Ancestry.com Review

Marc McDermott
Last updated: December 4, 2023

Ancestry.com is one of the big names in the genealogy world. While they are well-known for their DNA offerings, you may not be aware that Ancestry also offers family tree building options, and has a vast library of genealogical records from all over the world. In fact, Ancestry is the website famous for providing “shaky leaf” record hints on members’ trees! This article will focus on using Ancestry.com for traditional genealogy research. You will learn about the various features Ancestry provides, their subscription plan offerings and pricing, and we’ll answer some common questions about the website. Let’s get started! 

Ancestry Overview

Ancestry Inc. began as a magazine publishing company in the 1990s. It was purchased by Infobases, a genealogy software company, in 1997, and continued to grow. The company created its first genealogy website, MyFamily.com, in December 1998. The site received one million registered users within its first few months of operation. In 1999, Ancestry.com became its own separate website, and would eventually become the largest for-profit genealogy company in the world. In December of 2020, Ancestry was purchased by the Blackstone Group, a private investment firm. Ancestry’s headquarters is located in Lehi, Utah.

Family Trees

The best way to begin using Ancestry for your family history research is to create a tree. If you have already created one using family tree making software, or want to move your family tree information over from a different website, Ancestry does allow GEDCOM file uploads. (You will also be able to download your Ancestry trees into a GEDCOM for exporting, if you want to move that information somewhere else later).

If you are creating a tree from scratch, the process is very simple. You can just start with what you know- names, dates, locations.  Ancestry suggests that you start with yourself, and build upwards. You can edit information on individual family tree profiles at any time, as well as update relationships on your tree. Ancestry offers both pedigree view (focuses on one individual and their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, etc.) and family view (expands to show siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins) options; you can toggle back and forth between the two views. 

It is a good idea to update your tree as soon as you discover new information, because Ancestry continually reviews your tree data to locate potential records related to your ancestors. Their unique search algorithm is what produces those “shaky leaf” hints on your tree. When you click on a leaf icon, you will see a list of records that may potentially connect to your ancestor. 

Ancestry allows users to set custom privacy settings on their trees. If you do not want your tree to be viewable to other Ancestry members, you can change the setting to “private.” Additionally, any information for living people on your tree will not be publicly viewable unless you grant someone permission to view your tree. Ancestry allows you to create a link to share your tree with family and friends.

Records 

With over 30 billion records from over 80 countries, Ancestry is an excellent resource for your family history research! There are several ways to locate records within Ancestry:

  • Search all collections- Enter what you know about an ancestor, and Ancestry will show a list of records that may be related to that person. The more information you know, the more accurate your results will be.
  • Shaky leaf hints- Results will be based on the information you entered for individuals in your family tree. 
  • Search within record groups- Ancestry has several different record categories to choose from, including:
    • Census and voter lists
    • Birth, marriage, and death records 
    • Immigration and travel records
    • Military records
  • Search within member trees- you can compare your tree information to other members’ family trees, or search exclusively for data held in individual trees. It is important to note that you will only see results from trees that have been made public. To view data from private member trees, you will need to reach out to the tree owner and ask if they are willing to share information.
  • Use the Ancestry Card Catalog – If you are looking for a specific type of record or records from a particular location, be sure to check out the Card Catalog. You can browse the Card Catalog by entering the exact title of the record set you are looking for, or by using keywords to locate record collections. You can also filter the search by category, location, or by date range. 

Search Tips and Support

Here are some helpful tips for researching the record collections at Ancestry:

  • Ancestry typically provides hints from only about the top 10% of their most popular databases. So it is critical to use the Card Catalog to locate additional records where your ancestor might be located. As fun as the shaky leaf hints can be, don’t rely solely on them to uncover important records! 
  • Always click on the title of a record collection and read through its description- this will give you lots of information about the collection’s origins, whether there are any missing records, the date range covered, and the particular locations included in the record set.
  • Ancestry allows wildcard searches- use the ? and * characters to include various/alternate spellings of names in your search. This will help uncover records that may have been mis-indexed when they were added to the website, or locate your ancestor in records where their name was spelled differently. 
  • Many records are searchable by name or by other data (date, names of family members, etc.), but you often have the option to browse through the collection manually. For example, U.S. census records on Ancestry give you the option to drill down to location and enumeration district to view a particular set of census pages, rather than search only by name/data. Try a manual search if a name search is not bringing up your ancestor.

Help, learning, and support:

  • Ancestry has a massive Support Center that covers just about anything you need to know about using the website. 
  • Be sure to check out the message boards as well- Ancestry’s online genealogy community. With almost 200,000 boards covering all types of genealogy topics, there are certainly other Ancestry members out there willing to help you with your brick walls!
  • Ancestry also has a YouTube channel with tons of videos to help you use the website, learn new research strategies, hear about other Ancestry members’ success stories, and much more.

Subscriptions and Pricing 

Ancestry offers four membership tiers. Like most other genealogy websites, they do offer a 14-day free trial. You can select any membership level for your trial, and credit card information must be provided when signing up.

