What is a GEDCOM file? Your cheat sheet for the new release.

What is a gedcom file?

Before we deep dive into the details of GEDCOM (pronounced as JED-KOM) and what it is, the question to ask is: why do you even need yet another genealogy file format? Why not simply use a universal nomenclature such as either XML or the more recent JSON file format?

Why do we need a Genealogical Data Communication (GEDCOM) file format?

GEDCOM file specification was created by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church or Mormon Church) primarily to store and transfer genealogy information of families and individuals. The file format grew in popularity and was slowly adopted by other companies and genealogy enthusiasts to build family trees and link meta data of families and individuals. The GEDCOM file specification and format is copyrighted by The Church. It makes sense that in 1985 when family meta data had to be stored, there was a need for a specification which had definitions and rules to store all this information. 

What is a GEDCOM file?

You can see a sample GEDCOM file on the right panel. The file contains several lines arranged neatly in three columns. The first column is an identifier. The second column is a 4 letter code representing the attribute and the third column is the actual value of that attribute. The file itself has three sections: a header, footer and the middle section (which carries genealogical information of the individual or the family). 

This sample file was taken from GEDCOM’s website. I have truncated the file for better readability. In case you need to see other samples .ged files please visit the above URL. Each entry in the .ged file is first defined using an identifier “@” and the subsequent lines then carry meta information about the individual such as birth/death date, place of birth/death, place of burial, children and spouse information etc. You can scroll below to the end of this blog to find the entire list of meta data that can be added in a GEDCOM file.

GEDCOM’s latest specification is version 5.5.5 which was released in 2019 after almost 30 years since its first inception.


Is there a specific GEDCOM software that can be used to open a ged file?

As you can see from the sample file, this is a simple text format and does not require any special software to open them. You can use a simple text editor such as Notepad (Windows) or Textedit (Mac) to open these files and make direct edits. You can also use any spreadsheet software such as Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets to view them.

If you want to construct a family tree, then you should use other software such as Gramps, Twile, Familysearch, Rootsweb or Ancestris. If you are an Ancestry customer, you can download your family tree in GEDCOM format and use it in other third party software. Some of these tools also allow you to merge multiple GEDCOM files by matching specific fields such as Name, Birth date etc. from these files. 

Higher accuracy in ancestry matching with GEDCOM + DNA

Curating a family tree is more a manual process as you construct it based on historical evidence or known familial information. DNA testing can enhance the accuracy of family trees in two ways:

  1. Improve accuracy and validate pre-existing family connections. 
  2. Discover new family connections that you may not be aware of. For example, a third cousin on your maternal side that was not part of your family tree before. 

Ancestry DNA allows you to download GEDCOM files that you created. Similarly, companies like MyHeritage have the option to upload GEDCOM files from other companies. Gedmatch also allows you to upload GEDCOM files to connect with DNA matches on their website.  

