Have you ever done a quick search for genealogy and DNA tests? There are a ton of options! So which one is the best – and why? Breanne and I sat down to research this – and here is what we came up with.
The best general and overall genealogy test is the Ancestry.com atDNA test, based on database size, needs, match potential, and options for health information. As it tests autosomal DNA, individuals with specific questions about one side of their lineage may need a different genealogy test. Here are our findings and recommendations.
Ready to see which tests are best based on specific needs and common scenarios? Let’s dig into our findings, research, and recommendations!
The Best Overall Genealogy Test
The best genealogy tests for you are going to depend on your exact needs. If you aren’t sure where to start, an autosomal DNA test (atDNA test) gives you the best bang for your buck. It’ll tell you a lot of great, general information about your heritage (both maternal and paternal).
Based on multiple reasons (that we’ll cover in more detail and with data to back it up throughout this article), the atDNA (autosomal DNA) test from Ancestry DNA is hands down, the best overall genealogy test. This is because:
- It has the largest user base (meaning more potential matches for you).
- It also has a larger reference panel for the best available ethnicity estimates.
- The largest potential for finding living relatives to connect you to for further genealogical research.
- It has begun offering health information.
- Pricing on it isn’t crazy expensive – and there are usually regular sales around and during the holidays.
So if you’re just starting out with your genetic genealogy or you have basic questions (like wanting to find living relatives), this test is the perfect place to start.
Ready to check your atDNA results with Ancestry? They have two tests, both available on Amazon:
- Just test your DNA with the AncestryDNA test, or
- Get health and DNA results with the AncestryHealth + DNA test.
Breanne and I have both had our DNA tested with AncestryDNA – and we’ve enjoyed seeing our test results. I’ve especially loved getting notifications about all living relatives – and then connecting with them to hear stories about our shared heritage.
Next, let’s talk about the other types of genealogy tests – and when you might prefer to use them instead.
Comparing the Specific Genealogy Test Types
However, if you have specific questions about one side of your family or family health histories, you’re going to want a more specific test. Here are the other test options:
- Autosomal DNA (atDNA) tests give you insights into your overall genealogy – pulling data from both paternal and maternal lines. They only show information on your first 5-6 generations.
- Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) tests give you specific insights into your maternal line and have a farther generational reach. Anyone can take this test.
- Y-DNA tests will tell you specifically about the sex-linked Y chromosome and a direct paternal line. This is another far-reaching test. However, this test only works if you have a Y chromosome.
- Health results can be gotten with almost any DNA test, provided the company offers health results support.
You also need to take into consideration which company you will use to do your testing. A company’s available DNA database size will not only impact your potential for finding living relative matches but also if there is health information available.
So, let’s compare the most common genealogy tests so you can see exactly which one is right for you.
Chart Comparison of Common DNA Tests, Companies, and Results
Ready to compare the most common DNA tests and companies? Let’s do this!
There used to be a few important differences in regards to privacy settings, being able to download your raw data, getting automatic updates, and the like. However, as DNA becomes more and more popular, all the companies are having to offer what’s become standard features.
