Best Genealogy Sites - Top Four, DNA and Free Sites
Hi, this is Colin Shelley of selectsurnames.com. I’m 77 years old and presently resident in the UK, an ex-consultant from a completely different line of work. My age – well I am in Biden and Trump territory. But we live longer lives these days and there is plenty of time still to be creative. The brain lasts longer than the body.
My interest in genealogy dates back to the early 1980’s when I lost both of my parents and wanted to recapture some of my own family history. At that time family genealogy was very much a local affair full of enthusiasts and private researchers. And it necessitated writing off for BMD records and for trips to family history centers to pore over original documents.
Of course the internet has changed this world. The online resources for family genealogy have exploded in number since that time and they are available at a touch of a button. I, and no doubt most of you, do my family research from the comfort of my own home.
And, with our interest growing, there has been money in it for the main commercial providers. In 2021 the genealogy search firm Ancestry sold for $4.7 billion and the DNA-testing firm 23andMe for $3.5 billion.
The Best Genealogy Sites
What is available online varies enormously in terms of its quality and usefulness. I would like to give you, based on my own experience, my assessments of:
- the top four and best overall genealogy sites
- the six best DNA-testing sites
- and the twenty best free genealogy sites.
The Best Overall Genealogy Sites (Top 4 Sites)
For most people, the reason for using a genealogical site is to search for ancestors and perhaps build your family tree.
There are four genealogy giants in this industry around today. These giants have each developed large databases and you can access this information through their powerful and flexible search engines.
We have reviewed all four of the genealogy giants that are shown below. Just click on the one you are interested in:
The main questions asked about these sites are:
- what do they cost and how do the different sites compare in price?
- how big is their database, what does it contain, and how wide is its geographic coverage?
- can the site support my personal family tree and how will it help to build my tree?
- and do these sites help me understand my ancestors’ lives better?
Pricing. The first thing to know is that FamilySearch is free. Thus if you have little money to spend or you simply want a preliminary look of what is available, then this would be your choice.
Of the commercial sites, Ancestry is the most expensive. On an annual basis it would work out at $300-600 (the lower number being for US only), although you can choose to pay on a monthly basis.
MyHeritage has a free plan with limited features, as well as a paid plan (only annual) with more options. The pricing here is in the $130-300 range. Findmypast’s annual price is from $129 per year. They also have a plan to access records individually by buying credits, which may suit the occasional user.
Each of the commercial sites do offer an initial free trial period and this may be well worth considering before committing to any payment.
Databases. These sites have accumulated huge amounts of genealogical data in digital form, all of which is potentially searchable. These are the reported sizes of their databases:
- Ancestry with 30 billion records
- MyHeritage with 10 billion records
- FamilySearch with 8 billion records
- and Findmypast with 3 billion records.
There are some common records that are held by all four sites. These would include the records that FamilySearch has shared with the commercial sites; the US census data until 1940; and the UK census data until 1911.
Of the commercial sites, Ancestry has a heavy emphasis in its records on North America; MyHeritage has a greater share of its records being European; while Findmypast, based in Britain, is primarily focused on British records.
The databases of these companies, it should be noted, cover North America and Europe mainly. Other regions of the world, such as Asia and Africa, are not very well covered by any of the commercial sites. FamilySearch may be the best bet for India, Japan, China, and the Philippines, but it is limited.
Building Family Trees. Both Ancestry and MyHeritage will help you build your own family tree on their site. They will also provide potential matches or hints about your family from the records on their site. Both sites also have a large number of user-submitted family trees that are accessible, with Ancestry having the bigger numbers here.
Findmypast also has family tree-building, but is more restrictive on potential connections in that you cannot access other sites.
FamilySearch on the other hand has adopted a different approach. They do not support any personal family trees. Instead they invite you to participate in their collaborative unified family tree of the world.
Would you take public transport or use your own car? Most people, if they had the money, would probably choose the car.
Narratives. Having access to family records and building your family tree is not enough if you don’t know the context in which your ancestors lived. The ancients probably understood this better than we do. They preserved their family records through story-telling, sometimes remembered orally from generation to generation.
The context here is important. What factors, economic or otherwise, might have driven your ancestors to migrate across oceans to unknown lands? What happened along the way? Or they might have moved from country to town or from farm to factory; or started out at one social or economic place and ended up at another. Or they might not have moved at all. Where we they then on the social pecking order and what was the meaning in their lives?
The moral perspective is also important. How do we view slavery for example? Do we accept the mores of the day or apply our modern judgement? We probably need to keep both perspectives in mind. Indeed, looking into the past, we may find major differences between their values and ours – for instance in the teachings of the church or in the relations within the family or outside.
In short, a narrative provides life and meaning to your family tree. These genealogy sites can help in this regard. But it may not be that “one shop fits all.” You may need to read more widely.
Some alternative views have come from Genealogy Gems which has done a comparison of the four sites, together with an accompanying video – instructive if a little dated now.
The Best DNA-Testing Sites (Top 6 Sites)
Public interest in DNA-testing to discover their roots has been growing rapidly in recent years, particularly in America. From a small base in 2015, the DNA-testing numbers in kit sales doubled between 2021 and 2022. It has recently been estimated that some 30 million people globally have now taken a DNA test.
AncestryDNA and 23andMe have sold between them more than half, possibly as much as 75%, of these DNA kits. We have reviewed below five of the main DNA-testing sites, as well as one specialist site. Just click on the one that you are interested in:
The above sites are the ones that are reviewed here. There are other sites, often smaller in size, which will usually have a particular focus:
- geographically – such as MeuDNA in Brazil, Mediclinic in southern Africa, GenoTek in Russia, and WeGene, YooGene and 23mofang in China.
- or for health reasons (often for insurance purposes) – such as Futura Genetics, LetsGetChecked, Veritas and Vitagene.
- or for paternity tests – such as AlphaBiolabs and EasyDNA.
And there have been many that have tried and failed in this space. BritainsDNA for instance ran between 2011 and 2017 and was prominently promoted in the British press at that time. However, it was then found out to have touted misleading claims through dubious genetic testing and lost its credibility.
Procedure. The procedure for all these suppliers tends to be the same. Once ordered, you will receive your kit. You will be asked to provide a sample. This will either involve a swab around inside the cheek or a spit into a vial. You will then need to place the sample into a special bag and box, register it, and mail it back to the company. The wait for analysis will usually take 1-2 months before you receive the results.
The main questions that have been asked of these sites on their DNA-testing have been:
- what do they cost and how do the different sites compare in price?
- what is tested and are separate maternal and paternal lines tested?
- how big is their DNA database and what does this mean in terms of potential matching?
- how wide or how narrow might be the geographic base of my ethnic origin?
- what are the possible health implications from a DNA test?
- how good and how extensive and well-presented is the report provided after the tests have been completed and analyzed?
- how about privacy on my test results?
Pricing. The price range from Ancestry and 23andMe is in the order of $100 (23and Me with a health report around $200), although special offers may be in place at certain times of the year.
MyHeritage comes out a little cheaper, as does FamilyDNA for its basic package. However, FamilyDNA’s add-ons can make it much more expensive. That will also be the case with African Ancestry because of its specialist service for the African American community.
DNA-Testing. The DNA-testing can come in one of three forms:
- autosomal DNA – which comes 50% from the mother and 50% the father. It covers ancestors going back 5-10 generations. This is the usual testing method.
- matrilineal, mitochondrial-DNA – which comes 100% from the mother and her mother before her and her mother before her etc.
- and patrilineal, Y-DNA – which comes 100% from the father and his father before him and from his father before him etc. This is only available to males.
Autosomal will take you back far but only so far. Matrilineal and patrilineal can go back much further, possibly thousands of years. Ancestry and MyHeritage only offer autosomal. 23andMe does offer both.
FamilyTree DNA and African Ancestry also offer matrilineal and patrilineal, but you pay more for it. Still, both are more comprehensive than the snip that 23andMe does. This can make sense – if affordable – for African Ancestry users because the particular circumstances of slavery in their case may make the matrilineal and patrilineal lines very different.
Ethnicity Tracing. For some the main complaint on receiving the report has been that it just “falls flat.” You might get a basic pie-chart of where your ancestors are from but a disappointing amount of information about how and why you got those results.
Ancestry and MyHeritage will be the most informative. Ancestry’s ethnicity tracking is the most detailed. Their test is so specific that it can even narrow this down to specific townships and villages.