There are two options for membership payments- monthly, or 6 months. With the 6-month option, you can either pay the entire 6 months up front, or pay them monthly- but either way, you receive a discount over the month-to-month option. 

The Ancestry subscription tiers are:

Family Tree Builder: Free – With a free account, you are only allowed to access Ancestry’s free record collections, which are very limited. You are not able to directly message other Ancestry members. This option is good if you are only looking to build out a family tree, so long as you understand that you will not be able to view most of the records held on Ancestry.

U.S. Discovery: $24.99 per month, or $16.50 for 6 months- This plan allows you to access all U.S.-based records on Ancestry. A good option if you are only focusing on research based in the U.S., but you will not be able to view any records originating from outside the country.

World Explorer: $39.99 per month, or $24.83 for 6 months- This plan allows full access to all U.S. and international records on Ancestry.

All Access: $59.99 per month, or $39.83 for 6 months- The top-tier plan provides the same access as World Explorer, PLUS full membership to Ancestry’s partner websites, Fold3.com and Newspapers.com.

You can compare each Ancestry plan’s offerings on their free trial page.

FAQ

Is Ancestry.com owned by the Mormon Church?

No. Ancestry has been owned by an investment firm, the Blackstone Group, since late 2020. Ancestry is a separate company from FamilySearch, which is operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS). Ancestry and FamilySearch do collaborate frequently on records archiving and indexing projects- most recently, they are working together to help index the upcoming 1950 U.S. census. 

Are Newspapers.com or Fold3.com free with Ancestry?

Yes- if you purchase an Ancestry All Access subscription (see above). Fold3.com (U.S. military records) and Newspapers.com (over 700 million newspaper pages from the U.S. and worldwide) are “sister sites” to Ancestry, which allows Ancestry to provide search results from those sites. Members who have a Fold3 or Newspapers.com subscription can do a one-click search to jump right to these search results from Ancestry. But if users do NOT have a subscription to Fold3 or Newspapers.com, they will not be able to view details for these record hints in Ancestry. You can compare subscription pricing to Newspapers.com here and Fold3.com here. 

How much is a year’s subscription to Ancestry.com?

Currently, Ancestry advertises month-to-month and 6-month subscriptions- however, they sometimes run promotions and offer coupons for yearly membership discounts. The best bet is to look around for online coupon offers, or contact an Ancestry representative to find out pricing options for a 1-year membership. 

Why is ancestry com so expensive?

A good question, considering that another major genealogy website, FamilySearch, is absolutely free. The biggest difference between the two is that FamilySearch is operated by the LDS church, a not-for-profit organization. Ancestry must pay for business operating costs including obtaining records, digitizing them, and hosting this vast amount of information on their website. When deciding which genealogy research website to use, it’s always important to shop around and compare offerings, to get the best “bang for your buck.” 

How do you get a discount on ancestry com? Is there a senior discount?

Yes! Ancestry will post coupons and promos on its website. Also, check websites like Genealogy Bargains for the latest Ancestry deals.
Seniors can receive a 30% discount off their first year of a World Explorer or All Access membership if they are an AARP member! 

Is there a free alternative to Ancestry.com?

As mentioned, FamilySearch is completely free, and also offers family tree building and a vast collection of records. Check out this article to learn more about FamilySearch, so you can compare the two websites and make an informed decision.

Is there a free version of Ancestry.com?

If you are unsure whether you want to commit to an Ancestry subscription, there is an alternative -your local library! Many libraries offer Ancestry Library Edition, either onsite at the library’s computer lab, or available at home with your library card information. Ancestry Library Edition offers access to all records in Ancestry, however it does not offer the personalized options such as family tree building, member connect, and message boards. Here is a great comparison between the Ancestry subscription site and Ancestry Library Edition.

Is it easy to cancel Ancestry.com?

Potential members testing out the 14-day free trial can cancel at any time prior to the end of the trial. Ancestry’s renewal and cancellation terms can be viewed here- https://www.ancestry.com/c/legal/renewal-cancellation-terms. When signing up for a new subscription, be aware that if you cancel before the end of the subscription term, an early termination fee of up to $25 may apply. Subscriptions will automatically renew, unless stated otherwise. Ancestry provides a support line at (1-800) ANCESTRY, available 7 days a week from 9am-11pm Eastern U.S. time. 

Does Ancestry have a mobile app?

Yes! The Ancestry App is available in the Apple AppStore, Google Play Store, and at Amazon. The app offers many of the same features as the Ancestry website, in a mobile-friendly format. Learn more here- https://www.ancestry.com/cs/ancestry-app 

Is Ancestry worth it? 

It all comes down to personal preference, and your genealogy needs. The best tip is to shop around and compare Ancestry to other websites that offer records collections and family tree building. Each may have its pros and cons. A smart family historian is an informed family historian- and this article gives you a good overview of Ancestry and a good start to making the best decision for your genealogy research!

Try Ancestry.com for yourself and see if it’s right for you! Use this link to get a free 14-day trial.

Also, read our complete AncestryDNA review.

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