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Beginner’s Guide to DNA Testing: Ultimate Testing Strategy

Do you want to know how to get started with DNA testing?  In this article, learn how to choose the best DNA test for you and get the most information from your experience.

If you have been thinking about taking a DNA test for a while, and have read about the different companies and even about something called “uploading”, you feel like you are spinning your wheels trying to figure out the next step.

Beginner's Guide to DNA Testing Ultimate Testing Strategy

At the beginning if this post, I’ll explain a little bit about the differences between the DNA testing companies, and then towards the end I’ll reveal to you my ultimate DNA testing strategy that will help you get the most out of your DNA testing dollar.

The strategy I suggest here is going to save you money and time, as well as help maximize what you are able to learn from your unique DNA.

Which DNA test should you take?

With so many different DNA testing companies to choose from, it can be difficult to choose the best option for you. Each company has something different to offer, and of course, according to their own marketing material, they each claim to be the best.

Are they all trustworthy?  Will you get the same results no matter which one you choose?  Which company offers the best value for the money?

The following autosomal DNA testing companies are reliable and have a proven track record.  If a company is not currently on this list, then I don’t feel confident about recommending them:

  • Ancestry DNA
  • 23 and Me
  • My Heritage DNA
  • Family Tree DNA
  • Living DNA

Even though all of those companies are trustworthy, offer a similar service and will provide you with similar results, there are other important aspects to take into consideration when deciding which DNA test to buy. 

After all, money doesn’t grow on trees and most of us would likely prefer to not to have to purchase five individual DNA tests.

Which DNA testing company is the best?

If all of the top companies are similar, reputable, and offer their services at about the same price, how are you supposed to choose which company to test with?  It all comes down to what exactly you are looking for. 

The most important question you should ask yourself is this: Why are you taking a DNA test?

These are some common questions people try to answer with a DNA test:

  • Are you looking for living relatives? 
  • Health information? 
  • Basics about which part of the world your ancestors lived in? 
  • Do you want to verify your family tree?
  • Are you looking for a specific person? 
  • Trying to identify who your grandfather’s biological parents were? 
  • Do you want access to advanced DNA information? 
  • How much do you really want to know about your ancestry? 
  • Are most of your recent ancestors from overseas (not the US)?  
  • Do you have recent ancestors from the British Isles? 
  • Do you want to know everything there is to know?
  • Would you like to use your DNA results to build your family tree?

Obviously, there are hundreds of reasons why someone (i.e. you) might want to take a DNA test, but the above questions are a few of some of the most common reasons that I hear for DNA testing. 

In the chart below, I will give you my recommendation for some of these very common situations:

Reason for DNA tests and my recommendations.  If you are looking for living relatives, Ancestry DNA has the biggest database.  If you want health information, 23andMe offers extensive health information along with results.  If you want to know basics about which part of the world your ancestors lived in, any of the six top testing companies will do.  If you are looking for a specific person, you should test or upload to each company.  If you are trying to identify who you biological grandparents were, Ancestry DNA's huge database of trees and DNA testers offers the most information.  If you want access to advanced DNA information, 23andMe, Family Tree DNA, or MyHeritage are good choices.  Do you have recent ancestors from the British Isles?  Consider testing with Living DNA.  Are most of your recent ancestors from overseas?  MyHeritage DNA has the most overseas DNA test takers.  Want to research family stories about Native American roots?  Ancestry DNA offers the most sub-regions for indigenous North and South America.  Want to know your maternal and paternal ancient origins?  23andMe offers mtDNA and Y-DNA haplogroups included with results.  Do you want to use your results to build or verify your family tree?  Ancestry DNA's huge database of trees and DNA testers offers biggest advantage.  Do you want to know everything there is to know?  Test or upload to each company and make sure to read regularly.

Don’t go anywhere yet – I still haven’t shared my ultimate DNA testing strategy with you.  It’s going to save you time and money, and you’ll also learn as much as you want to know about your DNA and heritage.

What’s the best DNA testing strategy?

Did you know that all of the major DNA testing companies, including Ancestry DNA and 23andMe, allow you to download your DNA information and upload it to other websites? 

This means that you can choose one or two companies to test with, and upload your data to most others for free or a nominal fee. This will allow you to have access to essentially the exact information that you would have if you spent more than $600-700 on testing.

Click here to buy the Understand Your DNA Results Ebook

If you can only do one test, choose between Ancestry DNA and 23andMe

The only two companies on the list that do not accept uploads under any circumstance are Ancestry DNA and 23andMe, so this means that you should choose between these two companies for doing your DNA test. 

In order to choose between 23andMe and Ancestry DNA, which are both great companies, you’ll have to really understand what it is that you think you might want to get out of DNA testing.

Ancestry is the best choice if you are searching for family

If you are looking for biological family, a person (such as a half-sibling) that you think might be out there somewhere and might have done a DNA test, or are interested in doing a lot of family tree research, then Ancestry DNA is the best choice. 

Of course, in addition to the DNA match list that is automatically sorted by maternal and paternal sides of the family, you will also get an interactive ethnicity estimate, access to tools like the Chromosome Painter, and more.