In addition. for those in North America, Ancestry is able to provide clearer migratory paths through immigrant landing places in America and Canada. However, MyHeritage may give better results for Europe and for Jewish migrants.
FamilyTree’s basic service here is weaker, as is Living DNA.
Database Size and Matching. The size of the company’s DNA user database is important in tracing potential relatives. The larger the size, the better the chances of making matches. Ancestry comes out the winner on this basis, according to the numbers being reported:
- Ancestry with 22 million users
- 23andMe with 12 million users
- MyHeritage with 2.5 million users
- FamilyTree DNA with 2.0 million users
- and Living DNA in the UK with 0.3 million users.
Living DNA is the weakest here, with few matches offered.
However, numbers are not the only criteria for matching. The quality of the matches also counts. Here FamilyTree DNA comes out much stronger than its user count would suggest.
Health Testing. Some DNA-testing companies offer it, others don’t.
23andMe initially made their reputation on the health implications of their DNA test results. They still lead the way. Today the company provides disease risk and health condition information, such as the carrier status for genetic diseases, genetic risk of cancer, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and many other conditions. In addition comes their wellness and traits reports.
Ancestry and MyHeritage have preferred generally to focus more on their ethnicity tracing.
Privacy. With these sites your DNA data will not be automatically deleted once your test is completed. Many sites will retain your information for ‘as long as required’ to deliver their services, unless you specifically ask them to delete it.
Some alternative views can be found in the Wirecutter review in the New York Times in December 2022.
The Best Free Genealogy Sites (Top 20 Sites)
You may be attracted by commercial sites because of their large databases. But I should point out that there is a huge amount of free genealogy information that is available on the internet. This is where I have mainly sourced my material.
I would like to show you the twenty sites that I have found the most useful and also the most readable. I have divided these sites into three:
- the best free sites for surnames and surname data
- the best free sites for family trees
- and the other best free sites.
The Best Free Sites for Surnames and Surname Data
We start here with two accounts about surnames and the development of surnames:
An early site for collating the current numbers on surnames was the British Public Profiler website. Sadly, due to hacking, this is no longer running.
A better source has emerged in the Forebears website, based in the UAE, which covers surnames on a global basis. It also provides some meanings for the surname and other snippets of information.
Care here should be taken in comparing the number count from different countries. It is not always apples versus apples. They are not always collated on the same basis. Countries can measure the number under a surname in different ways, from the head of the household to adults in the family to an estimate of all by that name in the household. The US numbers follow the latter approach, many other countries the former.
The Victorians loved to classify the world around them and they were first to search out meanings for their surnames in common use and to classify them according to their root meanings.
Often the original meaning was lost in the mists of time. But they were ingenious in finding meanings, or often alternative meanings, for their surnames. P.H. Reaney’s A Dictionary of English Surnames, first published in 1958, comes from this stable.
However, sometimes the meanings found have turned out to be too ingenious and have been shown by more recent researchers to be plain wrong. The simple answer in some cases may be – we just don’t know.
The Internet Surname Database, which has been around for over twenty years, went online in 2006. It too comes up with original meanings (mostly not always correct), with early and later variants of the name and its presence in early records dating back to medieval times. Its database contains almost 50,000 names.
This British-based website provides coverage on more than 7,000 surnames, although some of this coverage is only rudimentary. It is worth taking a look if the coverage on your surname is more substantial.
FTDNA is a DNA-testing service with a genealogical bent. Their website does provide some free background information on surnames (we show their Armstrong surname here), but not, as used to be the case, a listing of individual first-of-family DNA details.
For surnames in Britain, I would turn first to the 1881 UK census data. This shows for that year the surname count by county and where it is principally found by town and village.
For US surnames it would be Name Census. This website contains US demographic information from a variety of Government sources. It includes the most common last names (5,000 of them), ranking them by numbers and by ethnicity.
The Best Free Sites for Family Trees
The big genealogical websites of course keep millions of records of family trees, both in digital and book form. But for free information on the internet, I would turn to the following three sources:
This website is a collaborative project that aims to create a single worldwide family tree that connects everyone on earth. You can create your own profile, add your relatives, collaborate with other users, and discover how you are related to famous people.
This website is similar to WikiTree in that it also allows you to build a global family tree with other users. However, we have found it less reliable than Wikitree, on occasion giving spurious ancestor lines.
