You’ve come to the right place.
In this in-depth buying guide, I will review the best DNA test kits that most people use to understand your ethnicity, research your maternal and paternal lineage and discover & connect with relatives online.
I’ll also cover the basics of DNA testing, including the three major kinds of DNA tests, what they do for you, and how each company’s testing differs.
After reading this brief guide, you will be able to choose the right DNA test for you and your family’s needs.
So let’s get to it!
If you don’t want to understand why and just want a quick summary of which ancestry DNA test is the best for your situation, these are my top picks:
Price: $99 (click button below to see latest discount)
Tip: You can later upload your Geno 2.0 raw data to FTDNA or MyHeritage for more in-depth analysis.
As you can see in the table below, these 6 DNA tests are not all the same.
Each company and DNA test kit is uniquely strong in some areas and not so strong in others.
This guide will explain how they are different and what these differences mean to you.
NOTE: the table scrolls to the right – in case you’re viewing on the phone.
Family Tree DNA
British and Ireland ancestry research
Find global matches
Combined health screening and ancestry testing
Find as many family members as possible
In-depth genealogical research
(but no matching)
(but no matching)
(but no matching)
(but no matching)
Raw Data Upload
Raw Data Upload
Raw Data Upload
Raw Data Upload
Raw Data Upload
(combined package costs more)
(combined package costs more)
(combined package costs more)
(combined package costs more)
Alright, so the first thing you need to understand about ancestry DNA testing is that there are three primary types of ancestry DNA tests:
Understanding the differences among these test types is critical to selecting the right DNA test kit for your particular needs.
So let’s briefly explain each.
“Autosomal DNA” refers to the 22 chromosome pairs that don’t determine your gender. The 23rd pair is where your sex chromosomes (XX, XY) lie.
Autosomal DNA testing is the most popular type of DNA test because anyone – male or female – can take it. It is also the most useful. Therefore, all ancestry DNA companies offer this type of test.
Technically speaking, an autosomal DNA test examines up to 700,000 SNPs (Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms) out of the 4-5 million or so we have in our DNA. An SNP is a single mutation where one nucleotide, like C (cytosine), is replaced by another nucleotide, like T (thymine).
A combination of these mutations, or SNPs, defines your genetic diversity, i.e., how you are different from every other person.
So what can DNA testing companies learn from your unique autosomal SNP mix?
Two things: whether or not you are related to someone, and what ancient tribes (ethnicities) you come from.
An autosomal DNA test is the best way to find cousins and close family members like siblings, parents, and children.
But because only half someone’s DNA gets passed along to the next generation, autosomal DNA testing is accurate only for high-level matches.
It can match, with high confidence, a parent to a child or a brother to a sister. It remains fairly accurate to the second and third cousin level.
Beyond that, you’ll either have to get DNA test results from multiple family members or confirm your findings with genealogical records.
All tests except Living DNA and National Genographic have a family matching feature.
Admixture in ancestry DNA defines your ethnicity breakdown – well, at least genetically.
To determine your ethnic mix, your DNA test lab will analyze your SNPs and compare them with DNA samples taken from people who live and hail from different regions around the world, to see which tribes you match to most.
Most autosomal admixture ethnicity reports will tell you a percentage breakdown of matched regions. For example, the breakdown might say you are 99% European and 1% Native American.
A more detailed breakdown then shows your estimated percentages within each of these regions – for example, Northern European, Southern European, and Eastern European.
Ethnicity break downs are generally very accurate on a continental level like European, Asian or African. But they can get a bit fuzzy and unexpected on the finer regional details.
This is partly because the ethnicity of regions today is not the same that existed hundreds of years ago.
The uncertainty is also because most DNA testing companies are still diversifying their databases and adding more DNA samples from new regions.
All six tests we review below provide you with ethnicity-regional breakdowns. But that doesn’t mean your breakdown reported by one test will be the same if you take a different test.
