These contain records of entire families, that is the people who were living in a house on the day of the census, usually about the beginning of April. They are readily available, in Britain, from the year 1841 and censuses have been taken every ten years since then. The problem is that they did not have indexes, so to find someone you need to know where they were living at the time of the census.
The Church of the Latter Day Saints, the Mormons, have created an index for the whole of the 1881 census and this is available both on CD and online. But don't be too surprised if you can't find the person for whom you are looking. Some people were on holiday or business outside the country and so were excluded. Some people, somehow, have been completed omitted.
The 1901 census is available online and is indexed.
Some other British censuses are starting to be indexed. The first project was a partial index for some of the 1851 records, but since then records are now becoming available on CD or DVD, and are gradually being indexed as well
Censuses were taken before 1841, but few still exist (as far as I know). I believe that they started in the year 1801. Some are available for 1831 and even 1821. (Would someone please tell me where these can be found?)
The American censuses also take place every ten years, but they are one year earlier.
These are available from 1837 in Registry offices all over the country and also online for Cheshire, Lancashire, Yorkshire and a few others. - see Certificates.
However to get back further, before 1841 or 1837, then you will have to delve into all sorts of other records. In parish records can be found records of baptisms and burials in particular, but don't forget that not everybody was of the same religion. You may have to look in the Quaker records, the Baptists records and many others as well as the Church of England records. And then, of course, not everybody was baptised.
This should get you back to about 1650. Prior to this period, records are more difficult to find, not all clergymen kept them, some destroyed their records and others have been destroyed.
Here is a quotation from a letter (received in 1906) from a German Pastor:
I am sorry to say I cannot find the Marriage Register of 1747. I have not even ever seen it. Although the Baptismal Registers go back a long way, the Marriage Register begins with 1859. The earlier ones are missing.
This was just a start to help those who ask the question "Where do I start?"
Please contact me if you would like to suggest the next steps a new genealogist should take to find his or her family.
Here are a few useful links found on the internet: