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Choosing your DNA test: The best DNA testing kits

Debbie Kennett, author of DNA and Social Networking, explains why DNA testing is increasingly important in family history research.

Black and white photograph of children in Cable Street, London. DNA testing can help you find your family history

How does DNA testing work?

DNA testing is a very important tool for the family historian. It can help to verify your family tree and provide helpful clues to inform the future direction of your research. It can also sometimes help to break down those long-standing brick walls.

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DNA has the power to solve previously impossible cases. Foundlings, adoptees and donor-conceived individuals now have a very real chance of finding half-siblings and other close relations in the databases, which can lead to the identification of their biological parents.

If you have a match with a second cousin, it means that you share the same great grandparents. It’s then just a question of tracing the descendants to identify a suitable candidate who was in the right place at the right time.

Success stories are reported on a daily basis in America and we’re now starting to get reports from the UK as well. As the databases grow, we can expect to see many more unknown parentage cases solved.

What to expect from a DNA test

As with traditional genealogical research, DNA testing can provide surprises so be prepared for the unexpected. You might uncover family secrets by matching with a cousin or a half-sibling that you didn’t know existed. Conversely a relation who is expected to share DNA with you might turn out not to be a genetic relative at all. In rare cases, people discover that their parents are not their biological parents. For a good overview of the ethical implications of DNA testing see the Genetic Genealogy Standards.

However, DNA testing is not a magic bullet and it won’t provide you with an instant family tree. Contrary to popular belief, you cannot take a DNA test to discover who you are and where you come from. The value of the DNA test lies in the comparison process, so it’s important to use a company that has a matching database.

How to use a DNA test

DNA is best used in combination with genealogical records in order to form conclusions about relationships. The DNA test itself is completely harmless; you just need to provide a cheek swab or a saliva sample.

Which DNA test is right for you?

The choice of DNA test will depend on the questions that you want to answer, or you can just take a test for fun to see who you match in the databases. A DNA test can be considered as an investment which will grow more valuable as more people join the databases and you get more matches.

What are the different types of DNA test?

There are three different types – autosomal DNA, Y-chromosome DNA and mitochondrial DNA – all of which have specific applications. Sometimes a combination of different tests will be required to solve a particular problem.

A scientist examines a DNA test sequence using a magnifying glass
A scientist examines a DNA test sequence using a magnifying glass (Credit: Getty)

How much does a DNA test cost?

Depending on the company, the price of DNA tests in the UK varies from £79 to £179. Most DNA testing companies have sales regularly, so it’s worth keeping an eye on our family history special offers page to see when they’re happening.

How long does a DNA test take?

After you have sent your DNA test result back to the company, it will take up to eight weeks before you get your results.

Which is the best DNA testing kit?

Pros and cons of a FamilyTreeDNA test

Family Tree DNA test different prices

DNA tests launched: May 2000 Y-DNA and mtDNA; February 2010 autosomal

DNA products: Standalone autosomal, Y-DNA and mtDNA tests.

International availability: Worldwide

Cost of tests (in US dollars): Autosomal DNA test $79; Y-DNA test $119; mtDNA test $159

Shipping: $9.95 (return postage not included)

Location: Kits despatched from the US (Houston, Texas) and processed in the US

Autosomal DNA cousin matching: Yes

Autosomal transfers accepted: Yes. Free access to matches. Additional tools and features such as the MyOrigins report and the chromosome browser can be accessed by paying a fee of $19

Chromosome browser and matching segment data provided: Yes

Biogeographical ancestry analysis: Yes

Y-DNA haplogroups: Yes

Y-DNA STRs for genealogical matching: Yes

mtDNA haplogroups: Yes

mtDNA matching: Yes

Database: Over 750,000 Y-DNA records and over 350,000 mtDNA records. The size of the Family Finder database has not been disclosed but is likely to be around two million

Subscription required to access additional features: No

Pros and cons 

FTDNA are the market leader for both Y-DNA and mtDNA testing, and have the world’s largest Y-DNA and mtDNA genealogical matching databases. They are the only company that allows complete integration of Y-DNA, mtDNA and autosomal DNA test results for genealogical purposes. They host a wide variety of surname projects, haplogroup projects (Y-DNA and mtDNA), and geographical projects. Experienced and knowledgeable volunteer project administrators can often provide advice and help with the interpretation of results. FTDNA are not the first choice for autosomal DNA because of the smaller database but they were selling tests in the UK five years before AncestryDNA launched their test and you will find matches here that have not tested elsewhere.