This free website (although owned by Ancestry) will also give family lines, starting with family gravesites. You can search for your ancestors’ burial records, upload photos of headstones, leave virtual flowers and notes, and link family members together.
Online Books. One should not forget online books as an information source. Many of the older family tree books have been digitalized and are available free to read online in their entirety. FamilySearch often provides good summaries.
I find some of the older accounts fascinating as the writer is closer in time and personal connection to events that we only know about in history books.
This for instance is an eye-witness account from the time of the American Revolutionary War.
“On September 11, 1777 the British marched up from Delaware bound for Philadelphia and George Washington tried to stop them at the Brandywine.
The little Frazer girls were at school in Thornbury that day. They heard the gunshots and cannon firing on the hot fall day. Sally, the oldest, was eight then. The teacher went out and listened for a while, then returned and said: ‘There is a battle not far off, children. You may go home.’
‘As we returned, we met our mother on horseback,’ Sally wrote years later, ‘going over towards the place of action, knowing that our father must be in the midst of the affray.'”
And, further back, is this English account back at the time of the 1745 Jacobite uprising.
“I remember my great grandmother who told me some particulars she remembered of the army of the Pretender coming to Ross, to which place she was riding on a pillion behind her father when she saw the red coats of the rebels, and her father turned around and galloped back to Monmouth where he lived, calling out: “The rebels are at Ross!”
The church bells rang to call everyone, the yeomanry were called out, and a man and a horse were depatched to summon troops from Bristol. So the rebels were turned back. This was in 1745.
This great grandmother also told me that she remembered her great grandfather telling her that she remembered her great grandfather telling her that he had been present as a child at the beheading of Charles I. So that takes you back 242 years through three narrators.”
This extract was a part of a letter written by her great great grandaughter Caroline Skinner in 1891 to her grandson.
The Best Other Free Sites
Here is a list of the other best free online sites that I have found useful and also provide interesting material to read.
Linkpendium is a large US-based website, founded back in 1996, that provides genealogically-relevant information on U.S. states and counties. Its Family Discoverer search engine covers 2.8 million indexed pages and is a fast way to explore genealogical and family history on the Internet.
Linkpendium is particularly proud of its unique indexes to online biographies. What I find most interesting is the insights its pages provide in family lives – through the Revolutionary and Civil Wars and to the pioneer westward expansion of the American frontier during the 19th century – as lived and written about by its participants at the time.
USGenWeb is a US-based website. Unlike FamilySearch, it does not have a clear search function that lets you simply type in family names and hit the find button.
Instead, you navigate to the main page and then select which US state you are interested in and are then taken to a website of that state. The website will then have all manner of records available, often broken down by individual counties.
COADB, based in Kansas and launched in 2015, provides an online access to hundreds of thousands of coats of arms. Indeed, if there is a coat of arms to your surname or your family, it can provide links with the past and help you learn more about your roots. COADB reports that their database covers 100,000 names.
They also supply a wide choice of products to purchase – t-shirts, posters, pillows, mugs, canvas prints, and much more – with the family crest printed on them.
JewishGen, based in New York and manned by volunteers, calls itself the global home for Jewish genealogy. There is a large database which can be searched and this includes over four million records relating to the Holocaust.
Scotlands People has a large indexed collection of Scottish records that can be searched free of charge or by pay-per-view to view and download digital images.
This website contains more than five thousand concise biographies of individuals who have made a significant contribution to national life, whether in Wales or more widely.
Ireland Reaching Out, which started up in 2010, says that for every one person living in Ireland there are ten of Irish ancestry living elsewhere. Their website is intended to connect or reconnect this Irish diaspora with their ancestors’ places of origin in Ireland. A genealogist is at hand to answer queries.
This Canadian website is focused on French Canada, with a searchable person database. It also covers family lines and stories about French Canada and its people.
This website is one of the largest online sources of original South African genealogy information. There are over one million family tree records available.
The Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery was established at University College in London. Focused on the British Caribbean (notably Jamaica, Barbados and Grenada), it describes the various estates there and provides a searchable database.
Cyndi’s List, started by Cyndi Ingle and running for over twenty-five years outside of Seattle, is a categorized and cross-referenced index to a host of genealogical resources that are available on the internet.
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