The Pros and Cons of the Main Autosomal DNA Testing Companies

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. (Note: I earn a small commission if you purchase through the links in this post. The cost is the same for you. Click here for more information.) 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

Pros:

AncestryDNA has by far the largest autosomal database of the “big three” companies, larger than those of the other two combined.  They announced in April 2017 that their database had exceeded 4 million people tested. 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.

Sizes of the main databases for genealogical DNA testing, based on numbers from the ISOGG wiki
Sizes of the main databases for genealogical DNA testing, based on numbers from the ISOGG wiki edit history. The Genographic Project (Geno 2.0) is not discussed in this post. (http://isogg.org/wiki/Autosomal_DNA_testing_comparison_chart)

 

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.

Cons:

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

For tests in the UK, see here.

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

Pros:

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.

Cons:

FTDNA’s main weakness is the size of it’s autosomal database, which is estimated at about 500,000 people (April 2017). 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

Summary: Test at FTDNA first if your recent ancestors were from not from the United States.

NOTE: If you have tested at one of the other two companies, you can transfer your raw autosomal data into the FTDNA database to get a list of matching relatives for free. You can gain access to their tools, like the chromosome browser, for a small fee of US$19. Depending on when your test at the other company was done (and therefore which version of the test you did), you may or may not be matched to distant relatives.

 

23andMe

Pros:

23andMe has the second largest database, last reported at about 2 million people (April 2017), 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.

Cons:

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

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MyHeritage

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

 

Living DNA

Living DNA is another new entry into the market. They provide haplogroup assignments and biogeographical analysis, and they advertise the most detailed ethnicity estimates available. Living DNA does not currently offer relative matching but are planning to do so in the future.

Regular Price for U.S. customers: US$159

 

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. Prices and sizes of the databases were updated in May 2017.

29 thoughts on “The Pros and Cons of the Main Autosomal DNA Testing Companies”

  1. Good analysis. Should mention that customer service at the big three leaves something to be desired, but FTDNA seems to be the worst in my experience. I have a Y-DNA 37 marker kit that was finished in September, but lacks two markers. I’ve contacted them multiple times with no avail. FTDNA does have fairly quick turnaround time, but Ancestry is the fastest.

    23andMe – which I dearly loved until they began tinkering with the website. Too many permissions, too difficult to navigate. One positive with the new site, if you have multiple kits on one account, the mail and sharing requests are now going straight to the kit in question.

    OK, I’ll get down off my soapbox.

  2. Great contribution! One small thing about Ancestry that is hard to say exactly, but it’s approach, despite warnings, makes it look like the dna driven ancestor hints 5ate more reliable thsn they actually are. If you can test at least 1 parent, you can detect genetically impossible hibts.

    1. That’s a good point, although definitely well past the beginner level I intended as the audience for this post. At the simplest level, you might get a “Shared Ancestor Hint” and assume that it’s solid proof of a relationship, which it’s not. It’s just a hint that needs additional work to confirm or disprove. At the next level, you could get a “Shared Ancestor Hint” through your mother to a DNA relative who matches only your father and then assume that the hint is wrong. That might also be a false assumption. Especially if you have deep roots in the U.S., you could genuinely be related to that person through both parents and simply not share DNA on your mother’s side.

      Definitely an advanced topic!

  3. Thanks for the information. I have been researching for nine years but just recently started testing DNA. I love finding information that is more on my level. I get emails saying we match but I do not understand where they found the match. Thanks, Clara Owen

    1. An email saying you match someone is based only on the fact that you share DNA segments. It doesn’t mean the company knows *how* you’re related.

      If you’re getting emails about “Shared Ancestor Hints” from AncestryDNA, they’re telling you that they found the same person (or couple) in your tree and in the tree of someone who shares DNA with you. This kind of hint should be treated as a suggestion, not solid proof of the relationship. You still need to do paper-trail work, and ideally you can use other DNA relatives, like parents, aunts/uncles, or close cousins to check that you’re on the right track.

  4. I’m surprised that the database with Family Tree is not larger. Both my husband and I tested with them and each of us received over 1,500 matches.

