Family history is one of the most popular online hobbies in the world—and not just because everyone has ancestors. At some point, we desire to start looking to our family roots for identity, emotional connections and a better understanding of how we got to where we are today.
The growth of genealogy websites means that family history answers may be just a few clicks away. The problem: Where do you start? If you Google beginning genealogy, you’ll find more than 6 million search results. It’s easy to be put off by all the options, especially if you’re not sure how to evaluate them.
Truth is, family history newbies need access to four essential online services. In this article, we round up 25 sites that offer at least one of the four services—and we even note which essentials each site has with the following code:
H – how-to instruction geared for beginners
R – records that may be about your ancestors
S – sharing platforms to connect with other researchers, such as searchable family tree builders, message boards and other social environments
T – tools to help you find answers, such as online directories, free genealogy forms and DNA testing services
We’ll also tell you at a glance whether access to a site’s core content is free (*), fee-based ($), or both */$. The latter is the case for large commercial genealogy websites, which run on a “freemium” model: Their how-to tutorials, family tree builders and content sharing services are generally free, as is the ability to see a list of records that may pertain to your ancestors. A few record collections may be free to view. But viewing most old records requires your subscription dollars—or visiting a library that offers access to an institutional version of the site. So also watch for L, which means you should check whether your local library offers patrons use of the site for free.
1 About.com: Genealogy H*
Veteran online educator Kimberly Powell has packed this genealogy website with dozens of how-to articles, many of them appropriate for the true beginner. From the home page, scroll down, click How to Trace Your Family Tree on the left, and peruse the categories and articles. Work your way through other how-to articles that relate to your family-finding experience.
2 Ancestry.com HRST*/$ L
The most popular genealogy website in the United States is packed with everything you need to start your family history: how-tos, historical records, online tree-building with built-in collaboration tools and DNA tests that link you genetically with others. Some of these resources are available for free and some require purchase:
Use Ancestry Library Edition at a participating library to gain access to billions of historical records—many more than you’ll be able to see with a guest membership. The downside of the library edition is that you can’t use your guest login to attach records or data to your tree. Instead, you’ll have to download any records, then upload them to your tree from your own computer.
Purchase a DNA kit to test your (or a relative’s) autosomal DNA. You’ll receive information about your ethnic makeup and a list of your closest genetic matches. If you build or upload a public family tree, you’ll also be able to compare your tree with the trees of your genetic matches—but you also need an Ancestry subscription to view matches’ family trees.
Purchase a subscription to streamline and maximize your use of the site. Build a tree; search for and attach historical records to your tree; order DNA tests that will be connected to your tree. From the home page, click Subscribe to see your options.
3 AfriGeneas HRS*
Providing education and resources for those researching African-American roots, this site hosts regular opportunities for users to communicate with one another. Start under the Records tab with the Beginner’s Guide, then search marriage, death, surname and slave data databases under the same tab. If you have questions or want to take your learning to the next level, browse the topics under the Forums tab.
4 Archives.com HRS*/$
A “little sister” site to Ancestry.com, this is a budget-friendly place to start exploring your US roots. You can build a basic family tree and search core US records such as federal censuses, vital records and old newspapers. Head to the Learn tab to find two introductory articles on building a tree and searching for records. Then further your education with how-to articles and video tutorials by clicking on the Expert Articles and Videos button. If you need help navigating the site or managing your account, click Help at the bottom of the page.
This isn’t the place to start tracing your family tree; rather it’s a tool you’ll find yourself consulting once you’ve begun. County governments create many genealogical records. But most county boundaries have changed over time, so you’ll want to make sure you know what county your ancestors’ residence was located in at a particular time period when looking for their records.
The easiest way to use this site is the Interactive Map, which lets you enter specific dates and see the county boundaries at the time. At press time, this tool was disabled for updating, but you still can see helpful timelines of boundary changes by county. Start by clicking a state on the home page.
6 BillionGraves.com Rz*/$
Search an enormous database of tombstone images and descriptions tagged with GPS coordinates. And as you visit family cemeteries, you can use the site’s free iPhone/Android mobile app upload your tombstone photos with and add details about the deceased.
7 Chronicling America RT*
The Library of Congress hosts this free portal to historical newspapers, both online and offline. You’ll find more than 11 million digitized, searchable newspaper pages from across the country, mostly for 1836 to 1922. Chronicling America also hosts the US Newspaper Directory, a master listing of all known newspapers published in the United States, searchable by time, place and type of paper (such as labor press or foreign-language). Each newspaper listing links to information about libraries that hold the paper, so you can visit, request a lookup or ask your librarian about borrowing the paper on microfilm through interlibrary loan.
