Genealogy and Ethnicity DNA Testing – 3 Legitimate Companies

Big 3 logos

As with any industry that has become popular, especially quickly, there are the front runner companies, and then there is an entire cadre of what I am going to call “third tier” companies that spring up and are trying to play off of the success of the front runners and the naivety of the consuming public. I’m going to avoid the use of the words snake oil here, because some of them aren’t quite that bad, but others clearly are.  You get the drift, I’m sure.  There is a very big gulf, as in a chasm, between the three front-runners, Family Tree DNA, Ancestry and 23andMe, whose recognizable logos you see above and the rest of the pack.

Recently, we’ve seen a huge raft of people finding these “third tier” companies, purchasing their products thinking they’re getting something they aren’t, often due to what I would call corporate weasel-wording and snazzy ads, and then being unhappy with their purchase. Unfortunately, often the purchasers don’t understand that they’ve in essence “been had.”  This type of behavior tarnishes the entire genetic genealogy industry.

So, if you find a test on LivingSocial or a Groupon coupon that “looks familiar” it may by the AncestrybyDNA test that people mistakenly purchase instead of the AncestryDNA kit sold by Ancestry.com.  They think they are getting a great deal on the AncestryDNA test.  They aren’t.  It’s not the same thing at all.  AncestrybyDNA is an old, inaccurate, ineffective test called DNAPrint that has been rebranded to be sold to the unsuspecting.  Don’t buy this Groupon item.

There are other useless tests too, probably too many to mention by name, plus I really don’t want to give them any publicity, even inadvertently.

I also want to be clear that I’m only talking about genetic genealogy and ethnicity testing, not about medical DNA testing or traditional paternity testing, although some of the labs that offer paternity testing services also offer the less than forthright tests, in fact, those very two mentioned above.  I’m also not talking about add-on services like GedMatch and DNAGedcom which don’t provide DNA testing and do provide much valued services within the genetic genealogy community.  I’m also not talking about the Genographic project testing which does provide great information but is not in essence a genetic genealogy test in the sense that you can’t compare your results with others.  You can, however, transfer your results from the Genographic project to Family Tree DNA where you can compare with others.

Twisting the Truth

One of the biggest areas ripe for harvesting by sheisters are the thousands of people who descend, or think they descend from, or might descend from Native Americans. It’s a very common question.

If you find a company that says they will tell you what Indian tribe you descend from, and believe me, they’re out there, just know that you really can’t do that today with just a DNA test.  If you could identify a tribe that quickly and easily, these three leading companies would be doing just that – it would be a booming consumer product.  “Identifying my tribe” is probably my most frequently asked question and a highly sought after piece of information, so I’m not surprised that companies have picked up on that aspect of genetic genealogy to exploit.  I wrote about proving Native heritage and what it takes to identify your tribe here and here.  If that’s how they’re trying to hook you, you’re either going to be massively disappointed in your results, or the results are going to be less than forthright and truthful.

Yes, the DNA truth can be twisted and I see these “twisted results” routinely that people have paid a lot of money to receive and desperately want to believe.

Let me just give you one very brief example of DNA “fact” twisting. Person one claims (“self-identifies” in the vernacular), with no research or proof, that their maternal grandma is Cherokee, a very common family story.  Their mitochondrial haplogroup is H3, clearly, unquestionably European and not Native.  You test and share haplogroup H3 with person one.  I’ve seen companies that then claim you descend from the same “Cherokee line” as person one with haplogroup H3 and therefore you too are magically Cherokee because you match someone in their data base that is “Cherokee.” Congratulations!  I guess all Europeans who carry haplogroup H3 are also Cherokee, using that same logic.  Won’t they be surprised!

This H3=Cherokee analogy is obviously incorrect and inaccurate in several different ways, but suffice it to say that, as a hopeful consumer, you are now very happy that you are now “proven” to be Cherokee and you have no idea or understanding that it’s all predicated on one person’s “self-identification” that allows the less-than-ethical company to then equate all other H3 people to a “Cherokee lineage.” The problem is that you aren’t either proven Native nor Cherokee on your direct matrilineal line. And you’ve been snookered.  But you’re obliviously happy.

