You can usually access court records, census records, property tax data and other public information completely free of charge, but finding information isn't easy. You have to know what you're looking for and be prepared to search multiple databases in different counties and cities. Some people-related search websites can compile the information for you but usually charge a fee.
Start Your Search at VitalRec
Vitalrec is a central search engine for public records offering links to every state, city and county records office in the country. It doesn't link directly to public information but it will take you to the relevant government database where you can search for the records yourself. The site is organized by state; click the link to your state then follow the on-screen instructions to find the records you're looking for. There's no need to register, and the site is 100 percent free to use.
Dig Around Family Tree Now
Genealogy websites offer plenty of tools to help you find birth, death, census and military records but you'll usually need a membership to access the good stuff. Family Tree Now is one of the few sites that offers this service for free. Simply type in the name of the person you're searching and the site will pull up the person's date of birth, employer, past and current addresses, known associates and public records data. Individuals can opt out of the Family Tree Now database, so be aware that you may not get any matches.
Take a Free Trial at Ancestry.com
The granddaddy of genealogy websites, Ancestry.com holds official records relating to every major life event. Whether you're after birth, marriage, death, divorce, adoption, prison, military, church or census records, you'll likely find them here. The catch is that it's a paid site. Ancestry.com does offer a two-week trial period, however, during which you can search all the databases for free. Your data won't be saved when the trial period ends, so be sure to print out the items you need if you're not taking out a subscription.
Run a People Search
People-related search engines like Zabasearch and Pipl can find lots of public information about a person and all you have to do is type in a name. Both sites offer free and paid services. The free service is a good jumping off point, and you should turn up past and current addresses that will help you to figure out which county records to search. The paid service will give you a lot more information including criminal records, bankruptcies, court judgments, aliases, marriage records and more. Expect to pay around $40 for a onetime report.
Check Out Government Websites
If you know where the person you're searching lives, type "court records" and the name of the county into a search engine. Many counties maintain an online database of criminal, civil and small claims cases that you can usually search for free. To find birth, death and marriage records, visit the Center for Disease Control's website for vital records. Click the link for your state and read how you can find the information. Most times, you'll have to write to the county clerk and pay a fee, but some areas keep a free searchable database online.
Visit the Library
Many libraries offer free access to genealogy websites and other portals filled with public records. Some of these libraries even offer these services online although you will need a library card to access the portals, but those that do not merely require you to visit the site at the library while using the location's wifi.