The benefits of virtual private networks, or VPNs, are well-documented: They keep you safer on public wi-fi and help you access content not usually available in your region, among other useful . There are now dozens and dozens of VPN options to choose from, which can make it difficult to decide which one is the best one for you.
We’re deliberately not going to mention any specific VPN provider here; we just want to give you the direction you need to make up your own mind. The right service for you depends on a range of factors – most importantly, the specific features that you’re looking for in terms of staying protected on the web. Here are some of the questions you should consider before picking a VPN.
How does it make money?
Free VPNs aren’t inherently bad – in fact, a handful of the best ones are free – but as with any service, be wary of signing up with a VPN that has no obvious way of making money. If users aren’t paying for a VPN up front, that VPN may well be funded by selling data about user statistics or behaviour, which sort of defeats the point of a service like this in the first place.
Also consider the types of payments that a VPN will take. Ones that support cryptocurrencies, for example, are likely to be more committed to online anonymity that those that demand a credit card number from you.
Who is running it?
Signing up for a VPN doesn’t instantly anonymise your online activity. When it comes to online security and privacy, you’re effectively putting your trust in the VPN rather than your internet provider, so you want to make sure that the company behind the service is one that you feel comfortable dealing with.
Don’t be surprised if you can’t find out much about which companies are running which VPNs, because that’s the way they like it. If you can, find a provider that’s recognised and established with offices physically located near you, and which has a record of working in other areas of digital security.
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What are its data policies?
Finding a company you trust goes hand in hand with finding a data policy you trust, too. Using a VPN isn’t going to protect your online privacy if that VPN is busy logging everything you’re doing and handing records over to governments, so you want to do some digging.
The ideal VPN provider promotes a zero logs policy and encrypts transmitted data using a well-known open-source protocol. If you’re installing mobile or desktop apps, look for the permissions that are being requested, and consider how reasonable those requests are.
How many servers does it have?
You’re probably going to want a lot of options when it comes to connecting to servers worldwide, so the more of them a VPN has available, the better concealed you are. The top picks now have hundreds of available options, so be wary of picking a VPN with fewer choices.
Remember that where a VPN is based and where it operates will affect the laws it must abide by and the data collection policies it might be bound to. This is a good introduction to the sort of surveillance data-sharing that goes on between countries, and it’s something else to keep in mind when choosing a VPN.
How fast are the servers?
On a purely practical level, you don’t want your VPN to slow down your web browsing and video streaming to any great degree, but this can vary a lot between providers. Check what claims VPNs make in terms of speed, and see how they back them up, if they do (independent third-party test results can be helpful here).
You can even test this yourself to some extent, with the majority of VPNs on the market offering free trials for you to take advantage of. You should at least be able to sign up for just a single month to see if a particular VPN and its server speeds are going to be right for you in the long term.
Image: Taylor Vick (Unsplash)
What do its users say?
Other important considerations when it comes to picking a VPN – how easy it is to use, how transparent the various options are, and so on – can be assessed to some extent from user reviews. Try and find references to problems (bandwidth issues, bugs, using the various apps) when shifting through reviews.
Of course, it’s not difficult to fake a user testimonial, so look for VPNs with reviews linked to real online profiles, or with the backing of recognised security experts. Be wary of the first page or two of search results for VPNs, because a lot of that content is sponsored (you can find one good antidote to this here).
What specific features are included?
This is something that you might have to think about after you’ve been using a VPN for a while, but some useful features include being able to make concurrent connections and the presence of a kill switch, so you don’t just fall back to a standard connection when a VPN is unavailable.
As you spend more time browsing around for a VPN, you’ll become familiar with the extra features each service packs in, whether that’s the number of supported devices or the number of IP addresses you get. Figure out how you want to use your VPN and then decide which service has everything you need – for the price you want to pay.