Guide to Finding the Best DNA Ancestry Test

Last Updated: July 24, 2018
DNA ancestry testing at home

In recent years we have seen an explosion in the popularity of ancestry DNA testing, as many seek to use unprecedented scientific advances to help unlock the mysteries of our past. What are our ethnic origins? Where are our living relatives, and what are their stories? And as more and more people decide to take the tests, the cumulative results improve in accuracy and scope. Whether you’re an advanced genealogist or someone who just wants to learn a little more about your family history, exploring your DNA testing options is an important first step on the journey into your past.

In this comprehensive guide, you will learn about the key differences between the large direct-to-consumer testing companies, allowing you to decide which test will be best for you, given your specific goals. We have tested all of the providers extensively ourselves and done the research for you!

On this page:

Summary of our findings

We recommend reading through this entire guide to determine which test is best for your specific goals and situation. But if you’re in a hurry, here are our cut-to-the-chase recommendations:

  • If your main goal is learning about your ethnicity, or finding living relatives, we recommend AncestryDNA.
  • If your main goal is serious genetic genealogy stretching as far back into the past as possible, we recommend Family Tree DNA.
  • If your goal is learning about your ethnicity and finding living relatives, but you would also like learn about various health related factors, we recommend 23andMe.
  Family Tree DNA AncestryDNA 23andMe MyHeritage LivingDNA TeloYears
Price See latest See latest See latest See latest See latest See latest
Our Rating
Autosomal
yDNA
 
 
 
mtDNA
 
 
 
Approx. Database Size 1 million 7 million 2 million 700K   Unknown
Accepts Data from Elsewhere
   
 
Genealogical Community
   

Lastly, we try not to delve too deep into the science behind genetic testing—if you’d like to learn more about DNA testing in general, you may want to check out our How Does DNA Testing Work guide after reading this guide.

Strong competition among test providers has been a boon to consumers, as we now have a handful of solid options from which to choose. To understand our recommendations a bit better, it’s important to discuss the 3 most common types of test offered.

DNA test types

There are three types of DNA test that you’ll be able to purchase from the direct-to-consumer test providers: autosomal tests, yDNA tests, and mtDNA tests.

1

Autosomal DNA tests

Anyone can take an autosomal DNA test and it’s the best place to begin ancestry testing. By far the most common type of test taken, it’s the only test necessary for satisfying most geneology-related goals. The good news is, every provider offers autosomal testing. With some providers, like AncestryDNA, it’s the only kind offered.

Autosomal testing gives you a sweeping view of your ethnic heritage by examining the portions of your DNA that make you uniquely “you”. By comparing these genetic markers to those of various regional sample groups from around the world, DNA testing can provide you with accurate estimates of where your ancestors likely came from. You can also use autosomal testing to search for relatives on either side of your family tree, though it can’t tell you the specific branch where a match is found. Unfortunately, a process called recombination results in the random reassortment of autosomal DNA between each generation, so after a certain number of generations the information becomes too jumbled to decode. To learn more about recombination, please visit: What is DNA recombination?

A test that examines your autosomal DNA will not tell you about your paternal or maternal haplogroups. To learn more about haplogroups, please visit: What are haplogroups?

2

yDNA

The Y chromosome is one out of two possible chromosomes (X or Y) in each person’s sex chromosome pair. Only men can take yDNA tests, because only men have a Y chromosome (women have two X chromosomes); however, women can obtain the same ancestry information by asking males in their close family to take the test on their behalf, for instance their father, brother, or paternal uncle/cousin.

One of the things that makes yDNA testing powerful is that the Y chromosome does not undergo the random reassortment process called recombination that we mentioned above. This means that men inherit these portions of DNA virtually unaltered for generation after generation, and only via the male lineage, making yDNA testing perfect for exploring your paternal lineage.

3

mtDNA

mtDNA (mitochondrial DNA) makes up a very small proportion of the human genome, as its sole function is to control the energy factories of the cells (the mitochondria). Both men and women inherit mtDNA exclusively from their mother. This means that while only women will pass along their mtDNA to their children, mtDNA testing is available for men and women alike.

As with yDNA, mtDNA does not undergo recombination between generations, which means it is largely conserved and can be used for accurate tracing of your maternal lineage far back into the past.

One additional quick note: notice how we said that yDNA and mtDNA get inherited “virtually unaltered”? It’s because once in a while, a random genetic mutation will occur, which does in fact alter the inherited DNA. When a mutation gets passed down over generations and becomes prevalent to a certain degree within a population, it’s called a Single Nucleotide Polymorphism (SNP). In DNA testing, SNPs provide very important clues about your ancestral origins. For more on that, visit: What is an SNP?

