- Genealogy records
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In the past 20 years, online resources have democratized genealogy, allowing anyone with an internet connection to participate. And thanks to DNA, many with unknown origins are finally finding answers. History’s previously invisible individuals—the poor, the powerless, the enslaved—are gradually being identified and celebrated by their descendants.
Headlining this change are the “Big Four” websites Ancestry.com, FamilySearch, Findmypast and MyHeritage. Sure, many websites are crucial to online research efforts. But the Big Four are a head above the rest in supplying the billions of historical records, extensive family trees and genetic connections that power this new era of discovery.
So which one of the Big Four genealogy websites is the best? Each brings unique talents and style. Read on as we celebrate the things that make Ancestry.com, FamilySearch, Findmypast and MyHeritage special.
Historical documents reveal your ancestors’ identities and stories. All four sites boast billions of historical records: between 5 and 12 billion each. Even the low end of this range is a lot of records. Some of the sites report combined record totals that make comparisons a little confusing.
Here’s the skinny on how many records each site has:
- Ancestry.com counts more than 30 billion records, a figure that appears to include more than 13 billion tree profiles and other user-submitted content.
- FamilySearch reports 10.7 billion names searchable from old records. (The site has also published upwards of 5 billion digital images that are browsable but not yet name-indexed. A separate digital book collection holds keyword-searchable 540,000 titles.)
- Findmypast reports 3.6 billion records, accounting for around 12 billion names.
- MyHeritage’s Super Search catalog counts nearly 17 billion records; about 10 billion of these are tree profiles and other user-submitted content.
What matters most is that a site has records for the place and time period you’re researching. And that it has the specific kinds of records that may answer your question. Here’s a general description of the records you can expect to find on the Big Four.
Geographic coverage of records
All four sites have global reach, but each has identifiable geographic strengths. FamilySearch is truly the most global in scope: they curate records for every location for which they can access records. Their camera crews around the world prioritize the most genealogically useful records and those that are at-risk for loss. The site also hosts a vast trove of digitized records that were microfilmed from the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, with which the site is affiliated. These curation efforts make FamilySearch’s online historical record collections unparalleled in size and geographic diversity.
The for-profit sites—Ancestry.com, Findmypast and MyHeritage—serve audiences (target markets) whose ancestors generally migrated from certain parts of the world:
- Ancestry.com has sufficient records to offer country-level subscriptions for the United States, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Mexico, Sweden and the United Kingdom. For US residents, Ancestry.com is very nearly essential.
- Findmypast’s core content is for England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, with some coverage of places settled by British Isles emigrants. If you’re researching in these regions, Findmypast is a must-use resource.
- MyHeritage has put the most effort into curating U.K. and European records (especially Germany, France, Ireland, Netherlands, Greece, Spain and the Scandinavian countries) and global Jewish content. When you’re exploring roots outside the US (and especially in non-English speaking regions), MyHeritage is a go-to resource, in part because the site functions in 42 languages—usership is quite global.
Interestingly, three of the four companies have recently curated enormous amounts of French content. Over the past few years, FamilySearch has added millions of records of French censuses, church and civil registrations. In mid-2021, MyHeritage acquired French genealogy website Filae.com. Shortly thereafter, Ancestry.com acquired Geneanet, another French site. Both Ancestry and MyHeritage have since added millions of French records to their collection catalogs.
In general, the Big Four have the most important available genealogical records for their target markets. For example, all four have fairly complete US census collections (population schedules). All four also have censuses and civil registration indexes for England and Wales, except for the 1921 census, which is currently exclusive to Findmypast.
Beyond these, each has some specialization. The following generalizations can help you know where to look first for certain record types:
- Ancestry.com has the biggest collection of US special censuses (1850-1880), including the agricultural, mortality, slave and industrial schedules.
- Ancestry.com and MyHeritage both have enormous collections of yearbooks and city directories.
- Ancestry.com and FamilySearch host the biggest collections of US vital records, except that Findmypast has an enormous collection of US marriage records.
