What is a GEDCOM File?

When you work on your family tree online on various websites, you may be invited or offered the opportunity to upload a GEDCOM file. What is a GEDCOM file? Why is it so popular? What can it do for you?

GEDCOM is an acronym for Genealogical Data Communication that allows the exchange of genealogical data (a family tree) between genealogy software and websites. This file type was developed by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) as an aid to genealogical research.

These files contain genealogical information about individuals and metadata that links records together and are a great way to not only transfer your family tree from one platform to another but also share it with other family members to help with their trees.

How to Export GEDCOM Files

How to Import GEDCOM Files

As you can see, GEDCOM files are widely accepted across many genealogy websites and software programs.

What Does a GEDCOM File Look Like?

A GEDCOM file is technically computer code written in a way that websites and software programs can read and organize them into the family tree structures that we, the human, can view and understand.

While a person can physically read the computer code using a text reader such as Notepad. However, to most, it may look like a mess of data. Don’t worry! The computer knows what to do with it.

GEDCOM file

Can You Edit a GEDCOM File?

Technically, yes. You can edit a GEDCOM file. To do so, you’d open the file in the Notepad.exe program. Notepad has no fancy editing or formatting options, it just reads the text as the computer would see it to parse information.

However, you must be careful. Certain genealogy websites and programs that use and accept GEDCOM files are looking for specific information in a specific arrangement before it can successfully upload a GEDCOM file. One missing piece and the whole file can fail to upload and it may not always be obvious why.

FunFact: Notepad can also be used to write and edit HTML website files.

What Does a GEDCOM File Contain?

A GEDCOM file can contain a lot of important information from your family tree.

  • Names
  • Important dates
    • Birth
    • Marriage
    • Death
  • Burial locations
  • Census locations
  • Relationships
  • Military data
  • Adoption Information
  • Resource information (links and citations) for where the data came from

Basically, a GEDCOM file will contain the information that you provided for every single person on the family tree. Correct or not.

What GEDCOM Won’t Do

There are a few noticeable downsides to the GEDCOM file.

  1. The GEDCOM file you create will most likely not contain any media files. This means, .pdfs, .pngs, jpgs, etc. won’t stay attached to the person and must be uploaded and reattached wherever it is used.
  2. Given these files are created using the information that you’ve provided, the file can contain incorrect or incomplete information. The file relies on you for the accuracy of the data. It isn’t meant to be a tool to fix any errors or find new information.
  3. If the import of a GEDCOM file fails, it’s not always obvious why and you may have to contact support.
  4. If you do a GEDCOM file import over existing data, some data may be overwritten or duplicated causing a mess within the family tree.

Have you used a GEDCOM file to move your family tree from one source to another? What are your thoughts on GEDCOM?