Well, with the outburst of VPN services in the market, it’s in your best interest to perform a thorough research before narrowing down on a VPN service. And for that you do require a checklist. Of course you can buy one without following this checklist, but you may end up choosing the wrong one. The best VPNs offer a balance of features, speed, reliability, choice of location, privacy and being decently priced at the same time. Some VPNs provide basic privacy & security which are good for everyday use while some others enable you to conceal your real location and choose a location of your choice allowing you to access location-specific services like NetFlix, Google Play Music & BBC iPlayer while some others are of great help to those who download a lot and want some privacy while they do it. So to be free of regrets and choose the right VPN that actually meets your requirements, go through the following points before you buy that VPN you have in mind.
Several online services impose location-based restrictions, like the highly popular media streaming site Netflix which is available only in select countries namely USA, UK, New Zealand, Australia & some parts of Europe. If you try accessing them from other locations, they display a message that their service is not available in your area. It’s not the only site imposing location-based restrictions. A few other sites which impose similar restrictions are BBC, Hulu & a few shopping sites. One way is to find an alternate service, but again that may not work out always. And that’s where network spread is an important factor. It’s extremely important to check the number of servers your VPN provider has and which locations does it cover.
So if you wish to tackle location restriction and watch live TV in the US you need to make sure that your VPN provider has a server there else you’ll never be able to get through the location restriction. Similar if you wish to shop from a China based site which is accessible only in China, but you still want to shop from US, you need to make sure that the VPN you choose has a server in China to tackle the location restriction imposed by that site. We’ve all heard of instances when an ISP has leaked usage details of an user to the government. If that worries you and if you care about your privacy, you need to choose a server outside your home country.
Thus by network spread I don’t only mean the number of servers a VPN has, but also where are they located. Having 10 servers in US doesn’t matter if you wish to access a UK based website. So by network spread, I also want you to check which locations your VPN covers. Most VPNs offer worldwide coverage, but before choosing one, it’s always a good idea to check if the VPN provider has servers available in multiple locations or at least the locations you are interested in.
When searching for a VPN, it’s common to come across terms like SSTP, SSL, TSL, OpenVPN, PPTP, L2TP, IPSec and others, but which one should you go for? All of these protocols work in the background and the end-user is anyways unaware of them unless he has chosen one of them specifically. All of the above protocols are secure. SSL is the one commonly used these days which also is marketed as OpenVPN. So in general you shouldn’t be worried about which protocol is available since most of them offer secure communication.
However if you insist, always look for OpenVPN support since it’s considered as more secure compared to the rest. PPTP has several vulnerabilities where as L2TP is no longer secure as it used to be. SSTP offers everything that’s on offer by OpenVPN, but works only in the Windows environment making it useless if you’re on a different platform. So the goto protocol still remains OpenVPN. However, business users may want to consider IPSec or SSL clients for that extra bit of protection.
When you use a VPN, you basically trust it with your data which includes your email ids, your passwords, your credit card information which you may enter while shopping online, the stuff you download, etc. So it’s important that you go through the provider’s logging policy before choosing it. Your connection may be secure from hackers and phishers, but your provider however may have access to your information and on several instances may log your location, your data, which sites your visit, what you download, what you view which is pretty much everything.
VPNs in several countries are bound by government restrictions where they’re forced to maintain logs and if requested by the government, they have to provide it to them. If you don’t want to be logged, you better read the logging policy of a VPN provider thoroughly. VPNs with ‘no logging policy’ are generally termed good. I believe every VPN provider should offer a zero-logs policy because the primary reason people use a VPN is to prevent their personal data from being exposed or leaked.
Most of us use multiple devices and I’m sure you wouldn’t want to buy multiple VPNs just to enjoy a consistent connectivity on all your devices. And for the very same reason, to enjoy a consistent experience on multiple devices, before you finalize on a VPN make sure it’s available for the platforms your devices work on.
Most VPNs work on all the three – Mac, Windows & Linux where as some some VPNs in addition to those, also offer support for iOS, Android & Windows phone. Though the platforms needed vary from person to person, in general your VPN should work on majority of platforms. Being a Windows & an Android user, I always look for VPNs which offer a client that works on Windows & an app that works on my Android. So if you’re an iPhone user, you might want to make sure the VPN you choose has an iPhone app. Similarly the clients you require may vary with the devices you plan to use with the VPN.
If you plan to use multiple devices over VPN, you should also find out if the provider supports your router. A few VPNs that I know support Tomato router or the DDWRT router. So find out if yours is supported by the VPN you plan to buy.
Anti-Malware / Anti-Spyware Features
Using a VPN assures you of privacy and security, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be untouched by spyware or malware. Even if you’re using the best VPN, you may be vulnerable to malware. Very few VPNs provide anti-malware and anti-spyware features and you probably don’t need one if you already have a good antivirus installed on your computer.
It’s a different scenario altogether if you’re a mobile phone user. If you are one, you might want to give a VPN with anti-malware and anti-spyware support a try since antivirus for mobile phones don’t work very well and it’s recommended that you use a VPN which keeps malware & spyware at bay without you having to take extra precautionary steps.
