LESSON 02: Which DNA Test

(Last Updated 4-2017)

The recommendations in this lesson are somewhat general so specific situations may modify them. People turn to DNA testing for different reasons and unfortunately learn too soon that their expectations are generally greater than DNA's testing ability to deliver just what they wanted. So first of all, if you haven't tested yet I would suggest lowering your expectations a few notches. Direct to consumer genetic testing for genealogical purposes is still relatively new and has made tremendous strides in the past few years but it still is not able to deliver exactly what people want. I will explain the terminology and methodology in future lessons but when you are starting out you want to know what test to take and perhaps where to take them, so consider this a brief overview.

DNA Testing Realities

  • Y-DNA can predict a man's likely surname, but not necessarily who his father is

  • atDNA can lead to recent relatives but for some they remain elusive with few close matches especially those with recent migrations

  • The predictions for relationship are ranges, and may vary (this is not a problem with the companies algorithms it is just a statistical reality)

  • The ancestral origins portions of DNA testing is approximate and may yield broad categories as in "Africa" or "Northern European" but not specify tribe or countries

  • DNA testing for genealogy can be expensive and time-consuming

  • DNA testing can be very rewarding-- as in verifying your paper tree reflects your DNA

  • For adoptees, learning more about your ancestry or discovering relatives which "might" lead to closer family cannot be underestimated

  • DNA testing may reveal unknown ancestry or ancestors, including inaccuracies in the paper records


Anyone considering a DNA test should be prepared for an unexpected result. DNA simply reports what is there and doesn't care what we think or want. Perhaps you have a well documented lineage and are positive you will connect with "Patriarch X." Or perhaps you are certain of your native American ancestry and your testing reveals none or perhaps something you did not expect. You may be shocked to discover you aren't who you thought you were. You may find that your Y-DNA does not match that of any others bearing your surname. A "Non-Paternal Event" (NPE) may have caused a shift in your tree or as my friend Jean calls it something in your tree just went "sideways." Another term not as commonly used is "misattributed paternity." Whatever term we use it means the same thing. Somewhere along the line the person that was supposed to be the parent was not and someone else's DNA is reflected in all of the line's descendants. DNA can be full of surprises! Just be forewarned if you aren't ready for the truth, do NOT take a DNA test! Please see "Dealing With the Unexpected Result" for more information on possible causes of an NPE.

Up front I have no financial association with any of the companies and not all genetic genealogists will agree on these recommendations. I have personally tested at all three major companies and had tests by Full Genomes Corporation, YSEQ.org and DNATribes. I believe they all have their place in the genealogist's toolbox. Choice and competition is good for the consumer. Where you test is a matter of preference, purpose and money. Some Genetic genealogists have a favorite company, I however, am an equal opportunity tester: I use all suppliers if they give me something I want and at a price I can afford.


All companies supply the tester with an email acknowledgement of kit purchase, receipt of returned kit and notification of test completion. It may come as a surprise to some that you do not receive paper results. They are all delivered online. It is therefore important to take note of kit numbers, log in names and passwords. Particularly if the person testing is elderly, and many may wish to share this information with a family member. At Family Tree DNA there is a place to register beneficiary information. Since they keep samples at least 25 years I highly recommend filling out this part of your profile.

Y-DNA STR Marker Test

The easiest test to evaluate and the most successful in making genealogical connections is the Y-STR marker test. This test is only for males. Update 2018: atDNA can be just as successful but it took enough testers to make this possible.  Females can test a father, brother or paternal male first cousin (bearing the surname of your father). This test is available at Family Tree DNA (FTDNA) and at YSeq.net. ANCESTRY has discontinued their mtDNA and Y-DNA tests and has shifted emphasis to their atDNA test. FTDNA is the world's leader in Y-DNA testing and has a huge number of surname projects. YSEQ is run by former FTDNA staff Astrid and Thomas Krahn, the advantage with YSEQ is cost and turnaround time. The advantage with FTDNA is the large database for comparisons, more user friendly interface and the projects.

Y-DNA tests connect men with their father's father's father's line or male surname line, also referred to as the patrilineal line (i.e. JONES, SMITH etc). At a more advanced Level there are several more options for YDNA testing which will be discussed in Lesson 14 and lesson 15. If your interest is in proving your relationship to a surname or discovering your father's surname, or if you are adopted (and are male) this might be your first choice for a DNA test. 