- Ancestry.com has millions of US military records (some of which point to images at sister site Fold3). Findmypast reigns over British military records, though Ancestry.com has some, too.
- Ancestry.com has massive indexes to marriage and obituary content available in full on its sister website, Newspapers.com. Findmypast gives access to about 50 million digitized newspapers from the British Newspaper Archive (which covers England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales). MyHeritage has a search interface for US newspapers digitized elsewhere on the internet.
When evaluating which website to use, think of your current research questions. Explore the catalogs at each site to see which has records that might answer your questions. (You can do this without paying a subscription fee.)
For example, say you’re pursuing the rumor that Great-aunt Eleanor Rigby from Liverpool was a suffragette. You may find answers in Findmypast’s “Suffragette Newspaper Collection.” And electoral registers online at Ancestry.com and Findmypast may reveal her first appearance as an eligible voter.
The search experience and technologies also vary across the Big Four. Each site uses its own parameters to identify matching search results for you, which means that any given search can offer up slightly different lists of possible matches, even for the same record collections.
FamilySearch, MyHeritage and Ancestry.com allow users to submit edits to indexed record entries, further increasing the possibility of successful searches. MyHeritage automatically translates the names you enter into other languages, extending your ability to identify them in records.
Bottom line: If you can’t find an ancestor in a particular census (or other collection) at one site, try searching another.
People in records
During much of history, many people were underrepresented in records. Women. Children. People who were enslaved. People living in poverty, or who didn’t speak the local language. In other cases, such as the Holocaust, records were lost or destroyed. Genealogists tend to fill these gaps by searching for records about people who were associated with their “invisible” ancestors, and hoping their ancestors were mentioned.
In the past couple of years, the Big 4 have made great strides in publishing records that help identify those lost ancestors. Look to FamilySearch and Ancestry.com for the most records about African Americans, including Freedmen’s Bureau records; Southern states’ vital records, voter registrations, cemetery and incarceration records; and other collections pertaining directly to enslaved people. Both MyHeritage and Ancestry.com have increased their coverage of Jewish records. Findmypast and FamilySearch both have collections that support research on people of African descent living under British colonial rule.
Time periods of records
The time periods for record collections at each website vary widely—mostly because of the availability of the records themselves. Privacy laws prevent some records from recent decades, such as censuses and vital records, from being published online. Some places created more records during particular times or experienced more record loss.
That said, the types of records each company has most aggressively collected affects what time periods they best cover. For example, Ancestry.com has greater numbers of more recent UK records—their biggest strength for that strength is directories—while Findmypast has dug more deeply into older UK documents, including parish records. When exploring the collection catalogs of each site, pay close attention to the span of dates covered. Recognize that any given collection may have gaps during its coverage, especially toward the beginning.
Two of the Big Four sell their own autosomal DNA tests: Ancestry.com and MyHeritage. A third, Findmypast, partners with Living DNA, but there’s no integration between your tree research at Findmypast and your Living DNA test results. So Findmypast isn’t included in the discussion below.
|Test format||Saliva sample||Cheek swab|
|Retail price||$99 USD||$89 USD|
|Availability||35 countries||Globally, except Iran, Israel, Lebanon, Libya, North Korea, Russia, Somalia, Sudan and Syria|
|Specific historical populations||More than 1500 Genetic Communities||2114 Genetic Groups|
|No. of customers tested||20 million+||5.7 million+|
|Relationship reconstruction tool||ThruLines, showing possible descendants of specific ancestors||Theory of Family Relativity, showing possible tree relationship to individual matches|
|Upload raw data for free||No||Yes|
A comparison of the costs and features of DNA tests offered by AncestryDNA, Findmypast/LivingDNA and MyHeritage DNA, as of April 2022.
Both AncestryDNA and MyHeritage DNA provide high-level estimates of ancestral ethnicity, each based on their own algorithms and definitions. AncestryDNA divides the world into 77 overlapping regions and groups; MyHeritage’s ethnicity is based on 42 ethnic groups. Ethnicity percentages continue to evolve as the companies gather more data and become better at recognizing genetic connections to places and peoples.
