I wrote previously about getting started on your family tree. Now I’ve researched family tree software. When I worked on my tree eons ago, about the only game in town was Family Tree Maker. Now the options are really overwhelming.
There are Web-based programs, which are compatible with all platforms, but these often require a monthly fee and can get quite expensive. Prices listed are from the company websites. You may be able to find a better deal elsewhere.
Criteria to consider:
- A free version that ideally doesn’t require a credit card. No one wants to invest in something and find out later that you don’t like it. To conserve cash you’d like to get started with a free version, get your feet wet and see if this is something you really want to pursue. If you’re committed, then once you’ve exhausted all it’s features you can upgrade to a full paid version. I also eliminated any software that forces you to buy the full version at the end of the free trial or you lose all your data.
- Reasonable price. While a family tree is invaluable and a great gift for your family, you shouldn’t go broke preparing one. As you progress you will likely spend a lot of money traveling and researching, paying for documents, possibly hiring outside help, etc.
- Works with GEDCOM files. A GEDCOM file is plain text containing genealogical information. The files end in .ged. This is the format for most genealogy software and services. If it’s not GEDCOM compatible, it’s not on this list.
- Software that links to multiple databases. This makes life easier and is an added bonus but can also be expensive. At the end of this post I list many free resources.
- Here’s where a link to outside sources really comes in handy. Some software will search and matches members of your family and automatically add information you approve to your tree.
- Ability to print charts (that you can show or send to people), reports (so you can see what you’re missing) and to publish in book format.
Ancestral Quest: Available for Windows and Mac. Ancestral Quest Basics is the free version. It offers “the essential features for working with your family tree, including some updated features in accessing FamilySearch Family Tree”. Upgrade to full Ancestral Quest program to add advanced features. Here’s a comparison chart of free vs. paid versions. The website looks very dated but seems pretty robust.
Ancestry: We’ve all seen or heard the commercials. This web-based platform doesn’t meet my criteria in terms of price. In terms of records available (per the Ancestry.com Help Desk): Mormons 3 billion records v. Ancestry.com 16 billion records. They have teams of people who go around the world and obtain rights to use records from governments and other entities. They travel with their own equipment and copy and/or photograph records which are indexed in their searchable database.
You can create a free registered guest account (no credit card necessary) which allows you to create a free tree. This gives you access to view free public databases. You can also use all parts of the website, but you’ll need a subscription to view records.
After that there’s a free two-week trial that has all the bells and whistles. You have to remember to cancel it or you will be charged the monthly subscription rate for access to U.S. records only. Once your paid monthly subscription ends you can still access your tree but won’t be able to view the records attached to it. While I understand the allure of all that data, signing up for a monthly charge is as bad as all the unused gym memberships out there. I would only resort to paid access after you’ve exhausted every possible free resource and you are out of options. Even then I would just cancel at the end of the free two weeks.
Archives has a free trial but requires a credit card. The software searches and matches members of your family and automatically adds information you approve to your tree. Like my assessment of Ancestry, I recommend that you don’t get into a recurring and perpetual monthly payment. At least one testimonial comes from professional genealogists so it may be more than what a hobbyist needs.
Brother’s Keeper This website is very rudimentary. Still, I’m not one for judging a book by its cover. This Windows-only software offers a free version that you can upgrade to a full version. It doesn’t link to any outside databases but it may be a low-cost option to collect your data. It offers reports as well as a book.
Heredis. Windows and Mac. The free version is very robust. You have to sign up for email to get the free version. There’s also a mobile app for iOS and Android. This may come in handy if you’re traveling and taking pictures of buildings, tombstones, etc. The paid version also includes image editing.
Mocavo merged with search site Findmypast. The software searches and matches members of your family and automatically adds information you approve to your tree. The software offers no printing options, so I would only sign up for access to the free research.
Roots Magic ,Windows and Mac. The free version Roots Magic Essential is pretty robust. To download the free version, you need to provide your name and email address; no credit card is required. This is the winner to me. Robust free version and inexpensive paid version.
How to build a family tree
- Read Getting started on your family tree.
- Once you have a lot of data and are sure you will continue with this search, select a free version of family tree software that can be upgraded to a more robust paid version later. Avoid signing up for something that has a recurring monthly payment.
- Exhaust all free resources. Depending on how much time you dedicate to it, this could take years.
How to maximize free trials
Many research sites charge a fee beginning after a seven-, 14- or 30-day free trial. In order to maximize those free days, it is essential that you be organized. If you’re using family tree software, print out a report showing holes in your research. Highlight what you’re looking for and/or make lists. Have your printer fired up with plenty of paper and extra printer cartridges. Download the free trial on a long weekend or eon a staycation. Work on uploading or printing all the information during the trial. Enter the data a day or so before the trial ends. Go back and make sure you’ve searched for everything on your list. Make notes of where you searched when you can find something so you don’t duplicate your efforts.
Free family tree research sites
- Archives.com 14-day free trial
- Family History Research Wiki
- Free Family Genealogy Websites & Resources
- Genealogy Research Tutorials
- Newspapers.com seven day free trial