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.
In a hurry? I recommend AncestryDNA as the best DNA test overall.
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
|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|
|Ethnic Regions||1,000+||42||24||2,000+||80 (in depth for UK)|
|Database Size||18 million||3.8 million||1 million||10 million||Limited|
|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||For extra fee||For extra fee||No||For extra fee||No|
AncestryDNA: best overall
- 18 million customers
- 1,000+ ethnic regions
- Strong genealogical community
- Connect with DNA matches
- Link results to family tree
- See latest price
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.
My matches list at Ancestry
Their ethnicity reports look at 1,000+ regions and give you percentage estimates for each.
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.
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.
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
- 3.8 million customers
- 42 ethnic regions
- Largest international community
- Free raw data upload
- Most affordable
- See latest price
MyHeritage is the best option if you’re looking for matches outside the United States. They have the largest international customer database.
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.
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
- 10 million customers
- 2,000+ ethnic regions
- 40+ carrier status reports
- 5+ wellness reports
- 10+ health predisposition reports
- See latest price
23andMe is the best option for dedicated genetic testing for health risks. The health test reports on carrier status, health risks, traits, and wellness.
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 paternal (males only) and maternal haplogroup reporting, it’s not the same report as you would get with FamilyTreeDNA. These reports are for your haplogroup only and do not include any matching which to me is the primary use of these tests. Learn more about how to find your haplogroup.
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
- 1 million customers
- 24 ethnic regions
- Dedicated mtDNA, Y-DNA testing
- mtDNA, Y-DNA matching
- Surname & haplogroup projects
- See latest price
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.
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.
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.
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. This guide will focus on autosomal testing only. To learn about mitochondrial DNA, refer to this guide on the best mtDNA test. For Y-DNA, refer to my guide to the best Y-DNA test.
Autosomal DNA tests (atDNA)
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.
Choosing the test that’s best for you
With three types of 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 basic autosomal 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). Y-DNA testing is also great if you have Jewish ancestry on your direct paternal line.
- mtDNA tests are most useful if you’re only looking at your direct maternal 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 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.
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.
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.
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.