Ancestry DNA Review

Are you thinking about buying a DNA test, but aren’t sure if the AncestryDNA test is right for you? 

You’ve probably seen all the TV commercials about folks discovering their ethnicities and thought it’d be pretty neat to see your own ethnicity report.

This article will help you decide if AncestryDNA is right for you, walk you through the process, show you what to expect, and answer some of the most frequently asked questions.

What Does AncestryDNA Tell You?

So what exactly does AncestryDNA tell you? What do the results look like? 

The two main things that AncestryDNA will provide are:

  1. Your ethnicity report
  2. Your matches report

If you decide to purchase the optional ‘Traits’ report (or upgrade later on), you’ll also get a list of personal trait reports that show how your DNA might have affected things like your sensitivity to bitter food or if you have a natural aversion to cilantro. 

More on that later.

Ethnicity Report

By far the most common reason for taking a DNA test, the ethnicity report (as its name implies) is what will tell you the percentage of each of your ethnicities.

Here is a screenshot of my report to show you what to expect:

Map view of my AncestryDNA ethnicity results
List view of my AncestryDNA ethnicity results

How do they calculate ethnicity percentages? 

Like every DNA testing company, Ancestry simply compares your DNA with sets of ‘reference populations’ across the globe.

They then use their own complex algorithms to calculate all of the percentages.

And because DNA reference populations are constantly being expanded and refined, your results may change from time to time.

As an example, Ancestry used to group together both Italy and Greece as one reference population.

They’ve since been able to isolate Italian DNA, thus updating existing ethnicity estimates.

It’s worth noting here that you do not need to have any paid subscription to get updated results.

Ancestry currently uses 500+ reference populations.

Matches Report

If you’re looking to build out your family tree, then the Matches Report is a goldmine of information. 

My top matches. Names and photos of matches blurred for privacy.

This is the section where most people interested in their family history will spend all of their time.

Your match list will be generated by comparing your DNA to the entire Ancestry customer database (excluding those who opted out of this feature).

Because Ancestry is currently the most popular consumer DNA test kit on the market, it has the largest customer database (currently 15 mil. ). 

This fact alone is why I recommend Ancestry over other testing companies for genealogical purposes. 

Generally speaking, you can expect to be matched with nearly all of fourth cousins and closer.

I say “nearly” for a reason.

Because of the way DNA is inherited, not all of your fourth cousins will show on your match list.

But the majority will (roughly 75%) and nearly all of your third cousins will show up.

And 100% of your 2nd cousins and closer will show on your list.

You can also expect a small percentage of more distant cousins as well – all the way to your 8th cousins!

But once you get to the 8th cousin level, less than 1% of them will be detectable through DNA.

And in most cases, it’s extremely difficult to track down the paper trail to an 8th cousin match anyway.

For me, I currently have over 300 matches at this level with new matches being added all the time as new people get tested.

The vast majority of my matches are more distant than the fourth cousin level. I have over 20,000 matches at this level.

So what do you do with all these matches?

Many will have their family trees posted online, and if you already know or can identify the common ancestry, then these trees can help you expand your own.

A lot of your matches won’t have a tree posted, or just not a public one anyway.

But you can contact these matches through Ancestry’s secure private messaging system.

I’ve found that response rates can be hit or miss. A lot of the matches you contact will flat out ignore you for various reasons. They’re just not that interested in their family tree which is kind of a shame.

Others will be invaluable resources for your own family history.

For example, one of my mom’s 2nd cousins who I’ve never met before was kind enough to send me a photograph of my 2x-Great Grandfather.

I had never seen a photograph of him, and without this DNA match, I may have never seen one.

So you can see how valuable a match report can be.

I wrote a blog post about this discovery which you can read here.

How Accurate is AncestryDNA?

This is probably the #1 question I get asked about DNA tests – are AncestryDNA results accurate?

It’s one of those questions that’s so hard to answer, other than to say “it depends”.

Without getting into too much scientific detail, the DNA we inherit from our parents is completely random.