Each company uses its methodology to analyze admixture, and some cover more regions while others focus on certain regions more than others.
For example, AncestryDNA breaks your ethnicity into 350 regions, while 23andMe reports your ethnicity in 150 regions. Living DNA covers just 80 regions but has special expertise in Britain and Ireland.
The second major type of DNA test, Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) testing, analyzes the DNA located in your cellular mitochondria.
If you remember your elementary school biology, mitochondria are those tiny organelles inside our cells that synthesize energy for the cell to use.
Most DNA is located in the nucleus of a cell, within our chromosomes. But some DNA exists in mitochondria, too.
Why do these organelles have their DNA? One theory suggests that having local DNA helps mitochondria efficiently produce the proteins they need to synthesize energy.
Science also suggests that billions of years ago, mitochondria were single-celled organisms that had a full set of DNA. They were then taken over by larger cells, which led to the kind of complex life we have today. Over millions of years, mitochondria have transferred most of their DNA to the cell’s nucleus. Currently, mitochondria have just 37 genes compared with 20,000 found in the nucleus.
Thirty-seven genes may seem like a small number, but these strands of mtDNA are super-helpful when you need to trace your long-term maternal lineage.
Both the sperm and ova contain mitochondria and carry mitochondrial DNA. But only the mother passes along mtDNA to her offspring because only the mother’s mtDNA remains intact in the embryo.
Also, mtDNA barely changes from one generation to the other.
This is why an mtDNA test can accurately trace your maternal line hundreds of thousands of years into the past. We can all trace our maternal lineage to a single woman who lived around 150,000 to 200,000 years ago.
This makes an mtDNA test the perfect tool for learning about your long-term ethnic lineage.
Unfortunately, the unchanging nature of mtDNA also makes mtDNA tests imprecise at family-matching and proving direct relationships. You may find matches between two people using mtDNA, but the actual connections are so far down your family line (30th cousin anyone?) that they are not really ‘family.’
Companies that offer mtDNA tests use them to trace our maternal lineage and our long-term ethnic haplogroups (tribes). They are not used for family matching or admixture analysis.
The only exception to this is FTDNA, which offers a more intensive mtDNA combination test that can identify close family members.
You can buy mtDNA test kits from FTDNA, 23andMe, Living DNA, and National Geographic. All except FTDNA bundle their autosomal DNA and mtDNA tests in one package.
Boys inherit a Y chromosome from their father and an X chromosome from their mother.
Only fathers can pass a Y chromosome down the line since only they have it (women have two X chromosomes).
Like mtDNA, Y-DNA barely changes as it is passed down through the generations.
This is why Y-DNA can be used to trace your paternal line back hundreds of years.
But now and then, as Y-DNA is passed down, copying mistakes – mutations – occur. Experts study these mutations to determine the most recent common ancestor shared by two people.
There are two types of Y-DNA tests: the STR test, and the SNP test.
The STR or Short Tandem Repeat test checks how often a series of nucleotides repeat. There are typically hundreds of STR markers, but most DNA testing companies test just 10 to 111 of them. FTDNA offers an advanced Y-500 test where they study 500 markers.
The other type of Y-DNA test is an SNP test. It is the same as an autosomal SNP test but involves fewer SNPs (around 30,000).
In addition to telling you how closely related you are to another person, you can use a Y-DNA test to trace your paternal haplogroup, which will tell you where your father’s line originated and how they migrated.
Note that only males can take this test since they are the only ones who receive a Y chromosome. Females can ask a close male family member such as a brother or uncle, to take the test in their stead.
FTDNA is the best at Y-DNA testing. They offer 4 test options and very detailed results.
Living DNA, 23andMe, and National Geographic include a Y-DNA test in their packages, but the results are not as comprehensive as those from FTDNA.
The autosomal DNA, Y-DNA, and mitochondrial DNA tests are by far the most popular types used in ancestry DNA testing.
