Vital Records Explained: Are birth certificates public records?

According to the United States Census Bureau, birth certificates are public records. But the federal government does not keep files or indexes of birth certificates. Instead, it is up to the states to issue and index birth certificates. Therefore, State law determines who has the authority to access birth certificates.

Tip: You may view birth certificates and other vital records online at the National Center for Health Statistics here.

Below is everything you need to know about birth certificates and vital records in the US.

Quick take: Are birth certificates public records?

  • Yes/ No… it depends on state law (see the table below).
  • State law determines who may request a birth certificate.
  • Most states only issue certified copies of birth certificates to family members or individuals/groups who have “direct” or “legitimate reasons.
  • Birth certificates become public records after a set period.


When did birth certificates become mandatory in the US, and why?

Article seven of the Convention on the Rights of the Child states that, quote:

“The child shall be registered immediately after birth and shall have the right from birth to a name, the right to acquire a nationality and. as far as possible, the right to know and be cared for by his or her parents.”

Additionally, article eight reads:

“States Parties undertake to respect the right of the child to preserve his or her identity, including nationality, name, and family relations as recognized by law without unlawful interference. 2. Where a child is illegally deprived of some or all of the elements of his or her identity, States Parties shall provide appropriate assistance and protection, with a view to re-establishing speedily his or her identity.”

What that means is if your country is a member of the UN, one of the requirements for membership is that the government must keep records of birth and safeguard the lives of children.

The US has been a member of the UN since 1945, but the history of birth certificates in the country dates to 1902. What is vital to remember is the importance of birth certificates.

Is a birth certificate important?

According to UNICEF, a birth certificate gives the child an identity and it may prevent child abuse. Without one, what may happen to a child includes:

  • Child labor
  • Statelessness
  • Trafficking and illegal adoption
  • Early marriage
  • Child soldiers

On top of that, the government may deny you a passport, work, and other privileges if you do not have a birth certificate.

In short, a birth certificate is -proof that you were born in and therefore “belong” to a specific country. The Colorado department of public health calls a birth certificate “the most important document your child will need throughout his/her life.” Why?

  • A birth certificate establishes your child’s identity, Age, Parentage and Citizenship.

Remember, state law requires a birth certificate as primary evidence that you were born in the US. If you do not have one, the state may deny you a passport, and social security number.

Why are birth certificates public records?

In Florida, for example, under section 119.011. “Definitions as used in this chapter,” defines public records as quote:

Public record “Means all documents, papers, letters, maps, books, tapes, photographs, films, sound recordings, data processing software, or other material, regardless of the physical form, characteristics, or means of transmission, made or received pursuant to law or ordinance or in connection with the transaction of official business by any agency.”

Florida Health is the government agency tasked with issuing and keeping records of birth certificates in the state.

What that tells you is the United States does not have a federal birth registry like other countries; instead, each state issues and maintains birth certificates. So, if you are looking for birth records online, you should visit your state’s official birth/public health website (see the links below).

What happens if you do not get a birth certificate for your child?

In the US:

  • The child will not get a social security number.
  • Getting a legitimate job will be problematic for the child.
  • You will be ineligible for a driver’s license.
  • You will not get into college.

Your right to access public records

Under California law, a “member of the public” refers to all citizens apart from federal or state employees acting within the scope of their employment. Consequently, it is your legal right to access public records, and government agencies have an obligation to make public records available. Why?

Under the FOIA (Freedom of Information Act), you may request federal and state agency records, but there are three exclusions:

  • Exclusion 1: protects ongoing criminal law investigations on the condition that disclosure of the document may interfere with ongoing investigations.
  • Exclusion 2: protects informer records.
  • Exclusion 3: protects classified records.

The state or federal agency may limit access to the following public records

  • Geological and geophysical information
  • Information concerning bank supervision
  • Law enforcement records
  • Letters or memos protected by legal privileges.
  • Information that is exempt under other laws
  • Internal personal rules and practices
  • Classified information
  • Personnel and medical files.

That said. State law determines who has the authority to view public records. Check state laws below.

How to View birth certificates online

As mentioned, to view public records, you must visit the agency that collects and maintains the records. For example, if you are in Ohio, you may view or order a birth certificate online at Ohio’s Department of Public Health website.

What to remember:

  • Almost all states charge a fee.
  • States including Ohio remove birth records that are older than 125 years.
  • You may order birth certificates by mail, online, or in person.

Are birth certificates public records?

It depends on state law. For example, in California, under Cal. Health & Safety code 102430, a birth certificate is a public record excluding the part that contains the owner’s family and medical information. In Arkansas, there is a FOIA exemption. Meaning state institutions may only share birth certificate information for research purposes, and the owner must consent to the sharing.

How to get a copy of a birth certificate

To download your birth certificate or someone else’s, below is what you must do:

  • Find the state where the individual was born and the individual’s full name, sex, place of birth, and parent’s names.
  • Visit the state’s vital records/vital statistics department online or in person.
  • You must pay a fee to access birth certificates in almost all states.
  • Check state legal requirements (state law may limit access to some records, or it may only allow close relatives to download birth records).

