2014: Most bang for DNA bucks

Making the most of your 2014 DNA testing dollars

In 2012, The Legal Genealogist led off a Sunday DNA blog by asking “how do you get the most bang for the DNA buck?”1

And then followed that up last year with an update after prices tumbled for autosomal DNA tests.2


And it’s time now for another update. Because the technological changes particularly at 23andMe mean the old recommendations don’t work any more.

We’re talking here principally about autosomal DNA tests. (Autosomal DNA testing, remember, is the kind of test that works across genders to locate relatives — cousins — from all parts of your family tree.3 That’s in contrast to YDNA testing, which only men can do and which looks at the direct paternal line,4 or mitochondrial DNA testing, which looks at the direct maternal line.5)

There are four possible autosomal DNA tests you can take — from Family Tree DNA, from 23andMe, from Ancestry DNA and even from National Geographic in its Geno 2.0 test with its scientific (rather than genealogical) emphasis.

All of which I have taken. Admittedly, I’m a DNA junkie. I’ve never met a DNA test I wouldn’t take. There are real advantages to testing as widely as possible: you’re looking to find people who match you, and the key person who can help you break down your brick wall may have only tested with one company.

But since nobody is handing out DNA kits for free, the question remains… how do you get the most bang for the DNA buck? And the answer depends in part on what it is you want to find out through your DNA testing.

Every one of the genetic genealogy companies has its pros and its cons. A comparison chart explaining what features the companies do and don’t have is available in the Wiki for the International Society of Genetic Genealogy (ISOGG). Prepared by Tim Janzen, a medical doctor with a deep understanding of autosomal DNA testing, the Autosomal DNA testing comparison chart provides a good overview.

Here’s my own take.

If you can only afford to test with one company (no change from 2013): If you’re serious about using DNA as a tool in your genealogy toolkit and you can only afford to test with one company, then the company to test with is Family Tree DNA. It has more to offer the genealogist than anybody else in terms of the number of serious genealogists who use it and the features and ease of use it offers. Contacting matches is easy and the amount of information provided about matches is the best in the business.

If your primary interest is in medical information (updated for 2014): If you really want to know about the medical secrets hidden in your DNA, you have to go to a third party utility right now. The dust-up between 23andMe and the federal Food and Drug Administration over the representations 23andMe was making about what autosomal results meant for health issues has brought those reports to a halt.6 So if this is what you want, your best bet is to test with any company you prefer for genealogy, and then run your raw data though a reporting system like Promethease.

If your primary interest is in the admixture data (updated for 2014): If your primary interest is in the numbers — what percentage European or African you are, the two most updated reports are the Ancestry Composition report from 23andMe and the Ethnicity Estimate from Ancestry DNA. Family Tree DNA is still lagging behind on this but is in the process of updating its admixture analyses. But remember that the numbers are really just a guess. If you want to help everybody understand admixtures better for the future, and you can afford it, consider testing with National Geographic’s Geno 2.0. That’s where the real scientific work is being done and, if enough people test, the information we all get about deep ancestry should vastly improve. It’s not cheap — $199 for the test — and there’s not much useful genealogical information, so this is a commitment to science for tomorrow, not a test to do for genealogy today.

If the person you want to test is very old or very young (no change from 2013): Most of the time, how you test doesn’t matter. But if the person you want to test is older or younger, you may need to avoid a test that requires saliva, such as the tests from AncestryDNA and 23andMe. Older people sometimes can’t produce enough saliva to test and it’s impossible to tell a baby how to produce the kind of saliva needed. Family Tree DNA uses swabs rubbed on the inside of the cheek and that avoids this problem.

If you want to link your DNA results to your family tree (no change from 2013): The only company right now that links DNA results to your family tree and compares it to others’ family trees is AncestryDNA. When the tree information is right, it’s a wonderfully useful tool. It’s considerably less so when — as is common — the tree information is wrong, or your match doesn’t have a tree at Ancestry, or your match’s tree is private. There are as yet no tools at AncestryDNA to compare DNA when there is no tree match.

If you want to fish in all the ponds for the lowest price (updated for 2014): Of course, the best way to get all the matches you can possibly get it to test with all three major companies. These days, testing with all three is less expensive than it used to be to test with just one. But you can save yourself a little bit of money and get your results into all three databases this way:

Step 1. Test with AncestryDNA first. It’ll cost you $99. (The big change for 2014 is that you can no longer use 23andMe for this first step because its raw data today using its new V4 testing chip isn’t compatible with the Family Tree DNA system.)

Step 2. The minute you get your results from the first test, transfer your raw data to Family Tree DNA for $69. When I say “transfer,” that doesn’t end your matches at the other company, it just gets you into the Family Tree DNA system with all of its benefits.

Step 3. When you can afford it, test with 23andMe for another $99.

That puts you into all three pools for a total of $267 — less than what you used to pay for one such test in the past.


  1. Judy G. Russell, “More bang for DNA test bucks,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 6 May 2012 (http://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 27 July 2013).
  2. Judy G. Russell, “Update: More bang for DNA test bucks,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 28 July 2013 (http://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 5 Apr 2014).
  3. See generally Judy G. Russell, “Autosomal DNA testing,” National Genealogical Society Magazine, October-December 2011, 38-43.
  4. ISOGG Wiki (http://www.isogg.org/wiki), “Y chromosome DNA test,” rev. 5 Mar 2014.
  5. ISOGG Wiki (http://www.isogg.org/wiki), “Mitochondrial DNA,” rev. 29 Oct 2013.
  6. See Judy G. Russell, “23andMe suspends health tests,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 6 Dec 2013 (http://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 5 Apr 2014).
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60 Responses to 2014: Most bang for DNA bucks

  1. Ruth Rawls says:

    Thank you for this! I always have a “take-away” from your posts!

  2. Theresa King Ager says:

    Don’t forget to recommend Gedmatch.com. This free service (donations encouraged, but not required) allows you to match with people from all of the companies that have also uploaded to Gedmatch. This way you can compare info when you can only afford 1 $99 test.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      I’m a big fan of GedMatch and have written about it in the past — but remember that you can only compare to the results of others who’ve chosen to upload their results and that’s only a small fraction of the people who’ve tested with the other companies.

  3. Shirley Ann Rankin says:

    Hi Judy,
    I’ll be putting together a DNA testing display for our Genealogical Society at the end of this month. I would like to use this post as part of the display, if that’s possible.

  4. Dave N says:

    “If your primary interest is in medical information”… Then you should test with 23andMe, and THEN use the raw resulting data with Promethease… 23andMe provides results for medically-significant markers that are omitted by the other companies. It does enter a less clear area, BUT inclusion of more markers that have medical implications should be a priority “if your primary interest is in medical information”…

    • Mary E Hall says:

      Good point. I believe FT DNA specifically tries NOT to obtain health rich SNPs and AncestryDNA, perhaps inadvertently, does pick some up.

      23andMe still targets and tests health rich SNPs even if they don’t provide health reports on them, at the moment.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Good point that the other companies make a deliberate effort not to capture medical information.

  5. Lisa Lisson says:

    Judy, thank you for outlining this so thoroughly. I am on my way to becoming a “DNA junkie”, too and the cost has deterred me at times.

  6. Lynne Klemens says:

    I recently attended the Ancestry Day conference in Philadelphia sponsored by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. A representative from Ancestry.com there told me that I could plug my raw results from my son’s FTDNA YDNA test into Ancestry.com’s DNA test system for free. I’m considering this since my son had no matches for his Eastern European DNA with Family Tree DNA. Could this be correct? Free?
    Lynne Klemens

    • Mary E Hall says:

      Yes, that’s true. You have to manually provide them but anyone can enter ONE set of yDNA STR values into Ancestry’s database. I think you have to have an Ancestry.com subscription, so it’s not entirely “free”.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Yes, you can manually enter the markers from his YDNA test into the Ancestry pages. The database there isn’t all that big, but it’s worth taking advantage of.

  7. Linda Bridger says:

    I had a DNA test done on my husband for genealogy purposes. It really only traces the mothers side. I found it extremely vague. It showed he is of European decent which we probably all are.
    I did not get any information that was of any help from having the test done. Save your money.
    I had it done through Ancestry which I have been a member for 15 years and believe it is a wonderful site and very helpful but DNA only tells you about what percent of European and Scandinavian decent you are. Not a whole lot of help.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      DNA tests are only as good as the work you put into comparing your results with those of others against a solid paper trail, Linda. By themselves, they’re not going to tell you an awful lot.

      • Laura Davenport says:

        It sounds to me like Linda may have done only the mtDNA test, not the autosomal if it tests only for the maternal line. I think it’s really important that people read before they test, I still see people with the idea that the only testing of use in genealogy is yDNA which certainly has an important place still, but autosomal is the broadest and most versatile.

        • Judy G. Russell says:

          Ancestry isn’t doing mtDNA tests any more (both mtDNA and YDNA on the website as shown consistently as “out of stock”) so, if this test was recent, it was autosomal.

          • Laura Davenport says:

            Yes, I know mt/y aren’t available through Ancestry anymore. But it does sound as if she either had the mt done in the past or does not understand her DNA results at all if it’s autosomal. This is entirely possible as I know or have encountered many who cannot understand how DNA can be done on either sex because “everybody knows DNA can only be used for genealogy if it is done on a male”. Direct quote.

  8. Debi Austen says:

    I hate to sound stupid but I have a question – if I’ve received my results from ancestry.com, do I initiate sending the raw data to FTDNA through ancestry or Family Tree? What I really want to know is who do I pay? :-)

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Not stupid at all! The payment is to FTDNA to make available all of its analysis for your data. At AncestryDNA, all you do is download the raw data. When you upload it to FTDNA, that’s when the payment takes place. There are directions for downloading the AncestryDNA raw data at Ancestry itself (http://dna.ancestry.com/atFAQ#raw-3) or, for example, in Roberta Estes’ DNAeXplained blog (here).

  9. jeannie says:

    Thx, you answered all my questions; it’s as if you were reading my mind. I just completed the Ancestry.com test and will surely download the raw data and send it along to Family Tree DNA. I too want to do them all but will go for the first 3 and then see if l can afford the National Geo one. Thanks for the info!

  10. Michael says:

    “DNA tests are only as good as the work you put into comparing your results with those of others against a solid paper trail.” Indeed, and since Ancestry.com is the only site where you can find those solid paper trails, I still don’t understand why it’s not your first choice for a “if you only test once”. The existence of poorly sourced trees and the absence of better tools doesn’t outweigh the importance of linking to paper trails in my mind. But perhaps I’m overgeneralizing from my vastly superior results at Ancestry compared to the other two sites. I’m pretty sure we’ll agree to disagree but I did want to put the counter-argument out there. Love this blog!

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      It’s not my first choice because I can’t verify the match, Michael. Yes, the match and I are cousins. In what line? On which side? I have no data to look at other than generally undocumented trees that are often filled with errors. That’s why I can’t make it my first choice “if you only test once.”

      • Michael says:

        Judy, for endogamous populations like mine, I don’t see any way to verify a match on Family Tree DNA (or 23andMe, or GEDMatch) with just tools but no family trees. 23andMe tries and fails pretty spectacularly, so it’s not just me. Maybe the choice for only test once is different in those situations.

        • Judy G. Russell says:

          Michael, the reality is that neither DNA nor the paper trail alone is the way to go: it’s always always always the two together.

          • Laura Davenport says:

            True, but as a person who has had a long career in the field of genetics and a long, but shorter career in the field of genealogy, I did the Ancestry test knowing it’s shortcomings (which I hope are on the mend)just because my trees are hosted at Ancestry.
            I did not test to blindly root out every possible living relative, but with certain goals aimed at solving specific problems in my own family tree. For me, this worked really well and was certainly worth the $99 even if that had been all I’d ever done. I did go on to upload to GedMatch although not so far to FTDNA.I come from a mixture of highly endogamous populations so seeing at the segment level the endogamy I can see in my genealogy was interesting, but really not critical to solving the mysteries I did the test for in the first place.
            The level of technical expertise of the tester is also important. The current Ancestry reports are on the “quick and dirty” side but not everyone is wired to ever understand segment comparisons, triangulations, chromosome browsers, the IBS/IBD distinction and on and on. Ancestry is playing to their audience. They may be underestimating many of them, but if people cannot understand what a very simple single “match” is at Ancestry they are overwhelmed and discouraged with detailed results. And, I’ve seen people overwhelmed and discouraged with their Ancestry results, not a clue as to what to do with them and completely missing the point that “you have two trees” and random DNA matches won’t build you a genealogical tree. These people fare poorly at places like FTDNA and GedMatch and often do not understand that some learning base is really a necessity at these places and even at Ancestry.
            If somebody says to me “I just can’t handle the numbers” or “what am I supposed to do with this list of people I’ve never heard of” and they are referring to their Ancestry match list I’m not going to suggest they test at all three companies or upload to FTDNA or GedMatch.

  11. Conrad Scott says:

    Thank You for the very interesting and informative web site. I was adopted in the 1950s. I know absolutely nothing about my birth parents. My wife has traced her genealogy through both parents to the first settlers of New Mexico. My teenage daughter and her first cousin both did DNA Tribes. They didn’t have many similar matches, although interestingly enough there was a hot spot on the map where my wife grew up in Southern Colorado/N New Mexico. My daughter wants me to take a test to figure out my ethnicity. I would like your recommendation for the most accurate test to determine this. I have no interest in actually finding long lost relatives, so the actual finding ancestors part doesn’t very much. Thanks

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Conrad, the problem is that the ethnicity tests are simply not good enough now (and may never be good enough) to tell you very much about your ethnicity beyond the continental level (Europe versus Africa versus Asia, etc.). Please see the post Admixture: not soup yet (posted 18 May 2014).

  12. Conrad Scott says:

    Thank You!

  13. Mike Cha says:

    The AncestryDNA $79 sale (well really $89 with shipping) led me here to figure out if it’s worthwhile to take my first DNA test. Thank you for this great info. My question is this, is there any benefit to getting the test for my immediate siblings? I’m male and I have both male & female siblings. How about my children (boys only)? Thanks.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      The AncestryDNA test is an autosomal DNA test. That means you and your siblings — male or female — are all equally good candidates. You and your siblings will each inherit 50% of your autosomal DNA from each of your parents — but it won’t be exactly the same 50%. So you will have matches to cousins who don’t match your siblings and they will have matches to cousins who don’t match you. For that reason, I recommend testing everyone you can afford to test. As for your sons, they will have matches to their mother’s side, which of course you will not have.

  14. Barbara says:

    hello, what an awesome and informative bl
    blog! My question is ive been suggested to apply for native American scholarships for grad school, but i have to have proof of the blood line. which test or website will have the best accuracy? also both of my parents are deseased,would their dna have helped my findings? ?

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      You’d have to check with the scholarship service and see (a) if it accepts DNA evidence (most do not, they require tribal recognition) and (b) if so, what company’s results it accepts. And remember that the ethnicity aspects of autosomal testing are the weakest of all and may not show what you hope even if you actually do have Native American ancestry.

  15. JK says:

    I use dna to find possible male relatives some 14 generations ago. I have used 12 marker Ychrome test…. updated to 25 test and then 36. I can not see any benefit for more detailed testing since I am looking at possible connections back to the 1500s. I am basically trying to find where my ancestors came from in England and am hoping to find a relative back before my ancestor came over in 1600s. Is my logic correct. I do not see any benefit of the auto… whatever testing. Any real benefit to this later testing if you are not african american… ie likely slave ancestry.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      YDNA — the father to son to son form — doesn’t change much from generation to generation, so you might certainly get lucky and find someone who matches you who still lives in England or who descends from a well-documented English line. There’s no need to expand beyond 37 markers just yet. There are MANY reasons to do autosomal testing that have nothing to do with slave ancestry. Most of us have brick walls or challenges within four or five generations that can be overcome with the help of cousins identified through autosomal testing.

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  17. Gary says:

    I just got my DNA from ancestryDNA. You mentioned that once I received it I could transfer it to Family tree DNA for $69.00. How is this done?

  18. Mariella says:

    Wow, what a helpful post! I have a question that I hope you can help me with:

    I’m trying to learn more about my paternal grandmother. Rumor has it she was one-quarter Cherokee, from her mother. I am planning on doing a DNA test, for what it’s worth, but I was wondering if it would make sense to have my aunt (my great-grandmother’s direct female descendent) do a DNA test as well. She’s elderly, and I’m visiting her next week, so it’s the perfect opportunity to have her tested if that would be helpful. So my question is a) would it matter, and b) what test would be most helpful for that?

    Thank you so much for being such an invaluable resource!

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Absolutely yes get the oldest living generation tested for autosomal DNA *and* get the direct female line descendant tested for mitochondrial DNA as well. The mtDNA has to be done through Family Tree DNA, so you might as well do autosomal testing there too, but I’d also do autosomal through 23andMe in this case since they have — at the moment at least — the best admixture analysis (trying to figure out where our ancestors came from in addition to who we match as cousins).

  19. Mariella says:

    Thank you so much for your speedy response! I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you taking the time to respond to all these questions (especially mine!). :-)

  20. Roo says:

    Is it better to join Ancestry.com first and build my family tree from what I know or should I do the DNA testing first? Then compare/input data?

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      There’s no “better” here — do ‘em both! You can build your tree out while waiting for the results to come in.

  21. Janet says:

    Thank you so much for this information – it is very helpful for a beginner such as myself. I do need to ask for an opinion, however. I have run into walls while researching my father’s family and my grandfather’s family on my mother’s side. Since I am a member of Ancestry, I would like to do the DNA test myself & then upload to Family Tree, as recommended. However, I also was thinking about having my oldest brother’s son (all of my brothers are deceased) and the son of my mother’s brother tested to see what could be gleaned. If it makes sense to do this, would it be better to go through Ancestry and then upload to Family Tree or simply do the yDNA test through Family Tree? Thank you.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      You’re always better off testing your family’s autosomal DNA as widely as possible, Janet, so if you can afford it, then yes test everyone at AncestryDNA, then transfer their raw data to Family Tree DNA (you would then have all three of you in both autosomal databases) and then test the two men at Family Tree DNA for their YDNA.

      • Janet says:

        Thank you so very much! I do appreciate it. I apologize for the double posting. When I checked for a response yesterday, it appeared that my question had not posted. When I re-posted, the original appeared so I do apologize for that.

  22. Mike Harland says:

    When it comes to ancestry composition if my wife and I each got tested could we assume that our daughters would be 1/2 of each of us?

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Each of your daughters inherited 50% of her genes from you and 50% from your wife — but they could each have gotten a very different mix from each of you. Your genes were randomly jumbled and your wife’s were randomly jumbled with each child. So Daughter 1 might have gotten 25% (half of your half) from your father and 25% from your mother, while Daughter 2 might have gotten 40% from your father and 10% from your mother. So that could really throw the ancestry composition (ethnicity estimates) off between the two of them. That’s why I keep saying to forget the percentages. Do DNA testing to find cousins and break down brick walls, NOT to find out what percentage your ancestry composition is — because it really can’t tell you what the percentages are.

  23. Gary Snyder says:

    I would like to know which DNA test would be best to find any information about my male doners identity. And thank you for being so informative with your responses.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      For any male wanting to know about an unknown male parent, both a YDNA and an autosomal DNA test is the way to go. YDNA can only be tested through Family Tree DNA; autosomal DNA testing is done through 23andMe, Family Tree DNA and AncestryDNA and you should test with all companies to get the greatest number of matches.

      • Gary Snyder says:

        I am the only person to test. So it appears that the YDNA is my first best place to look. Thank you!

        • Judy G. Russell says:

          You’re the only person you know of. But if a cousin or nephew or brother or sister of the donor has done autosomal testing, that may show up in the database. That’s why autosomal testing should also be done. The YDNA is just your father’s father’s father’s line; autosomal is also your father’s mother’s father’s mother’s line. Lots more potential overall.

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