Are you brand-new to the idea of DNA testing? Do you have questions about which test to take and what to expect from your test results? In this post, I’ll answer some of the most common questions about DNA testing for ancestry.
Which DNA test should I take?
While there are a few different types of DNA tests, the best type of DNA test for ancestry or genealogical purposes is called an autosomal DNA test. It has the name autosomal because this is the type of DNA that it tests. We inherit autosomal DNA from both of our parents, which means that both men and women can – and should – take this type of test.
Fortunately, autosomal DNA testing is the most popular type of test, and so the test results are user friendly and easy to understand. In fact, you probably have heard of the most popular autosomal DNA testing companies:
- Ancestry DNA
- 23 and Me
- Family Tree DNA
- My Heritage DNA
- Living DNA
Which company is the best? While any of the above companies offer a reliable service, is there a better test? The test that is best for you depends on what you are looking for in a DNA test. If you are looking for living relatives, the Ancestry DNA test is the best choice. Interested in health information revealed in your genes? Check out the 23 and Me test. Want to do the more in-depth Y DNA and mtDNA tests along with the autosomal DNA test? Family Tree DNA is the one for you.
No matter which test you choose, I’m sure you will enjoy your DNA testing journey and learn a lot about your family’s heritage.
Why does it take so long for DNA results to come back?
One thing you might notice if you start looking into DNA testing is that it typically takes a while for test results to come back. From the moment that you order your DNA test to the day that you open your e-mail announcing that your results are ready, you might have to wait anywhere from a few weeks to about two months. Each company takes about the same amount of time to process your test results, so you won’t be able to get your results back faster just by picking a different company.
The actual time you’ll have to wait for your results can depend on the time of year that you submit your sample and how many other people are submitting their DNA samples at the same time. For example, the first few months after the Christmas holidays tend to be the busiest (tip: if you get a DNA kit for Christmas, submit it right away!).
But, good things come to those who wait. Your results will reveal surprising DNA connections, ethnicity regions, or other aspects of your heritage. It’s a lot of fun!
What kind of information can DNA tests tell you?
The autosomal DNA test, the type you can get from 23 and Me and Ancestry DNA, can reveal some very interesting information about you and your family’s heritage. Your DNA test results will generally be organized into two main parts which will include your ethnicity results (or ancestry composition) and your DNA match list.
Your ethnicity results will reveal which regions of the world most closely match with your DNA. You might have seen advertisements where people are able to say that they are 25% Eastern European, or 12% Native American? These people have seen their ethnicity estimates, also called ancestry composition or myorigins, depending on the company that you choose to test with. Your ethnicity estimate will show you approximately where your family most likely lived in the past 200-500 years.
The second aspect of your DNA results are your DNA matches, and DNA matches are the best way to use your DNA results to build a family tree or verify your genealogical research. Your DNA matches often will have built their own family tree, and once you figure out where your tree and their tree overlap, you have learned something new about your family tree. Your DNA match list can help you find living biological relatives, figure out who someone’s biological parents or grandparents are, as well as help you determine if there is something unknown in your ancestry.
Can I find biological parents or grandparents using a DNA test?
A DNA test is a great way to find someone’s biological parents or grandparents. Whether due to adoption or some other circumstance, many people are unaware of who their recent biological ancestors are. As I mentioned in the answer to the previous question, the DNA match list will reveal many clues about your family tree.
To choose the right test for finding biological parents or grandparents, you need to make sure to choose a company with a very large database. This is because the easiest way to use your DNA to find biological family is to make sure you have a good chance of getting close DNA matches on your list. The bigger the database, the more DNA matches you will have, and the better the chance that you’ll have a close match (perhaps someone in your immediate family or close extended family) on your list.
How many DNA matches will I get in my DNA results?
The number of DNA matches that show up in your results will depend greatly on the company that you decide to test with. The DNA testing company with the biggest database is Ancestry DNA, followed by 23 and Me, Family Tree DNA, My Heritage DNA, and Living DNA. If getting a large number of DNA matches is really important to you, definitely go with the biggest database. If you can manage it, I would suggest testing with Ancestry DNA and 23 and Me.