Source: https://www.gedcom.org/gedcom.html

2 VERS 5.5.5
3 VERS 5.5.5
2 NAME GEDCOM Specification
2 VERS 5.5.5
2 CORP gedcom.org
3 WWW www.gedcom.org
1 DATE 2 Oct 2019
2 TIME 0:00:00
1 FILE 555Sample.ged
1 LANG English
0 @I1@ INDI
1 NAME Robert Eugene /Williams/
2 SURN Williams
2 GIVN Robert Eugene
2 DATE 2 Oct 1822
2 PLAC Weston, Madison, Connecticut, United States of America
2 SOUR @S1@
3 PAGE Sec. 2, p. 45
2 DATE 14 Apr 1905
2 PLAC Connecticut, United States of America
2 PLAC Spring Hill Cemetery, Stamford, Fairfield, Connecticut, United States of America
1 FAMS @F1@
1 FAMS @F2@
2 DATE from 1900 to 1905
0 @I2@ INDI
1 NAME Mary Ann /Wilson/
2 SURN Wilson
2 GIVN Mary Ann
2 DATE BEF 1828
2 PLAC Connecticut, United States of America
1 FAMS @F1@
0 @I3@ INDI
1 NAME Joe /Williams/
2 SURN Williams
2 GIVN Joe
2 DATE 11 Jun 1861
2 PLAC Idaho Falls, Bonneville, Idaho, United States of America
1 FAMC @F1@
1 FAMC @F2@
2 PEDI adopted
2 DATE 16 Mar 1864
0 @F1@ FAM
1 HUSB @I1@
1 WIFE @I2@
1 CHIL @I3@
2 DATE Dec 1859
2 PLAC Rapid City, Pennington, South Dakota, United States of America
0 @F2@ FAM
1 HUSB @I1@
1 CHIL @I3@
1 REPO @R1@
2 CALN 13B-1234.01
0 @R1@ REPO
1 NAME Family History Library
2 ADR1 35 N West Temple Street
2 CITY Salt Lake City
2 STAE Utah
2 POST 84150
2 CTRY United States of America

Is GEDCOM file a more efficient way to store ancestral data?

GEDCOM file specification is almost 35 years old. There have been few attempts in the past to move away from this file format. GEDCOM X was an attempt to move away from a more proprietary and obsolete approach to an open source nomenclature with inter-operability. Gramps which is another open-source genealogy framework also is another attempt to move away from the traditional GEDCOM specification. 

Since many modern apps heavily rely on JSON format for meta-data storage, I feel genealogy companies should also make this a universal standard while adopting some strengths from earlier file specifications. 

Other FAQs on GEDCOM

Twile is an online tool that can help you with merging multiple .ged files into one. 

Gramps and Twile are some good alternatives that you may want to try. 

A short name of a title, description, or name.

The contemporary place, usually required for postal purposes, of an individual, a submitter of information, a repository, a business, a school, or a company.

The first line of an address.

The second line of an address.

The third line of an address.

Adoption is a legal event that changes a child’s legal parents from one set of parents to another set of parents.
While some of the parents involved are likely to be biological or official parents, neither assumption should be made.
Adoption is an event that changes who the legal parents are. A child that has been adopted can be adopted again. The official parents should not be assumed to be the biological parents. A child can and often is adopted by a biological or official parent. In many jurisdictions, a child is technically always adopted by a couple, even if one of them is already is a legal parent.

The age of the individual at the time an event occurred, or the age listed in the document.

The institution or individual having authority and/or responsibility to manage or govern.

Declaring a marriage void from the beginning (retroactively invalid).

An indicator to link friends, neighbours, or associates, who aren’t close relatives of an individual.

The name of the individual who created or compiled information.

The event of baptism, performed in infancy or later.

The religious ceremony held when a Jewish boy reaches age 13.

The religious ceremony held when a Jewish girl reaches age 13, also known as “Bat Mitzvah.”

The emergence of offspring from their mother as a separate being. Birth does not imply life. Birth includes stillbirth.

The action of burying a body.
BURI includes all forms of burial, including burial at sea, and as there is no separate event for interment (entombment), BURI is used for that too.

The number used by a repository to identify the specific items in its collections.

The name of an individual’s rank or status in society which is sometimes based on racial or religious differences, or differences in wealth, inherited rank, profession, occupation, etc.

A description of the cause of the associated event or fact, such as the cause of death.

The event of the periodic count of the population for a designated locality, such as a national or state Census.

Indicates a change, correction, or modification. Typically used in connection with a DATE to specify when a change in information occurred.

The biological, official or legal (adopted) child of a parent or parents.

The religious event of baptising and naming a child.

The religious event of baptizing and naming an adult person.

A lower level jurisdictional unit. Normally an incorporated municipal unit.

The religious rite that confirms membership of a church (confirms because previously established by baptism).

A statement that accompanies data to protect it from unlawful duplication and distribution.

A name of an institution, agency, corporation, or company.