Their database of more than 22 million DNA samples is the largest non-governmental DNA database in the country, and so if you are looking for someone, if they have tested, there is a good chance that they tested with Ancestry. 

Plus, the power of the DNA testing combined with millions of family trees on their site makes family tree building a breeze.

But what if you feel pretty good about your known family history, and you are more interested in seeing what you can learn about the health information contained within your DNA? 

23andMe is also a great choice for learning about ancestry

Your DNA does contain health information, and 23andMe’s Health + Ancestry test offers dozens of health, trait, and carrier reports.  23andMe also offers all of the bells and whistles of DNA testing for ancestry, including a top-notch ancestry composition estimate and a DNA match list with matches from their sizeable database. 

The test is a little more expensive than the Ancestry DNA test, but if you want a decent-sized list of DNA matches and need health information, it’s the best choice.  Plus, as a bonus, you also get your maternal and paternal (if you are a male) haplogroups which can help you trace your ancient ancestry (this only comes with the Health + Ancestry report).

Even if you decide to take the 23andMe test that only includes results about your ancestry, you’ll still get DNA matches, haplogroups, an ancestry estimate, advanced tools like the chromosome browser, and the ability to download your raw DNA data.

The best option is to test with both Ancestry and 23andMe

If you can do it, consider doing a DNA test with both Ancestry DNA and 23andMe.  By testing with both companies, you’ll have access to the DNA match database at both companies, which covers the vast majority of people who have taken consumer DNA tests in the United States.

In addition, you will also get the best of both worlds of DNA results. You will get two ethnicity estimates that you can then compare, and access to all of the extra tools that are available on each site.

Additionally, this is the recommended strategy for people who are adopted or are searching for biological relatives.  We don’t know which company our relatives chose to do a DNA test with, and so it’s best to have our DNA in all of the databases.

Upload your DNA to as many sites as possible

Once you receive your 23and Me or Ancestry DNA results, you can download your DNA data and upload it to the following sites belonging to companies that also offer DNA testing (meaning that you don’t necessarily have to do a test with them):

  • Family Tree DNA (free for DNA match list, $19 to unlock ethnicity estimate and full results)
  • My Heritage DNA (free for DNA matches)
  • Living DNA (currently free for DNA matches and basic 8 continental regions ancestry report)

The following site does not offer DNA testing, but allows people to upload their DNA to access some really cool tools for DNA analysis. 

Another benefit of uploading to the website below is that they accept uploads from several companies, so you can get DNA matches that you don’t have on your original testing company site (i.e. 23 and Me or Ancestry DNA):

If you test with either 23andMe or Ancestry DNA (or both) and then upload your DNA to the sites I listed above, you will have access to all of the tools, DNA databases and then upload to all of the sites mentioned above, you will only have to spend between about $100-319, but will have access to the same amount of information through DNA matches as if you had spent up to $700. 

Plus, you will learn a lot through the process.

Is there a difference between uploading DNA and testing with a company?

Sometimes my readers ask me whether or not it is best to just go ahead and do a test with a particular company or if it is the same to just upload your DNA information from a DNA test with a different company. 

I can say with confidence that uploading your DNA to all of the sites from an Ancestry DNA or 23andMe test is “almost” the same as testing with all of the companies individually. Each testing company tests a large number of locations in our DNA, or SNPs , in order to provide you with your results.

However, since scientists know which locations in the human genome is likely to see variation, the location of the SNPs tested between companies is almost identical. Some companies test additional SNPs, but all of the companies test the most important locations.


I hope that this post gave you a basic understanding of the best way to go about doing a DNA test and helped you decide which company you might like to test with. 

If you have any questions about something that you read here, or would like to share how you chose a company to test with, I would love to hear from you in the comments below.

Thanks for stopping by!

Share the knowledge!

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Sunday 17th of October 2021

My father and I did testing on 23&Me and it shows someone unknown to us as my 1st cousin and my fathers niece. Her side shows dad as her grandfather and me as her half aunt. Is there a definitive way to find out which is correct? Her father and grandmother are both deceased. I would appreciate any input or suggestions. Thank you!


Tuesday 19th of October 2021

Hi Bette, Thank you for your question, and I understand how important it is to determine where this relative fits in your family tree. The relationship estimates on our DNA match lists are based only on shared DNA in most cases (with the exception being parent/child, in most cases). This means that there are usually multiple possible relationships for any given number of centimorgans (or percentages) shared. You might find this post helpful as a starting point: Does your father have more siblings that could take DNA tests? This would be a good place to start, if possible. I hope this helps! Sincerely, Mercedes

How to Use Ancestry DNA Without Taking a Test - Who are You Made Of?

Thursday 12th of November 2020

[…] Choosing Your DNA Test […]

Bryan M Cox

Friday 4th of September 2020

Hello I think you should mention that you are talking about AtDNA (Autosomal DNA) as Ancestry do not do Y-DNA or mtDNA (mitochondrial dna). AtDNA is the General DNA upto 8 Generations back from all parents to grandparents, great grandparents etc.

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