We investigated 117 top VPN services to determine if they can be purchased and paid for anonymously, and found that only a handful of providers offer fully anonymous subscription options and payment methods.
VPNs are often advertised as top online privacy and anonymity tools and are used by hundreds of millions of people for that same purpose. Political activists expressing controversial views on social media in repressive countries, investigative journalists covering sensitive news stories, and whistleblowers reporting on government or corporate corruption, whose very lives may depend on remaining anonymous, use VPNs to secure their online traffic on a daily basis.
Consequently, for these and other subsets of VPN users, online anonymity is of critical importance, as financial surveillance can become yet another means to track their internet usage and connect them to a particular VPN service.
Very few VPN services actually allow users to create a VPN account without providing any personally identifiable information (PII) or, at the very least, an email address during the signup process.
Be that as it may, obtaining these privacy tools without leaving a digital trace in the process is not as simple as one might guess. While most companies do offer at least one option to pay for an existing VPN subscription anonymously, very few VPN services actually allow users to create a VPN account without providing any personally identifiable information (PII) or, at the very least, an email address during the signup process.
To help consumers avoid unintentionally compromising their privacy by choosing products that may record their identity, we examined the range of payment methods offered by 117 of the most popular VPNs. We also completed their registration procedures to determine what information these providers required from users who sign up for their services.
- Over a third (35%) of VPN services require users to provide their personally identifiable information (PII), such as credit card details or PayPal account info, when signing up.
- Only 8.5% of VPNs can be purchased completely anonymously (10 out of 117). “Completely anonymous purchase” implies being able to:
- Sign up without disclosing any personally identifiable information or email address (for example, by creating or generating a username and password)
- Use anonymous payment methods (cryptocurrencies, gift cards, or cash) to pay for the VPN service.
- 22% of VPNs both ask for users’ PII and offer no anonymous payment methods. Some even prohibit using a disposable email address to sign up for their service.
- 13% of VPNs require personally identifiable information when signing up but provide at least one anonymous payment method.
- More than half (56%) of VPNs require users to provide at least an email address (with no other PII required) during the registration process. Although people can use a disposable email address to remain anonymous, this requires at least some technical knowledge on their part and may still leave a digital trace of one’s activities.
In order to learn which VPN services can be obtained anonymously, we compiled a list of the top 117 paid VPN providers and investigated the following.
Anonymous payment methods
Usually, payments are the least anonymous interactions that users have when dealing with VPN providers.
Credit card providers and payment processors such as PayPal, Stripe, Alipay, or UnionPay are tethered to individual bank accounts for the purpose of preventing fraud. This means that users have to disclose their name and billing address when using paid VPN services.
When paying for a VPN anonymously, users do not share any personally identifiable information with the service or payment provider.
On the other hand, anonymous payment methods are not directly tied to an individual’s identity. When paying for a VPN anonymously, users do not share any personally identifiable information with the service or payment provider. These payment methods include cryptocurrencies, cash, and gift cards.
User signup options
The process of user registration is another pressure point where personally identifiable information may be collected and potentially traced by outside parties. Having an ability to pay anonymously doesn’t always ensure sufficient user identity protection – while paying with cash via snail mail may anonymize a transaction, the fact that a user account itself contains PII may put that VPN user at risk.
This is why we look at the types of user information requested by VPNs during the signup process. Clearly, we don’t consider any personally identifiable information such as the user’s full name, location, or bank account number as anonymous. To offer full signup anonymity, a VPN service must provide an option to register without disclosing any personally identifiable information or email address.
Why we do not consider email addresses to be 100% anonymous
We regard requests to provide an email address as preferable to signups that require personally identifiable information. That said, there’s always a possibility that an email account may be tied to an individual’s identity.
It’s possible to use disposable, throwaway email accounts or to simply provide false information during the signup process to achieve a greater degree of anonymity. Another method of protecting one’s identity when signing up for a VPN is to use a secure and encrypted email service.