Yes, we get half of our DNA from each parent, but the half is random.

Just because my father is 50% Irish, that doesn’t mean my DNA is exactly 25% Irish. It should be somewhat close, but not exact.

For more on this, read this article which talks about how siblings have different DNA.

It’s also important to note here that comparing the accuracy of two testing companies is not always comparing apples to apples.

The reason for this is that each company defines their reference populations differently.

Some will be much broader (continental level), while others will be more granular (specific countries or regions within a country). 

Keep in mind that the more granular a company tests for, the wider the margin of error will be.

With all that being said, I found that my ethnicity estimates from AncestryDNA to be very accurate when compared to my own genealogical research.

Ancestry Versus the Competition

So how does AncestryDNA stack up to the competition?

Here are some quick comparisons with other major testing companies. You can read more about other testing companies in my guide to DNA testing.

23andMe

Probably the biggest competitor to Ancestry in the US market, 23andMe is a definitely solid choice.

They have a customer database of 1 mil. compared to Ancestry’s 15 mil.. They currently test for 1,000+ regions, compared to Ancestry’s 500+ regions.

Even though 23andMe’s numbers look good relative to Ancestry, it’s worth noting that a huge percentage of test-takers at 23andMe are only interested in the health reports.

Therefore you won’t get anywhere near the number of matches interested in genealogy which doesn’t really help you build your family tree.

So if heath reports are what you’re after, go with 23andMe. If genealogy is your goal, go with Ancestry.

And be sure to check out my complete guide to 23andMe vs Ancestry for a more in-depth comparison.

MyHeritage

MyHeritage is the company whose offerings as a whole are the closest match to Ancestry.

It’s the only other major testing company that allows you to link a family tree to your DNA.

They have a nice size customer database (1.4 mil.), with a large percentage being international customers (as compared to Ancestry). 

So if you want to potentially be matched with people in your ancestors’ homelands, MyHeritage might be a better option for you.

They also have better reference populations for Jewish ancestry.

FamilyTreeDNA

FamilyTreeDNA (FTDNA) is most often mentioned when talking about more distant ancestry which requires a different type of DNA test (Y-DNA, mtDNA). AncestryDNA is an autosomal test.

While FTDNA also has an autosomal test (called Family Finder), most of the reference populations are much broader than other companies.

See our guide to Y-DNA testing and our guide to mtDNA testing

LivingDNA

LivingDNA is the newest of the big five testing companies. They are based in the United Kingdom and specialize in granular reporting of British ancestry.

If you think you have British or Irish DNA, I would still test with Ancestry but also consider uploading your raw DNA to LivingDNA. 

How Does AncestryDNA Work

Taking the AncestryDNA test is really quite simple. Here are the basic steps involved:

  1. Buy your test kit from Ancestry.com.
  2. Create an Ancestry.com account (free). 
  3. Once you receive your kit in the mail, the saliva collection tube will have a code on the label. This code is what will link your new online Ancestry account to your DNA sample. Enter that code on the kit activation page: https://www.ancestry.com/dna/activate
  4. Spit into the tube (more detailed instructions are provided with the kit)
  5. Mail the tube back to Ancestry using the prepaid label.
  6. Wait 3-5 weeks to process.
  7. Receive an email from Ancestry with a link to your results which you will view online. Note that Ancestry does not send your results in the mail. You get an email which prompts you to login to your secure Ancestry account where you can view the results.

How Long to Get Results

AncestryDNA’s processing time is around 3-5 weeks, depending on the time of year. This is from the time you mail in your kit to when you receive your results.

Of course, if you mail in your test kit the week after Christmas like everyone else, your wait time will likely be a bit longer. 

AncestryDNA Results Example

In this section, I’ll share the results from my own DNA test to give you a better idea of what to expect when you buy your own. 

This sample report will also help you better understand what to do with your AncestryDNA results once you have them.

Ethnicity Report

The first thing you’ll see is a world map. The sections highlighted with various colors are the reference populations you match.

