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Family Tree DNA (FTDNA) Review

One of the top five DNA testing services, Family Tree DNA has been in operation since 2000, and was one of the first companies to offer tests directly to customers.  Their free family tree creation tool sets them apart from other DNA testing companies, allowing you to view trees made by matches and connect them to your tree without subscription fees. Contacting matches is also free, and a lower base kit price makes it a bit more affordable to consumers than its competitors.

In a nutshell…

When compared to competitors, Family Tree DNA is an ideal pick if you’d like to build a family tree without number limits and explore the trees created by your living relatives without having to shell out a monthly or yearly subscription fee. Although the matching database of around 850,000 people is on the smaller side, but is still able to return a decent number of autosomal DNA matches as well as access to motherline and fatherline matches with the purchase of mtDNA and Y-DNA tests.

Strengths

  • There are no subscription fees when using Family Tree DNA — your account, created when you register your DNA test kit, allows you to access your tree, your matches, any contact information they have made available, and their trees
  • At $79, the price of the autosomal test included in the base kit is about 20% cheaper than similar kits from top competitors
  • Offers a nice range of detailed insights which includes an “ancient origins” map, even for those buying only an autosomal test

Limitations

  • Some of the tables and test results lack an explanation in layman’s terms, which can make them difficult to parse and necessitate further research
  • At 850K, Family Tree DNA has the smallest member database of the top 5 genealogy tests
  • Ethnicity results can be quite broad, as the 24 ethnic regions the test offers are far less specific than those of top competitors like 23andMe which measure against over 1,000 regions

How Does the Family Tree DNA Test Work?

There are three types of DNA which genetic testing may attempt to measure; these types of tests are unique from one another and provide different information, but may be sourced from the same sample.
  • mtDNA. Also called mitochondrial DNA or your motherline, this is the part of your genetics that passes to you virtually unaltered from your mother, as she received it from hers. mtDNA testing can reveal your maternal haplogroup, the migration path your motherline followed, and matches that you’re connected to via your mitochondrial DNA.
  • Y-DNA. Also called a paternal or fatherline DNA test, Y-DNA testing may only be done by those with a Y chromosome. They provide equivalent haplogroup, migration and match results to an mtDNA test, but women interested in these results will need their father, brother, paternal uncle, or paternal cousin to take a test.
  • Autosomal DNA. The most basic and least expensive DNA test, autosomal tests review the DNA you’ve received from your collective ancestors. You receive 50% of your autosomal DNA from each parent, as they did from theirs; this allows for matches to be made with accuracy within 5 generations. Beyond that, results become too diluted for certainty.
Currently, Family Tree DNA offers five individual test options as well as three bundled options. They include:

Single Tests

    1. Family Finder. The most basic test kit, containing only an autosomal test; breaks down family history into categories, finds closest living relatives who’ve tested, connects your DNA to ancient European groups, allows for comparison of matching DNA segments
    2. mtFull Sequence. A comprehensive mtDNA test for maternal ancestry, haplogroup, migration, and matches; results also include a personalized mtDNA full sequence video
    3. Y-37. A basic Y-DNA test for paternal ancestry, haplogroup, migration, and matches; allows tracing of surname to roots
    4. Y-111. A more advanced Y-DNA test, good for those who want to connect with existing fatherline genealogy projects
    5. Big Y-700. The most advanced Y-DNA test offered, intended for advanced users working on serious genealogy research

Bundles

  • Family Finder + mtFull Sequence
  • Family Finder + Y-37 (only available to males)
  • Family Finder + Y-111 + mtFull Sequence (only available to males)
Everyone’s genealogy goals are different and may require particular DNA test types. Read more about the various tests and the science behind them in our complete guide to DNA testing.

What’s Contained In My Kit?

Your Family Tree DNA kit will contain two cotton swab kits with “teeth”, which are designed to collect cells without pain when performing a cheek scrape test. Both tests should be used by you. Also included are two vials, filled with sample preservation fluid, which keep your sample safe and prevent temperature impact due to weather on their return journey. You’ll also find instructions for performing your test, which are available in many languages, as well as a release form. It’s essential that you sign and include the release form, as it’s what allows the company to process your sample. There’s also a self-addressed stamped envelope which should be used to mail your samples back without cost.

