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. Adam

    I’ve done three DNA tests now, and I have to say 23andMe made the most sense and corroborated the most with the other tests.

  2. George Janet Giannini

    Thank you for this informative article, although I’m still confused at which company will get me what I want to know. I want to know my mother and fathers origins. So since I’m a woman, I need my brother to do this text? Not me? And we want the same information on my my husband. It is interesting knowing your relatives but we just are curious if what we were told as children was the correct region in the world we came from. So with in mind which company do you suggest. Thank you

    • Marc McDermott

      A regular autosomal test will give you ethnicity estimates. If by origins you mean ancient origins (which I don’t think you mean), then you need dedicated y-dna and mtdna testing.

  3. akkas

    hi, if you go to familytree website there are different packages. so which one is best?

    • Marc McDermott

      It depends on what you want to test and what you’re looking to find out.

  4. M K

    Hi,

    I am looking to purchase a test to try to locate my father! I don’t have any information on who he, his name, not even what the looks like…Which test would you recommend giving a shot to? I feel like this search is going to be so long and vague. But the starting point would be with a test.

    • Marc McDermott

      I would start with Ancestry as they have the largest database.

  5. Cynthia

    Hi Mark,

    I would like to confirm that the man I call Dad really is my biological father. He is still living; but he is not in the best of heath so I obtaining the saliva might be a challenge. I am 50 years old, and I might be also interested in the health report for myself IF it truly is useful information. Since I have grown up with my family in very close proximity, the health history is mostly known, however, if this man is not my father then that could change,

    • Marc McDermott

      As long as you have permission from your dad and he understands the implications of the test then you both can test with any company. For health, go with 23andMe.

  6. Sarah E.

    Hi, I believe I’m ASIAN, what’s the best DNA test would you suggest? thank you!

    • Marc McDermott

      Any of the autosomal tests in this article

  7. Joel

    Mark, my wife and I have always been told we are Czech. In fact family history says both of our grandfathers came from the same small town in the Czech Republic. We would like to know what other heritage we might have, but also, if we are related. Is there a test that can tell us that?

    • Marc McDermott

      I’d test with either Ancestry or MyHeritage.

  8. Terry

    Can I have all results destroyed other than the copy that I receive ? Or does the company retain information for other purposes ?

    • Marc McDermott

      That’s a good question and never thought about it. I would contact the company and ask.

  9. Mariano

    Hi Mark!
    I want to know if I am the father of a baby…and at the same time learn about muy roots…
    A bit overwhelmed with so much info…
    Which couple of kits should I buy?
    Thanks, Mariano

    • Marc McDermott

      For a baby, you’ll want to get a test with a cheek swab instead of saliva tube. I would double check before buying, but I think only FTDNA and MyHeritage offer this right now.

  10. Sotia

    Great article! I am a little bit confused about which test to choose for finding out my ancient origin. Which one would you recommend? Thank you so much

    • Marc McDermott

      Ancient origins you want to test Y-DNA and mtDNA at FamilyTreeDNA.

  11. Harold

    Mark, First thank you for any help. Much appreciated. I was adopted, recently found I have 6 siblings. (Not sure half/full)
    I am in contact with them. Found Mother’s side of family. (My mother’s sisters are still alive) First 3 siblings don’t know who’s the father. Next 4, (3 girls,1boy)all have same mother/father. Have doubts on boy. However the father of the 4, has had a son and daughter also. Now the question, I personally have tested with Heritage, Ancestry, 23& me. I am wondering what test would I get for the possible half brother to see if we indeed have same father? Or at best rule him out. Thank you also side note, I will be traveling to Salt Lake City this week and hear the are the best at helping in these situations. Any pointers or tips for me to utilize on this trip? Thank You

    • Marc McDermott

      The key here is to test everyone with the same company so you can compare everyone in the same spot. Re: SLC, I’m guessing you’re referring the the Family History Library? They won’t be able to help you with DNA matters, but will certainly help you out with any genealogy research you’re looking to do. Good luck.

  12. Cheri Ecker

    I am wanting to locate my biological father…my mother said that she can’t remember his name and I feel like a part of me is missing

    • Marc McDermott

      You’ll need to combine your DNA test with some genealogical research and may want to consult a genetic genealogist. Good luck with your search.

  13. CHANTE

    HI, MARK, I WANT TO BUY A KIT FOR MY BOYFIREND, HE HAS NO CLUE WHO HIS DAD IS OR ANY OF THERE FAMILY MEMBERS HOW DO I FIND OUT HIS FATHER FAMILY SIDE JUST NOT THE MALES BUT HIS DAD AN HIS FAMILY?

    • Marc McDermott

      You’ll have to combine a dna test with a bit of genealogy. I’d test with ancestry since they have the largest database of matches.

  14. Karrie

    My daughter was adopted from China. She would like to try and find a DNA connection. Of these kits presented, is there one we should look at more closely?

    • Marc McDermott

      Probably start with Ancestry. She can then upload her results to other company’s databases for more matches.

  15. Zoe

    I was told my dad had a child before me that was given up for adoption. If this half sibling happens to take a test with the same company I choose, would it tell us that we are siblings? Thanks!

    • Marc McDermott

      Yes. Likewise, if the person’s family members tested, they will show up on your list as close matches.

  16. Anne

    hi
    if i am looking to identify my mothers lineage going back to 1400 and fathers linage separately can my brother send one sample and to which company ?

    • Marc McDermott

      For distant ancestry, you need dedicated y-dna and mt-dna tests. Only company for that is FamilyTreeDNA.

  17. Lauren

    Hi, I am interested in taking this test because my mother had me with artificial insemination. I know you had mentioned that 23andme is the only company to offer health screenings. I am looking for heath screening and also some family history. Do you have any additional recommendations or is that the company you would recommend? Thanks!

    • Marc McDermott

      Other companies are starting to add health tests, but right now I still recommend 23andMe.

  18. Bernadette Yeager

    My father served in Korea. I believe I may have a sibling there. Id like to find out for sure. And Id like to provide my children with any information I may find.

    • Marc McDermott

      The only way you’d be able to figure this out is if your sibling in Korean or any of his/her relatives have tested with the same company you test with.

  19. Jared Beutler

    Hi, I am trying to help my cousin find his biological father who was likely an Italian POW held in Ogden, UT. He has done the 23andme testing but hasn’t found relatives from his father’s side. Which test would Italians be most likely to use so that he could link with them?

    • Marc McDermott

      I would test with Ancestry, then upload the raw DNA to other sites to get into as many databases as possible.

  20. Samantha

    I was born in Colombia and would like to know if I have any royal blood in my family. Which test would I need to take? Please answer ny question as no one seems to know.

    • Marc McDermott

      Sounds like you’ll need to do y-dna and mtdna testing.

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