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Federal Statutes: A Beginner’s Guide

Statutes, also known as acts, are laws passed by a legislature. This research guide explains the statutory publication process for federal laws.


J.A. Bonn, engraver. Capitol. 1860. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Statutes, also known as acts, are laws passed by a legislature. Federal statutes are the laws passed by Congress, usually with the approval of the President. Federal statutes are published in three formats:

  1. Initial publication as a slip law;
  2. Arranged by law number in the United States Statutes at Large1; and
  3. Codification in the United States Code or its predecessors.

We will review each step. Before delving into the publication process; however, a brief review of some statutory terminology may be helpful. A researcher will generally be dealing with two forms of law–public law and private law. Public laws, which are the most common form of law passed by Congress, “affect society as a whole.” Private laws, on the other hand, only “affect an individual, family, or small group.” Additionally, while public laws are usually codified into the United States Code, private laws are not because the United States Code is a codification of only the “general and permanent laws of the United States.”

Slip laws are individually paginated pamphlets, each containing a single statute.  Session laws are bound collections of the slip laws enacted in a session of a legislature. Codes are subject compilations of statutes currently in effect, as amended.

You can find federal slip laws, session laws, and codified laws in print and electronic sources. You can search for statutes using a citation or popular name, or using the subject of the statute – for a quick reference guide to resources for finding statutes, see the "Quick Reference" page of this guide.

For information about tracing a federal statute, visit the page on tracing federal legislation on the Law Library’s companion guide, Compiling a Federal Legislative History: A Beginner’s Guide.


  1. Public laws are also collected into the United States Code Congressional and Administrative News (USCCAN). This publication contains selected congressional committee documents, such as reports and hearings, as well. Back to text