On the right side of the page, you’ll see the same reference populations in a list format with the percentage estimates for each.

For some populations such as Ireland & Scotland, you’ll also see more granular estimate regions called “Communities”.

You can see in my results for Ireland & Scotland that Ancestry has listed the Ulster and Connacht regions.

You can click on any region in order to read more about your estimate, as well as a brief history of the region’s populations and migrations.

A feature often overlooked here is the ethnicity range estimate.

If you look closely, you can see that Ancestry actually provides an estimated range for each ethnicity. For my Irish roots, they estimate me to be 38%, with a range of 33-54%.

I mentioned above that Ancestry (like all testing companies) will refine estimates over time. When they do, you will have the ability to view your previous estimate if you wanted to compare with the most recent.

You can also view all of the regions Ancestry has tested your DNA with but came back without a match.

DNA Match Report

I already talked about the importance of the shared matches report above, so in this section, I’ll show you what your report will look like.

At the time of writing this article, I have over 22,000 matches. But the majority of those matches are distant (beyond fourth cousins).

The bulk of your time with the shared match report will be in the ‘Close Matches’ filtered view.

This list will filter your matches to estimated fourth cousins and closer.

For me, that number is 334.

Remember that these are predicted relationships based on the amount of DNA you share with each match. 

So it’s possible for say a known 3rd cousin to be grouped together with your distant matches if for some reason you share less DNA than the average third cousins.

This is even more likely to happen when you start talking about third cousins once or twice removed.

Analyzing Your Matches

By default, Ancestry will sort your matches in descending order by the most shared DNA (as measured in centimorgans). You can also choose to sort by match date to see the most recent matches first.

Your results will also be grouped by the estimated relationship (ie parent/child, full sibling, 1st cousins, 2nd cousins, etc).

Some of the other cool things you can do with your match list as a whole are:

  • Filter by custom groups
  • Filter by mothers/fathers side
  • Filter by matches you haven’t yet viewed. I use this view every few weeks or so in order to view any new matches I might have, sorted in descending order by shared DNA.

You can click on any match to be taken to a separate page which details the DNA you share.

For each match, you’ll be able to see:

  1. Headshots (if provided)
  2. Name (or username for privacy reasons)
  3. Amount of shared DNA
  4. The percentage likelihood of all possible relationships to your match (very neat)
  5. Their family tree if they have one posted. Note that you cannot view other family trees without a paid subscription
  6. Predicted common ancestors with the possible path back to the common ancestor
  7. Mother/Father’s side of the family if your mother or father has also taken an AncestryDNA test.
  8. ‘Add to Group’ which allows you to create custom groups any way you want. For example, I group together all matches of a known common ancestor once I verify each of their paths back to that common ancestor. This is one of my favorite features for genealogy purposes.
  9. ‘Notes’ if you’ve added any.

Shared Matches

By far the best and most used feature here will be the shared matches report.

As the name implies, this is a report of all matches that are shared between you and the match you’re looking at. Think of it like another filter of your main matches list. 

So for example, my grandmother was 100% Italian.  If I wanted to find all my Italian family matches, I would look on my matches list for a known second cousin from my grandmother’s family (this assumes you know of your 2nd cousins already outside of DNA testing). 

That second cousin and I would both descend from my grandmother’s parents (our great grandparents). You can also do this with known third cousins.

When I look at the list of our shared matches, it will show all of our other Italian cousins on this branch.

This feature is especially useful for when you have a match and aren’t quite sure who they are or where they fit in your family tree.

You can look at the shared matches with this unknown match, and hopefully spot some known matches which can help you narrow down which side of the family the unknown match fits into. 

From there, you can do some much more targeted research to pinpoint exactly where they fit in your tree.

Predicted Common Ancestors

Ancestry will also show you the predicted common ancestors between you and a match.

Without getting too complicated, Ancestry will compare your family tree with your matches and try to locate a common ancestor.

