Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Guest Post: How to Get Started With Genealogy In 5 Steps, by Tony Ho Tran

I accept guest posts that deal with genealogy and family history topics.  One of my correspondents is Tony Ho Tran, who writes the interesting SaigonToSiouxCity blog.  He offered this guest post (original at


How to get started with genealogy in 5 steps
By Tony Ho Tran

Ah genetic genealogy. 

It’s endlessly heartwarming, maddeningly frustrating, and ceaselessly entertaining all in one hobby. 

Plus it can both solve mysteries AND open the Pandora’s Box to a ton of new ones as well. You literally don’t know what is out there. The things you learn can totally upend your worldview and everything you THOUGHT you knew about your family.

Okay, that’s a lot scarier than I meant it to sound (but it’s true).

And since I’ve started, I’ve had a lot of people come to me for advice on how they can get started too. That’s why I want to break down a great system to help YOU get started with genetic genealogy today.

Step 1: Set a concrete goal

A good, clear goal can mean the difference between finding lost family members and uncovering your family tree OR aimlessly browsing census records for a few days before ignoring your ancestry research forever.

I’m not exaggerating. Setting goals is an important psychological trigger. Knowing what you want will give you the focus and drive to become a successful genealogist.

Many genealogists just skip this because they don’t even think to do it. When you do that, though, you’re setting yourself up to fail.

BUT it’s not enough to just set a goal — it also needs to be a good one. And a good goal will have three crucial elements:

  • Precise. Vague goals are bad goals. That’s why so many people fail when they set New Year’s Resolution goals like, “I want to hit the gym” are doomed to fail. Rather if your goal was something like, “I want to lose 30 pounds,” you’d have a much better chance of attaining it.
  • Measurable. How do you know when you’ve accomplished your goal? Is it when you’ve found your birth parents? Or is it when you’ve discovered where your 3x great-grandfather was born? Give a clear measure of success to your goal.
  • Timely. While this isn’t entirely necessary it can help. If you have a time constraint to your goal, it could give you the motivation to accomplish it. Maybe you want to find the county in Ireland where your family is from in time for Christmas. Maybe you want to find your birth mom in time for next Mother’s Day. Time cues like this can be a huge psychological factor for you.

ASSIGNMENT: Set a genealogy goal that’s specific, measurable, and timely (3 - 10 minutes)

What’s YOUR genealogy goal? Do you want to expand your family tree by 5 generations? Do you want to find your sibling who was given up for adoption? The sky is the limit for your goal.

My first genealogy goal was to find my grandfather’s name and birth location. Each time I booted up AncestryDNA, I had that in mind. It especially helped when I got a DNA test and began reaching out to cousins.

Which brings us to...

Step 2: Get a DNA test

This is the part that puts the “genetic” in “genetic genealogy.” If you’re reading this now, you’re #blessed enough to be in a time I consider to be the golden age of DNA testing kits.

For the low price of $79 to $100, you can uncover shocking and sordid family secrets you wouldn’t have conceived of in your wildest imagination. Amazing!

But with so many DNA tests out there, which do you choose?

My answer: One of the Big Three ancestry tests:

  • 23andMe. This is the DNA testing kit that really brought genetic genealogy into vogue. Currently, the company offers two kits: A $100 edition that provides just the ancestry composition and a $200 one that includes a comprehensive medical report. While the medical report is fun, I suggest going with the lower cost ancestry composition
  • FamilyTree DNA. Another great ancestry test — if not a little more lean in terms of tools than the other two on the list. FamilyTree DNA does offer y-DNA and mt-DNA testing along with autosomal, which really help with your journey as you become more advanced. 
  • AncestryDNA (my recommendation). This is the most well-known ancestry company on the list — and for good reason. has helped millions of users find their family members for over a decade. And now with their AncestryDNA service, you can connect with their massive database of users and family trees to help with your search. I recommend this one for any beginner.

While I do think that AncestryDNA offers everything a beginner genealogist could want, you shouldn’t just stop at one. Renowned genealogist Cece Moore suggests that genealogists “fish in all three ponds” when it comes to their research.

That means getting a test from 23andMe, Family Tree DNA, and AncestryDNA. That’s what I did and I was able to connect with the man who turned out to be my grandfather’s brother on Family Tree DNA — and it’s not even the one I recommend! Crazy.

ASSIGNMENT: Get a DNA test — or more! (6 - 12 weeks)
COST: $79 - $200

Though the time varies for each company, a typical DNA test is going to take 6 - 8 weeks to get an ancestry composition report and start connecting you with cousins. I know. It’s TRAGIC how long it takes — but you’re going to find that patience is one of the most important qualities to have as a genealogist.

While you’re waiting, though, it’s the perfect time to get started on another important step:

Step 3: Build a family tree on

Your family tree is your business card. It’s the thing you’re going to share with the other people you meet in your journey that’ll help you connect with even more family members.

And like any good business card, it needs to be simple and shareable.

