How to Choose a VPN – What Criteria to Look for in 2021
When it comes to picking a VPN, it’s easy to become overwhelmed with confusing lists of features and statistics.
Ultimately, choosing the best VPN comes down to your specific needs. There is no one-size-fits-all VPN; every VPN is different and will include a variety of features that you may or may not require.
That being said, there are a few important attributes you should look out for when making your selection. We’ve put together a list of the criteria we think are most important — though it’s up to you which of these you prioritize!
Of all the features a VPN can offer, security is probably the most important. A VPN is only as good as its ability to keep you and your data safe.
At the very least, your VPN should protect your information with the highest level of encryption.
This means that, even if a hacker or third party (like your ISP) somehow intercepts your internet traffic, they will not be able to decrypt it.
AES, or Advanced Encryption Standard, is the most common type of encryption used by VPNs. The best providers will use military-grade encryption, which is AES-256.
As well as encryption, the best VPNs for security will offer extra features such as DNS leak protection and a kill switch. Both of these will make sure your data and privacy remain protected in the event of a dropped connection or a leak.
2. No-Logs Policies
One of the main reasons many people use VPNs is to prevent their online behavior from being monitored and tracked.
Using a VPN will stop your ISP and other third parties from being able to see what you’re doing online, but the VPN is still in possession of this information. If the VPN provider then keeps a log of your behavior, those third parties may well be able to access it anyway.
This is especially relevant if your VPN provider is based in a 5/9/14-Eyes Alliance country. VPNs in these countries can be legally obligated to provide your data to government surveillance officials.
To avoid this, it’s important to look for a VPN service that guarantees a strict no-logs policy. This means the VPN provider does not store any of your information at all, so it cannot compromise your data even in the event of a security breach or a government information request.
Some VPNs claim to have a no-logs policy while still retaining some sensitive data. To avoid confusion, we tested a range of services ourselves and found the 5 best no-log VPNs.
Since a VPN works by rerouting your traffic through its own private servers, your internet connection speeds can suffer if you choose the wrong service. The fastest VPNs counteract this with vast networks of servers spread out all across the world. ExpressVPNconsistently comes in first when put to the test.
The more servers there are in a VPN’s network, the fewer users are likely to be connected to each server at one time. This reduced load means faster speeds for you.
The more international servers a VPN has, the more likely you’ll be able to find one that’s closer to you as well. Distance can affect your connection speeds so, the closer the VPN server, the faster the connection.
Unless you need to use a specific server location to access geo-restricted content, always choose a VPN with servers that are as close to your real location as possible.
If you’re mainly looking to use a VPN to watch shows that are geoblocked in your country, you’ll need to choose a VPN that supports streaming.
This means a VPN that offers fast speeds and unlimited bandwidth, so you aren’t stuck with annoying buffering and interruptions. Some VPNs, like NordVPN and CyberGhost also offer automatic connection to servers that are optimized for streaming video content.
Of course, you won’t be able to access your favorite shows at all if your chosen VPN doesn’t have servers in the right locations. If you want to access Netflix US, for example, you’ll need to pick a VPN with servers in the US.
It’s also important to remember that many streaming sites now employ strong anti-VPN software to block viewers from watching content in locations that have been geoblocked. Not all VPNs are able to bypass this software.
While it isn’t necessarily illegal, torrenting can be blocked in some countries to prevent the piracy of copyrighted content.
If you live in one of these countries, you’ll need to use a VPN to torrent. However, since torrenting can take up a huge amount of bandwidth, some VPNs don’t allow torrenting or P2P connections — in order to protect their server load.
Thankfully, there are still some excellent VPNs that allow torrenting. These VPNs will not throttle your speeds, limit your bandwidth, or restrict P2P connections — meaning that you can torrent quickly and easily with no limitations.
6. Servers and Countries
As we mentioned before, the more servers and server locations a VPN has in its network, the faster the speeds you’ll enjoy and the more content you’ll be able to access. NordVPN, for example, has over 5000 servers in 60+ countries.
An extensive number of servers worldwide can also be very useful when it comes to bypassing blacklisting. The anti-VPN software used by some streaming sites will automatically blacklist any IP addresses that it identifies as connected to VPN servers. Sometimes, this includes blacklisting entire server farms that have been associated with VPN use.
If a VPN network is very small, all of its servers can be blacklisted very quickly — meaning you will lose access to geo-restricted content. VPNs with large, global networks are able to avoid blacklisting by constantly adding new servers and switching you to a working server should yours be detected.
Another major reason you might want to use a VPN is to get around censorship in your home country or while traveling.
A huge number of countries block parts of the internet for various reasons, from restricting private communication via encrypted social media and messaging apps, to blocking content that goes against the government’s moral or political standpoints.
Whether you live in an highly-censored country or you’re traveling to one for work or leisure, you’ll need to use a VPN if you want to access any website or content that has been deemed undesirable.
Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. Government firewalls are notoriously powerful — the Great Firewall of China is a particularly famous example — and only the strongest VPNs are able to bypass this level of censorship.
The best VPN in the world is no good if you can’t use it on your chosen device! Before downloading your chosen VPN, make sure to check that it’s compatible with all the devices and platforms you’re using. Luckily, all of the best VPNs support all major devices and platforms.
Similarly, if you’re looking to use your VPN on lots of different devices at the same time (for example, if you want to protect other members of your family), you’ll need to opt for one of the VPNs that allow multiple simultaneous connections. Surfsharkstands out for its offer of an unlimited number of simultaneous connections.
This can be a huge money saver as it will allow you to protect all of your devices without having to pay for numerous licenses.
You don’t have to be a tech expert to use a VPN. In fact, most VPNs are fairly easy to download, install, and set up these days.
That being said, finding your way around a VPN’s numerous settings and configurations can be tricky for even the most advanced users.
That’s why it’s always a good bet to go for a VPN service that offers decent customer support. That means quick response times and in-house representatives.
It’s unlikely that your chosen VPN will be based in the same country as you so 24/7 support is also important to guarantee you’ll get a response wherever you are in the world. Private VPN was voted Best VPN for Customer Service in our Best VPN Awards for 2021.
Since it’s often hard to tell how good a VPN is without using it first, it’s also a good idea to opt for a VPN that offers a free trial. This will allow you to make sure the service is right for you, completely risk-free. Here’s our list of the best VPNs with free trials.
Conclusion and Further Reading
Hopefully, that’s given you a comprehensive checklist you can use when choosing the best VPN for your needs. Our top pick for the VPN that best fits with the criteria above is NordVPN. You can test out all of their features with their 30-day money-back guarantee.
For more savings on VPNs, take a look at our exclusive coupon codes.
If you need any more help, check out our guide on how to choose the best VPN.
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VPNs can help you hide this information from websites so that you are protected at all times. We recommend ExpressVPN — the #1 VPN out of over 350 providers we've tested. It has military-grade encryption and privacy features that will ensure your digital security, plus — it's currently offering 49% off.