The Y-DNA tests are available in different marker quantities from 12 to 111-markers at FTDNA and current costs from $59-359. (12 marker tests are only available through FTDNA Projects and they are best used for screening someone out than screening them in. That is to prove someone is related or not related. We will get into what markers are and how they work in a future lesson. For most people a 37-marker test is the best place to start YSEQ 37 Marker test (Alpha & Beta) is currently $85. If funds are limited you can begin with a 12-marker test @ FTDNA for ($59) or 18 markers at YESQ (Alpha) for $58 and add more markers later. At the other end of the spectrum the 111-marker test is generally not recommended except for those participating in a surname project where more markers may prove helpful in defining branches of a given progenitor's descendant tree. An alternative to individual Y Testing is to use Next Generation Sequencing and have the complete Y done.  (See Lesson 15) for more information. These complete or nearly complete Y tests can include YSTRS YSNPS and mtDNA (Full Genomes Corp Elite Y).

Y-DNA SNP Test otherwise known as a Y Haplotype Test which leads to a Haplogroup designation

These tests are becoming relevant for recent genealogy as well as deep ancestry of one's paternal line. In general they used to look back thousands rather than hundreds of years. This is changing with the advent of deeper and broader Y testing (see Lesson 15). From the earliest human to everyone living today, each haplogroup traces from the smallest twigs of the human family back to the branches and then to the trunk and human origins. 

STATIC SNP PANEL TESTS (Those offering chips that test for already known specific SNPS)

This test is unavailable at Ancestry. It is included at 23andMe in its basic form with their atDNA test for $99 (the only test they offer). The National Geographic's Genographic Project Geno 2.0 test is now highly discounted to $69 (Aug 2018) and it relies heavily on Y-SNP tests for its deep ancestry information. FTDNA makes a predicted haplogroup assignment for those who test Y-STR markers, however further refinement is through individual SNP tests or the Genographic Project test which FTDNA administers. 

As of 2018 Both FTDNA and YSEQ.org offer SNP panels. They can be very broad as in helping to determine your placement with a Haplogroup is R1-M343 Backbone Test at FTDNA or as specific as the FGC 22503 panel at YSEQ.org These tests can very in price from about $65-$250.

NEXT GENERATION SEQUENCING (Looks to discover all available SNPS, including new discoveries on a dynamic platform)

The best available is the complete sequence from Full Genomes Corporation FGC ($645) called Elite Y It maps all SNPS and STRS available 99+%, as well as a man's mtDNA through current Next Generation Sequencing. And its big brother test the Y Long Read ($2900). Family Tree DNA (FTDNA) offers the Big Y ($569) which maps between 40-60% of the Y Chromosome. A side by side comparison is made in Debbie Kennett's blog post here. Please see Lesson 15 for more discussion. 

Autosomal or atDNA Test

Known by various names at the different companies these are the second most popular DNA tests for genealogical purposes: "Family Finder" at FTDNA and simply the "Ancestry DNA" test at ANCESTRY and the only test available at 23andMe.com. Autosomal DNA is inherited from our ancestors across the whole breadth of one's family tree. Going back to our illustration in Lesson One this would mean all of the great-grandparents along the top would be included in our atDNA test and reaching three to six generations beyond our great-grandparents. The further we go back the less likely any specific ancestor will be represented in our atDNA.

If you are looking to confirm various parts of your family tree or have a brick wall that you are looking to break through atDNA "may" be your answer. It is also the only avenue available to many adoptees. Male adoptees can use a Y-DNA test to help identify the surname of their biological fathers but female adoptees will need to use atDNA tests and hope they make a connection somewhere on their male line that may lead forward to their fathers. All adoptees can use an atDNA test for finding ancestors and if you are lucky close relatives. There are two scenarios in which atDNA can prove extremely valuable for finding or verifying family. One is if you are lucky enough to get a high level match, like a parent, brother, sister, uncle, aunt, half sibling or first or second cousin. The other is if you have a very extensive family tree and can make a connection via common ancestors and shared DNA.

