If you’re considering getting a DNA test, you’re in the right place!
Maybe you take an interest in family history and want something to complement or confirm all the historical records you’ve read.
Maybe you’re trying to track down relatives: second and third cousins, a missing biological parent, or a suspected half-sibling.
Maybe you’re concerned about your genetic health risks and you only have shaky knowledge of your family’s medical history.
Or maybe you’re just curious! Where do your ancestors come from? Are Grandpa Joe’s stories about your family lore true or completely made up?
Whatever your reasons, it’s important to do some research before choosing a test.
Several kinds of DNA testing are available. They test for different things, and which test you select depends on your particular interests.
Read on to learn the basics of taking a DNA test. This guide covers:
Types of DNA: Autosomal, mtDNA, and Y-DNA all have something to teach us—we have a basic primer on these three kinds of DNA.
Getting started with genealogy: Why you should consider supplementing your DNA test with some good old-fashioned research into the origins of your family.
Choosing the right DNA test: Autosomal, mtDNA, or Y-DNA: which test best suits your needs? What information can you expect to learn?
Getting a test done: Practical information on how the tests work, how much they tend to cost, and how you should you pick a company.
Types of DNA
First up, what exactly is DNA? Well, DNA stands for deoxyribonucleic acid. Don’t worry, you really don’t need to concern yourself with the science there (unless you want to).
It’s simply important to remember that not all DNA tests are created equal. Different types of tests are useful for different things.
There are three types of DNA used for testing your ancestry. These are Autosomal DNA, mtDNA, and Y-DNA. Each of these types of DNA involve different types of testing and the results tell you very different things.
So let’s go over what makes these types of DNA different from each other and review the types of testing available to you.
Autosomal DNA, to make the whole concept simple, is the DNA that you inherit from your entire family tree.
There is no gender-based distinction here: imagine autosomal DNA as a pool you draw on equally from your whole family tree. You get half your autosomal DNA from each parent, and therefore you get a quarter from each grandparent.
What this means is that your autosomal DNA becomes harder and harder to trace as you travel back in time though older generations.
At best, an autosomal DNA test can reach back about four or five generations. After that point, tracing your lineage becomes really tough with this method.
Okay, so why bother with an autosomal DNA test? Well, this type of test is very good at telling you how closely you’re related to someone you suspect to be a cousin.
This works especially well if you are not able to actually trace your line to your grandparents, which is quite common in families that entered the United States relatively recently.
An autosomal DNA test is also pretty good at estimating your ethnicity, at least back a few hundred years.
However, be aware that countries’ geographic borders change over time. For example, if your family was from northeast Italy, it’s impossible to tell if they were on the Austrian or Italian side of the border, especially since European borders changed radically with both world wars.
As a general rule, any company that offers DNA testing likely offers an autosomal DNA test, as this is the most common type.
For most people, an autosomal DNA test is more than enough to identify relationships with cousins and determine ethnicity. However, this type of test falls flat when it comes to long-term history.
Next up, we have mtDNA, or mitochondrial DNA, which is perhaps the most fascinating form of DNA.
Each one of your cells contains DNA in different areas, and mtDNA is stored in mitochondria.
As you may remember from high school biology class, the mitochondria act as power plants for your cells. But I said mtDNA was an especially fascinating type of DNA. Why is that?
The general scientific consensus now is that mitochondria used to be their own cells, but integrated into larger cells for protection, hence they have their own independent DNA.
Also, mtDNA is strictly maternal, meaning that it is only passed on through the female line.
And here is where mtDNA gets really unique.
Unlike autosomal DNA, mtDNA isn’t like a pool that dilutes with each generation. Scientists have used mtDNA to trace our species into the prehistoric past, and even beyond our species with research into early hominids. This kind of DNA doesn’t change fast at all, since it doesn’t get mixed up with every generation.
So why is this useful?
You can use your mtDNA to trace your maternal ancestral line through history, sometimes very deep into history.
MtDNA can place you in your haplogroup, which is essentially a group of people with one common ancestor.
You can sometimes use this haplogroup to identify even distant ancestors, provided that your link to them is maternal.
