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How to Find Distant Relatives

by Patrick Gleeson, Ph. D., ; Updated March 15, 2018

Finding distant relatives can help you piece together family history.

family tree image by Judy Ben Joud from Fotolia.com

To find distant relatives whose names you don't know, a genealogy search is probably the best way to go. To instead get in touch with distant relatives whose names you already know, the internet's a great place to start.

Free Genealogy Searches

Several companies specializing in genealogy searches offer free trials for seven to 14 days, among them Ancestry.com, which offers a free 14-day trial period that converts automatically to a paid subscription at the end of the period unless canceled. All sites have this kind of automated conversion to a paid plan, so if you've tried a site and decided not to use it, be sure to opt back out again. Taking a smart phone photo of the confirmation of disenrollment is advisable.

One church- sponsored service, Family Search, is entirely free.

The problem with trying to locate distant relatives using either a free service or a genealogy company's free trial search is that a free search asks only for your name, birthdate and either birthplace or current city or state of residence. The results based on that kind of search are all the available same-name data they already have in their database. They provide the data, but you'll need to do the search yourself. You'll likely get back hundreds or even thousands of pages of information. Unless you're a genealogist, you may not have much luck trying to convert this data into your family's genealogical tree. This isn't necessarily a criticism of companies that offer free searches. It's more an acknowledgment that you generally get what you pay for.

Among free offerings, in one recent comparison of four popular services, Family Search got the most usable results.

Paid Genealogy Search

Most of the same companies that offer free searches also offer paid services, including Ancestry.com. Other popular family tree search companies offering both free trials and paid services are:

  • Legacy Tree
  • My Heritage

Each company offers different services at different price points, ranging from under $100 to over $5,250. The latter includes documentation needed for preferred immigration status; if you are planning to emigrate from the U.S. to Ireland and become an Irish citizen, for example, you'll need proof that at least one grandparent was born in that country. If your interest is primarily in finding out who distant relatives were and are, Legacy Tree's comprehensive package is almost certainly overkill. A cheaper and still effective way to find those relatives is simply to use free services available on the internet.

Connecting on the Internet

A 2013 academic DNA study concluded that everyone on earth is related to everyone else. Unsurprisingly, then, when you cast a wide, if imperfect net (in this case, the internet), you're going to find a lot of relatives.

The easiest and best way to begin is simply to use the most popular social media apps. Facebook is the most popular, with over two billion active users. LinkedIn, although much smaller (106 million active users each month) is a particularly good source because if you're working in the U.S., it's become almost obligatory to sign up. But all social media sites can be helpful. A curated list of the top 15 sites is included.

How to Search on Social Media

If you're already an active social media user, you already know the drill; if this is something you haven't tried before, this is what to do:

  1. Sign up. All sites want more members, so signing up is effortless. For Facebook, for instance, go to facebook.com/reg, enter your name and email (or mobile number), give your gender and birthdate, choose a password and hit "Sign Up." You're a member. 
  2. Enter your relative's name in the search bar of whatever social media site you're on.

You'll almost always get back one or more names, often many. To narrow your search, try entering any additional info you have in the search bar. For instance, John Smith, Baltimore.

At this point, it's just a matter of connecting with the names the search has generated. Each social media site has its own way of doing things. On Facebook, you click to send a friend request. On all sites, the process – again, by design – is quite simple. Once you've started an online conversation, you can work together to see if there are familial connections.

Good luck!

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