We all want to learn more about ourselves, which explains why DNA testing services have become so popular. Not only do these tests share details about the origins of our forebears, the databases also grow as more users sign up, improving the geographic accuracy of the results and increasing the likelihood of locating long-lost biological relatives.
However, with such personal data—your literal DNA—being sent to these companies, there come privacy concerns and the fear that this information could be misused or sold. When choosing a DNA test, you want the most bang for your buck regarding your heritage and genetic matches, while being assured your DNA is safe.
We evaluated the four most popular DNA test kits on both of these aspects, and recommend AncestryDNA(available at AncestryDNA) as the best choice for people who want detailed results and the ability to build up their family tree, both via DNA and historical records.
These are the best DNA test kits we tested ranked, in order:
23andMe Ancestry + Traits
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As makers of the original digital family tree, AncestryDNA edged out 23andMe for the top spot for its abilities to untangle the roots of your heritage and connect your DNA to your family tree. AncestryDNA gives you ethnicity estimates for general regions before diving into more specifics than any other kit we tested. For example, my overall pedigree totals 99% European, including 22% Germanic Europe, 16% England and Northwestern Europe, 12% European Jewish, and 10% Norway. Another 16% labeled “Eastern European & Russian” gets more specific, listing the community of “Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, & Romania” that’s then pinpointed to “Eastern Hungary, Eastern Slovakia, Northwest Romania, & Western Ukraine” as where my ancestors likely hailed from.
How can it do this with such precision? It has the largest DNA database of any company out there, with more than 18 million users—the next is 23andMe with 12 million. This also means that Ancestry is far more likely to connect you with a new third cousin or—gasp!—a secret relative (more about that, below). The DNA Matches feature is interesting and shows the amount of shared DNA you have with each match as well as their potential relationship with you (for example, someone with 9% shared DNA could be my first cousin or my great-grandparent).
But where AncestryDNA really shines is in adding context to the ancestral regions by providing blurbs and more detailed description of each region and sub-region. Certain “communities” (a.k.a. the subdivided regions) contain information on the history of the area going back centuries. There’s also “Additional Communities” feature that shows where your ancestors likely settled to in the United States and provides hints about what led them to migrate there. It’s a comprehensive history and is easy to get lost in.
The “DNA Story” where this information is found is easy to navigate and features a map and a sidebar you can click to explore and learn more about the region. For example, when I click on “Eastern European & Russian” on the sidebar, it zooms in on the map to where this region is located. You can also opt to click an area on the map and it will show you the name of the region and the information on the sidebar. You’ll also see other AncestryDNA users who are DNA matches pop up based on your shared DNA in these regions. It gives you a greater sense of connection to these places, but it's up to you to research your family history to get the real facts. To that end, Ancestry provides access to online historical records’ databases for an additional fee, as well as others’ self-created family trees (if privacy settings are “public”), to aid you with researching your genealogy.
AncestryDNA doesn’t allow you to track your maternal and paternal heritage independently (which 23andMe does for some users). But if you want more genetic detail about, say, how you may have inherited your curly hair or green eyes, you can opt to add on the Traits feature for an extra price. It shows your likelihood of having a certain characteristic (whether you do or not doesn’t matter), as well as compares your traits to your DNA matches and others from the same regions as you.
It should be noted that Ancestry participates in biomedical research with both for-profit and nonprofit groups, but it will share anonymized data (names and other identifying characteristics removed) with customers’ explicit consent only, which you permit or refuse when you first send in your DNA. You should read the fine print before committing to sharing your data, and opt-in or out accordingly.
I’m Courtney Campbell, the commerce editor here at Reviewed. My focus is on publishing roundups and gift guides featuring the best product recommendations from our writers and editors, which means I have my hand in pretty much every product category from straws to standing desks.
As the child of an adopted father, I felt like there was a huge gap in my knowledge of my heritage, which is why I first became fascinated with at-home DNA tests. I used AncestryDNA back in 2017 and have since grown more passionate about understanding the privacy aspects of these publicly owned companies, as well as the repercussions of getting an unexpected result and match.
While there are a ton of DNA test kits (even breed tests for your dog), we narrowed our search down to the four most popular (human) versions that had a vast amount of users, which increases the likelihood of a match and a more accurate ethnicity reading. It should be noted that these DNA test companies typically pull from European-descended populations by a large margin (more on this coming up). As a self-declared European-hodgepodge, this works in my favor, but they may not give as detailed results for those with ancestry from elsewhere in the world.