The Testing Experience

Available only online, Family Tree DNA eschews pretty packaging in favor of providing a cost-efficient product that’s assembled for you on order. They offer a battery of tests that’s great for those who already have intermediate knowledge and serious interest in genealogy. When you go online to order your test, you’ll notice that you have the option to choose from individual tests or bundles. Depending on the tests you’d like to have performed, you may be able to save a few pennies by purchasing one of the three bundles the site offers, but otherwise, you can simply choose from the list of single tests made available to you. Family Tree DNA does customers a service in making sure they can’t purchase tests that would be rendered irrelevant by a pricier test, or that they can’t take because of their gender. Purchases are made by “kit”, and begin by asking the gender of the person taking the test. This prevents a woman from buying a Y-DNA test for herself. The system also prevents a man from buying 2 Y-DNA tests, as more advanced Y-DNA tests still reveal the information provided by the basic kit. It’s possible to purchase kits for more than one person at one time, which will arrive packaged separately. You can’t cheat the system to save on shipping cost, though – each “kit” only has testing supplies for one person, as all tests ordered are performed on the same sample. The shipping cost is $9.95 for each kit, which translates to each individual who will be tested. No bulk discounts or express shipping options are offered. The test is easy to perform, requiring only two painless cheek scrapings. Instructions are included with your kit and are available in many languages if needed. It’s essential that you refrain from eating, drinking, smoking, chewing gum, or brushing your teeth for at least an hour before taking your samples. If you’re finding it hard to make time, taking your samples first thing in the morning is ideal. To test, remove the toothed cotton swabs from their sterile envelopes. One at a time, perform a cheek scrape by passing the toothed side of the swab over the flesh of your inner cheek. Snap the top of the toothed swab, placing the sample in the specimen collection vial securely. Repeat with the second swab and vial. Once both samples have been obtained, place them in the self-addressed stamped envelope along with your signed release form — this part is essential, because the release is required to process your sample. After you’ve sent your samples and release on their way, you’ll receive an update when they’ve been received and another when they’ve been processed, which typically takes 6 to 8 weeks.

When and How Will I Receive My Results?

You’ll be notified when your sample hits Family Tree’s in-house lab, and notified again when your results are ready in 6 to 8 weeks. In the meantime, you can track the processing of your sample by logging into your Family Tree DNA account. When you’re notified that your results are ready, you’ll be able to access them by logging onto the FTDNA website. It’s possible that autosomal and Y-DNA tests results will be available sooner than mtDNA tests, so be aware of that potential processing variance.

Your Results Explained

Once you’ve been notified that your test results are available, you can access them by logging onto the Family Tree DNA website on your computer. The content that will be available to you on your dashboard is determined by which tests you took.

Family Finder (Autosomal Test)

For those who’ve taken the Family Finder test, results will include the MyOrigins map, the AncientOrigins map, a living relatives database, and a chromosome browser.

My Origins Map

Interactive and color-coded, this is the section of your results which translates your ethnic background into a map you can peruse.
Your ethnicity estimate map.
The test divides your background into percentages based on 24 ethnic regions, which are grouped under broader subheadings in the map’s key. For example, it may reveal that you have 40% British Isles, 43% Scandinavian, and 17% Native American ancestry. Since the number of ethnic regions included in the Family Tree DNA test is relatively small, it’s wise to expect results that aren’t specific to country and are instead related to broad regions of the world. The test warns that results with very small percentages may not be precise.

AncientOrigins Map

This unique map doesn’t tell you anything about your ethnic DNA ancestry or living matches, instead focusing on what percentage of your ancient ancestry connects with the three significant groups of people associated with European migration in the ancient world. The groups currently assessed include hunter-gatherer, metal age-invader, farmer, and non-European. While the map breaks this data down in a way that’s easy to visualize, it doesn’t provide a lot of follow-up information as an accompaniment.

Family Finder Matches

Your match database has its own subsection, which is divided into tabs. For those who’ve also taken mtDNA and/or Y-DNA tests, these tabs allow you to view lists of maternal and paternal matches independently.
Your DNA matched relatives.
The list of matches displays each match’s name, your match date, your projected relationship range, the number of centimorgans you share, your longest block of shared DNA, and your x-matches if any exist. Some things that may also be listed are a linked relationship if it’s noted in your FTDNA tree, and ancestral surnames if they’ve been provided. When you click on your match’s name, you’ll be able to see their email address if they’ve published it, as well as any information they’ve shared about themselves and ancestral surnames they’ve connected to their genealogical research. If they’re available, their maternal and paternal haplogroups will also be listed. If your match has made a family tree on FTDNA’s website, there will be a link to their tree, which can be helpful in determining the exact nature of your familial relationship. If you’ve made a tree, you’ll then be able to link your match’s profile to the appropriate spot. While many users share nothing more than their email, this is still a way to connect with living relatives that won’t cost additional money.

Chromosome Browser

Helpful for understanding how you’re connected to your matches, this tool allows you to compare the parts of your chromosomes you share with your living relatives.
View and compare DNA segments shared with your matches.
To use the tool, you’ll simply select up to five of your relatives to generate a visualization of your shared DNA segments. The results are color-coded by match, making it easy to see where connections overlap between you and the other people you’ve selected. These segments will generally be minimal, but the results can still be helpful.

mtDNA (Motherline) and Y-DNA (Fatherline) Tests

If you’ve chosen to take mtDNA or Y-DNA tests through Family Tree DNA, your results will include additional information to peruse.

