Find the Best DNA Test for Ancestry

Our Pick for Best DNA Ancestry Test

DNA testing can teach you a lot about your ancient ancestry and more recent heritage. And it’s a powerful tool for connecting with others who share your ancestry. With ancestry DNA tests, you can:

  • Find “missing” relatives you can’t seem to locate through documents
  • Research your family tree when you don’t know the identity of a parent or grandparent
  • Explore your family’s history when it’s been obscured by a lot of upheaval (such as war, slavery, forced resettlement, and so on).
DNA ancestry testing at home

But with so many options, which home DNA test is best for you? The answer depends on your specific goals—we’ve tried them all, and here on this page we’ll give you the skinny.

On balance, our choice for the all-around winner is either Family Tree DNA (FTDNA) or AncestryDNA, depending on your budget and whether you’re more interested in deep ancestry or finding living relatives.

Just because we chose them as all-around best in class of ancestry DNA tests, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be best for you. One size definitely does not fit all when it comes to DNA testing. Your best results for genealogy may come from a different company altogether, such as MyHeritage, 23andMe, TeloYears, LivingDNA or African Ancestry, and that might depend on entirely separate considerations from those we just mentioned—like, for instance, the regions of the world where you believe your ancestors lived. 23andMe, MyHeritage and LivingDNA are all more refined than FTDNA when it comes to delivering ancestry information from smaller regions of the world rather than larger, less specific regions. Where those companies don’t stack up quite as well is their community or database, or—in the case of LivingDNA—both.

For most of you who want to take a DNA test for genealogy or to connect with living relatives and share genealogical information, your best starting point may be an autosomal test. All of the home DNA test companies offer an autosomal test, but what each company brings to the table isn’t identical; they have their pros and cons.

And that’s just one of three tests that teach you a lot about ancestry—you ought to consider diving deeper by taking either the yDNA or mtDNA test, or both if possible. These can give you a totally different window into your ancestry, one that complements what an autosomal DNA test shows. Offerings vary by company. This is one reason why Family Tree DNA may win you over, rather than AncestryDNA—FTDNA lets you take any of the three types of DNA test individually. As of now, they’re the only home DNA test company offering each on its own. AncestryDNA only offers the autosomal test.

Confused yet? Feeling overwhelmed? Don’t worry—we told you we’d break it all down, remember? Explore below to learn all about your options and determine which one is the right fit for you!

  Family Tree DNA AncestryDNA 23andMe MyHeritage LivingDNA TeloYears
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Our Rating
Autosomal
yDNA
 
 
 
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Approx. Database Size 1 million 7 million 2 million 700K   Unknown
Accepts Data from Elsewhere
   
 
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How DNA Ancestry Tests Work (Science!)

First of all, you may be wondering how a DNA test could tell you so much about ancestry.

3 Types of DNA Test

There are three major types of ancestry DNA test that you can take at home:

Autosomal DNA test

This one tells you a lot about your broad ethnic ancestry and recent generations. Great for finding living relatives too.

yDNA test

This one traces your patriline back FAR into the past… by patriline, we mean your father’s father’s father’s father’s father’s father… etc. It goes as far back into the past as any test we have.

Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) test

mtDNA tests trace your matriline FAR into the past… by matriline, we mean your mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother… etc. Like the yDNA test, this one traces ancestry back as far as we can go.

How and Why They Work

Homo sapiens (that’s us) evolved in Africa about 180,000 year ago. About 60,000 years ago, humans began migrating out of Africa; so hey, it took us 120,000 years to explore beyond our first continent, but that was just the beginning. Things really started kicking into gear over the following 50,000 years, when humans traveled across almost all of the regions of the earth.

Now of course, people throughout history have had a biological father and mother. The father and mother pass DNA to their children via the sperm and egg, and most children end up with 23 chromosome pairs. Think of them numbered, like mom’s chromosome-1 pairing with dad’s chromosome-1… mom’s chromosome-2 pairing with dad’s chromosome-2, and so on.

Within each pair, dad’s sperm provides one chromosome and mom’s egg provides the other. The sperm and egg need each other in order to complete the 23 chromosome pairs to create a new person. When it comes to the sex chromosomes, the egg always contributes an X chromosome, while the sperm contributes either an X or a Y chromosome (about 50/50 odds).

