If you think history is boring, then you obviously haven't spent time exploring the best genealogy sites. These powerful Web-based platforms are your passport to the past. But not just any past – they'll help you to discover your past. By providing access to millions of global records – everything from birth, marriage and death certificates to military records and immigration papers – they can unlock your deepest ancestral secrets.
Collating the information is just part of the fun, though, and most genealogy sites will also enable you to translate your findings into an illustrative family tree that can be shared with loved ones. Of course, it may be that you've already gathered a load of ancestral records from other sources and simply require the tools to piece them all together. If that's the case, check out our guide to the best family tree makers. Or how about creating a physical heirloom to pass down through the generations? The best photo books will enable you to conjure up something truly stunning.
Why would you want to do all of this? Well, apart from the fascination factor, exploring your family history comes with a range of benefits that could enhance your life both now and in the future – we'll explore those in greater detail at the bottom of the page. In the meantime, let's take a look at the best genealogy sites you can access right now.
(Note that while the best genealogy sites can open up a treasure trove of documents and photos for you to browse, if you want to take a more scientific approach, you could consider using one of the best DNA testing kits.)
1. Ancestry.com: Best genealogy site overall
Founded in 1996, this Utah-based company is well-known in the genealogy world – and for good reason. It has the biggest set of records available online, which means that it provides plenty of opportunity for finding your ancestors. It’s also one of the longest-standing genealogy websites, so it’s pretty much perfected its user interface.
It’s a breeze to get started with the platform and there’s a free trial period of 14 days available. After that, you’ll have to pay $24.99 - $49.99 per month, depending on the amount of records you need to access. It’s one of the more expensive sites, but we reckon it’s well worth the investment if you’re serious about discovering your family history.
There are a couple of nice extra features on the platform, too, which make using it fun. There’s StoryScout, which weaves together parts of your ancestors' lives into an engaging pictorial narrative, and a regularly updated blog to follow. There’s also a decent directory of professional genealogists available, if you want to take your search further.
It’s not quite as replete with fun tools as MyHeritage, which allows you to animate and colorize old photos, but there’s definitely a greater number of records available here, making it well-suited to those serious about discovering their past.
- 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
When it comes to piecing together your family history, it goes without saying that the more information you have to begin with, the better. If you have things like your parents' birth, marriage or death certificates, these can provide a good starting point from which to work backwards through the generations. If your parents are still alive, you could try asking them about their own parents and grandparents. Even snippets of information will help, as typing these into your chosen genealogy site's search engine may uncover further details. Certain sites, such as Ancestry, will even suggest potential matches based on the information you've inputted, to make your job easier.
Note that if you're looking for details of older relatives, you might want to scour the 1940 public census records. Free to access, they contain 3.8 million images and are searchable by state, city and even street name.
What is the point of genealogy?
The reasons for getting involved with genealogy vary from person to person. Many people do it to give themselves a better perspective of who they are and how they fit into the general scheme of things. Others delve into the past to find out if their ancestors suffered from any health conditions that may be passed down to themselves or their children. And some folk have been known to check their family history in the hope that they might be entitled to a share of a rich ancestor's wealth (we're not joking!).
Whatever your motive for exploring the past, you're sure to find it a fascinating and stimulating experience. Creating a comprehensive family tree can take weeks or even months of detective work, but the sense of satisfaction you'll feel once it's completed will make it all worthwhile – and, of course, future generations will appreciate the fruits of your labor, too!