Genealogy / Best DNA Test Kits

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. What is the best DNA test? This guide will break down everything you need to know. But first, here’s a quick comparison of the best DNA testing kits:

Comparison of important features

AncestryDNA MyHeritage FamilyTree DNA 23andMe LivingDNA
Website Ancestry.com MyHeritage.com FamilyTreeDNA.com 23andMe.com LivingDNA.com
Best for Genealogy, matches, ethnicity regions Global matches, tools for advanced genetic genealogy Distant ancestry, YDNA, mtDNA Genetic health testing British Isles ancestry
Price See latest price
See latest price
See latest price
See latest price
See latest price
Ethnicity results Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Ethnic Regions 500+ 42 24 1,000+ 80 (in depth for UK)
Family Matching Yes Yes Yes Yes Limited
Database Size 15 million 3.8 million 1 million 10 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
Chromosome Browser No Yes Yes Yes No
Raw Data Upload No Yes Yes No Yes
Health Info No For extra fee No For extra fee No

Best DNA testing kits reviewed

AncestryDNA

The best testing kit for genealogy, AncestryDNA has the most extensive database (15 million customers) so you’ll find the most DNA matches there.

Ancestry DNA test kit

What we like:

  • Database of over 15 million customers for matching
  • Strong genealogical community
  • Connect with matches through anonymous email and message boards
  • Link your DNA results to your online family tree
  • No subscription required

What we don’t like

  • Viewing family trees of your matches requires a subscription
  • Does not allow raw data uploads from other sites

Read our complete AncestryDNA review.

Note that 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. Get a 14-day free trial here.

MyHeritage DNA

The best DNA testing kit if you’re looking for matches outside the United States, MyHeritage has the largest database of international customers. They also offer some pretty neat tools such as auto clustering and a chromosome browser.

MyHeritage test kit

What we like:

  • Largest database of international customers to be matched with
  • Link your DNA results to your online family tree
  • Allows free upload of raw data from other sites
  • Covers 42 ethnic regions

What we don’t like

  • Relatively small (but rapidly growing) database compared to other sites. Currently 3.8 million

Read our complete MyHeritageDNA review.

23andMe

23andMe is the best test kit for dedicated genetic testing for health. Since most people who test there aren’t as interested in family history or communicating with DNA matches as compared to sites like Ancestry, 23andMe would probably not be my first choice for genealogy.

23 and me DNA test kit

What we like:

  • The best company for health and wellness reports
  • Has a large database of more than 10 million customers
  • Includes a chromosome browser for comparing results

What we don’t like

  • Very limited genealogical community compared to other sites
  • No Y-DNA or mtDNA matching
  • Does not allow upload of raw data from other sites

Read our complete 23andMe review.

You may also be interested in our complete comparison of 23andMe vs Ancestry.

FamilyTreeDNA

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.

FamilyTreeDNA

What we like:

  • Only company to offer all three tests separately
  • Only company to offer Y-DNA and mtDNA matching
  • Cheek swab DNA collection (much easier for babies and elderly)
  • Allows free upload of raw data from tests run for other sites
  • Has a chromosome browser, which lets you compare two or more sets of DNA results to see segment overlap
  • Surname, haplogroup and other group projects you can join

What we don’t like

  • Has a smaller database of people than sites like Ancestry (since it’s not as popular to the mass market), so you might miss some matches
  • Very broad ethnicity regions

Read our complete FamilyTreeDNA review.

Living DNA

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” genetic 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.

LivingDNA

What we like:

  • Divides the UK and Ireland into many more, smaller regions than other services

What we don’t like

  • No separate autosomal DNA only test, so highest overall price
  • Almost no database for matches

Read our complete LivingDNA review.

DNA testing buyer’s guide

In this guide:

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 (atDNA)

autosomal DNA inheritance chart
Autosomal DNA 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 – or 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 atDNA 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), or the different “shapes” of individual nucleotides, small chunks of DNA.

Genealogical atDNA 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 inheritance
Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is passed down from a mother to all her children (both male and female) and examines your direct maternal line only. 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 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 only company to offer individual mtDNA kits is FamilyTreeDNALiving DNA  and 23andMe bundle very basic mtDNA testing with their autosomal DNA 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 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.

Living DNA and 23andMe bundles very basic Y-DNA testing with their autosomal DNA 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 DNA

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.

mtDNA

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.

Y-DNA

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.

Ethnicity testing

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 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 constantly improving as more genetic 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’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, 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.

Read our full guide to testing for Native American ancestry.

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?

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.

External references & citations

About the Author

Comments (835)

  1. Bobmierow

    If you want to take a dna test to use on the GEDmatch site; is one company’s test better than the others?

