Best DNA Test Kits

How to Choose the DNA Testing Kit That’s Best for You
Marc McDermott

If you’ve read all the DNA test reviews, and are still confused, read on. This guide will break down everything you need to know.

Read my in-depth reviews of each testing company below. But first, here’s a quick comparison of the big five testing companies:

The top 5 best DNA testing kits

AncestryDNA: best overall

AncestryDNA is the best choice for genealogy and family history research. They have the most extensive database (18 million customers), so you’ll find the most DNA matches there.

AncestryDNA matches
My matches list at Ancestry

Their ethnicity reports look at 1,000+ regions and give you percentage estimates for each.

AncestryDNA ethnicity
My ethnicity report from AncestryDNA

You can create a family tree and link it to your DNA profile. Ancestry has, by far, the most robust genealogical community. You can connect with your matches through anonymous email and message boards.

Family tree

Note that you do not have to have an Ancestry subscription to take their test or see your results. You also do not need a subscription to build your own family tree. A subscription is primarily for the research side of Ancestry and allows you to view billions of genealogical records. You can also view the family tree’s of your DNA matches. And you can compare your family tree with your matches to find common ancestors.

Ancestry subscription options

There are many other features on the research side of your genealogy. Get a 14-day free trial here.

Read my complete AncestryDNA review.

MyHeritage: best for international matches

MyHeritage is the best option if you’re looking for matches outside the United States. They have the largest international customer database.

MyHeritage matches
Match list at MyHeritage

They have some pretty neat tools such as a chromosome browser, auto clustering, and their “Theory of Relativity”. These tools are a goldmine if you’re interested in more advanced genetic genealogy.

MyHeritage chromosome browser
The chromosome browser at MyHeritage

They also allow the free upload of raw DNA. So if you’ve already tested with another company, you can transfer your DNA to MyHeritage.

MyHeritage is usually the most affordable option amongst the big five testing companies.

Read my complete MyHeritageDNA review.

23andMe: best for genetic health testing

23andMe is the best option for dedicated genetic testing for health risks. The health test reports on carrier status, health risks, traits, and wellness.

23andMe health reports
My 23andMe health results. Specific reports blurred for privacy

Since most people on 23andMe aren’t as interested in family history or communicating with DNA matches as sites like Ancestry, 23andMe would not be my first choice for genealogy.

While they offer broad paternal (males only) and maternal haplogroup reporting, it’s not the same report as you would get with FamilyTreeDNA. Also, these reports are for your haplogroup only and do not include any matching.

23andMe haplogroups

23andMe also has a chromosome browser for comparing segment data with your matches.

Read my complete 23andMe review.

Can’t decide between 23andMe and Ancestry? Read my complete comparison of 23andMe vs Ancestry.

FamilyTreeDNA: best for mtDNA & Y-DNA

FamilyTreeDNA is the best option for dedicated mtDNA and Y-DNA testing. They’re the only company to offer dedicated mtDNA and Y-DNA testing.

FamilyTreeDNA Y-DNA report
My Y-DNA haplogroup migration map from FamilyTreeDNA

Their Y-DNA testing has four levels based on how many markers you want to analyze: 37, 67, 111, and 700. Most people start with the 37 marker test. If you’re working on a specific genealogical problem, then start with the 67. You can always upgrade the markers without taking a new test.

Historically, FamilyTreeDNA has offered three different mtDNA tests; HVR1, HVR1/HVR2, and full sequence. The first two levels of testing were not particularly useful for genealogy. They now offer one test which is the full sequence test.

FamilyTreeDNA mtDNA report
My mtDNA haplogroup migration map from FamilyTreeDNA

Their autosomal testing offers fewer ethnic regions, so the estimates will be much broader than other companies. They also have a smaller customer database, so you won’t get as many matches as other companies. They do have a chromosome browser and allow uploads of raw DNA.

Read my complete FamilyTreeDNA review.

Living DNA: best for British roots

If you have any British or Irish ancestry, you’ll want to do an ancestry test with LivingDNA. LivingDNA specializes in “high definition” genetic testing in the British Isles. They can laser focus on your DNA’s exact regions origins within the British Isles.

LivingDNA regions
My British and Irish DNA by region

LivingDNA divides the UK and Ireland into many more, smaller regions than other services and can help you pinpoint your British and Irish ancestry’s exact regions. But because of the lack of a customer database (and matches), I would also test with another company in addition to LivingDNA.