If they find one, they will also show the predicted path back to that ancestor to illustrate exactly how you and your match might be related. 

Comparing Ethnicity

You can also compare the ethnicity of each of your matches.

While this feature isn’t particularly useful for genealogy, it can serve a purpose when dealing with unknown matches.

Going back to my example of finding my Italian cousins, if I’m trying to place an unknown match and see that they are 0% Italian, chances are I can exclude them from the Italian branch of my family.

Likewise, if only one of my grandparents was Polish and the unknown match is predominantly Polish, that’s a pretty good hint that they somehow fit somewhere on my Polish branch.

So comparing ethnicity with your matches is just another way to narrow down the possibilities of your common ancestor.

Other Features for Matches

The only two other features worth mentioning here are:

  1. The ability to message your match. An invaluable feature for communicating with your matches, sharing stories/photos, etc. 
  2. The notes feature (which I use all the time). This is a great way to keep track of all your matches once you’ve identified the common ancestor. For example, I will make a note on my match that says “This person is my 2nd cousin 1x removed. He is the grandson of Domenico Bombino”. 

Other Features

Thru Lines

Thru lines is a very neat feature that shows you all the predicted matches who descend from a specific ancestor in your family tree.

Like the predicted common ancestor feature I mentioned about, Ancestry uses data from family trees in their database to make hypotheses.

So for example, if I select my 3x great-grandfather Bartholomew McDermott, I see that Ancestry predicts seven other descendants, and shows me exactly how I might be related to them.

AncestryDNA Thru Lines for my 3x Great-Grandfather. Some names blurred for privacy.

There are many more matches on Ancestry who descend from this Bartholomew McDermott which I’ve identified in my research. But not every match has a tree posted so Thru Lines was only able to predict seven.

Predicted Relationship

For each of your matches, Ancestry will show you a list of every possible relationship (and the likelihood) based on the amount of shared DNA.

This is a terrific feature when dealing with unknown matches; particularly ones that are close matches.

You can use this feature to help narrow down the possible relationships between you and an unknown match.

To show you what this looks like, here’s an example of one of my known matches who is a 2nd cousin 1x removed.

Match info blurred for privacy

I highlighted in red the actual relationship.

In this case, this match and I share more DNA than the average 2C1R which is why Ancestry predicts we’re more likely to be 2nd cousins.

But you can see that based on the amount of shared DNA, the most distant possible relationship cannot exceed a half 2nd cousin 1x removed.

So the real value of this tool is for eliminating possible relationships so you can narrow your search.

Traits

The Traits report is a relatively new feature of AncestryDNA. You can either purchase this when you buy your kit or upgrade later.

It’s similar to the traits reports of 23andMe, so if you’ve already tested there, there’s probably no need to buy this report.

Here are some of the more popular Traits reports:

  • Birth weight
  • Facial hair thickness
  • Eye color
  • Freckles
  • Hair type/color/loss
  • Skin pigmentation
  • Cilantro aversion
  • Asparagus metabolite detection

Because these Traits reports aren’t super relevant to genealogy, I won’t go into any more detail in this article. I look at it as something that’s neat which I can talk about at family gatherings

What I don’t like about Ancestry

I really don’t want this article to be interpreted as a big fluff piece for Ancestry.

But really, there are very few things I do not like about Ancestry.

Every product has room for improvement, so here are the things I don’t like at the moment.

Lack of chromosome browser

The lack of a chromosome browser is something that really bugs me.

While the overwhelming majority of people who test with Ancestry would never use this feature, there are a lot of DNA geeks out there (like me) who would absolutely love this feature to do more advanced analyses. 

This is especially annoying considering that 23andMe, MyHeritage and FamilyTreeDNA all have chromosome browsers, and Ancestry has the largest database! 

The only workaround to this at the moment would be to transfer your Ancestry raw data to one of these sites. 

You can also transfer to a third-party site like GedMatch .

Of course, the matches you want to compare your chromosomes with would also have to transfer and/or already be in the same database.

