You’ve probably seen the ads for Ancestry where users share their stories of discovering long-lost relatives and learning more about their family’s past. While you may not find out that you’re descended from royalty or distantly related to a famous historical figure, Ancestry is a great resource for building a family tree and filling out missing information, such as birthplaces and marriage records of long-lost relatives. This Editors’ Choice-winning genealogy software also lets you collaborate with other family members to build family trees. Best of all, its intuitive interface makes it easy for you to learn all of its features and construct your family history in no time.
Pricing, Plans, and Setup
Ancestry offers a few plans to choose from: The basic U.S. Discovery plan I signed up for is $19.99 per month or $99 for every six months. The World Explorer plan, which includes U.S. and international records, costs $34.99 per month or $149 for six months; and the All Access plan ($44.99 per month or $199 per half year) includes access to all records on Ancestry, Newspapers.com, and Fold3.com (a military records site).
You can dip your toe into the water with a 14-day free trial, though I initially had trouble finding that offer on the company’s website. You will have to supply a credit card number for the free trial, though, so be sure keep on top of that; your account will automatically renew to the paid plan if you do nothing after that period. Helpfully, your trial’s expiration date is displayed on your home screen. You can cancel the trial online or by calling customer service.
Signing up is easy. Once you choose your plan and provide your contact and payment information, you can start building either from scratch or by uploading any of several genealogy file types, such as GEDCOM (a common family tree file used by many services), Personal Ancestral File, Family Tree Maker, or Legacy. As for compatibility, all you need is a web browser, which means you can access the service on tablets and smartphones too. Free Android and iOS apps are also available. Ancestry’s web-based interface is much more attractive than other services I’ve tested, including Ancestry’s own Family Tree Maker 2014 and competitors like RootsMagic and Family Historian. It’s also one of the better bets for Mac users, as several competitors are Windows-only.
Building Family Trees
If you choose to start from scratch, which I did, the easiest way to begin is by creating your own record. Ancestry says most of their records are from before 1930, so it recommends adding someone born before that time to get the ball rolling. As you add more family members, you start to receive hints in the form of little shaking leaves; click on the leaf and you can view available public records such as birth, death, marriage and census information that may match up to your relatives. It’s up to you to confirm whether it’s legit or not.
As I added my parents and their parents to the tree, shaking leaves started appearing, including one that contained my date of birth and my address in 1994. After adding my mother, the hints led me to add two of her five siblings and her mother (my grandmother). This was much faster than adding these relatives manually would have been. I also found a record of where my maternal grandmother was born, something I hadn’t known for sure. I even stumbled upon a family tree that another member of the family had started, which was pretty cool. Some of the information wasn’t correct, however; you’ve got to be very careful about adding other people’s research to your tree. You can add it at the click of a button, but it’s not guaranteed to be accurate, and removing it isn’t nearly as easy.
Most of the information about my immediate family was spot-on. As I added grandparents and great-grandparents, more records appeared with matching names, though with different birth cities and marriage records. As long as you have minimal information about distant family members, you should be able to navigate these hints with relative ease. You can also add your own stories, photos, audio files, and video files to each family member’s record and share your family trees with anyone—even nonmembers.
What’s nice is that you can add a full hint to your tree or just parts of it, if you think some of it is not relevant. If you get hints that you want to save, but they’re not necessarily connected to one family member, you can save them to your “Shoebox” so you can easily access them and move them around as needed. You can build as many family trees as you like.
All in all, Ancestry is fun to use and a bit addictive. I can see how someone could spend hours and hours on this. One thing I’ve always wondered is when my ancestors left Ireland for New York and where they lived. I’m tempted to upgrade my membership to try to find out. I like that all of the hints are included in your subscription; by comparison, I found it frustrating that RootsMagic and Family Historian offered their hints through third-party software that often required another paid subscription.
When you’re done building, you can export GEDCOM files, so that you’ll have your family trees even if you no longer have an Ancestry account. You can upload this file to another service as well. Ancestry can connect with familytreemaker.com accounts, which doesn’t require exporting a file, just logging in and linking the accounts.
You can use a third-party service, MyCanvas, to publish books, posters, and collages based on your Ancestry trees for additional fees.
A relatively new feature is AncestryDNA ($99.99), which lets you order a DNA sample-collection kit, send in a saliva sample, and receive a DNA profile in six to eight weeks that includes an estimate of your ethnicity and matches with other DNA members. As more people contribute to this project, AncestryDNA will continue to try to match you up with other members. If you choose to use the Genetic Communities feature (currently in beta), it can even show your ancestors’ migration path. For more information, be sure to read PCMag’s full review of AncestryDNA.
Another premium feature is the option to hire an expert to help with your genealogy research. You can get a free quote; prices start at $1,900 for 20 to 25 hours of research on one ancestor. Both of these features are unique to Ancestry in the realm of genealogy software.
If you need help along the way, Ancestry offers a lot of guidance online in its community and documentation. You can also call support, which is available seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. ET. I did have to call Ancestry for help, but oddly enough, it was when I ran into an issue downloading Family Tree Maker and was referred from their support line.
I called in the middle of the day and was told there was a “high volume of calls,” which, come to think of it, is the message I get just about every time I call customer service. I didn’t get a time estimate, but I was subjected to the usual trying hold music, interrupted by loud ads for other Ancestry services. After about 30 minutes, my call was finally picked up by an agent, who was very helpful and resolved my issue in about five minutes. Any other issues I ran into were easily solved by using the online resources.
A Fun and Easy Way to Trace Your Roots
Ancestry provides a great way to dive into tracing your family tree, and a paid account gives you access to thousands of searchable records that can be easily added to the members of your tree for a more complete picture. Better yet, you can export all of your data to save and share it even if you no longer have an active account. I definitely recommend Ancestry for fledgling genealogists, but the costs can add up if you’re not careful. That said, because of its attractive and dead-simple interface and generous resources, Ancestry is our clear Editors’ Choice for genealogy software.
Once you’ve gone as far in your research as far as written records can take you, you should also consider genetic testing services, which can add all sorts of details, from living relatives to the details of your deep ancestral past—even the amount of Neanderthal DNA you carry. For more, check out our roundup of the best DNA testing kits.