Best DNA Tests for Ancestry

Updated January 2, 2019

This article was scientifically reviewed by YourDNA

We take the information we share seriously. Review our Editorial Policy Here.

A list of references is also included at the bottom of this article.

What Is the Best DNA Test for Ancestry?

Determining one's ancestry is a popular desire for many people, and their reasons are as diverse as they are. Some people are looking for general information on where their relatives came from just for curiosity's sake.

Others are interested in more in-depth information about their genealogy, and a DNA test is a logical step in the process.

What's in this Guide?

Disclaimer: Before You Read

It is important to know that your genes are not your destiny. There are various environmental and genetic factors working together to shape you. No matter your genetic makeup, maintain ideal blood pressure and glucose levels, avoid harmful alcohol intake, exercise regularly, get regular sleep. And for goodness sake, don't smoke.

Genetics is a quickly changing topic. Read More...

Still, others might not have any family history due to adoption or other family estrangements throughout history. A DNA test can help these individuals get a sense of family and maybe even find long-lost relatives in some cases.

No matter where you fall on the list of reasons for wanting to know more about your ancestry, there are a variety of DNA tests for ancestry available on the market today. So which one is right for you?

What Is the Best DNA Test to Determine Ancestry for You?

As noted above, there are many DNA test kits available, and the "best" one for you depends on a few things.

To make an educated decision you need to take some factors into consideration. You need to learn a little about DNA testing in general, you need to know what the different tests offer in terms of reporting and analysis options, and you need to know which one has the best reviews for the characteristics that are most important to you.

There Are 3 Basic Types of DNA Tests for Ancestry

While there are many ancestry testing kits for DNA analysis 1 on the market, they all typically use one or more of the following three types of test protocols.

Each one looks at a different part of a person's genetic makeup and can tell you different things about your ethnicity and relatives. They also have different timelines for accuracy when it comes to helping you find relatives that share your DNA.

Here's some information you need to know about each one before deciding on a test.

Autosomal

This test looks at the 22 numbered pairs of chromosomes that make up your DNA (the 23rd pair determines gender and isn't relative to this type of test). These chromosomes determine traits like hair color, eye color, height, etc.

By looking at a variety of different genetic markers, and comparing them to the markers of other people, these tests can help determine if you have any close relatives within the last couple of generations. These tests can also help track migration patterns of ancestors several generations back.

These tests can be used by males and females. It looks at genetic material that can come from either parent but it cannot tell you which side of your family a match comes from. This test is good for people looking for more recent matches and migration patterns.

mtDNA

Also known as mitochondrial DNA, these tests look at genetic material from your mother's side of the family. Both males and females get this DNA from their mother, so these types of tests can be useful for both genders.

It allows you to trace your mother's side of the family back several generations, but only in a direct line of females ending with your mother. This means from your mother to your maternal grandmother to her mother, and so on.

This severely limits the number of matches you can find, but it does give valuable information, especially when combined with other family tree historical data.

Y-DNA

Since only males have a Y-chromosome, only males can take this type of test. The DNA in a Y-Chromosome is passed from father to son and only to sons. If a female wishes to trace her paternal line, she would need to have a close blood-relative male take the test for her.

Because the genetic material is relatively unchanged through the generations, it's easy to go back centuries even to find matches. The limitation comes in because it's very difficult to figure out exactly which time frame the match came from.

The best that can be done is an estimate of how many generations are between you and the match.

How Much Does It Cost to Get DNA Tested for Ancestry?

With the wide range of testing options available, it should come as no surprise that the costs associated with them vary greatly as well.

Prices for DNA tests for ancestry can range from $49 to $700. More extensive tests for medical diagnoses can get even pricier with fees up to $25,000. A few factors that affect your costs include the number of markers tested for, the number of world populations or gene pools referenced, and whether or not you add on any other testing services.

For the sake of reporting purposes and to make sure all comparisons are fair, the prices listed in below are current as of December 2018 and reflect the manufacturer's suggested retail price in USD as listed on their websites. It is possible to find sales and special offers throughout the year directly from the manufacturer or from authorized resellers or affiliates, but they vary widely and are only for a limited time.

Please be aware that where you buy your test from can be important as well. Always be sure you purchase test kits from the manufacturer directly or from an authorized and reputable reseller.

There have been instances where kits were sold illegally and the manufacturer, in turn, deactivated the registration numbers, making them unusable. In fact, AncestryDNA has started posting this warning on its Amazon listings:

"WARNING: AncestryDNA highly discourages the purchase of our DNA kit from unauthorized resellers. To ensure the best experience and service, please purchase directly from AncestryDNA Official. DNA kits that are fraudulently purchased and then resold through Amazon may be deactivated by AncestryDNA, and may not be eligible for a refund." 

Companies That Sell DNA Tests for Ancestry

When choosing a DNA test for ancestry, there are many things to consider including:

  • Price
  • Collection method
  • Testing method
  • Size of customer database

Here are some of the most popular options on the market currently.

FamilyTreeDNA

FamilyTreeDNA currently offers three levels of DNA testing for ancestry. Their basic service is called Family Finder, which retails for $79. This test uses autosomal methods to determine ethnicity and ancestry migration. This test uses a mouth-swab collection style, which is easy and convenient.