What a shameful way to exploit Native people and their descendants, not to mention the consuming public.

Unfortunately, there are lots of ways to twist the truth, intentionally or inadvertently.  If you’re looking for direction on this topic, there is a FaceBook group called Native American Ancestry Explorer: DNA, Genetics, Genealogy and Anthropology that I would recommend.

In genetic genealogy, meaning for both genealogy and ethnicity, there are three companies that are the frontrunners, by any measure, and then there are the rest, many of whom misrepresent their wares and what they can legitimately tell you. Or they tell you, and you have no idea if what they say is accurate or their own version of “truth” from their own “private research” and data bases, i.e., H3=Cherokee.

The Big 3

So, here are the Big 3 testing companies, in my preference order.

  1. Family Tree DNA
  2. Ancestry
  3. 23andMe

Not only are these the Big 3, they are the only three that give you the value for your money as represented, plus the ability to compare your results to others.

Family Tree DNA is the only company to provide mitochondrial and Y DNA testing and matching.

All three of these companies provide autosomal tests and provide you:

  • Ethnicity estimates
  • Autosomal DNA Results (downloadable)
  • Autosomal DNA Matching to others in their data base
  • Different tools at each company that vary in quality and completeness

If it’s not one of these three companies, don’t buy, JUST DON’T.

You can debate all day about which of these three companies is the best for you (or maybe all three), but that is what the debate SHOULD be about, not whether to use one of these companies versus some third tier company.

I’m am not going to do a review of these companies in this article. Suffice it to say that my 2015 review holds relatively well EXCEPT that 23andMe is still going through something of a corporate meltdown with their genetic genealogy product which has caused me to take them off of my recommended list other than for adoptees who should test with all three vendors due to their data base matching.  Also, if you’re trying to make a decision in relation to the Big 3 companies and testing, you might want to read these two articles, here and here, as well.

I will do a 2016 review after 23andMe finishes their transition so we know how the genealogy aspect of their new services will work.

Personally, I think that everyone interested in genetic genealogy should test their mitochondrial DNA (males and females both,) and Y DNA (males only) at Family Tree DNA and their autosomal DNA (males and females both) at both Ancestry and Family Tree DNA. Family Tree DNA offers a $39 transfer from Ancestry, so you can put together a nice testing package and reap all of the benefits.  Here’s a basic article about the different kinds of DNA testing, what they cover and how, based on your family tree.

Bottom Line

So, here’s the bottom line – as heated as the debate gets sometimes within the genetic genealogy community about which of the three vendors, Family Tree DNA, Ancestry or 23andMe, is best, that really IS the question to debate.  The question should NEVER be whether to use a third tier company for genetic genealogy or ethnicity instead of one of these three.

So spread the word and hopefully none of our genealogy friends or well-meaning spouses or family members purchasing gifts with the very best of intentions will get sucked in. Stick with the Big 3.

76 thoughts on “Genealogy and Ethnicity DNA Testing – 3 Legitimate Companies

      • I think it was 2002 when I took the test. I know it was when FamilyTreeDNA only offered a YDNA 12 marker test. Bob.

  1. Yes, you can transfer Genographic results to FTDNA, but in order to do any comparisons, you must pay a fee. At this time, there are major problems with the transferred kits and no clear indication when those problems will be resolved. They started advertising this transfer last August, There was a delay from mid-October until January 8 before transfer was even possible, and then the real roblems began. Not a good option at this time.

  2. Roberta do not know who my father is an mother is dead so how do I go about for the best DNA results to find my fathers’ lineage? Question is for my brother

  3. One of the members of the Cumberland Gap DNA and Genealogy Facebook group was able to obtain a refund from Groupon after purchasing the Ancestry BY DNA test because she felt she was duped into believing this was the AncestryDNA test. I encourage anyone else in a similar situation to contact Groupon to seek a refund. Perhaps with enough complaints, Groupon will pull the plug on this dubious offer.

