Best DNA Tests for Adopted Adults to Unlock Family Heritage

Adoptees and people with unknown parentage are using DNA Tests to identify birth parents, health information, and ethnic heritage. Which DNA test is best for adopted adults or anyone who doesn’t know the identity of a biological parent?

AncestryDNA is the best DNA test for adoptees researching birth family. Use 23andMe if you only want health information. Transfer your DNA to MyHeritage and FamilyTreeDNA for more reports on relatives and ethnicity.

Best DNA Tests for Adopted Adults Researching Biological Family

The top four DNA testing companies by descending size of their DNA databases are:

  1. AncestryDNA
  2. 23andMe
  3. MyHeritage
  4. FamilyTreeDNA

I’ll give my recommendation now, and expand upon it in later sections. AncestryDNA is the best bet for finding biological family. This is based on numbers: it has the largest DNA database out of all the companies.

How do DNA Tests show you genetic relatives?

If you’re not sure how this works, then take a look at a small excerpt from my list of genetic relatives. This is from AncestryDNA (I use all four companies). I’m showing just two of my many thousands of matches in their database.

It’s important to know that if you can “see” your relatives, then they can also “see” you.  Don’t be unduly alarmed by this: you have a lot of privacy options.

These two people have chosen to display initials to their relatives. I also have a “GamGam” (I presume a proud grandmother), a “MamaPapa”, and an “iam123” on the list.

But I also see many full names, and some have attached their photographs as avatars. If you’re wondering about the statistics: seven of the top ten relatives on my list have chosen to display their full name.

Can you Identify Biological Family with DNA Tests?

I’ll give you a brief flavor of how DNA tests help you research and find biological family. Let’s take the example of H.B.

What is the testing company actually telling me here? Well, H.B. is a woman who shares an amount of DNA with me that falls within a range of 1st to 2nd cousin. You may think we’ve hit a brick wall because you only see her initials.

But the display is also showing that she has “168 People” in her family tree. This is where it gets exciting. H.B. has chosen to allow other Ancestry members to view her online tree. The details of living people are kept private, but I’ll see the names of her great-grandparents and possibly her grandparents. She may also have entered their birth and death dates and places.

You could use the testing company’s messaging system to send questions to H.B., but it’s usually better to get more of the “lay of the land” before you reach out (see our section on messaging). Now it’s time for some genealogical research.

Genealogy Research and your DNA Results

Start with the hypothesis that H.B. is your second cousin. It’s just a hypothesis because there are other relationships within the estimated range. But if H.B. is your second cousin, then a grandchild of her great-grandparents is…your parent.

But don’t we have lots of great-grandparents? Yes, we have eight. This is where genealogy comes into play, plus any little snippet that you’ve gleaned about your genetic parentage. You may know a first name. Or a place in which your parent lived.

You will build out an expanded copy of H.B.’s tree with every child of her great-grandparents, and their children, and their children’s children. Wide and deep, we’ve got an article on doing exactly that to identify your connection with your DNA matches.

It can take a lot of work, but plenty of adopted adults have solved their family structure using a second cousin match. And with luck, a closer match may pop up while you’re doing your research.

Could You See an Unknown Parent With a DNA Test?

Possibly. If you are one of a small percentage of testers, you could see this at the top of your list of genetic relatives:

I’ve obscured the middle initial and surname. But don’t get your hopes up too much. Statistically, it’s unlikely to happen to you. Think of it as winning the lottery. You are far more likely to see a massive list of fourth cousins than have a parent who has also tested with the same DNA company as you. This is a good reason to transfer your test to multiple companies – I’ll come to that later.

But seeing a parent on your list does happen!  And you need to be prepared for all the ramifications. It’s quite possible that this will be a bigger shock to Robert. The section on what to do when you get your test results has some advice on what to do in this scenario (basically, screen-shot everything).

Your DNA Results Require Careful Interpretation

How about this? The testing company is displaying D.M. as “Close Family – 1st Cousin”. And you’re thinking – ooh, a first cousin, how interesting.

But wait. These are estimates based on typical relationships for the amount of DNA you share with your genetic relative. Often enough, a “first cousin” may not actually be your first cousin. This could be your grandmother, an aunt, or a niece.

