The Ultimate VPN Guide

VPN basics

A VPN (or Virtual Private Network, when it goes by its full name) is one of those terms that get increasingly more mentions as online security and privacy come under scrutiny.

It seems that many see a VPN service as the go-to solution whenever they feel their online activities are not quite private (or at least, not as private as they’d like them to be). Additionally, a VPN is a fierce tool when it comes to accessing restricted websites and media that are off-limits for a variety of reasons (government censorship, geographic restrictions, copyright regulations, etc) without as much as batting an eyelash, as well as preventing your ISP (Internet Service Provider) from throttling your speed based on usage (it happens).

Sounds neat, right? In this guide of a badass variety, you’ll learn what exactly a VPN is, how it can help you, and basically anything and everything else you need to know when it comes to VPNs: we have the scoop for you.

In a nutshell, VPN acts as a safe passage for your traffic (any type of online activity - browsing, streaming, downloading, etc.). It routes your traffic through a VPN server in a specific location of your choosing that spoofs your location (IP address) and assigns the location of that VPN server. Here’s what that looks like:

Establishing a connection is super easy. You first connect to the Internet through your ISP, then initiate a VPN connection to the provider’s VPN server by using their software (after you download it, of course), be it desktop or mobile. The (VPN) client software establishes a connection to the server of your choice, grants you access and you’re all set and ready. In the process, a VPN encrypts the traffic and thus provides an extra layer of protection, whether it’s traffic over your private home network or public Wi-Fi network, so your data stays away from prying eyes.

Who can use a VPN

Anyone, anywhere because it’s really simple to use and both mobile and desktop platforms are covered with this technology. Whether you’re working at home or on the road, or traveling around and want to connect in a secure fashion using the Internet, you’re literally only a few clicks away from a secure and private connection as most VPN providers offer a simple one-click interface.

Those would be some entry points on how a VPN service works. Let’s talk a bit about different VPN elements and what they mean to you.

How reliable is a VPN?

From the connection standpoint, VPNs are reliable for the most part, depending on what type of service you go for. That would largely depend on if the service is free or paid. We explore this further in more detail here but the summary is this: paid VPNs are more reliable because they simply provide a more complete service (and they have everything to lose). With that in mind, the major difference here is how the network operates, commonly differentiated by three tier levels.

  • 1A tier 1 network is that of a company whose entire infrastructure (hardware and software) is run and managed by themselves, almost guaranteeing a stable and reliable connection with 99.99% uptime (there’s always that 0.01% for legal reasons). That means it can reach every network online directly without having to transit (exchange traffic) and has better peering arrangements (data prioritization, traffic routing between carriers/countries, etc.). As such, the status is usually used to advocate good network speed and stability.
  • 2On the other hand, a tier 2 network rents some of the bandwidth and network from a tier 1 network in order to reach a portion of the Internet, which slightly affects speed.
  • 3Tier 3 networks follow the same footsteps, only renting a bigger portion of that sweet online world. This would, in theory, suggest such VPNs are a bit more congested in terms of traffic fluidity.

However, the entire process is done behind the scenes, and the end-user experience is smooth if well optimized, which is almost always the case with the best of the VPN crop, regardless of their tier. Additionally, there are certain features that keep the integrity of your VPN experience intact (more about them later on) so all in all, using a VPN is quite reliable, provided you choose the right one (we also cover that later on).

Benefits of using a VPN

There are numerous benefits of using a VPN service. For the better part, security and privacy are the two primary reasons why the majority of online users opt for an additional piece of software in their daily online activities. With news of email and cloud storage breaches popping out every so often, the potential to be compromised is high. Thankfully, a VPN with its robust encryption and security features allows users to reclaim their peace of mind when staying connected online.

But that’s not all. “Unlocking” the full Internet content-wise in somes instances is a huge boon. Because a VPN encapsulates your Internet connection and comes pre-configured, it makes the software that much desirable and easy to implement in various instances, such as:

Securing your data when using public Wi-Fi

If you started counting every single time you connected to a public wireless network and inadvertently used it for sending and receiving even the slightest private data, our guess is it would be a very large number. In today’s modern age, being connected is often a necessity, and free public Wi-Fi plays a major role, especially when out and about, as it won’t drill through your data plan.

Yet, public Wi-Fi comes with its own set of threats, from numerous scams via fake wireless connections to malware infestation and everything in between, the risk of getting hacked and taken for a ride is pretty high. However, a VPN can easily help protect you against all the hazards that can try to reach your precious data.