Each test requires the user to not eat or drink for 30 minutes and either spit into a tube or swab the inside of a cheek for up to a minute to get a DNA sample. I did them all in one sitting (aside from AncestryDNA, which I had already taken) before shipping the tests off in a prepaid envelope to their respective labs. Once the tests came back, we evaluated each one based on timeliness, the detail of its findings, the overall usability of the company website, and if the test had any special features we found to be useful.
While some DNA test kits include the option for genetic health tests, we did not test out these features for several reasons. First, they present info that predicts possible health traits but doesn't guarantee you have them, which could be confusing or laughable (if you're not, in fact, an endurance athlete despite your genes for high oxygen-burning capacity), or downright scary, if your DNA predicts a higher risk of certain diseases. Some of these tests have FDA approval, but the expert advice is to rely on your doctor to order any genetic health screenings that may be medically necessary. (Ancestry formerly offered AncestryHealth, but discontinued the genetic health screening at the beginning of 2021 as a “strategic decision” to further its research in Family History, according to an Ancestry.com blog post.)
What You Should Know About DNA Test Kits
How Do DNA Test Kits Work?
While DNA test kits use your genetic code to show you where your ancestors theoretically came from, you might wonder how they work. Each test uses its own algorithm to determine your ancestry, but across the board, my results were pretty much the same at the continental level, sparing a few percentage points here and there. However, because each testing company divides its regions differently, these specific areas will be different. For example, AncestryDNA lists “Germanic Europe” as a region, whereas 23andMe uses “French & German” as one that’s similarly geographically delineated.
Now for the nitty-gritty. Each DNA test kit compares your DNA sample to DNA from reference regions around the world. If a sequence of your DNA is a match to a specific population, there’s a high likelihood your ancestors hailed from that region, and it’s assigned to your pedigree. To get these comparison DNA samples and pinpoint these populations, DNA test companies use data from the Human Genome Diversity Project, Human Origins, and 1000 Genomes Project, as well as their own data collected from users and sample gathering, particularly in the case of indigenous populations.
Who is Served by Mainstream DNA Test Kits?
The ancestry of European descendants can be determined with greater detail than people from other continents (like Africa, Asia, and the Americas). The reason lies in the size of the reference database—i.e., DNA data from Europeans have been collected more widely and for longer. What’s more, many of the initial customers of these DNA testing kit companies were of European origin, further increasing that reference data. However, the mainstream companies we tested have made strides to include more diversity in their reference panels (which is where they begin for making DNA comparisons and setting their algorithms), and as more consumers from other continental origins submit their DNA for analysis, the companies accumulate broader reference data to get more pinpointed results.
A few companies cater to unearthing DNA roots on other continents, such as African Ancestry. We didn't test those for this roundup, as many (like African Ancestry) solely looks for users' genetic connections to one continent (in that case, Africa), and therefore may only paint a partial—if significant—picture of someone's heritage.
How Accurate are DNA Matches as Relatives?
While finding a long-lost cousin could be exciting (or potentially traumatic), unless a match reads as an immediate family member—parent, child, or full sibling—you shouldn’t jump to conclusions. The range of shared DNA could mean any of several familial connections, according to Brianna Kirkpatrick, founder of Watershed DNA and the National Society of Genetic Counselor's ancestry expert. She explains: “23andMe might report someone as a half-sibling and that person is actually your first cousin. AncestryDNA groups categories of people [in a wide range], so someone who's an aunt might show up as a first cousin. That can be confusing.”
Even a parent-to-child match might not be 100% accurate in the case that the parent has an identical twin (or triplet), where the aunt or uncle could appear as the child’s parent. But while the relationship described by the site might not be reality, the fact that two people are found to be genetically related is. “If you’re sharing multiple segments of DNA across multiple chromosomes and it adds up to a significant amount, that doesn’t happen by chance,” Kirkpatrick says.
Furthermore, a relative could have used a pseudonym when sending in their info, which is how a name you’ve never seen before could show up as a match.
Should I Worry About Uncovering a Family Secret?
With DNA test kits, there is always the risk of finding something unsettling, whether it’s a loss of identity from unexpected ethnic results, matching with someone you’ve never heard of, or even exposing a family secret. “Anything that upsets your sense of self can lead to [unexpected emotions] and that's a normal human response to something that's shocking or disrupts our personal identity,” Kirkpatrick says.
If you already suspect you may learn something new—say, you know you were adopted, or that one side of your family lost touch—Kirkpatrick recommends seeing a genetic counselor before you share your DNA sample, as a trained professional can help walk you through what tests to take that will match with your goals. A genetic counselor can also be there to help you work through your emotions regarding an unexpected finding and how to approach the situation.