8 Cyndi’s List T*
For more than 20 years, Cyndi Ingle has compiled and updated a categorized listing of genealogy-related websites. The United States alone has more than 165,000 links. Start with the Beginner’s category, then browse more than 180 cross-referenced categories such as places, record types, ethnic and religious groups and various technologies. Cyndi works hard to keep the list current, adding on average 1,500 links each month and correcting or deleting nearly 1,000.
9 FamilySearch.org HRST*
Arguably the world’s most comprehensive free genealogy website, this resource has searchable records, a wiki, a catalog for the world’s largest genealogy library and more. Newbies should head straight to the Family History Research Wiki and enter “beginner” in the search box, then click on the Family History for Beginners article that comes up. Then explore these beginner-friendly sections of the website:
The rest of the FamilySearch wiki offers free articles on research topics and places. Try searching for the counties, states and countries you family is from.
A searchable name index references four billion historical records (click the Search tab and then Records) and millions of user-submitted family trees (Search>Genealogies). Under the same Search tab, click Books to keyword-search 200,000-plus published genealogies, histories and more.
An online catalog lets you search for millions of microfilmed, printed and other non-digitized resources from FamilySearch’s Family History Library in Salt Lake City. To see what’s available, use the Place search to look for a county where an ancestor lived. You can rent microfilmed materials by visiting a FamilySearch Center near you.
The Indexing tab lets you volunteer (along with thousands of other family historians) to read digitized records and transcribe the information into indexes that will become free on FamilySearch.
You can create an online family tree at FamilySearch, but it’s a little bit tricky. The community-based tree here has one profile per person who has ever lived, so someone else may already have added your relative. The upside of having a tree there is the ability to connect their records with your ancestors and collaborate with other researchers.
10 FamilyTreeMagazine.com HT*/$
Our own website offers abundant beginner help. Under the Get Started tab, find frequently asked questions, free forms and cheat sheets, a genealogy glossary, and tips on two popular beginner subjects: researching your surname and conducting oral history interviews. Our online archive of how-to articles is keyword-searchable and packed with content from past magazine issues as well as web-only extras. See the Research Toolkit and Heritage Tabs for more articles and short video demos; some are free and some require a Plus subscription to our site. Or dive into intense learning at our sister site, Family Tree University <familytreeuniversity.com>; click on Courses and Fundamentals of Genealogy Research Collection for beginner recommendations.
11 Find A Grave RS*
Dig up ancestral burial information from millions of tombstone images here. Search by an individual or cemetery name. Users are encouraged to upload tombstone photos and submit biographical information for memorial pages. The image submission tool has improved recently; it now allows you to upload multiple photos, edit them, transcribe headstone text and attach new images to existing memorials. You can also create virtual cemeteries to connect loved ones buried in different places.
12 Findmypast.com HR*/$ L
If you have roots in England, Scotland, Wales or Ireland, this site offers free, budget and full-scale options for researching your tree. Start with robust, easy-to-follow tutorials under Help>Getting started. Then move on to more advanced tutorials or start searching for ancestors. Free site users can access 830 million records, including US censuses, Irish Catholic parish records and other US and Canadian records. A new budget subscription aimed at beginners in the U.S. adds access to vital and immigration records, newspapers and UK censuses. Their top subscription package offers total access to extensive UK parish records, British and Irish newspapers and more.
13 Fold3 RS*/$ L
This is a go-to source for nearly 500 million digitized US military records from the Revolutionary War forward. On the bottom of the home page, click Getting Started to “report for training.” Here you’ll learn basic finding strategies, how to add tributes and organize a gallery of family content. Doing so may help you decide whether it’s worth subscribing or looking for a library with an institutional subscription. Your only other option may be visiting the National Archives or ordering records, which you can learn more about below.
14 GenealogyBank HR$ L
GenealogyBank hosts millions of digitized pages from 7,000-plus historical newspaper titles. Search results include birth, marriage and death notices, as well as passenger lists and court records or legal news that also appeared in newspapers. Anyone can click on the Learning Center for tutorials on site searching and newspaper research. Here’s a tip: see whether your local library subscribes to America’s Genealogy Bank, the institutional version of this site. If so, you can access it for free.
The home page of this free website has a tempting search box, but beginners should start in the Genealogy Learning Center. From the home page, click Articles. Start with the first category, Genealogy Classes, and the first six articles listed, then read other articles as applicable to your research. Don’t overlook the Biography Assistant category, which can give you ideas for fleshing out a relative’s life story.
16 General Land Office Records HR*
Millions of our ancestors bought land from the federal government, particularly in the Midwest and West. Now you can access more than 5 million General Land Office records dating back to 1820. Click on the Reference Center for background information. If you find a relative’s land patent, order the application file (called a land entry case file) from the National Archives <archives.gov/research/land>. Note that not all land given or sold by theUS government appears here, such as land grants for military service or land purchases from individual states.