    • Marc McDermott

      No, it shouldn’t matter. Whoever you test with is just going to give you a raw data export of your DNA as a text file to upload to gedmatch.

  2. Sam R Hobson

    I want a dna test that will link me with others regardless of their last name who have the same dna . Also would be interesting to see the ethnicity and origin of my dna profile. Have no idea how that works. Which test has the most comprehensive information and largest database of others seeking the same thing i am ?

    • Marc McDermott

      AncestryDNA.

  3. Fionnuala

    Hi, thanks for the advice on this website.
    I am thinking of doing DNA testing with FamilyTreeDNA, with my father and sister.
    I am wondering if you would recommend both my sister and I doing the mtDNA test – or is that a waste of money?
    Would it be helpful if one of us tested with Ancestry instead of FamilyTree for the autosomal test?
    Thank you.

    • Marc McDermott

      You and your sister would have the same mtDNA which came from your mother. One of you could test with ancestry’s autosomal test, download the raw data then upload to FTDNA for less money than running a new test.

  4. Ted

    What is your advice to someone like myself, where my test from Ancestry DNA came back indicating a different father. My mother swears on her life that it cannot be possible. I want to trust her and find no reason to not believe her. Where do I go from here to determine the accuracy of my DNA testing.

    • Marc McDermott

      What exactly is Ancestry saying in the report? You have a match in your list that’s labeled ‘Parent/Child’?

      • Hank

        Hi, Mark, great article, but I have the same situation as Ted here and need solid advice. I have been interested in genealogy,and have done online and location research for 20 years. A few years back I did my own DNA (Ancestry/NatGeno) and as this past Christmas there was a nice sale, I got a test for my sister. She is about 18 months my elder and we are both mid-60s, and our parents are deceased. I am the manager of the test and the trees. When the results (Ancestry DNA) came back I was confused to find that she was being reported as a half-sibling, and that someone unknown to us was also being reported as a half-sibling to her, and not related to me. This was a shock as we have always believed we were full siblings. I thought there must be an error, and contacted Ancestry, but have gradually come to accept that my mother was impregnated by someone else, prior to marrying my father. Whether she knew, or my father knew, I have no idea. We did know she was pregnant at the time she married and my sister was born just over 6 months later. It seems pretty clear we had never been told something important, and she does not know, and I want to double-check in any way that I can to be sure there is not some possibility of testing/software error, before breaking this news to her. What do you suggest as a double-check to prove this was no testing error? I’m leaning toward some excuse to get her to supply a new sample so as to test with a different company. Is that the best way to double check? Is it even possible there could be an error in the testing? Have you ever heard of a proven error? As you can imagine, this is a startling realization, and whether I do tell her or not, and I am leaning toward that, I want to be sure there has been no error before I permanently change her perceptions of our parentage! Thank you very much for the help and advice.

        • Marc McDermott

          Hi Hank. I actually replied to your other comment with some thoughts. Let me know if that was helpful.

      • Hank

        I would like to know this too, as I’ve recently had my sister do a DNA test as well, it is showing that we are NOT full sibs, but share our mother. This is unbelievable to me, and as yet have not told my sister, so like the other poster, except our mother is dead now. Can a DNA test be wrong? How would one double check the results? Have a different company do a new test? What can one do to prove the test is in error, or prove it is not? Thanks for the help

        • Marc McDermott

          There is a very small chance the test is correct, but the relationship estimate is wrong. These estimates are based on statistics. And the statistics also tell us there is a small bit of overlap between full and half siblings. Meaning that you could in fact be full siblings, but for some reason your shared DNA is much less than expected. For example if you shared 2300 cm with your sister, that’s right on the edge. If you share less than 2200 cm with your sister, it’s very likely not a full sibling relationship. Half siblings are expected to share 1317-2312 cm while full siblings 2209-3384. So you can see that small bit of overlap.

          I would look to test other close relatives. If you have additional siblings, I’d start there. If your sister has children, you can also test them. While there is a very small overlap in expected shared DNA between uncle/nephew and half-uncle/nephew, it’s a safe bet you’ll be able to tell from this. Also, you should compare the close relatives (1st-2nd cousins) between you and your sister. If one of you has a close relative the other does not, then it’s likely the test was accurate. Just some thoughts. You may also want to consult with a professional genetic genealogist to confirm your testing plan.

  5. Bernadette

    Awesome and extremely clear explanations. Thanks Mark!

  6. Ross Ojeda

    What is the best DNA testing service for searching ancestry links to Mexico and Spain?

    • Marc McDermott

      I’d go with Ancestry.

