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Rather switch than fight? 23andMe transfers to FTDNA – yes!

In genetic genealogy circles, when the subject of autosomal DNA testing comes up — the kind that works across genders and doesn’t have to be a son of a son of a son or a daughter of a daughter of a daughter — there are often fights er, spirited discussions over which testing lab to use. Some folks are strong advocates of Family Tree DNA (FTDNA); others are equally committed to 23andMe.

Sure, you can test with both — I have, mostly for … what’s the technical phrase… “shits and giggles” — but that’s expensive. Most folks started out with one company or the other and just stuck with it. Then they found that, if they tested with FTDNA and wanted to see if they matched 23andMe users, or if they tested with 23andMe and wanted to see if they matched FTDNA users, they had to use third party tools. There are good ones — Gedmatch is probably the best — but lots of folks really want their data in one place.

23andMe to FTDNA - yes!

So do the FTDNA cousins duke it out with 23andMe cousins? Nope. You don’t have to fight, you can switch1 — and if you act by 10 February 2012 you get a great deal.

FTDNA has just opened up its system so 23andMe folks can upload their results for a reasonable cost to FTDNA where a wide variety of tools and features are available specifically for genealogists that just don’t exist or don’t work as well on 23andMe. And folks, when I say “switch” here, it’s just a figure of speech, okay? You don’t lose your results at 23andMe — you gain results at FTDNA.

Now let me make one thing perfectly clear.2 There’s nothing whatsoever wrong with testing at 23andMe. The testing protocol is excellent, and if you’re interested in health issues, it’s pretty much the only game in town. But that’s the point, really: the essential difference between 23andMe and FTDNA is that many many people who test with 23andMe do so for the health-related testing, not for genealogy, while everybody who tests with FTDNA is doing it for genealogy. The core philosophy of health testing is confidentiality. The core philosophy of genealogy is sharing. They don’t play together nicely.

If you’re a 23andMe cousin, and you’re thinking about adding your results to the FTDNA database, let me give you some reasons why my vote is YES:

1. Maybe you’ll match me, and I can use all the help I can get on some brick wall lines. (If you can document Cottrells from Madison County KY around 1820 in your family tree, I’ll pick up the tab on getting your 23andMe data into FTDNA. Seriously. Contact me!)

2. Contacting matches is far far easier on FTDNA. On 23andMe, you have to use its internal proprietary system to contact folks you match and you can only contact five matches a day; on FTDNA you’ll get the email addresses for your matches and can contact them directly whenever you choose. That’s because the default, again, on 23andMe is confidentiality whereas the vast majority of FTDNA customers sign a “you betcha! let my matches contact me!” form when they send in their test kits.

3. Responsiveness of matches is better on FTDNA. Because 23andMe customers often test for health, many of them don’t ever respond to a contact request (my closest 23andMe match has never responded to my contact requests at all); some flat-out refuse contact (and say so, as one of my close matches did… anonymously, of course, since that’s how 23andMe is set up).

4. Data analysis tools are far superior on FTDNA. On 23andMe, you can’t ever see where you match people unless they actually respond to one of your five-per-day contact requests. On FTDNA, you can see the data and use tools like the chromosome browser with all of your matches, even if they never answer your emails. On 23andMe, the tools are pretty basic; you can see where exactly — on what chromosome — you match an individual, but getting more out of the results is hard and has to be done one at a time. On FTDNA, you can compare five matches at a time; you can sort your matches by how close the predicted relationship is, or on common surnames (if surnames have been listed by your matches); you can designate known relatives and then compare matches with them to see if you have matches in common or you can set the filters to show only people you don’t have in common; you can add notes to each of your matches for your use later; you may find GEDCOMs already online for easy comparison (my GEDCOM’s there — come ON, Cottrell cousins! I need you!).

Now it’s true that there are features on 23andMe that FTDNA doesn’t have. You can’t use FTDNA to see whether you and a match share the gene for, say, how well you taste bitter flavors the way you can on 23andMe. I’m not entirely sure how I would ever use that information, except perhaps as the weirdest conversation starter with a super-DNA-geek. But hey… whatever floats your boat. For me, the choice is clear: FTDNA works for me.

The price to get your 23andMe data over to FTDNA varies based on exactly what test you got at 23andMe and what you want from FTDNA. The best deal is only good through 10 February, an introductory price of $50, and that’s if you tested on the V3 platform (starting late 2010 or early 2011). I’d tell you how to find out which platform your test was on, but for the life of me I can’t find that information. Which, by the way, is another reason I like FTDNA. I can find answers there, and if I can’t find ’em, an email gets a quick response.

For more info on FTDNA pricing for 23andMe folks, head over to FTDNA and read all about this at the page for Frequently Asked Questions about 3rd Party Transfers: Family Finder Results. To order, go to FTDNA, scroll down to the Third Party, and choose Transfer Relative Finder (Introductory).

Unless you’re descended from the 1820s Madison County KY Cottrells, in which case I really am serious. Contact me. I’ll foot the bill for this and buy you dinner if we match.


  1. It occurs to me that youngsters who’ve never seen television ads for cigarettes — and maybe never even heard of Tareytons — may have no clue where the phrase “I’d rather fight than switch” entered common speech, but, as usual, I digress…
  2. I’ll bet a lot of those same youngsters don’t know this was a Richard Nixon catchphrase either. See Conrad Black, A Life in Full: Richard M. Nixon (New York : PublicAffairs, 2007), 27. Are we feeling old today, or what?
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