Avoiding censorship when traveling to oppressive regimes

For the most part, censorship is tied to the oppressive governments in some countries that impose restrictions on content they deem sensitive or offensive. Apart from websites with gambling and sexual subject matter, social media is routinely placed on the no-go list, which makes outside communication difficult, and prevents access to online properties you take as read. Whether you’re traveling to such places either as a tourist or on business, you’re subject to these local online “regulations” so a VPN could provide you unobstructed access to freely browse the web and communicate as intended.

Bypassing geo-blocking restriction (hello Netflix, Hulu, etc)

The restrictions are almost universally tied to accessing blocked content on streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu, BBC, and alike that are increasingly implementing geo-blocking to boost their revenue. A VPN allows you to jump over virtual fences and access any content you want by turning your IP address to appear in a non-restricted area.

Bypassing specific location restriction (schools, workplaces etc)

Restrictions are also often imposed at certain locations, such as schools, universities, libraries, and even workplaces that offer a partially blocked Internet access. Sometimes, it’s about not being able to access social platforms in your downtime, other times you cannot access some websites for research purposes or check your personal mail. With a VPN, you can navigate around these obstacles and gain access to the full Internet without any irrational restrictions.

Disclaimer:

Just to make things clear, we are in no way encouraging you to fight state-sponsored censorship and bypass various restrictions and blocks (or torrenting, the next entry). These limitations exist for different reasons, no matter how oppressive, profit-driven, or silly they may seem, and those reasons are legit under proper regulation. Bypassing them carries the risk to you (anything from workplace suspension to serious legal action) so it’s your job to act responsibly. Here at WizCase, we are staunch supporters of online freedom and privacy, providing you necessary information and tools we think everyone should have access to. Whether you use it in any shape or form is solely up to you.

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Safe torrenting

Not every VPN allows torrenting but the ones that do can help you by unblocking torrent sites. The issue with torrents is that not everyone downloads legally so many countries block torrenting sites (hence our disclaimer above). The common misconception here is that torrenting is illegal - it isn’t. Once more, it’s about the content: downloading copyright material is illegal. A VPN can successfully conceal your activity and switch your geolocation to a torrenting-approved country and allow you safe P2P downloads.

Securing communications

These days, online communication comes in different forms. You have old school text-based emails, web-based chats, cross-platform messaging services, VoIP services - the whole shebang. However, not all are encrypted and as such, are open to interception by a malicious third party that can extract and exploit sensitive information. This also entails businesses and organizations as much as individual users, especially if there are some corporate secrets in play. By sending communication through a VPN service, you beef up on security with encryption, making it that much harder for any intrusive elements to decrypt the content and gain access.

Online gaming

While not something that immediately pops on one’s mind when thinking about VPN services, pairing online gaming and a VPN actually makes a lot of sense. On paper, it might seem like a feeble idea: a VPN service can affect your performance and raise your ping time through the roof. On the other hand, it can protect you against unwanted attention of hackers in numerous ways. First, there’s the matter of anonymity, where your sensitive information (both gaming and finance-related) stays private. Second, it offers protection against DDoS attack, a fairly popular method even for gaming standards, where the competitive factor compels obsessed gamers to gain an advantage by any means necessary, including bombarding the victim with incoming traffic that results in a crash of service. Finally, a VPN can also be used to defeat gaming geo-blocking restrictions, where users can access a faster gaming server or region-based library.

Stop leaving tracks online

A VPN has the power to stop businesses and services from tracking your digital footprint in practically everything you do. Examples can be seen everywhere: Google, the omnipresent search engine company, bases a good chunk of its business model around advertising, which means knowing its users as much as possible. Whether you find that useful, mildly interesting or downright invasive, the truth is that Google knows who you are, where you are, and then some. By using a VPN, you can mitigate the effect by masking your digital whereabouts and activities.

Get the best prices for online shopping (no geo restrictions)

As a more tangible example, take a look at location-based price targeting. The practice of adjusting price tags according to your geolocation tends to leave us, the end users, on the short end of the stick. Why should you pay extra under the false pretenses of “local competition”, “price equality”, and whatever else these businesses throw at you? A good VPN can be an effective cloak in these circumstances and can level the playing field by changing your real-world location with the VPN one, so the online shopping site will think everything is ok in that area.

