The best VPN service should protect you from spies and criminals (among other benefits), especially if you work remotely or your job depends on an internet connection. Albeit, deciding on a VPN service is hard. Using a VPN service is like using the bank—you entrust them with private matters—some of which are matters of life and death.
Thousands of VPN services exist, everyone screaming in your face “I’m the best VPN service in the whole universe.”
Now, who’d you trust?
Certainly not review sites—at least, not most review sites. Review sites have either been paid to tell you “here’s the best VPN service in the whole universe, ” or they want affiliate commission from referring you to VPN services.
Lists like “The 10 Best VPN services” usually have zero criteria for crowning those services the “Best.” So how do you choose one that’s worth your buck?
If I were you, I’d accord the process of choosing a VPN service the respect of an investment decision. Because it is.
I’d pay attention to the details people neglect. It’s easy to get lazy, choose a randomly labeled “best VPN service” and hit the road running on cyberspace.
That’s exactly how to lose a life.
If you have something at stake, pay attention. This article could save you from jail, grief, bitter experiences, or even death! This article gives you the REAL freedom that other VPN users, in their infinite ignorance, assume that they have. If having a genuinely safe VPN experience is worth something to you, then this guide is pure gold.
Let’s get to business.
Start with a List: Choosing the best VPN service
It’s taken me over 20 hours to produce this guide. In that time I researched, ran tests, wrote, edited and then published this work. I consider this work to be dirt detailed—details you won’t find ANYWHERE else.
Well, except it’s stolen from here.
I ensured neutrality, so I haven’t endorsed any particular VPN service. This guide is timeless; it’s always going to be useful years from now. If the VPN service you choose after following this guide deteriorates in the future, you’ll be safe—use this guide to find another one.
Bookmark this guide; you might need it again.
Here’s a process I’d use to choose the best VPN service on the planet:
Step 1: I’d enter “best VPN services” in Google.
I know, lists like that aren’t necessarily trustworthy. The search is only a first step.
Step 2: To narrow my search to the most recent resources, I’d click on “Tools” as seen in the image below.
Step 3: And then click on “Any time” as shown in the image below
Step 4: In the drop-down menu I’d click “past year.”
Step 5: That narrows my results down to the previous 12 months, and eliminates any misleading old lists.
If you followed this process, you’d see something like this:
Step 6: I’d visit 5 to 10 lists from that Google search results page. Take notice of services with frequent appearances on those lists. You should end up with 3 to 7 recurring services. If you find more than 3 to 7 services, narrow your list down by looking for user reviews. PC Mag and Cloudwards are review sites you may use. Keep users with the best reviews and discard the rest.
You want to narrow your list down to 3, max 5 or 7. Narrowing your list to 3 increases your chance of following through with this process I’m about showing you.
Review this list to make your final pick
Review the final list of services you’ve selected. Download and use the checklist here for this purpose. Your goal is to compare the three services you’ve found and then choose one.
Interface and set up
The best VPN service should have a neatly laid out, intuitive interface, both on mobile and PC. The setup should be easily navigable, and its options and controls shouldn’t overwhelm you.
Security protocols abound, your VPN service should provide you with a range of choices. Your VPN service should allow you to use a UDP or TCP, and shouldn’t have a DNS leak. If all these sound too unclear for you, I’ll explain in a moment.
Choosing service and exit locations
Your priority reason for using a VPN service determines what service and exit locations you’d choose. If your work is sensitive, requiring serious security, then consider having an exit and service location outside of your home country. I’ll explain in detail below.
Some VPN services store your logs. They store your name, fax number, address, telephone number, email address, types of service provided, payment history, dates service was provided, means of payment, payments dates, amounts paid, and credit card or related payment information, as well as usage or activity logs on your VPN account.
I’ve provided you with a resource listing VPN services that DO NOT store your information, so you have absolute (not partial) security and privacy. Read on.
Anti-malware and anti-spyware features
I suspect that the best VPN service would be one with rock-solid security. You’ll probably be visiting lots of websites. You’ll download lots of stuff. You want to do all that safely while maintaining your privacy, anonymity, and security.
Accessing your VPN from across mobile and desktop devices is probably a no-brainer. The best VPN service would be one that worked across multiple devices.
Server performance is tricky. What would have passed for the best VPN service could hit a hump when it comes to server performance. Some applications just won’t work on a VPN no matter what. The best VPN service would be one that’s almost as fast as when you’re not using a VPN.