Read my complete LivingDNA review.


DNA Buyer’s Guide

In this guide:

The three different types of DNA tests

There are three main types of DNA tests used in genealogy and family history research. Each one works a little differently and tells you different things. Naturally, that means that each one has its advantages and disadvantages.

Autosomal DNA tests (atDNA)

autosomal DNA inheritance chart
Autosomal tests are the most popular and look at the DNA you inherited from every line in your family tree. This test provides an estimate of your ethnicity – the regions of the world where your ancestors lived within the past few hundred years. This test also matches you with distant relatives.

Autosomal DNA (atDNA) is that DNA that does not contribute to gender; in other words, the first 22 pairs of chromosomes. It is inherited from both your maternal and paternal ancestors. Because it does not rely on the 23rd chromosome, atDNA tests can be done in both men and women with the same results.

What is an autosomal test?

atDNA tests are by far the most popular for consumers. This is the test that gives you ethnicity estimates as well as family matches. This test examines single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs). These tests examine about 700,000 SNPs to determine how closely related you are to other people.

Remember that half your DNA comes from your father and half from your mother. That means that roughly one-fourth of your DNA comes from each of your grandparents. One-eighth from each of your great-grandparents. And so on. These percentages are never exact since DNA inheritance and recombination is entirely random. The further you go back, the less DNA you have inherited from a particular ancestor. The less DNA you share with a match, the harder it is to prove the relationship. So atDNA tests are only useful for about 6-8 generations.

What It Tells You

Most people who do an autosomal test do so for ethnicity estimates. Autosomal tests give you ethnicity results based on how your DNA compares to reference populations. Every testing company uses its own reference panels.

For genealogical purposes, the primary use of atDNA testing is to find relatives and common ancestry. This can be especially useful if you know very little about your parents or grandparents and have a hard time locating living relatives. Often, relatives located by the test are researching the same family lines as you, and you can share research with them.

Every company mentioned in this guide offers autosomal tests. Again, it is by far the most popular test for consumers.

Mitochondrial DNA testing (mtDNA)

mitochondrial dna inheritance
Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is passed down from a mother to all her children (both male and female) and only examines your direct maternal line. Like Y-DNA, mtDNA changes very slowly over time so you can trace maternal lines back thousands of years. This test should not be confused with X-DNA analysis.

mtDNA is genetic material inside the mitochondria and found inside every cell and has its own separate DNA strands.

mtDNA is passed by mothers to their children. Both males and females inherit their mtDNA from their mothers. Anyone can take this test; male or female. Because mtDNA does not include a combination of DNA from both parents, it does not change with every generation. mtDNA changes extremely slowly – it might remain the same for dozens of generations!

How It Works

While atDNA testing looks at the 22 pairs of autosomes inside the cell nucleus, mtDNA testing looks at the DNA inside the mitochondria. The mitochondria lives outside the cell nucleus. Among other things, that means the test only has to examine about 16,500 genetic base pairs, instead of the 3.2 billion base pairs found in your DNA. The test only looks at specific portions of the mtDNA and compares them to established samples.

What It Tells You

mtDNA gives very precise and accurate ancestry results, but only for the maternal line. That is, it tells you about your mother’s mother’s mother’s mother, and so on, back through time. But it can’t tell you about any of your other ancestors, such as your mother’s father or any of your father’s ancestors.

An mtDNA test will also identify how closely related you are to a haplogroup. A haplogroup is a group of people with a single common ancestor. Historically, everyone living in the same region might belong to the same haplogroup, or very closely related ones. This means that your haplogroup can identify where your maternal line originated.

It could also help you locate distant relatives, but some of them could be very distant (thousands of years). In some cases, mtDNA can remain nearly identical for 50 generations or more. This makes it difficult to use mtDNA matching for genealogical purposes. A perfect match means you are related, but you might be 48th cousins!

The only company to offer individual mtDNA kits is FamilyTreeDNALiving DNA  and 23andMe bundle very basic mtDNA testing with their atDNA test.

Y-DNA tests

Y-DNA inheritance
Y-DNA Tests look at the Y-chromosome (only found in males), which is passed from father to son and changes very little over time. This allows you to trace the direct line back thousands of years. Females don’t have a Y-chromosome, so they cannot take this test. However, they can ask a male relative (i.e. brother, father, uncle, etc.) to take the test for them.

