Genealogy is one of the most popular online hobbies in the world—and not just because everyone has ancestors. At some point in adulthood, it’s common to start looking to your genealogy for identity, emotional connections and a better understanding of how you got to where you are today.
The growth of genealogy websites means that answers may be just a few clicks away. The problem: which genealogy websites are best for beginners? If you Google the phrase beginning genealogy, you’ll find more than six 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 beginners need access to four essential online services. In this article, we round up 25 best genealogy websites that offer at least one of the four services—and we even note which ones they have with the following abbreviations:
· H = How-to instruction geared for the true beginner;
· R = Records that may pertain to your ancestors;
· S = Sharing platforms to connect and exchange information with other researchers: 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’ve also included icons so you can see at a glance whether access to core content is FREE or not ($) or some of each: FREE/($).
The larger commercial sites usually use a “freemium” model. Their how-to tutorials, 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. But to get a closer look at those records generally requires your subscription dollars—or a library card. So also watch for the library symbol (L) that means you may be able to use this website for free at a library near you.
Veteran online genealogy educator Kimberly Powell has packed this site with dozens of how-to articles, many of them appropriate for the true beginner. From the home page (above), scroll down, click How to Trace Your Family Tree and read the articles. Work your way through other how-to articles that relate to your family-finding experience.
The most popular genealogy website in the U.S. 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:
· Create a free Guest account to build your family tree online, explore the free databases, watch online tutorials and communicate with relatives and fellow researchers (under Support > Getting Started).
· 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; you’ll have to enter what you learn separately.
· Purchase a DNA kit to have your DNA profile (or your relative’s) added to their database of over 2 million DNA samples. You’ll receive information about your ethnic makeup and a list of your closest genetic matches. If you build or upload a family tree, you’ll also be able to compare your tree with the trees of your genetic matches.
· 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.
H R S FREE
Providing education and resources for those researching African-American roots, this site hosts regular opportunities for users to communicate with one another. Start with the Beginner’s Guide under the Records tab, 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 various topics under the Forums tab.
H R S FREE/($)
A “little sister” site to Ancestry.com, this is a budget-friendly place to start exploring your U.S. roots. You can build a basic family tree, search core U.S. records such as federal censuses, vital records and old newspapers. Head to the Learn tab to find two introductory articles on building a tree and searching for records. Then further your education with how-to articles and video tutorials by clicking on the Expert Articles and Videos button. If you need help navigating the site or managing your account, click Help at the bottom of the page.
This isn’t the place to start tracing your family tree; rather it’s a tool you’ll find yourself consulting once you’ve begun. Many genealogical records are created by counties. But most county boundaries have changed over time. So you’ll want to make sure you know what county your ancestors lived in at a particular time period when looking for records about them.
The easiest way to use this site is the Interactive Map, which allows you to enter specific dates and see the county boundaries at the time. At press time, this tool was disabled; an updated site with this tool is planned to launch soon. Meanwhile, from the home page, click a state > View individual county chronologies to see a list of boundary changes for a specific county.
R S FREE/($)
Search an enormous GPS-tagged database of tombstone images. You also can upload tombstone photos you’ve snapped with a free iPhone/Android camera app. Users can add personal history information to individual photos and link them to other tombstone images. This is a fantastic tool to use on the virtual highway and fun to use when you’re on the “real” road, snapping pictures of tombstones in your family cemetery.
R T FREE
This is the Library of Congress’ portal to historical newspapers, both online and offline. You’ll find over 11 million pages of digitized, searchable newspaper pages from across the country, mostly for 1836-1922, but now some reaching before and past that timeframe. Chronicling America also hosts a master index of all known newspapers published in the United States, sortable by time and place. The index entries link to library holdings of each newspaper. To learn more about using the site, including what’s on it and what’s not, click on the Help section.
8. Cyndi’s List
For more than 20 years, Cyndi Howells has compiled (and kept current!) a master “table of contents” of all genealogy-related websites. The U.S. alone has more than 165,000 links! Start with the Beginner’s category, then browse over 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 1500 links each month and correcting or deleting nearly 1000.
H R S T FREE
This is in the online portal to the world’s largest genealogical library—and arguably the world’s most comprehensive free genealogy website. Newbies should head straight to the FamilySearch wiki <familysearch.org/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, for free crowd-sourced articles on different research topics and places;
· A searchable name index to over four billion historical records (Search > Records) and millions of user-submitted family trees (Search > Genealogies). Under the same Search tab, you can click Books to keyword-search over 200,000 published genealogies, histories and more.
· An online catalog gives you access to millions of microfilmed, printed and other non-digitized resources from the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Ut. Some materials can be rented for use at a FamilySearch Center near you.