Approximate odds that atDNA will be retained


# of Great grandparents

# of  Great grandparents whose DNA you retain

% of Great grandparents represented in your DNA





















NOTE: this chart is handy for your "Cheat Sheet File"                                    

Which atDNA test is best is a difficult question it depends on your goals, your comfort with technology and how many hours you are willing to put into it. Each company has its strengths and weaknesses (More detailed Negatives and Positives at bottom of page) I currently recommend testing at Ancestry and transferring to FTDNA:


Best for: Americans, especially those with colonial ancestry, those who are not tech savvy, those that do not want to send invitations or keep spreadsheets of matches, those who already subscribe to ANCESTRY, those who know their grandparents and those with expansive trees. Also good for African Americans looking for hints of their nativity in Africa and who want to work in concert with ANCESTRY slave related research materials. Ancestry is heavily weighted toward traditional genealogists. It has proven very helpful to many Adoptees and those with brick walls "if" you get a close match. The current regular price is $99 with sales of $79-89.

Pros: Simple interface, best family trees, good ethnicity predictions (the industry's best for those with African ancestry), genealogically minded participants, phased results (more on this in future lessons but this allows a higher degree of accuracy in matching), good response rate from genetic matches and perhaps the best chance of making genealogical connections. Excellent for those with Colonial Ancestry. In 2016 29 countries were added to its sales territory and this should eventually improve results for those outside of the US, Canada, UK and NZ. DNA Circles although still in beta is proving to be helpful. The DNA in common with tool is quite helpful even for those with no trees. New addition March 2017 is DNA communities.

Cons: No information on matching segments, lacks advanced tools and chromosome mapping, subscription necessary for genealogical information. $49 subscription to DNA INSIGHTs for full use of tools if not currently an ANCESTRY subscriber you must call for this subscription. Difficult for those with endogamous ancestry or high degrees of pedigree collapse. The new BETA "New Ancestry Discoveries" (NAD's) have proved highly unreliable although occasionally helpful.

Family Tree DNA (FTDNA)

Best for: Those who are somewhat tech savvy, those who want to track segments and don't mind keeping spreadsheets. Those that like solving complex puzzles. If there is a surname or locale specific project at FTDNA for which you qualify it may be particularly helpful. Very good for those that want to do all their DNA testing under one roof. Excellent for those wishing to combine Y or mtDNA with their atDNA research. Falls in between ANCESTRY and 23and me in its focus on Genealogy. Has the advantage over 23andme in that all tools can be used with all those that you match without cumbersome invites and acceptances. Email addresses of matches are visible. Current Regular Price is $79. Sales price of $69 earlier this year.

Pros: Genealogically minded customers, chromosome browser, advanced tools including matches in common with and not in common with and the Matrix where up to 10 matches can be compared simultaneously to see who matches who, the ability to combine with other DNA tests, join projects, clunky but usable trees, ancestral origins were updated in 2014 but lag behind ANCESTRY  & 23andme, banks samples for at least 25 years (which is very important with older adults whose DNA you may want in the future), least expensive for overseas shipping and uses a swab kit which is easier for those with limited saliva production. They also include assigned beneficiaries so your DNA research can be continued. Excellent for those with Jewish ancestry.

Cons: Smaller database and mtDNA and Y-DNA haplogroups not included must be ordered and paid for separately but more extensive than that offered by the other companies. The accuracy of their ancestral breakdown is not as robust as the others and mixed reviews on the April 2017 revision. May not  be the best choice for African Americans with majority African background.


Best for: For those wanting the fullest compliment of tools for doing family atDNA studies. Very good ethnictcy/ancestral origins. It tests lots of medically relevant SNPS so can be good for uploading to Promethease.For more than a year i have not been recommending 23. I will now put them back in my list with caveats.

Pros: Second largest database. Lots of tools. Very good ethnicity/ancestral origins.

Cons: Not very genealogically minded. Poor track record with genealogy community and listening to customers. Mediocre match response.

Roberta Estes Blog Post on The New Experience

National Genographic 2.0

This test is for deep ancestry only and not for recent genealogical purposes except as it relates to the use of haplogroups or inference of geographical ancestry. It uses atDNA but in a different way than the other tests. It includes your mtDNA and if you are male your Y-DNA. (It replaces a Y-DNA deep clade test which was the previous way to test Y-DNA haplogroups at FTDNA). This test will likely be superseded by a new GENO test in 2015-16. I personally feel this is, in most cases, a poor value even on sale until the new test is known. It is an especially poor value for women. 

There are two NEW entrants into the atDNA market Both have the potential to make useful contributions to the genetic genealogists toolbox. I have not tested with either and I will post reviews as they become available.I plan on uploading to Living DNA when that becomes available.

            Living DNA 

            Currently the Living DNA test does not include matching but that is supposed to arrive sometime in 2018. It offers the finest granularity on locations withing England of any test due to its use of the People of the Birtish Isles                    dataset. In the feature it is hoped that the Irish DNA will be included with granularity.

            My Heritage DNA

    Two things highly recommend the My Hertiage DNA test. One is it is FREE to upload from other place syou may have taken the test and second it has a large percentage of European testers that often are not rpresented                 elsewhere.


 2018 Lab Processing times  The DNA Geek

2016 Updated Louise Coakely Testing Comparisons including pricing and information outside the US.

2015 Updated Legal Genealogists Recommendation for atDNA Testing by Judy Russell

2014 : Most Bang for the DNA Bucks by Judy Russell the Legal Genealogist gives her recommendations.

Currently I recommend for Genealogical purposes (Aug 2018): For males interested in their surname lines take a 37 marker test at Family Tree DNA. If you are female ask your father, paternal uncle or paternal cousin to test for you. Make sure you join the appropriate Surname project to take advantage of discount pricing. If you are adopted there is an adoption project. If you would rather get your Y and mtDNA all done at once consider a Y Elite ($645)  from Full Genomes Corp.

For atDNA test at ANCESTRY.com ($99, occasionally on sale as low as $49) and then upload your ANCESTRY results to FTDNA for $19 and Free upload at My Heritage So for $100 on sale plus postage you can fish in two ponds. If you want to spend a little more and have access to medical information add 23andMe. If you have significant British Isles ancestry you may find LivingDNA's  geographic specificity helpful plus for men htey include your Broad Y Haplogroup and for both men and women include your broad mtDNA Haplogroup.

Mitochondrial DNA mtDNA Test which includes your mtDNA Haplogroup

This test is no longer available from ANCESTRY and is included in the test from 23andme in its rudimentary form. However if you are seriously interested in pursuing your mtDNA I would recommend the Full Sequence from FTDNA for $199 (Sometimes on sale for $149) This test is the least likely of the three to be genealogically useful and is not generally recommended for beginners. Since this DNA survives pretty much intact there will be many sharing the same mtDNA and finding a match will have many challenges as women's surnames change at each generation. It is mostly recommended as a deep ancestry test for those wishing to know more about their matrilineal origins. With Full Sequence mtDNA and more people testing this test may become more and more useful genealogically. I would be remiss if I did not mention that mtDNA full sequence tests can uncover medically relevant mutations. Please see mtDNA resources in Lesson 11 for more information.

Deep Y SNP testing 

Please see Lesson 15 for more information. 

How long does it take to get results?

That depends on the lab and test but in general 6-8 weeks although ANCESTRY has consistently had a 2-3 week turn around once received. If retesting Y STRs panels is necessary (for Y-DNA only) because of ambiguous results it may take longer. All results do not come in at once for Y tests so it may take 8 weeks overall. Once your kit is received and logged in (and this seems to take unusually long at some times at some labs) you might get a result in 3-6 weeks and full results (for Y-DNA) in 6-12 weeks in usual situations. Almost everyone gets Y-DNA in batches rather than all at once. Autosomal are generally completed all at once (or within a couple of days for all services to be on-line once the first results are posted.) For advanced tests like Full Genomes Sequencing 3-6 months is not unusual.

Does everyone in my family need to be tested? 


No. Assuming that you are reasonably sure of your father, grandfather etc. One member of your family is all that is necessary. The most useful results at this point will be from many different individuals. We see a slightly different genetic signature when comparing descendants from different sons of a common progenitor. However it is possible to see differences occasionally between brothers or father and son so if you chose to test more than one don't be surprised if they are not a perfect match.

For Autosomal

Since each person inherits different segments from their parents each person's DNA will be different and the overlapping segments of different family members are extremely useful. So the more the merrier. If you are trying to stretch your money always go with earlier generations to be tested: Parents, grandparents or aunts and uncles. The reasoning is two-fold; first, the oldest members of your family may not be here in a few years and second, their DNA will retain more of the previous generation's which may be lost by the time it gets to you.


This list was supplemented with comments from a group of 23andme users the majority of whom have experience with all 3 companies.