But there’s one more type of DNA we have not mentioned: X-DNA, one of the two sex chromosomes (the other being Y-DNA).
I bet you’ve never heard of an X-DNA test. But it exists.
Most companies that test for autosomal DNA also test for X-DNA. But the information is usually not included in the report (you can see it in the raw file if you’re interested).
This is because it’s harder to trace ancestry or find family matches using X-DNA. The risk of false matches is high.
Though limited in usefulness, X-DNA can help you narrow down your research. If you don’t share X-DNA with an ancestor, then you can remove them from your list. A few companies like FTDNA provide DNA tools that let you filter X matches from your list of matches for this purpose.
Just be very careful when analyzing shared X-DNA. You may share X-DNA with someone, but that doesn’t mean you are connected.
Experts recommend that you only consider X-DNA matches with whom you share at least 10cM (centiMorgans).
Whew! So that was a lot of jargon.
But necessary basic training for anyone trying to buy a DNA test to understand something specific about their family history.
Now let’s talk about the real-world uses of each type of test before we dive into how the leading tests differ.
Then get an Autosomal DNA test.
DNA testing companies use Autosomal DNA to trace your ancestry back hundreds or thousands of years. They use it to create an admixture report, also called an ancestry composition report.
This report breaks down your ancestry background into various populations.
One of the main advantages of using an autosomal DNA test to learn more about your ancestors is that it includes everyone in your family line, not just those from your mother’s or father’s side.
So you get a more comprehensive understanding of your ancestry. No one is left out.
Then get an Autosomal DNA test.
Since autosomal DNA comes from both parents, you can use it to find relatives from both sides of the family.
The test is fairly accurate for close family members such as siblings and first cousins but gets fuzzier the further down the line you go.
That’s why most autosomal DNA tests only go up to the third or fourth cousin level. Beyond that point, the DNA is derived from too many people to make reliable predictions.
Note that an autosomal DNA test does not identify which side of the family a match is from.
But you can do a little sleuthing work using a family tree, surnames, or a chromosome browser to figure out which matches are from which side.
Some companies like AncestryDNA will sort your matches in maternal and paternal lists, but only if you’ve already tested one or both your parents.
Then get an Autosomal DNA test.
An autosomal DNA test can accurately confirm the relationship between two siblings.
The test looks at the amount of DNA they share. For a sibling, the match should be on about 50% or 2400-2600 centiMorgans (cM).
Then get a Y-DNA test.
Since the Y-DNA is only passed down from the father, a Y-DNA test is the best choice for those who want to verify paternity or research their paternal lineage.
To verify paternity, the lab will compare your Y-DNA STR markers against those of the male you want to verify as the father.
Because Y-DNA is passed down unchanged (except for rare mutations) from the father, the two DNAs should have similar markers.
You can also use Y-DNA to verify familial relationships with other living males on your father’s side, such as your uncle, male cousin, or grandfather.
If you are researching your paternal lineage, a Y-DNA test will tell you which paternal haplogroup you are descended from as well as their migration patterns.
Then get a Mitochondrial DNA test.
As I mentioned, mitochondrial DNA is passed down only from the mother. Like Y-DNA, it rarely changes, meaning it can be traced back many generations ago.
You can use an mtDNA test to confirm that someone is your mother or to research your mother’s family line.
You can also use it to find close family members from your mother’s side (FTDNA only).
One way to measure the accuracy of a DNA test is by the number of SNPs it examines.
On average, most DNA tests examine about 700,000 SNPs out of a possible 4-5 million that occur in the human genome.
According to the International Society of Genetic Genealogy, MyHeritage examines the most number of SNPs at 702,442.
National Geographic Geno 2.0 (the project has been shut down) is close behind with 700,000. AncestryDNA examines 637,639 SNPs, 23andMe 630,132 SNPs and FTDNA 612,272.
As you can see, the difference isn’t that much. All these tests are roughly equally accurate.
