If you’re new to DNA testing, it can be confusing to understand the variety of tests offered, the different companies in the DNA business, and what each test offers. While everyone’s opinions vary, knowing certain facts about the different tests will make the decision easier.
I did my first DNA test in 2004, and I now manage tests for over 30 friends and family members. Those tests are scattered among each of the four major testing companies: Family Tree DNA, AncestryDNA, 23andMe, and MyHeritage.
All four companies offer some of the same information. They each provide an estimate on how much of your ancestry is from different regions around the world. They also provide you with a list of your DNA relatives. That is, of the thousands of people around the world who have also taken a DNA test, you get to see a list of who is related to you. This can be really exciting, and it’s the primary reason people take a DNA test for genealogy. You have the option to contact each match and then share information. After all, a single DNA test is useless. It’s only when we compare them that we begin to get the full story of what our own DNA can tell us.
These autosomal DNA tests usually match people who are related within 6 generations, and sometimes even farther back. The pieces of DNA that are passed from one generation to the next are random, and so the amount you share with 3rd, 4th, or 5th cousins is also random. That means you might show up as a DNA match to one 4th cousins, but not to another. I’ve read that 50% of 4th cousins will show up as a match. 99% of 2nd cousins will match, and 90% of 3rd cousins will.
Deciding which test to take depends on what you want to accomplish. For adoptees or other people who are looking for answers to specific questions, the best bet is to have your DNA at each of these companies. You never know which one that close cousin might have used, and if your test isn’t there, you’ll never know it.
While the four major companies offer much of the same type of information, each one has some differences.
Family Tree DNA (FTDNA) is the company I use for all my DNA testing. They call their autosomal DNA test the Family Finder test, and last month it was on sale for $39, the lowest price ever for a DNA test. Their website is relatively simple to use, and they provide all the information needed to investigate the stories hidden within the DNA results. FTDNA offers a chromosome browser that is essential to fully understanding your results. The list of DNA matches tells you THAT you’re related to those people, but the chromosome browser allows you to determine HOW your’e related to them.
FTDNA also offers a yDNA test for men who want to determine their patrilineal line, or the line of his father’s father’s father’s father, etc. One cheek swab can be used for both the Family Finder test and the yDNA test.
AncestryDNA also offers autosomal DNA testing. Their biggest advantage is that they have a larger database of test takers. More people have tested with them than with any of the other companies, and that means you’re more likely to have a close match with them. However, AncestryDNA is the only company that does not offer a chromosome browser. That means even if you have some interesting close matches, your AncestryDNA results are not going to tell you whether that person is on your father or mother’s side. AncestryDNA tells you THAT you’re related to someone but does not provide enough information to explain HOW you’re related to them. Another criticism of AncestryDNA is that they require a subscription to have full access to features on the site. Since I have a subscription to access their historical records, I’m not sure exactly what those limitations are.
23andMe is another company that many people have heard in commercials and advertisements. They offer the autosomal test as well as some health related information. Their website is awkward, but at least they do offer the chromosome browser. The cost of the DNA test is usually more expensive than that offered by FTDNA and AncestryDNA.
I’ve only recently begun to use MyHeritage, but I don’t like what I see so far. The website is cluttered and difficult to navigate. They are subscription based, and since I don’t have a subscription, I keep clicking on links that turn into dead ends. It’s frustrating to get excited about a new match, then find out you can’t learn more until you pay for a subscription. They also limit the size of the family tree you can upload, and that seems somewhat counterproductive. But at least they have a chromosome browser.
There is a fifth site that I need to mention, and that is gedmatch.com. It’s free!! At gedmatch, you can upload your DNA test from any of these four companies and compare to anyone else who has done the same. So if you tested at FTDNA and someone else tested at 23andme, you can see if you’re a match even though you tested with different companies. They offer many tools that make it easy to see which tests match each other and how. Comparing DNA tests is an important step toward breaking through those genealogy brick walls.
In summary, if you want to take one DNA test, I recommend the Family Finder test at Family Tree DNA. If you want to take a second to find more cousins, then add AncestryDNA to fish in the bigger pond. When you get your results back, upload them to gedmatch for free.
This is only skimming the surface of DNA testing. There’s a great blog by Roberta Estes called DNAeXplained (https://dna-explained.com/) that goes into much more depth about any DNA topic you can imagine. I’ve learned a lot from what she’s written, and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to learn more about how to use to DNA to uncover secrets about your family history.