Ancestry DNA’s enormous customer base makes it the best way of tracking long-lost relatives
- Interesting insights on your heritage
- Excellent, user-friendly family-tree building
- The largest membership by far
- No option to import results
- Only autosomal test
- Subscription charges for tree-building extras
Thanks to scientific advances, there are no shortage of companies keen to look at what your DNA can reveal about you. Few, however, have the heritage of Ancestry, which has taken the sensible step of attaching its DNA-testing business onto its 23-year-old genealogy website.
The upshot is that Ancestry DNA will not only give you insights into your family history and heritage, but it’ll also then let you build a family tree, and contact others on the system who may be able to help based on a genetic match. That’s the idea, anyway, so does it work?
Ancestry DNA review: What you need to know
Ancestry DNA is only briefly a product you hold in your own hands. Like its rivals, you open up the package, spit in a tube and then post it back to Ancestry’s labs where they analyse it over the course of a few weeks.
Once done, you’ll be sent an email and your results can be checked, giving you a broad view of what your DNA says about your heritage. It’ll also give tell you how many of the estimated 14 million Ancestry members who’ve taken the test are related to you and, crucially, how closely related.
From there, you can move into the bread and butter of Ancestry’s work: genealogy. You can build a family tree, and contact other members to collaborate. If you know the person helping you is indeed a blood relative, that’s quite a big deal. Some of the best features here are paywalled, but you’re under no obligation to subscribe if you just want the DNA test and simple tree building.
A quick nerdy word on technology here: Ancestry DNA is based on an autosomal test alone. You can read more on the science of this on our guide to the best DNA tests, but put briefly it’s the best way of identifying living relatives, although it does get fuzzier after four or five generations. Other tests use this alongside mtDNA and/or Y-DNA tests, which are best at tracking down a single common ancestor from up to 10,000 years ago.
Ancestry DNA only using autosomal DNA isn’t really a problem for what it’s trying to do, but others offer more if you choose to export them, which brings us to…
Ancestry DNA review: Price and competition
Ancestry DNA will set you back £79 plus postage. With that, you create a free Ancestry account, which lets you do basic family tree construction, but if you want the really useful stuff – census records, birth and marriage data and so on – you’ll need to pay a monthly subscription of between £11 and £20 per month, depending on which regions you want.
So what are the alternatives? For heritage-focused DNA tests, there are three main choices.
MyHeritage (£75) is a pretty similar offering to Ancestry, right down to its use of just autosomal tests. You can import your data from elsewhere here, though, so little incentive to make this your ‘main’ DNA test given its comparatively small database.
Then there’s LivingDNA (£99). This uses autosomal, Y-DNA and mtDNA testing for theoretically better results, especially if your family history is mostly confined within the British Isles. The wide range of tests makes this a good one to export from, though it has a smaller number of likely matches on the site itself.
Finally, there’s FamilyTreeDNA, which is unique in the fact it lets you pick exactly which tests you want (autosomal, Y-DNA, mtDNA, etc.), with prices ranging from $79 to $649. As the price list suggests, it’s a serious choice for genealogists with an impressive toolset and well-informed community.
There’s one alternative missing from this list: 23andMe. I’ve left it last not because it’s bad (it’s actually really good, featuring autosomal, Y-DNA and mtDNA tests), but because it offers medical tests alongside the standard heritage-related information. The ancestry-only package is £75, while the ancestry plus health bundle is £150.
For more information on all of these, check out our list of the best DNA tests.
Ancestry DNA review: The results
In my experience of postal DNA-test kits, they tend to come in two forms: saliva, or cheek swab. This is saliva-based, meaning you get a vial to gradually fill with spit – something made more difficult than it sounds by the requirement that you don’t eat or drink for at least 30 minutes before providing the sample.
Ancestry promises results in six to eight weeks, and mine were in suitably quickly. Posted on 11 August, received on 17 August and live on the site on 26 August: speedy!
Compared to some DNA tests, the actual results, however, can seem a touch disappointing at first. Especially if you don’t have an interesting backstory, like me. Ancestry DNA just presents you with a map giving you an ethnicity estimate giving you percentages based on the DNA – in my case, 80% England, Wales and Northwestern Europe, 15% Ireland and Scotland and 5% Germanic Europe.
Clicking on each one gives you a potted history of the region, but it’s here that you begin to see the use if you’re into your genealogy as well as your genetics. As you scroll through the interactive timeline, family members you add to your family tree begin to appear in the areas they’re born in, as well as other DNA matches the system has found in its 14 million-strong database. True, in my case they were all fourth cousins, but if your family is here, you can see that would prove an exciting way of reading about a region.
That’s the real strength of Ancestry DNA ahead of its rivals though: it has the most DNA-donating members by far. As of May, the company has 15 million samples – yes, that’s a fraction of the world as a whole, but it’s still streets ahead of its rivals. Its nearest competitor, 23andMe, has “more than ten million”.
What does this mean in practice? Well, it’s anecdotal, but for me 23andMe found 1,135 DNA matches, while Ancestry has 37,846. Most of these are distant fourth cousin or weaker level, but Ancestry did instantly spot my mother and label her correctly when she signed up at Christmas.
The discrepancy in numbers could be down to all kinds of factors other than database size – a bias for European customers in Ancestry, or less fussy criteria for matches to name just two possibilities – but the fact remains that if tracking down relatives is your thing, then it seems Ancestry is the choice for you.
That said, given neither let you import DNA, there’s also the quality of the data to consider, if you plan to branch out to other sites. Given 23andMe includes MtDNA and Y-DNA in its tests, it’s probably the stronger ‘base’ DNA test to do if you want to make your spit go as far as possible. Figuratively speaking.
Ancestry DNA review: Family tree building
I mentioned that the size of Ancestry DNA was its real strength, but that’s actually not the only plus it has. The other is its excellent, flexible and well-supported family-tree-building side of things. It’s dead easy to set up, letting you build a tree, one person at a time with just their name, date of birth, birthplace and (if applicable) death place.
As you do this, the system will be beavering away in the background, digging for more information. If it spots a match in its database, it’ll come up with a little green leaf icon labelled ‘hints’, showing you documents its unearthed – census records, marriage indexes and so on. The trouble is that this juicy extra colour is paywalled – and it’s a pretty expensive paywall to clear. If you’re just interested in the UK, then it’s £11/mth. If you want to add Ireland, it jumps to £14, and if you want all the data worldwide then it’s £20. There’s a free trial available, but it still leaves a slightly bitter taste after you’ve forked over £79 for the DNA test.
That said, it’s still an impressive package, and you’re able to share your tree with anyone else on the site – and the DNA test will help you find likely candidates. Though it’s worth remembering that it’s only a small fraction of the total membership that will have paid extra for the test: most are just here for the tree building.
Ancestry DNA review: Verdict
On paper, Ancestry DNA simply isn’t as impressive as its main rival: 23andMe. It only provides an autosomal DNA test and it sticks purely to heritage, without looking at medical screening (for better or worse).
Despite this, in practice Ancestry DNA is quite a compelling package if you’re a keen genealogist. Not only are its family-tree-building tools second to none, but the size of its DNA database means tracking down family members to help is more likely than with its rivals.
For me, this makes it great for those focused on family trees or tracking lost relatives. If you want the most data, then it makes sense to plump for 23andMe or LivingDNA, and then export the data to the other sides to try and widen the net a little. For those without the time or inclination for all that, however, Ancestry is the perfect answer.