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Do you know where your ancestors lived two hundred, five hundred, or even thousands of years ago? Most of us don’t, but there’s an easy way to shed light on where in the world you came from. Want to know if you have Italian heritage? Or if you have any Native American ancestors? DNA ethnicity tests can give you some of these answers. Read our best DNA ethnicity test reviews to see which company can help you find the answers you’re seeking.
How Does an At-Home DNA Test Work?
At-home DNA tests have become hugely popular over the last several years, partly because of their simplicity. All you have to do is order a testing kit online, do the cheek swab or give a saliva sample in the sample tube they provide. You mail your sample to their lab in their provided packaging and wait for your results. Each company’s laboratory tests your DNA for specific known genetic markers. These markers differ somewhat by each laboratory’s testing methods and algorithms they use. In addition to giving you ethnicity results, some at-home DNA ancestry tests can give you genetic matches for living relatives, identify cousins and do health-related testing for hereditary conditions like Parkinson’s Disease.
What Can Your DNA Test Reveal About Your Ethnicity?
These tests can tell you literally where in the world you came from — with some limitations. Here’s a breakdown of the different types of DNA ethnicity tests and what they can tell you.
Recent Ancestry: Autosomal DNA Test
An autosomal DNA test for ethnic origin matches your DNA with population samples and studies from across the globe. When you get your DNA test results back, you’ll get a report that gives you admixture percentages. These are your unique percentages of where your ancestors lived in defined geographical regions, i.e. 82% British Isles, 10% Eastern European, 2% Native American and so on.
Autosomal DNA tests trace back anywhere from five to 10 generations on both your mother and father’s sides of the family. Each company’s ethnicity report differs slightly by their defined global regions, how they present their data to you, and the number of population studies they use in their analysis. Your percentages can also differ slightly because of each lab’s unique testing methods. Some autosomal tests also look at parts of your DNA going back even further.
Ancient Ancestry & Haplogroups: Y-DNA and Mitochondrial DNA Tests
Autosomal DNA tests look at chromosomes 1-22 that you’ve inherited from both your parents. The Y-DNA and mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) tests can tell you where your ancestors from your direct paternal line and maternal line lived thousands of years ago. Some tests can even tell you how much Neanderthal DNA you have.
Mitochondrial DNA Testing
Both males and females can take a mtDNA test, which reveals your direct maternal line ancestry. MtDNA is passed down from mother to child each generation. All humans trace back to Mitochondrial Eve, who lived in Africa an estimated 200,000 years ago. Over time, her descendants broke out into different branches called haplogroups, and a mtDNA test can predict your mtDNA haplogroup.
Y Chromosome DNA Testing
Only males carry the Y-chromosome, so women won’t benefit from taking this test. A Y-DNA test traces direct male-line ancestry — son to father to grandfather and so on. Women can learn something from this test by having a brother, father, paternal grandfather, paternal uncle or a male cousin (your father’s brother’s son) take a test for you. This test can tell you which Y-haplogroup you belong to if you’re male. Your Y-DNA haplogroup reflects the ancient ancestry of your paternal line. Some haplogroups indicate clear ethnic groups. For example, the Y-haplogroup E3a is the most common among African Americans, and Y-haplogroup Q3 solely includes Native American populations.
How Accurate Is a DNA Test to Determine Ethnicity?
DNA ethnicity test accuracy still has a long way to go regarding pinpointing specific countries, areas within each country or tribes your ancestors came from. One company is a potential exception. LivingDNA claims to be able to pinpoint specific ethnic locations within the British Isles. But this company is relatively new, and the jury’s still out about how accurate their testing is regarding this level of specificity.
With that said, your results with LivingDNA and the other companies we review will provide fairly accurate regions around the world, particularly for people who don’t know where all of their recent ancestors lived. Each company has its pluses and minuses, which we’ll cover in our reviews. It’s important to keep in mind that results aren’t 100% accurate — the science just isn’t there yet, but it’s steadily improving. As these companies refine their methods and gain more population data, your results will be more accurate. And your digital results will reflect these refinements automatically without additional fees or you having to take another DNA test. Check out our all inclusive guide to DNA testing.
