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How to Choose a VPN Service


The VPN services market has exploded over the past three years. Many providers are capitalizing on the general population’s growing concerns about surveillance and cybercrime, which means it’s getting hard to tell when a company is actually providing a secure service and when it’s throwing out a lot of fancy words while selling snake oil. It’s important to keep a few things in mind when evaluating which VPN service is right for you: reputation, performance, type of encryption used, transparency, ease of use, support, and extra features. Don’t just focus on price, though that is an important factor.

That said, not all VPN services require that you pay. Several of the services we’ve listed here also supply free VPN services. You tend to get what you pay for, as far as features and server locations go, but if your needs are basic, a free service can still keep you safe. TunnelBear, for example, offers a limited but serviceable free VPN.

Some VPN services provide a free trial, so take advantage of it. Make sure you are happy with what you sign up for, and take advantage of money-back guarantees if you’re not. This is actually why I also recommend starting out with a short-term subscription—a week or a month—to really make sure you are happy. KeepSolid VPN Unlimited offers a one-week Vacation subscription, for example. Yes, you may get a discount by signing up for a year, but that’s more money to lose if you realize the service doesn’t meet your performance needs.

If you’re using a service to route all your Internet traffic through its servers, you have to be able to trust the provider. Established security companies, such as F-Secure, may have only recently come to the VPN market. It’s easier to trust companies that have been around a little longer, simply because their reputation is likely to be known. But companies and products can change quickly. Today’s slow VPN service that won’t let you cancel your subscription could be tomorrow’s poster child for excellence.

I’m not a cryptography expert, so I can’t verify all of the encryption claims providers make. I focus, instead, on the features provided. Bonus features like ad-blocking, firewalls, and kill switches that disconnect you from the Web if your VPN connection drops go a long way toward keeping you safe. I also prefer providers that use OpenVPN, since it’s a standard that’s superior to the older PPTP standard. It’s also, as the name implies, open source, so issues with the protocol can be quickly found and addressed.

Be sure to consider transparency and the privacy policy of a VPN service before you buy a subscription. See if the policy spells out what the service does, what information it collects, and what its responsibilities are. Some companies explain that they collect some information but don’t inform you about how they intend to use that information. TorGuard, for example, has a clear explanation of how it keeps track of payment card information without maintaining any logging information. Also, be sure to find out where the company is based. Some countries don’t have data-retention laws, making it easier to keep a promise of “We don’t keep any logs.”

Most users want a full graphic user interface for managing their VPN connection and settings, though a few would rather download a configuration file and import it into the OpenVPN client. Most VPN companies I’ve reviewed support all levels of technological savvy, and the best have robust customer support for when things go sideways.

While a VPN can protect you online, you still might want to take the additional step of avoiding credit cards for moral or security reasons. Several VPN services now accept PayPal, Bitcoin, and other alternate payment methods. In a few cases, VPN services may even accept retailer gift cards. That Starbucks gift card may be better spent on secure Web browsing than a mediocre-at-best latte.

It’s also important to remember what a VPN can and cannot do. While it will hide your IP address, it’s not a true anonymization service. For that, you’ll want to access the Tor network, which will almost certainly slow down your connection. That said, some services, such as NordVPN, offer Tor access on specific servers. ExpressVPN offers a similar feature called multi-hop VPN, which lets you route your Web traffic in tricky ways.

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