Because of how stable mtDNA is through time, your mtDNA will match your siblings…and also your great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandma.
If you think that you may be interested in mtDNA testing, I’d highly recommend the book Seven Daughters of Eve, by Bryan Sykes.
I read this book all the way back in high school, and it details the history of our species through interesting case studies from around the world. Sykes posits theories regarding how humans first came to specific areas, most notably entering the fray on how humans arrived in Polynesia and Peru.
What makes this book truly special is the fact that it explains mtDNA in very digestible terms and even goes to show the reader how it can be useful.
The simple fact that mtDNA goes back to before civilization itself is telling, all the more so by how we can now reconstruct ancient maternal lines.
The book title comes from Sykes’ assertion that at some point, there is a mitochondrial ‘Eve,’ or an original source from which all maternal lines spring.
While the details of these arguments remain debated, the book is a fascinating and accessible read for anyone with an interest in DNA ancestry, especially with mtDNA.
Companies that test your mtDNA are less common than companies that test autosomal DNA, but I’ll be going over testing options a bit later once we’ve reviewed all DNA types.
Finally, there is Y-DNA, which is fairly similar to mtDNA, but carried through the paternal line. As the name would suggest, Y-DNA testing deals with the Y chromosome.
A little background is helpful here: What determines biological sex is whether an individual has two X chromosomes, and becomes a female, or one X and one Y chromosome, and becomes a male. Because females do not have a Y chromosome, only a male can have their lineage traced in this manner.
Again, very much like mtDNA, Y-DNA evolves very slowly because unlike autosomal DNA, Y-DNA is not mixed and matched with each generation.
This makes Y-DNA very stable through time, though in terms of extreme longevity, mtDNA has an edge, as it is stored outside the nucleus of the cell.
There are two types of Y-DNA testing that you can look into. First, there is Short Tandem Repeat (STR) testing, which looks for repeating patterns within your Y chromosome.
STR testing is great for finding out if you are indeed related to someone, though of course this only works through the male line. STR testing does not reveal your haplotype. It is only useful for determining specific relationships to another person.
Next, there is Single Nucleotide Polomorphism (STP) testing. This actually works a lot like autosomal DNA testing, but it only examines your Y-DNA, which means many fewer nucleotides are involved. STP testing does find your haplotype.
When talking about Y-DNA testing, it’s useful to mention what is possibly its most famous use…
Specifically, there is a common historical claim that Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, had a child (possibly multiple children) with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings.
Y-DNA testing has confirmed that there are currently living people who descended from slaves held in the US and who also have the Jefferson Y chromosome.
However, it is impossible to prove with 100% certainty that Thomas Jefferson himself was the father, as that Y chromosome could have come from any of the males in his familial line.
That is, of course, also a limit on mtDNA testing, as the test cannot be used to confirm an individual ancestor, but rather a lineage in general.
Getting started with Genealogy
And that’s it, we’ve reviewed the three types of DNA used for genealogical testing.
Before I dive into the weeds on these tests and their merits, I need to say one really important thing: don’t expect to learn everything about who you are or where you came from through a DNA test.
These tests have their purposes, but they’re also limited. At best, DNA tests will confirm (or deny) familial links through time.
But is that really why you’re doing this? For many people who grow interested in genealogy, there’s a bigger picture, an attempt to reassemble the fractured pieces of your family tree into a narrative.
Legendary author Terry Pratchett once noted that our species should not be called Homo sapiens (“wise man”), but rather Pans narrans, which translates from Latin as ‘storytelling chimpanzee.”
Wait, what exactly does that have to do with genealogy?
People spend their lives weaving webs of narratives around their universes, linking things together, forming stories along the way. These stories are one of the key aspects of our species itself.
So before you dive into DNA testing, do all the research you can into family records, or even public archives, to discover the details about the people you are looking into here.
If all you learn is that you share a blood relation with someone, what does that actually tell you? Well, unless you’re hoping to get rich off some lost inheritance (good luck), just confirming blood ties says somewhere between little and nothing.
If you conduct DNA testing without breathing life into some form of family narrative, then you’re unlikely to accomplish something satisfying. So if you’re deeply interested in your family history, make sure to do some historical legwork in addition to undertaking DNA testing.