Let’s talk a bit about different VPN elements and their role in all of this.

There are a lot of components we look at when comparing a VPN, but in general terms, we look at the number and types of features, how easy it is to download and use, how reliable the service is and how effective the customer support is, and if the price matches the service.

The different VPN elements and what they mean to you

Browse through a number of VPN vendors’ websites and you’ll come across statements such as “the world’s fastest VPN” (this one comes almost by default) and “our network consists of 1,000+ servers in 100 locations, easy-to-use apps with 256-bit AES encryption, OpenVPN support, unlimited server switching...”, and so on. Sometimes, there’s every available feature included in the service’s overview, making it all too confusing to know what’s important, what’s really important and how much that matters to you. We’ll try to break down each element:

  • Speed
  • Server Coverage (Network Size)
  • Ease of Use
  • Encryption Type
  • Security Protocols

Speed

While not exactly a tangible element, speed is one of the core elements of a VPN service and something that every vendor makes a claim for: theirs is the best, they are the fastest. Short of reading reviews online, this is something you can test for yourself either through free plans or trials (if available) or through money-back guarantees that acts as a sort of trial. If you’re not into P2P or 4K streaming and just want a secure environment to access data, then “the fastest connection speeds in the industry” likely won’t interest you that much.

Server Coverage (Network Size)

What will interest you is the server coverage or as some like to put it: the size of the network. It’s usually quantified with a number of physical servers the VPN provider offers. The more, the merrier but there is an important distinction to be made here: there can be one server and more in a single server location. That means that if there are “1,000+ servers in 100 locations”, some locations have more than one. Often, a VPN vendor will throw in the number of countries their servers occupy, which differs from the number of locations.

For example, let’s say you want to access Hulu, a streaming service that’s available only in the USA and Japan, and watch that TV show everyone’s raving about. If there are “1000+ servers in 100 countries”, you only care about the number of servers located in the USA and Japan as connecting to those servers will make it look like you’re connecting from those countries and unlock access to the streaming service. Just so that we’re clear: there’s no minimal recommended number of servers - one is enough to grant you access. The more there are, the more choice you have for a faster connection by choosing those with reasonable server load.

Ease of Use

Easy-to-use apps(they’re always easy-to-use, another default statement) relates to the provided software for various operating systems and devices, including browser extensions and firmware for routers. The idea is to download the native VPN app according to your OS/device, install, sign in, and start using it. Every decent VPN vendor has its own custom software for all the major platforms, accompanied with manual setup instructions for the rest.

Encryption Type

256-bit AES/AES-256 encryption is one type of encryption VPN providers use to secure your data. First, let’s explain what encryption is: it’s the process of encoding information that prevents unauthorized parties such as your ISP or third-party services to access it. VPN encryption is based on implementing advanced mathematical algorithms, which is where the 256-bit, AES, and similar prefixes refer to. Encryption can be quite complicated, just as the computing behind it so we’ll try to keep it simple and not stray away too much into techno jargon.

256-bit refers to the key used for both encrypting and decrypting the data, meaning 2^256or 1.1 x 〖10〗^77possible combinations (way too many for a brute-force attack to work). AES (Advanced Encryption Standard) is a type of symmetric encryption system adopted worldwide, including the US government (so you know it’s good to go), that has three key sizes: 128, 192 or 256 bits. Other encryption systems often used by VPNs are Blowfish and the asymmetrical RSA (Rivest–Shamir–Adleman) that uses 1,024-bit to 4,096-bit key sizes, with 3072-bit RSA keys equivalent to 128-bit AES keys. Fun fact: the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) requires 256-bit AES keys for data classified up to ‘top secret’ status.

According to the U.S. National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) key management guidelines, here are the strength equivalents of symmetric and asymmetric keys:

Unless you think the government is after you (far be it for us to judge), the bottom line is this: VPN encryption is inherently secure with the math behind it really strong and complex in computational terms so you have no worries there.