Take customer service quality seriously. The best VPN service should be one that treats its customer’s needs and communication as a priority.
No matter what you do, choose a paid VPN. There’s almost no such thing as “free VPN.” If you’ve researched it, and it’s the best VPN service you can find, pay for it. Don’t negotiate having the BEST, even if it comes with a price tag.
What follows is a deep dive of each of these criteria. Examine each of your prospective VPN services based on these criteria. You may copy or print out, and use the checklist I provided here to help you breeze through the process.
VPN interface and setup
An easy setup and an intuitive interface are key features that I expect of the best VPN service. Most VPN services have test versions; trial versions come handy for you to verify features.
As a rule of thumb, use the free version first, and then decide if it’s wise to buy. Sometimes free versions don’t fully represent what a VPN service is capable of doing; some services offer Money Back Guarantees with full access to their service offerings.
Verify their mobile and PC features. Some VPN services have user interfaces listing their servers (i.e.) exit locations, and then connection buttons right beside them; you’d just click a button to activate a preferred server. Sleek designs allow you prioritize servers; you’d easily see your preferred servers at the top of the servers list. The interface should have a search function that lets you find servers by location, especially by city or country.
Features differ by VPN service. However, an excellent service would provide basic metrics once you’re connected. Expect metrics such as a display of the general server overview, including bandwidth limits if you’re on a free VPN (this could be unlimited for paid versions), connection duration, secured protocol in use, data usage, and the like.
Another feature is an ad switch—to leave it on or turn it off. Some VPN services let you remove or turn off ads on their free version. Others don’t. Your VPN may also have a notifications feature, leave it on to instantly get any policy changes or other relevant information. You can access and control these functions from “Settings.”
VPN security protocol is a bit of technical topic. I’ll take a stab at simplifying it. Read on.
VPN services use security protocols to transport data packets originating from your computer to another computer. This transportation could happen over the internet or within a network of local computers.
A local computer network scenario would be transferring songs to your friends’ computers over a wireless connection. An internet network scenario would be sending them those songs by email.
Yea, I said “VPN services use security protocols to transport data packets…” blah blah blah. Sounds a little geeky, I know. Relax.
Think of ‘security protocols’ as the US president’s motorcade, and the data originating from your computer (like songs you send via email or within a local network of computers) as the president’s handwritten letters for dispatch. In short, let’s call the data packets from your computer ‘the letters.’ Let’s also call the transport network (whether the internet or other wireless connections) the ‘superhighway’—this isn’t particularly new, Vice President Al Gore already called the internet ‘the information superhighway,’ back in 1994.
Now you have the motorcade, the letters, and the superhighway.
Motorcade represents a VPN service’s ‘security protocol’.
Letters are the data packets from your computer (this could be audio, image, video, document, or PDF files). The superhighway is your internet or wireless connection.
All clear, right?
The motorcade (i.e., security protocol) takes the letters (i.e., data originating from your smartphone or computer) to your destination of choice without an interception, via the superhighway (wireless connection or internet).
Your VPN protocol has different motorcades. Some are more secure than others, and certain convoys are special purposed.
Let’s meet the motorcades. Again, they’re technically called protocols ‒ security protocols.
Known protocols include:
- PPTP (Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol),
- SSL or TLS (Secure Sockets Layer or Transport Layer Security) this is also known as OpenVPN support,
- L2TP (Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol),
- IPSec (Internet Protocol Security)
- DTLS (Datagram Transport Layer Security)
- IKEv2 (a version of Internet Key Exchange, IKE. This protocol also has IKEv1 and IKEv2)
and other security mechanisms.
Top VPN services have OpenVPN or IKEv2. The latter is useful if you’d rather not use OpenVPN. Once you have your VPN downloaded, from its settings, switch your security protocol to OpenVPN or IKEv2.
Voila! You have your motorcades.
Long-time VPN users know that PPTP motorcade is vulnerable to compromise. You aren’t all that safe using this motorcade.
With a 256-bit AES encryption, an OpenVPN protocol has the best transfer encryption standard for consumer-users. That statement means that an OpenVPN is an armored, bullet-proof motorcade, but unlike in the real world, this armored vehicle is available on the open market. You can buy yours off the shelf.
Here’s how this motorcade secures your letters. Servers (think of them as chauffeurs driving your motorcade) in an OpenVPN (your motorcade) use shared IPs (think of IPs as special traffic rules for using the superhighway).
