% of the total 13.3 million records. You can read more about the collection here. Unfortunately, it is not as easy as it should be to find a certificate with a name search. Let’s look at why.

These certificates were microfilmed decades ago by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (or the LDS Church, sometimes called the Mormons) and these microfilms were later digitized at FamilySearch. However, “MUNI” kept tight control over availability of these certificates: until last month, they were only available at a FamilySearch Family History Center, or at the MUNI office behind City Hall. At this office, copies of the LDS microfilms were available, but it was not possible to obtain a digital version; it was necessary to buy a costly ($11) certified hardcopy. After so many years of use, the microfilms are worn out and scratched; some certs from MUNI are barely readable. The nonprofit organization Reclaim the Records has worked for years to “liberate” these records (and others), and recently sued New York City.

Starting in 2013, DORIS began a project to digitize the original certificates at higher quality than the old microfilms. Working with eDocNY, a nonprofit organization providing document management work for developmentally disabled workers, some 8.5 million certificates were digitized. MUNI has since taken over the digitization of the remaining certificates, including marriage licenses from 1908-1949 and Manhattan death records to 1948.

This is a certified hardcopy from MUNI of the first page of an 1899 marriage certificate, printed from the LDS Church microfilms. Note the scratches on the film and the poor crop of the image
Here is the same cert from MUNI’s new portal. Much more readable! But best of all, downloadable free. Certified copies are still available, as an option

The all-important certificate number

The LDS microfilms were not indexed at first. MUNI had a paper index to locate the original certificates; this index was transcribed by the Genealogy Federation of Long Island association nearly twenty years ago, and was made available as a Microsoft Access database on the PCs at MUNI so the public could search for certificates on the microfilms. It’s this older index which has been used for the new portal.

However, better, more up-to-date indexes of the NYC vital records exist. The German Genealogy Group and Italian Genealogical Group associations work together to update and correct the indexes, which can be searched on their sites. (Although focused on Germans and Italians respectively, both associations work to index all NYC vital records.) In addition, FamilySearch (a Geneanet partner) and Ancestry (Geneanet’s parent company) have indexed these certificates too.

The German Genealogy Group is a vital resource for researching German-American immigrants in New York City, and has updated indexes for NYC vital records
This certificate is indexed at FamilySearch. Note that the microfilm image is unavailable, except at a Family History Center. The certificate number is under Document Information to the left. Note also the typo in the transcription of bride Dorothy T. Reilly, indexed as “Dorothyt.”

Why wasn’t the indexing of these records straightforward? There are several reasons:

  • Mid 19th and early 20th century civil servants in New York had a terrible time with immigrants’ names; the problem was particularly acute with non-English speakers, and especially so with Eastern Europeans
  • Many documents were scrawled quickly, and are difficult to read; there are transcription typos too even if a document is readable
  • There are quality issues with some of the LDS microfilm images (brightness, contrast, crop due to camera position), and with the degraded quality of the MUNI microfilms

Finding your ancestor’s certificate in NYC’s Historical Vital Records portal

The most efficient way to find a certificate in the NYC Historical Vital Records database is with the certificate number. These were numbered per certificate type (birth/death/marriage), per borough (county), and per year. One exception: from 1881 to 1887, Manhattan certificates were sequentially numbered, until registrars realized the numbers would go too high.

If you have a certificate number, enter the certificate type, number, borough, and year

You should land on the certificate right away. That said, there have been cases reported where correct certificate numbers do not return the correct certificates — please consider informing MUNI in this case.

Download the certificate in PDF format using the button in the upper right corner of the viewing window.

What if you are unable to locate the certificate number in any of the indexes? It’s possible to search by name. However, this is not reliable, and is called “beta” by DORIS. The search by name section is below the serach by certificate number section; if you are using a mobile device, you may have to select the search type within the first field.

If you are lucky, a name search will find your cert. This search failed to find the certificate!

Well, how about browsing through images, by letters of last name such as DAK to DAM to find DAL, like in old phone books? Unfortunately, the DORIS portal was not designed to browse more than 100 pages of 50 results per page, and no provision was made for paginating browsed images by letters of last name. This can be frustrating — the certificates may be available, but are unfindable…

If you don’t find the certificate you seek with a name search, and you don’t have the certificate number, redouble your efforts to locate the number. The alternative sites listed above all have better search engines by name than MUNI.

Don’t forget, it is possible the certificate you seek has not yet been digitized! In that case, the previous system still exists: find the certificate image on FamilySearch at a Family History Center; visit the New York City Municipal Archives in person, or order it from them. MUNI says on their site that they will priority digitize a missing certificate upon request, be sure to contact them on this topic.

Finally, there are special cases to be aware of:

  • Events at the very end of the year, usually births and deaths, were often registered at the beginning of the next year. If a certificate has a very low number – under 300 for example – it’s important to read it carefully, the birth or death may be indexed with the registration year and not the year the event happened!
  • Some birth certificates were issued many years later, because an original birth certificate was never established, or couldn’t be found on file. These “S” certificates are absent from the LDS microfilms, but some are present in the new set. Contact MUNI for more information in this case. Be aware that it is estimated up to 25% of births in NYC before 1910 were not registered, despite fines for noncompliance — the certificate you seek may not even exist!

Once you have downloaded your certificates, don’t forget to attach them to your Geneanet family tree! Our article Adding Images To Your Geneanet Family Tree will show you how to do that.

4 comments

I have found several death certificates because I already had the certificate numbers, but I am not able to print them out without purchasing a certified copy from NYC Historical records.. I rhought that they were supposed to be free. I only need these for genealogical purposes.

Answer from Geneanet: If you can find a certificate in the portal, you can download the PDF file and print that. On the certificate screen, there will be a small download icon at the top of the image.


Are there any earlier records? My great-great grandfather came to the US from Italy in early 1800s. Have been looking for info for years.

Answer from Geneanet: Hi, have you looked into the New York Genealogical & Biographical Society (NYG&B)? They are an excellent source of New York records before 1850.


See more

Log in to leave a comment. Sign In / Sign Up