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Security Protocols

OpenVPN is one of the security protocols commonly used by VPNs to protect data that passes through the VPN server, along with PPTP, L2TP, SSTP, and IKEv2. Different types of protocols are used for different purposes but generally speaking, OpenVPN is the most secure protocol out there, largely due to its open-source nature that delivers the best combination of speed, security, and reliability. As such, it’s widely used for both desktop and mobile platforms by default and is more than sufficient for your everyday VPN needs. Here’s a good ole’ pros/cons breakdown:

For a more detailed breakdown or VPN protocols, check out this blog post.
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Important features to look out for

Apart from its core elements, VPN offers a wide array of useful features that make for a complete user experience. Some of these you can live without and save money along the way, but some are absolutely essential, such as:

Unlimited bandwidth/data/server switching

You want full speed at all times and that’s what unlimited bandwidth propagates: no limitations whatsoever, although a great deal of available speeds depends on the specific server’s load (information that’s usually available through the VPN client or the provider’s website).

Unlimited data means there is no cap to your usage, as found on many free plans some VPN providers offer. While there are many things you can do with 2GB of data per month, for instance, the truth is it’ll run out sooner than you think, especially if you opt to stream a video or two. VPNs usually offer unlimited data and bandwidth as part of their price plans and it’s best to look out for such services so you don’t have to worry about the amount of your streaming, browsing, posting and such.

As for unlimited server switches, that’s also a relatively standard option with any decent VPN that’s focused on client satisfaction and not profit. It pertains to the number of VPN servers you can connect to during a session so you don’t have to settle for a slow server. No “first come, first served” principle.

Split tunneling

VPN split tunneling is a neat option for those who like to use the encrypted traffic for a portion of their online activity as it allows routing some traffic through a VPN and the rest directly to the world wide web. This is handy for protecting one aspect of your online activity (i.e. browsing) while maintaining access to local network and its devices (say, using web services from local IPs or a network printer).

Simultaneous connections

Not quite a feature you can turn on and off but still worth mentioning, one subscription usually covers a finite number of devices you can connect to the VPN server at the same time. This is important if you’re bent on using the VPN on more than just your PC and/or mobile. Depending on the provider, the number of allowed simultaneous connections varies, with some (albeit rarely) offering unlimited connections.

DNS

Domain Name System or DNS is the crucial part of how the Internet works. It’s the process of locating and translating Internet domain names into IP addresses. Typically, DNS servers are assigned by your ISP, meaning they can easily monitor and record your online activities. With a VPN in play (as is the case with almost every VPN), the DNS request is directed to an anonymous DNS server through the VPN, as opposed to going straight from your browser, for instance. This keeps your connection safe from ISP monitoring. Whenever you see a VPN using its own DNS solution, it usually means no third-party involvement (no data logging) and no DNS blocking or filtering (sometimes covered by encryption, too).

You’ll often encounter the Smart DNS term, which refers to the use of a specific DNS server which accesses websites and services that are not available due to restrictions. In short, that’s the VPN’s way of telling you that they have the means to bypass geo and content restrictions, which is no small feat.

DNS leak protection

VPNs are great for masking or changing your IP address, but for both security and privacy reasons, it's vital to know that when VPN connection is in motion, your identity is protected at all times. Sometimes, your browser might ignore your VPN and your DNS requests and route them right to your ISP. A DNS leak protection (usually a part of any respectable VPN service by default) makes sure that these requests go through the VPN. Essentially, a few lines of code that make sure you stay “hidden” at all times.

Kill switch

Sounding more sinister than it really is, a kill switch has become a must-have feature for almost every VPN. This critical piece of software ingenuity has one goal in mind: to prevent your connection from accidental exposure, should such occur. That’s a major reason why VPNs have perceived reliability issues, yet a kill switch successfully soothes this pain point by automatically shutting down your Internet access when the connection to a VPN server gets broken by any means. If or when a connection fails, your IP address is left exposed for various trackers so by applying a kill switch, no data is processed on your devices and your online presence stays protected.

NAT Firewall

More of an optional extra than a standard package, a NAT (Network Address Translation) Firewall is one of those technologies designed to keep you safe. Without going too much into its finer nuances, we’ll just say a NAT firewall can be considered that first line of defense against malicious attacks (you still need your antivirus software) as it stops prying eyes before they reach your device, arguably the only true protection of keeping your data yours.

Now, you may wonder if you really need it since most operating systems come with a built-in firewall solution. These aren’t that much swish and are a less safe option compared to the NAT counterpart. Also, NAT firewalls are extremely useful for mobile devices and other non-PC devices that don’t inherently run firewalls, leaving them exposed to hackers. NAT firewalls can easily protect this type of hardware without the need to install additional software.

