Tips for searching the NAA

 The National Archives of Australia is a rich source of information, and there are a few things to remember when searching the website at  


Australia was run as seperate states for a long time, so many records that you would find in national archives in other contries are in the State Archives.  This applies to convict records in particular.  So the first thing to think about is the timeframe you are researching, if the records are before Federation in 1901 it is likely to be in a State Archive.

The exception are passenger arrivals which are available from 1898.


Not everything is available on the NAA website in its full digital glory.  Many of the WW2 records for instance are not available at present.  So when you find something its access status either be :

  • Not Yet Examined - You can request these files are examined and they will they be classified as open or closed.  Once open you can view them at the archives or request a copy.
  • Open with exception - This means only part of the file is open for inspection. Check why the exception, it may be that the exception period is over and these can be opened for you. If you want to see the record, contact the Reference Service .
  • Open - But not yet digitised, so for these records you will have to request a copy and pay for them or go to Canberra and view the document..
  • Open - and digitised, so click on the symbol (below)  and see the original document
  • Closed means the record is closed to the public.  You can contact NAA and have a closed decision re-considered.

Symbol for a digitised record


This is an important point to remember, as it is quite different to many genealogy sites you may have visited before. 

Let me give you an example, say you have an ancestor called Joseph Zealey, you will need to do ALL the following searches to see if you can find him:

Joseph Zealey, Zealey Joseph, J Zealey,

Then with all the name variations that are common with this surname  (that Z is often miss-transcribed):

Zealy, Zeley, Jealey, Jeley, Jealy, Tealey, Tealy, Teley etc. etc.

Then with all the variations common with the first name:

Jo, John (yep I found him on a couple of records as John) Jos etc. etc.

👉I have found several of my ancestors by putting their surname first when they did not come up in an initial search.  One point to remember - save yourself some time by jotting down the name variations you have searched, or you will end up duplicting them!


Files at the NAA are often outside the dates your ancestor was even alive.  Remember documents refering to us exist after our death.  Military records will not always be inside the dates of a war for instance as people 'demobed' after a war was officially over.  Passenger lists are lodged after a passenger arrived. Immigration papers are started well before someone immigrates.

So when you need to narrow a search by date, always search 10 years either side of the date you would normally use, and extend or narrow the dates from there.  


The basic search will give you the widest range of results, and ensure you do not miss out on something unexpected.  You may find a photo in a military or immigration record, but not if you are just doing a photo search.  I begin by putting in the full name, no dates and see how many records come up, from there I narrow my search depending upon the number of results and name.  

Godd luck with your research, and remember to write down the name variations you have searched!


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