Disposal of a body by fire, by burning it to ashes.

The name of the country.


The time of an event in a calendar format.

The end of a life.

A system receiving data.

The legal dissolution of a marriage.

An event of filing for a divorce by a spouse.

The physical characteristics of a person, place, or thing.

Indicator of a level of education attained.

An electronic mail address.
GEDCOM 5.5.1 lists EMAIL as EMAI (no L) in this Appendix. A forgiving GEDCOM 5.5.1 reader may treat EMAI as a synonym for EMAIL.
A GEDCOM 5.5.5 writer must use EMAIL (the actual tag). A GEDCOM 5.5.5 reader must reject EMAI (no L) as an illegal tag and abort processing.

An event of leaving one’s homeland with the intent of residing elsewhere.

An event of recording or announcing an agreement between two people to become married.

Pertaining to a noteworthy happening related to an individual, a group, or an organisation. An EVEN (event) structure is usually qualified or classified by a subordinate use of the TYPE record.

Pertaining to a noteworthy attribute or fact concerning an individual, a group, or an organisation.
A FACT structure is usually qualified or classified by a subordinate use of the TYPE record.

The FAM (family group) structure records a single family group; a couple and their children. The group consist of two partners, either or both of which may be unknown, with or without children. The partners may or may not be spouses, and may or may not have children, but are biological, official or legal parents to each of the children in the group.
Recording a single family often requires more than one family group record.

Identifies the family group in which an individual appears as a child.

Identifies the family group in which an individual appears as a partner.
The name and abbreviation of this record are misleading: the individual need not be a spouse in that family group. The family group record is used for all relationships, not just marriages. Do not assume that the person is a spouse in that family group.

Electronic facsimile transmission.

Literally the first communion an individual partakes in. Communion is a rite within christian churches, and the first communion is considered a rite of passage.

The name of an external file, or, in the case of HEAD.FILE, the original filename of this GEDCOM file.

A phonetic rendering of a superior text string.

A given or earned name used for official identification of a person.

An event of awarding educational diplomas or degrees to individuals.

A partner in a FAM (family group) record, often male, often partner to a woman, and a biological, official or legal parent to each of the children of the couple.
The name of this record strongly suggests that the line value must identify a husband, but that is not the case; the relationship need not be a marriage, and the individual need not be male, it may identify a woman in a lesbian relationship.

Same-Sex Marriage in GEDCOM
An identifier, often called a number, assigned to identify a person within some significant external system.
The value typically isn’t number, but a value containing spaces and dashes in addition to letters and digits.
The prime example is a passport “number”. American genealogists often record Social Security Numbers.
The difference between the INDO record and the REFN record is that the IDNO record is for third-party numbers, and the REFN record is for user-defined numbers.

An event of entering into a new locality with the intent of residing there.

A person.

The name of the language used in a communication or transmission of information.

Latitude of a position on the globe.

Longitude of a position on the globe.

Pertains to a representation of measurements usually presented in a graphical form.

An event of an official public notice given that two people intend to marry.

An event of recording a formal agreement of marriage, including the prenuptial agreement in which marriage partners reach agreement about the property rights of one or both, securing property to their children.

An event of obtaining a legal license to marry.

Marriage is an official and legal event, defined by the applicable law and customs of the land and the time, that creates a couple, possibly with children. This includes so-called common law marriages.
The name of this record is ill-chosen. The MARR record isn’t a marriage record, but a relationship record.
The MARR record can and must be used for all relationship types, with marriage merely being the default relationship type for the couple.

Marriage in GEDCOM
Same-Sex Marriage in GEDCOM
An event of creating an agreement between two people contemplating marriage, at which time they agree to release or modify property rights that would otherwise arise from the marriage.

Information about the media or having to do with the medium in which information is stored.

Depending on context, a product name, repository name or an individual’s full name. The NAME must not contain nobility titles. The NAME may contain earned titles and salutations (See NPFX, page 127).
More than one NAME record should be used for individuals known by multiple names.