She could also be your half-sister. And I don’t have statistics for this, but it’s reasonable to assume half-siblings turn up a little more often than a parent. You’ve got to prepare mentally for this too.

So, how can you tell if this is a half-sister, an aunt, or a grandmother? Or a double first cousin or a half-aunt or a half-niece? There are a few more DNA pointers, but you usually need to go back to genealogy research.

And just one more point, while you’re thinking that this DNA lark is getting quite complicated. See the little note underneath D.M.’s name? It says: “Managed by Ann”. Your close relative gave permission to someone else to manage her DNA results. Who the heck is Ann? Well, all we know for now is that she’s the gatekeeper for all contact with D.M. via the company’s messaging system. Yes – just one more complication.

You are not on your own in all this

Don’t be discouraged. There are so many other adopted adults who have gone through similar results and research. There’s a wealth of online information on interpreting these relationships. And there are support groups who will review your information and give knowledgeable analysis. There are more details in this section.

What if You’re only Interested in Ethnicity?

I’ll get ethnicity and health out of the way, before I move on to focus on researching your biological family.

Some people are solely interested in their ethnic heritage. There are entire social media forums dedicated to people posting their ethnicity breakdown provided by DNA testing companies.

I’ll put my hands up – I think the ethnicity aspect has been a bit of a gimmick. Not least because the breakdown can vary widely across the companies. But I acknowledge that the results are getting more sophisticated.

If you’re interested in both ethnicity AND finding relatives, I suggest you test with AncestryDNA. You get the biggest DNA database, plus their ethnicity breakdown.

But if you’re ONLY interested in ethnicity, then you may as well go with the cheapest DNA kit of the top four companies. That is MyHeritage.

What If You’re Only Interested in Health Information?

You may have no wish to research your biological family. You just want information about aspects of hereditary health. Can you take a DNA test for health information, and be sure that you are excluded from this family matching malarkey? Yes, you can. You do need to be careful to pick the right options when you sign up.

Personally, I have no interest in this area – so I won’t cover it further in this article. I will simply say that 23andMe is the recommended kit in many in-depth reviews available online.

The Big Four DNA Testing Companies – And One Extra

For people interested in finding genetic relatives, the most important factor amongst the companies is the size of their DNA database. Basically, this is a count of how many people have tested or transferred their DNA with the company.

In descending order of size, the top four are Ancestry, 23andMe, MyHeritage, and FamilyTreeDNA.

Your order your DNA kit from these companies, and you send your saliva (usually) to their labs for processing.

Some companies also accept raw DNA results from elsewhere. MyHeritage and FamilyTreeDNA both accept DNA results from Ancestry and 23andMe. But not vice versa i.e. Ancestry and 23andMe do not take DNA uploads.

The “One Extra” in the heading refers to a fifth company that does not provide DNA kits. The GEDmatch website (owned by Verogen) accepts DNA results from AncestryDNA, 23andMe, and MyHeritage. They also accept the autosomal test with FamilyTreeDNA.

Estimating the Size of DNA Testing Company Databases

Ancestry reports its numbers on about a quarterly basis. Some of the others do not give explicit numbers, but there are estimates knocking around from credible sources.

Here are what I think are the numbers as of 2020. If you’re interested in the sources, I’ve detailed them in a section in this article on MyHeritage (apart from GEDmatch – I’ve grabbed the number from Wikipedia).

DNA Testing CompanyDNA Database Size
AncestryDNA18+ million
23andMe12+ million
MyHeritage 4+ million
Family Tree DNA1.8+ million
GEDmatch1.2+ million
Estimates as of 2020 – DataMiningDNA.com

Best DNA Tests for Adopted Adults

The table of numbers should make it clear that AncestryDNA leads the field by considerable margin.

What are the Best Types of DNA Tests for Adopted Adults?

There are several types of DNA tests available. These are some of the main types you’ll see offered commercially:

  • Autosomal (atDNA) – (you want this one)
  • Mitochondrial (mtDNA)
  • Y-DNA

If you’re researching your parentage or close biological family, then you need an autosomal DNA kit. You don’t even need to think about the type that much, as most of the big companies only offer autosomal testing. So, if you’re purchasing a kit from Ancestry, 23andMe. or MyHeritage – this is what you get.

