Foreign Office map relating to frontier dispute between Saudi Arabia and Persian Gulf States (Catalogue reference: FO 371/109834)

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.

  • 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
  • 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.

  • What other resources will help me find information?

    • Websites

      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.

    • Books

      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).

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.