Conducting thorough genealogical research is simply too large of a topic to cover in full here. There are countless resources out there to help you track down long-lost ancestors and bring their stories to life, including my Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Genealogy.
If your interest in DNA testing comes from curiosity about your family history, I strongly recommend developing some skills as a historian in addition to undertaking a DNA test.
Choosing the right DNA test
Now that you’ve got some background on DNA and genealogy, let’s turn to the DNA tests themselves.
I’ll go over the varyious merits of the available DNA tests so that you can decide which one is right for you.
The first question you need to answer is: Should I take an autosomal DNA, mtDNA, or Y-DNA test? Or all three?
Autosomal DNA testing
For most people, autosomal DNA testing is the way to go. It’s easy to have done since plenty of companies offer autosomal DNA testing.
Both men and women can take the test since it involves the 22 pairs of chromosomes that do not make up biological sex (unlike, say, Y-DNA tests, which require a Y chromosome).
Also, autosomal DNA is very good at showing ethnicity and geographic points of origin for a person, up to about five generations back, after which the details can get a bit fuzzy.
So why is autosomal DNA testing the default choice?
Because when linked with others forms of family research, autosomal DNA tests can link your family tree together and determine relationships with other living people.
Finding living relatives is often one of the main motivators behind any form of DNA testing, and finding living relatives is where autosomal DNA tests excel. It’s also a budget-friendly way to learn about the last century or so of your family’s history.
What about an mtDNA test? When would you want to have that done?
Well, for a start, mtDNA is not normally useful for finding a living relative. Instead, mtDNA is great for diving into the deep past of your maternal line through history.
Finding your female haplotype can help identify your broad family group. In terms of day-to-day usefulness, however, it’s not quite as useful.
You should opt for an mtDNA test if you’re most interested in the distant past and in pinpointing the geographical origins of your maternal line. MtDNA testing can be pretty expensive, but we’ll be reviewing specific testing options and costs below.
And finally, we come to Y-DNA testing. Much like mtDNA testing, Y-DNA tests trace the family line far back through time, though this time through the male line.
Y-DNA tests are most useful for determining if you are related to some long-lost ancestor, though as mentioned in the Thomas Jefferson case, it can be almost impossible to pinpoint one exact individual.
Also, if you live in a society that follows a patronymic naming system, you can use Y-DNA testing to essentially follow your last name through time and try to determine relationships.
However, like mtDNA testing, Y-DNA testing is not particularly useful for finding living relatives. Also, since females do not have a Y chromosome, only a male can take one of these tests.
If you lack a Y chromosome and are interested in a Y-DNA test, you can simply ask your father or brother to do take the test, and trace your ancestry that way. Your son, on the other hand, cannot take the test for you, since he gets his Y chromosome from his father, not from your father.
Which DNA test to choose?
In terms of finding your ethnicity or point of origin, autosomal DNA is a clear winner, especially after considering how cost-effective it is.
Y-DNA and mtDNA testing can only ever trace a sliver of your family history back, and therefore are poor choices for finding more general information on your ancestors.
Even with autosomal DNA testing, you need to be aware that companies do often make mistakes, so take any test results with a grain of salt. If you’re from the United States, you should bear in mind that your family may well be a jumble of ethnicities from around the world.
Also, note that some companies offer only autosomal testing, while some offer all three types in one package (quite expensive). FamilyTree DNA offers all three types individually so you can choose any test you please.
One of the most beautiful things about the United States is the fact that people from any background can be Americans. However, that can make genetic testing more difficult than normal!
Also be aware that national boundaries change, and countries form and dissolve.
A Croat born in 1903 was not born in Croatia, but rather in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A person born in Alsace in 1875 was born in the new nation of Germany, but if they survived into 1919, they became French.
Ethnicities do not neatly follow national lines, despite the efforts of various dictators and tyrants throughout history, so as you explore your ancestry, remember that simple ethnicity says little about politics or national allegiance.
And what if you’re interested in possible Native American heritage?
Well, that gets pretty complicated, as testing can only reveal a general area of your ancestors, and DNA testing alone is not suitable proof to officially be a tribal member.