Both companies now also report your genetic ties to much more specific historical populations. MyHeritage calls them Genetic Groups and has 2114 of them. AncestryDNA calls them Genetic Communities, and they number more than 1500. Let’s say you have Finnish roots. Both companies have an ethnicity category for Finland. Additionally, MyHeritage testers may be assigned to one of 54 different Finnish Genetic Groups, such as Northern Savonia or Oulu. AncestryDNA may assign you to one of their 25 Communities within Finland, such as Vaasa Coast and Northern Ostrobothnia.
Both testing companies provide lists of your DNA relatives (called matches), unless you opt out of DNA matching, as well as robust tools for exploring your matches. Both report how much DNA you share with each match; the length of your longest segment of shared DNA (which has implications for how distantly you may be related); match labeling tools; and tables showing possible genetic relationships for each match. You may communicate with your matches through both sites.
There are some distinctions, though. For example, while both testing companies offer tools to show you which matches you share with another tester, only MyHeritage shows you the genetic relationship between two of your shared matches. MyHeritage also has an AutoClusters tool that groups your matches into color-coded clumps that approximate branches on your family tree. The clusters also show at-a-glance whether your matches in each cluster are related to each other.
AncestryDNA and MyHeritage have robust tools to help you sleuth out your relationships to DNA matches and extend your family tree. On both sites, you may attach a family tree to your DNA profile and compare it to the trees of your matches for common ancestors, surnames and places.
Both MyHeritage and AncestryDNA provide tree reconstruction tools that will work when sufficient data is available. Ancestry’s ThruLines tool shows, by ancestral couple, all testers who appear to descend from them (and how they descend). MyHeritage’s Theory of Family Relativity provides possible relationship paths between you and specific matches.
In both cases, the tree reconstruction tools may use data from your tree, your match’s tree and other trees, as well as historical records. MyHeritage also pulls tree data from the global trees at FamilySearch and Geni. On both sites, you can explore the records or tree evidence that support tree reconstructions so you can verify them yourself.
You don’t need to have an ongoing subscription at Ancestry.com or MyHeritage to test your DNA there; it’s a separate purchase. However, accessing some of the tools mentioned above do require a subscription. Compare what you’ll get at with AncestryDNA and MyHeritage with or without a subscription. Another option, which many savvy genealogists now use, is to 1) test at AncestryDNA, 2) download their raw DNA file, and 3) upload it to MyHeritage and pay a one-time $29 USD transfer fee to unlock all the advanced DNA tools. (By the way, you can’t do the reverse. AncestryDNA won’t allow you to upload—you have to test there.)
Online family trees
The Big Four all have sophisticated tree-building platforms on their websites. The biggest difference between them? Your option to work alone—or with a little help from a friend.
At Ancestry.com, Findmypast and MyHeritage, you build your own individual trees. Other users can’t change your trees unless you allow them to. At all three sites, you can choose for your trees to be publicly searchable and viewable by others, or private (seen only by you and those you specifically invite). You can search other people’s trees, too. This may lead to connections with fellow researchers and new information about your shared roots.
Findmypast trees are private—not searchable by others—but the site does send alerts (tree-to-tree hints) to those who appear to be researching the same relatives. The site doesn’t make public its number of trees, stating only that there are millions of names in them.
At FamilySearch, tree-building has a very different structure. The site has just one shared, global Family Tree, with (ideally) a single profile for each deceased person, for a total of about 1.3 billion names. You add private profiles for yourself and living parents, grandparents, etc. Working backward through the generations, you add new profiles for deceased relatives who aren’t in the Family Tree and connect to the profiles of ancestors who are in the Family Tree. Once you’ve connected to existing profiles, that person’s tree data automatically appears.
FamilySearch’s tree model prioritizes collaboration over privacy. All the information you (and others) enter about deceased persons is public, viewable and (most critically) editable by anyone. The idea is that multiple descendants entering information about the same person can compare notes and build upon each other’s discoveries.
What about the numbers of family trees? Again, an apples-to-apples comparison is difficult. But if you are interested in exploring other people’s trees, you’ll want a rough idea.