Pros and cons of an AncestryDNA test

AncestryDNA test

DNA test launched: May 2012 in the US, January 2015 in the UK and Ireland

Products: Single autosomal

DNA test international availability: Sold in 34 countries

Cost of test: £79

Shipping: £10. Includes return postage

Location: Kits despatched from Ireland but processed in the US

Autosomal DNA cousin matching: Yes

Autosomal transfers accepted: No

Chromosome browser and matching segment data provided: No

Biogeographical ancestry analysis: Yes

Y-DNA haplogroups: No

Y-DNA STRs for genealogical matching: No

mtDNA haplogroups: No

mtDNA matching: No

Database: Over 18 million

Subscription required to access additional features: Yes

Pros and cons

AncestryDNA has been responsible for taking DNA testing mainstream, and they now have the world’s largest autosomal DNA database. The DNA test benefits from an easy-to-use interface and good integration with family trees. Sophisticated algorithms provide the most accurate relationship estimates. ThruLines and Common Ancestor hints make it easy to identify how you are related to your matches. A subscription is required to access all the features and to view the full trees of your matches. The lack of a chromosome browser and matching segment data is a disadvantage for advanced users who are interested in chromosome mapping.

Pros and cons of a 23andMe DNA test

23andMe DNA test

DNA test launched: 2007 for health and deep ancestry; cousin matching included from November 2009

Products: Single DNA test covering autosomal DNA, Y-DNA SNPs and mtDNA. The basic test provides ancestry and traits reports. The full service includes ancestry, traits and health reports.

International availability: Sold in 56 countries. Health reports only available in selected countries.

Cost of test: Ancestry + Traits £79; Health + Ancestry Service £149

Shipping: £9.99. Includes return postage

Location: Kits despatched from the Netherlands but processed in the US

Autosomal DNA cousin matching: Yes

Autosomal transfers accepted: No

Chromosome browser and matching segment data provided: Yes

Biogeographical ancestry analysis: Yes

Y-DNA haplogroups: Yes

Y-DNA STRs for genealogical matching: No

mtDNA haplogroups: Yes

mtDNA matching: No

Database: Over 12 million

Subscription required to access additional features: Not at present though a $29 subscription is being rolled out in the US providing access to additional health and ancestry reports

Pros and cons 

23andMe offer a wide range of interesting, well written and attractively presented reports including detailed haplogroup reports for deep ancestry purposes and a Neanderthal ancestry report. 23andMe is the only company to have authorisation from the FDA to offer health reports direct to the consumer. The 23andMe test is less useful for UK genealogists because of the US-centric nature of the database and because so many people have tested for health rather than genealogy.

Pros and cons of a LivingDNA test (also available via Findmypast)

Living DNA test

DNA test launched: September 2016

Products: Single DNA test covering autosomal DNA, Y-DNA SNPs and mtDNA. Available as an ancestry-only test or a combined ancestry and wellbeing test.

International availability: Worldwide

Cost of test: DNA Ancestry £99; Ancestry and Wellbeing £179

Shipping: £9.95 including return postage

Location: Kits despatched from the UK, USA, Europe and Australia. Testing is done in Denmark. All processing is done in Europe

Autosomal DNA cousin matching: Yes

Autosomal transfers accepted: Yes. Matches are free. There is a fee of £29 to access the biogeographical ancestry reports.

Chromosome browser and matching segment data provided: Not at this time but may be available in the future

Biogeographical ancestry analysis: Yes

Y-DNA haplogroups: Yes

Y-DNA STRs for genealogical matching: No

mtDNA haplogroups: Yes

mtDNA matching: No

Database size: New, small but growing

Subscription required to access additional features: No

Pros and cons

Living DNA arguably offers the best biogeographical ancestry analysis on the market for people with British ancestry with regional breakdowns at the county level. With the inclusion of Y-DNA and mtDNA haplogroup information, this is a good all-round DNA test for someone who wants an overview of their genetic ancestry. Living DNA began offering relative matching in February 2019 and currently only reports matches up to the fourth cousin level. Few tools are currently available for working with matches and the database is small in comparison to the other companies. However, the test is more likely to appeal to people in the UK, especially those who feel safer keeping their DNA data in Europe, and matches will be found here who have not tested elsewhere.