Shared and dedicated IP address

When you connect to a VPN server, you typically get a shared IP address, meaning yourself and several different clients or devices within a network are using it. The major advantage here is anonymity, as your online activities cannot be tied back to you when there are multiple users connected to this IP address. One major drawback here is the very real possibility of getting blocked or blacklisted because of illegal actions by other users. That’s why a dedicated IP address costs more (you’ll find it usually as a payable add-on) as it grants you complete control and offers better performance because servers don’t have that extra work to differentiate traffic for different clients and devices.

Those would be some of the most important VPN, features you should really know about. For a complete glossary.

It’s also worth noting a few reasons why a VPN isn't perfect.

Concerns

For the uninitiated ones, the mere legality is the first and foremost concern when the topic of VPNs pops out. As we’ve explained so far, there really isn’t anything illegal about using a VPN (except maybe in a few countries): it’s the content that’s under the spotlight.

Once you get past that notion, VPNs do pose some concern, primarily in the privacy region. In the VPN world, there’s a little something called a “no logs policy” which refers to the amount of data a VPN provider collects (or doesn’t). The term has become something of a staple in the industry, covering the overall amount of data collected by the provider. You’ll usually find it listed at the “Features” page or in the features list as that is one of the X factors for many potential VPN users. But what does “no logs” really mean and can you trust that VPN services will deliver on their promise? Here’s the deal.

Even though they say they don’t, almost all VPNs log some amount of data. It’s important to understand that not all data can incriminate you. In that regard, you have two main types of logs:

  • Connection logs
  • Usage logs

Connection logs pertain to metadata records such as your incoming and outgoing IP address, duration of a connection, timestamp, VPN server(s) you connected to, the total amount of data used, and so on. On its own, there’s nothing here that can point the finger back at you so some VPNs keep minimal connection logs, with the exact length detailed in their privacy policy (hopefully). The justification for storing this information is usually based on the coping with the technical issues and keeping users honest by preventing abuse.

As a privacy-minded user, you should worry far more about usage logs, also known as session logging. This data is more invasive, offering a better view of what a user is actually up to like exact IP addresses, browsing history, files downloaded, connection times, and such - basically all the data beyond simple metadata records.

The silver lining here is that any VPN service worth its sales doesn’t keep usage logs. Those that dabble in extensive logging are usually freebies, although not all of them come with serious limitations.

Consider this: if you’re not paying for it - you’re the product.

However, there are no sure-fire ways to figure out what a VPN provider keeps. Most likely, some information is stored, even if it’s the smallest amount of connection logs. There’s no way to know if what’s written in their policies (however detailed and forthcoming it may be) corresponds to what really happens behind the scenes. Sure, you can take their word for it, but the “no logs” policy more often than not doesn’t live up to its name.

If you need another perspective on this matter, here’s one: trusting a VPN provider with your data compared to the alternative (your ISP) should be the smarter choice, if only for the fact that a VPN has a general interest in protecting your privacy whereas an ISP couldn’t care less.

In some cases, a VPN may not be enough for care-free browsing, streaming, and such due to VPN blocks. Some websites and services have found a way to detect when a VPN is being used to access them. In turn, they have developed and implemented VPN blocks to deny access to unwanted users. It’s a constant game of cat and mouse: VPNs are finding new ways to bypass these blocks while the other side is constantly on the prowl for traces of VPN usage.

Another instance where VPN prove less than ideal is IP spoofing and blacklisting.

Because a VPN masks your real IP and replaces it with its own, it adds a public element to it, making IP spoofing simpler. We’ve briefly touched upon this issue when talking about the shared IP address: there’s an unknown number of users along with yourself, perusing the same IP address. Their activities may cause it to be blacklisted, thus denying access to specific websites and services. It’s a major inconvenience when you have your VPN software and you have to take it down to access a site that's blocking you. However, VPN providers are generally very careful and active about checking their IP addresses against blacklists, so the chances of this being an issue are not that great, but still viable.

Then, there’s the speed-downgrading issue that affects your performance. By its nature, a VPN “rides” on your existing connection, adding an extra strain on your speeds because of the additional traffic routing and encrypting via the VPN tunnel. It’s a trade-off that many users reluctantly accept, especially because both download and upload speeds tend to fluctuate with a VPN in the mix. This encryption and decryption process does take some time and has the potential to degrade the performance of your connection. Additionally, factor in distance between you, the VPN server and the server of the website you are connecting to - the greater the distance, the slower your connection will likely become. Still, a well-optimized network, particularly one that is owning and managing its own network, can minimize the effect and in some cases, even improve your connection.