Haplogroups and Migration Maps

The results of your mtDNA or Y-DNA test include data on your maternal or paternal haplogroup. A haplogroup is a collection of people whose genetic line is tied to a single ancient common ancestor. This information can be helpful when participating in large-scale genealogy projects and tracking the migration of your maternal or paternal line. Also included is a map which displays the migration patterns of your maternal line or paternal line at multiple points, lending a visual aid to your understanding of your haplogroup and the paths your ancestors took to the modern world. These maps can also offer information on where living motherline and fatherline relatives are currently located.

Motherline and Fatherline Matches

As we noted, when you’ve taken mtDNA or Y-DNA tests, it’s possible to lists of specific motherline or fatherline genetic matches within the matching DNA database. These matches are categorized with different subheadings, including name, genetic distance, earliest known ancestor, related haplogroup, and match date. For those who’ve taken a Y-DNA test, a ‘terminal SNP’ heading is also included, but little information is given to help users relate that information to their results.

Further Results

mtDNA and Y-DNA tests offered by FTDNA also offer additional raw genetic data in the form of complex tables which may be difficult for an amateur researcher to understand.
In-depth Y results.
They’re not so complex that they can’t be interpreted with further effort, though, so they’re a good jumping-off point for anyone looking to delve a bit deeper. Also included in your results are a few printable PDF documents which can come in handy.
  • mtDNA/Y-DNA migration map, which is helpful for participating in genome projects and sharing your results with family and friends.
  • Y-DNA/mtDNA certificate verifying your haplogroup and results
  • Understanding Your Results, a lengthy PDF that extrapolates significantly on web results and may make the site’s raw data tables a bit easier to understand by explaining the basics in detail and providing helpful resource links.

Is the Family Tree DNA Test Accurate?

Unlike competitors, Family Tree DNA doesn’t seem to cite an exact percentage when it comes to their test’s accuracy. Instead, they focus on noting that all samples are processed on-site by accredited staff in a state of the art laboratory which uses advanced technology, including the NovaSeq Sequencing System and the Illumina HumanOmniExpress-24 BeadChip. Most competitors currently process DNA samples using third party labs.

Will Family Tree DNA Keep My Information Private?

Yes — Family Tree DNA prides itself in keeping your sample private. Sharing your email address is optional, and your test results will never be shared without your consent or sold to a third party. You have the option to opt-out of having the company store your sample for further testing, and you may also have all of your information deleted upon request.

How Does Family Tree DNA Compare to the Competition?

Family Tree DNA vs. 23andMe

While 23andMe offers broad haplogroup-based results related to mtDNA and Y-DNA bundled into the base kit’s purchase price, there’s no option to access additional motherline and fatherline information or tests. FTDNA’s free family tree creation tool offers an advantage over 23andMe, where no such tool exists. 23andMe offers a much broader scope of ethnic regions, at 1000+ to FTDNA’s 24, as well as the option to receive health data that Family Tree doesn’t offer. 23andMe’s neanderthal DNA results are comparable to FTDNA’s AncientOrigins map in offering info on ancient ancestors that’s not necessarily genealogically pertinent, but is still interesting to know. 23andMe is the most popular company for DNA health testing. Learn more with our in-depth review of 23andMe.

Family Tree DNA vs. Living DNA

A lack of a matching database accompanying the Living DNA test makes it far more difficult to find living relatives compared to FTDNA’s easy-to-use database. They also fail to offer tests beyond autosomal, though their results do include some broad haplogroup-centric motherline and fatherline information where applicable. Both Living DNA and FTDNA have relatively broad ethnic regions, but Living DNA’s are slightly more specific, especially in the United Kingdom. Read our complete guide to Living DNA.

Family Tree DNA vs. My Heritage

While both My Heritage and Family Tree DNA allow users to construct family trees, a yearly subscription fee is required to maintain a tree that’s larger than 250 people when using My Heritage. That’s not a cheap proposition, as subscriptions start at $189 a year. Both have very broad ethnic regions, with MyHeritage having 42 to FTDNA’s 24. The database of potential matches is comparable in size, but because the company only offers autosomal testing, no mtDNA and Y-DNA-specific match data is available. Get a complete understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of My Heritage DNA with our complete review.

Family Tree DNA vs. AncestryDNA

While Ancestry’s massive database and scope of research tools dwarf all its competitors, FTDNA shines by offering a free family tree creation tool and allowing users to contact matches and interact with their trees without the costly monthly or yearly subscription fees Ancestry.com demands. Ancestry only offers autosomal tests currently, and while they do offer a health feature, it’s relatively new and still being rolled out. FTDNA also features a chromosome browser, which the Ancestry test lacks. Learn more about AncestryDNA.

