Americans have always been fascinated about where they “come from,” thanks to our history as an immigrant nation. We all hold varying levels of pride in our ethnic origins, and many families cling to traditions that have been handed down from our native lands. As science and technology have improved, we’ve been able to provide proof of our ancestral claims or, in some cases, have come to the surprising conclusion that we’ve been operating under false information for generations. If you’ve ever wondered what a DNA test would reveal about your heritage, we’ve compared the top three sites, so you can invest wisely in your search for your personal history.
AncestryDNA uses some of the latest autosomal testing technology to reveal geographic origins and identify potential relatives among the millions of people who have already taken their DNA test. With the largest consumer DNA database ± about 30 million profiles — Ancestry provides a great starting point to jump into family history research. It can also be a helpful tool to delve even deeper into research you might have already done.
If you read our article about family tree research tools, you’ll know that Ancestry is one of the most popular sites for family tree research, and has a massive database with historical records that you can access. By using their DNA test, you can tap into these resources even further, allowing you to go back multiple generations and learn insights into where your roots really go. Ancestry could also help identify relationships with relatives that you didn’t know you even had (which can be both a blessing and a curse, really.) The site also allows you to download your full DNA results profile, so you can upload the raw data into other tools, which is helpful if you get really into the nitty gritty of tracking down distant ancestors.
Your results also include a personalized health report with “actionable insights” (meaning: it’s a diagnostic tool that is not intended to be a diagnostic tool). If anything troubling is found, the site makes it easy to find genetic counseling resources, and there’s even an online tool to help screen your genetic risk for heart disease, some cancers, and blood disorders. This service is not FDA-approved, but the test results do have to be approved by one of Ancestry’s physicians before they are released, so it’s great information to take with a grain of salt.
Pros: Of the three options we researched, Ancestry is going to give you the best bang for your buck. For less than $100, you can link into the biggest online database, which increases the odds that you’ll find cool information. The website is user-friendly, which makes it fun and stress-free to use.
Cons: Because it uses autosomal DNA tests, it can’t differentiate between maternal and paternal lineages, and the company may monetize your DNA data if you opt into its research program. (More on this later.)
23andMe provides many of the same services as AncestryDNA, with approximately the same level of accuracy and for about the same price. The two big differences have to do with the size of the database — about 12 million users compared to Ancestry’s 30 million — and the site’s access to historical documents. Because 23andMe is smaller, you have less chance of finding a long-lost cousin, although you will get the same amount of detail regarding your ethnic heritage and origins.
That said, if you’re willing to pay a bit more, 23andMe’s biomedical testing is top-notch. For about $200, you can get information about your genetic predisposition for late-onset Alheimers, Parkinson’s and other diseases. This service also includes analysis of your carrier status as a potential genetic carrier for diseases such as Cystic Fibrosis and Sickle Cell Anemia, as well as indicators for lactose and gluten intolerances. And, unlike Ancestry’s medical testing, 23andMe’s is FDA approved.
Pros: This is the site you should go with if you’re more interested in the medical testing side of genealogy research. With a polished site design and intuitive navigation tools, 23andMe might be easier for the technophobic as well. For male testers, 23andMe also offers the ability to differentiate between maternal and paternal lines independently.
Cons: They have a slightly smaller database and less access to historical documents, so if you’re trying to do a deep dive you may find yourself needing to pay for additional subscriptions. Also, they monetize your anonymized medical data via a partnership with GlaxoSmithKline, but their privacy settings are well-managed and straightforward, and allow you to opt out if you wish.
FamilyTreeDNA offers much of the same things as the two previous sites, with this small caveat: the site provides more specific tests and therefore, charges more. Resources are broken down into a number of smaller categories, so you’re often paying for each service separately instead of as a group deal. While customer feedback has led to them improving this situation (slightly), this site is for the serious genealogical researchers with deep pockets.
FamilyTreeDNA offers all three types of genetic tests available: autosomal DNA (which is what Ancestry and 23andMe use), Y-DNA, and mtDNA. This allows the site to provide a more highly detailed analysis of your paternal and maternal lineages.
Pros: This is the site you should use if money is no object, and you want to really get highly specific results from your test. Also, FamilyTreeDNA is the sole company to own and operate its own testing facility, so your tests remain in-house instead of being sent to an outside lab.
Cons: The specific results will cost you. Also, unless you specify otherwise, this is the only company who complies with requests from law enforcement. So if you’re contemplating committing a felony, be careful (this is actually how they caught the Golden State Killer!).
Warning About Information Sharing:
We strongly advise you to read whatever privacy statement is available before sending in any genetic samples. Currently, there is little federal oversight or regulation regarding what companies can do with the information they get from your sample, and this can be problematic for a number of reasons. Not only can these companies profit now by using your genetic data for research — or by selling your information to a third party — but there isn’t anything stopping them from changing their policies and doing so in the future.
The best thing to do is thoroughly read the company’s privacy statement, and then try to opt-out of anything that makes you remotely uncomfortable. While there isn’t much legal recourse if your consent is violated — yet — you should always try to protect yourself as much as possible.