Skip to main content

What are public records? How to find public information

What are public records?
(Image credit: Getty)

Public records are information or documents created by a government agency or officer and are required by law to be stored and maintained. They also include records filed with a government agency. As such, public records can largely be divided into two main categories: information about people (individuals), and information about the US government and its policies. 

For the purposes of this article, we’re assuming that you’re looking for information about a specific person, or to see what information is held about yourself. Genealogy research, often conducted in conjunction with the best genealogy sites, is a major reason people search public records, and there’s a wide variety of documents and information that can be unearthed through public record requests. How you are able to retrieve them depends on the various agencies involved. 

Government agencies and courts also keep in-depth databases of the documents they use, and public records are also utilized by insurance brokers and credit bureaus to assist in various financial dealings.

Different types of public records

While public records have been around for a very long time, the way they are now stored and accessed has changed. Some public records requests and research can be carried out from your own laptop or computer, while in some instances you may need to call or write to a specific government agency or office to request hard copies of documents. This can be more time consuming and there may be reproduction costs involved.

There are many types of public records that are available for free at federal, state, county, and city level. Examples include census data, tax liens and judgments, criminal records, court records, property information, and bankruptcy rulings. 

What are public records: A woman uses a website to search for information held in public records

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Some of these types of records can be difficult and timely to track down, which is why many people turn to the best background check and people search sites to assist with the research. Typically, you would have to search multiple databases to get the level of information provided in just one of these succinct reports.

The definition of a public record depends upon which state you live in, as different states have different laws concerning public records and how they can be accessed. Not all public records are available without restriction, but the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) has made access easier in some instances.

The following types of records are not public records:

  • Tax returns
  • Library records
  • School records
  • Juvenile court records
  • Any records containing sensitive information, such as trade secrets

What about marriage, birth and death records?

Marriage licenses and divorces are considered public records and are available on request, but divorce records can be sealed under specific circumstances. New births are reported by the hospital involved in the delivery of the child, and coroners offices assign death certificates, both of which are public records that assist with census data. 

If you’re using the best family tree software to conduct your family tree research, birth, death, marriage, and (if applicable) divorce records are extremely useful when adding to your genealogy findings.

What are public records: an image showing the traditional method of storing public records, which has now become far more digitized thanks to technological advances

(Image credit: Element5 Digital/Pexels)

Courtroom and criminal records are available through courthouse and police record databases, though some restrictions may apply depending on the trial itself and the state it took place in. Many people search services use these records in their criminal background checks.

Property and land records are some of the earliest forms of American public records, and they covered details such as when a plot of land was purchased and who it belonged to. While private house sales and ownership aren’t subject to public record laws, real estate appraisals are.

Tips for requesting public records

The state you live in will have its own freedom of information laws with varying stipulations, so there isn’t a blanket approach to follow for every state. The FOIA outlines that public offices need to make records available when presented with a formal request, but it’s best to be polite when requesting access. 

Also, be prepared to pay. Public records are meant to be free to view, but if you are requesting a hard copy, in particular, there will usually be a reproduction fee involved.