Just be careful you’re ordering from Family Tree DNA. They offer different types of DNA testing –  be sure to take the “Family Finder” option.

Use The “Test and Transfer” Strategy to Find Family

MyHeritage and FamilyTreeDNA accept DNA results from both Ancestry and 23andMe. You can transfer your DNA for free. You get a limited service with a free account on MyHeritage and FamilyTreeDNA, but you will be able to see a list of genetic relatives.

Crucially, you can see how much DNA you share with the other testers. Suppose you only have fourth cousins on Ancestry, but the list on MyHeritage shows a 1st cousin. You can upgrade for about 30 bucks on MyHeritage to get access to their full services for research.

So it makes sense to purchase a kit from one of Ancestry or 23andMe and transfer to the others. This general approach is to fish in all (credible) ponds. You want to maximize the number of potential genetic relatives available to you.

As Ancestry has the biggest database, here is a summary of my suggested process. I’ll go into each step in more depth in the next sections.

  • Step 1: Prepare for a Rollercoaster
  • Step 2: Buy a DNA kit from AncestryDNA
  • Step 3: Learn Some Basics of Genetic Genealogy
  • Step 4 (Optional): Start Building your Family Tree on Ancestry
  • Step 5: Receive and Research your Ancestry DNA Results
  • Step 6: Transfer your Raw DNA to Other DNA Sites
  • Step 7: Buy a DNA Kit from 23andMe

Step 1: Prepare for a Rollercoaster

Before your purchase your test, you should consider a range of possible outcomes. Here are a few:

  • You get a massive list of distant cousins you can’t make head nor tail of
  • Close relatives do not respond to your attempts to make contact
  • A genetic relative is unpleasant in their interaction with you
  • Your genealogical research finds that one or both biological parents are deceased
  • A genetic relative discloses information that is upsetting to you
  • You uncover information that may be upsetting to a genetic relative
  • Your results show that your biological parents share a very high amount of DNA

My impression from several years of interacting with other testers is that the first outcome is quite common, particularly for people outside the United States. It then becomes a waiting game for a new closer DNA match to turn up in your results.

I also suspect that the last outcome is least likely to occur. A quick word on the possibility of your parents sharing some DNA: this is not uncommon. It just needs a first or second cousin marriage in earlier generations. Many populations have some endogamy (marriage within a community). But if you think you’re dealing with a very high amount, I suggest you retain a genetic genealogist to analyze your results.

Ways to Prepare Mentally For Your Results

You can conduct thought experiments with yourself, you could talk through scenarios with a friend, or you could join a support group with a good understanding of what you may encounter.

If you’re not ready to engage directly with other people about your search, then you can “lurk” in some online groups that have other adopted adults discussing DNA results. You may have mixed feelings about Facebook, but it has several large groups that help people interpret their DNA results when searching for birth family. And there’s a general understanding that these are emotional events.

If you’re worried about your privacy – well, Facebook doesn’t want you to open a second account with a name that preserves your anonymity. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t.  

Step 2: Buy a DNA kit from AncestryDNA

Ancestry’s DNA kit is usually cheaper than 23andMe. It tends to be just under 100 US dollars. However, Ancestry has several discount periods throughout the year. These are usually around Thanksgiving, Father’s Day, and Mother’s Day. The price tends to drop to around 60 US dollars.

The test involves spitting into a tube, repackaging the material, and dropping it into a postbox.

Wait times vary, but allow for up to eight weeks. I’ve seen occasional reports of a turn-around of three weeks.

Step 3: Learn Some Basics of Genetic Genealogy

While you’re waiting for your DNA results, it’s a good idea to get familiar with aspects of genetic genealogy. A basic understanding will avoid confusion and misinterpretation of your results.

Here are some concepts that you should get your head around:

  • You and your full sibling will not inherit the same amount of DNA from each parent
  • Your known fourth cousin may not share any DNA with you
  • You may not inherit any DNA from one of your great-great-grandparents
  • A parent’s DNA kit will match more relatives than you for that side of your family

If these sentences leave you bemused, that’s okay! But I advise a bit of studying to understand the basic science behind each statement that surprises you. There are some great informational blogs from genetic genealogists that will give you the explanations.