- FamilySearch’s shared Family Tree has nearly 1.4 billion ancestral profiles. Although there are instances where one person has multiple profiles, the emphasis on one-profile-per-person drastically reduces the duplication seen across individual family trees on other websites.
- MyHeritage hosts 84 million family trees with about 5 billion names in them. In addition, it imports tree profiles from other sites such as FamilySearch (1 billion names), Geni (324 million), Filae.com (271 million) and WikiTree (20 million).
- Ancestry.com’s got 100 million family trees with more than 13 billion names.
- Findmypast doesn’t make public its number of trees. The company states only that there are millions of names in them.
Now that you’ve glimpsed the breadth of what’s available at the Big Four, you may be wondering how you’re going to afford to use them all.
Good news on one of the Four: FamilySearch is completely free, though you’ll need to sign up for a free guest user login. Certain record collections are only accessible from a free Family History Center (find one near you) and occasionally from the Family History Library. But these represent a small minority of what’s there.
At the other three sites, you can start your experience with a free guest login, with which you can build a family tree and gain limited access to historical records. But most of the historical records are behind a paywall. Here’s what it will cost US customers for access to Ancestry.com, Findmypast and MyHeritage:
|Basic per-year access||Complete per-year site access||Additional options|
|Ancestry||$198, US Discovery membership||$298, World Explorer membership||$398, All Access membership adds Newspapers.com Basic and Fold3 access|
|FamilySearch||Free||Free||Enhanced access to some collections for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints|
|Findmypast||$129, Essential British & Irish access||$179, Ultimate British & Irish access||Pay-per-view micropayments option (varies by record)|
|MyHeritage||$129/209, Premium/PremiumPlus plans|
$189 Data plan
|$299, Complete plan||Special pricing during first year of membership: $89/$149 for Premium/PremiumPlus plans; $129, Data plan; $199, Complete plan|
A comparison of the “Big Four” website subscription costs, as of April 2022
Breaking down these options further:
- Ancestry.com access starts at $24.99 per month ($99 for six months) for US records. Global records access will cost you $39.99 per month, or $149 for six months. You can also tack on access to sister sites Fold3 and a Newspapers.com Basic subscription for another $10 each month or $50 for six months.
- Findmypast offers two levels of access. An Essential British & Irish subscription (for a $14.95 monthly payment or one $129 annual payment) comes with access to US, UK and Irish census and vital records, outgoing passenger lists, and UK and Irish parish records. The Ultimate British & Irish membership ($19.95/month or $179/year) adds access to newspapers; military, institutional and will/probate records; and exclusive educational guides and classes. They have replaced a former option for purchasing credits with pay-per-view micropayments (prices vary by record). Accessing the 1921 Census of England and Wales does cost a little extra.
- MyHeritage offers separate plans for access to its historical records (the Data plan) and tree-building platform (the Premium and PremiumPlus plans offer tiered access). You can bundle the Data and Premium Plus plans into a Complete plan, with everything the site offers. See the table for prices.
If your budget requires you to limit your subscriptions, consider getting free logins to start exploring each one that sounds interesting to you. You’ll gradually get to know each site and what it may have to offer you. You’ll likely start receiving discounted offers to try a subscription. You can also ask your favorite local library whether they offer library edition access to Ancestry, Findmypast or MyHeritage, or you can visit a Family History Center near you to use their institutional subscriptions. When using institutional editions, you can’t build your tree and attach records to it (you can download them and attach them later). Access to some record collections may also be limited.
Another way to access all these sites, eventually, is to rotate your subscriptions. Sign up for Ancestry.com for a year, then try MyHeritage, and then (if you have British Isles or Empire roots) sign up for Findmypast. Or try MyHeritage or Findmypast first—whichever seems most promising for you. By the time you cycle back to your first choice three years later, new collections will likely be available, and your tree may have grown sufficiently that you’re looking for new people, anyway.
A version of this article appeared in the March/April 2020 issue of Family Tree Magazine.
Last Updated April 2022