Best DNA Ethnicity Test Winners
We’ve chosen our best DNA test for ethnicity winners based on several factors, including each company’s reputation, analysis methods, types of results, privacy, pricing and much more.
Family Tree DNA (FTDNA) compares your autosomal DNA with more than 60 reference populations around the world (more than 23andMe and Ancestry.com), including Native American and Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jewish ancestry. They’ve grouped 24 regions into what they call population clusters, and your ethnicity results (myOrigins) show the percentage breakdown of each cluster they find in your DNA on a fun, interactive online map. You can also view a searchable list of your genetic matches and the percentage of their genetic populations.
Their latest feature, ancientOrigins, compares your autosomal DNA test to DNA from archaeological dig sites throughout the European continent. You can see the percentage of DNA you still carry from three ancient European groups: Neolithic Hunter/Gatherers, Early Farmers and Bronze-age Metal Invaders. Want to do a deeper dive? Family Tree DNA offers the only at-home separate Y-DNA and mtDNA tests that can go back hundreds of thousands of years in more detail and can confirm with 100% accuracy the haplogroup you belong to. Their Y-DNA test can also be an excellent way to identify living cousins.
FTDNA offers several bundled packages in addition to the pricing below.
- $89 Family Finder Autosomal DNA Kit (cheek swab)
- $79 mtDNA Plus DNA Kit
- $199 mtDNA Full Sequence Kit
- $169 Y37 Markers
- $268 Y67 Markers
- $359 Y111 Markers
- $12.95 shipping
- View all options
Family Tree DNA often has time-sensitive coupons!
Along with FamilyTree DNA, 23andMe is among the best tests at narrowing down smaller regions around the world, particularly in Europe. And it can determine DNA from several regions within Africa, Asia and more (including Native American and Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry). In addition to getting a percentage breakdown, 23andMe has a cool ancestry timeline feature that tells you when different ethnicities first appeared in your DNA.
23andMe’s ethnicity results are based on your autosomal DNA, Y-DNA and mtDNA, although a vast majority is autosomal DNA. Still, because they analyze some of your Y-DNA and/or mtDNA, your results can tell you your haplogroup(s) and how much of your DNA is derived from Neanderthals and identify specific Neanderthal DNA associated with such traits as height and back hair. 23andMe’s Y-DNA and mtDNA analysis, however, isn’t nearly as thorough as FTDNA’s separate tests. For an additional $100, you can also have 23andMe analyze your DNA for health-related conditions and risks, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
- $69.00 Ancestry DNA test (saliva sample)
- $199.00 Ancestry + Health DNA testing kit
- $9.95 shipping via 23andMe website
- Results available in 6-8 weeks
23andMe occasionally has time-sensitive coupons!
AncestryDNA comes in third place for its overall global ethnicity results, but if you’re also looking for living relatives or to trace individual ancestors, AncestryDNA is a worthy contender. Why? Ancestry.com has the largest DNA database, so you’re more likely to find genetic matches with this service. Regarding its ethnicity estimates, Ancestry doesn’t analyze your DNA against as many population studies as our top two winners. But they still do a good job of giving you ethnicity results from 26 regions around the globe. And AncestryDNA provides a more detailed breakdown of African ancestry than our top two winners. An exciting new feature AncestryDNA has just launched is Genetics Communities. Instead of focusing on traditional ethnic biogeographical analysis, Genetics Communities can help you find where your recent ancestors lived and came from by grouping you into a shared ancestor and regional group. Click here to learn more about Genetics Communities.
- $99 autosomal DNA testing kit (saliva sample)
- $9.95 shipping
- Results available in 6-8 weeks
AncestryDNA often has time-sensitive coupons!
Other DNA Testing for Ethnicity Reviews
The following reviews are popular or up-and-coming companies we’re watching carefully since the field is constantly evolving. The most notable is Living DNA, which could deserve a spot in our top three once this newcomer proves itself reliable for ethnicity results.
