Tracing your family history is an enthralling pastime that enables you to gain a better sense of who you are, where you came from and how all your relatives are connected to one another. Not so long ago, uncovering this kind of information was like finding a needle in a haystack. However, the best family tree makers and best genealogy sites now make it incredibly easy – and enjoyable – to piece together your ancestral jigsaw.
It's likely that you have already heard of Ancestry.com. Founded in 1996, the Utah-based company is now the world's largest for-profit genealogy brand in the world, with more than three million paying subscribers, over 30 billion online records and information from dozens of different countries.
In 2010, Ancestry also acquired Fold3, a subscription website that enables users to browse millions of military records by name, location, date and war. This was followed three years later by the acquisition of FindAGrave, a free site that gives visitors the chance to browse more than 180 million user-uploaded memorials. But perhaps most exciting of all was the launch, in 2012, of AncestryDNA, a DNA testing service that helps people to find out more about their genetic ethnicity and identify potential DNA matches. To date, more than 20 million people have added samples to the AncestryDNA database. Here, we put the genealogy site to the test.
Ancestry review: How much does Ancestry cost?
Ancestry is a subscription-based website, meaning you'll need to pay to use its services. Handily, though, there are a variety of subscription plans to suit different requirements and budgets. The first choice you'll need to make is whether to go for the US Discovery (access to all US records on the site), the World Explorer (access to US and international records) or the All Access package (which gives you full membership to Ancestry, Fold3 and Ancestry's vast printed media archive, Newspapers.com).
- US Discovery is $24.99 per month
- World Explorer is $39.99 per month
- All Access is $49.99 per month
Once you've selected the package that's best for you, your next decision will be whether to pay for one month at a time or for six-month stints, with the latter working out cheaper over the long term. The US Discovery package is $24.99 for a month or $99 for six months – a saving of $50. World Explorer is $39.99 for a month or $149 for six months – a saving of $90. And All Access is $49.99 for a month or $199 for six months – a saving of $100. In all of those cases, you can cancel at any time – and we recommend you do if you don't need the service any more, as your subscription will automatically renew otherwise.
As with most subscription websites, Ancestry provides the option to 'try before you buy' with a 14-day free trial. But do note that none of the above subscription plans come with an AncestryDNA testing kit – that costs a one-off fee of $99.
How does Ancestry's pricing compare to that of other genealogy websites? MyHeritage offers a range of subscription options, starting with a free package and going right up to a 'Complete' plan that costs around $190 for the first year and then $315 for each year thereafter. Much cheaper (albeit with a smaller record database) is OneGreatFamily, which costs just $14.95 for a monthly subscription, $29.95 for a quarter or $79.95 if you want a year's membership.
Ancestry review: What can you do on Ancestry?
The main purpose of Ancestry is to help you piece together your ancestral history by way of a family tree. After typing in your most basic personal details – your name, your date of birth and where you were born – you can start to expand it, adding your siblings, parents, grandparents, etc.
As you add more names to your tree, the website automatically scans its vast archive of uploaded birth certificates, marital registrations, census forms, etc, to try and find more information about those people. Once it's located some potential matches, it will present these to you as clickable 'hints'. If you find a match that fits, you can then add the new information and photos to your family tree.
If you'd prefer to do the legwork yourself, there's a search function, which enables you to filter your search down to things like century, location and type of documents. While the majority are census, birth, marriage and death certificates, there are also military records, newspaper articles, member listings and personal photos.
The further you go back, the more interesting it becomes as you start to discover ancestors you never knew you had – as well as fascinating facts about them. Just moments after inputting our grandfather's details into the system, we were presented with a very old document informing us that our fourth great-grandfather was a 19th-century lemonade manufacturer.
There are myriad other features besides creating a family tree. StoryScout weaves parts of your ancestors' lives into an engaging pictorial narrative, complete with historical context. So, not only were we told that our second great-grandfather worked in a textiles factory, we were presented with a (generic) photo of men working in such an establishment and a blurb informing us of the conditions.
Elsewhere, there are links to professional genealogists for those who need help with their digging, dozens of short videos to aid your research, and details of Heritage Travel breaks. What's more, there are share and print functions, enabling you to show your research to family and friends.
Ancestry review: Is Ancestry easy to use?
As with any platform of this magnitude, navigating the Ancestry site takes a little while to get used to. But once you're up and running, you should be able to move forward quite quickly. If you need any support, the Ancestry community are always willing to help out by sharing advice or collaborating. And the aforementioned videos are very useful resources, providing information on everything from how to mine obituaries to searching for Civil War veterans.
There were a few little niggles with the navigation – for example, if you click on the ProGenealogists page to seek professional help, you can't return to the home page without hitting the back button – but on the whole, we found the site very intuitive.
Should you use Ancestry.com?
Unless you're retired and have a lot of time to dedicate to it, you're going to struggle to create an extensive family tree in one month. So the likelihood is that you're going to need one of the six-month subscriptions – and they're not cheap.
However, if you're serious about discovering your past, then you'll really struggle to find a better genealogy site than Ancestry. As well as giving you access to a vast wealth of records, photos and other information, it's simple to use (once you get the hang of it) and comes with a wide variety of support options. If this site doesn't help you to uncover your familial history, then nothing will.