Researching your family tree used to be a massive undertaking involving hours spent at libraries, town halls, or even temperature-controlled archives. Now, information is often just a click away. The recent release of the 1950 U.S Census (the Constitution stipulates that each census be closed and sealed for 72 years) means even more information is readily available online.
It can still be a daunting task. Fortunately, a slew of companies offer tools and programs (and a wide range of pricing) that can help you not only do the research, but also construct a comprehensive way of diagramming your family tree. We’re here to help you figure out which ones you might want to try first, based on ease of use and cost.
Honestly, it’s hard to do any kind of family-related research these days without encountering the behemoth Ancestry.com. They claim to have over 30 billion records in their archives that you can just about instantly access, and they make it easy to do so. The only drawback is that in order to get the full benefit of their program, you really need to pay for an account. They offer a 14-day free trial, but you need to enter credit card information to get it, and we all know where that leads: after 14 days, it will automatically sign you up for an account unless you’re savvy enough to remember to cancel it in time.
Ancestry.com has several levels of membership. The most basic starts at $22/month (if you sign up for 6 months at a time). This gives you access to all the U.S. records in their database. If you want to follow your family’s roots back to whenever they originated, then you’ll need to sign up for the next level, which is $33/month and allows access to all U.S. and international records. If you really want to go for the whole shebang, you can pay $50 per month to access all the records on the Ancestry database as well as Fold3 (a military records database) and newspapers.com (an online newspaper archive that is super fun to explore).
Once you’ve become a member you can start building your tree by either uploading information from another genealogical site (such as GEDCOM, a common family tree file used by a number of services) or you can “start from scratch” by entering as much information as you already have on previous generations of family members. As you enter more people into your tree, Ancestry will search their databases for “hints” about each one, and if anything exists, a shaking green leaf will appear on their name. If you click on the leaf you will be taken to any public records that relate to that individual, like birth, marriage, and death information.
Every hint will ideally lead you to discover more paths to pursue and explore to start finding more distant relatives on your tree. Here’s where it gets a bit screwy, though: Because their database includes information added by other users, sometimes the hints aren’t totally legit, making it like the Wikipedia of family trees: it’s a great place to start, but it’s smart to double-check for source information.
The best part of Ancestry is that it is probably the easiest one to navigate and use, and its database is truly astounding. It is frequently reviewed as the most user-friendly genealogy site, and it is continuously creating new tools and features that can be really fun to use. The drawbacks are that it’s not always 100% verifiable, and the automatically-renewing membership schemes can be frustrating for people who aren’t always paying close attention to those types of details (:::cough cough, me:::), so it can get expensive.
MyHeritage is another popular family tree research website, albeit with a slightly different feel to it. Its database doesn’t quite match up to Ancestry’s (“only 12 billion+ records,” the author scoffs), but it is slightly cheaper — it only has annual plans — and has different features.
The pricing breaks down like this:
Premium costs $99/year for Smart Matches and priority customer support; Premium Plus adds in Instant Discoveries and Tree Consistency Checker for $159/year; Data offers all the records and saving ability but none of the smart and DNA options for $139, and the Complete package, which, well, it’s in the name: it includes everything and costs $209 per year.
What sets MyHeritage apart from Ancestry are its unique and really, really cool photo features. They have one called “Deep Nostalgia,” which allows you to animate old family photos (can you imagine???) and there’s also a free photo colorizer for black and white images. Another feature that makes MyHeritage stand out is the “Show Neighbors” option, which uses records to show the people who lived next door, which can be utterly fascinating.
Ultimately, some people prefer MyHeritage because it’s slightly more fun (those photo tools are addictive), and it’s just as easy to use as Ancestry. The only drawback is that it has a slightly smaller breadth of data from which to search.
If you are a total genealogy newbie and aren’t sure you really want to shell out a ton of cash for that kind of hobby, we recommend you start with FamilySearch. Run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, FamilySearch is completely free. There aren’t any hidden gimmicks, and you don’t need to be a member of the church.
This sect has a vested interest in genealogy, as it believes that familial links are sacred and last forever, so they started archiving records in 1894. Despite their early start, FamilySeach has a smaller database than Ancestry — around 5 billion records — but that’s still a sizable amount. They also work with over 200 global archives, so you aren’t limited to the few generations you can trace in the U.S.. Another unique feature is that they offer over 5,000 public family history centers in 129 countries that anyone can visit and use. Yes, you read correctly: a physical location so that you can go and have an actual person help you if you need it.
Often reviewed as one of the best family tree builders available at any price point, FamilySearch has cataloged over one billion of them, which makes the chances of you finding a connection somewhere pretty likely. However, their “find” feature isn’t an automatic algorithm like Ancestry’s, and according to some users it can be very particular about needing the wording to be exact in order to get the results you’re looking for. But remember: it’s free.
So in sum: Ancestry is likely the easiest, most polished and most expansive option, MyHeritage is a bit more fun to play around with, and FamilySearch takes a little more legwork but doesn’t cost a dime.
These three sites are hardly the only options for researching and displaying your own family tree. There are many, many other resources — Archives.com is one example — that can perhaps go further in-depth but take a bit more concentrated effort to use.
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