As more internet users have become technologically savvy and security-minded, VPNs have broken into the mainstream. Some would even have you believe that a VPN is less of a suggestion and more a requirement these days. There are numerous reasons why using a VPN—both legal and otherwise—is in your best interest. While there’s certainly a debate to be had over their necessity, the fact is that there are both more VPN users and more VPN services available than ever before. Unfortunately, this hasn’t made the technology any more secure than it was. In fact, it has made VPNs less secure. Because it’s a lot harder to find a trustworthy and best VPN among the sea of options. Here’s why.
Why Is It Hard to Find a Trustworthy VPN?
Trust is the most important aspect of picking and using a VPN. Not only do you need to trust that the company behind your VPN’s security operations are up to snuff, but you also need to trust that its business practices are copacetic, too.
You are, after all, going to channel all of your data through them.
The issue is that no one can agreed about what VPNs. Or the companies that make them, should owe potential customers. There are no baseline security requirements, features, and business practices that a VPN or its parent company are required to meet. Despite many VPNs being transparent about their tech and business models, the promises made by these companies have to be taken on faith.
Too many products
There’s no shortage of VPNs or similar internet security products out there. Even the tiniest companies can build a simple VPN service quickly. You can find VPNs for almost every contemporary platform or internet-connected device imaginable, from free to paid solutions, to apps, to plenty of configure-it-yourself offerings, which has all made the process of picking a VPN infinitely more troublesome.
It can be overwhelming to navigate the marketplace and difficult to find good recommendations. You often find “Best VPN” lists populated with different picks and plenty of referral links if you sign up for a featured service. Since no basic security criteria or feature set have been codified, different sources will often come to different conclusions on the same products.
No one gets along
The VPN vetting process is fraught with potential pitfalls and sketchy advertising, no doubt. But this open animosity between companies (even users, press, and other commentators) is a din that’s hard to cut through.
That said, a lot of this mudslinging comes from a place of genuine concern. Since it’s not uncommon for VPNs that seem great on the surface to later get outed as sketchy, devious, or being straight-up scams.
Without any codified standard for VPNs to follow, it’s up to the community to police and regulate the products available. Companies often seek to build trust with its customers and the community at large by having public-facing CEOs, developers, and/or leadership teams that interface directly with the press and customers, and sometimes this leads to callouts in interviews or clashes on social media.
While it’s not a guaranteed way to sort out the good from the bad, if a company is being routinely called out or questioned, consider investigating their products in more details.
Mainstream VPNs Aren’t Very Good
Let’s not forget that VPNs are products being sold to customers for profit. While this arguably drives innovation and competition, it also means that privacy isn’t always a company’s first priority. This is how you wind up with free “VPNs” that aren’t actually doing anything other than tracking and selling your activity to advertisers.
But it’s not just about profit margins. It’s also about legality.
It’s no secret that VPNs are popular in part because of their promise to hide your location, identity, and browsing data. This makes downloading and distributing pirated content and other illegal activities much easier.
Obviously, companies don’t want to be accused of encouraging criminal behavior. So they normally don’t advertise such use cases.
While some VPNs distance themselves with lipservice, others do so in practice by not obfuscating (and in some cases, tracking and reporting) activity from pirate sites and torrent clients to your ISP or other authorities. Worse, still, is that many VPNs that claim to not track, report, or sell your data may be accidentally leaking it anyway.
Whether purposeful or accidental, this defeats the purpose of a VPN, and raises the question of if these apparent “required” security services are even worth the money.
Annoyingly, it can be difficult for an average user to know whether a VPN is leaking their info. And this is sometimes even overlooked in professional reviews or best-of lists. Fortunately, there are ways you can check.
How Do You Know What to Look For Finding the Best VPN?
Take a look at the list below. Our 8 tips will help you figure out what to look for in a VPN and how to choose the best one.