The 23rd human chromosome has two versions, the X and the Y. Women have two X-chromosomes, while men have one X and one Y.

Y-DNA testing kits examine only the Y-chromosome. Therefore only males can take this test. If you’re a woman who wants to test your father’s Y-DNA male line, you’ll need to test a male relative on your paternal line. For example your father, uncle, brother, male cousin, etc. Testing the oldest generation possible is always best. Because you can only get a Y-chromosome from your father, it tends to change very little over time.

How It Works

There are two sub-tests with Y-DNA testing.

The first is a short tandem repeat (STR) test. The STR test categorizes sections of the DNA according to how often a specific genetic pattern repeats.

The second is a single-nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) test. It works the same way as in atDNA testing, but it only tests about 30,000 SNPs instead of 700,000.

What It Tells You

The STR test produces a summary of your haplotype. This can be compared to someone else’s results to determine how far back your most recent common ancestor might have lived. An STR test is often used to determine how closely two people with the same surname are related, if at all.

The SNP test is more detailed, and among other things, assigns you to a haplogroup. A haplogroup is a group of people with one common ancestor who lived in specific regions.

Both Y-chromosome tests can help you locate relatives. But like mtDNA, because the Y-chromosome changes slowly, you might be related many generations back. However, Y-DNA is much more useful for genealogy than mtDNA. And because the Y-chromosome is only passed down through males, the test can only tell you about your paternal line.

The only company to offer individual Y-DNA testing kits is FamilyTreeDNA. They have three testing options depending on how detailed a test you want.

Y-DNA testing is especially useful for adoptees. It’s also an excellent test if you think you have Jewish ancestry.

Living DNA and 23andMe bundles very basic Y-DNA testing with their atDNA tests, but provide much less detailed results than FamilyTreeDNA.

Choosing the test that’s best for you

With three tests to choose from, how do you decide which is best for you? It all depends on what you want to know.

Autosomal test

For most people, the atDNA test is the clear winner, and it is the one test that every testing company offers. Because your atDNA comes from all of your ancestors, this test is useful for finding a range of ancestors and living relatives. It can also provide you with reasonable estimates of your ancestors’ ethnicity (the regions of the world where they lived).

The main drawback to atDNA is that it gets so jumbled together after a few generations that it becomes unreliable the further you try to go back. Most of the time, an atDNA test is only useful for about 6-8 generations.

atDNA can provide some great leads on finding others who are researching the same family tree as you. It’s also the most useful test for adoptees. (Read my full guide to DNA testing for adoptees).

mtDNA test

Because mtDNA comes to you only from your mother, and from her mother, it only helps you trace one line. You can use it to prove a common ancestor with someone else, but only in a direct maternal line.

However, it can trace that line back a very long way – sometimes 10,000 years or more. That can provide evidence that your mother’s maternal line came from a particular region or ethnicity. But it is less useful when finding living relatives.

Y-DNA test

The Y-DNA test is like the mtDNA test, but it follows a direct paternal line instead. That means a Y-DNA test can tell you about your father’s father’s father’s father, and many generations before that, but not about any of your other ancestors.

Y-DNA is most useful if you want to prove a connection to a specific ancestor. Say that you have a common surname, like Smith, and want to know if you are related to someone else named Smith. A Y-DNA can prove (or disprove) that the two of you are related.

Like the mtDNA test, Y-DNA may let you trace a line back for dozens of generations. It can also tell you the ethnicity or region of origin of your paternal line.

One major drawback to Y-DNA is that only males have Y-DNA, so only males can take the test. However, a woman can still find Y-DNA results by having a close male relative take it for her. She can ask her brother, father, paternal uncle, or cousin by a paternal uncle (but not her son, since he got his Y-chromosome from his paternal line, not hers). Similarly, you can trace other paternal lines by asking an appropriate family member to take the test and share the results with you.

Ethnicity/admixture testing

All three of the tests can provide you with information on where your ancestors lived.

But the information they provide varies from test to test.

  • Y-DNA and mtDNA tests will link you to very specific genetic lines, but keep in mind, they represent only a fraction of your family tree.
  • atDNA testing is what’s used for ethnicity testing of your entire family tree.