If you look at the ancestry breakdown in your test results, you’ll notice that the primary breakdown consists of regions rather than countries.
You might be Northern European, East Asian, North African, and so on.
Regions provide a far more accurate prediction of your ancestry background compared to specific countries.
This is because the countries that are present today may have been different or even non-existent several decades or centuries ago.
However, most companies today also include specific countries. You can see them when you click/tap a certain region to see how it breaks down.
For example, 23andMe breaks down the Scandinavian regions into Denmark and Iceland and indicates your ancestry percentages for each sub-population.
Eastern European is broken down into countries like Estonia, Hungary, Russia, and Ukraine, among others.
It’s great to see how your ancestry breaks down into countries. But beware; the results can often be inaccurate or misleading.
When you are doing genealogical research, focus more on the regions and less on individual countries.
You can use DNA testing to check whether you have Native American ancestry in your DNA.
But even if you discover you are part Native American, you cannot use your ancestry DNA results to enroll as a member of a recognized tribe or receive any benefits given to tribe members.
People have tried it, but it doesn’t fly with officials. You have to identify actual Native American relatives to prove your Native American ancestry.
If you want to enroll as a tribe member, a DNA test is only a starting point. You’ll also need physical documents to prove your genealogical lineage.
There are three types of tests you can take to check if you have Native American ancestry.
An autosomal DNA test will give you an estimate of what percentage of your ancestry is Native American. But it will not specify a particular tribe.
A Y-DNA test lets you trace male family members in your father’s lineage going many decades back. It is useful in finding out whether your father’s lineage descends from a Native American ancestor.
An mtDNA test lets you trace female family members in your mother’s lineage going many decades back. You can use it to find out if your mother’s lineage has any Native American origins.
A Y-DNA test (for males only) and an mtDNA test (for males and females) are the best for confirming whether you have Native American ancestors.
But it’s a good idea to start with an autosomal DNA test to make sure you have some Native American ancestry.
Ready to buy an ancestry DNA test? Here’s how they all work:
Don’t worry: you won’t need to go to a lab or clinic to get tested.
The process of submitting your DNA is painless, simple, and takes just a few seconds.
After placing your test kit order online, the testing company will mail you a kit that you’ll use to collect your DNA sample.
There are two ways you might take a sample using the kit, depending on the company: a cheek swab or saliva.
Both methods provide a reliable sample.
The two methods are the same, except in cases where the person getting tested cannot produce enough saliva like an elderly person or a small child. In those cases, a cheek swab may be the better choice.
23andMe and AncestryDNA require a saliva sample.
Here’s a video from 23andMe explaining how to use their saliva sample collection kit.
FTDNA and most other companies use a cheek swab kit, instead.
Here’s a quick video explaining how to use FTDNA’s swab kit.
Remember to read the instructions that come with the kit.
Most will have additional guidelines about how long to wait after eating before you take a sample and how to secure and mail the sample back.
If, for some reason, the kit is damaged or the sample is compromised, most companies will send you a replacement kit free of charge (although you may have to pay for shipping).
After you’ve collected the sample, secure it according to the instructions provided. Make sure you do it correctly to ensure the sample reaches the lab safely.
The return envelope is likely pre-paid. So all you need to do is put the sample in it and post it back to the company.
Then you wait.
DNA test results take a while; up to 8 weeks. I’ve explained why in this blog post.
Essentially, it’s because DNA testing is complex and takes time, and these labs process hundreds of samples per week.
The turnaround time is even longer when there is a high volume of orders, such as during the holidays (when most people give DNA tests as gifts).
Some companies will show the estimated date your results will be available. But this is just an estimate. Your results could take longer, or they might be ready sooner.
If you think your results have taken too long, contact customer support for a status update.
Your results will be available in a few weeks, available in a secure online account. You’ll receive an email notifying you that your results are ready with a link to your account where you’ll be required to log in.