The results delivered include family DNA matches on your mother's and father's side based on FamilyTreeDNA's self-proclaimed "world’s most comprehensive DNA matching database." Other reports included with the base test include the company's ancientOrigins results.

This lets you know how much DNA you still carry from some of the most common ancient European groups. These include early farmers, hunters/gatherers and metal invaders from the Bronze Age.

A specific percentage is given for each one as well as the percentage of non-European DNA you possess.

If you want to upgrade your experience, you can opt for the Y-DNA ($169), which men and boys can use to trace their male ancestors along the line of their paternal relatives. Another option is the mtDNA test ($199). This option traces the maternal line of ancestry for males and females.

FamilyTreeDNA also allows you to take part in genealogical research studies for free.

AncestryDNA

This is probably the most well-known of the consumer DNA tests for ancestry and ethnicity available. It uses a saliva test collection method and the base kit retails for $99. AncestryDNA is associated with Ancestry.com and you can purchase memberships to that service as an add-on to your base DNA test.

This allows you to build a family tree that combines your DNA results and other genealogy tools.

With the largest consumer database, AncestryDNA offers users ethnicity percentages and results from over 350 geographic regions, more than any other test. It can also match you up with living DNA relatives from its extensive database.

From some regions, you can also get the migration patterns of your ancestors. For an additional $10 you can add on the Traits report as well. This details 18 common traits that you may share with your ancestors. These include things like:

  • Index finger length
  • Cleft chin
  • Skin pigmentation
  • Freckles
  • Hair type, color and thickness
  • Bitter taste sensitivity

You can get your results in around 6 weeks online or via the mobile app.

MyHeritage DNA

Another popular test kit comes from MyHeritage DNA ($79). It uses a cheek swab to collect the user's DNA sample and typically processes results in its lab in about 4 weeks. It uses a microarray-based autosomal DNA testing method to process your sample, which means you have access to both maternal and paternal records.

This test will show you where your ancestors hailed from with over 40 ethnicities represented. It can also give you possible familial connections and tell you what percentage of DNA you share with them.

In addition to DNA testing for ancestry, MyHeritage DNA also has a research tool that lets you search over 9 billion historical records including birth, death, census, yearbooks and more. There is an extra fee or membership required to access these records.

23andMe

This company has two levels of reporting available when they test your DNA. You can get its Ancestry Service for $99 or its Health+Ancestry Service for $199. For either service, the 23andMe collection kit uses a saliva sample to analyze your DNA. In terms of ancestry, it tests for both maternal and paternal haplogroups and has comparative data for over 150 regions.

As with most tests, it uses regions versus countries because the historical data often goes back farther than country borders. Region is also more generic in area in most cases.

It allows you to connect with familial DNA matches and even send them messages through its system. This service will also show you your ancestry groups dating back 1,000 years and how much Neanderthal DNA you still possess.

If you opt for the Health+Ancestry Service, you'll get all the same reports as the Ancestry Service plus information on four more areas of analysis. You get reports on your Genetic Health Risks for conditions like Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's, celiac disease and certain breast cancer genes.

The reports on Carrier Status cover over 40 possible genetic abnormalities you might be a carrier for. These include things like cystic fibrosis and sickle cell anemia.

While they are not definitive tests that guarantee you will or will not get a particular condition, they can help your doctors arrive at a diagnosis faster and develop effective treatment plans. Both of these sections produce FDA-approved reports 2.

Other sections of the Health portion of this DNA test include analyzing for various character Traits like hair loss and whether or not you're prone to a unibrow. The Wellness analysis can tell you things like how well you are sleeping and which weight loss programs might be most effective for you.

Living DNA

Living DNA ($99) has a 3-in-1 analysis program that uses a cheek swab collection method. The three data comparisons look at ethnicity, the motherline, and the fatherline (for males only) to help you get a better overall picture of where your ancestors come from.

It has information on over 80 geographical regions to compare your DNA against with a concentration on European results. This company gives you a percentage breakdown of your ethnicity and can trace your ancestors back for up to 10 generations.

For an additional $69 they will send you a personalized ancestry book detailing your results. It also includes information on the different regions your results lead to.

One interesting fact about Living DNA is that they have partnered with another British company called FindMyPast. They are collaborating on research and compiling a more extensive list of DNA data to improve accuracy and further research efforts.

With this in mind, they allow users of other tests to upload their DNA data. Not every testing company and type is supported (only autosomal results right now) but it is a step forward in creating larger databases for research purposes.

National Geographic Geno 2.0

When you use this DNA sequencing kit, you become part of a larger research project that spans several years and continues to expand. This allows you to get more and more knowledge based on improved data as time goes on.

The Geno 2.0 3kit retails for $69.95 and the collection kit uses a saliva sample. The results come to you via the website or the smartphone app and are usually ready in 6 to 12 weeks.

The reports offered include a map showing your regional ancestry and percentages. You also get a list of possible geniuses throughout history that you might share DNA with.

It also gives you a deep ancestry report that shows you possible migration patterns for your ancestors going back 60,000 years.

