How to choose the VPN that’s right for you

There are some things you should know if you’re choosing a VPN for yourself.

First, let’s recap what a VPN is, and why you might use it. A VPN service is a tool that you use to obfuscate your connection from your PC, tablet, or smartphone to the internet.

This is particularly valuable when using your device on a public Wi-Fi hotspot, where your transmissions might otherwise be open and unencrypted — and subject to interception. By running VPN client software on your device, a secure tunnel is created between your device and a VPN server located somewhere on the internet.

Some folks also use a VPN to hide their originating location and IP address. This may be done for very justifiable reasons, such as making sure you can access the internet safely without revealing your location to, say, a stalker or other predator. But it can also be used to falsify your location so you can access something not normally available in your region, like video or sports programming. Doing this, in many locations, is illegal. Unfortunately, many VPN companies actively promote this use, some going so far as to designate some of their servers as particularly optimized for illegal streaming (although they tend to conveniently leave out the word “illegal”).

There are a number of criteria that VPN services use to distinguish themselves from each other. These include:

Trial periods
Number of unique IP addresses
Number of servers
Number of unique countries
Number of simultaneous connections
Devices and apps
Logging and jurisdiction
Kill switch
Each of these may factor less or more into your purchase decision, based on your own personal needs. Let’s take a look a what matters most.

The single most important initial aspect in choosing a VPN service is going to be the length of the trial period. This is sometimes a period where you’re allowed to use the service without being charged, or the period of time where you can use the service and get a refund if you request it.

In any case, it’s the time period you have to get to know whether the service is right for you.

If you heed only one piece of advice in this article, heed this: Do not buy a VPN service until you’ve tested it completely and confirmed it meets your needs. The corollary to that tip is: Make sure you choose a VPN service with a long enough trial period to allow you to fully test the VPN you’re purchasing.

The only real way you can know if a VPN is right for you is for you to test it yourself. That’s why the trial period is so critical, and also why we tend to rate VPN services with longer trial periods higher when we recommend them.

When you look at any list of VPN services, you’ll often see numbers listed that describe the number of servers, IP addresses, locations, and countries. To some degree, you can use this information to gauge the scope of a VPN provider’s network. But the raw numbers might not be as important as you think.

If all you want to do when using your VPN is make sure fellow patrons of the local coffee shop can’t see your Wi-Fi traffic, the number of IP addresses a VPN provider offers doesn’t really matter.

VPN services will sometimes tell you that the number of IP addresses increases your anonymity. That’s because an IP address is less likely to be reused if it’s part of a bigger pool. Of course, smaller services tend to have fewer customers and fewer IP addresses and larger services have more customers and more IP addresses, so the real fact is that you’re just as likely to be using a recently used IP address regardless of the overall IP address pool size promoted by the service.

Number of servers, locations, and countries describe how many exit points there are on the VPN provider’s network. For example, I looked at one vendor that had only two servers in India, while another vendor had nearly 50, across a bunch of cities. If you wanted to present to the internet as though you were on an Indian server, you would probably want to go with the second service.

Fundamentally, you should pay less attention to the number of overall servers, locations, and countries than you should to whether the VPN provider you’re interested in provides a good number of servers in the countries you want to access.

This, again, is why a trial account is valuable. You might not be able to tell how many servers exist in the country you want to connect to until you’ve signed into that account.

My bottom-line recommendation is this: Choose a VPN provider based not on the big numbers, but based on whether you can VPN to the country you want to access. If you want to connect to a Moscow server, it doesn’t matter if the VPN provider has 20,000 locations if they don’t service Russia. It still won’t meet your needs.

This is a different kind of number, and this one is important. Bigger is actually better.

The number of simultaneous connections controls how many devices you can have connected at the same time. If you’re traveling, two or three connections might be enough. When I was traveling across country, I often had my phone, my iPad, and my laptop all connected online through some hotel’s (crappy) Wi-Fi, all at the same time. I needed my VPN service to allow me to do that to get my job done.

But if you use a VPN at home, and if you want to access the internet solely through your VPN service, you may want more connections. Or you might not. It depends on how you access the internet and whether you use a VPN in your router. That’s next.

Nearly all VPN services have client software for Macs, Windows PCs, Android phones, and iOS devices. Many, but not all, have client software for Linux users. And some have client capabilities for set-top boxes and routers.

If you’re at home and you want all your outgoing and incoming traffic to go through the VPN (say, for example, to hide from an ISP that might otherwise serve you customized ads now that net neutrality has been neutered), you might want a VPN service that works with your home router.

Be aware, though, that once you move away from the main four platforms, support can be inconsistent and may require a rather high level of technical knowledge. You might need to install special software, edit settings, modify conf files, and more.

Some VPNs offer more than just basic VPN services through their apps. Some add additional security features. You’ll need to look at each VPN provider’s offering to tell which add-on features might meet your needs.

If you think that Mac vs. PC or Kirk vs. Picard might spark a religious war, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Get a bunch of protocol nerds arguing about which VPN protocols is best and you’ll see some fur flying.

The fact is, some communications protocols provide better security and protection than others. Some are older and have been broken by hackers. Generally, VPN providers provide protocols that are reasonably secure for their customers and you can, mostly, go with the default provided protocol.

If you’re a total VPN nerd or you’re legitimately concerned about being tracked, then an article like this won’t help. You’ll need to do some deep research into the various protocols and make a decision based on your personal needs.

My advice: if you’re using VPNs to protect you from a life-and-death threat, you need to dig deep to learn a lot more than one article will tell you. In fact, you probably want to build some of your own tunneling underneath anything a commercial VPN provider can offer.

In other words, if you’re hiding from a nation-state kill squad, a three buck a month VPN service should not be your first line of defense.

There are generally two types of information logged by VPN vendors. Detailed surfing information and basic connection and billing information.

You don’t want to sign up to any VPN vendor that logs detailed surfing information. Usually people are concerned about this because the availability of logs means a government can request surfing data, but another risk is that companies that log this information might also sell it for marketing purposes.

Of course, just because a vendor claims it doesn’t log doesn’t mean that’s the truth. The fact is, I haven’t found one single VPN vendor that is independently audited by any trusted verification organization. So, for every VPN vendor, you’re just trusting what they say.

One of my editors asked me, “Okay then, if you can’t trust them, should this even be a criterion for selecting a VPN?” First, it’s not that you can’t trust VPN providers, it’s that there’s no independent verification of claims. Many VPN providers have a lot of satisfied users. Do some web searches on the company you’re considering. If you find a lot of user bile or security rants, you know you need to consider another vendor.

As for whether jurisdiction and logging should be a selection criterion, the answer is yes. Just not the only one. Factor it into your decision, certainly, but you should probably have other factors you consider as well.

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