If you've ever wondered who your ancestors were, it's never been easier to find out than by using the internet.
Learning about our ancestors used to mean scouring dusty records on endless trips to the library.
That's not to mention the huge amount of time, expertise and commitment it involved. But just like so many things, the internet has made genealogical research a relatively straightforward and accessible task for anyone with a broadband connection and an interest in their origins.
The following sections provide a summary of the best online resources for researching your own family tree. We have also included beginner's tips to help you take those important first steps.
How to research your family tree
Before the days ofhome broadband, it was only those with the time and drive to spend months trawling through dog-eared public records who were able to trace their family history. But now that we're living in a truly connected world, it's never been easier to discover who we really are.
Online genealogy involves essentially the same process of searching through census returns and scouring civil registers. But compared with old-fashioned methods, using the internet to find what you're looking for makes it infinitely more efficient and far less time-consuming.
As a result of this, and TV shows such as the BBC's Who Do You Think You Are?, the past few years have brought a huge increase in people researching their family tree.
Research suggests there are no fewer than 250,000 websites dedicated to helping people learn more about their ancestors. The list below contains a small sample of just some of the most popular and useful sites to help you on your way:
- Ancestry.co.uk - By far the UK's favourite genealogy site, Ancestry.co.uk gives its members access to over eight billion historical records and 30 million family trees. As you fit together the pieces of your jigsaw, the site helps you dig deeper for more information and can point you in the right direction. There's an option to take a free 14-day trial, but once that expires you'll be required to pay in order to keep using the site.
- Genes Reunited - Most people have heard of Friends Reunited, which was helping rekindle high school romances a long time before Facebook arrived, but less well-known is its sister site Genes Reunited. Members can start building their family tree for free and find out whether anyone else has used the site to search for the same relatives. The website has an established community which is always quite happy to help any newcomers.
- FamilySearch.org - Currently the largest genealogy organisation in the world, FamilySearch.org was created by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Anyone can access the resources it provides, making it one of the most heavily-used family tree websites around. Its records are truly global, spanning almost every country and continent from the UK and Europe to Australia, Canada and the Caribbean.
- LostCousins.com - While its records are limited to the US, Canadian, British and Irish censuses, LostCousins.com claims to be theonly family history site that can "automatically, accurately and confidently" match you with others researching the same ancestors. It says the automated nature of its matching system means nobody else needs to see your information, so if you're concerned about privacy online, it may be worth a look.
- Origins.net - Some websites have a more niche appeal, like Origins.net, which specialises in harder-to-find and older records specifically from Britain and Ireland. Its database includes entries from its National Wills Index, as well as censuses and registers for voting, deaths, marriages and births, which is useful if you're only looking for one specific record. Hourly subscriptions are available, as well as monthly or annual membership.
- Deceased Online - Morbid name aside, Deceased Online has the same jolly aim as any other genealogy site - to help you identify dead relatives. There's no paid subscription as such, as you search for free then simply buy "credits" to download the specific records you want to see. In addition to computerised data it features digital scans of records and photographs of tombstones and memorials, as well as cemetery maps.
- TheGenealogist.co.uk - Specialising in census data from England and Wales dated 1841 to 1911, as well as birth, marriage and death registers from 1837 to 2005, this website offers a range of membership options. If you're looking for cheap deals then you may be interested to hear that TheGenealogist.co.uk was recently named best value online resource by the BBC's Who Do You Think You Are? magazine.
While online records can normally be searched for free, many websites charge you for access to the information you find, or levy a subscription fee for premium services. It's worth looking at a few different ones and deciding which are most useful to you before committing to spending your hard-earned cash.
Remember, you should always take care when making a payment online. For more information and advice, visit the Get Safe Online website.
Tips for getting started
Unravelling the family history can seem quite a daunting task, especially when tracing your dynasty as far back as the dark ages, but making a start is quite simple. The following advice from Who Do You Think You Are? should help when taking your first steps down the genealogical path:
- Find out what you already know - If you already know where some of your family came from, or you have family documents hidden away at home, use these to get your research off the ground.
- Talk to other family members - It may seem obvious, but your family is one of the best places to find out about your family. Talk to aunts, uncles and cousins about any secrets or stories they might remember from childhood or their past.
- Explore births, marriages and deaths- The internet has made researching birth, marriage and death registers easy. Use virtually any of the websites above to start trawling through these records - they are often a valuable source of information.
- Use the census - Census data provides a snapshot of where your ancestors lived, who they were living with and what their jobs were at regular 10-year intervals. Again, the websites named about can help you trace these details as far back as the first UK census of 1841.
- Look at military records - War has played an enormous part in British society over the decades, and it's very likely that one of your ancestors was a member of the armed forces. Some genealogical websites also let you track down military information.
Aside from curiosity, patience and perseverance, all you really need to research your family tree is access to the internet. Whether it's a fixed line broadband connection or a mobile broadband dongle that you take wherever you go, there are lots of choices and some great deals to be had.
To find the best broadband package for your needs, use the free postcode checker at broadbandchoices and compare the deals available in your area.