  4. Another factor that needs to be considered is that most Native American tribes do NOT recognize y-DNA or mtDNA tests as a means to become a member of their tribe. Also, I believe the Cherokees and several other tribes base their ancestry through the mother’s side of family, not the father’s. Several attempts have been made by genealogical societies to solicit help from the Chickasaw, Cherokee, Poarch Creeks, etc. by offering free y-DNA and mtDNA tests to descendants of James Colbert of the Chickasaw, MacPherson’s of the Creeks, and Boyles of the Cherokees. All requests have been either refused or ignored.

    • I have corresponded with Richard allen Colbert in the past re our Colbert family of elbert/ Oglethorpe cos, ga and would like to correspond with him again but find I no longer have his email address. I am hoping that Richard may see this or someone else may see and have also corresponded with him. my email is belvacauthenatyahoodotcom thank you!

  5. I am wary of Ancestry DNA since they destroyed all the mDNA samples they had when they discontinued mitochondrial testing. For many that was the only sample from a deceased relative. That puts them low on the list for me.

  6. I understand how a male can bank his DNA by starting with a 12 factor Y DNA test & later upgrading as funds permit, but which test should a female order to bank her DNA under conditions of financial constraints? KMC

  7. Hi
    I’m having trouble getting an answer to this question – hope its not because it is silly! I have had Family Finder, Y DNA (67) and MT DNA done with Family Tree DNA. The ethnicity result was 99% Northern European – with no other mix shown. This confirms what we knew about the paternal line.
    However the maternal DNA result is fairly rare (U2C1 – with high probability of being South Asian). Genealogy reveals my French ancestor Louis married in Chandernagore (French India) around 1750. He was from Castres – while his wife, Feliciana, probably had Portuguese and Indian ancestry. While, neither the Portuguese nor Indian can be confirmed through genealogy the great majority of marriages there at that time involved a Catholic Eurasian woman who had some Portuguese male ancestry (from somewhere between 1500-1700) and an Indian maternal line. Her name is also in the Southern European form, while the DNA result strongly suggests Indian. There is a direct maternal line from this lady to my mother. In short there seems to be a strong Indian and Southern European link which is not indicated in my ethnicity result.

    • The ethnicity results are estimates. We also don’t know what kind of reference population they have for India. It sounds like that marriage was long ago and there could be little of that DNA left autosomally, but the mtDNA is like a periscope and never gets erased. The long and short of this is that it’s still a mystery.

      • Regarding FTDNA, the reference population for Greater India is Gujarati with 31 markers; there is more ancestral diversity in India than in Europe, yet one population is supposed to cover this. I have Indian ancestry from my father’s side, probably essentially Panjabi, and look Indian, yet neither FTDNA nor 23andMe show it up; in fact i get strange and differing results from each for other than my mother’s side!

  8. I am surprised that you do not include, for ethnicity purposes, the National Geographic test. It certainly is not a fraud. Although it is by far the most expensive, that is because some of the cost goes towards research, where Nat Geo sends teams out to get specimens from ethnic groups all over the planet, for comparison with the rest of us.

  9. My father’s Y-DNA is a NA Haplogroup (Q1a), and my dad’s ethnicity results show 44% Native American — this was to all our shock because this revealed a NPE had taken place. I show up 15% Native American, and now I know it comes from my father’s side. My Dad’s kit is at AncestryDNA, and mine and my brother’s is at Family Tree DNA. I toggle back and forth between them in doing my research. In my opinion, I would recommend Family Tree DNA as the most reliable and most accurate.