Also doesn’t hurt if your family tree comes in egg shell white.
There are a few very good websites that can help you build out your family tree. However, I recommend you build out a tree on (Yeah, I know. I’m starting to sound like a commercial for them). is great for a few reasons:

  • Simple interface. It’s a very straightforward platform that allows you to easily construct a family tree AND share it with others. There are a lot of other bells and whistles that allow you to get into the weeds of ancestry BUT they’re optional. 
  • Connects with your DNA test. If you get a DNA test at AncestryDNA, they’ll connect you kit to your family tree. That means when you view your cousins, you’ll also be able to view their family trees (depending on their privacy settings). 
  • Highly collaborative. not only allows you to share your tree, but you can allow other users on the platform to edit and add to your tree too. Very handy if you’re working with a genealogy partner. 

Luckily, it’s completely free to build your tree on

Unluckily, you won’t be able to access any US or international records without a paid membership.  Currently, memberships for US records are $19.99 / month or $99 for a six-month membership. Prices only go up when you get more records.

BUT if you get a DNA test through AncestryDNA, you can get a discounted rate for memberships. Highly advantageous for a beginner genealogist.

ASSIGNMENT: Build your family tree (1 - 3 hours)

The goal here is to build out your family tree as much as you can while you wait for your DNA test to get back. That means siblings, parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, great-grandparents, your second cousin four times removed — whatever!

The more comprehensive your tree is the easier it’ll be for you to help establish relationships with the cousins you’ll connect with via your DNA test.

Which brings us to…

Step 4: Connect with your cousins — with scripts

You have your family tree. You have your goal. And now, you have your DNA test back.
It’s time to start reaching out to your cousins.

Each of the Big Three DNA tests allow you to connect with their database of users based on your estimated relation to them. However, reaching out to them can be easier said than done.

After all, It can be nerve-wracking to reach out to complete strangers — let alone complete strangers who happen to be your relatives.

What do you say? You want them to respond but you don’t want to freak them out. How do you navigate this freaking weird social situation?

Simple: With scripts.

This one:
My name’s Tony and I’m glad to connect with you! It looks like we’re 1st cousins which is great.  
I’m searching for the identity of my grandfather. He was an American soldier who served in the Vietnam War with whom we lost contact with in the 1970s. If he sounds familiar, I’d love to hear your thoughts on him.  
If there’s anything I can do for you, please feel free to reach out. I look forward to hearing from you soon. 
This is a friendly and straightforward script that 1. Leverages your goal that you wrote in the first step and 2. Makes it clear that you want to do all you can to help your cousin on their journey as well.
This will increase your chances of getting a response AND establish good terms with your newfound relative.

ASSIGNMENT: Reach out to your cousins with scripts (30 mins - 1 hour)

Of course, you’re going to want to mold the script above to your specific situation, but it’s handy to have when you’re reaching out to multiple cousins at one time.

And you don’t have to just use it on the cousins you find in the DNA testing databases too. In fact, that script will come in hand for step 5:

Step 5: Upload raw DNA information to GEDMatch

GEDMatch is a powerful third-party DNA analysis tool that processes your raw autosomal DNA information and connects you with cousins in other DNA tests.

GEDMatch is just awesome because it allows you to connect with cousins who tested with companies you didn’t AND do a deep analysis of your DNA and how it compares with others.

GEDMatch will also give you a rough estimation of how many generations it is until you can find the most recent common ancestor you share with the cousin.

The best part? The service is entirely FREE.

ASSIGNMENT: Get your raw DNA and upload it onto GEDMatch (1 hour)
COST: Free ninety-nine. 

All of the Big Three tests allow you get download your raw DNA data (which sounds gross but is just a computer file). Simply follow these steps to upload your information on GEDMatch:

  • Step 1: Download your raw DNA information.
  • Step 2: Create an account on GEDMatch.
  • Step 3: Go to the GEDMatch homepage and click on the “Generic upload FAST” link.
  • Step 4: Follow the instructions for your specific DNA kit. 
  • Step 5: Wait for GEDMatch to process your information
  • Step 6: Finished! Start connecting with cousins!
Step 6: Repeat as necessary

That’s right, there’s a step six! Like any good shampoo you’re going to want to repeat this process again as necessary.

As you become a more experienced and advanced genealogist, you’re going to break from this system occasionally — and that’s totally fine!

What’s important is that you know what you want to accomplish from you genealogy goals and have the tools necessary to accomplish them.

ASSIGNMENT: Sign up for my newsletter AND shoot my an email with your genealogy goals. 

If you want even more help and access to my insights on genealogy, head over to and sign up for my newsletter.

Every week, I’ll send you the best genealogy tips, tricks, and insights.

Also be sure to shoot me an email with what you’re trying to do. I’d LOVE to help you however I can.

(c) 2018, Tony Ho Tran.


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1 comment:

Cathy P said...

This was very helpful and succinct. Thank you