Conversation Starter: What Is Ellis Island?

Updated: May 15, 2019
Where is Ellis Island and why does it hold historical significance in the United States?
Ellis Island Immigrants

Do you know how long it takes to travel by airplane from a country in Europe to New York City? The time is between 6 and 9 hours. When you get to one of the airports, you will have to go through “Immigration” where a border control officer from the Department of Homeland Security will check your passport before you will be allowed to leave the airport and officially enter the United States.

A long time ago, about 150 years, during the late 1800s and early 1900s, millions of people came from Europe to New York by boat. This journey took several weeks over the open ocean. And as most of the passengers were poor, they could only afford the cheapest tickets below deck, where it was cramped, dark, and dirty.  They didn’t know what the future would hold for them, as they’ve never been in America before.

Ellis Island

Arriving in a strange new land must have been pretty scary. Many people would be feeling tired and anxious about what lay ahead and whether they would be allowed to stay. The first place to go after their arrival was the immigration center at Ellis Island, known as the ‘Gateway to America’. The island sits a mile off of Manhattan Island, New York City, covers 27 acres, and takes its name from Samuel Ellis, who once owned it. And can you believe that half of all Americans can trace a family member who passed through Ellis Island on their way to a new life?

So What Happened When They Arrived?

Over in the immigration center, everyone was given a label which said their name and ship. Suitcases were left in the baggage hall and everyone climbed the stairs to the Great Hall, where they were checked by a Doctor who was looking to see if anyone had a disease which others could catch. Then someone asked them questions and took notes about things like their age and where they were from.

Most people were allowed to stay in America and went downstairs to collect their bags and then onto the money exchange. The exit was nick-named the Kissing Post because of all the happy kisses and hugs that went on as families found each other. A small number of people who were either sick or thought to cause trouble weren’t allowed to stay and had to wait for a ship home. 

The Very First Ellis Island Immigrant!

Some fifteen million people passed through Ellis Island but the first was Annie Moore from Ireland, who was traveling with her two younger brothers. They spent twelve days at sea, including Christmas Day, but were reunited with mum and dad on January 1st, 1892 which was also her fifteenth birthday!

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This article and its images were first published on, a website that helps parents to explain the world to kids, to inspire them to make a difference and to raise true global citizens.