FamilyTreeDNA gives you loads of information and advanced features that you won’t get with most of its competitors. While all this extra functionality is nice, its DNA testing kits are far from perfect. The design lacks the user-friendly appeal that companies like AncestryDNA provide, which could make it a little overwhelming for a novice.

FamilyTreeDNA tests aren’t the cheapest either, so it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with their offerings before pulling out your wallet. In this review, we’ll cover what you can expect with one of FamilyTreeDNA’s tests, what their test results look like, and the pros and cons of using this popular service.

Company details

One of the older DNA testing companies on the market, FamilyTreeDNA is:

  • Highly respected within the genealogy community
  • One of the only companies to offer 3 different types of Ancestry tests: mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), autosomal DNA, and Y-DNA
  • Most popular company for Y-DNA and mitochondrial DNA
  • 4th most popular for autosomal DNA
  • More than 2 million records in their database
  • Founded in 2000 by Bennett Greenspan
  • Based out of Houston, Texas in the United States

Quick facts:


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Sample Collection: Swab
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DNA Testing Type: Autosomal, mtDNA, YDNA (all 3)
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Speed: 6 weeks (mine took 6)
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Privacy Protection: Weak

What’s in the Box?

When you order a FamilyTreeDNA testing kit, it should contain the following items:

  • Two cotton swabs for collecting your DNA sample
  • Two vials containing an antibacterial solution for storing your DNA sample
  • Instructions for collecting your DNA sample
  • Plastic bag
  • Release form allowing FamilyTreeDNA to give your name and email to any DNA matches you may have (genetic cousins)
  • Prepaid envelope for returning your DNA sample to the testing company

Steps:

  1. Make sure you can sign in to your account. This is a bit confusing as it says you should have a password to the account but I wasn’t sent one
  2. Don’t eat or drink for 60 minutes prior to collecting your sample
  3. Make sure your hands are clean and freshly washed
  4. Place unopened swabs and vials on a clean level surface
  5. Remove 1 swab from the package. Firmly scrape the inside of 1 cheek, rotating the swab for 45 seconds
  6. Open 1 vial, insert the swab side down, and snap it off against the edge of the vial, suspending it in the liquid
  7. Repeat steps 5 and 6 with the other swab but this time on the opposite cheek
  8. Double-check that the orange caps are screwed tightly onto your vials and place them into a plastic bag
  9. Sign the consent form and put it, and the vials, in the plastic bag.
  10. Seal the plastic bag
  11. Place the plastic bag into the return envelope and send back (envelope is prepaid)
  12. Wait for 6 to 8 weeks to receive your results

What’s on the consent form?

When you sign the consent form included with your DNA testing kit, you are giving Family TREE DNA consent to:

  • Make your email address and name available to any genetic matches they find.
  • To use your DNA sample for migration and population genetic studies
  • Convert your physical DNA sample into DNA data.
  • Use your DNA data to provide you reports about your ancestral origins in the form of an ethnicity estimate, geographic subregion details, and migrations as well as personal insights related to your ethnicity, places of origin, ancestors, individual traits, and characteristics.
  • Invite you to participate in optional surveys and questionnaires through which we may gather more personal information for additional insights.
  • Identify your potential relatives in our DNA database by comparing your DNA data to other FamilyTreeDNA user’s DNA data.
  • Use your DNA data, family tree details, and other personal info to help you discover other details about your family history, including ancestors you may share with other FamilyTreeDNA members. This information can help you build your family tree and trace the migration path of your ancestors.
  • Provide consistent quality and improve FamilyTreeDNA product features and services.
  • Help create new product features and services, including products related to wellness and health.

Privacy

Unfortunately, privacy is one area where FamilyTreeDNA could use some improvement. This is because back in December of 2018, the DNA testing service altered their terms of service to allow law enforcement agencies to use their DNA data for the purpose of solving cold cases.


We took every DNA test so you don't have to. Read our 2020 review of the best DNA tests.


While the company states that they will only allow law enforcement to use its customers data for solving violent crimes, the fact that they share any data with government agencies may be cause for concern. Most other DNA testing companies have resisted pressure from law enforcement to turn over sensitive DNA data, but not FamilyTreeDNA.

Since the terms of service were altered, the company has been involved in helping law enforcement arrest over 10 people. If you’re not a criminal, you likely have nothing to worry about, but if you truly value your privacy then you may want to consider another company, such as 23andMe or AncestryDNA.

Competition

Because FamilyTreeDNA has no health section, it’s main competition is AncestryDNA, Living DNA, and MyHeritage. Both AncestryDNA and 23andMe have health sections, making their tests usable both for heritage as well as health information. 

Another benefit of using these other testing services is a better user experience. The results you’re given by companies like 23andMe and AncestryDNA are far easier to follow and presented in a way that’s less confusing for novice genealogists. 

Different tests offered by FamilyTreeDNA

FamilyTreeDNA has several different types of DNA test kits that can be broken into three categories. These categories include:

  • Y-DNA: The Y-DNA tests that FamilyTreeDNA offers are Y-37, Y-111, and Big Y-700. Y-DNA tests focus on the Y-chromosome, which is inherited from the paternal line (from father to son). This is ideal for finding any lost relatives in your patrilineage
  • Autosomal DNA: This microarray chip-based DNA test is marketed as the Family Finder kit by FamilyTreeDNA. This test allows you to find family matches as distant as your 5th cousin. It also includes something called myOrigins, which will break down what percentage of your DNA originated from different regions or ethnic groups.
  • mtDNA: The final test type is sold under the name mtFull Sequence. This test kit examines your mitochondrial DNA to tell you your specific haplogroup and your ancestor’s migration path. This test is ideal if you’re looking for DNA matches on your maternal line.
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The Results

After processing your DNA sample, FamilyTreeDNA will send you an email with your test results:

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While every other DNA company sends you a well-designed email letting you know your test results, FamilyTreeDNA’s emails definitely lack the same polish. While the information is all there, it can be a little confusing trying to navigate it. The testing company could definitely make their reports more user-friendly, but with a little time, you should be able to figure out how to read your test results.

