Home DNA testing has gone from a niche pursuit to a simple way to map out your family tree. With a simple swab of your cheek or a sample of your saliva, a DNA testing kit can be used to research ancestry or familial origin and determine paternity. And over the past few years, they've become quite affordable, with a wide range of DNA testing companies selling testing kits -- from trailblazers such as Ancestry and 23andMe to upstarts such as LivingDNA.
You can learn a lot from DNA testing. In addition to deepening your understanding of ancestry, some services will introduce you to living relatives around the world, through a common ancestor, or shed light on your predisposition to specific health issues and diseases. Others will even give you insight into your dog's health and breed makeup. Here we present to you our roundup of the nine best DNA test kits and services -- what they offer, how they work and how much they cost.
DNA tests, compared
|23andMe||Starts at $99||See at 23andMe|
|AncestryDNA||Starts at $99||See at AncestryDNA|
|FamilyTreeDNA||Starts at $79||See at FamilyTreeDNA|
|MyHeritage||Starts at $79||See at MyHeritage|
|HomeDNA||Starts at $59||See at HomeDNA|
|African Ancestry||Starts at $299||See at African Ancestry|
|Full Genomes||Starts at $645||See at Full Genomes|
|LivingDNA||Starts at $79||See at LivingDNA|
We'll update this story as we continue our in-depth testing of these services. In the meantime, the ones included here are the most popular DNA testing services as determined by Google keyword search rankings.
Looking for more in-depth info on DNA testing services in general? Jump to our explainer.
- Price: $99 or $199 with health info (plus $9.95 shipping)
- Tests: Autosomal (see what autosomal testing means), Y-DNA, mtDNA, Health
- Match Database: 8 million
- Autosomal SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms) tested: 650,000
Named for the 23 chromosomes found in human cells, 23andMe offers a battery of tests, including some that analyze health risks like Type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer's disease. (It was these tests that attracted attention from the FDA.)
23andMe earns points for the depth of its medical tests, as well as the size of its match database. Purchasers of this DNA kit should note that the basic DNA test is $99 but that medical results cost another $99.
The added expense may be worth the money; the additional information includes genetic health risk information, wellness reports, trait reports, and carrier status reports, which indicate whether a particular DNA profile may be a genetic carrier of a disease or disability.
Your DNA information is gathered using a saliva sample from Autosomal DNA testing, which, once analyzed, is stored forever on 23andMe's servers. The service also provides for a chromosome browser and comparison, as long as any possible matches approve your access. The service's matrilineal and patrilineal line testing can geolocate your ancestry DNA in more than 1,000 regions.
(Appropriate for a genomics company, 23andMe's executive ranks contain some interesting familial relationships: CEO and co-founder Anne Wojcicki is the former wife of Google co-founder Sergey Brin and sister of YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki.)
- Price: $99 (plus $9.95 shipping)
- Tests: Autosomal
- Match Database: 15 million
- Autosomal SNPs tested: 650,000
Ancestry DNA has a vibrant genealogical community and offers a wide range of databases, research resources and family matching features. The Ancestry DNA test provides analysis segments of your DNA results and traces its origins to 500 geographic regions throughout Europe, Africa and Asia -- the most detailed of any of the services we've profiled. AncestryDNA also says that it can help you learn about up to 26 traits and attributes you've inherited from your ancestors.
Ancestry maintains a free family tree search tool, and you can add your specific results to that database. You can also download your full DNA profile and import that data into another tool -- but Ancestry doesn't offer a chromosome browser, so you can't do DNA segment comparisons. Ancestry DNA stores results forever.
- Price: $79 (plus $9.95 shipping)
- Tests: Autosomal (other tests, such as mitochondrial DNA testing, sold separately)
- Match Database: 850,000
- Autosomal SNPs tested: 700,000
FamilyTreeDNA is operated by Houston-based genetic testing lab Gene-by-Gene. Gene-by-Gene also operates the Genomics Research Center for National Geographics' Genographic Project, which has concluded its public participation phase.
FamilyTreeDNA offers a wide range of tests. The basic autosomal test costs $79 (plus shipping) and is conducted with a swab test sample of your cheek cells. You can add sequences and markers, and your father's line and mother's line tests, but that will step up the price considerably.