The last paragraph above would read technically as “servers in an OpenVPN use shared IPs.” However, our analogy simplifies the message as “chauffeurs who drive your motorcade use special traffic rules on the superhighway.”
Therefore, these chauffeurs anonymize the identity of your motorcade. That anonymity grants the motorcade right-of-access to places they’d ordinarily not be allowed in. Once in, they’d deliver your letters.
But who builds such a fantastic motorcade system?
Of course, VPN services!
So think of a VPN service as a motorcade maker. You’re reading this article to find the best VPN service—to find the best motorcade maker. If you’re gonna ride, ride the best—ain’t it?
You want a robust VPN, right?
Verify customization options, first, before reaching for your wallet. Ask these two questions
“do they allow for modification of encryption standards?” and
“Is opting for UDP or TCP in my control?”
Now I can hear you screaming “What’s a damn UDP or TCP?!” Heck, what are “encryption standards?!”
I’ll explain. Think of a UDP and TCP as special facilities on the superhighway.
UDP and TCP in your security protocols
These facilities perform the same function—but for different audiences.
So what’s their use?
UDP is short for User Datagram Protocol. TCP is short for Transmission Control Protocol. UDP and TCP are IP based protocols. Remember our analogy that IPs are special traffic rules for using the superhighway—the superhighway being the internet. So UDP and TCP are like extra grips for the superhighway on a rainy day.
UDP or TCP add extra grip to the slippery superhighway.
Another way to think of UDP or TCP is to see them as the machines that clear heavy snow off highways for road users. By itself, UDP or TCP can’t work, except by the directive of the special traffic rules (i.e., IP).
UDP or TCP ensures that when your device’s internet connection goes south, you’re NOT logged off. Since you may lose connection unexpectedly and your VPN would log off, UDP comes handy. The best VPN service providers have UDP and TCP options.
Still hungry for more detail on UDP and TCP? Here’s more.
On an enterprise scale, TCP is the protocol that supports the internets. UDP is for consumers like you and me. UDP supports activities such as gaming, video or audio streaming, VoIP calls, and other activities that may not be severely affected by downgraded reception quality.
Modifying encryption standards
Next, the second question on ‘modifying encryption standards.’
OpenVPN uses a type of Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) called 256-bit AES. Unfortunately, this may not prevent a domain name server (DNS) leak.
IPLeak.net confirms that using a VPN doesn’t necessarily hide your DNS, and could expose your IP address. I expect the best VPN service to have inbuilt DNS leak protection. In case it’s missing, follow these steps:
- First, test for DNS leak protection. Use the free version of the VPN under consideration. Confirm that you’ve turned on the VPN, and then visit IPLeak.net. If there’s a DNS leak, you’ll see something like the image below
- If the DNS leaks, set up Google Public DNS on your device. This setup routes your DNS requests through Google Public DNS, effectively patching the leak.
VPN services could route DNS requests through their servers, or through third-party providers like Google Public DNS. This setup prevents DNS requests from passing through the ISP, exposing your location and computer’s IP address.
Further explanations on the DNS to IP addresses relationship is beyond the scope of this article, if this relationship excites your interest, read more here.
Well, this is different.
The stakes are your security, personal information and everything else. Read all the documents, and between the lines.
If a service stores your data, then they probably also sell them. If the service doesn’t sell your data, the service may share that information with the government on request. Find a service that anonymizes your online footprint without a trace.
Choosing the best VPN service and exit locations
VPN services maintain corporate office spaces but have servers which function as VPN exit sites in different parts of the world. In short, servers are exit locations.
VPN services are subject to the laws of the country of their corporate location. For example, a VPN service maintaining their corporate office in Australia is subject to the laws there.
Your primary purpose for using a VPN determines what exit and service (i.e., corporate) locations you’d choose. For instance, if you live in Nigeria and want to watch live TV in the US, you’re better off using VPN servers in the US. In that instance, you primarily want freedom from location restrictions.
If privacy or avoiding eavesdropping is your core reason for using a VPN, then you’d be choosing a service outside of your home country. In this instance, you’d pick a service that does NOT store or share your logs.
If a VPN service is US-based, they’d be subject to US laws as well; authorities may force them to store and turn in your data. And don’t choose your country’s friendly ally, it’s the same thing as choosing your country. They’d gladly turn you over if requested.
Edward Snowden is surviving asylum because he chose Russia (not the UK, or Canada). Don’t opt to be unlucky.