ANCESTRY Negatives
1) You need to subscribe in order to take full advantage of what ANCESTRY offers. Currently (2016) there is a $49 year subscription option (DNA Insights) for DNA testers but you must call to get it.
2) The inability to compare segments without getting matches to upload somewhere else.
3) There are many Private or unattached trees
4) There are lots of erroneous trees (lots of excellent ones too)
5) Because matching segments are not shown the shared DNA may not be from the ancestor shown in the Matching Tree Hint, but rather another shared ancestor.
6) No place to confirm relationships (I place them in the notes field and they do show as Shared Ancestry Hints)
7) No chromosome browser for shared segments or Ancestry
8) The New Ancestry Discoveries (NAD) is misleading. These can be non DNA relationships like a second wife. 
9) TIMBER which is an algorithm to eliminate false matches can sometimes eliminate good ones too.

ANCESTRY Positives

1) Easy for NEWBIES to use and grasp
2) Results are phased or pseudo phased which generally increases accuracy (only one side of the strand is matched to the same side of another persons strand) Neither of the other companies do this for matches
3) You can contact any match through the message system (Most respond) Messages are archived in your match
4) Comparison of trees is seamless and easy and many are extensive. 
5) It is easy to find records and build out your tree. (Including siblings, spouses and children will greatly enhance your success) 
6) You can search by surname or location and you can include alternative spellings
7) The database is growing and will likely exceed the size of 23andme if it hasn't already (in this game size matters)
8) When you get Matching Ancestor HINTS they are awesome. They now include multiples. There is no guarantee that the segment shared is where the matching Tree suggests--- but its a darned good place to start and takes 1 minute as compared to hundreds of hours in keeping spreadsheets. 
9) Their Ethnicity Estimates are arguably the best in the business. They have leveraged their Sorenson's data and are constantly improving these.
10) Whether it be their algorithms or their work to eliminate false positives particularly in endogamous populations ANCESTRY's approach is dynamic and poised for the future.
11) More SNPs tested than on 23andme current V4 chip (they older V3 chip had more SNPS) and they are transferable to FTDNA
12) New feature allows you to share your kit results with others so they can see all your matches, ethnicity estimate etc. And you may do the same.
13) Typically the fastest turn around times of the three, typically averaging 2-3 weeks from receipt.
14) The Circles feature although in Beta holds promise for adoptees and others with missing links.
15) 9/2015 Ancestry added an in common with tool for high level matches that has proven quite helpful.
          16) As of August 2018 about TEN MILLION test kits to compare against yours.


FTDNA Negatives
1) A smaller pool of results. Under 700,000 Family Finder Kits (currently over 1 million at 23 and 2 million at Ancestry)
2) Improved but still clunky Trees which are an improvement but still no where near as user friendly as ANCESTRY
3) The least robust or specific Ancestral Breakdown of the three companies which is constrained not by its methodology but by the numbers in its datasets
4) No side by side tree comparison feature
5) Does not paint the ancestry by chromosome (only 23andme does this currently)
6) Cannot view the ancestral breakdown of others with whom you share.
7) If you only match on the X you are not considered a match at all regardless of the size of the X match
8) Continues to experience some IT challenges

FTDNA Positives
1) Chromosome Browser (which can be set to include HIRs as low as  1 cM which is sometimes helpful)
2) In Common With (ICW) and Not in Common WITH (NICW) screening of match lists
3) Confirmation of relationship
4) Emails are included so no clunky messaging system
5) Most are genealogically minded
6) Matrix function to compare who matches who in your match lists
7) Advanced sharing features leveraging YDNA and mtDNA
8) The ability to host Family Projects and join Surname and Location specific projects which may enhance matching success if your group has lots of Famliy Finder Results
9) Genealogically minded clientele 
10) Uses swab kits which mail cheaper and are easier for those with low saliva production
11) Banks samples which can be used for multiple tests and may be viable 25 years from now
12) Ships overseas
13) Matches Y and mtDNA can be seen in MyOrigins
14) They listen! The threshold criteria have improved!

More Resources

         Sample Collection by Company by Sue Griffin "the Genealogy Junkie"

         How Much do DNA tests Cost? by Sue Griffin "the Genealogy Junkie" excellent cost information

         How much of your geneome do you inherit form a particular ancestor? The coop lab

ISOGG List of DNA Testing companies see the comparison charts.

Genetic Genealogy  University of Utah short video. Highly recommend! There's lots more of these too.

FTDNA's FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)--great resource, lots of good material for your "Cheat Cheat File"

2015 Automal DNA test Which Test is Best? by Roberta Estes

2015 Updated Legal Genealogists Recommendation for atDNA Testing by Judy Russell

Legal Genealogist's Recommendation for atDNA testing

LESSON 3: Exploring the Y Part 1

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