Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Availability of PA Vital Records

I thought it might be useful, particularly for some beginners but also for those like me who always forget, to list when and where vital records from Pennsylvania tend to be available. So here's a quick reference list.

Births and Deaths

  • 1852 - 1854. This was a failed attempt of PA counties to record births and deaths statewide and they are usually available from the county Register of Wills (go to the county's government website) or archives. Sometimes, they may be available online, or an index of them will be.
  • 1873/1893 - 1905. This was a more successful attempt of counties to record births and deaths, most began in 1893 but a few (including Philadelphia, Chester, Cumberland, and Fulton) began in 1873. Some collections may go beyond 1905, for example, Philadelphia goes to 1915. These are also usually available at county level, from either the county Register of Wills (go to the county's government website) or archives. Sometimes, they may be available online (check with but also, sometimes counties will make the index available online, for example Berks County Register of Wills Index).
  • 1906 - 1963 Deaths and 1906 - 1908 Births. This was when the state took over the recording of births and deaths and actually began issuing official certificates. Up to this point, birth and death collections are merely registers or recordings, not certificates. Non-certified copies of certificates are available to order for a small fee from the PA State Archives by mail but will soon be available on (with a subscription).
  • For births or deaths preceding 1852 or between 1854 and 1873/1893, check at county or especially city level. Big cities were more likely to start recording sooner. For example, the Philadelphia City Archives has Philadelphia deaths from 1803, a collection from various city sources (hospital records, cemetery returns, etc) - the index for it is available at And Pittsburgh started recording births and deaths in 1870. But mostly, you will be looking for baptism/christening or death/burial records from churches, obituaries, cemetery records/gravestones, and probate records (such as wills) instead. Some births which occurred before 1906 were issued a delayed registration certificate beginning in 1941 and are usually found at the county seat.
  • Death certificates after 1963 and births certificates after 1908 have not been released to the public. The Pennsylvania Department of Health, who issues the birth and death certificates, releases death certificates 50 years after they were issued and birth certificates 105 years after they were issued (so the most recent years will increase as time goes on, if I forget to update this, be aware that more recent years might be available). To order a certified copy of a birth or death certificate which has not yet been released to the public from the Department of Health, you must be able to provide identification proving you are ordering your own birth certificate, or that you are immediate family, legal representative, or power of attorney. Certified copies of death certificates can also be ordered by extended family members but only those who have a "direct relationship with the decedent". Alternatively, the Social Security Death Index is available on from 1935 to present (though keep in mind not all deaths are listed here, only those with social security numbers whose deaths were reported, usually for benefits) and other options include obituaries, church records, or cemetery records/gravestones.

  • 1885 - present. Counties statewide began recording marriages/issuing marriage certificates in 1885 and continue to do so today so government recordings of marriages from this period will be found at county level, usually from the county clerk of orphans' court (see the county's government website). Some may be available online - has Pennsylvania County Marriages from 1885 - 1950, however, not all counties in this collection cover this entire period.
  • Marriage recordings prior to 1885 can sometimes be found from the county or city so check on a more local level to see what might be available - either the county or city government website. But usually, you will have to look for church records or newspaper announcements. 

For more details about this topic, see's wiki page of Pennsylvania Vital Records. This is just a quick reference guide.

Also check out's Pennsylvania BMD records in their card catalog (you can narrow it down to county level too) and's Pennsylvania collections.

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