But, you want to know how many DNA matches you will have?
Here is how many matches I have with three companies:
- Ancestry DNA: 28,132
- My Heritage DNA: 4,572
- Family Tree DNA: 2,591
Is it really better to have more matches? One thing I can say for sure is that even though I have 28,132 (as of today – I’ll have more tomorrow) DNA matches on Ancestry DNA, I’ll never have time to view each individual match, nor would I be able to figure out how I am related to every single one of them. I suppose that more is better depending on what you are looking for.
You might be interested to know that you can usually download your DNA information and upload it to a few other websites, so sometimes you don’t have to choose just one testing company – you can get the best of both (or several) worlds by doing just one test. I did my initial DNA test with Ancestry DNA, and if you are interested, you can read about other places to upload your Ancestry DNA data.
If I do a DNA test, do I still have to build a family tree?
DNA testing IS fun and easy, but it doesn’t tell you everything. You won’t be able to log in and just view your family tree from within your DNA results without actually having taken the time to build a family tree.
Don’t worry, though, it’s not hard to build a family tree. If you just start with your parents and work slowly backwards, using your DNA matches as a guide, you’ll get a good tree built in no time.
If you want, you can read my post about how to build a family tree here and how to use DNA matches to build a tree here:
Will all of my relatives show up as DNA matches?
As it turns out, we don’t share DNA with all of our relatives. This is because we only inherit 50% of each of our parent’s DNA. If you consider that your parents only inherited 50% of their parent’s DNA, and the same thing happened each generation back throughout history, it might be easy to understand that there are other people who are descended from many of our ancestors who would not share DNA with us.
Even though we don’t share DNA with all of our relatives, we DO share DNA with all of our immediate and close family, as well as all of our 1st-2nd cousins and many of our more distant cousins. This means that you will have plenty of DNA matches to help you learn about your family tree.
Will my ethnicity estimate match my family tree?
As I mentioned in the previous answer, we don’t share DNA with all of our relatives, which also means that we don’t share a measurable amount of DNA with all of our ancestors. The end result of this is that a DNA test can only reveal the regions shown within the DNA that we did inherit.
Ethnicity estimates almost never match a family tree exactly, although in rare cases they can. Instead, an ethnicity estimate is a snapshot of the family history revealed within your DNA. The best way to get the most complete picture of your family’s recent ancestry is to have more than one family member test. For example, your siblings, parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents and great-grandparents will all have DNA that you don’t have, and there might be very interesting information revealed in their DNA results.
Should I do a DNA test if I am worried about my privacy?
I generally don’t advise people to worry too much about DNA testing and privacy. DNA testing companies go to great lengths to protect our genetic data, and the type of DNA information that is collected isn’t the kind that could be used for nefarious purposes (conspiracy theorists, I’m talking to you). So go ahead and do a DNA test and take reasonable measures to keep your information private. The advantages to testing are worth the slight risk to privacy.
Is a DNA test worth the cost?
DNA tests can usually be obtained for less than $100, and every once in a while you might find one on sale for $59-79. I like to think of my DNA test as a gift that keeps on giving (I gave it to myself, ha!) because my ethnicity estimate occasionally updates as technology improves, and I get new DNA matches almost every day. Each time I log into my Ancestry DNA account, I can learn something new about my family. There is so much to discover!
Many people take a DNA test on a whim just for fun or entertainment, or take it to answer a specific question about their ancestry (like me). Once they get their results back, they realize the the wealth of information that they have at their disposal and begin a really fulfilling exploration of their family history. Sometimes, they become the family historian or genealogist. It can turn into a really fun hobby for you.
I hope that this post helped answer some of your most burning questions about DNA testing – and I hope you’ve decided to give it a try! If you have any questions, comments, or concerns about something that you read here, I would love to hear from you in the discussion below.
Thanks for stopping by!