Many DNA databases, including Ancestry, 23andMe and MyHeritage DNA, have family search features, which match your DNA with that of potential relatives. These features help users searching for family, including adoptees and children conceived through sperm donations. Almost every DNA testing service we interviewed for this article had a story ready about how its service facilitated a heartwarming family reunion. Like these from Ancestry, this one from MyHeritage and this one from 23andMe. Because many DNA services also have resources like family tree builders, the tests work in tandem with genealogical research.
There are many things to think about when deciding whether genetic testing is right for you. Although these tests can provide important information about health risks, they can also be upsetting or raise questions about what the results mean. Genetic tests also have certain limitations that are important to understand. Your personal and family medical history, as well as your goals for testing, should all factor into your decisions about whether and how to test.
Molly K. McLaughlin is a New York-based writer and editor with more than a decade of experience covering technology. She has tested and reviewed all sorts of software, mobile apps, and gadgets. Before launching her freelance business, she was an editor at PC Magazine, covering consumer electronics, followed by a stint at ConsumerSearch.com, a revie... See Full Bio
Each testing provider uses one of two methods to take your DNA sample and neither require blood. Family Tree DNA and MyHeritage DNA both use a cheek swab method where the user gently scrapes the inside of their cheek. The swab is then placed in a vial and sealed. AncestryDNA and 23andMe use a saliva sample. Some people may have a hard time producing a saliva sample so this should be taken into consideration when deciding on which test to choose.
Some services include shipping costs in the cost of the kit; AncestryDNA's $99 fee includes two-way shipping. National Geographic's Genographic Project ships the kits for free, but you have to purchase postage when you send your kit to their lab. 23andMe tacks on a two-way shipping fee of $9.95 for the first kit and $5 for each additional one. HomeDNA includes a prepaid envelope to return your sample and offers three shipping options: $7 for two-day shipping, $14 for overnight, and free shipping that takes 7 to 12 business days. Finally, MyHeritage charges $12 for shipping; if you order two kits, you pay $6, and if you order three or more, you get free shipping.
DNA test companies that use genotyping technology, including 23andMe and Ancestry, allow you to download your raw DNA file. A raw DNA file is usually a text file that contains all the information about your genetic code gleaned from the company’s examination of your DNA. This is comprised of several hundred thousand markers known as SNPs (Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms). Most raw files are organized into five columns: the SNP coded into an rsID number, the chromosome the SNP is located on, the location of the SNP on the chromosome and the two alleles for each SNP.
By comparing the arrangement and distribution of the peaks, it is possible to compare profiles of known origin with a profile from a crime sample. If the two profiles match, databases are used to estimate the probability of obtaining a matching profile from a person selected at random; this is referred to as thematchprobability. Closely related individuals are more likely to share DNA profiles than more distantly related individuals.
“My concern is that more and more of these tests are being put out, and people are being persuaded to have these tests done, and they get results back that are very often of very low value and dubious helpfulness,” she says. “And often people are told to go to see their GP and that then places a direct stress on the NHS, at no cost to the company. The companies make their profits and walk away, letting the NHS sort out all the fallout, the push-back, from the test results, in a way I find absurd. Why should the NHS have to prop up the problems that these companies create?”
Living DNA supports 80 geographical ancestry regions, 21 of which are located within Britain and Ireland alone, making it a great DNA test for people wanting to delve deep into their British heritage. Of course, it also covers 60 regions outside of the British Isles, and is expanding its efforts to bring the same level of detail to other world regions.

There are a number of reasons why the vast majority of living humans are a blend of ethnicities. Firstly, from around 1850 onwards, people started to migrate around the world and mix in large numbers. Secondly, as national borders have changed over time, the only clear cut ethnic groups are those that are highly isolated. For example, as individuals have migrated in large numbers between France and Britain in the last few thousand years; those in Northern France exhibit a similar ethnic mix to those in Southern England.
Costs vary depending on the company you buy from. For example, the three most popular DNA ethnicity tests are undertaken by 23andMe, Family Tree DNA (FTDNA) and Ancestry.com. They all analyse autosomal DNA to report on your ethnic mix: 23andMe’s costs £149, FTDNA’s (named the ‘Family Finder’ test) costs £60 and Ancestry.com’s (named ‘AncestryDNA’) costs £79. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that 23andMe’s test also includes a Y DNA analysis and a mitochondrial DNA analysis, so if you’re interested in your paternal and maternal lineage (discussed below), this may be the more cost-effective choice!
23andMe started out by testing for genetic markers of diseases and medical conditions before rolling that back in response to the governmental concerns. It has since started slowly adding more health-related features with approval from the FDA. In April, 23andMe got approval to offer risk analysis for ten genetically linked diseases. The company now offers two options: Health + Ancestry ($199) and Ancestry ($99). The Health + Ancestry plan includes testing for genetic health risks and carrier status, as well as reports on your genetic weight, hair loss, and other traits.
The test that can tell you about your ethnic makeup is called an autosomal DNA analysis – also known as an ethnicity test – and it can reveal the population groups from this thousand year period who have contributed to your ethnic mix. It’s called an autosomal analysis because it looks at your autosomes; these are our non-sex chromosomes and they make up 22 of the 23 pairs of chromosomes that we inherit from our parents.
Generally speaking, those people who have tested with FTDNA, AncestryDNA or MyHeritage DNA have done so for genealogical purposes (even if it is only curiosity about their family’s past) so the response rate from contacted matches is fairly decent. Oftentimes matches are open to being contacted by relations and are eager to compare trees. This is, of course, not always the case, but we have found it to be true for the most part.

We each had two ancestors one generation ago, four ancestors two generations ago, and by the time we’ve gone back five generations, 32 ancestors have each contributed approximately 3% of our autosomal DNA! As an ethnicity test can’t show you how your autosomal segments have been passed from one generation to the next, trying to derive meaningful information about the ethnicities of your ancestors more than five generations ago is virtually impossible.
1. Family Tree DNA’s Family Finder: One of the first to offer these types of tests, FTDNA is generally considered the leader in autosomal DNA testing for ancestry and provides some of the best tools available for genealogists. Their population finder section is currently a bit less specific than the other companies, but FTDNA Family Finder users are eagerly awaiting a much improved update to be released sometime in the next month. Find out about Family Finder here.
×