Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to that question as it very much depends on where your research is taking you. There are many online sites out there, all claiming to have something over the others, but where should you start?
When I started doing my research I didn’t have a lot of money so I predominately used free sites but the results were varied and I soon began to realise they weren’t going to be enough. As work on your tree progresses, you’ll soon get a feel for the important geographical areas and the usefulness of sites will depend on what kind of records they have. There will be some trial and error involved but here’s a look at the sites I’ve used over the years and my thoughts on them.
Family Search is a free site run by the Church of the Latter Day Saints which contains thousands of parish records from country’s all around the world. When I first started my research I used this site extensively but I detest the new layout and haven’t used it for years. I used this site to do a lot of my initial groundwork but you have to be careful as the information is user submitted and may not be accurate. It is a good place to start though, however most of their records are now available on other sites.
Scotlands People is the best site if you are doing research on Scottish ancestors and it is in an invaluable resource, however it can get expensive as you have to pay for credits rather than a subscription. The site contains Statutory Records for births, marriages and deaths from 1855 and releases new ones annually. Old Parish Records, mainly baptisms and marriages prior to 1855, are also available, however this is dependent on where your ancestors lived and whether they bothered to record such events.
Other records available are census returns (with images), valuation rolls, legal records, wills and testaments. I haven’t had much luck with these records but you may find them useful.
The lowest number of credits you can currently buy is 30 credits for £7.50 and the highest is 160 credits for £40. The more credits you buy, the more economical it becomes, however it will cost you 6 credits every time you want to view an image and I promise you they will not last long. Please note it will cost you more credits to view other records so it is best to check.
I use this site to verify information on my Scottish ancestors and go on a credit buying splurge every now and again, however I try to narrow down my searches as much as possible to avoid wasting credits. I’ve also been lucky in that most of my ancestors are grouped in specific areas and have uncommon surnames. The larger areas, like Glasgow and Edinburgh, are a nightmare to search so be prepared to lose some credits on false trails.
I have a love/hate relationship with Ancestry, mainly because the site has become increasingly frustrating to use due to slow loads and down time. As the biggest genealogical site on the internet, they are keen to attract new subscribers by offering free access to certain records at times and this can be a nightmare for paying subscribers who often cannot access the site at all. There came a point last year when I seriously considered cancelling my membership as I could barely use the site for weeks at a time.
Having said that, the thing that keeps me coming back to Ancestry is the tree feature which is the best one out there in my opinion. I have tried a few others but none set out the information as clearly as Ancestry does or let you customise your tree as much.
However, to get the most out of Ancestry, you will need to pay a subscription fee and it can get pricey. There are three memberships to choose from: Essentials, Premium and Worldwide which can be paid in monthly instalments or annually which is more economical. I started with the Essentials subscription but outgrew it very quickly and I have been on the Worldwide subscription for a few years which is required to view overseas records.
While the Worldwide subscription is supposed to give you access to all the records available, Ancestry cheekily introduced an All Access membership which isn’t shown on their comparison page. The All Access membership gives you access to military records from Fold3 and articles on Newspapers, however be warned you are given only basic access and may need to upgrade your membership again at these sites which seems rather greedy to me.
FindmyPast is a British owned genealogical website to which I also have full membership. I have my tree uploaded here as well but the features are nowhere near as good as Ancestry yet which is very frustrating. FMP has better search algorithms than Ancestry and the hints are usually far more accurate but they are a pain to add to the tree. FMP will also give you access to British newspapers and I found a few shocks there.
FMP claims to have an unrivalled record collection but overseas records are sorely lacking and one of the biggest reasons I haven’t fully committed to this site. The most exciting update they have had in recent years though was the 1939 Register which was useful for gathering dates of birth but it only included England and Wales.
Durham Records Online
Durham Records Online is an independent site which transcribes birth, marriage and burials records from parishes within the Durham area, plus other parts of Northumbria and Yorkshire. When I first discovered this site, the records were not available anywhere else and I happily spent hours doing research here.
Most of the records are now available on other sites but they are not as comprehensive as Durham Records Online transcribes the whole entry which sometimes includes quirky information. The site is pay per view, however if you need access to a large number of records like me, the annual subscription is your best option.
Of course, there are many other options out there and most genealogical sites allow you to try them out for free before you commit. Please read the terms and conditions very carefully before you part with your cash as some sites aren’t exactly truthful about how much you are getting for your buck and you may have to upgrade sooner than you think.