  7. Mishh

    Hi I’m wondering if the Ancestry DNA kit is the one for me – I’m trying to go back from my father on ancestry but maybe because he was adopted its not giving me the info I need – will ancestry dna kit be the one to find more info?

    • Marc McDermott

      Are you looking for ethnicity or family tree info?

  8. Jim L

    I’m trying to discover the identity of my mom’s grandfather. Which test should I use? We have no idea who he was so should it be a broad data base or a strict paternal line search?

    • Marc McDermott

      You want to go with the biggest database which at the moment is Ancestry.

  9. Bianca

    Hi Mark,
    What test would you recommend that would trace a wide mix of ethnicities including varied European(English, Irish, Scottish, German etc), indigenous Australian, Polynesian-Samoan and Chinese/Asian? many many thanks-just want to make sure I buy a test that covers all the unusual ethnicities. Not bothered about tracing relatives…

    • Marc McDermott

      I’d go for either Ancestry or MyHeritage

  10. Maria Ellison

    I was given a picture of myself I believe I was about two or three years old, I have always thought I was born in the USA, BUT TO THE BOTTOM OF THE PICTURE SAYS HAVANA STUDIOS, ALSO I WAS BORN IN A HOSPITAL 1958 HOWEVER THE HOSPITAL WAS DAMAGED IN A HURRICANE AND DID NOT OPEN UP AGAIN UNTIL 1959 BOTH PARENTS ARE DECEASED AND GRANDPARENTS ARE DECEASED WHICH WILL BE THE BEST TEST. OH NO KNOW SISTERS OR BROTHERS.

    • Marc McDermott

      Hi Maria. To clarify, how do you know the hospital you were born? It’s on your birth certificate? What are you trying to figure out?

  11. Jennifer Holzhammer

    Thank you very much for your insightful and helpful information. Now which one to choose is the question. Is taking all tests wise?

    • Marc McDermott

      I’ve tested with each of the big five. It’s wise in the sense that you have access to every database of matches. Some companies allow you to upload your raw DNA that was generated from other testing companies. That can save you a lot of money. So you can test with Ancestry, then upload your raw DNA to MyHeritage, FTDNA and LivingDNA. 23andMe do not allow uploads right now so you’d have to test with them separately. Ancestry also does not allow uploads, that’s why I would use them to do your initial test.

  12. Catherine J

    I don’t want to have to have an ongoing monthly subscription (would rather pay more up front as one time cost for information) – will I have a permanent record to keep or ??? I am not interested in contacting distant relatives – just want to see lineages a few (2,3, or 4) generations back and ethnicity

    • Marc McDermott

      You do not need a subscription for a DNA test.

  13. Sunny Murchisom Al-Burga

    AWESOME

  14. brendan mcg

    hi there – what would be the best test for searching for relatives living in Ireland? I see Living DNA is good for UK?

    • Marc McDermott

      LivingDNA is great, however they don’t really have a matching feature even thought they say they do. Your best bet will be to get your DNA into as many databases as possible to find relatives. So test with either Ancestry or 23andMe, then upload your raw DNA to FTDNA and MyHeritage for a very small fee. You need to fish in as many ponds as possible.

  15. ruth

    you did not mention CRI Genetics – what about their rating? thank you

    • Marc McDermott

      Not familiar with this outfit.

  16. Elizabeth Conner

    I have a question. I’m still confused which if any kit I may want to use. My mother recently passed and my siblings and I came across some documents that may indicate that we dont share the same father. We have no one left alive to ask. No that it matters really but now we are curious. Is there a DNA kit that can help?

    • Marc McDermott

      If you want to know, just test yourself and your siblings all with the same company. They’ll compare the DNA and tell you if your full or half siblings.

  17. sandra

    Hi! My mom gave my sister and I the Ancestry DNA tests. Interestingly, my sister linked to my father but I did not. My mom said my dad had a faulty sample. Is it possible with a faulty sample for this to happen?

    • Marc McDermott

      I suppose it’s possible. Did you link to your sister as a full sibling or half sibling?

  18. Mark

    did a 23me (twice) and got back information leading me to think my paternal genetics are is completely different than what I’ve lived and been told. How can I best continue my search for who my biological father may be.

    • Marc McDermott

      You’ll need to do some genealogy research to determine this. You may want to hire a professional to help get you started.

  19. Anna Greisz

    Are the test expensive? I just want to know where my ancestories are from.

    • Marc McDermott

      Depends what kind of test you want. The autosomal tests are all under $100 and often go on sale.

  20. Hope Woods

    I am adopted. I am of possibly African/Native/Asian/European ancestry. I want to know everything I can. I have a brothers but we have different fathers (I think).

    • Marc McDermott

      I’d test with Ancestry and upload your results to other databases.

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