If you are interested in doing in-depth analysis, the FamilyTreeDNA offers a chromosome browser, allows raw data to be uploaded, provides support for setting different segment matching thresholds and allows up to five comparisons to be done at once. FamilyTreeDNA allows trial transfers from 23andMe and Ancestry DNA into its DNA match database; additional transfers of various datasets are available for a fee. FamilyTreeDNA promises to keep data for 25 years.
- Price: $79
- Tests: Autosomal (other tests sold separately)
- Match Database: 102 million
- Autosomal SNPs tested: 710,000
Offering DNA test kits and a range of online subscription services, MyHeritage says that its database includes more ethnicities -- that's 42 -- than any other major testing service. The free 14-day trial will let you poke around the company's massive online DNA database which includes 3.5 billion profiles in addition to information about over 100 million subscribers and their collective 46 million family trees.
Starting at $79, the company's DNA testing kits are competitively priced and cover the basics: A simple cheek swab will give you an analysis of your ethnic origins and the identification of relatives who share your DNA. In addition to MyHeritage's free basic subscription, which will let you assemble a family tree up to 250 people, there are other packages that accommodate larger trees, advanced DNA features, and more robust research tools. The company allows you to upload test data from other DNA testing services.
MyHeritage says that it has also sold more than one million DNA testing kits -- but its enormous database is largely powered by Geni.com, a genealogy social media according to the New York Times site, that has assembled "the world's largest, scientifically vetted family tree," according to the New York Times. (MyHeritage is Geni.com's parent company.)
- Price: $59 (more in-depth tests additional)
- Tests: Autosomal, Y-DNA
- Match Database: None
- Autosomal SNPs tested: 850,000
HomeDNA is kind of like the Walmart of DNA testing, which is somewhat appropriate given that the company's testing kits are sold at Walmart stores in addition to CVS, Rite Aid, and Walgreens pharmacies.
HomeDNA offers a range of DNA ancestry testing services priced between $69 to $199. Though the jury is still out about the effectiveness of specialty tests, HomeDNA also sells test kits to determine food and pet sensitivity ($99), diet and exercise strategies based on your genetic makeup ($119), paternity ($164), and even skin care ($99).
Dog owners can buy a dog DNA test to help you determine your dog's breed history for $125. You can also buy a $125 health screening for your dog or cat that includes a series of tests for genetic diseases and traits. (If you're interested in a canine DNA test for less, Wisdom Health offers a dog DNA test kit for under $80.)
Testing is done with a mouth swab. Shipping is free. And results are kept for 25 years.
- Price: $299 each for matri- and patrilineal
- Tests: Y-DNA, mtDNA
- Match Database: 33,000
- Autosomal SNPs tested: NA
African Ancestry can't compete on price or the size of its match database, but it does offer deep regional analysis. It's a worthy specialized service for individuals looking at exploring African ancestry.
Rather than a match database of individuals, African Ancestry has the world's largest database of African lineages. The company can trace your ancestry back to a region in Africa and then pinpoint its location today. It can also dive deep into history and help find original ethnic groups that may date back as long as 500 years ago.
But the tests can get quite expensive. The company sells a maternal test kit and a paternal test kit for $299 each (shipping is free). If you want to trace your family back both through male and female ancestors, it'll cost you about $600. Still, for African family histories, the depth of analysis is unique among the services we profiled.
- Price: $645 (more in-depth tests additional)
- Tests: Autosomal, Y-DNA, mtDNA
- Match Database: None
- Autosomal SNPs tested: 71,000
The Full Genomes service is so expensive, it offers a payment plan. But the service offers the largest library of Y-chromosome SNPs around. So if you want to explore your patrilineal background, this is the most comprehensive option on the market. There's no family match database, however.
Testing is done with a cheek swab. The company charges $25 for shipping.
- Price: $79
- Tests: Autosomal, Y-DNA, mtDNA
- Match Database: Just getting started
- Autosomal SNPs tested: 638,000
Living DNA is a UK-based genomics firm that offers autosomal DNA data, as well as a breakdown of matrilineal and patrilineal lines. DNA data is gathered through a mouth swab.
Living DNA has a very limited family match database, so if you're looking for a service that can match you to relatives around the world, this is not the one for you. But Living DNA's test is quite comprehensive, analyzing multiple types of DNA: it tests 638,000 autosomal SNPs, 22,500 Y chromosome SNPs and 17,800 X chromosome SNPs, along with 4,700 mitochondrial SNPs.