  10. I have been having my DNA tested over 12 years by now and have had full mtDNA testing at FTDNA, 111 STRs markers of my Y-Chromosome tested by FTNA and additional SNPs tested there to gather more information. I’ve also have had testing done at 23andMe. Yet, I wanted more extensive DNA testing of my full genome or exome. So I went for about the most extensive testing not only myself but for research purposes to benefit everyone, at Full Genomes. I am exceptionally happy with their testing and have now used YFull, yes, in Moscow for even more extensive analysis. I’m also very happy with that organization with no xenophobia about what anyone there is going to take advantage of me and my data. So perhaps you might more fully explain why you found it necessary to say, “If it’s not one of these three companies, don’t buy, JUST DON’T.” is my honest question to you?

    • For the basic genetic genealogy tests that people are trying to decide between, and comparisons with others to match, the companies I mentioned are the only ones who provide that service including matching. The advanced tests you took through Full Genomes is not an entry level test, nor does it have a comparison data base. YFull doesn’t do testing that I know of at all. So none of these tests would be comparable or taken in lieu of either the Family Tree DNA, Ancestry or 23andMe tests.

  11. This is excellent info. Sadly, I’ve tested with #2 and #3 and will now see about getting my results to FTDNA for matching. I’m happy to report that my DNA show no surprises when compared to my document based family history research. Life is good.

  12. thank you. I started with FTDNA and have done Ancestry – only to see what is different and to see if I matched someone who was clearly on my paternal line. Most of my matches appear to be on both my maternal and paternal lines simultaneously. (I come from an endogamous population but my parents were related only through the population in general – All AJ and mother’s side from Poland and father’s from the southern Ukraine).

  13. Hi
    A question, once you transfer your NG data to Ftdna I was told Ftdna provide the person with a CSV report based on all the 13000 snps both positive and negative snps that where transferred………..is this correct ?
    Can I ask anyone about this?

    regards

    • It is certainly is true that any success is followed by copycats, and it is wise for ANY internet purchase, to first google the company with ‘scam, fraud, rip-off’… BUT the highly criticized company, ‘AncestryByDNA’ did NOT copy or imitate AncestryDNA… AncestryByDNA actually was in business far BEFORE the more popular one, and apparently just never did ‘get its act together’. Looks like a sad story of the need for MAJOR up-front funding to finance a massive advertising campaign, in order to be successful, which AncestryByDNA never was able to pull off.

    • I specifically excluded them, as I mentioned, because they are a legitimate service, but they don’t offer comparisons so they aren’t in the same comparison group because they lack the genealogical aspect of their service. I didn’t want anything to think poorly of them, so that’s why I indicated they were being excluded. It’s nothing negative about Nat Geo – but if you’re considering a test for genealogy which implies comparisons, they aren’t one you would consider in place of the other 3.

  14. Pingback: Ethnicity Testing – A Conundrum | DNAeXplained – Genetic Genealogy

  15. Hi

    I have tested on ftdna ( 67 markers ) and tested on Natgeno2 of which I transferred my results and got a huge gain in information for my hap tree, my question is ……I have also tested on 23andme the v3 type, it it worth while to transfer the data to ftdna ?

    regards

  16. As soon as I read this article, I ordered an autosomal from Ancestry, still, is the date; (today, 15-Feb-2016, and, order placed on 24-Jan-2016), that I have not received the test kit yet. I think that if a company like this, doesn’t know how to send a letter, a little boxed package, in this case, it shouldn’t be credited as a good one. Same happened with Geno 2.0. Also, why is so many problems in comparing information between Genographic, and, FTDNA, if, after all, is FTDNA who conducts Geno’s test, isn’t it? I passed my results from Geno 2.0 to FTDNA, and, I had to pay FTDNA for a test of themselves!!!

    • The Genographic chip is different from the chip used by FTDNA. So, no, they are not the same entity. Genographic does not give you matching. FTDNA does. That’s something that isn’t free for them to maintain. As for Ancestry, I don’t know. It’s possible it’s lost in the mail. I’d call them.

