You’re probably familiar with Ancestry, our Editors’ Choice for genealogy services. In mid-2012, Ancestry introduced AncestryDNA, a service that analyzes your DNA and integrates that data with your family tree, if you’ve created one. Ancestry ships you a DNA testing kit, which you return with your saliva sample. In several weeks’ time, the service posts the results to your online profile. These tests only analyze your DNA to determine your ancestry; you won’t get any health-related information, or the sort of deep ancestral data offered some services, which even tell you how much Neanderthal DNA you have. AncestryDNA has the largest database of DNA samples among its competitors, with 23andMe coming in second. If you’re specifically looking for genetic relatives and family tree tools, AncestryDNA is the way to go.
Pricing and DNA Collection
AncestryDNA’s $99 price tag includes the collection kit and two-way shipping, and there are often sales; I’ve seen it for as low as $59. 23andMe charges for shipping in both directions (about $10) on top of the $99 price of its collection kit. To order an AncestryDNA kit, you must first create an account so you can receive your results. If you already have an Ancestry account, you can use the same login. Your kit should arrive within about a week or so. AncestryDNA ships kits to all 50 US states and more than 30 other countries.
When you receive the kit, the first thing you need to do is activate it online using a unique code posted on the kit. It’s a longish code, and I wish I had been asked to type it in twice in case I made a mistake. The code is used to keep your sample anonymous but trackable throughout the process. The sample does not have your name on it. You then fill in your name, click Activate, and consent to the company’s terms of service. Next, you can link your kit to your Ancestry family tree, if you have one.
Once you’ve finished activating your kit and setting up your account, it’s time to extract your sample, which involves spitting into a plastic tube up to its fill line. It’s not glamorous. You can’t eat, drink or smoke 30 minutes before providing your sample. 23andMe has a similar requirement, whereas HomeDNA has no such restrictions. The whole process is quick and simple, and the included funnel prevents spillage. Next, you remove the funnel and screw on the included cap, which releases a stabilizing fluid so that your sample remains viable during travel. Then you shake the tube for about five seconds, place it in the included collection bag, put the bag in the prepaid shipping box, and then drop it off at the post office.
In response to the growing trend of families taking DNA tests together, sharing results, and building family trees together, AncestryDNA makes it possible to manage other people’s test results. An adult who takes a DNA test is considered the owner of that test but can assign other family members or friends to the role of managing the results and allow others to view them as well. If you’re managing other people’s DNA results, you can do so from your account, but each test must be associated with an account. So even if you’re doing the ordering and setup for a family member or friend, you’ll need to create an account for them or help them do so themselves. Parents who are managing tests for their minor children are the exception; they can have multiple kits associated with one account.
DNA Reports and Extra Features
I received confirmation of receipt just over a week after I mailed my kit to AncestryDNA. The confirmation included my activation number and informed me that the results would arrive in the next six to eight weeks. About two weeks later, my results were ready.
Then the fun starts. On your dashboard, you see a pie chart with an ethnicity estimate and possible DNA matches with other members. Then you can view a map of where your ancestors lived, get more information about your ethnicity matches, and watch videos or read more about how Ancestry calculates this information and what it means. You can also read more about each ethnicity match and country, see how you compare to the native population and read about their genetic diversity and the population history. One note: if you cancel your account, you can download your raw DNA report and take it with you.
I wasn’t expecting any surprises from my results; my name and my fair skin make it clear that I’m Irish. I did get a good laugh, though. As I said, you can see how you compare to the native population of the countries where your ancestors lived. The average Ireland native is 95 percent Irish. Me? My initial report said I’m 98 percent Irish, according to AncestryDNA—more Irish than the Irish.
Depending on your genetic makeup, you may also see “trace regions” in your ethnicity estimate, in which the amount of matching DNA is too small to deem accurate. In my case, I had a one percent match with Scandinavia and one percent with Western Europe. Again, there are no surprises here.
