Best DNA Test for Ancestry
How to Choose the DNA Testing Kit That’s Best for You
If you’ve read all the DNA test reviews, and are still confused, read on. This guide will give you the answers you need to those and many more questions. But first, here’s a comparison table of all the services mentioned in this article:
I’ve done the hard work…the best DNA tests for 2019
|Website||View Website||View Website||View Website||View Website||View Website|
|Best for||Genealogy, matches, ethnicity regions (view website)||Global matches, tools for advanced genetic genealogy (view website)||Distant ancestry, YDNA, mtDNA (view website)||Genetic health testing (view website)||British Isles ancestry (view website)|
|Price||See latest price
||See latest price
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|See latest price
||See latest price
||See latest price
|Ethnic Regions (click for more detail)||500+||42||24||1,000+||80 (in depth for UK)|
|Database Size||15 million||1.4 million||850k||1 million||None|
|Y-DNA Test||No||No||Yes||Broad haplogroup, no matching||Broad haplogroup, no matching|
|mtDNA Test||No||No||Yes||Broad haplogroup, no matching||Broad haplogroup, no matching|
|Collection Method||Saliva||Cheek swab||Cheek swab||Saliva||Cheek swab|
|Raw Data Upload||No||Yes||Yes||No||Yes|
|Health Info||No||For extra fee||No||For extra fee||No|
* Prices may vary; check websites for the latest prices before ordering. In addition to the cost of the test, most companies charge $10-12 for shipping. We earn commissions for purchases made through links in this post which help support this site.
DNA Testing Buyer’s Guide
For centuries, genealogists have relied on oral and written records to trace their family trees. But around the year 2000, the age of genealogical DNA testing was launched. This provided genealogists and family historians with an opportunity to use well-established scientific methods to prove relationships and ancestry.
Compared to paper records, which may be incomplete or inaccurate, DNA testing is precise. But is it right for you?
And if so, which test is right for you? How do you take it? How much does it cost? Which company should you use?
What is DNA?
Before we jump into DNA testing, let’s talk about what DNA is.
DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, is found in every living cell everywhere. It is a long chemical chain that tells our cells how to grow and act.
DNA is divided up into chromosomes, or major blocks, which are in turn divided into genes.
Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes (46 in all) arranged in a double helix.
We each get 23 chromosomes from our mother and 23 from our father.
In humans, the 23rd chromosome is either an X-chromosome or a Y-chromosome, and determines if we are male or female.
Women have two X-chromosomes, while men have one X-chromosome and one Y-chromosome.
It may sound a little confusing, but this is important to understand, because there are different types of DNA testing.
Types of DNA Tests
There are three main types of DNA tests used in genealogy.
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
Autosomal DNA is that DNA that does not contribute to gender; in other words, the first 22 pairs of chromosomes.
Because it does not rely on the 23rd chromosome, autosomal DNA tests can be done in both men and women with the same results.
What is an autosomal DNA test?
Autosomal DNA 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), or the different “shapes” of individual nucleotides, small chunks of DNA.
Genealogical autosomal DNA tests examine about 700,000 SNPs to determine how closely related you are to someone else.
Remember that half our DNA comes from our father and half from our mother.
Going back in generations, that means that roughly one-fourth of our DNA comes from each of our grandparents, one-eighth from each of our great-grandparents, and so on. These percentages are never exact since DNA inheritance and recombination is completely random.
The further you go back, the less DNA you have inherited from a particular ancestor, and the harder it is to prove that you are related.
So autosomal DNA 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 will give you a set of ethnicity results based on how your DNA compares to reference populations created by the testing company.
For genealogical purposes, the main use of autosomal DNA testing is to find relatives and determine how closely related you are to someone else.
This can be especially useful if you know very little about your parents or grandparents and are having a hard time locating living relatives.
Many times, 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 DNA tests. Again, it is by far the most popular test for consumers.
Mitochondrial DNA Testing (mtDNA)
Mitochondrial DNA, or mtDNA, is genetic material inside mitochondria, small components found inside every cell and which have their own separate DNA strands.
mtDNA is passed down exclusively from females. Both males and females inherit their mtDNA from their mothers, therefore anyone can take this test.
Because mtDNA does not include a combination of DNA from both parents, it does not change with every generation.
In fact, mtDNA changes extremely slowly – it might remain exactly the same for dozens of generations!
How It Works
While autosomal DNA testing looks at the 22 pairs of autosomes inside the cell nucleus, mtDNA testing looks at the DNA inside the mitochondria which exists 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 our DNA.
The test normally looks at only 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.
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 basically 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 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 your father, uncle, brother, male cousin, etc. Basically any male on your direct paternal line. Testing the oldest generation possible is always best.
Because you can only get a Y-chromosome from your father, and he from his father, that means it tends to change very little over time.
How It Works
There are actually 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 certain genetic pattern repeats.
The second is a single-nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) test. It works the same way as in autosomal DNA 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 and who lived in one or more 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. Although Y-DNA tests are 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 direct paternal line.
The only company to offer individual Y-DNA testing kits is FamilyTreeDNA, which has three options depending on how detailed a test you want.
Y-DNA testing is especially useful for adoptees. It’s also a great ancestry test if you think you have jewish ancestry.
Choosing The Test That’s Right 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.
For most people, the autosomal DNA test is the clear winner, and it is the one test that every testing company offers.
Because your autosomal DNA comes from all of your ancestors, this test is good for finding a range of ancestors and living relatives.
It can also provide you with reasonable estimates of the ethnicity of your ancestors, or the regions of the world where they lived.