For male offspring, the Y chromosome passes unaltered* from the father. Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) passes unaltered* from mother to son and daughter. Those are the calling cards of your mom and dad, in a way. But mtDNA is found outside of a cell’s nucleus, and cell nuclei are where we find the vast majority of our DNA. And guess what? Within the nucleus—with the exception of the Y chromosome from dad—each chromosome we inherit from our parents actually isn’t identical to theirs at all, but instead is a brand new combination of mom’s two chromosome 1’s and dad’s two chromosome 1’s. This is a process called recombination, and it explains how each of us develops DNA unique to us in the entire history of humanity!

(*We’ll go ahead and explode this rule in the following paragraph.)

Illustration of recombination

Haplogroups... Haplo-what?!

Did you notice those asterisks in the previous section? Now that you understand how DNA passes from parents to offspring, it’s time for a big, important curveball. From time to time throughout history, a person would experience a mutation of the yDNA (males) or mtDNA (females) that passed to their descendants. How could this happen, you ask? Cell division is how a new body makes new cells. A cell will make a copy of DNA before dividing, in order to pass the DNA to the new cell. But every once in a while there will be an error in the copying.

This error would start a new human lineage, or haplogroup. All members of a haplogroup carry that same mutated DNA sequence in their DNA; this sequence is called a single nucleotide polymorphism (or SNP) in their DNA. It’s kind of like a haplogroup’s calling card. SNPs are the key to drawing conclusions about our ancestry, whether we’re taking the autosomal test or either of the other two. SNPs in our yDNA or mtDNA are free from recombination from generation to generation (this genetic inheritance changes only through chance mutation).

Everyone has both maternal and paternal haplogroups. The oldest maternal haplogroup, L0, originated in Africa 140,000 years ago.

Scientists have identified 5,400 haplogroups and subgroups, and the number is constantly growing. Haplogroups are represented by letters, with numbers and more letters added as needed to indicate subgroups.

And here’s another important fact about SNPs (commonly called ‘snips’): the closer related you are to somebody, the more SNP matches you will have when your DNA is compared to theirs.

What Does All This Mean for Ancestry DNA Testing? It means that:

1

If you're male or persuade a male sibling, you can learn a lot about your patriline.

Within your DNA (if you’re male), you have a part of your DNA that comes from your dad, free from recombination (just like he inherited from his dad, free from recombination). It’s the Y chromosome. When you take an SNP yDNA test, you’ll learn a great deal about what is called your ‘patriline’—your dad, his dad, his dad, his dad, and so on for possibly thousands of years. Specifically, you will be told what haplogroup you all belong to.

2

You can learn a lot about your matriline.

Male and female children inherit DNA from mothers in the form of mtDNA, free from recombination, just like mothers inherited their mtDNA from their mothers, free from recombination. When you take an mtDNA test, this is the DNA in focus, which means the mtDNA test teaches you about your ‘matriline’—your mom, her mom, her mom, her mom, and so on for possibly thousands of years. You’ll learn what haplogroup you all belong to.

3

You can learn a lot about your ethnic heritage and find living relatives.

Aside from the Y chromosome and mtDNA, our DNA is a result of recombination, which means it can tell us a ton about both of our parents, our parents’ parents (both of them and both sets), their parents, and the parents of those parents. All of this, thanks to the fact that each chromosome we inherit from mom via the egg is a combination of the corresponding pair of her chromosomes… and same with the chromosomes we inherit from dad’s sperm (except for the Y chromosome). This is the purview of autosomal DNA tests. Recombination explains why an autosomal test can tell you so much about your ethnic heritage and give you a broader portrait of your ancestry than either the yDNA or the mtDNA test alone could do. But recombination is a messier thing to study, which is why all of that combination of chromosomal information allows us to learn a lot over a much briefer period of time—about five generations into the past. Beyond that, things get too murky.

Family tree that explains the scope of DNA tests

Choosing the Best Type of Ancestry DNA Test

So now the picture’s becoming a bit clearer, right? Each of these DNA tests can teach you a lot about your ancestry, but in different ways.

  • Thanks to the nature of haplogroups and how we inherit mtDNA and yDNA from either our mom or dad, respectively, we can trace specific threads of our ancestry back a mindboggling number of generations—sometimes over 10,000 years! That is the appeal of yDNA and mtDNA tests.
  • On the other hand, that’s just two threads of your ancestry. Just think about how many great-great-grandparents you had—there were 16 of them. Your yDNA test can tell you about one of those 16 people. Your mtDNA test can tell you about another one of those 16. Unless you take the autosomal DNA test or convince close relatives to take other DNA tests, you won’t learn about those 14 other great-great-grandparents, not to mention their parents and grandparents. Maybe they had siblings, and maybe those siblings had children and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren, etc. Those are your distant, living relatives, possibly working on tracing their own family tree. Maybe they could use your help, and vice versa!