In either case, always visit sites that use the https protocol. This doesn’t apply to blogs and informational sites since majority of them don’t consider using https because there’s hardly any personal data to leak. But never use a site without https in the URL where you enter your personal details like your credit card information ex. shopping sites, web services where money is involved, etc.
Speed & Reliability
Who’d want to buy a VPN with slow speeds and servers going on and off randomly? Thus it’s very important that you choose a fast VPN, probably the one where you’re able to max your internet connection. In the past I’ve come across VPNs where I couldn’t max out my internet speed. I always saw a considerable drop in the speed when I browsed the web or streamed content over the VPN. A slight drop in speed is normal.
Along with speed, it’s equally important for a VPN to provide reliable connectivity. It’s frustrating to use a VPN which connects and disconnects every few minutes causing interruptions and constant buffering if you’re streaming something online. Thus you should make sure that the VPN you choose provides reliable connectivity. A VPN with reliable connectivity usually has multiple servers in areas of your interest which are not loaded to capacity.
If you plan to use VPN for downloading torrents or streaming media, you should carefully go through the provider’s policy on bandwidth and make sure there are no limits on how much you can download or upload. If there’s a bandwidth limit, make sure it’s well above what you think you will use. Another workaround is to ditch that provider and search for some other service. There are several providers out there that provide unlimited data usage i.e. they don’t measure how much you download or upload. It’s generally more secure to use a VPN without an upper-limit on bandwidth since such a provider usually believes in a zero logs policy.
I’m sure most of you plan to use VPN on multiple devices and I’m equally sure that you might want to access internet simultaneously from 2 or more of your devices and that’s why you should find out if the VPN you think of using allows you to simultaneously connect and use multiple devices.
Most VPNs allow you to connect multiple devices simultaneously where as some impose a maximum limit to the number of devices that can be simultaneously connected to the VPN. Make sure this number is high enough to enjoy uninterrupted connectivity on all your devices without having to buy another membership. Also note that some providers also charge a nominal fee if you plan to use more than one device, so make sure you completely read their policy on this.
To prevent your system from unauthorized access, it’s recommended that you use a firewall. You can either set up a firewall on your computer or go with a VPN that offers built-in firewall support. Very few providers offer a built-in firewall and in my opinion you don’t even need a VPN with firewall if you properly set up firewall on your computer.
Few VPN providers offer firewall at an added cost, but I don’t think you need it. If you’ve two VPNs that offer the same features & cost the same except that one of them offers a firewall, only then should you go for a VPN with a firewall. IPVanish is one VPN I’ve come across that offers a free NAT firewall.
Freedom of Choosing IP
It’s normal for your IP to be blocked by some sites. In such situations you may want to change your IP address. Thus you should make sure that your provider allows you to change your IP address whenever you want. The ability to change your IP address proves helpful especially for those involved in online marketing and systems running complex software where your IP is constantly used to access some online API and it gets blocked. I’ve this friend of mine who constantly runs some software on his computer that results his IP address getting banned by Google. A VPN with support to change your IP address at your will comes to his rescue. A few VPNs also provide an option to automatically change your IP address at regular intervals. You should give them a try too.
Further if you’re more of a dedicated IP kinda guy, you should see to it that the VPN service provides you with a dedicated IP address. Very few do. Some even offer a dedicated IP as an add-on for a small price. So before choosing a VPN make sure you’re ready to pay that extra bit for a dedicated IP if it comes as an add-on.
Performance, reliability, features are important, but you cannot completely neglect the support part of your VPN. Most of the providers fail when it comes to providing support. Some of them take ages to reply while some others don’t have proper guides to set up their VPN while some others offer support only via a single channel.
It’s recommended that you choose a service that offers support on multiple platforms. I usually go with services that offer email or phone support and are also active on Twitter of Facebook. An option to live chat with the customer service team makes my day. Make sure that the live chat option allows you to talk to their support team and not only to their sales team. I’ve seen services which guarantee live chat support but when you reach them, they kindly ask you to email them for support. You wouldn’t want to fall in such a situation.
You thought I missed it? No ways. The first question that comes to anyone’s mind while buying something is that “How much does it cost?” You should generally go for a decently priced VPN and avoid spending a hefty amount for features you don’t need. You should also look for deals that come every now and then. A good VPN generally costs between 6-7 dollars a month without discounts. With discounts that price may lower to somewhere around $4 or 5.
Should you use a free VPN? – A BIG NO! Never go for a free VPN. Why do you need a VPN in the first place? To maintain privacy and security right? A free VPN doesn’t entitle you to that. They defeat the purpose of using a VPN by not offering proper privacy and security. A free VPN might leak your data to the government or third party. In addition to that, they may show you ads that you may not like. Who likes to be bugged by ads after all? But they have to make money somehow. Also a free VPN doesn’t offer proper security and privacy and at times you may even notice slow browsing or streaming speeds. And you cannot complain because they come for free.