Choosing the Best DNA Test for You

Our Choice for 2018’s Best DNA Test

If you’re looking for the best DNA test to buy in 2018, we’re glad you’ve arrived here. By now, maybe you’ve discovered that there are quite a few DNA test kits you could buy.

23andMe test kit

If you want to know our opinion about the best overall test of 2018—the one that we feel deserves the title of best DNA test and may be of interest to the broadest swath of people—then, without further ado: it’s 23andMe’s Health+Ancestry report.

This is our choice primarily because, in our estimation, 23andMe have made the biggest strides in both aspects of their testing over the past year (ancestry and health)—and they offer both (most companies don’t).

1

Improvements to ethnicity regions

The ancestry testing now covers 151 ethnic ancestral regions—the most of any test provider.

2

Affordable ancestry testing

23andMe offers all three baseline ancestry tests (autosomal, yDNA and mtDNA) at a price that’s really great considering you get all three.

3

Large database

They have a very large database (but not the largest—that’s AncestryDNA). A large database improves accuracy of reported results.

4

Improved health reports

The FDA has approved 23andMe this year to include breast, ovarian and prostate cancers among their growing list of genetic health risks that their health reporting covers.

23andMe isn’t perfect. For starters, they have pretty much no genealogical community, compared to others like Family Tree DNA or AncestryDNA. But all in all, 23andMe took what was already a solid DNA test kit and significantly improved it over the past year.

The problem is, from our testing—and we’ve tried them all—it’s clear that the test package that we consider the overall best might not be best for you.

  • Do you want to test for ancestry? Or just health? Or both?
  • Is your primary goal to find relatives?
  • Do you just want to dive as deeply into your genealogy as possible to satisfy your curiosity?
  • Or could you care less about the deep dive, but instead you’re curious about your ethnic heritage?
  • Maybe you happen to know that you have Jewish ancestry and you want to learn more about that?
  • Or maybe you’ve got East Asian ancestry and you want to know which test is best for you.
  • And we haven’t even mentioned budget—what’s yours? At $199, our Best In Show package from 23andMe isn’t the cheapest.

Right off the bat, you can see the issue here. Depending on your answers, 23andMe could very well not be the best test for you at all.

So in this guide, we’re not going to pretend that any one of these tests will be best for all readers. Instead, our expert testers (at this point, we feel like we’ve earned the moniker) will tell you why each one of these tests may be best for you, or not, based on your own goal (or goals). Think of this as a department store, and we’re helping you find the perfect outfit; if you’re shopping for a trip to the beach, you probably want a swimsuit as opposed to a formal suit, but if it’s a beach wedding, we’ve got you covered too. Or think of this as a mountain, and we’re the sherpas helping you choose the best approach to the summit based on your personal circumstances.

We’re going to give you the rundown about these various tests and providers, organized around goals—a variety of the most common goals that people have when they buy a DNA test. If you know your particular goal, feel free to jump directly to that portion of our guide at any time.

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

Get the Fullest Picture of My Ethnicity

If you’re looking for the most detailed breakdown of your ethnic heritage, what you’re looking for is an ancestry test. Here are the ingredients that go into the secret sauce, producing the best results for you:

1

Autosomal testing

There are three different kinds of ancestry tests, but the autosomal test will give you the fullest and broadest set of details about your ethnic heritage, as compared to the yDNA and mtDNA test. (For more information about why this is, and the considerable merits of the other two types, check out our guide to the best DNA ancestry tests). The good news is, all DNA test companies that offer ancestry tests will offer the autosomal test.

2

Regional specificity

The thing about autosomal tests is that they won’t all deliver the same results from company to company. The size and nature of the databases of these various testing companies has a real effect on the accuracy and specificity of the autosomal test results, when it comes to your ethnic heritage. This may be most dramatically evident when it comes to the number of distinct ethnic regions into which the company divides the world. These ethnic regions are what they present to you in your test results. If they say that you have heritage stemming from Western Europe, is that as useful or interesting as knowing that you have heritage specifically from the Iberian Peninsula? Probably not! Size and makeup of databases vary from company to company.

Winner: 23andMe

Wins by a hair, with AncestryDNA a close second

23andMe is a good choice here because they utilize slightly more regions than AncestryDNA (and way more than the rest). If you have secondary goals—like perhaps learning something about your genetic health risks or carrier status, or maybe building a family tree or finding relatives—these will make your decision easier (you’d choose 23andMe or AncestryDNA, respectively).

colorful 23andMe graphic

Alternatives and Other Considerations

On a tight budget

Family Tree DNA (FTDNA) should be your pick, in this case—you can take the autosomal test as a standalone for less money. Your results may be less gratifying initially, because FTDNA has far fewer ethnic regions to tell you about, but you can also export your data to a prominent third party database and try to learn more about it elsewhere. Additionally, you can benefit right away from the helpful communities connected to FTDNA.

Exploring Jewish heritage

In this case, you should also head over to FTDNA—they do a better job at helping you explore Jewish heritage. Invest in their yDNA and/or mtDNA tests along with the autosomal test and then benefit from their knowledgeable communities. The yDNA and mtDNA tests are often very useful for learning about Jewish ancestry because your Jewish ancestor(s) might have lived longer ago than 5 generations back.

East Asian ethnic background

Your best choice is probably TeloYears, because right now they do the best job of divvying up this enormous population area into the most culturally meaningful ethnic regions.

Your focus is on British Isles

In this case, Living DNA, a company with no database or community, nonetheless kicks serious butt when it comes to carving up the British Isles into micro-regions.

Need results in a hurry

MyHeritage can deliver your test results in 3-4 weeks—that’s 2-4 weeks faster than competitors, for some reason! It was true for us as well.

Dive Deep with the Best Ancestry Testing

Do you want to learn as much as possible about your ancestry through DNA testing? Here’s the lowdown about important features and top considerations.

1

All three ancestry tests

Well, take all three if you’re male; if you’re female, you’ll need help of a male sibling or your dad in order to get ancestry information about your patriline. To maximize what you can learn about deep ancestral roots, you ought to invest in all three types of DNA ancestry tests—autosomal, yDNA and mtDNA. For more information about why, visit our page devoted to choosing the best DNA ancestry test. To turn this from a casual interest to a serious hobby or intellectual pursuit on behalf of yourself and your broader family, it will cost some money—more than a single autosomal test, for instance. A basic autosomal test just won’t do the trick, if you really are serious about ancestry testing and diving deep into the past. Ideally, you’ll test not just yourself, but one or two other members of your family, depending on your circumstances and the feasibility of that.

2

Community

Most of us aren’t very familiar with haplogroups and the kind of genealogical information that will help us make the most of our test results. That’s where community comes in—and it’s hard to overestimate the value of it. You’ll want to tap into an existing knowledge base about the history of your haplogroups.

3

Ability to import and export data

Does the testing company you chose allow other people to upload their data? If you want, could you export your data in order to upload it elsewhere? These are actually important to consider. A company that allows people to upload their data from elsewhere is clearly a company with a good community and ways for folks to make the most of their data. Otherwise, why would anybody who tested elsewhere bother to upload?

And there may come a time when you feel like you want to add your data to an even larger database to see what you might learn.

Winner: Family Tree DNA

We think it's actually a pretty easy choice
Family Tree DNA logo

With FTDNA, you can not only take the three ancestry tests (which other companies, like AncestryDNA, don’t offer), but also opt to learn even more by investing in more expansive (and consequently expensive) yDNA and mtDNA tests than the baseline tests. You can test up to 111 markers (instead of the baseline 37) in yDNA, and a full mitochondrial sequence for the mtDNA test. FTDNA lets you order all of these tests individually. Again, this isn’t the cheapest path for DNA testing (it costs several hundred dollars), but it’s about gaining the most insight over the longest stretch of time deep into the past (hundreds of thousands of years). You can’t do that unless you make the investment, and FTDNA is there for you each step of the way as you follow your genealogical passion to its fullest extent.

Sorry, Tight Budget?

If your interest outpaces your wallet and you can’t spend hundreds of dollars, don’t despair. In this case, you should get your feet wet by taking the 3-test Ancestry bundle from 23andMe and then export your data, uploading it to FTDNA. It’s still not as incredible as the more expensive tests from FTDNA, but this way you can take all three baseline ancestry tests for less money ($99, but often there are sales so check current pricing) and still benefit from FTDNA’s top-notch community and haplogroup projects afterward.

Connect with Living Relatives

It’s all about ancestry testing once again. To find living relatives, here are the main factors that will make your life easier:

1

Autosomal test

You can definitely find relatives using the yDNA and mtDNA tests as well, but these tests are kind of like looking at a single distant point through a telescope, rather than using your naked eyes to scan the broader landscape; you can see more distantly with the telescope, but you lack the breadth of vision. If you need to choose just one test, pick the autosomal.

2

Database and community size

These play kind of an obvious role in finding living relaltives. For most of us, there are many cousins and extended family participating in online family tree building and DNA testing, but if you use a company that has a small community and database, you are working from a more limited pool of people in which to find them.

3

Relative finder tool

Some ancestry testing providers offer a feature that, if you opt in, tells you people whose DNA results share enough with yours that they must be your relatives. Companies try to predict the closeness of the relationship (2nd cousin vs. half sibling, etc.) based on the amount of shared results that indicate a common ancestor. It can be a very valuable service! So why is it optional? Some people want complete privacy and do not want to connect with others (which in our opinion is a mistake, when it comes to DNA testing). Another possible reason? Some people have actually been quite shocked and disturbed by what they found; there have been cases of families discovering half-siblings or different parentage—things that can put stress on family units.

Winner: AncestryDNA

The 800 pound gorilla when it comes to community size
ancestryDNA test kit box

AncestryDNA’s got by far the biggest database and community as well as a good tool for finding relatives. The fact that they don’t offer the yDNA or mtDNA test isn’t a huge problem in this case, because those tests aren’t as useful when looking for living relatives (though they can help).

AncestryDNA isn’t perfect. For one thing, though they have the largest database, they let people opt out of participation in the relative-finding service, meaning you could still fail to discover relatives that are right there using the same product as you! But those concerns are eclipsed by the sheer size of their operation. Bottom line, you’ve got a good chance of finding relatives there.

Adoptees and Those Searching for an Adoptee

Adoptees looking for relatives engage with DNA testing in a different way, which may come as little surprise considering that their goals are extremely personal and intense—possibly finding biological parents and siblings. Adoptees may not have any information at all about parents, grandparents or their ethnic heritage. On the other side, there are people trying to connect with a relative who had been placed for adoption in the past—maybe a child or a long-lost sibling. So where to begin?

In these cases, all three ancestry tests are valuable. You could think of two paths for making progress toward your goal of learning about your nuclear family. It’s hard to say which one will work best for you, so if possible you should do both.

Go where the most people go

AncestryDNA has over 7 million people participating in their autosomal DNA testing, by far the biggest group of people. They only offer the autosomal test, but once you take it, you can use their relative-finding service to look for people whose DNA matches yours. You never know how close a relative you may find, but your chances of finding several cousins is very good. Though they aren’t your nuclear family, each of these people is a valuable lead who can likely offer useful family information. They may be working on family trees as well. If you can connect with them—if they enabled relative-finding within their own account, which isn’t always the case unfortunately—you can make great progress this way.