Step 4 (Optional): Start Your Family Tree on Ancestry

Skip this step if you don’t know the names of either parent.

But suppose you know your mother’s identity and are looking for an unknown father. You will help your research by building as much of your mother’s family tree as possible. The goal is to collect the surnames and locations of your maternal line as far back as you can go. And then go wide and deep. Research the sisters of your grandmother and great-grandmother and so on: find their married names and the married names of their daughters.

Why? To have a head start when your results become available and your DNA matches are shown to you. Having even “half” a tree can help you mark your genetic relatives as being maternal as you research their public family trees and see the intersections with your own.

If you spot recurring surnames amongst high matches that you cannot find on your known maternal line, you can form a hypothesis that these may be from your paternal line. You can prioritize and focus on these trees and matches.

Trust me, the reasons will make more practical sense when you actually get your DNA results. For now, you can read more guidelines from our blog series on building your Ancestry family tree. Or check out our book on Amazon.

Step 5: Receive and Research your Ancestry DNA Results

The results are in! Exciting times, but you may need to move fast.

Screenshot Close DNA Matches

Remember that we showed you a picture of a genetic match to a father? And said that this man may be shocked when he sees your relationship on his list? So might a half-sibling or other close family. Even a first cousin may realize that your appearance represents a significant event to someone in their family.

People can get spooked by surprises. DNA testers can choose to hide or delete their DNA results at any time.

You can’t stop people from making this choice, but you can gather as much information as you can before they do so. Take screen-shots of their profile pages and their lists of shared DNA matches with you.

The shared matches are particularly important. Check out this article for tips on using Ancestry shared matches in your research. A screenshot of a shared match list may help you identify whether fifty other matches are paternal or maternal.

Tell Family and Friends that your Evenings are Booked

DNA and genealogy research takes time. If you don’t have any obvious DNA matches to investigate, you’ll be working your way down a very long list of research projects.

Hopefully, this becomes an enjoyable hobby that lasts a lifetime. But a lifetime in which you solve your mysteries early!

Mysteries still unsolved?

If you have solved your family mysteries within weeks of receiving your results, then you don’t need to proceed further with these steps.

Otherwise, crack on to Step 6. You’re still researching on Ancestry, but you’re going to cast new fishing lines into different ponds.

Step 6: Transfer your Raw DNA to Other DNA Sites

This step involves downloading your raw DNA from Ancestry, and uploading it to other DNA sites of your choosing. This will increase the number of genetic relatives to work with. These are your main options:

  • MyHeritage
  • FamilyTreeDNA
  • GEDmatch

There are detailed instructions in this article about transferring your DNA from Ancestry to MyHeritage. The steps will be similar for other sites: you just need to find the “upload” feature.

Before you do this, make sure you are comfortable with how each company deals with requests from law enforcement to analyze DNA results. Each company gives you the option to opt-out of sharing your DNA results with forensic investigations.

You should also familiarize yourself with the privacy set-up on each site. For example, GEDmatch shows your sign-up email to all other accounts (regardless of whether they are genetic relatives). You may wish to use a dedicated generically-named email for this purpose.

Step 7: Buy a DNA Kit from 23andMe

DNA kits from 23andMe are usually a little more expensive than AncestryDNA. But if you’ve struck out with all the other named sites, then this gives you access to the second-largest DNA database.

One of the most useful features of Ancestry is that many hobby genealogists use the site to build well-researched family trees. In contrast, I find that 23andMe matches are far less likely to have a family tree. Which makes it more difficult to research the connection.

But if you want to cover all bases, it’s worth a shot – when you can afford it.

Whew, that’s all seven of the seven steps.

Reaching Out to Your DNA Matches

The four DNA testing companies allow you to send messages to your DNA matches through their messaging system. GEDmatch provides the email address they choose to display.

Unfortunately, you will find that some of your messages will not get replies. The emails from the test companies may go to junk folders. The DNA match may have only tested to explore their ethnicity. Some people don’t want to engage with unknown contacts.

We have an article on sending messages on Ancestry that are more likely to get replies. Read the full article, and then focus on the last section titled “Adoption and Making Contact”. I wish you the best of luck.

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