Usually, the first questions someone new to genetic genealogy asks are “Which test should I do? And which company should I use?” In almost all cases, the answer to the first question is an autosomal test, which looks at DNA inherited from all sides of your family. There are three main companies that do autosomal testing — AncestryDNA, Family Tree DNA (a.k.a., FTDNA), and 23andMe — and which is best for you depends on your goals and family history. I have personally tested with all three, and I spend a lot of time in the three databases as part of my work. Ultimately, a serious genealogist will want to be in all three databases, but you have to start somewhere. For basic genealogy and for unknown parentage searches, I recommend that most people test at the companies in the following order. Where a specialized strength at one company might alter that recommendation, I note that. I’ve included a quick-reference table at the end of this post for convenience.
AncestryDNA has by far the largest autosomal database of the “big three” companies, larger than those of the other two combined. They are projected to hit 3 million people tested by year end. This means you’re likely to find both more DNA relatives and closer ones there. For example, as of November 13, 2016, I had 7,901 matches at AncestryDNA, 1,583 at 23andMe (but see below), and 1,098 at FTDNA.
AncestryDNA also has some excellent tools to assist with your genealogical research. One is the ability to link your DNA test results to a family tree and have their computers automatically find names in common between your tree and those of your DNA matches. These “Shared Ancestor Hints” can then be targeted for additional paper-trail or DNA-based work to confirm the relationship. Although counterintuitive, this tool is invaluable for people who don’t know their family trees, because you can substitute the tree of a close DNA match to determine where in that other person’s tree your own ancestors lie, a trick often called “mirroring”. Once you know who, for example, your 2nd great grandparents are, you can research toward the present to find your biological parent. The “Shared Matches” tool also makes it easy to find third parties who share DNA with both you and one of your DNA relatives. This can allow you to hone in on a biological connection.
Ancestry’s computers can use clusters of people who share both DNA and ancestors in their public trees to create “DNA Circles” of probable relatives. They can also suggest possible ancestors who aren’t already in your tree. These “DNA Circles” and “New Ancestor Discoveries” can then be investigated further to confirm or refute them. Finally, AncestryDNA has the fastest website, although all three companies can be glitchy at times.
AncestryDNA has only recently entered the international market, so people whose heritage is predominantly outside the U.S. may want to test with one of the other companies first. They also lack a chromosome browser, which many experienced genetic genealogists consider essential. Without a chromosome browser, their matching system is a “black box” that can impede advanced DNA work. Their messaging system can be unreliable. They only offer the autosomal test and don’t provide haplogroup information for either mitochondrial DNA or the Y chromosome. Finally, although the test price includes the ethnicity estimate and a list of matching people, you need to subscribe to make the best use of their tools (US$59/year and up).
Regular Price for U.S. customers: US$99 for ethnicity results and a list of DNA matches; additional charge for membership; occasional sale prices or other discounts available
Summary: Test at AncestryDNA first if you have unknown parentage or are mainly interested in basic genetic genealogy.
NOTE: Do not be confused by a company called AncestrybyDNA, which often advertises on coupon sites like Groupon. It’s not the same thing and is useless for genealogy.
FTDNA’s main strengths are its chromosome browser, the availability of other types of DNA tests in addition to their autosomal Family Finder, the group projects, and their global customer base. The chromosome browser lets you visualize where in your genome you match other people. If you find two people who both match you in the same place, you can work with them to determine whether they also match one another, which would be evidence that you all inherited that one segment of DNA from a common ancestor. Their new phasing tool allows you to link known relatives to your tree to automate some of this segment work. Their “ICW” (In Common With) tool works similarly to AncestryDNA’s “Shared Matches”.
The company also offers yDNA and mtDNA testing to trace specific lines of your family tree (your father’s father’s father’s, etc. and your mother’s mother’s mother’s, etc., respectively). Group projects allow you to collaborate with other people descended from the same lineage and get advice from the group administrators, who are generally experts on that family or family group. Group projects are particularly useful for yDNA and mtDNA tests, less so for autosomal testing at the moment. Perhaps because of the availability of different types of DNA testing there, FTDNA’s customer base seems to be the most ardent about genetic genealogy. Overall, their responsiveness and willingness to help reflect well on the company.