Paid Subscriptions to view trees

While this isn’t really an issue for me because I have a paid account, I don’t really like the idea that you need a paid account to view someone else’s family tree.

I feel like if Ancestry allowed this feature on the free accounts, more people would be engaged about their family history and be more willing to communicate with matches.

Privacy Concerns

Privacy in the DNA market has been a hot topic ever since the ‘Golden State Killer’ was found using DNA. 

Here’s a quick video from Ancestry that talks about their stance on privacy.

FAQ

Can AncestryDNA reports be wrong?

While everything in life has some margin of error, I haven’t heard of too many cases where Ancestry is “wrong”.

Most people who ask this question are referring to their ethnicity estimates, which I already talked about above.

If you’re wondering if a DNA match on your list shouldn’t be there, yes this is possible (as it is with any DNA test).

But this really only happens for very distant matches where the shared DNA is under a certain number of centimorgans (usually seven).

This is referred to as a match being “Identical by State” (IBS) and happens when the small amount of shared DNA comes from a close-knit population rather than a common ancestor.

Ancestry’s algorithm tries to filter out these IBS matches, but some will slip through the cracks. This is a topic for more advanced discussion and not really a concern for most people. 

There is however one other thing to consider when talking about “incorrect” matches.

And that is infidelity or unknown adoptions at any level of your family tree.

This is something you need to understand and be ok with before taking any DNA test.

You may find out that your parent or grandparent is not actually your biological ancestor.

If this is something that concerns you but you still want ethnicity results, you can choose to opt-out of the matches feature.

Is there an ongoing fee or subscription?

No. You do not need any type of paid subscription to view your DNA reports. 

A free account will allow you to view all of your ethnicity and match reports. It will also allow you to create a family tree, and link it to your DNA kit.

You’ll also be able to contact your matches as well as see your shared matches (the matches you have with your matches).

A free account, however, will not allow you to view the family trees of your matches. It also will not allow you to use their research tools or attach any records to your tree.

If you think you might want to upgrade to a paid account, I recommend taking a test drive with a free trial which you can access by clicking here.

Can I buy as a gift for someone else?

Yes, you can buy a DNA kit for anyone. They will just need to create their own free account on Ancestry to view the results.

How far back does Ancestry go?

Ancestry can only go as far back as your DNA allows – typically 6-8 generations.

The reason for that is with each new generation, the DNA from your ancestors gets cut in half. And once it gets diluted below 1% or so, it’s pretty much washed out. 

Think of it like this:

If you get 50% of your DNA from each parent, that means 25% comes from each grandparent, 12.5% from each great-grandparent, 6.25% from each 2x great-grandparent, and so on (you get the idea).

Each generation gets divided by two.

So by the time you get to your 5x great-grandparent, you will likely have less than 1% of his/her DNA which can be undetectable in a DNA test.

This is not a limitation of Ancestry, it’s just the way DNA inheritance works.

How to print DNA results

Some folks like to have a printed copy of their ethnicity reports in addition to their online reports. After all, it’s a pretty neat thing to pass around the table on holidays and family gatherings. 

By default, Ancestry does not include hard-copy, printed reports. But you can print them yourself at home pretty easily. 

Just click the ‘print’ icon at the top of your ethnicity report, then follow the instructions on the screen.

How to print your ethnicity results

How Much Does AncestryDNA Cost?

The best place to buy an AncestryDNA kit is on their website. Click here to go directly to the DNA section.

I usually recommend people buy from the website as opposed to Amazon because it’s easier to get your account setup and link the DNA kit.

Plus the price on their website is almost always the same as Amazon.

Prices do tend to fluctuate throughout the year. Usually between $59 and $99 depending on if there’s a sale running. You can click here to check the latest price.

Conclusion

I hope this review of AncestryDNA was helpful and that you now have a better understanding of how it works, and what to expect when you order your testing kit. 

If you want to learn more about AncestryDNA, click this link to visit their website.

Updated September 24, 2019
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