17 Google T*
If you know how to use it, Google can be a major gateway to online ancestor information. But if not, the 261 million search results you get by Googling Great-grandma Mary Jones will just make you give up. Several of the how-to sites in this Top 25 list offer tips on using Google for genealogy—try the Cyndi’s List “Googling for Your Grandma” category, FamilyTreeMagazine.com (keywords Google search) and No. 21 on our list, Lisa Louise Cooke’s Genealogy Gems (category: Google).
Google offers several genealogy-friendly tools in addition to its web search. Google Books is an enormous online library, which includes local and family histories. Google Maps and Google Earth can take you to an ancestral address. Google Translate translates lines or entire websites of foreign-language text. See a Google Books tutorial on About.com and a free video introduction to Google Earth on Genealogy Gems (under the Videos category on the home page).
18 HeritageQuest Online HR* L
HeritageQuest Online is available only through participating libraries; visit the library in person or log on through its website. Use this service to search for ancestors in US censuses, city directories, Freedman’s Bank records (for African-American ancestors), Revolutionary War records and more. You can now send your search results to yourself at home. Access how-to articles under the Research Aids tab: the Getting Started, Census and Beyond the Basics tutorial categories are perfect for beginners.
Genetic testing is increasingly a starting point for those who become interested in their ancestry. That said, much of what you’ll find on this site is not for those new to genealogy or genetics. So click first on ISOGG Wiki and scroll down until you can click on Beginner’s guides to genetic genealogy. Here you’ll find a directory of resources for those wanting to start DNA testing for genealogy.
20 JewishGen HRST*
Make this your first stop for tracing Jewish roots. Under the Get Started tab, choose First Timer for an intro to Jewish research and the site. Read the free tutorials, watch the short instructional videos and browse the online class offerings (some are free with a site membership and others are fee-based). From the home page, search databases of Jewish surnames, family trees, towns, Holocaust victims and burials. Contribute your data to the centralized “family tree of the Jewish people.”
This website supports three genealogy podcasts, one of which is especially for beginners. Cooke’s show Genealogy: Family History Made Easy is a free, 45-episode, listen-on-demand audio show. It progresses step by step through the genealogy research process for beginners and those who want a fresh start doing research “the right way.” From the home page, roll over Resources and click Beginning genealogy to access this podcast and other get-started resources.
22 MyHeritage RST*/$ L
A free family website with social networking features and a built-in family tree is at the core of the MyHeritage experience. It’s free to build a family tree of up to 250 people and to use some collections, such as the Compilation of Published Sources. You’ll need to subscribe for full access to the collection of globally diverse records and user-submitted family trees. Those whose ancestors hail from Scandinavia or Western Europe will find the most to love on MyHeritage. Creating a tree here will put the site’s automated record matching technologies to work. Then you’ll see whether you should subscribe or find a library near you with MyHeritage Library Edition.
If you know the relative whose military or naturalization records you want to order, head to the National Archives’ home for online genealogy. Start by watching a PowerPoint tutorial on this page. Read overviews of the census, military, immigration, naturalization and land records housed at the National Archives. Before shelling out money to order copies, learn what records are available online at other genealogy websites. For example, you’ll find censuses on all major genealogy data sites and many federal land records are at the General Land Office site, described above. Click Access to Archival Databases to search National Archives databases or click Online Research Tools>Records Digitized by Partners for collections now on Ancestry.com, FamilySearch and Fold3.
24 RootsWeb HRS*
This free site is primarily for connecting and sharing with other researchers. On the home page are links to research tutorials and how to use the site. Use the Search RootsWeb.com link to look for ancestors’ names (other search boxes will lead you off-site). Post specific questions about ancestors on message boards organized by surname or locality. Include enough detail to identify the person. Last, click on the US Town/County Database to browse RootsWeb resources about a specific place.
25 USGenWeb Project HRS*
This volunteer-led network of websites contain free genealogical resources for every US state and most counties. Quality, content and design varies from site to site. You’ll commonly find what local resources exist and how to access them, along with indexes to cemetery, marriage and other local records. You can share your own records on these sites, too.
- 10 steps to start your family tree
- 41 tips for finding family history online
- Using Google Books search
- 10 tips for using Ancestry.com
- Google for genealogy with video tips
- FamilySearch tips
Family Tree Shop
- 10 First Steps in Genealogy Research Guide
- Record Your Family History kit
- The Family Tree Guide to DNA Testing and Genetic Genealogy
Family Tree University
Contributing editor Sunny Jane Morton frequently consults several of these websites and contributes to Lisa Louise Cooke’s Genealogy Gems.