FTDNA also has a more global database than AncestryDNA. Thus, if your recent ancestry is from Europe, you will probably find more and closer matches at FTDNA, despite their smaller database overall.
Other nice features of FTDNA are: they use a cheek scrape, which is easier for some older people than the saliva tests at Ancestry and 23andMe; they will store samples for 25 years so you can order additional tests later, even if the person you want to test has passed away; no additional subscription is needed to use their tools; and contact with your matches is via email, so you needn’t depend on an internal messaging system. (Of course, if you don’t want to share your email address, this might be a drawback.)
Oh, and the price! They recently announced a new, permanent price of $79 for the autosomal test, which is the least expensive in the industry.
FTDNA’s main weakness is the size of it’s autosomal database, which is estimated at about 250,000 people. Also, their matching system includes small DNA segments that probably don’t reflect recent shared ancestry. As a result, they generally overestimate how closely related your DNA relatives are. Their trees are awkward to work with, adding to the challenge of finding shared ancestors with your DNA matches. Finally, their ethnicity ethnicity estimates are generally considered the least accurate of the three companies. (An update to this tool has been promised.)
Regular Price for U.S. customers: US$79; on sale for US$59 as of 16 Nov 2016 … an outstanding price
Summary: Test at FTDNA first if your recent ancestors were from not from the United States.
NOTE: Depending on when you tested at the other two companies, you might be able to transfer your raw autosomal data into the FTDNA database for only US$39.
23andMe has the second largest database, last reported at about 1.2 million people, and their autosomal test includes basic mitochondrial and Y-chromosome haplogroup information at no extra charge. Of the three main companies, they are widely acknowledged to have the most accurate ethnicity estimates.
Like FTDNA, 23andMe has a chromosome browser. Better yet, if you can find two people who match you in the same place, 23andMe’s browser allows you to directly compare them to see whether they match one another. This information can help you categorize your DNA relatives into the family branches through which they relate.
23andMe is the only one of the three companies that provides medical and trait reports. While not useful for genealogy, these reports can be fun (now I know why I drink so much caffeine) and can be useful for family planning. For example, one friend found out he’s a carrier for cystic fibrosis, despite being about 75% of African descent. Cystic fibrosis is most prevalent in Europeans, so learning that he was a carrier was a shock.
No additional subscription is required to access the DNA matching or reports.
23andMe’s weaknesses center on the fact that it’s not primarily a genealogy company; it’s a medical one. Most of their users aren’t interested in family history. For example, of my 1,583 matches there, only 633 (40%) have agreed to participate in the ancestry component of the website.
To protect the medical privacy of their customers, the company has instituted an awkward “sharing” system for viewing DNA segments. This means that you must individually request that each of your matches allow you to see where in your genomes you match one another. A small fraction, about 15% in my case, of users have opted into “Open Sharing”, which eliminates the need for individual requests. Their “Relatives in Common” feature equates to AncestryDNA’s “Shared Matches” and to FTDNA’s “ICW”, but it only works for those few matches who are participating in Open Sharing.
There are no family trees within the 23andMe system. Instead, 23andMe has partnered with MyHeritage to host trees. Very few of their customers use this feature.
Regular Price for U.S. customers: US$99 for ethnicity results, haplogroup assignments, and a list of DNA matches (not available outside the U.S.); US$199 if you also want medical and trait reports; sale prices are rare
Summary: Test at 23andMe first if medical reports are important to you, or if you are only interested in an ethnicity estimate.
Quick Reference Table
MyHeritage recently entered the DNA testing market. Because their database is still quite small, I have not reviewed them here.
Regular Price for U.S. customers: US$99, on sale for US$79 as of 16 Nov 2016
This post has been edited to clarify that prices are for U.S. customers. International customers should check availability and pricing within their own countries.