Family Tree DNA Testing:
How to Get Started

Couple in Black & White

If you’re ready to do some family tree DNA testing, this is the place to start.

I explain the steps. I also provide helpful tips and include links to the key web sites.

As long as you understand the basics explained on this site, the whole process is remarkably easy.

STEP 1. CHOOSE A TEST TYPE

If you read my Family History Search page, you understand what DNA testing can do. And if you read DNA Genealogy you understand the three basic test types.



I suggest males (and females who have an appropriate male relative to test) begin with the Y-DNA test. My second choice for family tree DNA testing is the autosomal DNA test and my third choice is the mitochondrial (mtDNA) test. Both males and females can take the autosomal and mtDNA tests.

These three test types are the primary tools of family tree DNA testing. You can save time and money by ordering various combinations at the same time.

STEP 2. CHOOSE A TEST COMPANY

I use Family Tree DNA for most of my testing. To learn why I choose to spend my money with this company read my FTDNA Review.

For autosomal DNA testing I have used Family Finder from Family Tree DNA plus 23andMe and AncestryDNA.

The Y-DNA and mtDNA tests are available through additional companies that do family tree DNA testing.  But their databases are much smaller and I cannot recommend them.

The International Society of Genetic Genealogy maintains a Y-DNA Testing Comparison Chart and an mtDNA Testing Comparison Chart. Be sure to check the date on each table to see how recently the data has been updated.

To compare the three autosomal DNA tests see my Autosomal DNA Comparison page.

[NOTE: My links to other sites open in new windows. If they don't work, check your popup blocker.]

STEP 3: PLACE YOUR ORDER

For Y-DNA testing you need to pick how many markers to test. Additional markers increase the resolution of your test results—but at a higher cost. For most people 37 or 67 markers is a good choice. You can upgrade to more markers later, if needed.

For mtDNA testing you can test just the HVR1 and HVR2 regions to determine your maternal haplotype. If you’re hoping to find a match for genealogy purposes, you should order the full sequence mitochondrial test, which is only offered by Family Tree DNA.


My Surname

A Cost Saving Tip for Family Tree DNA Testing

Family Tree DNA allows you to join a DNA surname project BEFORE you order a Y-DNA test. Look up your surname from the search box above. Change "Begins With" to "Equals" via the drop-down box. Then type your paternal surname in the space below that and click the Search button.

If your surname has any existing projects, you will see one or more links to the join pages for those projects. Then you can order through the project’s price schedule that may be below the regular price.

STEP 4: COLLECT YOUR DNA SAMPLE

Once you have placed your order for any kind of family tree DNA testing, the lab will send you a home DNA test kit. FTDNA uses a DNA swab to collect cells from inside your cheek. Other labs may use a tube for collecting saliva. Either way it’s easy and painless. But follow the directions carefully to ensure a good sample. You can get a replacement kit, if you need a re-test. But you will lose weeks of time in the process.

At Family Tree DNA be sure to sign the release form that lets the lab notify all parties of match names and email addresses whenever you match people in their database. Other companies will force you to request contact through their internal system.

STEP 5: REVIEW YOUR RESULTS

When your test results are ready, the lab will notify you and explain how you can view your personal results and matches online. Read all the background information provided by mail and online. This will help you interpret your results.

Y-DNA test: Matches on 12 markers don't mean much. But if you and someone with the same surname match closely at higher marker levels, you probably share a common ancestor in your paternal lines.

Near-perfect matches with different surnames MAY indicate a name change somewhere in one line or the other, possibly due to an adoption or other “non-paternity event.”

Autosomal DNA test: The results will tell you about how far back the common ancestor lived. If needed, testing more people can narrow your search.

mtDNA test: High resolution matches from the full sequence test suggest a common ancestor somewhere in your maternal lines. Low resolution matches (HVR1 and HVR2 only) can result from a common ancestor living thousands of years ago and are unlikely to help with genealogy research.

Your family tree DNA testing results will also place you in a particular Y-DNA and/or mtDNA haplogroup. There may or may not be enough information to place you in a particular subclade of a haplogroup. Additional tests are available to resolve your haplogroup position more precisely. But that’s an advanced topic beyond the scope of this page.

STEP 6: EXPLORE YOUR MATCHES

Hopefully, you will discover some close matches. I have had great success contacting genetic cousins through Family Tree DNA and somewhat lesser but still useful success at 23andMe and AncestryDNA. Together, you and your cousins may be able to find the paper trail that connects you through a specific common ancestor.

Surname Projects

Y-DNA data and genealogy routinely meet in the DNA Surname Projects. If you belong to one, your group administrator may ask you for genealogical data on your paternal line back to the earliest known ancestor.

Many projects have web sites that organize and display their data. They place members with similar DNA profiles into clusters that appear to have common ancestors. Then they help you mine the genealogical data of that cluster to make real world connections.

To ensure some degree of privacy most groups only identify members by test kit numbers and do not publish genealogical data on people who are still living.

STEP 7: SHARE YOUR DATA

What if your DNA matches someone who used a different testing company?  You’ll never know unless you both upload your results to a public database.  For Y-DNA testing the database is ySearch. For mtDNA testing the public database is Mitosearch. 

Family Tree DNA users can execute the transfer to Ysearch and Mitosearch with a couple of mouse clicks. Most other submissions require manual input of marker data into online forms.

For autosomal DNA testing the third-party site to compare matches is GEDmatch.

STEP 8: KEEP LEARNING

Family tree DNA testing is part of a new and dynamic field. Already, there are many supplemental tests you can order from your original DNA sample.

Hundreds of non-scientists are taking these tests, sharing their results, and contributing to the knowledge base. You can be part of this; but you need to keep learning. Here are some resources:

1. DNA Testing Adviser. My successful use of DNA testing in Adoption Search inspired me to create this web site. Read the rest of this site now, bookmark it, and come back later for additional content.

2. ISOGG. The International Society of Genetic Genealogy promotes the use of DNA in genealogy. Membership is free and their web site includes everything from basic information for beginners to advanced tools for experts. Members can participate in their DNA-NEWBIE mailing list. There is also a new ISOGG Wiki that is compiling information on family tree DNA testing.

3. The Genographic Project. This project, sponsored by the National Geographic Society, focuses on population genetics and human migration. The web site includes an excellent overview of genetics.

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If you already have results from another autosomal DNA test, you may be able to get into My Heritage and Family Finder for free.