1. Figure out what you need a VPN for
You’re not going to enter an Apple store and buy the first laptop you see. The same applies to VPNs. If you want a VPN for your entire household, a router-based VPN – or one that allows for multiple simultaneous connections – is what you should look for. If you’re planning on streaming movies online, you need a VPN with high speed, reliable connections, and unlimited bandwidth. Meanwhile, regular travelers who are largely reliant on public Wi-Fi networks need a VPN that offers excellent security and has servers situated all over the world. Once you know what you will be using a VPN for, write down a list of the features that are important to you and those that you can omit. After completing that process, you will have a much easier time deciding what VPN to use.
2. Look at each VPN’s qualities
Every VPN company prioritizes something. It could be speed, it could be encryption, it could be anonymity. So you need to make sure your priorities match theirs. If you want to watch content that is geographically blocked, a VPN that has a reputation to unlock content is a priority. If you are a journalist, or someone else who values their privacy and anonymity, a VPN that does not retain logs and has a secure encryption, should be your priority. It’s also worth checking the security protocol and if the VPN includes a kill-switch feature.
3. Check which devices are compatible
Although most VPNs support the main platforms of Windows, Mac, Android, Linux, and iOS, some VPNs are not available on all platforms. If you have a Windows computer but use an iPhone, then you want to ensure your VPN has a platform and app for both. It’s also a good idea to see how many devices you can connect to at once. Some VPNs allow unlimited devices, while others only let you connect up to three.
4. Find a VPN with a user-friendly interface
The setup and user-interface on a lot of VPNs can be quite complex. So, if you’re not tech savvy and do not want to trouble yourself trying to configure a VPN, it’s important to find one that offers simple procedures and a user-friendly platform. Some VPNs offer a virtual setup. So you never have to lift a finger.
5. Ensure your important locations are covered
The number of servers and locations can be the deciding factor for some VPNs. If you live in a less populated or developed country or are planning to travel or live there for some time, you’ll need a VPN that has servers in that location or nearby. China is renowned for its limited internet service and having a VPN that can effectively tackle their censorship and restrictions is essential if you are going to live or work there.
6. Decide what payment plan you prefer
Payment is always important to consider when looking for a VPN. Prices differ depending on a VPN’s features and subscription length. It is also important how you pay. Some VPNs offer completely anonymous payment systems, like BitCoin, while others allow you to buy gift cards to avoid using personal information. While free VPNs are tempting, we do not recommend you use one. Even if you don’t pay for it with money, you will be paying for it another way, whether that’s with ads, unreliable protection, or bad quality streaming. If the price is an issue, consider using one that offers great discounts and coupons.
7. Look for a VPN with reliable customer service
One of the most overlooked but super important factors of a VPN is if the provider offers 24/7 customer service. VPNs change all the time, and it’s important you can easily contact someone who will help you with whatever problem you face. We prefer VPNs who offer live-chat because emails and tickets can take hours to answer.
8. Make sure it includes a money-back guarantee
A money-back guarantee is a great way to ensure you don’t get stuck with a product you do not want. If you happen to choose a VPN but decide it is not the right one for you, getting out of your contract can be a big issue. Look for a VPN that promises your money back within a specific amount of time. So you are not obligated to stay with one until your contract is up. All of our top VPNs offer a free trial or money-back guarantee.
Don’t be fooled into believing that all VPNs offer the same service. Figuring out what you need a VPN for and deciding what features are important to you will help you choose the best one.
Can VPNs be Fully Trusted?
Unfortunately, due to the nature of the technology, there is no way to know with 100% certainty that a VPN service is not spying on you. While this may seem like an extraordinary statement coming from us given that ProtonMail also operates ProtonVPN, we really feel that it is in the public interest to shed light on the VPN trust issue. ProtonMail can achieve zero knowledge through end-to-end encryption. But it is technically impossible to build a zero knowledge VPN service. In other words, a VPN service may provide security and privacy, but never anonymity.
However, using a VPN is still essential, because while you cannot be 100% certain that a VPN is trustworthy, you can be 100% sure that your ISP is spying on you and recording your browsing history.