Pros and cons of a MyHeritage DNA test

myheritage DNA test

DNA test launched: November 2016

Products: Single autosomal DNA test. Available as an ancestry-only test or a combined ancestry and health test.

International availability: Worldwide (except Israel, Iran, Libya, Sudan, Somalia, North Korea, Lebanon, and Syria)

Cost of test: £79 for ancestry test. £179 for health and ancestry test.

Shipping: £12. Return postage not included

Location: The company is based in Israel. Kits are despatched from the US and processed in the US by FamilyTreeDNA. The interpretation of results is done by the MyHeritage science team.

Autosomal DNA cousin matching: Yes

Autosomal transfers accepted: Yes. Matches are free. Unless you have a subscription you will need to pay a one-time unlock fee to access the trees of your matches and additional features including the biogeographical ancestry report, the chromosome browser, autoclusters and Theories of Relativity.

Chromosome browser and matching segment data provided: Yes

Biogeographical ancestry analysis: Yes

Y-DNA haplogroups: No

Y-DNA STRs for genealogical matching: No

mtDNA haplogroups: No

mtDNA matching: No

Database size: 4.2 million

Subscription required to access additional features: Yes. The health subscription costs £89 (+VAT) a year after the first year. MyHeritage offers a range of family tree and data subscriptions.

Pros and cons

MyHeritage provides support in 42 languages and their DNA test is now very popular in continental Europe. It is a good choice if you are looking to make connections in non-English-speaking countries. The Theories of Relativity can help to identify how you are related to your matches. There are a number of features for advanced users such as autoclusters and a chromosome browser. The tree-building and matching facilities are restricted with the free MyHeritage service. Enhanced family tree ubscriptionsare available to access additional features such as the facility to include more than 250 people in your tree, the ability to search trees, smart matches and instant discoveries.

Case study

In my research into my Cruwys ancestors in Devon, I hit a brick wall trying to find William George Cruwys (born 1821), the brother of my great great grandfather, Thomas Cruwys (born 1831). William disappeared from English records after the 1841 census. I found a William of the right age in Prince Edward Island, Canada, but couldn’t find any records to confirm a link, though naming patterns provided a strong clue.

Frustratingly, the 1848 marriage certificate I obtained didn’t include the parents’ names. Y-DNA tests on my dad and a descendant of the Prince Edward family showed that the two lines were related though Y-DNA cannot pinpoint the date when two people share an ancestor.

However, a year later an autosomal DNA match popped up in the Family Tree DNA Family Finder database with a cousin in Canada. His ancestors were from Prince Edward Island, and he was the great great grandson of William Cruwys through a female line.

If our family trees were correct, he would be my dad’s third cousin once removed. The amount of DNA we shared was within the expected range for the presumed relationship, thus providing confirmation that the tree was correct.

The chromosome browser shows a comparison between my dad and his third cousin once removed. The three blue shapes on chromosomes 1, 3 and 11 are the segments of DNA that they share in common through descent from their mutual ancestors William Cruwys senior (1793-1846) and Margaret Eastmond (1792-1874), the parents of Thomas and William George.

Debbie Kennett's FamilyTreeDNA test chromosome browser
Debbie Kennett’s FamilyTreeDNA test chromosome browser

Glossary of DNA testing terms

AUTOSOMAL DNA
DNA inherited on the autosomes: the 22 chromosomes which are not sex chromosomes. Inherited from both parents.

CHROMOSOME
A structure in a cell’s nucleus containing genetic material. Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes: 22 autosome pairs and one pair of sex-chromosomes. Females have two X chromosomes. Males have an X and a Y chromosome.

HAPLOGROUP
A group of people who descend from the same branch of the human family tree.

MITOCHONDRIAL DNA (mtDNA)
DNA found in mitochondria – the power houses in our cells. mtDNA, passed from mother to child, can trace the maternal line.

SHORT TANDEM REPEAT (STR)
A repeating pattern in a DNA sequence. The number of repeats at a specific location is reported as a marker value. Standard Y-STR tests report results for 37 markers.

SINGLE NUCLEOTIDE POLYMORPHISM 
Single base pair mutation in a DNA sequence.

Y CHROMOSOME DNA (Y-DNA)
Y chromosome DNA is passed from father to son, and is used to trace the paternal line.

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For more information, see the full International Society of Genetic Genealogy glossary here.