This is why many genealogists will recommend the autosomal test as the best ancestry DNA test to begin your journey.

It’s instantly gratifying to learn so much about your recent family heritage and ethnic background, and the ability to connect with living relatives and collaborate over your genealogy creates a rich and rewarding experience. We recommend it as well—five generations of sweeping ancestry information is a great way to dive into genealogy and find relatives.

But we also recommend the other two tests, which are immensely rewarding and very much worth the investment. If you’re like us, you’ll want to take all three in order to get the fullest appreciation for what your DNA can tell you about your ancestry. There are thriving haplogroup communities online; getting involved in them can make you feel like you’re a student of human history in a profound and personal way, tracing roots deep into the past.

Getting Close Relatives Involved

Are you enthralled by the way yDNA and mtDNA tests let you peer so far back into the past, but disappointed at its limitations for you? There are ways to learn more!

I’m a woman, so I can’t take the yDNA test…

If you have a brother or if your dad is willing, one of them can buy a kit (or you can gift it—a very common thing to do, which we know from personal experience). As long as they believe in sharing, you’ll get the same information about your ancestry as if you had a Y chromosome yourself! But without all the poor active listening and hygiene issues.

But what about dad’s matriline?

If you take a yDNA test, it won’t tell you anything about your dad’s mother, or her mother, and so forth. But if dad is willing to take an mtDNA test, suddenly you have a long-distance view into the past along a brand new line of your family tree. So talk to your dad!

What about my maternal grandfather’s patriline?

Well if only we had a nickel for every time we heard this question… This gets a bit trickier, but you can trace that too, with the help of either an uncle or a male cousin, if he’s the son of your mom’s brother. Or your maternal grandpa himself. Getting one of them to take the yDNA test would tell you all about your maternal grandfather’s paternal haplogroup.

And while you’re collecting grandpa’s saliva…

If your maternal grandpa is interested, why not buy him an mtDNA test too? If you can afford it (or maybe convince somebody to buy it for you as a gift) that test will reveal his long, direct maternal line.

So you can see how, with a little bit of creativity and family involvement, suddenly you can learn a great deal. Put those tests together, and you’ve traced numerous ancestral lines going back thousands of years.

Comparing Companies and Choosing the Best for You

As if choosing the type of DNA test weren’t enough, you also have a growing number of testing companies that offer home DNA test kits. Fear not—we’re going to demystify it all. As we said at the outset, our personal favorites are Family Tree DNA and AncestryDNA, but there are many reasons why the choice might change based on your own circumstances. Here are the top 10 considerations:

1

Populations historically underrepresented in DNA testing

In America, most mainstream testing companies have historically had more limited information on African DNA sequences. But here’s the good news: African Ancestry has a highly specialized database that can help people of African descent identify their ethnic group and probable country of origin. If you believe you have recent ancestors from Africa, you can buy a DNA test from African Ancestry, or alternately you can submit to them the DNA test results from a different company for greater analysis. African Ancestry offers both the yDNA and mtDNA tests. But in recent months, both AncestryDNA and 23andMe have dramatically increased the granularity of their regions, providing much more valuable information on African ethnic heritage than in the past. AncestryDNA has a huge community and database as well, both of which can help you in your genealogical pursuits. Or you could take all three DNA ancestry tests from FTDNA and then upload your results to GEDmatch to benefit from both the FTDNA haplogroup studies and the broader third party database of GEDmatch (more on that later). Connecting with others can be a very powerful tool.

When it comes to East Asian heritage (another area where reporting historically has been subpar), TeloYears might be your best bet currently. Thanks to their particular database, TeloYears outperforms other DNA testing giants by telling you the most granular information about your ethnic heritage from that part of the world.

Many people wonder if a DNA test can tell them whether they have Native American heritage. It can, but unfortunately today’s tests aren’t precise enough to identify specific tribes. However, if you can connect with living relatives through DNA testing, they may be able to provide you with valuable clues; this is where large databases and thriving communities come in really handy.

2

The number of regions

Imagine each DNA test company has the same world map that they divide into jigsaw puzzle pieces, and they promise to tell you which puzzle pieces are significant for your ancestry. One test company divides the world map puzzle into 7 pieces, while another divides that same map into 70 pieces. If both of them fulfill their promise, chances are you’ll learn more from the company with the 70-piece world map!

No matter which company you choose and how many regions they employ, note that these regions don’t usually correspond to modern countries, because borders change and countries appear and disappear throughout history.

3

The size of the database

Of course, the number of regions is all well and good, but if you’re looking for distant cousins or hoping to find relatives and share genealogical information, you may be out of luck if the company’s database is too small.

4

Size of the community

And sometimes you just need a helpful nudge in the right direction. Depending on the size of the community, you’re likely to make a bunch of useful connections!

5

Projects

Don’t know what to make of your haplogroup information? There’s a project for that, in some companies. Many online communities create subgroups around surnames, world regions, and haplogroups. These are great places to share and receive information specific to your search. Diving into these projects helps you connect in a richer way to your family’s ancestral heritage.

6

Data-sharing

What if you’ve taken DNA tests from other companies? Can you upload the raw data for use within a particular company’s interface? In some cases, yes; in others, no.

7

Cousin matching

Cousin matching is a service offered by all companies except LivingDNA (which has no database or community), but mileage may vary from company to company. Cousin-matching results are best with a company that:

  • Has a large database of results
  • Accepts results from other testing companies
  • Allows community members to contact one another directly
  • Offers additional tools like family trees and projects.

AncestryDNA has the largest database, even larger than 23andMe’s or FTDNA’s, meaning you might not be able to see all the possible family matches out there if you use FTDNA or a company with a smaller database. However, FTDNA allows you to upload results from other testing companies, as does MyHeritage DNA. AncestryDNA doesn’t let anyone upload data from other companies, and it also allows people to hide their DNA results.

8

Online family tree?

Some companies allow you to create, share, and search family trees. Comparing your tree with a distant cousin’s is a powerful way to find common ancestors.

9

Budget

All of this does cost varying amounts of money, unfortunately. All of the companies offer autosomal tests. At the time of writing this in early 2018, FTDNA and MyHeritage have the most affordable autosomal tests, at $59. That’s $10 cheaper than AncestryDNA’s and $40 cheaper than 23andMe, TeloYears and LivingDNA. But what you get for your dollar varies as well; included in that higher price for 23andMe and LivingDNA are yDNA and mtDNA tests. And while AncestryDNA doesn’t have the highest up-front cost, you’ll need to pay a monthly fee to continue accessing your results in their interface.

On top of all of this, frequent seasonal sales change the price dynamics too. Check current prices below for the most up-to-date offers!

10

Privacy

This is a concern among some consumers, as the home DNA test industry continues to grow. One note, however: what we are talking about here does not include your actually identity: every one of these DNA testing companies goes to lengths to ensure that your identity and identifying information are not connected to your DNA results, except of course when it comes to you using the data to find living relatives. But some do intend to share non-dentifying DNA data in aggregate for use in medical research, anthropology and breaking new scientific ground. What this boils down to is whether you have a problem with:

  • The idea of your DNA data being ‘anonymized’ (separated from any self-identifying information like name, etc.) and used by the test company or shared with an unknown third-party partner of theirs. Some people care, while others don’t.
  • The very notion that DNA data can remain anonymous forever. This is actually debatable.
  • The principle of the thing… Some companies (we’re looking at you, AncestryDNA and 23andMe!) have rubbed some customers the wrong way by burying these details deep within confusing policy information that few people read. Some consumers are fed up with that lack of transparency, and some choose a different company on principle, hoping to reward transparency.

At this time, FTDNA and MyHeritage DNA are the most straightforward when it comes to protecting your privacy; FTDNA has always been on the side of privacy quite rigidly, and MyHeritage DNA makes it clear that their policy is something you can opt out of. It’s always a good idea to read the terms and policy information as best you can, whether it be for a DNA test company or a third party service related to your DNA data. But for most people, whether or not a DNA test company shares aggregate data for research purposes is not a concern that stops them from buying any test kit.

Summary of How the Companies Stack Up

Family Tree DNA

A strong runner-up when it comes to size of community and database—not the biggest in either, but may be the best community in terms of participation and useful projects. A great choice for studying haplogroups. Also a good budget choice, because FTDNA offers all three types of test and lets you choose them individually at lower prices. Their autosomal test is tied for cheapest, but their breakdown of regions is not nearly as impressive as 23andMe or AncestryDNA. They let you upload data from elsewhere and don’t share your DNA data. Check out our full Family Tree DNA review to learn more.