The main drawback to autosomal DNA 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 autosomal DNA test is only useful for about 6-8 generations.
Autosomal DNA can provide some great leads on finding others who are researching the same family tree as you.
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.
It can, however, 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 very specific region or ethnicity.
But it is less useful when finding living relatives.
The Y-DNA test is sort of 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 certain 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 a Y-DNA test 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, such as 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).
In the same way, you can trace other paternal lines by asking an appropriate family member to take the test and share the results with you.
All three of the DNA 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.
- Autosomal DNA 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 exact same DNA.
As more and more data get 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 constantly improving as more data are collected, and 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.
Regions Versus Countries
It’s important 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 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, anyway.
Chances are they’ll bundle Germany and France together, and simply tell you those ancestors came from continental western Europe.
Native American 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.
An autosomal DNA test will provide an ethnicity report, but keep in mind it only goes back about 6-8 generations.
Y-DNA and mtDNA tests go back much further, but only in one single family line each.
The bad news is none of the tests can tell you what tribe your ancestors may have come from, nor can they be used as proof of ancestry when it comes to applying for tribal rolls.
The best any of them can say is the general region of North or South America where your ancestors likely lived.
See our complete guide to Native American DNA tests.
Getting Started With a DNA Test
If you’ve read this far, then chances are you are seriously considering having a genealogical DNA test done.
But I’m sure you still have a lot of questions, such as which DNA kit is best, how much it costs, how long it takes, and more.
You’ve got questions, we’ve got answers.
How is the DNA Collected?
DNA is collected either with a cheek swab or a saliva sample, depending on which company you use.
For the most part, there’s no advantage to one method over the other.
However, if the person being tested is very young (too young to be told to spit in the tube) or very old (and can’t produce enough saliva), the cheek swab might be easier.
What Happens Next?
Once you’ve gathered your DNA sample, simply return it to the company for processing.
It will usually take six to ten weeks for your sample to be processed – but could take longer after the holidays since DNA tests are a popular gift.
Once your test is finished, you’ll be emailed with the test results.
Depending on the company and the test, your results may include:
- your raw data
- ethnicity estimates
- lists of potential relatives
How Much Does It Cost
Prices vary based on company and test.
Autosomal DNA tests by themselves usually run $69 to $99.
The only company to offer separate Y-DNA and mtDNA tests is Family Tree DNA. These tests will cost you a few hundred dollars, depending on the number of markers tested.
As mentioned above, LivingDNA and 23andMe bundle in basic Y-DNA and mtDNA tests. But they only test a limited number of markers, and do not provide any matching. They really only give you haplogroup information.
23andMe offers a combined genealogy and health report for a single fee.
Health reports can identify if you carry the genes for a few dozen different diseases or conditions, which could signal future health risks for you or your children.
In addition to the cost of the test, most companies also charge $10 to $12 for shipping.
See the table at the top of this page for a full comparison.
Buy It As A Gift
You can also buy any of these DNA testing kits as a gift for other family members. Amazingly, you can even buy an ancestry test for your dog! (see our guide to dog DNA tests here)
This is a good way to increase accuracy by comparing test results.
It also lets women use the Y-DNA test by having a male relative take it for them.
Choosing a Company
The number of options for genealogical DNA testing services has increased over the years.
All of these testing kits sites offer autosomal DNA testing.
All of them will provide you with a geographical breakdown of where your ancestors lived.
Beyond that, each one has its pros and cons.
Here are five biggest companies, listed based on how useful overall I think they are for genealogy.
AncestryDNA is the best choice when it comes to genealogy. They have the most extensive database of DNA results for comparison and many other features for genealogists. Read our full AncestryDNA review.
You do not have to have an Ancestry subscription in order to take their test or see your results. You also do not need a subscription to build your own family tree.
A subscription allows you to view genealogical records, view the family tree’s of your matches, and compare your tree with your match to find common ancestors. There are of course many other features on the research side of your genealogy.
Ancestry offers a 14 day free trial which you can get here.
MyHeritage is a great choice if you’re looking for matches outside the United States. They seem to have the biggest database of international customers. They also offer some pretty neat tools such as auto clustering and a chromosome browser.
Read our full MyHeritage DNA review. Also, check out our complete comparison of MyHeritage vs AncestryDNA.
The best for distant ancestry (beyond 6-8 generations), and paternity testing. One major perk is, even if you do get your testing done by a different company, FamilyTreeDNA lets you upload your raw data into their system as well. Read our full Family Tree DNA review.
), and paternity testing. One major perk is, even if you do get your testing done by a different company, FamilyTreeDNA lets you upload your raw data into their system as well. Read our full Family Tree DNA review.
In terms of genealogy, 23andMe would not be my first choice. The main advantage of 23andMe is health testing which means that most people who test there aren’t as interested in family history or communicating with matches as compared to sites like Ancestry.
If you have any British or Irish ancestry, you’ll definitely want to do an ancestry test with LivingDNA. Based in the UK, LivingDNA specializes in “high definition” DNA testing in the British Isles and can narrow into the exact regions of your ancestry in the British Isles.
Because of the lack of a customer database (and matches), I would also test with another company in addition to LivingDNA.
See our complete LivingDNA review.
Which Test Is Best For You?
It depends on your goals…
Is It Worth It?
So is genealogical DNA testing right for you?
In the end, is it really worth the cost and bother?
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.
External References & Citations
- Genealogy Explained
- National Human Genome Research Institute
- National Institute of General Medical Sciences
- Arizona State University
- International Society of Genetic Genealogy
- University College London – Molecular and Cultural Evolution Lab