National Geographic itself, does not process the kits, they partner with another company called Helix for the actual analysis. Through this company, you can also add on other testing protocols besides ancestry including health and wellness markers as well as traits.

There are even options for entertainment like wine pairing and socks with patterns determined by your DNA.

Getting Started With a DNA Test

Once you've decided to try DNA testing to discover your ancestry and selected a testing company, it's time to get the process started. While each test will have its own specific instructions, the basics are similar.

  1. Register your kit. This typically involves signing up for a free account at the company's website and inputting the unique code on your sample. This ensures privacy throughout the entire process and also verifies the authenticity of the kit.
  2. Pay any necessary processing fees. With some companies, you purchase just the sample collection kit and pay for the lab fees separately after you register. This is common with kits that offer multiple processing options.
  3. Collect your sample. Following the directions, perform the cheek swab or fill the saliva collection tube and seal it.
  4. Mail it in. Place your sample in the collection envelope and seal it up, then put it in the included mailing container and drop it in the nearest mailbox.
  5. Wait for your results. Here again, every lab has different processing times but typically ancestry DNA processing takes anywhere from 4 to 6 weeks.

What Is the Most Accurate DNA Test for Ancestry?

One of the biggest factors in the accuracy of a DNA test kit for ancestry is the size of the database they are comparing your genes with.

Using this factor alone, AncestryDNA is far and away the leader. With a database of 5 million records, they have more people to compare you to, thus giving you a better shot at finding familial matches and more family tree data. 23andMe comes in second with 1 million records.

DNA Ancestry Tests Reviews

There are several independent websites and companies that have tested a variety of home DNA tests for ancestry.

Since each person's desire for testing is different, what you are looking for in a kit differs as well. To be sure you are getting the right one for you consider the following reviews from reputable sites.

Specialized DNA Tests for Different Ethnic Groups

If you need legal proof of ancestry for one reason or another, you might need special tests. For example, these tests often require monitored collections and special certified results to be considered valid.

Native American/American Indians

In order to prove you belong to a specific tribe when applying for membership, certain DNA tests can help. However, before buying a DNA test for Native American ancestry 4, be sure to check with tribal leaders to see which one they will accept as proof. More background information can be found here.

Jews

Another area where proof of ancestry is vital is in the Jewish community where many Ashkenazi Jews 5 from the Former Soviet Union (FSU) are having trouble proving they are Jewish. Because of a lack of record keeping due to the Holocaust and the restricted religious freedoms in the Soviet Block, many cannot prove their lineage through traditional means.

This is where a DNA test for Jewish ancestry can help. It's estimated that 40 percent of these Jews are descended from just four women that left the middle east around 1,000 years ago. By testing their mitochondrial DNA, they can prove they are related to one of these four women.

This enables them to prove their Jewish heritage for the purposes of marriage and other personal reasons. While it isn't a solution for everyone trying to prove their Jewish identity, it can help some cut through the red tape of the approval process.

African Americans

While there's no legal reason for a DNA test for African American ancestry, many people are interested in their African heritage and finding out exactly where their ancestors came from. When consumer DNA tests first hit the market, most of the regional data they had to compare results to came from Europe.

Today, however, many tests have very accurate results from African regions as well, including AncestryDNA, 23andMe, and FamilyTree DNA.

Is Ancestry DNA Testing Right for You?

There are several good reasons to have your DNA sequenced for ancestry analysis but doing so is a very personal decision.

Consumer DNA tests have taken the complex issue of gene testing and brought it to the general public. They are useful for ancestry issues and some can help identify character traits and genetic markers for diseases and carrier status for others.

These are not typically medical-grade results and any health information should be discussed with your doctor.

DNA results can be helpful if you are a genealogy buff and you're looking to prove or disprove something you've found while researching the family tree. While you can find some great information on your ethnicity and where exactly your mother's or father's ancestral lineage came from, you might also find a few surprises along the way.

Since many of these tests can put you in contact with relatives that share some of your DNA, you might find out some of your ancestors had a few scandals and skeletons in their closets.

Most of these consumer tests are not overly expensive at less than $100, which in the scheme of things isn't much to find out where your roots originated, who you might share DNA with and maybe even some health information. If you are prepared for what kinds of results you might find, then yes, DNA testing for ancestry is certainly a good option for you.

Good luck and happy family tree making!

Powered by Froala Editor

Referenced Sources

  1. Inferring Genetic Ancestry: Opportunities, Challenges, and Implications
    Charmaine D. Royal, John Novembre,Stephanie M. Fullerton, David B. Goldstein, Jeffrey C. Long, Michael J. Bamshad, and Andrew G. Clark
  2. FDA allows marketing of first direct-to-consumer tests that provide genetic risk information for certain conditions
    United States Food and Drug Administration
  3. AN UNPRECEDENTED VIEW INTO YOUR DEEP ANCESTRY
    National Geographic
  4. Tribal Enrollment and Genetic Testing
    Jessica Bardill (Cherokee), PhD, American Indian & Alaska Native Genetic Resource Center
  5. The 5 Most Common Ashkenazi Genetic Diseases
    National Gaucher Foundation