  • VPN Blocks
  • Speed-downgrading

Free vs paid VPN: why paying makes sense

We’ve already touched upon this topic, now it’s time to get down to the nitty-gritty. Everybody loves free stuff: that’s a fact. Yet, in this case, free is not necessarily better because there’s much more at stake here than keeping a small amount of money in your pocket. Free VPNs, ones that open the door to their service without no visible cost to you, certainly do sound appealing: you get a decent level of protection and anonymity for zero {insert your currency}. On the other hand, some VPNs offer almost the same level of service for a certain price, money you could always use elsewhere. On a basis where the price tag is the main (and only) differentiator, it’s pretty obvious which option wins the round. However, is that all there is regarding this dilemma?

No. Far from it. If the price is your main issue, consider this: you get what you pay for. There are number of reasons why there’s more than meets the eye when it comes to free VPNs. Perhaps the two crucial ones are the tenets of a VPN: security and privacy.

The majority of totally free VPNs offer only a handful of security protocols, and in most cases, that’s PPTP. We’ve already established it’s fast but outdated and not quite secure so your options are restricted and security lax compared to multiple protocol support and, sometimes, better encryption (freebies likely have a 128-bit encryption). Privacy-wise, free VPNs are notorious for heavy logging, keeping a thorough track of your activities. Basically everything you do (the websites you visit, when, time spent, and so on) is collected in the same manner the ISPs do for one reason: so your data can be sold to third-party organizations that can use it for targeted advertising and whatnot. Even free VPNs have to live of something and collecting and selling user data provides the funds needed to continue operating.

That’s why even the seemingly major advantage of free VPNs - total anonymity (usually sign up isn’t required and if it is, email or other easily faked information is enough) is all that great. Yes, you’re anonymous because there’s no paper trail leading to your identity, but you’re also “anonymous” because you are being tracked and your IP address is logged. Also, there’s a real possibility you might be bombarded with ads (another way of generating funds) that’s not a big deal on its own, but the filtering is questionable and you could end up being served ads that might result in malware sneaking in.

There are all sorts of nefarious stories about free VPNs that is hard to gauge how much sense truth there is in messing with them. For instance, Private Internet Access (PIA), one of our top choices, claims free VPNs use your computer and sell your bandwidth to others. This slows down your computer because your bandwidth and processors are actually being used by someone other than you. In addition, you could be held legally liable for the content of their actions if someone is involved in illegal activities.

That is pretty scary on its own but here’s where things turn from “Silence Of The Lamb” scary to “Insidious” scary and beyond. It’s one thing to know there are certain dangers lurking out there but the majority of free users are blissfully unaware that their bandwidth is being resold or used by other users. Even if the privacy policy is totally upfront about it (which almost isn’t the case at all), average and below-average users don’t concern themselves about it that much (hey, it’s free!). In addition, certain software vulnerabilities come with the territory (because you don’t get the quality build or security of a premium VPN service), which could allow attackers to deliver malware.

What is definitely true is that using a free VPN can be easily summarized in two words: limited experience. You get only a few locations and IP addresses on offer, and why should you? Free services have to make due somehow and the cost of paying for server and bandwidth fees are too great. That also means these free servers are crowded with other users, leading to slower speeds, restricted availability and often times, limited cap usage. Bandwidth comes at a price and it’s not cheap to provide a VPN server for hundreds or even thousands of users at the same time, something that’s a cornerstone of a paid VPN service.

The paid VPN model also has the customer support on your side, an important aspect in case anything goes wrong (or you just might have a question or two to clarify things), not to mention that multi-device support and much-needed features like a kill switch or a DNS leak protection are routinely included - all the things free offerings lack.

Before we head on to dissecting how to choose the right VPN, let’s just quickly explain the difference between a free VPN and a free plan. There are reputable VPNs that offer a free plan as a part of their paid service. Almost by default, these include a limit on the monthly data allowance, the number of available servers and simultaneous connections, and some other stuff, depending on how badly the VPN wants you to get a taste of their service. The point of these free plans is to get a glimpse of how things work before you start paying. They usually include all the necessities like tight security and favorable privacy for all the major platforms, you just get a limited amount of data to test it out. Here’s a comparison table of our top 3 free VPNs that are both reliable and trustworthy.

