DNA testing has revolutionized the world of genealogy over the past few years and has now become an essential tool for family history research. There are many excellent genealogy reasons to take a DNA test including confirming your family tree, breaking down brick walls, connecting with new cousins and learning about your ethnic make-up.
This in-depth review will compare 2 of the major DNA testing companies who sell autosomal DNA tests for genealogy purposes: AncestryDNA and MyHeritageDNA. These are 2 of the most well-known powerhouse companies in the genealogy industry; both have been around for many years offering access to records and family tree building tools on a subscription basis. When it comes to DNA testing Ancestry began selling direct-to-consumer autosomal DNA tests in the US in 2012 and MyHeritage followed in its footsteps in 2016 — but which is best if you want to test for genealogy purposes? Let’s check them out...
Both tests are very professionally packaged, easy-to-use, contain simple-to-follow instructions and provide helpful return shipping options. For both companies, the first thing you need to do is activate the kit online at the applicable website. After that, you will need to provide your sample — and this is where the 2 companies differ in their approaches. Ancestry’s test requires a saliva sample: you have to fill a small tube with around a quarter of a teaspoon of saliva. MyHeritage, on the other hand, opts for a cheek swab test – you have to gently rub the swab against the inside of one cheek for 30-60 seconds and then repeat the process on your other cheek with a second swab. Both methods of collection are quick and simple but cheek swabs are sometimes easier for elderly people and those who struggle to produce saliva for medical reasons. Once you have completed your sample all you need to do is place it in the provided return postage box (Ancestry) or envelope (MyHeritage) and then send this in the mail.
Winner: MyHeritageDNA (there’s not much in it but solely because a cheek swab is slightly easier)
This is one of the most crucial considerations as the larger the database, the more matches you will have and the better your chances of being successful in using your DNA results to aid your family tree research. Ancestry have by far the largest database of all of the testing companies with over 15 million testers while MyHeritage have over 3 million but since it began offering its DNA product much more recently in comparison this is a creditable size and is building steadily. You should also expect to see more diverse matches in the MyHeritage database as they advertise heavily in different languages and have a large international customer base.
Overall, though, there’s no way to look past the sheer size of the Ancestry database especially for anyone looking to solve a mystery.
Winner: AncestryDNA (by a distance!)
Autosomal DNA tests consist of 2 main features – an ethnicity estimate and a DNA match list. Ethnicity estimates give you an idea of the regions in the world your ancestry stems from and they deliver this data in percentages.
Over 500 global regions make up Ancestry’s ethnicity estimate portfolio – more than any other site. Ancestry has also developed “Genetic Communities” and these are identifiable by a circle with a dotted line within the “DNA Story” area of your test results. Genetic communities are primarily based on the trees of your matches and this is what makes them different from the regular ethnicity estimate portion of the results. The system, for instance, has noticed that I have many matches with ancestors from Ulster, Ireland on their trees and therefore suggests that it’s likely I also have ancestors from Ulster. It even drills down to specific regions of Ulster in the form of Tyrone, Londonderry and Antrim and South Down and North Louth. I indeed do have ancestors from these areas so this part of the test proves to be very accurate in my personal experience.
MyHeritage’s ethnicity estimates are based on 42 ethnic groups from around the world (13 European, 11 Asian, 10 African, 4r American, 3 Oceanian and 2 Middle Eastern). They are committed to adding more and more ethnicities to their database in the near future but, for now, the estimates appear quite broad compared to Ancestry. One unique feature MyHeritage offers is a fun video to introduce people to their ethnicity estimate. Overall, however, much more work is required to match Ancestry’s offering on this front.
Whichever autosomal DNA testing company you choose to test with, the DNA match list provided is by far the most important feature for genealogy purposes. Essentially this is a list of all other testers in the database who share DNA with you starting from the closest to the most distant. Match lists provide the name of the match, a relationship prediction or range and the amount of DNA shared.