And the service tracks DNA to 80 geographic regions. Those with a UK family history will see a map of where paternal and maternal ancestors lived on the islands. Though we didn't test it first hand, Living DNA says its tools allow you to upload DNA data from other services to predict relationship matches.
DNA testing: What you need to know
If you're using a home DNA testing service, you're likely looking for one of three things:
Ancestry and family history: The first big draw of a full DNA test is that you'll get a detailed breakdown on ancestry and ethnicity, and the migration patterns of your common ancestors. Spoiler alert: Your ethnic background may be radically different than you think it is. You'll also find out what a haplogroup is.
Relative identification: With your permission, some DNA services will let you connect with relatives you never knew you had -- other folks with matching DNA who have used the service and likewise given their permission to connect to possible relations.
Health and disease info: DNA testing can also indicate which conditions for which you may have a preponderance. It's a controversial feature, to be sure. Knowing that you have a genetic predisposition to a certain form of cancer may make you more vigilant for testing, but it may also lead to increased stress -- worrying about a potential health condition that may never develop, even if you're "genetically susceptible" to it. The possibility of false positives and false negatives abound -- any such information should be discussed with your doctor before you act upon it.
How DNA tests work
Afraid of needles and drawing blood? Good news: That's not an issue with these tests. All you need to do is spit into a vial or rub a swab in your mouth -- all the genetic data needed for these tests is present in your saliva -- and ship the DNA sample to the company for analysis.
The reason that a saliva sample works as well as blood (or hair follicles or skin samples) is that your DNA -- which is short for deoxyribonucleic acid -- is present in all of them. It's the basic genetic code present in all of your cells that makes up your key attributes, from the color of your eyes to the shape of your ears to how susceptible you are to cholesterol.
The key terms you need to know when comparing DNA testing services are:
SNP (single nucleotide polymorphism): Genotyping is done by measuring genetic variation. One of the more common is SNP genotyping, which measures the variations of a single nucleotide polymorphism. In our service summaries below, we discuss the number of SNPs. That's because the more a company measures, the more granular the variations analyzed.
Autosomal DNA testing: An autosomal test can be administered to both men and women, and traces lineage back through both the maternal and paternal bloodlines.
Y-DNA: The Y-DNA test can only be administered to men, and traces DNA back through the patrilineal ancestry (basically from father to grandfather to great grandfather).
mtDNA: The mtDNA is matrilineal and lets you trace your ancestry back through your mother, grandmother and great grandmother.
Autosomal tests can get you quality genetic information going back about four or five generations. Because the Y-DNA and mtDNA tests are more focused on one side of the line, you can get information going back farther, but with fewer data about family structure.
Four important caveats
Before you use any of the services we've highlighted below, keep these important factors in mind.
Match database size: If you're looking for family relations, this is important. Simply put, the bigger the pool of available data, the better the chance you'll have of finding a match.
Privacy concerns: Nothing is more private than your health data, which is why you should make sure a prospective DNA testing site follows the same best-practice online security protocols you'd expect from your bank or email provider. You'll want to look for two-factor authentication, an encrypted password database and so on.
But for DNA testing providers, you should also investigate how they're sharing your genetic data -- even if anonymously -- and how long they keep the data. It's not just academic: Authorities recently identified a suspect in the Golden State Killer murders thanks to an open-source DNA and genealogy service known as GEDmatch (not profiled here).
If you're creeped out by how much information Facebook, Google and Amazon have on you based on your online browsing habits, just remember that these DNA testing services are getting what is effectively your medical history. Make sure of their policies before turning over that valuable data. Also, even if you don't share your DNA with a service, your familial DNA data may be available if a relative shared their genetic material. The privacy issues can get very complex.
Don't expect perfect accuracy. Testing kits can give you indications, but taking a DNA test won't magically produce a history book of your family's background.
Consult a doctor on any health data: Cancer. Leukemia. Heart disease. Alzheimer's disease. There are a lot of scary afflictions out there, and your DNA testing may well indicate which ones to which you are genetically predispositioned. But the data markers from DNA testing kits exist in isolation. You should consult your doctor to explore the data from any of these tests. They'll help you determine how to implement any lifestyle changes or followup testing as a result, if it's worth doing so.
CNET's Justin Jaffe contributed to this story.
Originally published in July of last year. October 2019 update removes National Geographic Geno DNA Kit, which is no longer available. The July 2019 update added new company information about AncestryDNA.