    1. It may well be larger. FTDNA hasn’t released official figures, so we only have an estimate to go on. I hope they’ll announce their autosomal database size eventually.

    1. Thanks for adding that observation. For some people, that’s a drawback. In some cases, like endogamy, limiting the Shared Matches to people who share 20 cM or more is a benefit. because distant cousins often match you on both sides of your tree. Ideally, the companies would allow us to set our own thresholds for these tools.

  5. Terrific post, and great information. I will share with my newly formed DNA Interest Group, as most have not yet tested.

  6. While 23 does test more medically-relevant SNPs than the other two sites, you can get a medical report that is FAR more thorough than the one the FDA will currently allow 23 to sell in the USA by paying just $5 to have Promethease analyze your raw DNA results from any of the big three. Also, I believe 23 has ended its brief partnership with My Heritage. Almost none of my 23 matches has a tree and few even bother to list more than one or two surnames or ancestral birth locations, so despite its relatively large membership, 23 is IMHO almost completely useless for genetic genealogy.

    As someone whose maternal origins are 100% UK and Ireland, FTDNA has been fantastic at helping me find cousins in those countries plus Australia and NZ. Given the number of close cousins I have there, I think it’s likely that far more than a quarter of a million people have tested. I also think the recent improvements to FTDNA’s tree, allowing you to easily add a close match, have brought FTDNA close to Ancestry in tree integration.

  7. Nice blog post. I think I will share it also via FB and Twitter. I’ve done all my atDNA tests through Ancestry and for the most part also support it as the first place to test in *most* cases. The “shared ancestors” tool was a *wonderful* addition and is very useful for categorizing all those no-public-tree matches.

    One last mention: please pitch GEDMatch. Wouldn’t be wonderful if all those many Ancestry matches were immediately available in GEDMatch. Wow, that would be a genetic genealogist’s Nirvana!

    ps…nice start on blogging. I just started one myself.

    Ken

    1. Thanks for your comment and for the link. FTDNA hasn’t released the size of their autosomal (Family Finder test) database. The 830,094 figure is the total of yDNA (590,276) and mtDNA (239,818) testers.

  8. Can anyone say which system is the best at using X-DNA to help trace ethnicity? If I have an interesting branch in my tree, it is most likely through my maternal grandfather. As such, atDNA is a must and Y-DNA and mtDNA are useless. X-DNA could help with this difficult branch, I think.

    Once I have the ethnicity down, I will attack my paternal branch through Y-DNA testing. Any suggestions on that? While this probably won’t provide surprises (my father’s uncle traced this branch back to ancient Rome already using record at the Vatican) it does still have potential as that last known person on that branch was a soldier in the Roman Army.

    1. Ethnicity is reflected in all of your autosomomes plus the X, so confining your analysis to just the X chromosome is limiting your options. The X is most useful for ruling out certain lines as possible connections between yourself and a DNA match. It’s not a reliable way to prove connections, because you may not have inherited X DNA along that particular line just because of chance.

      For yDNA, start with the y-37 or y-67 test at Family Tree DNA. You might consider ordering it now, because it can take a few months to get the results in. Sounds like you have an exciting family story!

  9. Just received Myhertiage DNA results. Compared to Ancestry.com DNA, I would not recommend. You can’t send a message to a match unless you pay.
    You get a broad overview, compared to Ancestry. Too many 2-4 cousins, 2 removed. Who do you believe? Hertiage stated I was 1 percent Native American,
    Ancestry said something else. Heritage said I was 84 percent N, S , W European,
    Ancestry broke it down.
    Your money, but I wish I had tried 23 and me.

    1. That’s interesting. I am able to message my DNA matches at MyHeritage without a subscription. I can’t comment on the ethnicity estimates, as I got into their database via the free upload, and I don’t have that feature. That said, I get different estimates from AncestryDNA, 23andMe, and FTDNA.

      The free upload is available here:
      http://www.myheritage.com/dna?utm_source=partner_thednageek&utm_medium=partner&utm_campaign=thednageek_may17_dnasale&tr_funnel=mh+dna

  10. Which database – if any- would be more reliable on shared ancestors? I have done both ancestry and 23 and so have 2 other distant relatives. In 23 and me- we are all common shared relatives. In ancestry I still relate to both- but they no longer connect to each other! This part has me confused – ideas?