You may use PACER (public access to court) to view court records and other public records.

State laws: Is a birth certificate a public document?

On the federal level, yes, birth certificates are public records. However, state law determines the information the public may access. For example, in some states, apart from you, only close relatives may download or view a copy of your birth certificate for a set period.

For example, Alabama code section 22-91-21, quote:

“When 125 years have elapsed after the date of birth or 25 years have elapsed after the date of death, the records of these events in the custody of the State Registrar shall become nonrestricted public records and any person may obtain copies of the records upon submission of an application containing sufficient information to locate the record and payment of the required fee.”

Birth certificate laws by state

stateState statueBirth certificate Public/ restricted statusVital records/request birth certificate
AlabamaAla. Code § 22-9A-21Public record after 125 years
AlaskaAS 18.50.310(a), Public record after 100 years from date of birth.
ArizonaTitle 36 – Public Health and Safety
§ 36-302   
Restricted access/ only immediate family may obtain copies. 
ArkansasArk. Code Ann. § 20-18-304(a).Restricted/exempt from FOIA. Requires written consent.
CaliforniaCal. Health & Safety Code § 102430.Limited public access. Medical and family information not open to public.
ColoradoColo. Rev. Stat. § 25-2-117(1)Confidential. Applicant must have direct or tangible interest (family/close relative)
ConnecticutConn. Gen. Stat. § 7-51Limited public access
Delaware16 Del. C. § 3110(f).Public record 72 years after birth
District of ColumbiaChapter 2A. Vital Records, 2018.  Become public records after 125 years after date of birth.
FloridaFla. Stat. § 382.025(1)Confidential (family/close relatives). You may only access someone else’s birth certificate through a court order.
Georgia2014 Georgia Code
Title 31 – HEALTH
Chapter 2A  
Available to close relatives or persons named in the certificate.
HawaiiHaw. Rev. Stat. § 338-18Limited public access.
IdahoIdaho Code § 74-106(4)(e)Public record after 100 years
IllinoisIllinois Vital Records Act, 410 ILCS 535/1Only parents, guardians, or persons named in the certificate have access.
IndianaIndiana Code Section 16-37-2-9Must have direct, financial, or direct interest or be a close relative
IowaIowa Code § 144.43;Limited public access. You must send a written application.
KansasK.S.A. 45-221(a)Birth certificates not available for public disclosure.
KentuckyKy. Rev. Stat. 213.131(2)Birth certificates are public records
LouisianaLa. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 40:41(B).Birth certificates are only available to persons named in the document or close relatives. You may need a court order or consent.
Maine22 M.R.S.A. § 2706.Must have direct legitimate interest or be a close relative. Public may need a court order.
MarylandSection 4-101(j),Limited public access 
MassachusettsG.L. c. 4, § 7(26)(q)Public record except for records of children born out of wedlock 
MichiganPUBLIC HEALTH CODE (EXCERPT) Act 368 of 1978 333.2894Available to relatives or persons with direct interest.,5885,7-339-71551_4645—,00.html
MinnesotaMinn. Stat. § 144.218, subd. 1 §41-57-2.Mother may designate a birth certificate public.
Mississippi§41-57-2.Must have legitimate tangible interest 
MissouriTitle XII PUBLIC HEALTH AND WELFARE Chapter 193  Not open to the public.
MontanaMont. Code Ann. § 50-15-122(5)May become public record after 30 years,(Additional%20fees%20will%20apply.)
NebraskaNeb. Rev. Stat. §71-612Public records, but you must have direct interest/close relative. 
NevadaNAC 440.021.Must provide proof of relationship to access public records or have a direct/tangible interest.
New Hampshire RSA 5-C:9.
New jerseyN.J.A.C. 8:2-2.Public record -Proof of relationship is not required.
New MexicoNMSA 1978 § 24-14-27(C).Public record after 100 years from date of birth and 50 years after death.
New York§ 4174 of the Public Health LawBirth certificates are Not public records.
North Carolina  G.S. § § 130a-93.Birth corticates are Public records -excluding the names and addresses of the child and parent
North DakotaN.D.C.C. § 23-02.1-27.Not public records
OhioOhio Rev. Code §§ 3705.093705.12.Public records
Oklahoma 63 O.S. § 1-323(ALimited public access
Oregon ORS 432.350Available to close family members
Pennsylvania35 Pa. Stat. § 450.804.You must show a direct interest
Rhode islandR.I. Gen. Laws § 3-3-23(d)Public record after 100 years
South Carolina S.C. Code § 44-63-80.Limited public access
South DakotaSDCL §§34-25-1,Public record except for records of children born out of wedlock
Tennessee T.C.A. § 68-3-205Not public record
TexasSection 552.115Public record after 75 years 
Utah § 26-2-22(4)(a).Must have direct, tangible, or legitimate interest.
Vermont18 V.S.A. § 5002, Public record
VirginiaSection 32.1-249Public record after 100 years.
Washington70.58A RCWPublic records
West VirginiaWV 16-5-28Restricted access (family/close relatives)
Wisconsin69.21 (1) (B)1.Public records
Wyoming35-1-427Public records 100 years after death.

Other Vital Records Laws