Exploring the main differences between providers

Type of DNA test offered

DNA test providers vary in what types of tests they offer to you. Some offer only autosomal testing, while others offer all three types but may bundle them, making the price a bit higher. Even among the companies that provide all three types of test, offerings vary based on how extensively the tests study your yDNA or mtDNA.

Database size

Actually, both the size and the composition of a testing company’s database are important. Generally, larger size means more accurate geographical information from ethnicity testing, and that you have higher chances of being connected with living relatives. The composition of a database can also have big implications for the accuracy and detail of the ethnicity and geographic testing. A database with many samples from all over the world will be able to match your DNA to a wide range of regions, while a database with very little data from West African regions, for instance, will likely miss West African DNA in your genome. Companies vary widely in database size and composition, though they typically reveal very little or nothing about the latter for proprietary reasons. It is sometimes possible to view a list of regions covered by ethnicity testing on a company’s website, but for the purposes of comparing and choosing between the major companies, it’s generally best to focus on size.

Tools offered

One of the benefits of choosing a major DNA test provider is that they’ve taken the time to create user-friendly interfaces and tools to help you make the most of your test results. Major DNA testing companies offer tools to help you find living relatives, get a clear picture of your ethnic background, explore the geographic migrations of your ancestors, and, in the famous case of AncestryDNA, tie your DNA test results into the pursuit of mapping your family tree.

Data compatibility

Some companies allow you to export your DNA data or import data from other companies. Exporting and importing data can be useful for taking advantage of another company’s database or community; you can increase your chances of finding living relatives and learning about your ancestral origins, because your cousins might have chosen company A rather than your choice of company B. Additionally, many people upload their data to third party databases like GEDmatch. Third party databases are inexpensive and growing in popularity, but they don’t accept data from every provider, so if you intend to upload your results to another database, it is wise to check compatibility when making your selection.

Community

It’s probably not surprising that questions and confusion are common when studying DNA test results. Even so, people are often surprised by how much they can benefit from having a robust genealogical community connected to their DNA testing experience; it can make a big difference to what you can learn from your results, and it may determine whether your single-test experience blossoms into a deeper interest in genealogy. It’s one thing to learn about your ancestors’ migration patterns and your paternal haplogroup, but it’s another thing to have a community of more experienced and knowledgeable genealogy enthusiasts to help guide you toward a deeper and richer understanding of what it all means.

Budget

Cost varies by provider, and often different prices are available from the same provider based on a multitude of factors like the type of test offered, and the extensiveness of the testing. There are also related post-testing costs that can add up in certain cases if you want to use some of the features and tools that help make the most of your results. Testing can be close to $50, or close to $500, all depending on your goals.

Underrepresented populations

Historically, direct-to-consumer DNA testing was unsatisfying for those of us with non-European heritage; people who hoped to explore African, Native American, Jewish or East Asian ancestry really had a difficult time. And if you were adopted, you faced steep challenges as well. Thankfully, as the largest databases have grown more diverse thanks to a growing number of consumers, the test results have become much more useful for adoptees and people with non-European heritage. Even so, your mileage will vary from company to company, depending largely on their database, community, and the types of tests they offer.

Provider summaries and our recommendations

AncestryDNA

Strengths

AncestryDNA has the biggest database by far, at over 7 million, and a very large community of active users. This means that your autosomal test results will be very useful for identifying ethnic origins. It also makes AncestryDNA an attractive choice for adoptees, and the single best test provider if your hope is to find living relatives. Their database is very diverse at this point, making it a good testing choice for people with Jewish, African and Native American ethnicities. The ability to connect your DNA test results with Ancestry.com’s family tree interface is also very user-friendly. AncestryDNA lets you export your data elsewhere, and GEDmatch accepts it.

Weaknesses

If you’re looking for comprehensive and deep genetic genealogy, the problem with AncestryDNA is that it only offers the autosomal test. Budget also becomes a growing concern; you might expect a lower price since they only sell you one type of test, but in fact you will have to pay a monthly fee in order to continue accessing your DNA data and take advantage of some of their most useful tools. This means that the up-front cost isn’t a completely accurate reflection of what many customers end up spending. AncestryDNA won’t let you upload data from elsewhere.

Bottom line

The best ancestry testing choice for the broadest swath of people, especially those who want to build family trees and connect with living relatives. For serious genealogists, your choice should be Family Tree DNA because you’ll want to take more than just an autosomal test. Learn more at our AncestryDNA review.

Family Tree DNA

Strengths

FTDNA has arguably the best community when it comes to participation and useful projects led by passionate genealogists. And another feature that sets FTDNA apart is the ability to go the extra distance. If you’re willing to invest extra money, they offer enhanced yDNA and mtDNA tests that other providers don’t. All of this makes FTDNA a great choice for studying your paternal and maternal haplogroups and doing serious genealogical work. These powerful tools are also very useful for adoptees and those seeking to explore Jewish ancestry. Also, Family Tree DNA accepts uploaded data from other providers and allows you to export its data for use elsewhere (including at GEDmatch).