The nationality of an individual.

The event of obtaining citizenship.

The number of children that this individual (INDI.NCHI) or couple (FAM.NCHI) has.

A descriptive or familiar that is used instead of, or in addition to, one’s proper name.

The number of relationships (FAM records as a partner) this person would occur in if all relationships were included.

Additional information provided by the submitter for understanding the enclosing data.

Text which appears on a name line before the given and surname parts of a name. e.g. Lt. Cmndr. Joseph /Allen/ Jr.
In this example Lt. Cmndr. is considered as the name prefix portion.

Text which appears on a name line after or behind the given and surname parts of a name. e.g. Lt. Cmndr. Joseph /Allen/ Jr.
In this example Jr. is considered as the name suffix portion.

Pertaining to a grouping of attributes used in describing something. Usually referring to the data required to represent a multimedia object, such an audio recording, a photograph of a person, or an image of a document.

The type of work or profession of an individual.

A number or description to identify where information can be found in a referenced work.

Information pertaining to an individual to parent lineage chart.

A unique number assigned to access a specific telephone.

A jurisdictional name to identify the place or location of an event.

A code used by a postal service to identify an area to facilitate mail handling.

An event of judicial determination of the validity of a will. May indicate several related court activities over several dates.

Pertaining to possessions such as real estate or other property of interest.

Refers to when and/or where a work was published or created.

An assessment of the certainty of the evidence to support the conclusion drawn from evidence.

A description or number used to identify an item for filing, storage, or other reference purposes.

A relationship value between the indicated contexts.

A religious denomination to which a person is affiliated or for which a record applies.

An institution or person that has the specified item as part of their collection(s).

An address or place of residence that a family or individual resided.

The event of ending one’s occupational career.

A number assigned to a record by an originating automated system that can be used by a receiving system to report results pertaining to that record.

A name given to a role played by an individual in connection with an event.

A romanised transcription of a superior text string.

Indicates the sex of an individual; male, female, intersex or unknown.

The initial or original material from which information was obtained or (HEAD.SOUR) the system that created the GEDCOM file.

A name piece used as a non-indexing pre-part of a surname.

A geographical division of a larger jurisdictional area (country), such as a province or state.

An individual or organization who contributes genealogical data to a file or transfers it to someone else.

A family name passed on or used by members of a family.

The exact wording found in an original source document.

A time value in a 24-hour clock format, including hours, minutes, and optional seconds, separated by a colon (:). Fractions of seconds are shown in decimal notation.

A description of a specific writing or other work, such as the title of a book when used in a source context, or a formal designation used by an individual in connection with positions of royalty or other social status, such as Grand Duke.

A further qualification to the meaning of the superior record. The value does not have any computer processing reliability. It is more in the form of a short one or two word note that should be displayed any time the associated data is displayed.

A partner in a FAM (family group), often female, often partner to a man, and a biological, official or legal parent to each of the children of this couple.
The name of this record strongly suggests that the line value must identify a wife, but that is not the case; the relationship need not be a marriage, and the individual need not be female, it may identify a man in a gay relationship.

Same-Sex Marriage in GEDCOM
A legal document treated as an event, by which a person disposes of his or her estate, to take effect after death. The event date is the date the will was signed while the person was alive. (See also PROB (probate), page 128.)

World Wide Web address.


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  1. Antoine, are you positive for F1947.2 (and R-L562) ? Would be very interesting for me. I’m in the Haplogroup BY43393 (FTDNA) or Y140591 (YFull) or BY57626 (YTree) and F1947.2 is one of our SNPs…

    1. Hi Sven. Thanks for connecting. Since I created these placeholder groups, I am shown as one of the members having this haplogroup. Ancestry match will be opening up for public registrations soon. I hope you are able to connect with others who share the same haplogroup as yours once we open up registrations.