Family Tree DNA: Frequently Asked Questions

Will I Be Able To Locate Living Family Members?

Absolutely! FTDNA’s 850K strong database is packed with potential matches who can be contacted by email. That said, publishing your email address is optional, which can make it harder to match on this site than some others with larger databases. If you’ve taken a mtDNA or Y-DNA test, you’ll even be able to locate and contact matches specific to your mother’s side and father’s side. You’ll also be able to view their family trees and link matches to your tree.

Does the Test Measure Neanderthal DNA?

While the FTDNA test does offer interesting information on ancient origins, including a map displaying your genetic connection to the most influential ancient migration groups in Europe, no information on Neanderthal DNA is currently available.

Does the Test Measure Native American Ancestry?

The Family Tree DNA test features a fairly small number of broad regions, which means that at best, it will be able to indicate your North or Central American ancestry. No tribe identification is possible, nor are the results of this test admissible as proof of Native American ancestry.

Is It Possible to Access My Health or Medical Information With the Family Tree DNA Test?

There are no health and wellness results accessible through the Family Tree DNA test itself at this time, though raw dna data can be freely exported and uploaded to other sites where this information may be available for an additional fee. There’s also links on the FTDNA site to third party services which can similarly offer health data for an additional cost.

Will My Results Be Clearer If Other Family Members Also Take the Family Tree DNA Test?

When it comes to autosomal DNA tests, there’s always a chance that your results will be clearer if your close family members test. DNA varies slightly from person to person, so having multiple family members test increases the likelihood of locating all living relatives. You’ll also be able to better establish your connection to distant relatives, and may be able to determine if matches are connected to you through your maternal or paternal line without using more expensive mtDNA and Y-DNA tests. For women, who can’t access their paternal haplogroup without having their father, brother, paternal uncle, or paternal cousin taking a Y-DNA test, doing so provides a more comprehensive overview of their genetic background.

Can I Export My Raw Data For Use on Other Sites?

Yes, FTDNA allows you to freely export your autosomal DNA, mtDNA, and Y-DNA independently depending on what tests you’ve taken. This DNA can then be used on other sites and databases for further matching or to access health and wellness information.

How Much Does the Test Cost?

The current base prices for tests and bundles are as follows:
  • Family Finder: $79
  • mtDNA Full Spectrum: $199
  • Y-37 (males only): $169
  • Y-111 (males only): $359
  • Big Y-700 (males only): $649
  • Family Finder + mtFullSequence: $278
  • Family Finder + Y-37 (males only): $248
  • Family Finder + Y-111 + mtFull Sequence (males only): $637
It’s very common for these tests to go on sale, especially around major holidays, so be aware of fluctuations and don’t be afraid of waiting for the price to come down. Tests are purchased by “kit”, with each kit including sample collection gear for one user. Each kit costs $9.95 to ship; although no bulk-buying option is openly advertised on the site for large purchases, tests can be bought in bulk by contacting customer service. There is no ongoing subscription cost required to use the service.

Should I Give Kits as Gifts?

Having your family members take DNA tests can actually help to make your results more clear, which is one of many reasons giving them as gifts is great. They’ll get to learn more about their background and connect with living relatives as well, and FTDNA lets you put together a customized kit for each person on your list rather than mixing and matching store-bought boxes. They often go on sale throughout the year, and since the specimen collection equipment in the kits doesn’t expire, that’s a great time to stockpile tests for birthdays and holidays.

Expert Tips

  1. Although FTDNA doesn’t publicize it on their purchase page, people looking to buy kits in bulk for use at family reunions or as gifts can contact customer service to find out about pricing and shipping options.
  2. One of the benefits of choosing this service is that the diverse range of available tests remains available to users after their initial submission and purchase. If you decide to take a simple autosomal test, but later wish to also access mtDNA results, the only cost to you will be the cost of performing the mtDNA test — no new test kit is required.

The Bottom Line

Family Tree DNA offers up family tree creation and linking tools without the limits and subscription fees that make competitors’ versions less appealing. They offer competitively-priced options for testing your autosomal, mtDNA and Y-DNA with illustrated, interactive results that offer a jumping off point for further research. Though their user database is small, they tend to be more consistently active than those on the sites of larger competitors, and it’s an ideal place to connect with motherline and fatherline-specific matches. It’s a great kit for making the jump from beginner to intermediate genealogy enthusiast, especially for those interested in participating in genome projects.
Hannah H.

Hannah H.

Hannah is both a parent and a freelance journalist and author. You go, girl! She is an impeccable wordsmith and her warm and witty outlook on life makes her pieces a joy to read.

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