Activities and personal details logging
Using a VPN service, in a sense, is like using the bank. It all comes down to TRUST.
You entrust a VPN service with your browsing data. You believe that they won’t share them with third-parties and that they won’t use them against you.
So, if privacy is your number one reason for using a VPN you’d better ascertain that your VPN service provider doesn’t store or share your information. Read their privacy statements. Do your due diligence. Find and read user comments online, as well as any cases they’ve had in the past.
For instance, HideMyAss logs and will turn your data over to the government on request. If your privacy is a concern, the service isn’t going to hide your ass.
In fact, if you want privacy, do NOT use servers in the UK, US, or any countries that invest in massive eavesdropping or government spying. An exception to this rule would be substantial evidence showing that a UK-based or US-based VPN service does NOT log your data.
Click here for a list of VPN services that DO NOT log your data and those that do log them. So you know who to use or avoid regardless of raving reviews online.
Anti-Malware and Anti-Spyware Features
A virtual private network (VPN) is not, in itself invulnerable. However, the best VPN service would be one that’s NOT vulnerable. It comes down to the service, not the technology itself.
Take these precautions
- If a website requires sensitive information from you, make sure it has HTTPS. You’d notice the “https” instead of just “HTTP” at the start of the URL. You may also see a lock symbol as seen in the image below.
- Be careful what you download.
The best VPN service would be one that’s bundled with scanners for malware, ensuring that you aren’t downloading viruses or trojans. This is a feature you want to make sure your VPN service providers.
Do NOT negotiate on this feature, especially if privacy is your primary reason for using a VPN.
Yes, just like Spongebob in that image, your VPN should work on all your device.
The best VPN service is one that functions across devices and gives a consistent, pleasant experience. You don’t want two VPN services with differing policies and agreements all because you want to secure your mobile device and laptop.
Go for the best. Only the best will do.
Server performance could be tricky. Some VPN services performance well overall, but wouldn’t allow a particular application to run. Don’t be surprised if this happens.
If an application doesn’t run on your VPN, check if it has any restrictions. For example, geo-restrictions, maybe your application is restricted from functioning in the location you’ve set your VPN. Alternatively, your application probably doesn’t permit the use of proxy or VPN. Or maybe some mystic powers just don’t want you to use the damn thing. Sometimes we don’t know why applications behave the way they do over a VPN.
Effortless video streaming over your VPN should be standard. You should play games, download files, and browse the web with zero worries. The best VPN service is one that’s so good you wouldn’t notice a significant difference between using the service and connecting to the internet directly. It feels like the same.
That said. Some locations have internet speed as fast as 30mbps or more, but your VPN isn’t likely to perform that fast. So don’t sweat the speed drop if you live in a place like that.
You should test customer service quality before buying. If you have to teach Customer Service 101 like in this Seinfeld scene, then you aren’t talking to the best VPN service. Find another.
Don’t negotiate this. Bad customer service will leave you hanging when you need them the most.
Don’t fall victim.
Testing a VPN service’s customer service quality starts with finding out HOW their customer service works—by phone call, live chat (preferred), contact form, email, or none at all (run!). Most of them have FAQs, read them through before contacting support.
Next, contact them via their live chat feature and note how long you waited before getting a reply. When you eventually get a reply, note how the agent answered your questions.
Ask questions on product details. For instance, ask them “Do you allow me to modify my encryption standards?” or “Is my UDP or TCP under my control?” Pay attention to their response. Ask if they store your logs. If they store records, ask them what they store. Ask if you’ve had a case of turning a user over to the authorities, and if so, why? Make the agent confess their company ethics, and press the agent for knowledge of their product. Gathering information about the company you can trust them or NOT trust them with your privacy, security and internet access needs.
When that chat ends, start another conversation. It’s unlikely you’d get through to the same agent. Ask the same questions, and see if the answers are the same. You may try this a third time to improve your chances of undersatnding how their customer service works.
Now, open your eyes.
Ads may be mandatory for your VPN service’s free option, and you can’t turn them off. Besides, free options are less private and less secure; they have fewer exit locations and are less dependable.
On the flip side. No ads (or you can turn them off). Dedicated privacy and security. Access to all exit locations. More control and options. That’s paid VPN.
In short, don’t use free VPN.
When it comes to having the best VPN service, paid is always cheaper than free.
Pay for it.
I’d like to hear from you. What’s your best VPN service and why? What tips did you find most useful here? What should I expatiate on?