For example, Kirkpatrick does not recommend reaching out immediately, unless you're fairly certain that your efforts will be happily received. It's wise to take time to adjust to the new information, and even speak with other relatives to garner more details—especially if your family has a history of poor communication or other dysfunction. This could involve months or years of sitting with and working through your thoughts and emotions on the situation. “Be careful of interfering, because your good intentions could end up complicating the connection between the people immediately involved,” she says.
You can also opt to not participate in the matching services of these tests when you first sign up, if you just want to see your ethnicity results without being bombarded with messages from third cousins.
Should I Be Concerned About My DNA Privacy?
One of the main concerns with DNA testing is what could happen with this sensitive personal data once you’ve sent it out into the world. Will the companies sell it? Give it to law enforcement to bolster forensic databases? Or could there be a privacy breach that gets your DNA into the “wrong” hands?
Reviewed has previously covered DNA privacy, and while all of the testing companies we covered hold themselves to rigorous standards per their privacy statements, there’s no guarantee they won’t be breached. The most well-known DNA data breach happened in 2019 with DNA-testing firm Veritas Genetics, so other DNA companies could be targets for hacks in the future. “Any data repository with rich personal data in it will be a target for cybercriminals,” cybersecurity expert Tony Anscombe, Chief Security Evangelist at internet security company ESET, previously told Reviewed.
When you sign up for an account with any of the DNA testing companies we reviewed, all ask if you want to permit the company to use your DNA for scientific research. This is completely optional and you can get your ethnicity results regardless, though these companies may share some anonymized information with “service providers” or marketing partners to pinpoint advertisements based on your interests to further market to you. It’s also important to note that if these companies are acquired, your DNA information will be accessible to the new parent company, including any health data from your DNA (which happened when venture capitalist firm Blackstone acquired Ancestry at the end of 2020. Though the company claims it doesn’t have access to Ancestry users’ DNA or family tree data, that could always change). So even though you’re comfortable with sharing your DNA with the testing company, be aware that it could end up in the hands of others at a later date.
The other main concern is whether or not law enforcement would have access to your DNA to solve cases. While you may be a law-abiding citizen, if the DNA left at a crime scene is a relative, your DNA would pop up as a match and could help police solve a case. However, all of the DNA companies we tested state in their privacy policies that they push back on law enforcement requests whenever possible and also release annual “transparency reports” showing how many requests they get, which they most often deflect. But in the cases of some subpoenas, warrants, and other court-ordered requests, the companies may have to comply.
Before taking an at-home DNA test you should read the fine print of each privacy statement. Please note: No matter what the company policy says, in electing to sign up, you’re giving a huge chunk of valuable personal data to a for-profit entity, and it is never outside the realm of possibility that someone (whether the company or a hacker) might exploit that data for maximum profit. Here are the links to the privacy policies for the four DNA tests we tried:
We found 23andMe to be comparable to AncestryDNA in its genetic ethnicity results, albeit with less detail and focus on the history and migration patterns that enrich the story that AncestryDNA paints. The results are easy to navigate, beginning with continental-level results then breaking down to more specific regions. For example, my DNA results show 99.5% European ancestry, subdivided into 53.8% Northwestern European then into 38.7% French & German, 5.7% British & Irish, 0.2% Scandinavian, and 9.2% Broadly Northwestern European. This is then even further broken down into very specific regions and cities. For example, my French & German section indicates my ancestors potentially came from Baden-Wurttemberg, Bavaria, Hamburg, or North Rhine-Westphalia, but no exact percentages are provided for any of these places.
You can learn more about each heritage via pages that show more information about how your genetics relate to the area (could you be a distant relative of an overpopulating king?), as well as a variety of off-website suggestions to connect you to the region, including Airbnb recommendations, sights to visit, and activities to try. They’re nice gestures that feel a bit pluggy but are worth looking into if you want to immerse yourself in your heritage.
In addition to a basic ancestry breakdown, 23andMe suggests traits you may exhibit based on your DNA at no extra cost. I found this feature to be lackluster compared to AncestryDNA’s Traits add-on (which you pay $10 more for) . The probability of the traits 23andMe suggested I might have were way off—for example, it suggested a 10% chance of me being blond, and I’m very much blond. Plus, 23andMe made no attempt to connect those traits to my heritage as AncestryDNA did.
