Using one the best genealogy sites available can help speed up your search for ancestral information. These websites all provide you with the tools, databases and record collections you need to help map out past generations, cement your sense of personal history, and discover your family’s ancestry.
We think that Ancestry.com is the best genealogy site overall, as it combines multiple tools onto its single platform. Not only does it allow you to access thousands of digitized personal records, it also has one of the best family tree makers available as part of its subscription package, and it offers comprehensive DNA testing too.
The majority of these ancestry websites operate on a subscription basis, meaning you pay a monthly or annual fee then get access to all of their tools and features. The big benefit of subscribing to these packages is that they grant you access to digitized records; instead of having to trawl through old handwritten census documents and the like, you can type in a surname, hit search, and be provided with possible family matches. So, while some of the best genealogy sites are actually free, the paid-for options will usually have a greater number of records available for you to search through and will be constantly adding new record databases too.
Not all genealogy research platforms are created equal. Below, we’ve broken down the pros and cons of each website, so you can see which one is the best match for your area of research. If you’ve already conducted lengthy investigations into your ancestors, you may also want to consider using one of the best DNA testing kits to further your knowledge. Or, if you have living relatives you’re still trying to track down, try using one of the best people search services to see if you can find their details.
1. Ancestry.com: Best genealogy site overall
Ancestry.com is one of the biggest names in genealogy for a reason. It’s got a huge number of records scanned onto its database, a really intuitive interface and DNA testing options, too.
Having been launched back in 1996, it’s one of the oldest ancestry sites around, which is why it has so many records on file. It has court clippings, marriage certificates, ship passenger information and lots more. It even has birth and death certificates, although as these are usually not public information until 75 years have passed, the on-site samples will date from the 1940s at earliest.
The DNA testing costs a little extra, but it could match you to one of the 1,400 ethnic regions that Ancestry.com currently maps. Over 15 million people have taken tests via the site, which means that you could find a DNA match with an active user.
This site is also incredibly easy to navigate, which is impressive considering how sprawling those record sets are. In our tests, we were also impressed with how quickly we picked up the ‘hints’ system, which shows you records that may be linked with your family tree. These hints accurately prioritise the documents that are most likely to be useful to you, so it’s a valuable time-saving feature.
- Read our Ancestry.com review
2. MyHeritage: Best genealogy site for fun features
MyHeritage offers a lot of similar services to Ancestry.com, at a slightly lower price. You can scan records, build a family tree and reach out to other users. The catch here is that you have to pay an annual fee, rather than a monthly one, but it does work out cheaper overall. It has a similar DNA testing service too, with a slightly higher map count spread across 2,100 geographic regions.
The site has expanded some of its photo features, which are really fun additions. Its ‘deep nostalgia’ tool allows you to animate old family photos, and there’s also a free photo colorizer for black and white images. Like Ancestry.com, it also does a lot of automatic record scanning, suggesting which files and documents could be relative to your search.
It’s user-friendly and easy to navigate – it didn’t rank quite as highly as Ancestry.com, simply because it doesn’t have the same breadth and depth of record databases available to search.
- Read our MyHeritage review
3. Archives: Best genealogy website for deep research
Archives, as the name suggests, is a huge database filled with information - over 11 billion records with photos, maps and architectural drawings to name a few more unique types. This is aimed at the ancestry buff who has already started building a family tree and has either reached a dead end or wants to dive deeper than the usual services can help with. This supports GEDCOM files so you can upload your tree and build on it from there.
The 14-day free trial is a nice touch and the fact documents are displayed in searches allows you to work fast. The monthly fee is a flat rate of $9.99 making it very competitive. Just don't expect DNA testing or a fancy app with this option.
- Read our Archives review
4. FamilySearch: Best free genealogy website
This site is part-run by volunteers, so it’s impressive that they have managed to upload over 6 billion records since its inception in 1999. Unlike the above options, you’ll have to do a bit of detective work if you want to find your family’s documents, as there’s no in-built system that searches the records for you and finds potential matches. But you can search through things like birth, marriage and death certificates, along with census data and military records.
The site is maintained by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which believes sharing these records is part of its duties. There is no commitment to align with these beliefs though, so you can enjoy the records without any pressure to get involved with that side of the service. As it’s a free site, there are a few elements missing, and it feels a little dated.
