Various companies and archives have digitised so many genealogical records in the past 10 years that the number of websites can seem a bit overwhelming at first.
Ancestry, Findmypast, Genes Reunited and TheGenealogist are four of the biggest commercial sites for tracing English and Welsh ancestors, and for accessing additional British and overseas records. They all offer the GRO birth, marriage and death indexes back to 1837 and censuses from 1841 to 1911 – the essential datasets that form the backbone of genealogical research.
Although these four sites all offer the GRO indexes and the English and Welsh census, they also hold a huge range of other sources, some of which won’t be found on any other website.
So, before paying to take out a subscription, it is worth taking a bit of time to work out which website will be most useful to you:
1 – Don’t rush. See what is available for free first, such as FreeBMD and Familysearch.org. 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 site is best for you.
2 – Visit your library. Some local archives and libraries provide free access, usually to Ancestry Library Edition, although some now also offer access to Findmypast as well now.
3 – Go further afield. The National Archives in Kew and National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth let visitors use most genealogy websites for free on-site.
4 – Take advantage of ‘try before you buy’. Subscription websites often have 14-day free trial memberships for newcomers, but remember to cancel before the payment period kicks in if you’re not ready to commit.
5 – See whether it covers your region. Check to see which websites have agreements with which local archives. If your family mostly comes from London, Liverpool, Surrey or West Yorkshire, for example, then you may want to consider signing up to Ancestry, but if your family came from Wales, Westminster, Cheshire or Hertfordshire then Findmypast might be more suitable.
6 – Check the collections. Don’t just check regional differences, as there may be other unique collections of interest to you. For example, TheGenealogist has Tithe records, Findmypast has a vast collection of newspapers and Ancestry has the National Probate Calendar.
7 – Give it a test drive. When testing out different subscription sites, 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 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 subscription site. 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.
10 – Got Scottish ancestors? If you are researching mainly Scottish ancestors you may find yourself mostly using ScotlandsPeople which operates a pay-as-you-go credit system rather than a subscription system. The ScotlandsPeople Centre in Edinburgh gives visitors unlimited access to these computerized records for £15 per day, but you can drop in for a free 2-hour introductory session at 10am or 2pm on weekdays. This doesn’t mean that the other subscription sites 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.