With the treasure trove of information on the internet, tracing your family history is now easier than ever. Online records and archives can help you fill in the blanks about your ancestors, providing genealogy information that you just can't get from your living relatives.

As records continue to be scanned, digitised and put online, information is becoming even more readily available, but piecing together a family tree is still a time-consuming exercise.

This guide helps you navigate your way through the forest to find your particular tree.

How to get started

Gather as many family details from living relatives as you can before going online to kick off your search, so that you have somewhere solid to start. Get as many of the important details as you can, such as names, dates and places. Also think about recording your relatives' stories to add a bit of colour to your family tree – most family history software will let you attach multimedia files.

  • Go to the births, deaths and marriages registries to mine their database for information. Be aware though that recent records are restricted by privacy laws. Birth records in NSW can be found online from 1788 to 1911, death records from 1788 to 1981 and marriage records up to 1961, but records for more recent years can only be viewed by those named on the certificate. Local libraries hold copies of births, deaths and marriages records on microfiche.
  • Some other areas for your research include cemetery, war and immigration records; newspaper archives for notices; convict registers; The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) Family History Unit; and service records. Links for many of these and other sites can be found on the National Library of Australia's family history page.
  • Joining a family history group can introduce you to others with similar interests and provide help if you run into a dead end with your research. Some groups have their own resources and run seminars to help educate people on how to find out about their ancestry.
  • You can pay the births, deaths and marriages registry to conduct a search on your behalf if you don't want to do the searching yourself, but they charge a fee for each search. There are also transcription agents, but be sure to only use one licensed by the registry, and check out the cost beforehand. These can be useful if you want some details but not a full copy or transcript of a certificate.

Family tree software

There are both free and paid family history software products that can act as your own family history database.

One good free option is Gramps, which has a good list of features and is relatively easy to use. Personal Ancestral File (PAF) is best used with PAF Companion for printing charts and reports, and both can be downloaded for free, while Brother's Keeper is a Windows-only program that can also be downloaded online.

Several features are important in a family tree program. Genealogical Data Communication (GEDCOM) is a standardised format for recording family history data. GEDCOM compatibility allows easy sharing of data with other researchers, and is also needed to upload files to online genealogy sites. The free programs all save files in this format.

Look for a program that allows multimedia like videos, photos and audio files so you can include interviews, family photos and scanned certificates or records.

Free online records

We recommend using the free websites listed below, starting with the Births, Deaths and Marriages government sites. If all the free avenues have been exhausted, then consider paying for access to other resources.

The paid sites give you access to a database to make the job of tracing your family history easier, and streamline the process of researching and sharing a family tree. There can also be ongoing costs for the convenience of having a one-stop shop for your family tree though, so consider carefully going down this route.

It's important to read sites' privacy policies, particularly if they're not based in Australia, as international sites won't adhere to our privacy laws. Sensitive, personal family information should be protected, and keep in mind that not everyone in the family tree may want it put online.

State government websites

It's now possible to find records for relatives going back several generations, and in some cases complete records and certificates can be viewed online.

Start with your home state or territory births, deaths and marriages website.

Other free resources

Paid family history sites

Always read the fine print before signing up to any paid sites, and be wary of supplying credit card details to activate a free trial. Local sites include ancestry.com.au and find my past, which also have links to UK and US records. Note that a library edition of ancestry.com.au can be used at the National Library of Australia.

A few others include My Heritage, TribalPages and One Great Family.

The Gould Genealogy and History site sells a large range of family tree software as well as other resources for research and archiving.

You might want to consider sharing the cost among several people in your family. This also encourages family members to collaborate on the project and share information they've uncovered.

Cemeteries and DNA searches online

Cemetery records

Location technology is starting to be used to help family historians find gravestones and burial sites on a map on cemetery websites.

In Australia, the Centennial Park Cemetery in Adelaide, which has 134,000 burial and memorial sites, allows you to search records online, along with location details, so that family historians can find information about relatives including age, date of death and area of residence.

DNA ancestry search websites

The new frontier in family history research appears to be in DNA testing. Services have sprung up around the world offering DNA ancestry testing for upwards of $300. Most services have websites with information on how and what they test and offer downloadable information kits, with some even claiming to be able to link people to well-known figures from history.

However, the growth in this new field of research has also attracted criticism. Some scientists and geneticists say the tests are essentially meaningless in terms of showing reliable links to ancestral origins. The results are probabilities and aren't conclusive; for example, in terms of ancestral origin to a geographic area, a guaranteed link can't be established.

Other experts are uneasy about these services because the databases of samples are limited and rely on assumptions that may not be accurate. Each individual has a set of genes derived from thousands of ancestors, and these tests can skew the picture by looking too far back into the past.

There are no genetic ancestry testing standards or framework to make the results better understood to people who want an insight into their ancient ancestry. A good discussion of this new area of research with useful links to DNA project websites is available on the genealogy reference site genuki.