Which DNA Test Is Best Outside the US?

AncestryDNA dominates the genetic genealogy market in America, but until 2016 they only sold tests in the USA, the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. Even today, their tests are only available in 35 countries. That’s the smallest geographic footprint of any of the major players. Thus, although the AncestryDNA test is generally the best place to start for someone with deep American roots, the same advice does not apply universally.

But which test is best outside the US? Turns out that’s a difficult question to answer. The companies don’t release country-by-country sales data. The best we can do at the moment is crowd-source information from genealogists around the world and try to make sense of it.

To that end, I created a survey to gauge how many matches one can expect based on grandparental country of origin. For each tester, the survey asked for the country of birth of all four grandparents, how many matches were at each testing company, and which company had been most valuable for that person’s genealogical research.

 

Problems with this Approach

Right off the bat, I admit that there is a major flaw in this approach: a large number of matches doesn’t necessarily translate to genealogically useful matches. That is, someone from Sweden might have more matches at AncestryDNA but closer ones at Family Tree DNA. A hundred closer matches will likely do more to advance one’s genealogical research than 1,000 or even 10,000 distant ones.

Another problem is that someone of mixed background (say, grandparents from Trinidad, Guadeloupe, and the US) will have skewed results. Most of their matches will be from the US, and it’s hard to tease out which company is best for their Caribbean relatives.

Third, those who took the survey are not an accurate representation of global test sales. For example, more than 10% of reported grandparents were Scandinavian, but surely Scandinavians don’t make up more than a tenth of all DNA testers around the world.

A final concern is that the “most valuable” question is entirely subjective. For example, one respondent said they refused to test with two of the companies, so their preference for a third reflects preconceived bias rather than which company might actually be best for their research.

When writing surveys, there are trade-offs between the information you really want and the information you think respondents are willing to give. In this case, I asked these particular questions to make the survey easy to answer. A better question than “How many matches do you have?” might have been “How many matches greater than 50 cM do you have after you’ve excluded segments shorter than 7 cM?”. However, given that more than 10% of respondents didn’t answer the simple “how many matches” question for any of the companies, it’s unlikely that any but the most hardcore genetic genealogists would have bothered to dig up the more precise numbers.

And the respondents are already biased: of the more than 10 million people who have taken a genealogical DNA test, only 281 had answered the survey as of 13 March 2018.

With those weaknesses disclosed, let’s play with the data.

 

Quality Control

First, I omitted from consideration any response that did not have numbers for at least two companies. After all, how can you have a valid “preference” if you’ve only used one company? That left 187 unique respondents.

There were also some individual data points that were not credible. One person reported 25,400 pages of matches at AncestryDNA. (There are 50 matches per page). I assumed they meant actual matches. Another reported a single page of matches at Ancestry, 288 matches at Family Tree DNA, and 2,392 matches at MyHeritage, yet said that AncestryDNA was the best company for them; I excluded the AncestryDNA number for this person as an error but kept the other information.

Next, I added filters for “one or more grandparent born in the US” and “one or more grandparent born in the Anglosphere”, which I defined as the USA, the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada (the early markets for AncestryDNA). I wanted to see whether either category made a difference in the number of matches or in the preference for one company over another.

 

Let the Numbers Speak

The grandparents for the 187 respondents were from the following countries:

 

First, let’s look at the numbers of matches at each site based on grandparent origins. No matter where the grandparents were from, every respondent who tested at AncestryDNA had more total matches there than elsewhere. That “advantage” was skewed toward people with at least one grandparent from the US and was even more skewed toward people with at least one grandparent from an Anglosphere country.

 

Conversely, if none of the grandparents were from an Anglosphere country, the advantage of testing at AncestryDNA was not as extreme. Testers with one or more grandparent from the Anglosphere had an average of 12.7 more matches at AncestryDNA than at Family Tree DNA, but for testers with no grandparents from the Anglosphere, the difference was only 4.8 fold.

Now, let’s look at company preference, or as was asked on the survey, “Which autosomal DNA test has been most valuable for your own family research?”

 

Regardless whether or not respondents had at least one grandparent from the US, they generally thought that AncestryDNA was more valuable. However, Family Tree DNA and, to a lesser extent, MyHeritage increased in importance to people with no American grandparents, and 23andMe decreased in relevance.

A really interesting pattern emerges when we consider whether any grandparents were from the Anglosphere.

 

AncestryDNA was preferred by 71% of respondents with one or more grandparent from the USA, the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, or Canada, but Family Tree DNA was the favorite of 67% of those with no grandparents from those countries. MyHeritage also saw a substantial gain outside of the Anglosphere, although the total numbers of respondents who preferred them was small (7 in each category).

 

Lessons Learned

As someone with roots in North America that predate the American Revolution by more than a century, I have a vantage point on DNA matching that is surely quite different than someone from, say, Malaysia. I tend to recommend AncestryDNA as the first step in genealogical testing, but I should do a better job of asking where that person’s ancestors are from before I weigh in. If they’re not from an Anglosphere country, they should probably test first with Family Tree DNA first then transfer to MyHeritage.

This exercise also gave me some ideas about survey questions that might better gauge match quality rather than match quantity. I hope to write an improved survey in the future. If you’d like to contribute to the current version, you can find it here.

21 thoughts on “Which DNA Test Is Best Outside the US?”