AncestryDNA

Largest community and database by far, and best for combining the DNA results with family-tree-making in a user-friendly way. They only offer the autosomal test and do not allow you to upload data from other companies. They may share your anonymized DNA data. The price structure is different—average up front, but then you are charged monthly for continued access. Very high number of regions, at 150—second only to 23andMe. Learn more at our AncestryDNA review.

23andMe

They’re the go-to choice (really the only game in town) for health DNA testing—that’s been their greatest strength. When it comes to ancestry testing, on the plus side they’ve got a large database, roughly on par with Family Tree DNA’s, and now that they introduced 120 new regions (for a whopping total of 151), they carve up the world into more regions than either FTDNA or AncestryDNA. Their test package costs more than FTDNA, but included in that cost are all three tests! So if your goal is to take all three, you can do it most cheaply here. But the big downside is, 23andMe doesn’t really have much of a genealogical community to join after you get your results. They also won’t let you upload data from elsewhere, but since their community is lacking, that may not matter as much. Still, all things considered, they just became a bigger contender in ancestry testing with the introduction of that much granularity of their regions—a clear indication of how much their database has grown. They do share your anonymized data, if that is a concern. Visit our full 23andMe review to learn more about all available testing.

MyHeritage DNA

Tied with FTDNA for cheapest autosomal test at this point. They only offer the autosomal test. MyHeritage does a better job than FTDNA when it comes to providing regional ethnicity results (they have more regions). Their database is smaller than FTDNA and way smaller than AncestryDNA, though. You can protect your privacy here. We’ve got a MyHeritage DNA review to help you learn more.

TeloYears

TeloYears offers both health and ancestry testing. What makes them most unique is their health testing, but their ancestry testing could be particularly useful for those who suspect they have East Asian heritage. Using next-generation DNA sequencing, their $99 ancestry test offers to deliver results on your broad ethnic heritage as well as maternal and paternal haplogroups. Their breakdown of ethnic regions of the world (62 regions) isn’t as robust as 23andMe or AncestryDNA (except in East Asia), but it is more granular than FTDNA. They make it easy for you to export your data in order to upload it elsewhere, which is good because TeloYears has no genealogical community. Read our full TeloYears review for more information about both the ancestry and health testing.

LivingDNA

Like 23andMe, they include all three types of tests in their package, but it is more expensive at LivingDNA. Vastly superior regions for delving into ancestry in the British Isles. But no database or genealogical community at all.

African Ancestry

Does a very good job with ethnic origins in Africa. Offers the yDNA and mtDNA test. Unfortunately, tests cost quite a bit more than with other companies—even with the current $30 promotional discount, one of these tests runs $269. They do allow you to upload and analyze data from other DNA test providers as well, which is a little bit friendlier to your budget if you’ve already tested elsewhere. But now that companies like AncestryDNA (with their massive community) have added so much more to their regional breakdown of the world, your best bang for your buck might be elsewhere.

The Only Thing Left: Spit or Swab?

All of the ancestry test kits allow you to collect a sample at home and mail it in afterward. With the exception ot TeloYears (which requires a finger-prick), all you have to do is swab the inside of your cheek or collect a little bit of saliva, following their instructions. So what exactly does a company do with your ancestry test?

The DNA testing company analyzes your saliva or cheek swab, searching your DNA results for SNPs, and then shares the results with you after a period of weeks. Results of the autosomal test are usually reported as percentages (30 percent Scandinavian, 22 percent East Indian, and so on), while the results of the yDNA and mtDNA test will be your paternal or maternal haplogroup, respectively.

Once you have results from one testing company, you can also upload them to the databases of some other companies and third-party sites to broaden your exposure to potential family. Each database will give you slightly different results and new clues about your ethnicity.

For instance, GEDmatch is run by genetic genealogists, and it’s not a testing company. Instead, it has become a popular third-party database for folks who completed DNA tests from AncestryDNA, FTDNA or 23andMe. If you opt to take a budget-friendly bundle of tests via 23andMe, for instance, finding good third-party genealogical databases will be very helpful for maximizing what you learn from the results.

People in certain populations can benefit from specialized search techniques and databases. The non-profit DNAAdoption teaches advanced search methodology to people who are adopted, donor-conceived, or have unexpected results.

So what are you waiting for? Pick the ancestry test that sounds best to you and get started! There’s never been a better time to take a DNA test.

As an added bonus, the accuracy of haplogroup and ethnicity reporting improves over time as databases grow and research advances. (Depending on the testing company, they may automatically update your results as well, so be sure to log in and check from time to time.) This means that as more and more of us take a DNA test and enter into a database, the more useful the information will be for everyone who participates!

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