Ancestry’s layout for the DNA match list is very clear and improvements this year mean it’s now possible to organize matches into 24 color-coded groups as well as filter them in a number of helpful ways. I find the Ancestry match list by far the easiest to organize due to these features and one of my favourite filtering options is being able to filter by the newest high matches – when so many new people are testing every day wading through lots of tiny matches to find the best new ones can be very tedious.
The MyHeritage match list is equally well laid out and also provides a number of very helpful filters and a note facility but does not boast the same organisational capabilities as the Ancestry one or the ability to search by ancestral surname and location at the same time.
MyHeritage does, however, provide additional information that Ancestry does not. Both sites tell you how much DNA you share with a match in centiMorgans (cMs) and how many segments you share but only MyHeritage provides largest segment details and full information on each of those segments via their excellent chromosome browser facility.
Winner: AncestryDNA (Ancestry get it for their organizational tools!)
Shared matches are very often the key to working out how your matches relate to you so the shared match facility provided by the companies is one of the most vital tools they can offer. Ancestry’s shared match list is well laid out and extremely helpful but be aware that it only comprises of matches who share over 20cM with you and the match and it does not list how much DNA the shared matches share with each other – to find that out you would have to be invited to see their list or ask them if they would provide the information personally.
MyHeritage’s shared match list does not have a limit in the way that Ancestry’s does so it will show every shared match including the lower level ones. It also provides full information on how much DNA the shared match shares with both the tester and the match. It is a truly excellent tool and one of the most informative shared match offerings across all of the companies. Be aware that if you test directly with MyHeritage, however, you will need a subscription to access the shared match list.
Another of the most important features the companies can provide are family trees of matches and both these companies have strong facilities for the creation of trees. Whether or not your match creates or attaches a tree to their results is an individual decision, however, so how many trees you have to work with will vary depending on your personal matches. Both Ancestry and MyHeritage give users every opportunity to build trees on their platforms. Another important feature that both sites allow is the ability to contact your matches and their messaging systems are similar.
Ancestry offers an array of additional features and tools including common ancestor hints, highlighted shared surnames if you and your match have linked trees, predicted relationship probability charts (similar to The Shared cM Project tool at DNA Painter), comparison of ethnicity estimates, a facility to invite others to access and even manage your DNA results, a map showing where your matches are located (if they have given that information on their profile) and mother’s and father’s side filters if you’ve tested your parents.
MyHeritage also has a wide array of additional features such as Smart Matches (comparable to common ancestor hints), shared ancestral surnames, shared ancestral places and shared ethnicities.
Ancestry’s newest feature, Thrulines, uses the company’s vast number of family trees to attempt to identify common ancestors between you and your DNA matches.
MyHeritage has developed a similar feature called “Theory of Family Relativity”. These tools can provide you with some excellent clues as to how your matches relate to you but the key with them is to always investigate each theory fully before accepting it as fact.
Winner: AncestryDNA (this is close but Ancestry gets the nod for overall content and Thrulines!)
MyHeritage has pulled out all the stops in terms of developing innovative tools and is leading the way when it comes to DNA segment data and clustering tools. They now offer a one-to-one chromosome browser, one-to-many chromosome browser, automated triangulated segments and AutoClusters.
A chromosome browser is a visual tool that can be used to compare matches; they allow you to see the exact segments of DNA matches share in common with you and each other and on which chromosomes these are located. MyHeritage now boasts one of the best chromosome browser experiences available across the different testing sites.
Ancestry does not provide segment data or a chromosome browser for privacy reasons. The lack of detailed segment data is one of the few negatives for Ancestry and if you want to use sites like DNA Painter for chromosome mapping you have to be aware that it's not possible to do this with Ancestry matches unless they upload their results to a site that provides segment data such as GEDMatch, FTDNA or MyHeritage.
AutoClusters is an excellent visual tool that organises your MyHeritage matches into shared match clusters within which the matches all likely descend from a particular set of common ancestors.