TunnelBear is the go-to option for VPN beginners who want as much of everything, considering its free. The native software has quite a simple design but does come with a few solid features, including a GhostBear option that attempts to defeat VPN and Auto Tunnel that picks the quickest possible connection. You also get good security and privacy and but the 1.5GB limit is barely enough for basic browsing. Our second top choice is hide.me. The service offers a wide range of clients and a 2GB limit on data usage each month. There aren’t really any advanced features that come with the free offering and you only get 3 servers and locations. Windscribe rounds off our top 3 list with a rather generous 10GB/month limit, ad and online tracking blocker, and multiple browser extensions.

So there you have it. If you don’t mind getting your data collected and sold for advertising and other purposes, free VPNs present a solution that’s limited in every aspect but free with a fairly decent level of anonymity, all things considered. For everything else, they fall short when compared to their paid counterparts which are simple better, be it faster, more robust, multi-purpose available, and else.

How to choose the right VPN for you?

There are literally hundreds of VPNs out there and choosing the one that makes sense for you isn’t quite easy. Some are good, some are great, some offer top-notch service while others stink to high heaven. Here are some of the factors you definitely need to consider.

As with most things that include money going out of your pocket, the price will be one of the (if not THE) key decision-making factors in this case. Naturally, different providers offer different prices and price plans, depending on the number of features included and subscription length. Make sure your subscription comes with a money-back guarantee (the longer, the better) so you can get out of your contract if the service is not delivering. You might also want to check the available payment methods: some providers offers cryptocurrencies like BitCoin for maximum anonymity, as well as gift cards to avoid any trail of personal information.

Infrastructure-wise, check the server coverage (are there enough servers and server locations that matter to you, server load (if applicable - some providers offers this insight on their website), their geographical distance), the maximum number of connections supported for multiple devices, and unlimited bandwidth and data for a limitless experience.

Check for device and OS support and see what’s compatible with you. Most VPNs offer support for major platforms but not all have dedicated clients. If you’re a Windows user with an Android smartphone and an iPad, make sure the VPN of your choice has apps for all three. In the case that you’re one of the more exotic users (say, Windows Phone), check for tutorials and setup instruction for manual configuration. It’s also a good idea to find a service whose custom clients have a user-friendly interface, particularly if you’re not keen on configuring a VPN by yourself.

One of the more overlooked factors that’s especially important for newcomers is the availability and expertise of customer service. More precisely, look for 24/7 customer service that’s readily available (preferably by live chat) to jump in and resolve any issue or question you might have about the service.

Most of all - figure out your need for a VPN by incorporating all the above-mentioned factors. What are the features you prioritize: speed, encryption, anonymity or all of it together in normal doses? Do you need a VPN for streaming that unblocks Netflix? Is a P2P-friendly VPN for torrenting what you’re looking for or are you seeking a more private browsing and messaging experience? All in all, every VPN provider excels at something so working out what you need in a VPN in terms of features is vital to choosing the best one for you. After all, it’s money out of your pocket and there’s no need to pay extra for features you don’t care about and won’t use.

To make things easier, we’ve compiled a comparison of our top 5 VPN providers. These highly recommended providers support most devices and platforms, have plenty of servers in various locations, as well as offer a wide array of paid subscriptions that include a money-back guarantee and provide speedy performances.

Our top choice is ExpressVPN, a fast and thoroughly secure provider that offers more than 2000 servers in virtually half the countries in the world. It offers support on all notable devices including browser extensions, high-quality streaming performance (unlocks Netflix too), P2P support and 24/7 live customer service. Close second is NordVPN, a service known for it vast server coverage (over 4000 servers and counting) and enjoyable Netflix experience (along with other streaming services). There’s double encryption on a few select server and one of the lowest-priced yearly plans you’ll find. CyberGhost, PrivateVPNand Private Internet Access round off our top VPN choices - be sure to check them out as well.

Final words

When it comes to the Internet, privacy is one worry that’ll be prevalent in the times to come. Without a VPN, your location and subsequent IP address, as well as everything you do online (browse, stream, communicate) is at risk. By and large, VPNs are one of the most effective tools available in the fight against cyber snoopers, hackers, and governmental spying but they can never be enough and considered a complete solution. Nothing really can, but the VPNs are the closest thing we have to a secure and private online experience that protects against a whole spectrum of possible data breaches, all the while being easily applicable.