Research Tips

What is a GEDCOM?

What is a GEDCOM?

When you begin your genealogy research, you will probably be using a family tree software program and using genealogy websites. Before long, you are bound to come across the term GEDCOM, probably on a research site or a genealogy message board. People in the genealogy field refer to GEDCOMs a lot, both in a hobbyist and professional way. You will likely wonder what this is and if it is something you should be using.

Here is everything you need to know about GEDCOMs.

GEDCOM is a genealogy software term that refers to a type of file. The letters are an acronym that stand for Genealogical Data Communication. The GE in Genealogy, the D in Data, and the COM in Communication make up the acronym. The GEDCOM file is a simple way to format your family tree data into a text file. Text files can be read by virtually any family tree software, and even without software devoted just to family trees. This makes GEDCOM files easy to transport between one family tree program and another one by a different company. GEDCOM files are also easy ways to share your family tree information with other people.

The GEDCOM was actually invented in 1985, way back when everything was done in DOS, and Windows didn’t exist. It was invented by the Jesus Christ Church of Latter Day Saints (aka the Mormons) in their Family History Department. Genealogy is a religious activity for the Mormons, and they have the largest genealogy library in the world in Salt Lake City, Utah, so it only makes sense that they would be the first to invent a computer file just for recording and sharing genealogy. The Mormon church still owns the GEDCOM name and format, and five and a half updated versions of it have been released since its invention. The most recent update was released in November of 2000. Current discussions are going on for an update to the current edition of GEDCOM.

While you can open a GEDCOM file in a word processor, it is not the best way to view them. It is a time-consuming and complicated task to use a word processor to open a GEDCOM. Rather than lose patience with the process, it is much easier to use a family tree software program or a program made especially for viewing GEDCOMs. You do need a program of some kind to view a GEDCOM. Otherwise, it will just look like a bunch of indecipherable code.

GEDCOMs essentially take the information in your family tree and put it into an outline. It uses tags to describe particular genealogical terms, such as BIRT for birth, INDI for individual, DATE for date, and FAM for family. Learning the tags GEDCOMs use make reading them much easier. The good news is that most tags used on GEDCOM files are easy to figure out on their own without being tutored on them.

Each record in a GEDCOM file has a level number assigned to it. Records are also organized into groups of information about one individual or one family. Each record in a group has its own line, and each line has its own record number. This is the way GEDCOMs keep information organized. The first number in a group is always zero, and the numbers go up from there. The tags that describe the records are included after the level numbers.

When you use GEDCOMs to record your family tree information, you will be able to easily transport it to any family tree program you choose. This is a particularly useful thing now that Ancestry.com is no longer supporting the popular Family Tree Maker software. If you want to move your family tree information from that program to another, you just need to convert it into a GEDCOM, which you can do within the program, and move it.

You can also use GEDCOMs to share family tree information with distant genetic relatives you may meet online. Nearly everyone has a computer with the ability to read a GEDCOM. With this useful tool at your disposal, your genealogy research can be more portable and more accessible by anyone who wants to see it. If you haven’t learned to use GEDCOMs yet, now is the perfect time to do it.


Will founded Ancestral Findings back in 1995. He has been involved in genealogy research for over 20 years. The thrill of the hunt, the adventure, and the excitement begin when he started investigating the meaning of his Moneymaker surname. Why I Love Genealogy (And You Should, Too!)

5 Comments

  • If I download my files from Ancestry.com to GEDCOM, will that in any way modify or delete my tree or records from Ancestry?

  • Will,

    Roots Magic hasn’t answered 2 inquiries on this topic:

    Do you know if Roots Magic (or anyone else) will soon announce that they will sync with the family tree files as recorded with ancestry.com?

    Do you?

  • The file will not include photos but can include links to the original photos located on your computer or family tree website. I had to transfer my photos manually.

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