Winner: MyHeritage DNA
Some major DNA testing companies allow you to upload results from competitor companies into their databases for free: MyHeritage is one such company that allows you to do this and you can transfer in from Ancestry, FTDNA, 23andMe and LivingDNA. You will be given a full match list for free if you do this but you will not have complete access to shared matches, trees and other tools. In order to unlock these features you would have to either pay a one-off fee of $29 or take out a MyHeritage subscription. Be aware, though, that if you test directly with MyHeritage the facility to unlock the extra features for $29 is not available to you – it’s only possible to gain access to the additional features with a subscription in that situation and, as previously mentioned, this includes the essential shared match list.
While you can download your raw data from Ancestry and upload it elsewhere, Ancestry does not allow uploads to their site so if you want to get into the Ancestry database the only way is to test directly.
Winner: MyHeritage (Ancestry don’t allow uploads)
Both Ancestry and MyHeritage offer subscriptions for their record sets and trees and you have to be aware if you test with either of these sites that there will be some features you can only access with a subscription. While you can see all of your shared matches at Ancestry without a subscription, you cannot see the full or unlinked trees of matches. At MyHeritage you cannot see the full shared match list or full trees of matches without a subscription (or unlock fee if you’ve uploaded from elsewhere). You can build a tree of any size on Ancestry for free to attach to your results without a subscription but you can only build a tree of 250 people or less on MyHeritage without a subscription.
Winner: AncestryDNA (you can access more without a subscription than you can at MyHeritage but if you upload from Ancestry then access to extra features is relatively cheap at $29 to unlock)
Although this article’s focus is on testing for genealogy purposes it would be remiss of me not to mention that both companies now also offer health tests. MyHeritage began offering a health test which provides genetic risk and carrier status reports from May 2019.
This is a more expensive test and is not a like-for-like comparison with a regular Ancestry test in the way their cheaper non-health offering is. Ancestry recently added a new feature called AncestryTraits which can be appended to their test for $20 and provides 26 personal trait reports such as eye color and bitter sensitivity and they also announced that they will be branching into the health testing arena with two new products named “Ancestry HealthCore” and “Ancesetry HealthPlus” with the former being an entry level health test and the latter a more comprehensive one.
Winner: Draw (I am calling this a draw for the moment since both companies are now offering health tests and it would be unfair to pick a winner without fully evaluating these)
An AncestryDNA test will currently set you back $99 plus shipping ($9.95 for the first kit and $4.95 for each additional kit) while a MyHeritage kit will cost $79 plus shipping ($12). MyHeritage is slightly cheaper than Ancestry, therefore, but there are regular sales at both sites and it’s worth looking out for those.
Winner: Draw (I’m calling this a draw even though MyHeritage is generally cheaper because overall it is cheaper to test at Ancestry and upload to MyHeritage, both companies have regular sales and in terms of value for money I believe the prices are fair)
For genealogy purposes the most important consideration when choosing which company to do a DNA test with is database size; the larger the database the more chance you have of successfully finding matches that will aid you with your family history research. For this reason alone Ancestry, with a database of over 15 million testers in comparison to MyHeritage’s over 3 million, is the clear winner in this particular battle. Personally I have successfully identified connections with many more matches at Ancestry than I have at any other site, including MyHeritage, but this is primarily because I simply have more matches to work with at Ancestry due to their larger database. There can sometimes be frustration at the lack of detailed DNA segment data at Ancestry but even with this limitation it’s very possible to work out many matches solely via shared matches and family trees.
There is a strong caveat, however, and that is that if you’re serious about using DNA testing for genealogy then it’s best to get into all of the major databases if you possibly can and MyHeritage allows you to upload your results from Ancestry so you can actually get the best of both worlds by doing that. If you are more interested in health information, however, MyHeritage would be the winner for you as Ancestry do not yet offer significant health insights and don’t forget that MyHeritage have some of the best DNA tools available across any of the major testing sites.
Overall Winner: AncestryDNA