|Ancestry DNA||23andMe||Living DNA||MyHeritage DNA||Family Tree DNA|
|Tests offered||Autosomal DNA||Autosomal DNA||atDNA, mtDNA, and Y-DNA||Autosomal DNA||atDNA, mtDNA, and Y-DNA|
|Collection Method||Saliva||Saliva||Cheek Swab||Cheek Swab||Cheek Swab|
|Genealogy Test||AncestryDNA: Genetic Ethnicity and Traits Test||23andMe Ancestry Test||Living DNA Starter Kit||MyHeritage DNA Ancestry Kit||FamilyTreeDNA Genetic Testing|
|Health DNA Test||AncestryHealth Core + Genetic Ethnicity Test||23andMe Health and Ancestry Test||Living DNA Wellbeing Kit||MyHeritage Health and Ancestry DNA Test Kit||Not Available|
|User Database Size||16+ Million||10+ Million||Unknown||3+ Million||1 Million|
|How long do the results take?||6-8 weeks||3-5 weeks||6-8 weeks||3-4 weeks||atDNA 2-4 weeks|
mtDNA 6-8 weeks
Y-DNA 3-6 weeks
|Can you transfer results from other companies?||No||No||Yes||Yes, certain features unlock with an additional fee||Yes|
|How private are my results?||You control who can see your results||You choose accessibility to your data||You control who can see your results||You choose accessibility to your data||You control who can see your results|
|Readability of results||Easy, visually appealing||Easy, visually appealing||Easy, visually appealing||Easy, visually appealing||Somewhat difficult, and not very appealing|
|Do you get matches?||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Do you get ethnicity estimates?||Yes – 500+ regions||Yes – 1500+ regions||Yes – 80+ regions (best for the UK)||Yes – 42 regions||Yes – 22+ regions|
|Do you get automatic updates?||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Access to raw data||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
These aren’t the only companies that do genetic testing – they’re just the biggest and most widely-known ones. Apparently National Geographic does testing now, too. Cool, huh?
However, our table is already getting excessively large – so we did cap it at these 5 for the time being. We’ll keep track of the up-and-coming ones for you, though. Want to make sure you’re keeping up on all the genealogy and genetics? Make sure you’re subscribed to our free newsletter – and let us handle the hard stuff for you. Click here to subscribe.
A Word about GEDmatch and Raw DNA Data
Once your DNA profile is complete, most companies will let you download your raw DNA data. Then, you can take that data and do whatever you want with it. You could upload it to some of the other genetic genealogy companies to get access to their free relative matches (not every company offers this and some may require an additional fee).
This is where GEDmatch comes into play.
GEDmatch is a popular, 3rd party site where you can upload your raw data to find more matches with others who have uploaded their raw data, too. GEDmatch doesn’t sell DNA or ancestry tests or do any genetic testing themselves.
The reason you’ve probably heard of them is that they’ve been in the news and referenced as a matching site for genealogy and genetics. This is because GEDmatch is the primary site law enforcement and other companies have been using to solve cold cases.
While it’s great to solve cold cases, this has brought up some interesting and important discussions about privacy, privacy policies, and sharing of your personal genetic information with others.
That’s a whole other can of worms topic for another post – that we’ve got planned for a future date.
Best DNA Test for Learning about Your Ancestry
Generally speaking, autosomal DNA (atDNA) tests are more than sufficient for most people. These tests will tell you about your overall ancestry.
However, if you have specific questions related to one aspect of your lineage, you may want to consider a different DNA test. For example, if you have a question about:
- your paternal line, you may want a brother or a close male relative to take a Y-DNA test for you.
- your maternal line, you’ll want to consider taking a mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) test.
These tests can give you even more specific information if you can get the right person to take them and share their results with you.
For example, Breanne had some specific questions about her maternal paternal line – her mom’s dad’s line. Because paternal line DNA tests (Y-DNA) can only be taken by a male member of the line, it became a priority – because her best option was to have her elderly grandfather take the test.
Don’t worry, though – Breanne’s grandpa took the test. And now her family has found a whole lot of data to sift through to find the answers they were looking for. Genealogical brick wall avoided!
Here’s another example – this time totally made up. Let’s say you’ve got questions about your dad’s mom’s line – and that your grandmother is no longer living.
You’ve decided on a mitochondrial DNA test to help you find your answers – and more living relatives. You’ll have inherited your mitochondrial DNA from your mother – so you’d need to find a relative who did inherit your grandmother’s mitochondrial DNA to take the test for you – and who is willing to share those results with you.
In our fictional example, you’d be able to ask your dad, your dad’s siblings, or any of your dad’s sisters’ children (your cousins) to help you out.
So taking an mtDNA test has more flexibility than a Y-DNA test does. Even so, it might be a priority if you have a brick wall on that side of the family – or if you don’t have a lot of known relatives to ask for help with taking the test. If that’s the case, you may want to start with an atDNA test first – to help open some doors so you can then find the specific answers you need.
So in most cases, atDNA will still be your best bet. And as long as you’ve got an extensive database for potential matches? Autosomal DNA will probably get the job done.
Thus, this is another instance where we would choose the AncestryDNA test as the best test to take. Between its DNA testing and the largest database available, it’s your best chance of finding lots of matches. And lots of matches mean lots of chances to make connections with relatives and generate new leads on your family tree.
Best DNA Testing for Ethnicity
Ethnicity estimates are made by comparing your DNA to a reference panel – NOT by comparing it to a database of other people’s genetic material. The bigger the reference panel a company has, the better the ethnicity results they’ll be able to provide.
Some companies are completely transparent and disclose the size of their ethnicity panels – while others don’t.
Ideally, all genealogy and genetics companies would publicly release this information – as well as their recall data. That way, we could have a good idea of whether or not their specific tests, processes, and data are right for us before we take their tests.
However, until that time we’re left to pretty much guess – or stick with the bigger companies that have released some (or all) of the data. Using our best estimates, though, it seems that the companies that do not provide any information on their ethnicity panels probably have significantly smaller panels.
So based on this information, once again we’re choosing Ancestry as the best overall option.
Ancestry has the best ethnicity estimates because they have the largest reference panels. They also test more regions, so they are able to be more specific in their estimates.
However, if you’re looking for more specific data on a region, you may find better regional estimates with a smaller, region-specific genealogy company.
A final note on ethnicity estimates, reference panels, and DNA tests before we go, though. Your results are going to depend on the company you use, its processes, and its databases. And your results will, over time, continue to change.
I just recently got an email from my AncestryDNA account that my ethnicity results had been updated. I get emails from 23andMe on a regular basis saying my health profile has been updated, too!
This isn’t because the industry is imperfect. Rather, it’s because the genetics and DNA industry is still new and growing. They’re still going through growing pains – and will continue to do so for some time. It’s an exciting time – to be part of all of this growth and a steep learning curve.
Even so, the results are pretty dang cool and close enough for now. They’ll keep getting better as we go. I’ll keep getting my emails when my profile gets updated yet again – and I hope you enjoy getting your updates, too!
When learning about genealogy, it’s important to learn from various reputable sources. These are the sources used in this article and our research to be more informed as genealogists.
- Ekins, Jayne. “Best DNA Ethnicity Report? And the Answer Is….” Your DNA Guide, Your DNA Guide, 22 Sept. 2019, www.yourdnaguide.com/ydgblog/2019/9/22/448e560zevkhngaz8q256plvzz6zxg.
- Ekins, Jayne. “DNA Ethnicity Estimation: Reference Panels.” Your DNA Guide, Your DNA Guide, 13 June 2019, www.yourdnaguide.com/ydgblog/2019/6/6/dna-ethnicity-estimation-reference-panels.
- Matarese, John. “How Accurate Are DNA Ancestry Test Kits?” WCPO, 18 Feb. 2019, www.wcpo.com/money/consumer/dont-waste-your-money/how-accurate-are-dna-ancestry-test-kits.
- Southard, Diahan. “Which DNA Test’s Ethnicity Estimate Is Best?” Your DNA Guide, Your DNA Guide, 19 Sept. 2019, www.yourdnaguide.com/ydgblog/2019/9/13/which-dna-tests-ethnicity-estimate-is-best.
- “Twins Get Some ‘Mystifying’ Results When They Put 5 DNA Ancestry Kits to the Test | CBC News.” CBCnews, CBC/Radio Canada, 18 Jan. 2019, www.cbc.ca/news/technology/dna-ancestry-kits-twins-marketplace-1.4980976.