With the vast amount of information to sift through, I found 23andMe easy to navigate and filled with fun graphics that made this complicated information more digestible. If you’re looking for connections, 23andMe has a database of 12 million customers, which is six million fewer than what Ancestry provides. People with XY chromosomes can look at the ancient migration paths of maternal and paternal lines independently, but as I’m a female and have XX chromosomes, I was unable to do so. The reason behind this is that the Y chromosome indicates the male parental side, while with XX, it’s not possible to parse which X came from which parent. Anyone who takes the test gets a general ancestry timeline, so I was able to see how many generations ago my ancestor within each population was.
23andMe offers a Health feature for an additional $125 that gives you genetic information about wellness, health predispositions, and disease carrier status, which we did not test. We recommend erring on the side of caution with such analyses and consulting a genetic counselor before submitting to them. The company also frequently invites you to take questionnaires in regards to your health to inform the results they give others, which you think would only take a few minutes but are seemingly endless. (I have yet to finish it.)
You should also know that 23andMe monetizes your anonymized medical data with its Health and questionnaire data through the company GlaxoSmithKline, but you have to opt into research participation. As always, read the fine print.
The results from FamilyTreeDNA took the longest to arrive by about a week—a total of three weeks from when I mailed my kit. The site’s navigation was the least intuitive of the four tests. It’s clunky and filled with too many icons with unusual names and small fonts, so it takes some puttering around to get to what you’re looking for.
The DNA ancestry results (labeled myOrigins), are decently robust, featuring continental results before breaking into more specific regions. For example, my 100% European ancestry is further broken down into Western Europe and then specific areas like “England, Wales, and Scotland” (30%), “Central Europe” (11%), and Scandinavia (10%). It’s not as precise as the two previous DNA test kits, but it painted a good picture of my heritage. When you click on a region, FamilyTreeDNA provides a few paragraphs of information about the history of the area, but that’s it. For the DNA geeks out there, the company throws in jargon like SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms) and centiMorgans (the unit used to measure genetic frequency), so if you’re not an amateur geneticist yourself, you may want a dictionary (or Google) on hand while reading through the plethora of information the company provides on DNA.
FamilyTreeDNA also doesn’t have nearly as many members as AncestryDNA or 23andMe (1.5 million versus the others’ 18 and 12 million, respectively), but you can use the service to build a family tree and can join certain projects to further share and compare your DNA with similar people, like the Aberdeen & North East Scotland Project. Even if you don’t take the FamilyTreeDNA test, you can upload your results from other services like AncestryDNA or 23andMe to increase your pool of matches beyond what those companies offer.
For the privacy-conscious, FamilyTreeDNA has its own in-house testing service as opposed to using a third-party lab to obtain results, which leaves less of a risk of your DNA being passed around. (However, if it’s bought out by another company some day, all bets are off.)
FamilyTreeDNA offers additional tests for Y-DNA (your paternal line) that only those with XY chromosomes can take and mtDNA (your maternal line) that either sex can take for $159 each if you really want to get into the specifics of your parentage and an in-depth look at potential migration patterns as well as more specific DNA match relationships. There are also additional “factoid” health-related tests you can order to test for things like whether you’re likely to get alcohol flush and your expected longevity based on your DNA. They’re going to cost you, though.
Great family tree features
Can upload DNA info from other services
Other tests available for paternal and material roots
Similar to Ancestry, MyHeritage has a big focus on genealogy, with the options to build a family tree and connect your matches to it, albeit at a much smaller scale. The service is far more popular across the pond, and most of my DNA matches appeared to be living in the United Kingdom currently. If your heritage isn’t mostly European, this test may be especially limiting for you.
The site offers more of a focus on the family tree aspect, so you have to dig a little to get to your DNA results, which are also barebones as compared to the top two tests. While accurate, my results were divided only into general regions rather than subareas I could explore to better pinpoint my DNA. Each area provides some information, but nothing as in-depth as AncestryDNA or 23andMe, though you can see your matches that also have roots in these areas.
DNA matches aren’t as vast on MyHeritage because its 4.8 million people database is much smaller, but the site shows the potential relationship between you and a match based on the amount of shared DNA. If you take another DNA test kit, you can upload the results to MyHeritage, as an option to see more matches from among its users. There’s also a health feature you can add on for $60, which we did not test.
Courtney is an editor and shopper with a passion for finding the best things on the internet. She's a foodie and will talk about the latest batch of kombucha she's brewing to anyone who will listen. She has previously worked for Country Living, Woman's Day, and Our State Magazine.
We use standardized and scientific testing methods to scrutinize every product and provide you with objectively accurate results. If you’ve found different results in your own research, email us and we’ll compare notes. If it looks substantial, we’ll gladly re-test a product to try and reproduce these results. After all, peer reviews are a critical part of any scientific process.