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What is the best family history website?

Don't miss our guide to choosing the best family history website, and the pros and cons of Ancestry, Findmypast, TheGenealogist and MyHeritage

What is the best family history website

The Internet has allowed thousands of people to discover their family history, thanks to the growing number of commercial family history websites that have digitised millions of historic records from around the world. But this now presents a challenge – if you only want to subscribe to one website, how do you decide which is the best family history website for you?

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Ancestry, Findmypast, MyHeritage and TheGenealogist are four of the biggest English and Welsh family history websites. They all offer the General Register Office birth, marriage and death indexes back to 1837 and census records from 1841 to 1911 – the essential datasets that form the backbone of family history.

What is the best family history website for UK research?

We’ve looked at the four main family history websites for researching British ancestors. If you’re still not sure, then scroll down to read our ten tips on how to choose the right family history website for you.

Pros and cons of Ancestry

Ancestry best family history website

Of the four main family history websites we are comparing, Ancestry has been going for the longest and is the market leader. It is also available for free from many libraries and archives so if you are watching the pennies, you can access most of this data for free if you are willing to visit a library (and currently during lockdown, some libraries are enabling free home access). Some of their datasets and features are also available to view for free from a home computer.

Pros

  • Excellent family tree builder that will connect you with other people researching the same family members. Also offers ‘hints’ for records on the site that may relate to your research.
  • Its exclusive relationship with some archives make it an essential go-to site if you are researching family in areas such as: London, Liverpool, Oxfordshire, Bristol, Gloucestershire, West Yorkshire, Derbyshire, Warwickshire and Lancashire.
  • It has a wide range of records including military, probate, occupational records and passenger lists.
  • The site also has overseas records that you can link to your ancestors if you take out an international subscription.

Cons

  • You have to pay extra for overseas records and some of their military records, such as the First World War pension cards, are held on a separate site, Fold3, for which there is an additional charge.
  • The site has so many records it can be confusing to use for beginners and its higher price reflects the amount of material the site holds but may be more than some researchers require.

How much does Ancestry cost?

The following prices are Auto Renewing (Direct Debit prices) although they can be cancelled at any time.

  • Key UK Census Records (includes census and GRO index): 1 month £10.99; 6 months £54.99
  • All UK & Ireland Records: 1 month £13.99; 6 months £69.99
  • Everything on Ancestry (includes over 3 billion international records): 1 month £19.99; 6 months £99.99

Pros and cons of Findmypast
Findmypast best family history website

Findmypast markets itself as the best family history website for British research and there’s certainly a lot going for it. Like Ancestry it holds all the main records that family historians rely on such as census and birth, marriage and death records and there is quite a lot of overlap between the two sites. For example they both offer First World War records, and parish registers for certain areas such as Wales or Norfolk are available across both sites. However, there are also some major differences.

Pros

  • Perhaps the biggest plus for Findmypast is its relationship with the British Newspaper Archive. If you take out a Pro subscription you will have access to millions of pages of newspapers.
  • Like Ancestry it has exclusive relationships with a number of archives making it the essential go-to site for places like: Surrey, West Devon, East and North Yorkshire and Staffordshire.
  • Findmypast will be the exclusive publisher of the 1921 census for England and Wales due to be released in January 2022.
  • An excellent Catholic collection covering the UK and beyond.

Cons

  • The family tree builder has, until recently, been treated as an add-on rather than central to people’s research and so the number of Findmypast subscribers who keep their tree on the site is far lower than Ancestry, meaning you are less likely to connect with other family historians via your tree here.

How much does Findmypast cost?

The following prices are Auto Renewing (Direct Debit prices) although they can be cancelled at any time.

  • Starter (includes census and GRO index): 3 months £24.99; 12 months £79.99
  • Plus (includes Irish and UK records but not the newspaper collection): 3 months £35.99; 12 months £119.99
  • Pro (includes newspapers as well as global records): 3 months £46.99; 12 months £159.99

Pros and cons of TheGenealogist

TheGenealogist best family history website

In many ways TheGenealogist is the poor cousin of the four main family history websites, but this independently owned British company punches above its weight and has plenty to offer British researchers including the staples of census and GRO indexes as well as some large datasets that are also held by the other main providers such as Norfolk and Welsh parish registers and nonconformist registers. The website also has some exclusive datasets, including a growing collection of memorial headstone images.

Pros

  • TheGenealogist has an excellent, easy-to-use, search facility with good flexibility for searching census and other records.
  • The main exclusive collections here are tithe maps and the 1910 Lloyd George Domesday Survey. Although neither collection is complete yet, they are growing and a number of areas including London are now fully searchable.
  • The site is a good option for those researching their house history or street with map searches and an easy to use address search.
  • The site also has some exclusive military records including cards recording Distinguished Conduct Medal awards and a growing searchable index for Second World War RAF Operation Record Books.

