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What is a GEDCOM?

Have you ever heard of a GEDCOM? In this post, find out exactly what this is, how they work, how to get one, and more.

The first time I heard about a GEDCOM, it sounded pretty high-tech. However, GEDCOMs have been around for a long time – since the early 1980s, in fact.

What is a GEDCOM

However, not all of us were using computers or doing genealogical research back then, which is why we need to learn about GEDCOMs today.

What exactly is a GEDCOM?

A GEDCOM is a special type of file designed for storing genealogical information, such as the information from a family tree, that can be easily imported and exported between genealogy software programs and websites.

GEDCOM files usually have .ged file extension. So, a GEDCOM file will usually be the name of the family tree followed by a .ged at the end:


The concept of a GEDCOM is similar to a .PDF file, or a .docx file. When someone sends up a .docx file, we know that we need to use a word processor, usually Microsoft Word, to open the file.

PDF files work in much the same way, except for there are many more programs that can open them. In fact, PDF stands for “portable document format”, and it was designed by Adobe for almost the same reason that the GEDCOM was developed, which was so that documents could be shared regardless of the specific technology used to access them.

Most websites where you can make your family tree, as well as family tree building software programs, allow you to import and export a GEDCOM file, which is an easy way to transfer your family tree from one program to another.

Some family tree researchers will also share their GEDCOMs with other genealogists. There are ways to read GEDCOM files that do not involve the use of genealogy software.

What does GEDCOM stand for?

GEDCOM stands for Genealogy Data Communication. The “GE” is for the G and E in genealogy, and the “COM” is short for “Communication”.

The name is a little bit confusing because it’s only a file extension, while the name implies that it communicates in some way. A file extension only indicates the format in which data in the file is saved, so that we know what program to use to access the data when we need it again.

However, since it has been called “GEDCOM” for almost 40 years, there is little chance of this file-type getting a new name.

How does a GEDCOM work?

GEDCOM files are essentially lines of specially formatted and coded text that are written in a way that other programs will “understand” the data and organize into a way that genealogists can easily understand.

The website or software that you used to build your family tree will usually automatically generate this file upon request.

In theory, you could write a GEDCOM yourself using Windows Notepad, if you knew what to write on each line. However, this would be a pretty daunting task because our family trees get big and complicated very quickly.

The text snippet below is from my GEDCOM file. While there are a few lines that make a little sense to me, I am glad that a computer is able to generate (and understand!) it for me:

1 NAME William /Pabodie/
2 GIVN William
2 SURN Pabodie
2 SOUR @S_986621996@
3 _APID 1,7249::107911931

We can then upload this GEDCOM file into another program, or even a website. For example, the Gedmatch website encourages GEDCOM uploads to help users use their DNA to learn about their family trees.

So, the GEDCOM is fairly low-tech, and yet the simplicity of the idea is what makes it special.

How to get a GEDCOM file

Most genealogy software programs can generate a GEDCOM for you on demand. Once the file is generated, you will be able to save and/or download it into a folder on your computer.

One of the most popular places to build a family tree is Ancestry. It is very easy to download a GEDCOM file, or export a family tree, from Ancestry, on the tree settings page.

Other software programs might have the option to “save as” a GEDCOM, or “export tree” as a GEDCOM.

If you don’t already have a family tree in a software or computer program, the fastest way to get a GEDCOM would be to create a free Ancestry account and input your ancestors, along with the information that you would like to include in the GEDCOM file, into your Ancestry tree.

You could then easily export your tree as a GEDCOM file.

I usually export my family tree as a GEDCOM file once or twice a year, or after I make an important family tree discover. This way, I have a backup of my research saved on my computer that I can access just in case.

What does a GEDCOM file contain?

GEDCOM files typically contain only information, or data. Names, dates of birth, marriage, and death, as well as other information that you have saved to your relatives profile in your family tree program, will usually be the type of information saved in a GEDCOM file.

Depending on the type of program that you used to create your family tree, you may also have sources cited in your GEDCOM. In addition, the file is set up in a way that relationships between members of the tree are preserved, meaning that they should import into a new program or website exactly as they were in the old program.

Your photographs and documents will not be included in most versions of a GEDCOM, including the one that you can download from sites like Ancestry.


I hope that this article has helped you learn everything that you want to know about the GEDCOM file, including how you can use this type of file to store your family tree. You will find that the file comes in handy on many occasions.

If you have any questions about something that you read in this post, please join in the discussion below and let me know.

Thanks for reading today!

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