Also, since the US and Canadian governments forcibly relocated (or massacred) many native tribes over the centuries, the geography of your specific ancestors may not reflect where their tribe started out. So be careful when using DNA tests to investigate Native American ancestors.
Remember how I mentioned studying family documents? DNA will say nothing about your ancestors’ thoughts and feeling and motives, but documents can speak volumes about those vital human traits.
Diaries, birth, marriage and death certificates, census, church, court and military records: All of these are vital parts of a person’s life, and you need to look into these too if you want to learn much about an ancestor.
Getting a DNA test done
So after all of this, you’ve decided to get your DNA tested, and you’ve chosen which test(s) you want. Here’s how the process works.
You’ll order your test and then you’ll either have to provide a spit sample or cheek swab.
Next, send it in to the company you have chosen (more on the various companies below). Within about two to four months, the company will send you results, typically by email.
These results will normally include your specific DNA information, an estimate as to your ethnicity, and, depending on the test itself, may make suggestions for contacting relatives.
How much do DNA tests cost?
An autosomal DNA test will run you between $70 and $100 right now. As noted above, this is by far the most common and useful test for the average person. Companies include Ancestry DNA, Living DNA, 23 and Me, and many, many more.
An mtDNA test on the other hand can be quite expensive, going for around $200 at FamilyTree DNA, which is at the moment the only company that offers separate mtDNA and Y-DNA tests to customers (i.e. you can purchase an mtDNA test individually, not in a 3-for-1 bundle with the other two tests).
FamilyTree’s Y-DNA tests vary between $170 to a whopping $650. I would definitely recommend sticking with an autosomal DNA test for budgetary reasons unless you have a compelling reason to opt for mtDNA or Y-DNA instead.
Why is there such variation in price among FamilyTree’s Y-DNA tests? The company offers three tests, each with a different level of detail.
The least expensive version tests for 37 different markers on the Y chromosome, the second version tests for 67, the third version tests for 111, and the most detailed and expensive test available tests for even more: 500 short tandem repeats (STRs) and 100K single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) on the Y chromosome.
Basically, the more detailed and refined the test, the more expensive it will be. There really is no need to go for the priciest option though unless you’re a billionaire or an incredibly enthusiastic genealogist.
How to choose a DNA testing company
First decide on the kind of test you want to have done. Then compare prices. Prices change all the time, companies run sales, and so on.
Don’t hesitate to comparison shop and look out for deals. And then get into the weeds on various features. Questions to consider:
- How large is the company’s user database? The bigger the better, since a large database offers better prospects for comparison and matching with other users.
- How many ethnic or geographic regions does the company cover? Again, the more regions, the better and more detailed the test will be.
- How long does the company store your results? Forever? For a few decades?
- Does the company offer a chromosome browser? This feature makes it easier to compare multiple sets of DNA results to identify overlap.
- Does the website have a thriving community of likeminded people? If you run into questions during your genealogical research, you may benefit from others’ experiences and knowledge.
- Are you able to contact other users with matching DNA results?
- Does the company offer health-related DNA testing?
Some of these factors may be essential for you, while others may be non-issues. Once you’ve figured out what you want from your DNA test, you can decide which of these factors to focus on when picking a company.
List of the best DNA testing companies
FamilyTree DNA is probably the best respected of the companies, and as noted, it’s the only way to get separate mtDNA and Y-DNA results.
The only real drawback to this company is that they don’t have a particularly large database of people to compare you to, but if long-term ancestry is your interest and you want mtDNA or Y-DNA testing, they’re your best bet. They are also the only option for truly in-depth Y-DNA testing.
Ancestry DNA is also great, especially since they have a massive database of people with whom to compare your specific results. However, Ancestry DNA, like their parent company, Ancestry.com, is a subscription service.
While they don’t require you to subscribe to use their DNA testing services, you will need to subscribe to use all of their website’s features.
Since Ancestry is so well-known, try going to your local library and seeing if they have a subscription for public use, as that will save you quite a bit of money in the long run if you’re serious about your genealogy.