Note: DNA results are never sent by mail or via phone. Posting them to your account is the most secure option.
Once you log in, you’ll be able to view your DNA matches, read your admixture report, and get access to various tools to help you make the most out of your test results.
All companies make their reports as simple as possible to read and understand. They know that not all of us are expert genealogists. There will be plenty of helpful pointers along the way, and you can always contact customer support if something is not clear.
Most DNA test company websites also have forums where customers can discuss their results and seek help on something they don’t understand.
Autosomal tests are the least expensive and most popular – they typically cost $69-$99.
Living DNA, Geno 2.0, and 23andMe lump their autosomal test in with mtDNA and Y-DNA tests (for maternal and paternal haplogroups) into a $99 package.
FTDNA’s autosomal test is less expensive at $79, but it’s only autosomal. Their mtDNA and Y-DNA tests are separate and cost $169 for the Y-DNA test and $89 for the mtDNA test.
This may seem pricey, but FTDNA’s test results are far more detailed from other companies. You can use them to find your haplogroups as well as prove family member relationships in your paternal and maternal lines.
23andMe is unique among the bunch, in that they offer a health + ancestry DNA test for $199.
Most DNA test companies run discounts and offers, especially during the winter holidays and events like Black Friday.
If you know someone who would like to get an ancestry DNA test or you want to test your entire family this Christmas. Then you can order DNA tests as a gift. Some of the companies even offer greeting card/packaging options.
You just need to enter their shipping address when checking out. The sample collection kit will be sent to them.
Before gifting someone a DNA test, however, make sure that they want one. Otherwise, you may lose your money if it goes unused (though some companies like 23andMe can give you a refund or allow the kit to be used by someone else).
The best DNA testing company for you will depend on what you want to learn from your DNA.
Some companies like AncestryDNA excel at relative-matching, while others are better for in-depth genealogical research. 23AndMe is the go-to if you want a genetic health test.
While each company is different, all DNA testing companies offer autosomal testing. All will also provide you with an admixture/ancestry composition report.
But even these common services differ from company to company in terms of their precision and reporting style.
To get a better picture of what each company offers, let’s quickly review each of the top 6 DNA testing kits.
AncestryDNA is the best choice if you want to find and connect with as many living family members as you can. It is also the best choice for deep family tree research.
AncestryDNA is the DNA testing arm of Ancestry.com, the largest genealogical website in the world.
Their DNA service is separate from the rest of their genealogical services.
If you want to go beyond what your DNA results tell you, you’ll have to pay for an Ancestry.com subscription to access additional tools.
You can create a family tree, search paper records, look up photos, and so much more. That’s why I recommend it as the best option for those planning deep family research.
But most people will find their family matching feature to be adequate.
As of this writing, AncestryDNA’s database is about 15 million strong, easily the largest of any DNA testing service.
So there’s a really good chance you’ll find more than a few cousins or even a half-sibling lurking on their forums.
The main limitation? AncestryDNA only offers autosomal DNA testing.
They analyze your autosomal DNA to find family matches from their database, give you an estimate ethnicity breakdown, and show you how your ancestors migrated.
Best for: Serious genealogical research.
FTDNA is by far the best choice for expert genealogists and those who want in-depth information on their DNA, mtDNA or Y-DNA.
Other companies provide one or two types of tests.
Family Tree DNA offers ten. They are the only company to offer separate autosomal DNA, Y-DNA, and mtDNA tests.
For serious genealogists who want in-depth information from their DNA tests and tools that go a level deeper on matching, FTDNA is the best option.
Their autosomal DNA test is great for finding cousins and getting an ethnicity breakdown.
Their Y-DNA tests are for those who want to research their paternal line or find matches on their father’s side of the family. There are four Y-DNA test options:
FTDNA also offers two mtDNA test options: mtDNA Plus and mtDNA Full Sequence.
Another big advantage of FTDNA is that you can upload data from other sites and use their far better tools for diving into your data.
