The 5 Best DNA Tests

Which DNA Test is Best and How to Choose

You've seen all the television commercials and heard all your friends talking about their DNA testing results. But how do you know which DNA test is best for you?

There's definitely an information overload on the internet, so it's understandable if you're just not sure which test to take. This guide will break everything down for you, and help you choose the best test for your specific needs.

This guide will also touch on the various types of DNA tests (autosomal, YDNA, mtDNA) and explain the differences in an easy to digest format. 

Quick Summary

Our rating:

Regions
350+

Database Size
5,000,000

Best for...
Genealogy

The bottom line
AncestryDNA is by far the more popular consumer DNA test on the market today. If your interest in DNA testing is for genealogy and family history purposes, then you simply must test with AncestryDNA.

Our rating:

Regions
24

Database Size
850,000

Best for...
YDNA, mtDNA

The bottom line
FamilyTreeDNA is highly regarded in the professional genealogy community. If advanced DNA testing is what you're after (YDNA and mtDNA), then FamilyTreeDNA is the company for you.

Our rating:

Regions
150

Database Size
1,000,000

Best for...
Health

The bottom line
23andMe is the only company on the market today that offers consumer health testing. They also bundle basic YDNA and mtDNA results with tests for no extra charge. Because lots of customers use 23andMe for health testing, the genealogy community is not as great as the competition. 

Our rating:

Regions
42

Database Size
1,400,000

Best for...
Worldwide matches

The bottom line
MyHeritage is best known for it's large (and rapidly growing) database of international customers which is amazing to find cousins whose families never came to the U.S. DNA testing in regions like Europe is not nearly as popular as in the United States, and MyHeritage is making a big push to capture these markets.

Our rating:

Regions
80

Database Size
N/A

Best for...
British roots

The bottom line
LivingDNA is a relatively new player in the consumer DNA testing market. They are based in the U.K and specialize in British DNA (including Ireland). If you think you have any British or Irish ancestors in your tree, then LivingDNA is a must-have test for you.

Frequently Asked Questions

I decided to add this section at the top of the guide in order to tackle the questions I see most often. 

The most important thing to remember is there really isn't a 'best' DNA test, because everyone has different reasons for taking the test.

I wouldn't tell you that the best car is a Honda Accord if you needed room for six - then an SUV of some type would be more appropriate. Maybe not the best example, but you get my point. 

Here are some of the more common questions and scenarios I get asked about.

Why take a DNA test?

What's the best test for adoptees?

What's the best test for Native American ancestry?

What's the best test for health reports?

Choosing a Test

For the purposes of this guide, there are really only five companies to choose from whether your interest lies in genealogy or you just want to know your ethnic makeup. 

AncestryDNA

AncestryDNA is by far the more popular consumer DNA test on the market today. I personally rate it the best overall test for genealogy simply because of the amount of family matches you get.

The main benefit is the enormous customer database which translates to more matches. If your interest in DNA testing is for genealogy and family history purposes, then you simply must test with AncestryDNA. You'd be surprised how many brick walls you can break down with your match list.

Even if you're just testing for ethnicity results, AncestryDNA is among the more affordable tests on the market today. So you can't go wrong.

Pros

Cons

  • Largest customer database which means more matches
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    Strong genealogical community
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    Offers free trial to genealogical records
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    Free to create family tree
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    Can link your DNA results to your online family tree
  • No YDNA or mtDNA testing
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    No raw DNA upload feature
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    Cannot view match's family trees without paid subscription

Ethnicity Estimates

Matches

Here's what to expect for your matches list. I currently have 231 matches (4th cousins or closer). More are being added every day as more people get tested.

*Note that I blurred out the photos and blocked the names of my top matches for privacy reasons.

23andMe

Pros

Cons

  • Only company to offer health testing
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    70+ reports for genetic health risks, wellness, carrier status and traits
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    Bundles basic YDNA and mtDNA testing for free
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    Offers chromosome browser for advanced DNA analysis
  • Smaller customer database compared to competition
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    More people use private profiles which is not ideal for genealogy
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    Cannot upload raw DNA

Ethnicity Estimates

Currently, 23andMe compares your DNA to 151 reference populations around the world. I only look at results above the 1% threshold for genealogical purposes. Here are my results:

Matches

I currently have 962 matches (includes distant cousins). Roughly 30% of my matches opted not to share their ancestry composition results which makes things hard for genealogists. 

The lack of matches who have an interest in genealogy is far less than the competition. See 23andMe vs AncestryDNA.

*Note that I blurred out the photos and blocked the names of my top matches for privacy reasons.

FamilyTreeDNA

Pros

Cons

  • Offers separate tests for YDNA and mtDNA (only company who has this)
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    Incredibly passionate genealogy community
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    Free upload of raw DNA
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    Chromosome browser for advanced DNA analysis
  • Smaller customer database compared to competition
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    Website not as user-friendly compared to competition

Ethnicity Estimates

My FamilyTreeDNA results are much broader than the other tests. Whether that's a good thing or not I'm not sure. On the one hand, the broader the result the more accurate it tends to be. On the other, it doesn't really tell me a whole lot.

I recommend reading the descriptions they provide for each geographic region so you know exactly what included in say, 'West and Central Europe.'

Matches

FamilyTreeDNA shows me 1,307 matches. What I like about this table is that they have dedicated columns for shared centimorgans. Other sites have this information, but it's not as easy to find.

*Note that I blocked the names of my top matches for privacy reasons.

MyHeritage

Pros

Cons

  • Largest international customer database which means more global matches - especially in Europe
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    $5 raw DNA upload
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    Chromosome browser for advanced analysis
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    Cheek swab instead of saliva collection method which is easier for some
  • No YDNA or mtDNA testing
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    Fewer geographic regions compared to competition

Ethnicity Estimates

Matches

Here are my top two matches from MyHeritage. Like FTDNA, they also show shared centimorgan data which I really like. Many people tend to use MyHeritage's free family tree tool which can be very helpful for genealogy.

*Note that I blocked the names of my top matches for privacy reasons.

LivingDNA

Pros

Cons

  • The Cadillac of tests if you have British roots
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    High definition geographic regions for British Isles
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    YDNA and mtDNA test bundled into standard test
  • More expensive than competition
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    Currently no customer match database

Ethnicity Estimates

LivingDNA lets you choose your confidence level when viewing your estimates. There are three levels: complete, standard, cautious. This just adjusts the level of statistical confidence they have in the estimates. I tend to stick with 'Standard.'

Matches

LivingDNA does not currently offer a matches report. I would imagine this is something they're working on and will be available in the near future.

Types of tests

There are actually three main types of consumer DNA tests on the market today.

  • Autosomal
  • YDNA
  • Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA)

This section is not intended to confuse anyone or to get into the nitty-gritty of each test. I'll reserve that for specific posts for each type of test.

The most important thing to know here is that an autosomal test is what 95% of people want. It's the test that every company offers and the most useful for genealogy.

Dedicated YDNA and mtDNA tests are currently only offered by FamilyTreeDNA and are used for more advanced genealogical purposes (more on that later). 

Autosomal

An autosomal  test is by far the most common - it's the type of test that most people would think of when they think of DNA testing.

It's the test that reports on your ethnicity and the one that gives you the most helpful matches for your genealogical research.

Every company offers the autosomal test - in fact most companies only offer this test.

Put simply, it looks at your autosomes, which are your first 22 pairs of your chromosomes. It does not look at the 23rd chromosome which is the gender chromosome.

Because it only looks at your autosomes, the DNA being analyzed is from both your father and your mother - whether you're male or female (more on this point later).

Everyone should take an autosomal test. It's sort of the default, or baseline test you need to take whether you're getting into genealogy or just want an ethnicity report. 

I recommend using AncestryDNA primarily because they are the most popular and therefore have the largest customer database of potential matches.

YDNA

A YDNA test (as its name implies) looks only at the Y chromosome. And since only males have a Y chromosome, females unfortunately cannot take this test.

To recap grade school science class, the 23rd chromosome pair and is the gender chromosome. Males have both X and Y whereas females have two X's.

And since females do not have a Y chromosome, they cannot pass this down to their children. Because of this, males can only receive a Y chromosome from their father - not their mother.

So what does that mean for DNA testing?

It means that the results you get from a YDNA test only look at your father's direct paternal line (your father's father's father...etc).

So how is that helpful?

Unlike your autosomes, the Y chromosome changes very slowly over time which means that you can get matched with someone who you share a common ancestor with from say 500 years ago (autsomal tests really only go back 150-200 years maximum).

A good way to think about this is if you want to know if you're related to someone who shares your same surname.

So if I wanted to know, with certainty, if I'm related to the actor, Dylan McDermott. A YDNA test would tell me that (assuming I could get Dylan to take the test of course). 

YDNA tests also report on your paternal haplogroups. More on that here.

Put simply, a YDNA test can tell you the ancient origins of your direct paternal line, show you much older matches, and solve specific questions about if two people with the same last name are actually related.

I mentioned above that only males can take this test, so what if you're a female and want this information for your direct paternal line?

You simply must ask a male relative on your paternal line to take the test for you. This can be anyone on this line (your brother, father, grandfather, uncle, male cousin, etc). An easy way to think of it is any male in your family that has the surname you're looking to research (assuming they're not adopted). 

FamilyTreeDNA is the only company who offers dedicated YDNA tests to consumers. Click here to visit their website.

23andMe and LivingDNA bundle in a super basic YDNA test with their standard autosomal test. But they aren't particularly useful because they don't look at nearly the same amount of YDNA as the dedicated tests from FamilyTreeDNA. 

So if you a YDNA test is what you're after, FamilyTreeDNA is the only option.

mtDNA

An mtDNA is (somewhat) similar to a YDNA test in practice, but not at all in terms of science.

mtDNA tests look at your mitochondrial DNA, which both males and females have. But even though both males and females have mtDNA, only females can pass it down to their children.

That means that the mtDNA you have right now is only from your mother.

None of it comes from your father. That's why I say this test is similar (in practice) to a YDNA test.

While a YDNA test looks at your direct paternal line (your father's father's father), an mtDNA test looks at your direct maternal line (your mother's mother's mother).

YDNA can only be passed from father to son, but mtDNA is passed from the mother to both male and female children. That's why anyone is able to take this test.

In terms of practical use, mtDNA tests can be very valuable but not nearly as much as YDNA or autosomal tests. 

They're moreso used to answer specific questions in your genealogical research.

FamilyTreeDNA is the only company to offer dedicated mtDNA tests. Click here to learn more.

Conclusion

I hope this guide to DNA testing was helpful and you now have a clear picture of what test is best for you based on your goals.

If you're still unclear or want my advice, post in the comments below and I'd be happy to help.

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