Another choice is MyHeritage DNA, a newer site that works a lot like Ancestry does. Though they have a smaller database, they cover a large number of ethnic regions and allow you to form your family tree without additional costs. The only downside here is their small-ish database, only around one million as of spring 2018.
23 and Me
Next up, there is 23 and Me, another newer company. They’re different in that they are the only current DNA company to offer health testing as a primary service.
Quite a few people get their DNA checked to see if they are at risk for certain hereditary diseases, so if that’s you, 23 and Me is your best option. However, health information comes at an additional fee.
Moreover, if you really want to look into your family tree, 23 and Me only gives you limited ability to contact genetic matches or build a family tree, so for that type of genealogical research, you’ll want to look elsewhere.
For those of you with British ancestors, a great choice is Living DNA, which is unique in that it subdivides the British Isles into 21 separate ethnic regions.
Many companies only have between 20 and 40 ethnic regions to span the entire globe, so 21 regions for a space that small is truly exceptional. Living DNA has about 80 regions for the whole world, so their detail is great, but the cost that comes with it is high, since they do all three types of DNA testing no matter what.
This lack of separate testing makes them very expensive. If you’re looking for an exceptionally detailed test, however, Living DNA is excellent.
Finally, but in a bit of a different category is National Geographic Geno 2.0, an effort to track human genealogical research through history.
Since National Geographic is a non-profit, their tests are very affordable, though all three are again bundled together, which does increase the price.
I said this is a different category because National Geographic Geno 2.0 is not very good for constructing a family tree, as they have no open database to allow you to search for matches. This service is really or people who simply want to add to the collective genetic knowledge of our species.
A note on privacy
DNA tests have been in the news lately due to privacy concerns. Many people are wary of handing over their genetic information to companies and relinquishing control over where that information then goes.
After all, your DNA contains a wealth of information about you: your health, ethnic background, family connections, and more. If privacy is a concern for you, read over the fine print before choosing a company. Here are some questions to ask:
- What are the company’s policies? What rights to my genetic information do I grant the company by clicking “I Accept”? With whom do they share information?
- How long will the company store my data? Some companies store testing results indefinitely while others have a time limit of around 25 years.
- If I make a profile on a genealogical website, how private is that? Will other users be able to contact me? Am I able to keep my profile and contact information private?
- What measures does the company take to safeguard my genetic data? Am I willing to accept the risk that a company’s database may be hacked?
Ultimately, if you decide to do DNA testing, you should feel comfortable with the company you choose and how it intends to store, share, and use your data. Take your time to read privacy statements thoroughly and determine if they align with your personal comfort level.
After all, many people undertake DNA testing because they hope to find and contact formerly unknown relatives.
One person might be excited about the prospect of reaching out to a newly discovered cousin, while another person might feel uncomfortable with contacting or being contacted by strangers.
If you’re planning to give a DNA test as a gift, it’s a good idea to figure out the recipient’s feelings on privacy beforehand.
That said, companies have made increased efforts over the last few years to strengthen their privacy policies and ensure that your information is stored safely and securely. Here is a list of privacy statements for the leading genetic testing companies mentioned above:
If you’re at all nervous about sending a cheek swab off in the mail, definitely compare the policies up above. You’ll be able to make a more informed decision and enjoy learning about your ancestry without any worries in the background.
Should you take a DNA test? Which DNA test is right for you? That entirely depends on your goals and priorities!
If you want to learn more about your family history, I recommend starting with historical research, and only when you have a basic narrative should you continue to DNA testing.
If you’re interested in fairly recent family history (going back about five generations), if you hope to identify living relatives, or if you’d like information on your ethnicity, then give autosomal DNA testing a try. It is likely to yield satisfying results and is typically less expensive.
As for companies, you have plenty of choices for autosomal DNA testing. Take a look at the companies recommended above to see which fits your priorities.
For instance, if you want a genetic health screening, you’ll probably want 23 and Me, while if you want information on your British ancestry, Living DNA is the best choice.
Keep in mind that many public libraries and universities have subscriptions to genealogy services, so give them a call and see if you can’t get your results tested for a far lower cost.
Good luck, and have fun while discovering your family history and seeing what secrets your DNA may hold.