      • It’s been my experience that Autosomal kits take anywhere from three to eight weeks to complete. That depends on the number of requests sent. Many decide to take tests around Christmas time.   I took Family Tree DNA Family Finders test in 2008 and received results in three weeks.  Be patient! Richard

  17. I have tested 3 relatives at 23andme but now the prices have gone back up. I want to do further testing but I’m so used to the Haplogroups. Do any of the others translate to haplogroups?
    Clara

  18. Great article.

    I am curious after looking into getting my DNA tested. Do any of the companies give you your Haplogroup through the Y or Mtdna? I read this article here http://www.livescience.com/2084-dna-kits-secrets-scientific-scam.html

    It’s getting me thinking that it’s not that possible to really delve into genetic genealogy. The author of the article says “More insidious, these companies pretend to trace your unique ancestry through mitochondrial DNA, but that’s simply not possible. A few hundred years, a few generations, and every person’s history is a genetic mishmash. One little gene isn’t going to inform anybody about anything.”

    Thanks!

    Sam

    • Family Tree DNA always provides you with a haplogroup when you take their Y or mtDNA tests. This article is very misinformed and is more like a negative sound bite, not reflective of the science involved and conflating all of the different kinds of DNA testing available into one big pot, which is neither accurate nor appropriate. I suggest that you read this article about the different kinds of DNA testing, and the many, many success stories on this blog under the 52 Ancestors series. https://dna-explained.com/2012/10/01/4-kinds-of-dna-for-genetic-genealogy/

  19. I am looking to find some family lineage for my children. All of my ancestors are deceased. I have a twin sister, 2 brothers, 2 half-brothers, 4 children and (I think) 2 cousins living. The only information I have is what little information my father hand wrote in his Bible before he died. Which service is best for me to start with?

    • You can test yourself and all of your siblings, unless your twin is an identical twin then you don’t need to test them. You can test your brother for Y DNA which will tell you your father’s haplogroup and information. I would test them all, and at both Family Tree DNA (who had the best tools) and at Ancestry (who has the best trees.) There is a link to Family Tree DNA on the sidebar of the main blog page. You also need to do some traditional genealogy. You can also read this short article which tells you about the different kinds of DNA and how they can help you. https://dna-explained.com/2012/10/01/4-kinds-of-dna-for-genetic-genealogy/

  20. I am an only child from my dad (he only had 1 child, me) however I do have 3 maternal half sisters. My father & mother are both deceased. I do have 1 living male 1st cousin (my dad’s sister’s son) hopefully he will be willing to get a DNA test also.
    When asking for a last name, do I give my maiden name & still be able to find out my mother’s ancestry? Also you will need my married name to return any information. Which kit should I order
    to receive the best possible information? Thank You, Sheila Nicklas

    • Never heard of them. I would stay with either Family Tree DNA or Ancestry. There are a lot of people looking to take advantage of consumers out there. DNA testing is becoming big business.

  21. What is your test recommendation for being the most specific as far as geographical? I realize most tests stop at the continent level. btw, great article. Thanks

    • There are only 3 companies I recommend at all. Family Tree DNA, Ancestry and 23andMe. 23andMe is excruciatingly difficult to use. Each of the three companies will come back with a different result, so I would suggest that you test with multiple companies and then utilize the GedMatch ethnicity tools for different opinions. And remembers, different companies use different reference models and they should all be taken with a grain of salt, or two, or three:)

  22. Thank you for the reviews and threaded discussions. Actually viewed two televised DNA testing commercials the other evening offered back-to-back by two of the reviewed providers. However, “ARGGGGH!” My head is going to explode.

    Would you/someone, please give us “newbies”, eager-to-learners a well-vetted place or reference site to begin the process of learning about what our DNA can or is purported to provide – a “DNA research for dummies”. Ultimately, I guess we may learn more about where our predecessors originated, what we may have inherited, and then gloat about or hide the results. The lexicon, jargon used in the discussions is mind boggling.

    As a WWII orphan without any knowledge of ancestry and living in a closed adoption records State, if I can learn more about “ME” I’d ce pleased.

    Thank you.