Updates and Add-ons
Your first report isn’t the whole story, however. As time passes, AncestryDNA will update your results based on scientific research, more reference samples, and improved tools. My latest update removes the matches with Scandinavia and Western Europe and adds two percent to my Ireland/Scotland/Wales estimate, bringing it to a total of 100 percent. This lines up with what my extended family looks like and what I’ve been told about our ancestry. You can update your dashboard to show the latest estimates, but you can also view previous estimates at any time.
AncestryDNA Traits ($9.99) is an add-on feature that tests for more than a dozen traits including eye color, freckles, cilantro aversion, and bitter sensitivity with no additional test required. I ordered Traits and immediately had access to my results. For each one, you can confirm whether or not AncestryDNA is right. In my case, the results said I probably don’t have a cleft chin (I don’t) and probably have unattached earlobes (I do). On the other hand, it guessed that I might dislike the taste of cilantro, which is not accurate.
Once your DNA is processed, AncestryDNA will search their database for what it calls Cousin Matches, whether you have a linked family tree on the main Ancestry service or not. None of your personal information is visible; just your username, possible relationship, and your genetic ethnicity. You can view your possible matches on the dashboard, labeled with the Confidence Level and possible range; second to third cousins; fourth to sixth cousins, and so on. You can decide how much or little personal information to share with potential matches. So in many cases, unless your matches have a public profile or public family tree, you’ll only be able to view their display name (either a username or their full name), which isn’t much to go on. Members can also include a profile photo.
This feature has the odd feel of a dating site since you can connect with your matches and see when they last logged in. I didn’t recognize anyone based on the information I could view, though I had many pages of results, and thousands of matches. AncestryDNA will continue to search for matches as its database grows. 23andMe also looks for DNA matches, though their program is opt-in only. Its database found more than 1,000 matches for me.
DNA Circles, an opt-in program, goes further than DNA matches by grouping Ancestry members who share a common ancestor. To join, you must have a public family tree with multiple generations so that AncestryDNA can search for matches. If it discovers a possible match, the tool then compares your family tree with that of your match’s, going back nine generations to look for a common ancestor. Each DNA Circle must have at least three members and will continue to grow and change as more matches surface. You can learn more about this feature in Ancestry’s help section online.
Another opt-in program is Genetic Communities. If you participate, Ancestry connects you with communities that match up with your ancestry, and you can view their migration paths. There are over 300 Genetic Communities available on AncestryDNA. I was assigned to Irish in North Connacht and Irish in Southern Ireland. Within the community, I could see what life was like for my ancestors going back to the 1700s through to the 1950s.
Finally, The Personal Discoveries Project is an optional feature in which you fill in surveys about yourself and your family, and AncestryDNA uses the information to improve their products and create new features.
Should you need any help throughout the process, you can access a wealth of online resources, including how-to articles and an active user community. I frequently consulted the FAQ section while writing this review; it includes a dedicated section just for AncestryDNA, which answered many of my questions about how to understand my results, and how Ancestry interprets your DNA sample. You can also call Ancestry support seven days a week between 9:00 a.m. and 11:00 p.m. ET. In my experience with phone support, I waited about 30 minutes before I reached a representative, who answered my questions quickly. Beware: the hold music is often interrupted by jarringly loud ads for other Ancestry services.
A Fun Way to Trace Your Past
AncestryDNA is a great way to learn about (or confirm) your ancestry, it’s easy to use, with generous online resources, and it’s cost-effective, too. If you’re already an Ancestry member, it’s worth adding AncestryDNA, as it’s a great tool if you’re in charge of building and updating family trees. The company is also constantly adding new features and updating your results as their tools and insights improve. If family trees aren’t your main concern, you should consider our top pick, 23andMe, which goes deeper into your ancestry, even reporting on your Neanderthal DNA, and includes cool interactive features.
It’s not just humans who can test their DNA. If you’re curious about your canine buddy’s heritage, check out our roundup of the best dog DNA kits, too.