Weaknesses

Family Tree DNA lags far behind AncestryDNA in database size, which is likely why the ethnicity breakdowns of their autosomal testing are a lot less specific; they break down ethnicity into dozens of groups while AncestryDNA breaks it down into hundreds of groups. While powerful and very useful, FTDNA’s community is not as huge as AncestryDNA’s; smaller community and smaller database mean that your prospects of finding living relatives are also smaller.

Bottom line

It’s the best bet for serious genealogical goals. But for more casual interest or the goals of finding living relatives and making a family tree, it shouldn’t be the first choice. Visit our full Family Tree DNA review to learn more.

23andMe

Strengths

23andMe is one of the giants in DNA testing. Their database isn’t as big as AncestryDNA’s, but at over 2 million users it’s very strong. This allows them to carve up the globe into over a hundred and fifty different ethnicity regions of origin. Also, their nicely priced testing bundle includes all three types of test, which means you’ll get to learn about your yDNA and mtDNA as well, for what amounts to a bargain price. 23andMe lets you export your testing data for use elsewhere (in third party databases like GEDmatch, as well as other companies’ interfaces). 23andMe also allows you to combine ancestry testing with DNA testing for health purposes, if this is something you are interested in.

Weaknesses

23andMe does everything—ancestry testing as well as DNA health testing—but because they don’t focus strictly on ancestry, they’re at a bit of a disadvantage when compared to AncestryDNA and FTDNA. They database isn’t as large as AncestryDNA, and their genealogical community isn’t as helpful as those at AncestryDNA and FTDNA. The combined effect is that what you’ll be able to learn from your ancestry testing with 23andMe will likely be less useful than with the other two giants.

Bottom line

A fantastic choice for those who want to test for both ancestry and health, but who aren’t as interested in serious genealogical pursuits or are content with uploading that data elsewhere to learn more about their ancestry. Visit our full 23andMe review to learn more.

MyHeritage DNA

Strengths

MyHeritage is newer to DNA testing than some, but they have an old and very strong genealogical community. They tend to be one of the cheapest autosomal tests on the market, and often deliver results several weeks before others do. And they let you import and export DNA data (though it is not accepted at GEDmatch).

Weaknesses

Because they are newer, they still have a very small database compared to other providers, which means fewer (less useful) ethnicity regions, and less of an opportunity to connect with living relatives. Also, they don’t offer yDNA or mtDNA tests.

Bottom line

A good choice if you want to pay the lowest price and want your results fast, but don’t expect to learn as much about your ancestry as you could with other providers. We’ve got a MyHeritage DNA review to help you learn more.

TeloYears

Strengths

TeloYears is a very unique testing company, mostly centered around a specific form of health DNA testing relating to the aging process. While they don’t offer all three types of DNA test, they promise to deliver details about your paternal and maternal haplogroups thanks to their method of DNA sequencing. In terms of ancestry testing, where they really excel is with East Asian heritage thanks to the composition of their database.

Weaknesses

They have no genealogical community at all and they hide the size of their database; what we know is that their overall breakdown of ethnicity regions is roughly on par with FTDNA’s (not close to the detail of AncestryDNA’s). Like 23andMe, TeloYears offers both ancestry and health testing, and it’s really their remarkable health DNA testing that sets them apart.

Bottom line

TeloYears is a great choice if your goal is actionable health DNA results with a side order of ancestry data. But if your primary goal is ancestry testing, at this point you’re better off with a different provider. Read our full TeloYears review for more information about both the ancestry and health testing.

LivingDNA

Strengths

LivingDNA’s greatest strength is the level of detail they offer on ancestry from the British Isles. Their testing bundle includes all three types of DNA test (autosomal, yDNA and mtDNA).

Weaknesses

They have no genealogical community and there is no information about their database. Outside of the British Isles, their ethnic regions of origin are not as impressive. LivingDNA is also more expensive than other ancestry test bundles like the one at 23andMe.

Bottom line

If your primary goal is exploring British Isles heritage and trying to figure out the specific corners of England and Ireland where your ancestors originated, LivingDNA is a good choice. For all other goals, look elsewhere.

  Family Tree DNA AncestryDNA 23andMe MyHeritage LivingDNA TeloYears
Price See latest See latest See latest See latest See latest See latest
Our Rating
Autosomal
yDNA
 
 
 
mtDNA
 
 
 
Approx. Database Size 1 million 7 million 2 million 700K   Unknown
Accepts Data from Elsewhere
   
 
Genealogical Community
   
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