  23. Thank you. I have been wanting to do this for a while now but wasn’t sure which company to use. I’m really curious about my background. My Mom did some research over 20 years ago so I know a little bit but I would like to know more. According to her research, I’m of German, English, and Irish descent on her side and we still have family, apparently, in Zurich. She also found Jewish in our history. My paternal grandmother also worked on some of our genealogy, which I’ve passed on to my best friend’s Mom to see if she can find out anything else. I’m curious as to what a DNA test would reveal about my ethnicity. I saw a YouTube video a couple weeks ago involving a group of people who thought they knew what their true ethnicity was and agreed to DNA testing. Most were completely surprised to learn they weren’t what they thought they were. Some thought they were purely one ethnicity but the testing revealed they weren’t. The video intrigued me and made me want to test mine even more than I already wanted.

    Anyway…thank you again for sharing this information. I believe I know where to start now. 🙂

  24. My wife and I are not interested in finding people or matches etc, We’re more curious about where our family history traces back to. We don’t know much about where our fathers or mothers lineage comes from, but not able to afford multiple tests. Would the NAT geo one be best? Or the Family Tree one? We’ve both been wondering about our ancestry for a while. She thinks she may be native, and I believe my father is African but that’s about all we really know.

  25. My wife and I are not interested in finding people or matches etc, We’re more curious about where our family history traces back to. We don’t know much about where our fathers or mothers lineage comes from, but not able to afford multiple tests. Would the NAT geo one be best? Or the Family Tree one? We’ve both been wondering about our ancestry for a while. She thinks she may be native, and I believe my father is African but that’s about all we really know.

  26. Great discussion, but I’m still a bit confused about testing with multiple companies.
    I took the AncestryDNA test about a year ago, and I did the Family Tree YDNA-37 test a few months ago.
    I have the opportunity to transfer my autosomal AncestryDNA test results to Family Tree DNA for $39. If I do that, do I have anything to gain by also taking the Family Tree Family Finder autosomal test, or is the raw data from the Ancestry and Family Finder autosomal tests essentially the same?

    • At the time you took the Ancestry test, the Family Finder test and the Ancestry test were performed on the same chip. So, in your case, yes, you can simply transfer your Ancestry autosomal file to Family Tree DNA. However, Ancestry changed their chip in 2016 so if you tested after that change, then you can’t transfer your file because the chips are incompatible.

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  28. I am still confused about my admixture results. The tools on Gedmatch (population sharing) don’t match each other or my paper trail. Here’s a bigger picture: 23andMe says I’m 47%British Isles, but FamilyTree shows me having NO British Isles. Is there a rule of thumb, formula, or tool that I can use to find my recent heritage, once and for all? Thanks in advance for your response.

  29. We are hoping to take a DNA test to find out if we have a Jewish herritage. We’ve been told that the Levites have a specific marker in their DNA. Is this something that would show up on one of these tests and if so, which test?

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  31. After much consideration, for autosomal testing to determine ethnicity admixture, I decided to go with 23andme, mainly because there have been a lot of complaints lately that FTDNA takes an inordinately long time to get your results to you. Once my 23andme results are ready, I’m going to immediately upload the raw data file to gedmatch and dna.land for better admixture analysis.

  32. I just wanna know my ethnicity, and you are using huge words. I spit in a tube for Ancestry, I dunno, is it gonna tell me that stuff?

    • You will get an estimate. It may or may not be accurate. You can choose to believe it with no further research, or disbelieve it with no further research, or you can do additional research. There are no magic answers.

  33. What test do you recommend since both sets of my great grand parents came from Ireland? I have heard that some aren’t very specie for this part of the world.
    Thank you!

  34. Thank you for this article. Now, when my wife and I do decide to do testing, we will know who/who not to employ. Thanks again…

  35. I am female, know little about father (surname Kelso). Have no male relatives that I know of. What test will give me the most info regarding his lineage?

    • Given what you have to work with, autosomal DNA testing may result in you matching with Kelso descendants. That would be your best bet, at both Family Tree DNA and Ancestry, and third would be 23andMe.

      • Thank you. I have gotten more from reading your site than any other on the web. 🙂

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