Use the most powerful ancestry tests possible

FTDNA does what no other company does; if you can spare the money, they give you the most powerful DNA tests for ancestry. You can test for 37, 67, or 111 yDNA markers. You can also test your full mitochondrial DNA sequence, instead of just 10% of your mtDNA. All of this will cost you—several hundred dollars, so it’s not cheap—but if you can afford it, these tests give you the greatest chance of finding DNA matches. yDNA passes down from father to son, and mtDNA passes from mother to daughter (and sons inherit it as well, but do not pass it along). With all three tests from FTDNA under your belt, you have a powerful DNA data set for finding matches within FTDNA’s community or for exporting and uploading to a third party database like GEDmatch. FTDNA even sends you the email addresses of matches and doesn’t allow testers to opt out.

An all-of-the-above approach will be best for adoptees or for those looking for a relative who was placed for adoption, due to the uphill challenge. But if you can’t afford the expense of DNA testing, don’t lose heart because here’s one final, brand-new option that may be available to you: DNA Quest, a new offering by MyHeritage. MyHeritage has just pledged in 2018 to donate 15,000 DNA test kits to adoptees and people looking for a relative placed for adoption. That’s obviously very selective, when you consider the number of American adoptees, but if you’re lucky enough to be selected to participate, you’ll also benefit from the support of a team of genealogists. It’s worth applying!

Learn About My Genetic Risk for Certain Diseases

logo of 23andMe

If this is your goal, then it’s all about health testing and there’s only one test company that does this right now: 23andMe.

23andMe is FDA-approved to give you genetic risk information for over a dozen health concerns, including:

  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Late-onset Alzheimer’s disease
  • Breast, prostate and ovarian cancers
  • Celiac disease
  • Macular degeneration (a cause of blindness)

If this is your sole interest, you’ll have to buckle up and get ready for some ancestry results along the way, though; 23andMe doesn’t sell their health test separately. But don’t worry—you’ll learn some very fascinating information even if you didn’t think you would ever be interested in your ancestors. You might just discover a new hobby and develop new goals—if so, come on back to this guide and we’ll help you out! Don’t you want to know how much you owe to Neanderthals?

Am I a Carrier for Disorders My Kids Could Inherit?

This is on the minds of many of us. When planning for a family, it’s alarming to think that we might be carrying a genetic risk for our future children without even knowing it ourselves, because symptoms aren’t present. 23andMe is getting better and better at providing good health information through DNA testing. They’re the only show in town when it comes to carrier status and, thankfully, they’re not sitting on their laurels. You can check your status for over forty different conditions including cystic fibrosis and sickle cell anemia. Learn all about their health test reporting at our 23andMe Review.

Build a Family Tree

You might be building a family tree from scratch, or maybe you’re inheriting somebody’s partially completed tree—in which case, congrats, you’ve got a head start! We think the following features will be most useful in DNA testing.

1

Autosomal testing

This is the most useful, and by far the most common, route for DNA testing to help build a family tree. yDNA and mtDNA tests can help, but they deliver results about a much narrower portion of your ancestry.

2

Size of database and community

The more people who participate in a company’s testing, the better; you want the highest chances of coming across relatives who are building family trees as well, because they may know things about your family that you don’t know!

3

Relative-finding tool

Most of the ancestry test providers have some version of this tool—it connects you to people within the company’s database who share portions of DNA with you, indicating a common ancestor. How much you share helps determine how far back your ancestor lived.

4

Family tree tools

AncestryDNA, MyHeritage and LivingDNA all offer to tie in your DNA data with family-tree-building software, making it easier and more enjoyable for you.

Winner: AncestryDNA

Big community and friendly family tree software
AncestryDNA test kit box

Although they don’t offer the yDNA or mtDNA test, their autosomal test combined with such a huge community and the ability to tie your DNA match results directly to a user-friendly family-tree-building interface is hard to beat. Ancestry.com has been a genealogical website helping people build family trees for quite a while, and they’re really good at it! AncestryDNA keeps your DNA data indefinitely, but there are downsides:

  • You have to subscribe monthly, in addition to paying for the DNA test, in order to benefit from their family tree interface.
  • Their cousin matching tool only works among people who opt to connect their DNA results to their family tree and have opted to make their results searchable.