The companies that provide DNA testing divide the world up into regions in different ways. Each company has different ways of doing this. That means that two different testing companies may give you different ethnicity estimates for the same DNA. As more and more genetic data is collected, companies update their regions, too.

Some companies have had problems with their ethnicity estimates in the past. AncestryDNA, for example, used to be well-known for overestimating Scandinavian ancestry. But the accuracy of estimates is continually improving as more genetic data are collected. There’s no clear indication that one company is more accurate than the others. When a company does improve its ethnicity estimates, your profile will automatically be updated, too. You won’t have to retake the test to get the new results, but you will have to visit their site. Chances are they will not email you with the update.

It’s essential to keep in mind that any DNA test will typically give a region of origin, not a country. That’s because countries have changed many times throughout human history, and even within your lifetime!

Consider the case of Alsace-Lorraine, a 5,600 square mile region on the border of France and Germany. Before the 17th century, the area was entirely Germanic (even though Germany as a country didn’t exist at the time). During the 17th and 18th centuries, it was annexed by France. In 1871, following the Franco-Prussian War, it was annexed by Germany. Following World War I, it was returned to France. So how can you say if your ancestors from that area were German or French using only DNA? You can’t. You can only say that your ancestors came from that region. And because of all the migration and intermarrying across borders, the results you get aren’t going to be that specific. Chances are they’ll bundle Germany and France together and simply tell you those ancestors came from continental western Europe.

FAQ

Which DNA kit is the best?

It depends on your goals…

If you’re just looking for ethnicity results, I recommend Ancestry, MyHeritage, or 23andMe.

Suppose your main goal is to do genealogical research or find/connect with distant relatives. In that case, I recommend Ancestry since they have the largest customer database.

Testing for ancient origins, haplogroups, or surname studies? FamilyTreeDNA is your only choice.

Are you looking to test for genetic health concerns? 23andMe would be my choice.

Which DNA test is the most accurate?

Most people who ask this question are referring to ethnicity estimates, so that’s how I’ll answer it here. In my experience, Ancestry and 23andMe are the most accurate.

If you test with all five companies as I have, you’ll notice that none of them have the same regions, so it’s hard to make an apples-to-apples comparison. For example, 23andMe and FamilyTreeDNA lump together British and Irish ethnicities, whereas Ancestry will separate your Irish, English, Scottish, and Welsh DNA. And for British ancestry, LivingDNA will even go so far as to estimate the exact regions of these areas you’re from. For example, they estimate my English DNA is primarily from Southeast England, which is correct according to my research. 23andMe was also able to tell me that my Italian DNA was from the Calabria region (which is accurate). In contrast, Ancestry just tells me Southern Italian and MyHeritage just says Italian.

Every testing company wants to be as accurate as possible down to the specific region of every country. And companies like Ancestry routinely provide refined ethnicity report updates to their existing customers. It’s a fine balance because the more specific the estimate, the more likely it is to be inaccurate. But as science progresses and more people worldwide get tested, the accuracy will continue to improve.

Which DNA test has the largest database?

AncestryDNA has the largest database with over 18 million customers. This makes it a goldmine for genealogical research.

For comparison, 23andMe is currently at 10 million customers, while MyHeritage is at 3.8 million. Note that MyHeritage tends to have more international matches in their database than any of the testing company.

Which is better AncestryDNA or 23andMe?

Both DNA tests are autosomal tests and report your ethnicity, provide family matches, and offer health reports. 23andMe also does basic yDNA (for males) and mtDNA testing to identify haplogroups (does not include yDNA or mtDNA matching).

For more on this, check out my complete guide to 23andMe vs Ancestry.

​Can DNA testing determine Native American ancestry?

Many people in the United States want to know if they have any Native American ancestry, and if so, from what tribes.

The good news is DNA testing can, in some cases, tell you if you have Native American ancestors.

Read my full guide to testing for Native American ancestry.

Conclusion

So is genealogical DNA testing right for you? In the end, is it really worth the cost and bother?

Absolutely.

Even if genealogy is only an occasional hobby for you, these tests can provide you with some very enlightening insights into your family history. And for the serious genealogist, it is getting to the point where they are nearly essential.

Genealogical DNA testing is finally accurate enough, inexpensive enough, and useful enough for connecting with your family. I recommend it to everyone interested in learning more about their roots.

Recap

External references & citations

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