Cons

  • Although this is a cheaper option, the site holds considerably fewer records than its main competitors and so may not offer best value. Look out for special offers and discounts. It’s Starter package is good value though.
  • Some of their collections including the 1939 Register do not come with images of the original so you have to trust the transcription you are given.
  • Very little to tempt those looking for Scottish ancestry.

How much does TheGenealogist cost?

The following prices are Auto Renewing (Direct Debit prices) although they can be cancelled at any time.

  • Starter (includes census and GRO index as well as a large number of reference books and landowner records): 3 months £14.95; 6 months £28.95; 12 months £54.96
  • Gold (includes nonconformist, military and some parish records): 3 months £38.95; 6 months £58.95; 12 months £98.95
  • Diamond (all parish records and headstones plus Tithe and Lloyd George records and any new records): 12 months £139.95

Pros and cons of MyHeritage

MyHeritage best family history website

This Israeli-owned family history website is a late-comer to British records, focussing previously on the US market. Its previous pricing coupled with a lack of UK material made it unattractive to a British audience, but it has recently upped its game adding large datasets such as the 1939 Register (although, as with TheGenealogist, this comes without images). MyHeritage has also successfully marketed its DNA test in the UK which has in turn raised awareness of the company and increased its share of the market.

Pros

  • Excellent Smart Matches technology that compares your tree to others and enables you to benefit from the research of others.
  • Good international record collection including newspapers and immigration records with impressively accurate ‘hint’ algorithm included with their ‘Complete’ subscription package.
  • Useful for anyone who doesn’t want to spend much time on their family history research and is happy to trust the research of others as it has an ‘Instant Discoveries’ feature that adds branches to your tree at the click of a button using an algorithm.

Cons

  • Confusing pricing structure where some options do not include access to records (see below).
  • Expensive for anyone just looking for UK family.
  • No notable exclusive UK collections

How much does MyHeritage cost?

The following prices are Auto Renewing (Direct Debit prices) although they can be cancelled at any time.

  • Premium (family tree up to 2,500 people plus Smart Matches but no records): 12 months £89 (1st year £59)
  • PremiumPlus (unlimited family tree plus Instant Discoveries but no records): 12 months £169 (1st year £109)
  • Data (access to data but not family tree features): 12 months £129 (1st year £79)
  • Complete (all family tree features plus all data): 12 months £229 (1st year £139)

How to choose the best family history website for you

1. Don’t rush

The first place to look is free family history websites FreeBMD (and its sister sites FreeREG and FreeCEN) and FamilySearch, which have a great range of records available for free. You may not need a subscription until you’ve really got stuck into your research, and by then you may have a clearer idea of which family history website is best for you.

2. Visit your library

Some local archives and libraries provide free access to Ancestry Library Edition and some now also offer access to Findmypast as well now.

3. Go further afield

The National Archives in London and the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth let visitors use most family history websites for free on-site.

4. Take advantage of ‘try before you buy’

All four leading family history websites offer 14-day free trial memberships for newcomers. You will have to give your credit card details, so remember to cancel before the payment period kicks in automatically if you’re not ready to commit!

5. See whether it covers your region

Many family history websites have agreements to digitise records such as parish registers and workhouse records from county archives, so it’s worth checking to see which website covers the areas you’re interested in. If your family mostly comes from London, Gloucestershire or West Yorkshire, for example, then you may want to consider signing up to Ancestry, but if your family came from Kent, Devonshire or Leicestershire then Findmypast might be more suitable.

6. Check the collections

Don’t just check regional differences, as each family history website has rights to different unique collections that may be of interest to you. For example, TheGenealogist has tithe maps, Findmypast has a vast collection of old newspapers via its partnership with the British Newspaper Archive and Ancestry has many unique collections such as Post Office appointment books and freemason records.

7. Give it a test drive

When testing out different family history websites, try looking for a range of ancestors on the census and see which search mechanism suits you best. You will probably use the census a lot and each site lets you search in a different way so it’s important to choose a site you get on with.

8. Does it offer a family tree builder?

Check out each family history website’s tree-building capability. Can you access your tree on mobile devices? Can other people look at your tree? What are the privacy options? Can you connect with other people who share ancestors on your family tree? While you can usually export a tree and put it elsewhere, in reality you may find that the site you start building your tree on is the site you stick with, so choose wisely!

9. Don’t limit yourself

While you may have your tree saved in one place, don’t feel you have to stick with a single family history website. Although you may be offered generous loyalty discounts, it can really pay to try a different site for a year and get access to a different set of records. Keep your eyes peeled for special offers on our special offers page.

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10. Looking for Scottish ancestors?

If you are researching mainly Scottish ancestry you may find yourself mostly using ScotlandsPeople, the Scottish government family history website which operates a pay-as-you-go credit system rather than a subscription system. This doesn’t mean that the other family history websites don’t offer anything for Scottish researchers. Both Ancestry and Findmypast have transcriptions of census data for Scotland up to 1901 and all the sites have various other datasets from newspapers to military records.