Have you ever heard of the term “decision paralysis”? It’s where a person becomes so overwhelmed by choices that they can’t move forward.
Looking at the current VPN landscape, we can see why a person might feel this way. There are simply so many providers these days that all claim to be the fastest, the easiest, the safest, and the most secure. So how can you possibly pick which one’s right for you?
We’ve spent countless hours putting the top VPNs to the test, so we understand how you feel. The differences between VPN providers can be subtle, and to be quite honest, for the everyday consumer, these slight variations might not be all that noticeable day to day. If it works, it works, and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t, right? Well, not so fast.
Pro Tip: If you feel like you’re in over your head, you might need a primer on exactly what a VPN is, what it does, and how to buy one. Check out our VPN buyers guide for that information.
Obviously you want a VPN that’s functional, but that doesn’t narrow the field much. To really zero in on the VPN service that’s right for you, you need to answer two questions. First, what will you be using it for? And second, what features do you need? Once you have these answers, you can start shopping around.
Let’s start with the first question because it informs the second.
What Will You Use It For?
There are as many VPNs as there are use cases for them. These can range anywhere from simply wanting to bolster your online privacy a bit, to needing to protect yourself from foreign governments spying on you.
Likewise, there are many online activities that benefit from VPN use. Do you want to stream media from foreign countries, or be able to watch your shows while you’re abroad? Do you regularly use P2P file-sharing platforms? Are you looking to purchase flights without being whacked with geo-located price gouges? The answers to these questions will help you compare services and understand which is right for you.
Finally, something else to consider is whether or not you’re going to be using your VPN on the go. Do you find yourself working from coffee shops and restaurants? How about hotel rooms? Are you on your smartphone mostly, or do you use a laptop? You’re likely starting to get the picture.
Narrow It Down
If you like to travel and want to watch Netflix from back home, you’ll quickly be able to rule out VPNs that don’t offer great geographic protections, as well as ones that don’t offer optimized server networks for streaming. Likewise, if you’re doing most of your banking on your phone at your local espresso spot, you’re going to need a VPN with a great mobile client. For more information on that, check out our guides to the best VPNs for iPhone, and the best services for Android.
So once you have the “how will you use it?” question answered, you can move on to the second question.
What Features Do You Need?
Server network size. Throughput capacity. RAM-only vs. traditional servers. Streaming optimizations. Geographic protections. Tor connectivity. Kill switches. Protocols. Encryption. The list of features offered by modern VPNs is a mile long and can be overwhelming to the casual consumer. What do you really need, and what can go by the wayside?
If you’ve adequately answered the first question we posed, this second part gets a bit easier. That said though, it’s really a two-part question. Well, two-tiered, anyway. There are two kinds of feature sets VPN providers offer: those which we’d consider “optional” and those that are “non-negotiable.” Let’s start with the latter.
Non-negotiable or Necessary VPN Features
There are a handful of items that every VPN, regardless of use-case, needs to have. Without these, your VPN will, at best, barely function and at worst, not work at all.
Kill Switch: A kill switch is a pretty simple feature. It terminates your internet connection if your VPN connectivity is interrupted. While that might sound like a bit of a headache, it’s actually a critical security feature. If your VPN service conks out for whatever reason, but you’re still connected to the internet, you’ll run the risk of having your true IP address exposed and ultimately making yourself more vulnerable.
Pro Tip: Some VPNs come with an integrated kill switch, and some you’ll have to toggle on and off manually. Be sure you know which kind you have, and if it needs to be switched on, always leave it on.
Network Size: VPNs slow down your connection speeds. Unfortunately, that’s just how they work. Exactly how much your performance will degrade, though, depends on how large your provider’s server network is. Some VPN providers have dozens of servers, others have thousands. While capacity does play into this equation, a general rule of thumb is that the larger the server network, the faster your speeds will be.
With that in mind, you should definitely check out NordVPN. They have a massive server network and some of the fastest speeds we’ve seen.
Verifiable Security: If you have a slick VPN with all the bells and whistles but it allows your data to be exposed, what you actually have is a useless piece of software and a false sense of security. Make sure you verify that your VPN is working upon purchase and periodically throughout its use by making sure it’s not leaking DNS requests or your IP address. There are simple tests online for this exact purpose.
So that about does it for what we’d consider to be the really necessary core functions of a VPN. If the provider you’re looking at is lacking in one or more of the above categories, you might want to move on. If all of those boxes are checked, though, you can move on to the fun stuff.
Before we get into that, though — a quick word. We know everyone wants to drive a Lamborghini, but if you want a Lamborghini, you’re going to pay Lamborghini prices. There’s nothing wrong with a Honda Civic if that’s all you need. Remember question one? If you’re not really going to be using the features discussed in the following section, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to pay for them.
Optional VPN Features
Here’s where your high-end VPN providers differentiate themselves and where you’re going to find services for specific uses.