· The Indexing tab, where you can volunteer (along with thousands of others) to create new indexes of old historical records.
You can upload and/or construct a family tree at FamilySearch.org, but it’s a little bit tricky. Theirs is a community-based tree with one record per person who has ever lived, so you will have to compare your data with records someone else may have created about the same person. The upside of having a tree there is the ability to connect their records with your ancestors and collaborate with other researchers.
H T FREE/($)
Our own website offers abundant beginner help. Under the Get Started tab, find frequently asked questions, free forms and cheat sheets, a genealogy glossary, and tips on two popular beginner subjects: researching your surname and conducting oral history interviews. Our online archive of how-to articles is keyword-searchable and packed with content from past issues of the magazine and web-only extras. See the Tool Kit for a few suggested beginner articles; some are free and some require a Plus subscription to our site. Or dive into intense learning at our sister site, Family Tree University <familytreeuniversity.com>; click on Fundamentals of Genealogy Research Collection for courses especially for beginners.
11. Find A Grave
R S FREE
Dig up ancestral burial information from millions of tombstone images here. Search by an individual or cemetery name. Users are encouraged to upload tombstone photos and submit biographical information for memorial pages. The image submission tool has improved recently; it now allows you to upload multiple photos, edit them, transcribe headstone text and attach new images to existing memorials. You can also create virtual cemeteries to connect loved ones buried in different places.
H R FREE/($)
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 U.S. censuses, Irish Catholic parish records and other U.S. and Canadian records. A new budget subscription aimed at beginners in the U.S. adds access to vital and immigration records, newspapers and U.K. censuses. Their top subscription package offers total access to extensive U.K. parish records, British and Irish newspapers and more.
R S FREE/($)
This is a go-to source for nearly 500 million digitized US military records from the Revolutionary War forward. On the bottom of the home page, click Getting started to “report for training.” Here you’ll learn basic finding strategies, how to add tributes and organize a gallery of family content. Doing so may help you decide whether it’s worth subscribing or looking for a library with an institutional subscription. Your only other option may be visiting the National Archives or ordering records, which you can learn more about below.
H R ($)
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 site 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 <www.glorecords.blm.gov>
H R FREE
Millions of our ancestors bought land from the federal government, particularly in the Midwest and Western states. Now anyone can access images of more than 5 million General Land Office records dating back to 1820. Click on the Reference Center for background information. Not all land given or sold by U.S. government agencies appears here, though, such as land grants for military service or land purchases from individual states.
Google can be a major gateway to online information about ancestors—if you know how to use it right. Otherwise, the 261 million search results suggested by Googling great-grandma Mary Jones will just make you give up. Several of the sites how-to in this Top 25 list offer tips on using Google for genealogy. Try Cyndi’s List (category: Googling for your Grandma), FamilyTreeMagazine.com (keywords Google search) and, described below, Lisa Louise Cooke’s Genealogy Gems (category: Google).
In addition, Google offers several genealogy-friendly tools for everyday use. Google Translate helps you translate lines of text or entire websites. Google Books lets you search its enormous online library, which includes local and family histories. Google Maps and Google Earth can take you to an ancestral address and get a glimpse of how it looks now. Find tutorials for these on our Top 25 sites, too, including a Google Books tutorial on About.com and Lisa Louise Cooke’s free video introduction to Google Earth (under the Videos category on the home page).
18. HeritageQuest Online (available at participating libraries)
H R FREE
If your library offers a subscription to HeritageQuest Online, use it to search for ancestors in U.S. 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 right 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.
H R S T FREE
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. Tead the free tutorials, watch the 5-minute 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 them especially for beginners. Lisa Louise 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 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.
R S T FREE/($)
A free family website with social networking features and a built-in family tree is at the core of the MyHeritage experience. You’ll have to subscribe for full access to their globally-diverse user-submitted family trees and historical records. Those whose ancestors hail from Scandinavia and Western Europe will find the most to love on MyHeritage. Uploading or building a tree on the site will put its automated record matching technologies to work. Then you’ll see whether it’s worth subscribing of finding a library near you with MyHeritage Library Edition.
H R FREE
If you know whose military or naturalization records you want to order, head to this genealogy portal for The National Archives. Start by watching a PowerPoint tutorial on this page. Read descriptions of census, military, immigration, naturalization and land records housed at the National Archives. Before shelling out money to order copies, learn what records are already available online elsewhere. Censuses are at all major genealogy websites; 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.
H R S FREE
This free website 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 “Search RootsWeb.com” 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 them. Finally, click on the U.S. Town/County Database to browse RootsWeb resources about a specific place.
25. USGenWeb Project
H R S FREE
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. Share your own records on these sites, too.
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