I am often asked for advice by those who wish to start researching their family history. Too many times they expect to start on certain well known websites with out doing any background research first. This quick guide will help you to get started with your research without making some of the most common mistakes.

1. Always start with yourself.

Early on in my professional genealogy career I was contacted by a client who had already started on his research but wanted my help to go further. As always I checked the information he had so far and came across an anomaly. The client had naturally assumed that the family members he knew were who they should be, but this was not the case. I found that his grandparents were actually his maternal great grandparents, and his father’s aunt was actually his grandmother. This aunt was the eldest of several children and had an illegitimate son who was only a couple of years younger than his mother’s youngest sibling. It seems that his grandparents had brought him up as theirs and he was not aware that his sister was really his mother.

Although in this case the same family lines were involved it is possible that the child could have been informally adopted by a different family altogether. NEVER assume anything about relationships. Always check them first.

2. Speak to relatives.

I have often had students in my classes tell me that they had no one to ask as they were the eldest in the family. It is not, however, always the eldest who knows the family stories/secrets. My uncle is almost 10 years younger than my mother, but as the youngest he spent more time with his mother after his older siblings had flown the nest. He therefore heard stories that my mother, as the eldest, did not know about.

It is always worthwhile asking other relatives about your family history. Sometimes aunts, uncles and even cousins know more about your family than you do. They may also hold treasures from previous generations. I have even known family friends to have more answers than the family did.

3. Don’t buy lots of Certificates.

Buying certificates of vital records can be very expensive. In England and Wales each certificate cost just under £10 each. Assuming that the person only married once, they will have three certificates each. If you only buy certificates for the head of each family, it would cost almost £100 for just for 3 generations.

Learn what type of information is recorded on the certificates and decide if you really need to buy it. The General Records Office (GRO) website gives details of what is recorded and shows examples of each certificate.  .

If you do need to buy a certificate for a vital event in England or Wales only buy them from official websites. There are only two places where certificates can be purchased – the Local Registrar’s Office and the GRO.

Local Offices charge differing rates usually about £10, but the GRO charge £11 per certificate and these are dispatched on the 4th working day after the order is placed if an index number is provided, or 15 days if no reference is given – but still for £11! [prices correct at the time of publishing – always check first]. There are a few unscrupulous websites that will charge you much more, even though they can only purchase the genuine certificates from the same places as you can. One even suggests they are the official place to order UK records. To be sure you get the genuine certificate for the best prices always buy direct from the GRO or the Local Office. Lists of Local Register Offices can be found on the UKBMD website. Use the FreeBMD website to find the reference number. If in doubt ask a professional UK Genealogist.

4. Look out for FREE websites.

Many family history researchers tend to spend lots of money on one or two subscription genealogy websites. Although they undoubted do have lots of useful information, you may not need to buy a subscription. Look out for free trials or free weekend access. The later only requires free registration to the site whilst the former will ask you for your credit card details. Make sure you cancel free trials before they automatically take payment for a full subscription. You should still have free access until the end of the trial regardless of when you cancel it. Registration is required or both, but this is free and you can choose not to receive emails from them.

Check to see which genealogy websites are available in libraries and archive offices. In the UK we often get free worldwide access to Ancestry in our libraries.

There are a number of free-to-use genealogy websites in the UK. These cover the GRO indexes, parish registers, census returns, trade directories and much more. Some of these have been set up by not-for-profit organisations, some by family history societies and others by County archive offices. You can learn more about these by  reading my blog about free websites. .

5. Be wary of other people’s trees.

It is very easy to find a family tree created by someone else whether it is a relative or an online tree. NEVER assume they are correct. Sadly many people create family trees without checking the evidence. I have seen online trees that show people getting married several years after their death, and one even before she were born! If they can get the basic information wrong, can you be sure the family members are correct? You can use them as a guide but ALWAYS double check the information from an independent source.

6. Not everything is online.

This most common problem I come across is because people believe that everything is online, therefore if they can only find one record for their ancestor, even though it does not quite fit, then it must be correct. This is simply not true. Genealogy record access is like an iceberg – only the tip is online. The rest is available in a variety of archive repositories around the world.

At some point in your research you will have to either visit a relevant archive office or pay a professional researcher, or a self-employed genealogist who is a member of a professional genealogy association such as The Register of Qualified Genealogists (RQG), The Association of Professional Genealogists (APG) and The Association of Genealogists and Researchers in Archives (AGRA), to do the research on your behalf.

If you do need to use a professional researcher always check that they are reliable and suitably qualified/experienced. Anyone can set themselves up as a professional researcher – even if they only have a couple of years’ experience in researching their own tree.

7. Record your findings.

The 2nd most important part of any research is recording every detail of WHAT you have found and WHERE you found it.

Always record everything in the record you have found as you will never know if it will prove to be important later on. Inexperienced researchers often do not record the witnesses on certificates, but they could be family members.

This topic has been covered in more detail in my ‘Referencing your Sources’  blog post.

8. Research your new hobby.

To avoid many of the pitfalls, take time to learn about your new hobby. It is not always as easy as you think it will be. Reading blogs such as this one is a good way to start. You could also buy a book, attend a family history class or read my blog pages here.


Check and record everything, but most of all enjoy your research.
This is a hobby that could last a lifetime, and be handed down to the next generations.