Heightened Privacy: Some folks want a little extra security, and some folks’ safety depends on preventing intelligence agencies and restrictive governments from knowing what they’re up to. We’re talking about journalists in oppressive countries, political organizers and activists, and whistleblowers. While this population accounts for a small percentage of overall VPN users, if your freedom is at stake, look for a VPN that offers elevated security features like multi-hop functionality and protocol masking.
Pro Tip: If you’re looking for the absolute best in online security, you might want to check out our NordVPN review. Nord has some of the best protocols in the industry for those who really depend on anonymity.
Geographic Protections: In the same vein, if you’re a person that regularly travels to countries where the internet is heavily regulated by government bodies, you might consider using a VPN to have access to the free and open internet. However, not all VPNs are created alike, and only certain ones can get past the firewalls of countries like China and the United Arab Emirates. If this sounds like something you’ll need, consider reading our SurfShark review. Surfshark VPNs offer great geographic protections and can punch holes through just about any firewall out there.
Tor Compatibility: Without getting too deep into the technological weeds, Tor, or The Onion Router, is a browser that uses a particular set of networking protocols to communicate anonymously over public networks. Simply put, if you’re accessing the deep or dark web, this is what you’re going to be using. If you really want to be invisible on the web, you’re going to want a VPN that can sync up with Tor right out of the box. There are a handful out there, with more coming online in the future.
Pro Tip: If Tor functionality is what you’re looking for, you’ll find out all about it in our ProtonVPN review. Just be careful out there — the dark web isn’t a place for people who don’t know what they’re doing.
Specified Network Optimizations: There is a huge population of folks that want to use VPNs for streaming or P2P file sharing. If you find yourself in either of those camps, you’re going to want to find a provider that offers specific networks fine-tuned for these activities. If you’re really into streaming, read our review of Cyberghost. They’re one of the best in the business for Netflix, Hulu, HBO Plus, and even CrunchyRoll for the weebs.
Protocol Selection: Just like there are thousands of languages spoken across the massive and beautiful tapestry of human culture, there are a multitude of languages spoken by machines connected via VPNs over the internet. These are called protocols. Some are better for security, some are better for speed, and some are outdated gibberish that are being phased out of existence. If you want to make sure your VPN isn’t going to be sunsetted anytime soon, look for one that supports modern protocols like WireGuard and OpenVPN. And If you need protocols, you should definitely check out Private Internet Access. They’re one of the most customizable services we’ve ever tested.
Encryption: Keeping with the communication metaphor, if you want your conversation to only be understood by the person you’re speaking with, you’re going to need to use some sort of code. That’s where encryption comes in. Most VPNs on the market today scramble your data with 128-bit encryption, which is plenty secure. However, if you’re looking for Fort Knox-level security, you might consider a VPN that offers 256-bit encryption. If you need heavy-duty encryption, check out our analysis of Ivacy. Word to the wise, though: If you switch on 256-bit encryption, you’re going to notice some significant performance degradation (i.e., slower speeds).
This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it gives you an idea of some of the more advanced features offered by VPN providers today. If you have a good idea of what you’re going to be using your VPN for, and what the features you’ll need are, you’re going to be in good shape while shopping around. But there is one last point of comparison that’s worth mentioning. Some might argue it’s the most important …
How Much Do VPNs Cost?
Ah yes, the all-important question: How much is this going to cost me?
The good news is, VPNs are relatively affordable. Most VPNs offer subscription services everywhere from month-to-month packages to five-year contracts. Generally speaking, the longer you sign up for, the more you’ll save.
But how much are we talking about, exactly? The answer obviously differs based on the provider and the duration of your subscription, but generally speaking, you’re looking at anywhere from $1 or $2 per month, up to maybe $15 per month for the most decked-out service available. But you can expect to pay between $5 and $8 per month for a service that’ll do everything you need it to. If you want to know more about this, you can always head over to our VPN pricing guide.
If you’re really concerned about the price, there are several budget VPNs available, and many offer free trials. If you want to cut to the chase, though, you might also consider checking out our VyprVPN review – they’re one of the most affordable on the market.
Now you know everything you need to know to comparison shop for VPN services. Ready to get started? We’ve got you covered. Here are some helpful links that pit some of our favorite VPN providers head to head against the competition.
- ExpressVPN vs. Surfshark
- ExpressVPN vs. TunnelBear
- ExpressVPN vs. Cyberghost
- ExpressVPN vs. Private Internet Access
- ExpressVPN vs. IPVanish
- ExpressVPN vs ProtonVPN
- NordVPN vs. ExpressVPN
- NordVPN vs. Norton Secure VPN
- NordVPN vs. Private Internet Access
- NordVPN vs. VyprVPN
- NordVPN vs. TunnelBear
- NordVPN vs. IPVanish
- NordVPN vs. Surfshark
- NordVPN vs. Cyberghost