    1. Two possible explanations: First, the two distant relatives may match one another in the Distant Cousins to one another at AncestryDNA. If so, you won’t be able to tell that they match using the Shared Matches tool, because it has a cut-off at 4th Cousins or closer. You’d have to ask one of them to check their matches for the other (by searching for an uncommon surname in the other’s tree or by using the DNAgedcom Client to scan all of their matches … the Distant Cousins category contains too many people to scroll through it manually).

      The second possibility is that they really aren’t one one another’s match lists at AncestryDNA because the Timber algorithm has down-weighted their matching segment(s) to the point that they no longer meet the threshold for matching.

  11. I’d like to get a kit for my wife to learn more about her genealogy and ethnicity (75% British Isles and 25% Russian, as far as she knows) without obligating her to either a long-term paid membership with one of the sites or needing to do extensive research on her own (which she won’t be interested in doing). I know there’s no breaking the “you get out what you put in” rule of the universe, but what is my best bet for a one-stop-shop approach? Thanks!
    Darryl

    1. If she’s only interested in the ethnicity estimates and nothing else, I suggest the 23andMe Ancestry Only test (without the health information). They have the best ethnicity estimates, in my opinion. It’s currently $99. There’s not much in the way of genealogy tools there, though. If she wants the health reports too, the cost is $199.

      If she’s willing to go with “second best” ethnicity estimates in exchange for the ability to build a (free) family tree and link it to her DNA results, she should test with AncestryDNA. She wouldn’t need a subscription for that. Their test is $79 right now.

      Either of those test results can be transferred to Family Tree DNA and MyHeritage for free.

      Finally, the companies tend to do Black Friday sales right after American Thanksgiving, so that’s a good time to buy if you’re in the US.

  12. I understand the concept of DNA databases. However, is every ethnicity conclusion drawn specifically from whichever database is being used?

    If so, then doesn’t the relative makeup of the database participants actually determine the ethnic group parameters to begin with?

    I’ll use an extreme example for what I’m trying to ask. Let’s say there is a DNA database of one million people. Let’s say that there are 200k people from Germany who have submitted DNA. Now let’s assume all of those 200k are the pure descendants of Turkish immigrants. Would the DNA of those 200k shape the standard of what constitutes German ethnicity (or Northwest European, et al) for the entire study?

    I guess another way to put it is “Are these DNA companies using any starting point pre-database?” If not, then all databases are skewed by any and all recent immigration to any region.

    I would hope there are certain genetic markers that science has decided unequivocally belong to certain indigenous/historic ethnic groups. I would hope that every company would use some sort of stand-alone precedent before they look to their databases. If not, then I don’t see much point in any of this.

    I hope someone can explain, because I was very interested in ordering a kit until reading some things about the databases.

    1. The companies estimate ethnicity by comparing your DNA to data from a set of reference populations (also called a reference panel). And you’re exactly right that a reference population that is not representative of that region will affect how accurate the ethnicity estimates are. For that reason, the companies don’t construct their reference populations from their general customer bases. Rather, they use a combination of publicly available data from the scientific community, people they’ve recruited specifically to build their reference populations, and carefully screened individuals from their customer bases.

      Because each company has its own reference panel and its own way of analyzing the data, you won’t get the exact same ethnicity estimates from each one.

      You can read more about the ethnicity estimates here:
      23andMe: https://www.23andme.com/ancestry-composition-guide/
      AncestryDNA: https://www.ancestry.com/cs/dna-help/ethnicity/reference-panel
      FTDNA: https://www.familytreedna.com/learn/user-guide/family-finder-myftdna/myorigins-population-clusters/

  13. “Rather, they use a combination of publicly available data from the scientific community, people they’ve recruited specifically to build their reference populations, and carefully screened individuals from their customer bases.”

    This is wonderful to know. And thank you for the links. I had checked the specific sites originally but saw nothing. It seems that info is pretty-well buried. Thank you for them.

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