Immigration & Name Changes: From Ellis Island to Today

By Katherine at Legal Language
Posted on 09/17/2010
In Immigration, News

For many people arriving in America during the 19th or early 20th century, immigration meant more than a new home — it also meant a new name.

A name change was a very common part of the immigration process 100 years ago, but US immigrants rarely change their names today — even though USCIS makes changing your name fairly easy!

What’s in a Name?

Many immigrants chose to change their names — or had their names changed for them — when they came to the United States.

Many immigrants chose to change their names to something they believed was more “American-sounding.”

The reasons for choosing new names were simple — to help themselves assimilate into a new culture and to make any stores or businesses they founded more inviting. Immigrants with less “exotic-sounding” names were also less likely to be discriminated against.

Also, undocumented immigrants began to go by different names to avoid detection by officers.

Immigrants also had their names altered post-documentation at Ellis Island. Once in America, immigrants typically had their names entered into official records by those who were already English-speaking (i.e., teachers, landlords, employers, judges etc.). This could explain a lot of small name changes over time.

In addition, name changes weren’t always part of the legal immigration process. The documentation of name changes has only been required during the naturalization process since 1906.

When Did the Name Change Process Decline in Popularity?

An article by The New York Times noted that there was no real precise time when the name change process that was somewhat synonymous with immigration started to fall off. It has certainly become more scarce in the last few decades as trends indicate people embracing their multicultural roots.

In the earlier part of the 20th century, many people went through the name change process — not for immigration, but for show business. People with Italian or Jewish-sounding surnames were worried that the movie-going public would not embrace them. Now when budding stars change their names, it is usually for brevity’s sake and not for fear of discrimination in their industry.

Immigration & Name Changes in the Present

While the practice is no longer the standard, US Citizenship and Immigration Services makes it incredibly easy for a prospective US citizen to change his or her name.

On the N-400 Application for Naturalization, all you have to do is check a box and write your new name on the line beside the box. At your naturalization ceremony, you will be awarded a Certificate of Citizenship with your new legal name on it!

While many choose to keep their names, some people still choose the immigration process to change their names — but usually if they are newly married or if their birth name proves to be incredibly hard to pronounce or spell.

Of course, once you are awarded your new legal name along with your citizenship, you still must update records like your Social Security and your driver’s license or ID cards, as well as your bank account and any credit cards. It adds a lot of hassle to the otherwise easy process of changing your name through immigration!

8 Responses to “Immigration & Name Changes: From Ellis Island to Today”

  1. Roxann Lada Says:

    I am wondering if there is a way to find out what a name was prior to immigration. I think the family name was changed and am trying to conduct a family history research.

  2. Diane at Legal Language Says:

    If you know where the person entered the United States (for example, Ellis Island), that location may be able to help you in your research!

  3. Andrea Says:

    What are their names. Their for my he tomorrow tell me!

  4. Andrea Says:

    I mean hw

  5. seekerJay Says:

    “For many people arriving in America during the 19th or early 20th century, immigration meant more than a new home — it also meant a new name.

    A name change was a very common part of the immigration process 100 years ago,. . .”

    This patently 100% untrue. A simple browser search on terms like ‘Ellis Island name change’ will bring to many articles that explain why your assertion is a gold-plated myth and absolutely false.

    To get you started:

    * “Why Your Family Name Was Not Changed at Ellis Island (and One That Was)”

    * “American Names / Declaring Independence” (scroll down about 1/3 way)

    * “No, Family Names Were Not Changed at Ellis Island”

    * “Family History Friday: The real scoop about name changes in immigration records.”

    * “American Names: Declaring Independence”,0808-smith.shtm

    Please correct your error.

  6. Kaytie at Legal Language Says:

    Hello Jay,

    Thanks for commenting and bringing more depth to this post. It is clear that immigration officers themselves did not likely change names, and we’ve corrected the post to show that.

    However, it seems to hold true that newcomers to the US did often change their names at some point. It was still very much part of the immigration process as a whole, if not specifically an attribute of Ellis Island.

    Thanks for commenting!

    -Kaytie at Legal Language

  7. Cammi Says:

    I was told by a genealogist that there was a law, sometime in the mid to late 1800s that said that if a Slavic immigrant (Czech, Bohemian, Hungarian etc) had a difficult name, they had to change it to a more common ‘Americanized’ name (thus, Vaclav became James etc) and that there was a matrix that was used when the person entered the country, to change it. The law was supposedly only nullified sometime in the 1900s (like around the 1940-70s). I cant find anything on this… is it possibly true? It would make perfect sense. And if it really did happen, I would see why the government would keep it hush-hush… how offensive that they would be to the immigrant and how insensitive that would make us!

  8. lili Says:

    what if the problem is that of an omission of say one of your middle names by immigration and you do not want to go through a change of name to correct it/

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