To take your genealogical pursuits further still, combine your AncestryDNA effort with an investment in the yDNA and/or mtDNA tests from Family Tree DNA, which can help you fill in your family tree along your patriline and matriline (dad’s dad’s dad, etc. and mom’s mom’s mom, etc.). Those tests tell you your paternal and maternal haplogroup, with information about corresponding parts of the world where this ancestry originated as well as historical migration patterns. If these details line up nicely with your family tree thus far, then that’s useful verification. If not, though, then it might lead you to make important corrections in further genealogical research.

Find Out How Well I'm Aging and Improve It

TeloYears test kit box

For this, you need health testing and there’s only one option… but it’s not 23andMe. Gasp!

In this case, you’ll want to buy a test kit from the folks at TeloYears, which was co-founded by a Nobel Prize-winning scientist who advanced the study of telomeres. Her company is pretty incredible. TeloYears’ ancestry testing relies on DNA sequencing and a curated database to deliver results about your ethnic heritage as well as maternal and paternal haplogroups. Their regional breakdown of the world isn’t the best across the board by any stretch, but they truly excel with East Asia ethnicities.

What sets them apart as entirely unique—and what you’re looking for, with this particular goal—is their focus on telomere length. Telomeres are found at the ends of each strand of DNA, and evidence suggests a connection between telomere length and aging. This test requires droplets of blood, but results are actionable and well worth it. Combine the test with a health coaching session by a TeloYears-approved expert, and you can slow down or even begin to reverse your cellular aging by making smart lifestyle changes. Read all about it in our TeloYears Review.

Keep My DNA Data Completely Private

So let’s say you want to get involved in DNA testing, but you’ve ready some disturbing stories about how we all might be giving away our most valuable and sensitive data to companies who haven’t promised to protect it.

Concerns about privacy are totally legitimate, but we should try to put the concerns in proper perspective. For starters, we may well have just as much (or more?) to be worried about with social networks than with any of these DNA testing companies! But fair enough—it’s true that some of their privacy policies are clearer than others. And it is legitimate to wonder and worry about how third parties in the future might want to use our data.

Two companies in particular—23andMe and AncestryDNA—have come under fire not just because they’re the biggest, but because of what some customers feel is misleading or opaque information in their privacy policies. Contrary to what some believe, those companies do not allow you to keep anonymized data private. They protect your identity fully, but anonymized DNA data can be shared. Meanwhile, Family Tree DNA and MyHeritage are praised for their dedication to privacy protection. FTDNA has a long reputation of sensitivity for this concern.

But let’s take a deeper look at how companies might use your data right now—not in some possible future—and what kind of data they’d be using.

1

Anonymized data

Nobody is accusing any of these DNA testing companies of using your personally identifying information like name, address, etc. None of that is visible to anybody, nor will it be. Every company goes to great lengths to sever your DNA data from anything that would reveal your personal identity. Some worry that what is anonymized today won’t be so anonymized years from now.

2

Research and development

The people who are interested in accessing this anonymized data right now are researchers whose goal is to develop a better, more useful understanding of human genetics and also pioneer more effective medicines. That tends to be good for all of us. So at the same time that we might worry about sinister future uses of our anonymized data, maybe we also ought to worry about the future scientific (possibly lifesaving) advancements we’re denying ourselves if we hide this useful data from researchers. Both of those concerns are understandable. Where you go from there is really up to you, a personal choice. In our opinion, though, one of the concerns is based on a future that’s unknown, while the other concern focuses on real progress being made right now in our lifetimes. We’ve made our choice, come what may, to pitch in our anonymized data if it means better treatments and better scientific understanding.

Winner: FTDNA

Or MyHeritage, if you're in a hurry
FTDNA logo

If you want to keep your data (even anonymized data) completely private, then the good news is that you can do that! Your choice should be Family Tree DNA, because it’s such a robust ancestry testing company and because its community is stellar. They stand out in their commitment to honoring your desire for privacy. You’ll have a rich and rewarding experience with their ancestry testing no matter what.

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