England-based Living DNA is a relative newcomer to the at-home DNA kit market. They launched in 2015 with the claim that they’re the “first truly global DNA test.” They break down your ethnic origins across 80 global regions and an impressive 21 sub-regions within the British Isles and Ireland. Like 23andMe, Living DNA’s test includes autosomal DNA, Y-DNA and mtDNA (but they don’t look at as many markers as FTDNA with your Y-DNA and mtDNA). In addition to your regional breakdown up to 10 generations back, you also get results about the migration patterns of your ancestors dating back 80,000 years and your haplogroup(s). Living DNA partners with several leading genomics, testing, analytical and research organizations, which lends them a lot of scientific credit. For now, we have this relative newcomer on our radar to see how their scientific reputation plays out. They could soon be a strong contender for our top spots.
- $119 DNA testing kit (swab)
- Free shipping
- Results in 10-12 weeks
Although MyHeritage is one of the most popular genealogical research sites in the world, their DNA testing needs to catch up with their competitors. Part of the issue is that MyHeritage didn’t launch their own DNA test until September 2016 — years behind their competition. From our research, we’ve found that the MyHeritage DNA testing for ethnicity isn’t solid by any means. There’s no information about the population samples that they’re analyzing your DNA against. And no information about the ethnicity results you’ll receive. At this time, we can’t recommend MyHeritageDNA as a viable DNA test to find ethnicity or even genetic matches.
- $79 Autosomal DNA testing kit (cheek swab)
- $10 shipping
- Results in 3-4 weeks
The Geno 2.0 Next Generation DNA testing kit focuses on ancient ancestry rather than recent roots. If you want a breakdown of your ethnicity from the last 500 years, you’re out of luck. Geno 2.0 does give you a broad regional ancestry breakdown from 5,000-10,000 years ago and your haplogroup based on analysis of more than 60 reference populations. They also can tell you how much Neanderthal DNA you have. This test is part of the National Geographic Genographic Project, a scientific endeavor that’s analyzing historic patterns in human DNA across the world. The Geno 2.0 Next Gen test is expensive, and their database is relatively small, but you can upload your results into FTDNA for free, so you can potentially find relatives and gain additional insight into your ancestral origins. From an ethnicity standpoint, the benefit of the Geno 2.0 test is your contribution to a global historical genomic project.
- $149.95 DNA testing kit (cheek swab)
- Free shipping
- Results available in 8-10 weeks
AncestryDNA launched an exciting new feature called Genetics Communities in March 2017. Genetics Communities, which focuses on post-colonial North America, is a different approach to learning more about your roots, and it differs from traditional ethnicity analysis. But it helps you pinpoint where your recent ancestors lived and migrated from by analyzing shared recent ancestors with family tree information.
So far, AncestryDNA has created 300+ unique genetic communities (GC). Each GC includes Ancestry members who’ve been DNA tested and share fairly recent ancestors who came from the same region or culture—even though they may have had different ethnic backgrounds. For example, you may be able to find that you’re matched as a member of the Sicilian GC or Ulster Irish GC, meaning your ancestors could have migrated from those specific regions. Similarly, you could be a member of the Early Settlers of Pennsylvania Dutch Country GC. Keep in mind, this feature is still in beta, but there’s been a ton of buzz about its launch. For now, you may only find one GC in your DNA results, but as more people test, the more genetics communities AncestryDNA will surely create. Check out the video below for more information.
Why Not Wait to Get Your DNA Tested?
You may be wondering why you shouldn’t just hold off getting tested until the science and accuracy improves? There are two main arguments against waiting. First, your DNA will be in a database that’s continually refining their biogeographical analysis procedures — and these improvements will automatically be updated in your results online. Second, the more people who test now, the better the database gets. With more DNA samples to compare, scientists can become more accurate with their results. That’s why it’s important to choose the best DNA test for ethnicity with company’s that have a solid reputation. We hope our DNA for testing ethnicity reviews have helped you make your decision a little easier.
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