How to look for records of... Foreign countries

How can I view the records covered in this guide?

View online

How many are online?

  • None
  • Some
  • All

Order copies

We can either copy our records onto paper or deliver them to you digitally

Pay for research

Use our paid search service or find an independent researcher

Visit us

Visit us in Kew to see original documents or view online records for free

This is a brief guide to researching records of foreign countries. Our records cover many different aspects of British government relations with foreign countries, from correspondence between diplomats to protocols of treaties. This guide will help you to identify some key sources of information which will help you with your research.

1. What do I need to know before I start?

Try to find out:

  • if the country has been known by another name
  • if the country was ever a British colony or dependency

2. What records can I see online?

Cabinet Papers (1916-1978)

Search and download British Cabinet Papers  (£) discussing relationships with specific foreign countries.

Index to Foreign Office correspondence (1920-1953 and 1959)

Consult the online index (FO 409) to do a detailed search of Foreign Office correspondence for this period.
Please note, not all documents listed in the indexes survive.

3. What records can I find at The National Archives at Kew?

International relations (16th century onwards)

Search Discovery, our catalogue, for records of Britain’s relations with other countries in papers from the State Paper Office (SP) and Foreign Office (FO). To focus your search, use the name of the country or other relevant terms and specify collection SP or FO.

It is worth noting that from 1577 to 1906 the State Paper and Foreign Office records are arranged by country, e.g. SP 71 for Barbary States and SP 91 for Russia; FO 1 for Abyssinia and FO 22 for Denmark.

Foreign Office correspondence (1906-1966)

Search our catalogue for records of the Foreign Office’s Political Departments in FO 371. Many records are only catalogued by country.

For a more detailed subject index to Foreign Office correspondence 1906-1919, consult the card index in the reading rooms.

For 1920-1953 consult the online FO 409 index (see above).

Confidential Print (1711-1960)

Search our catalogue below by name of country for confidential print from the Foreign Office in FO 881. These documents consist of diplomatic reports, memoranda and correspondence originally produced for limited circulation within the British government.  Further copies exist in other FO series

To access these records you will either need to visit us, pay for research (£) or, where you can identify a specific record reference, order a copy (£).

4. What records can I find in other archives and organisations?

International archives

Visit the websites of archives in the country of interest to find records of their government’s relations with Britain. Contact details for some national archives are available via Find an archive.

5. What other resources will help me find information?


Consult Documents on British Policy Overseas (institutional subscription required) for key documents from the 20th century. The collections have also been published and should be available in many universities and a few public libraries.


Read The Records of the Foreign Office, 1782-1968 by Michael Roper (Public Record Office Publications, 2002).

Read Never Complain, Never Explain. Records of the Foreign Office and the State Paper Office 1500-c.1960 by Louise Atherton (PRO Readers’ Guide No 7, 1994).

6. Did you know?

The National Archives holds records of England, Wales and the United Kingdom’s overseas relations dating back to the late 12th century.

The Foreign Office was formed in 1782 and merged into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1968.

Records of the Foreign Office’s Political Departments (FO 371) contain over 190,000 volumes which consist of over 16.5 million pages. They contain references to many well known figures from Laurence of Arabia to King Zog of Albania.

Most Foreign Office records fall into seven major categories

  • General Correspondence
  • Registers and Indexes
  • Embassy and Consular Archives
  • Confidential Print
  • Treaties
  • Private and Private Office Papers
  • Archives of Commissions and Conferences

Letters were sometimes printed for circulation to government officials. This is called Confidential Print (but is no longer confidential). It can provide a valuable short-cut to finding the main correspondence on an issue.

Maps and plans acquired by the Foreign Office often accompanied reports and dispatches. Many others were acquired from map sellers in order to assist comprehension of diplomatic and territorial relations abroad.