To see how FTDNA compares with AncestryDNA in-depth, read my recently-updated AncestryDNA vs. Family Tree DNA comparison.
Best for: those on a budget.
MyHeritage sells the least expensive autosomal DNA test.
If you are looking for an autosomal DNA test that won’t take a big bite out of your pocket, MyHeritage has one for $59. That’s $40 cheaper than most other tests.
But is it worth it?
Well, yes, it is plenty good enough if you are not trying to do much more than get interesting information about your heritage.
The reason for this is that they started offering DNA testing services quite recently.
Before offering DNA testing, MyHeritage ran a genealogical research site like Ancestry.com.
So they have a ways to go before they expand their regions and build a DNA database large enough to offer in-depth results to their customers.
But it’s an affordable alternative to AncestryDNA for those who would like to supplement their DNA results with a family tree, hard paper trails, and genealogical records.
Like Ancestry.com, you’ll need to pay a subscription fee to access their other services (but you can create a basic family tree and access some search results for free).
Best for: Those who also want a genetic health screening. They offer a combined health + ancestry package.
23andMe is best known for its genetic health screening though they have also been improving their ancestry testing.
Notably, they recently increased their ethnicity breakdown to 1,000+ regions, making their ethnicity reporting one of the best in the industry.
Their DNA database has also been growing rapidly, meaning more matches for customers.
Currently, they have about 10 million DNA results in their database. Only AncestryDNA’s database is bigger.
23andMe offers a streamlined ancestry package with DNA, mtDNA and Y-DNA all bundled into one.
They use your mtDNA results to match you to various regions around the world and find family matches.
The mtDNA and Y-DNA results are used to determine your maternal and paternal haplogroups. This is helpful if you want to trace your ancient roots on each side of the family.
To compare 23andMe with AncestryDNA, read my just-updated, in-depth AncestryDNA vs. 23andMe comparison.
Best for: Those who want to research their potential roots in Britain and Ireland.
Living DNA’s strongest point is their ethnicity breakdown. They match your DNA against 80 regions. Only AncestryDNA and 23andMe test more regions.
Of those 80 regions tested by Living DNA, 21 of them are in Britain and Ireland. No other test offers a finer breakdown in these regions.
So if you suspect you have roots in the British Isles, this is the test for you.
Like 23andMe, they bundle their autosomal DNA test with mtDNA and Y-DNA tests. So, in addition to an ethnicity breakdown, you can also trace your maternal and paternal lines.
Unfortunately, they don’t offer any sort of family matching.
Best for: Studying your ancient roots and your ancestors’ migration patterns.
Geno 2.0 is similar to Living DNA in that they bundle all their tests into one package and don’t offer family matching.
This test is ideal if you want to research your deep ancestry going back hundreds and thousands of years ago.
You’ll see how your ancestry traces as far back as Africa and how your ancestors migrated and interacted with other populations.
You’ll also get a breakdown of your ethnicity background.
DNA testing has come a long way.
We’ve reached a point now where we can trust what a DNA test report tells us – mostly.
But it’s not yet a perfect science.
The accuracy of your DNA results is not guaranteed. It’s not the fault of the company; it’s just the way the science is…for now.
I highly recommend that you never rely on a DNA test to research your ancestry and family history.
Historical records such as past Census reports, paper trails such as marriage and death certificates, and even fun family stories can be surprisingly informative.
Another thing to keep in mind is – and this is especially important when it comes to finding family matches – you need to be ready for anything.
It’s true that most people just uncover harmless second and third cousins, usually in the hundreds.
But there are those few others whose lives were upended, and families are torn apart when they discovered unknown siblings and parents.
My advice is as follows: if you discover a new unknown close family member using your DNA, don’t panic or rush to do something.
Take it slow, do more research (re-test if necessary), and deeply consider the impact of this new information on your life and family before reaching out and contacting that person.