Family Tree’s confusing Dashboard contains a few sections:

Y-DNA

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Under Y-DNA you’ll find 12 sections. From left to right, they are:

  1. Matches - These are your Y-DNA matches. They’re people you share the same Haplogroups as you. You can even message your matches if you find any long lost family members. You’re also able to see their Earliest Known Ancestor in this section. 
  2. Ancestral Origins - This gives you, via rows and columns, your Ancestral Origins using your Y-DNA Haplogroups.
  3. Matches Map - Here you’ll find the information from Matches, except in a nice visual map format:
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  1. Data Download - In this section, you can get a view of all of your SNP data, including your variants.
  2. Advanced Matches - You can specify your Y-DNA haplogroups and find more advanced matches if you’re looking for something in particular.
  3. Haplogroup Origins - You can see the origins of the parent haplogroups.
  4. Y-DNA Migration Maps - This shows the migration of your Y-DNA - as a note, this uses Adobe Flash, and, unfortunately, you’re forced to download it. 
  5. Y-STR Results - This gives you the marker values of your Y-STR Values.
  6. Haplotree & SNPs - This appears to be similar info to Data Download.
  7. SNP Map - You start this section by choosing your Haplogroup, and then specifying the SNP you want to check. 
  8. Print Certificate - You can download the following PDFs 
    1. Understanding your results
    2. The Y-DNA Str Certificate
    3. Y-DNA Migration Map
  9. Learn more - Brings you to the learning center to see in-depth information about all of the data that FamilyTreeDNA gives you

Additional Features

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Here, you’ll find a few other areas to explore:

  1. Factoids - Upsell for other factoids, ranging from $19 - $49.50. These tests offer additional data that was gathered from your DNA sample. Some examples of the “factoids” that FamilyTreeDNA offers are caffeine metabolism, earwax type, longevity, and freckling.
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  1. Partner Applications - These are other applications you can transfer your DNA data to. Right now, FamilyTreeDNA is partnered with Geni. This service allows you to make your family part of the Word Family Tree.
  2. Public Haplotrees - This allows you to see the public haplotrees of both your Y-DNA and mtDNA.

myFamilyTree

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This is a tool that gives you the option to build your family tree. You can do this either from scratch or by uploading your GEDCOM file.

mtDNA

I also took the mtDNA test, mtFull Sequence, in order to include it in this review. Its dashboard is nearly the same as the Y-DNA test. The main difference with this test is that it tracks your mother’s lineage rather than your father’s.

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I won’t go over the first four sections in great detail (Matches, Ancestral Origins, Matches Maps, Advanced Matches), as they’re exactly the same as the Y-DNA test. To learn more about these sections, check out what I wrote under Y-DNA above.

  1. Haplogroup Origins - In this section, you’re able to see a breakdown of your haplogroup origins for your maternal line.
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  1. Migration Maps - Similar to the Y-DNA test, this section displays the migration paths that your ancestors may have used in a visual format.
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  1. Mutations - Here, you will see how your mtDNA has mutated throughout your family’s history. Unsurprisingly, when I took my test my haplogroup originated in Europe.
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Autosomal DNA

Autosomal DNA is a mixture of DNA from both parents, so you can learn something about your paternal and maternal lineage. This test was specifically designed for finding relatives up to 5 generations back, making it ideal for amateur genealogists. While this test can find genetic matches from both your mother’s and your father’s bloodline, it isn’t able to tell you which side of the family your match originates from.

If FamilyTreeDNA finds a genetic match that is closer than your 3rd cousin, the testing service will provide you with their name and email address. You’ll also be given any genealogical information you share with this match. All this is great if you’re on the hunt for new common ancestors. 

Downloadable Raw Data

When you take FamilyTreeDNA’s Family Finder (autosomal) DNA test, you’re able to download your raw DNA data and use it for whatever you’d like. To do this you’ll need to:

  1. Login to your FamilyTreeDNA account
  2. On the top bar, hover over the myDNA dropdown menu and go to Family Finder
  3. Here, click the option to Download Raw Data

The file should download in a zip format and can be analyzed through other companies to learn more about your genetics.

PROS

  • Able to test Y-DNA, mtDNA, and Autosomal DNA
  • The results provide a lot of information
  • Accurate test results
  • Includes everything you need to take and submit your sample, including a prepaid return envelope

CONS

  • Changed their terms of service in 2018 to allow law enforcement to use their DNA records for solving violent crimes leaving many customers to worry about privacy issues
  • Results are difficult to read, especially if you’re a novice
  • The website’s dashboard isn’t the most user-friendly and can be a bit confusing

The Final Verdict

FamilyTreeDNA offers a thorough and reliable service. The company has been doing this for a long time, so you know that you can trust them to provide accurate results. The main gripe I have with the service is the user-friendliness of the platform. It can be a little confusing to navigate, and while they present a lot of information, it’s not always easy to know what that information means. 

So if you’re familiar with DNA testing and know the technical jargon, this could be a great test for you. However, if you want a more user-friendly experience for a similar price, check out AncestryDNA or 23andMe.

Family Tree DNA Review

Joel

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Ease of Use
Ancestry Information
Speed of Updates
Speed of Results

Summary

Unless you are a complete DNA geek, go with one of the more consumer-friendly options.

2.8
Joel is a writer with a passion for the science of DNA and the power of its manipulation.

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