  1. I felt like you were speaking right to me. One set of grandparents are from Trinidad and Guadeloupe. The other are from America 😉 I have 4 tests on the way to Ancestry from Venezuela and Canada (that I had to jump through so many hoops to get there and back) and then plan to upload the raw data to the other major testing companies and third party sites. 😁

  2. Interesting results, thanks. I think that your use of total matches rather than (say) 4th cousin or better matches, favours Ancestry, as I’ve previously commented. But it is interesting that most people who replied (who you would think had reasonable experience) favoured Ancestry, and that My Heritage has overtaken 23 and Me, which seemed to perform very poorly i this survey despite it being the second largest database.

    As an Australian, I still think the evidence points to Ancestry providing slightly less matches here than in the US, as the test only became available in Australia mid 2015. Do you know how many current Australians did your survey?

    1. The problem with using “4th cousins and closer” is that the other companies don’t have that category. Total cM doesn’t work, either, because the small segments at FTDNA artificially inflate the cM total there.

      I think 23andMe performs so poorly because of their cap on the number of matches and because there are still a lot of anonymous people there.

      There were a total of 51 Australian grandparents, although some of those people had mixed backgrounds (usually Australia/UK, but one was part Romanian and another part Dane). Six respondents had all four grandparents from Australia, and a seventh had three grands from Australia and one unknown. All seven had tested at both AncestryDNA (average average 16,539 matches) and FTDNA (average 2,071 matches). Five were at MyHeritage (average 2,444), and only one was at 23andMe (1,078).

      1. Thanks for that extra information.

        I think the FTDNA “3rd to 5th cousins” and Ancestry “4th cousins or closer” seem to me to be the best comparison, but as you say it isn’t perfect.

  3. I completed the survey (from Australia). Nice to see the results. One concern: The pie charts all have the same title…. shouldn’t they differ?

  4. To anyone testing with ancestors outside USA/British Isles.
    Check the test lab FAQs for anywhere you propose to test, and actively ask them if they can provide information for the country you need.
    I know of people with interests in many countries not well served by one or other of the major testers. So check first and also ask other users from those countries on appropriate forums about their actual experiences.
    TV advertising can be very persuasive, but I help far too many people who say they understood that everything would be alright and trusted without checking.
    I don’t them telling others of their bad experiences, but too often they say bad things about the field as a whole and everyone in it.
    Look before you leap is all.
    And people with background from China, India, South East Asia, Romani and first nations anywhere probably need to check more than most.

    1. People outside Europe and the Anglosphere are the vanguard for their regions. For them, matching will be more like it was for Americans 5 or 6 years ago.

  5. Are your later charts labelled wrongly? They both say one or more grandparent from US (n = 54 in each case). Do you mean from the Anglosphere for the 2nd chart or what? I think I get the gist of it but maybe it clould be presented with clearer headings. Thanks.

  6. One possible reason why 23andMe decreases in importance for people with no American grandparents is the significantly higher shipping costs compared to other proivders here in the Antipodes.

  7. Before even asking this question, I think you need to ask what sort of results the person taking the DNA test is hoping to achieve. I am an experienced UK researcher who traced most of my ancestral lines back to at least the eighteenth century long before the internet. I am not particularly interested in making contact with distant cousins for its own sake, as few of them are likely to be have done much serious research (i.e. using original sources in archives, as well as online sources). I made contact with two third cousins, both serious researchers, long before DNA testing became available, with whom I have collaborated. In practice, most of the distant cousins who have taken DNA tests and whose identity I have established have known very little about their earlier ancestry. The matches I am hoping to find are serious researchers like myself, who have both taken DNA tests and extensively researched their own ancestry. By collaborating with such people it may be possible to overcome brick walls relating to common ancestors. Shared segments of DNA may provide clues, but any breakthroughs are likely to require the use of conventional research methods.

    Although far more people have taken tests with Ancestry, my perception is that serious researchers are more likely have tested with Family Tree DNA. If they have taken tests with Ancestry, they are likely to have uploaded their raw data to Gedmatch.

    1. Hi Bill, I too started in 1986 without Internet. Whilst I agree few have done serious research and most are having DNA tests just for feel-good ethnicity, I see it DNA matches as very usefulness in proving my tree branches, in particular my direct line ancestors. Matches are also providing important and worthwhile leads to my dead ends, e.g. my Meara and Ryan lines in Tipperary where there are not records are being opened up by others who have trees for my ancestor’s siblings. This is extremely valuable and occurring for me across multiple ancestral lines. Feedback from family history conferences is that DNA is increasingly becoming a serious tool for serious researchers.

  8. I have US colonial roots on one side and primarily recent European immigrants on the other. I have found important matches on brick wall lines at ancestry, Ftdna and myHeritage. However the low response rate/no email and lack of chromosome browser at ancestry are in my opinion serious detriments despite their larger database. I have noticed the colonial lines have alot more matches everywhere.

    1. I rarely find that a chromosome browser helps my research. Shared matches and probability analysis have been far more helpful.

  9. I think your ending section, “Lessons Learned,” is very pertinent, and I applaud your recognition of different testing strategies for different backgrounds. I see so many, many recommendations in Facebook groups to test first at Ancestry, as well as 23andMe, before the question is asked: where do your grandparents or great-grandparents come from? Not all of us have those ancestors who have been in the U.S. for many generations. As a matter of fact, considering the mix of immigrants over the centuries, what percent of U.S. testers are of majority colonial ancestry? It would be an interesting breakdown to see.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *