At-Home DNA Ancestry Testing
- Also Known As:
- DNA Family Lineage Test
- DNA Genealogy Test
Test Quick Guide
At-home DNA ancestry testing provides information about your family lineage by first analyzing your genetic code and then comparing it with the DNA of millions of other people. The test is done with a saliva sample that you collect at home and send to a laboratory as part of an at-home test kit.
About the Test
Purpose of the test
The purpose of ancestry testing is to help understand family relationships and genealogy dating back multiple generations. It is often used by people who want to learn more about their family history.
Some ancestry testing also offers DNA analysis about physical characteristics, lifestyle traits, or health-related genes.
What does the test measure?
Ancestry testing starts by analyzing your DNA, which is the code of instructions held in every cell in your body. DNA is made up of billions of chemical combinations called bases. Every individual has unique DNA except for identical twins, who share the same DNA.
While it is possible to map all your DNA, which is known as your full genome, most genealogy tests instead analyze specific sections of DNA that are related to ancestry. Your DNA in these sections can be compared to DNA collected from other people whose results are stored in vast registries of genetic information.
Through this comparison, algorithms can calculate estimates about the geographic history of your family lineage, the overlap of your DNA with DNA of people of specific races or ethnicities, and/or certain family connections or relationships.
The type of information provided by an at-home ancestry test depends on the kind of DNA analysis that is performed. There are three main types of analysis that can be used in these tests:
- Autosomal DNA testing: Autosomal DNA is inherited from both of your parents and is the majority of your DNA. Of the 23 chromosomes that hold your DNA, 22 make up autosomal DNA. This DNA can provide helpful information about recent generations of your family tree. Analysis may also look at snippets of your autosomal DNA, known as single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), and compare them to SNPs of people with different ethnic or geographic backgrounds.
- Y chromosome testing: Only males have a Y chromosome, so this DNA segment is only passed from father to son. Tracing the DNA in the Y chromosome may track your paternal line back for many generations, but it is by nature only a partial view of your total genealogy.
- Mitochondrial DNA testing: Some DNA is located in parts of cells called mitochondria. This mitochondrial DNA is passed from mothers to all their children regardless of their sex. Testing mitochondrial DNA offers detail about your maternal line and female ancestors.
The type of DNA analysis that is used varies by brands and versions of at-home tests. Many tests involve combinations of these types of DNA analysis.
It is important to know that some tests offer to include information about genetic traits in your report alongside details about ancestry. This can include health information about topics like disease risk. It can also relate to physical traits or lifestyle factors such as your sleep patterns or types of allergies. It is important to know that this is analysis of autosomal DNA distinct from ancestry testing and has separate benefits and risks.
When should I get an at-home ancestry test?
At-home ancestry testing is non-medical and elective in nature, which means that it is your choice whether or not to get tested. As a result, the questions of if or when you should do this kind of testing are inherently personal.
In general, the best way to make these decisions is by becoming informed about the potential benefits and downsides of ancestry DNA testing. Doing your research beforehand can help you decide if it’s right for you, and, if you decide to take a test, you can know what to expect and how to choose a test option that best suits your preferences.
Benefits and Downsides of At-Home Ancestry Tests
Genetic testing is a powerful tool. When used for at-home ancestry tests, it comes with several possible benefits and drawbacks.
Potential benefits of at-home DNA ancestry tests include:
- Personalized testing: By analyzing your specific DNA signature, this testing offers results that are tailored specifically to you.
- Insights into your lineage: Many people have significant curiosity about their family history, and DNA testing can often provide meaningful insights into personal ancestry dating back multiple generations.
- New avenues of genealogy research: For people who are trying to trace a family tree or other family relationships, DNA tests can help answer some questions while also highlighting new directions for additional research to explore their family history.
- Simple and convenient testing: Straightforward test kits let you take the test quickly, on your own schedule, and in the comfort of your own home.
- DNA analysis options: With many different tests on the market, you can choose which type of DNA analysis is right for you.
- Straightforward pricing: The cost of the test is normally transparent with different flat-rate options based on the type of DNA analysis that is performed.
DNA ancestry testing also has potential downsides:
- Privacy concerns: When sending in your sample, you provide extensive personal identifying information to the testing company. Ultimately, you are placing significant trust in the company to manage your data responsibly and protect it from theft or misuse. Privacy policies can be helpful, but many are weak, confusing, or subject to future changes.
- Inconsistent interpretation: While most companies are consistent in how they conduct the first step of reading your DNA, there are frequently discrepancies between different companies in the interpretation of your ancestry. The evaluation of your family lineage depends on the database of DNA that you are compared to, which can affect results. Overall, there remain considerable gaps in accurately determining ancestry, so it’s important to remember that results are estimates and often not clear-cut.
- Lack of regulation: Tests that look only at ancestry are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. With few rules in place, it is more challenging to know that a test provider follows best practices in their laboratory and conducts high quality DNA analysis.
- Possible unexpected and upsetting information: The information from an ancestry test can be revealing, and in some cases, this may be stressful or upsetting. For example, tests may show unexpected relationships or aspects of family history. Surprising results about lineage may disrupt your sense of personal identity or group affiliation.
- Potential oversimplification of identity: Race, ethnicity, and other aspects of identity are not determined by DNA. Instead, they are influenced by a wide range of social and cultural factors. Interpretation of ancestry testing risks oversimplifying these aspects of identity by giving the perception that they can be reduced to genetics alone.
- Full cost is out-of-pocket: Unlike medical DNA testing that may be partly covered by insurance, you will have to pay for the full price of ancestry testing yourself.
Talking with a genetic counselor may be helpful in understanding and managing the benefits and risks of DNA testing. Working with a genetic counselor is common in medical genetic testing but is not a standard part of ancestry testing. Nevertheless, you can ask your doctor for a referral or look for a local genetic counselor using the National Society of Genetic Counselors’ directory. Consulting with a genetic counselor can be especially beneficial if you take an ancestry test that also provides information about health or other genetic traits.
Types of At-Home Tests
There are many different brands and versions of at-home ancestry tests. Below is an overview of the top options that are available.
23andme – Ancestry + Traits Service
Type of testing: Autosomal DNA, Mitochondrial DNA, Y Chromosome
Results timeline: 3 to 6 weeks
The Ancestry and Traits Service from 23andMe is our best overall pick for DNA ancestry testing because of its expansive testing and array of features.
23andMe uses a sample of your saliva to generate a range of reports based on analyses of your autosomal and mitochondrial DNA and the Y chromosome in males.
A detailed report provides a breakdown of your ancestry tied to a list of over 2,000 geographic regions. Information about your paternal and maternal lines is available, along with timelines of likely ancestral migration.
An optional feature allows you to look for relatives among 23andMe’s sizable DNA registry. If you find a likely match, you can message them directly. You can also look for links to famous people with whom you may have a family connection.
Your test comes with an automatically-populated family tree so that you can share your personal results with family members. The traits component of the test includes several dozen reports about physical features, smell, taste, and other more eccentric individual characteristics related to your autosomal DNA.
Results from 23andMe are normally available within 3-6 weeks after you put your sample in the mail, and the online interface makes it easy to browse and understand the results.
Privacy settings can be adjusted, allowing you to opt in or opt out of sharing your information with the company for other purposes like research and finding relatives.
You can also add additional DNA analysis services to the Ancestry + Traits Service that will provide more information related to your health predispositions.
Best Trial Period
Type of testing: Autosomal DNA
Results timeline: 6 to 8 weeks
Using an analysis of autosomal DNA taken from a saliva sample, Ancestry.com’s AncestryDNA test generates a personalized ethnicity estimate. This is represented as a pie chart with assigned percentages to approximate different components of your ancestry.
The analysis draws on a large registry of DNA samples that has been subdivided into over 1,400 geographic regions. As Ancestry.com has expanded its registry, they have developed dynamic algorithms that can more accurately reflect key elements of your ancestry.
This at-home test can serve as a launch pad for in-depth research into your family history. Along with your DNA results, you can sign up for a free trial period, during which you can make use of Ancestry.com’s genealogy tools.
For example, you can use known details about your family to search through over 27 billion diverse historical records. With this and other tools, you can build out your family tree and, in conjunction with your DNA test results, better visualize the movement of your ancestors over many generations.
If you want to look for relatives, the AncestryDNA test provides an easy interface for locating and color-coding DNA matches who may be family members.
Taking the test is straightforward: follow the instructions provided to prepare your saliva sample, then mail it in using the prepaid return mailer. Results are typically available within 6-8 weeks.
You have the option of adding DNA trait analysis to your test along with ancestry information, which may give you some insight into genes that are related to features like wellness and appearance. Your profile also includes adjustable privacy settings to suit your preferences about how your results are used and stored.
Best In-House Lab
FamilyTreeDNA – Family Finder
Sample: Cheek swab
Type of testing: Autosomal DNA
Results timeline: 2 to 4 weeks
A major distinguishing feature of the FamilyTreeDNA Family Finder test is that the company uses an in-house laboratory rather than sending your DNA sample to a third party to be analyzed. The FamilyTreeDNA facility is CLIA-certified and CAP-accredited, reflecting a commitment to quality assurance.
By using an in-house lab, FamilyTreeDNA delivers results for its Family Finder test in 2-4 weeks, which is among the fastest ancestry DNA testing options available. In-house analysis reduces the number of parties involved in handling your sample, which may enhance overall privacy protection. In addition, FamilyTreeDNA allows you to customize your privacy settings and manage how your information is used.
The Family Finder test is one of multiple DNA testing options from FamilyTreeDNA. It uses an easy-to-provide cheek swab and analyzes your autosomal DNA.
Key elements of the test results include the myOrigins report, which is a visual tool to better understand your ancestry. It displays a geographic heat map alongside percentage estimates of components of your ancestry based on comparisons to the FamilyTreeDNA registry.
Another feature is the Family Finder matching tool, which enables you to locate other people who are likely relatives based on their DNA test results. You can also view individual matches and see how your DNA compares to theirs.
FamilyTreeDNA also offers expanded packages for more robust DNA testing. At an additional cost and with a longer results timeline, you can opt for analyses of mitochondrial DNA and the Y chromosome in males. Full DNA sequencing options are available for those who want the most extensive and technical test reports.
Best for Subregional DNA Breakdown
Living DNA – Full Ancestry Kit
Sample: Cheek swab
Type of testing: Autosomal DNA, Mitochondrial DNA, Y Chromosome
Results timeline: 6 to 8 weeks
The Living DNA Full Ancestry Kit combines multiple types of DNA testing with a robust set of features.
The test uses a cheek swab that you take at home and mail to a laboratory that provides results in a timeframe of 6-8 weeks. The lab conducts analyses of autosomal DNA, mitochondrial DNA, and the Y chromosome in male test-takers.
With this extensive testing, the Living DNA test provides a detailed look at your ancestry over many generations. The company’s DNA registry covers 150 broad geographic regions and then zooms in on hundreds of subregions. This focused subregional breakdown offers granular details about where your forebears lived and their likely migration patterns.
Along with this genealogical information, the Living DNA Full Ancestry Kit includes DNA matching services that help you find and connect with unknown family networks across the globe.
Living DNA is based in the United Kingdom and launched its DNA testing services in the United States in 2018. The company does not sell personal data and allows you to modify the settings for how your results are used and protected.
For people who want to explore DNA testing beyond simply ancestry, Living DNA offers an additional service to analyze your genes for information about optimizing your personal health and wellness.
MyHeritage DNA Kit
Sample: Cheek swab
Type of testing: Autosomal DNA
Results timeline: Within 4 weeks
The MyHeritage DNA kit is a top choice for people looking for the most affordable way to explore their ancestry using DNA testing.
To take this test, you simply use the provided kit to take a swab of your cheek. After mailing the swab to the lab, you get results from MyHeritage within about four weeks.
The MyHeritage test provides ancestral information by examining your autosomal DNA. It then compares your results with its growing DNA registry. Using that data, the company can trace your ancestry to more than 2,100 regions, helping you to see and understand the geographic roots of your family tree.
In a user-friendly interface, the MyHeritage test results show a percentage breakdown of specific components of your ancestry. The company can also search for other users who have DNA sequences that show them to be likely relatives.
With these key features of geographic ancestry tracing and family finding, this test meets the needs of many users and is offered at an especially approachable price.
The MyHeritage website provides multiple privacy controls so that you can decide both how your information is used and whether it is deleted or stored by the company.
For people who want to go a step further and build out a digital family tree, search billions of historical records for notes about ancestors, or organize family photos, MyHeritage provides additional services that are available with the company’s subscription ancestry research services.
Interpreting At-Home Test Results
The results of your DNA ancestry test will normally be provided electronically with a test report that outlines the analysis of your sample. Like the results themselves, the interface and presentation of results varies by test provider.
Many companies strive to make the test report as clear and straightforward as possible by listing specific family relationships, geographic lineage, or ties to ethnic or other groups. While a simple presentation of your results makes them easier to read and understand, it may oversimplify some aspects of your DNA analysis.
Several important considerations can provide meaningful context to your DNA ancestry results:
- Many results are only estimates: Results about your ethnicity and geographic heritage are not exact but are instead estimates based on how your DNA compares to the DNA of other people in their reference database.
- Further research may be necessary: For various aspects of your lineage, you may need to do offline genealogy research, such as looking into printed records, to document your family tree.
- Unexpected results are possible: Some people who take ancestry tests get surprising results. These may reveal family members who were previously unknown. In some cases, these results may be troubling or stressful.
- Results may affect other family members: Because biological family members share aspects of their DNA, your test results may have implications for other people in your family. Other family members may not want to know the information in your results, so you should be aware that test results can in some cases add complications to family dynamics.
- Testing doesn’t determine your identity: Categories of identity, including race and ethnicity, are about much more than just DNA. While ancestry tests can offer clues about your family lineage, it is not definitive proof of ethnicity, race, or other aspects of individual identity.
- Health-related results may not be validated: If your ancestry test includes health-related gene analysis, it is important to remember that this is not a diagnostic test. Genes and health are extremely complex, and many factors affect your risk of different medical issues. For this reason, it is best to discuss any health topics related to your DNA test with your doctor or a genetic counselor.
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