- Read our FamilySearch review
5. Find My Past: Best genealogy website for Irish and British records
Find My Past is the go to place for anyone that has ancestry in Ireland or Great Britain and Ireland thanks to very specific records in these areas numbering over two billion. Yes, that's not as many as some of the bigger boys in this field but it is in such a specific area, these records run deep. There are over 18 million people registered with records linked as far back as AD 850, making these some of the oldest records available.
On top of that, the site has just partnered with the British Newspaper Archive, so it’s going to expand its digital record database in this area. This should make it easier to track down local stories involving your family. We were also big fans of the family tree layout on this site, which feels a lot simpler and kinder on the eye than some of the other options.
There is a 14-day free trial and then the charges start at $129 per year - there’s no monthly billing option, unfortunately. DNA testing is also available but for another fee of $89 for the testing kit. What’s nice about this site, though, is that it also lets you upload your DNA test from external sources, so if you’ve already taken one you don’t have to pay twice.
- Read our Find My Past review
6. USGenWeb: Best genealogy website for researching historical trends
This is another free resource. However, unlike FamilySearch, it doesn’t have a clear search function that lets you simply type in family names and hit the find button. Instead, you navigate to the main page and then select which state you’re interested in, which results in you being taken to a specific state-focused website. This website will then have all manner of records available, often broken down by individual counties.
It’s a completely free project, run by volunteers. This means that quality varies across each state’s website; some have impressive amounts of census records and military files that have been digitized, so are easy to read, while other sites are littered with broken links and old-fashioned graphics. You can’t complain, as it’s a free resource, but it does mean that it’s not necessarily going to be easy to find relevant information on the site.
However, it is a useful platform for mapping more general historical trends. For example, if you wanted to check common names, occupations or household sizes, then this is an invaluable resource. For anyone who’s researching an area’s history more generally – or for anyone who wants to compare the lifestyles of their forebears with the trends of the time – this is a very useful tool.
How we tested the best genealogy sites
We compared genealogy websites simply by using them. This meant dozens of hours of research, several phone calls to our family members and a couple calls to customer service. If a subscription is required, we got the top-tier membership and used every feature of the website we could find. This meant entering in the names and birthdays of real people and seeing if these genealogy websites could give us any real information. All the websites with a family tree building feature are GEDCOM compatible, which is the file format for saving and exporting your family. Almost every single genealogy website we tested requires a subscription to use every function but obviously we preferred the least expensive options that were still easy to use and give users a ton of resources.
What's the difference between genealogy and people search?
Genealogy is defined as the 'tracing of lines of descent', and so covers a multi-generational approach to discovering your family's past. While your research will likely lead you to find relatives who are still very much alive, it's the process of tracing a lineage that separates genealogy from regular people finding activities.
People searches are usually employed to track down a single person, or family of people, who you may have lost touch with or never met previously. The key difference here is contact information - people searches are intended to put you in contact with someone, rather than gathering family data on them for research.
The two areas do cross over, though, when it comes to ancestry. If you find a long lost relative via a genealogy site, for example, you should absolutely do a people search report on them to try and gather extra information about your family. Living relatives will always have more information than dead ones when it comes to genealogy research.
Where to start with genealogy
It’s a lot easier to start mapping out your genealogy if you have a few basic details, like your parents’ birth dates and grandparents’ names. Once you have these, you can work backwards from there using any of the above sites – or by going through public records.
If you don’t have any starter information, requesting a copy of your own birth certificate might give you a good starting point, revealing your parents’ names. You can request this from your state’s vital records office or public health department, but bear in mind that there’s usually a fee involved.
From here, you might be able to trace more of your ancestry, such as your grandparents. If these older relatives were born in 1940 or earlier, you could well find them documented in public census records.
What is the point of genealogy?
Tracing your family history can give you a sense of identity and it also helps you understand past generations. Comparing the ways your ancestors lived with your current lifestyle can give you a good sense of perspective.
Perhaps more importantly, actively mapping your genealogy can help future generations understand their origins, too. As we become more comfortable sharing our personality online via social media, it becomes harder for people to get a good overview of who we really are, as there’s simply too much information to digest. Creating a solid reference point for your family history – be it via a photo book or simple family tree – can help descendants map their ancestry and understand who they really are.