However, we award a higher purchase anonymity rating to companies that do not ask for any contact information to begin with. This is to indicate that a particular VPN offers purchase anonymity without any additional considerations that the user should have to take into account when signing up for the service.
VPN purchase anonymity rating
Some VPN providers offer a greater degree of purchase anonymity than others. To determine the VPN purchase anonymity rating, we awarded grades based on signup options and payment methods offered by the VPN provider in question. These grades were awarded as follows:
- A: VPN provider offers anonymous signup and at least one anonymous payment method
- B: VPN provider requires an email address on signup and offers anonymous payment methods
- C: VPN provider requires personally identifiable information on signup, but anonymous payment methods are available
- D: VPN provider offers neither anonymous signup nor payment methods
Note that whenever we refer to “anonymous” or “anonymity” in this report, we mean this exclusively in regard to payment methods and signup options. This report does not cover user anonymity when using a VPN and should not be regarded as such.
Anonymous payment methods – crypto and online gift cards
Many consumers regard the presence of anonymous payment methods as an indication that a product can be purchased completely anonymously. If that were the case, the results of our report would paint a relatively optimistic picture:
As we can see, cryptocurrency was the most widely available anonymous payment method across the board, offered by more than two-thirds of the VPN providers we examined. Crypto was followed by online gift cards (some of which are processed by Paymentwall), which could be used as a payment method with more than a quarter of examined VPN services.
Anonymous payment methods – cash and retail gift cards
Unsurprisingly, online anonymous payments were much more popular than their offline counterparts due to greater availability and ease of use.
Offline payment methods such as cash and retail gift card codes, however, were offered by VPN providers relatively rarely.
Even though offline payment methods can provide consumers with a greater degree of anonymity, their lower popularity might be explained by the fact that buying gift cards offline or sending cash via snail mail involves much more effort than simply paying with a click of a mouse.
Anonymous signup options
Unfortunately, the ability to pay for an ongoing VPN subscription with Bitcoin or a gift card does not make a VPN purchase fully anonymous, especially if the user is required to submit their personally identifiable information and/or payment details to the VPN provider when signing up for the service.
To buy a VPN anonymously, the VPN service must offer not only anonymous payment methods, but also an anonymous signup option, such as a randomly generated username and password.
Our investigation into the anonymity of VPN service signup processes uncovered the following:
Contrary to expectations, VPN providers that offer completely anonymous signup options were in the absolute minority: only 10 out of 117 VPN services could be purchased without providing any identifiable information at all, personally or otherwise.
On the other hand, most VPN services required at least an email address for account confirmation or direct marketing purposes, while more than a third required users to provide personally identifiable information when registering a new VPN account. However, some services that required personally identifiable information had anonymous payment methods available after purchasing a subscription.
Full purchase anonymity
As we mentioned earlier, only 8.5% of VPNs can be purchased completely anonymously. 10 out of 117 VPNs can be signed up for without disclosing any personally identifiable information or an email address, and paid for with cryptocurrency, gift cards, or cash.
These VPNs offer full purchase anonymity
No purchase anonymity
Shockingly, almost a quarter of VPN providers offered neither anonymous payment methods nor anonymous signup options.
26 out of 117 VPNs could be signed up for only by submitting personally identifiable information and purchased with either a credit card or a PayPal account. This would mean leaving a personally identifiable record of the VPN purchase (and possibly the recurring subscription fees) in the hands of the VPN provider or payment processor.
These VPNs offer no purchase anonymity
- Avast SecureLine VPN
- Avira Phantom VPN
- Encrypt.me VPN
- Hotspot Shield
- Kaspersky VPN
- Liberty Shield VPN
- OkayFreedom VPN
- Overplay VPN
- Speedify VPN
- UnoTelly VPN
- Vanished VPN
Conclusion: buying VPNs anonymously – easier said than done?
The results of our investigation show that buying a VPN anonymously is not as simple as it may seem at first glance.
While advanced consumers can take measures such as using secure email services in order to achieve a greater degree of anonymity when signing up for a VPN service, this can be an issue for the less tech-savvy individuals.
More important, and perhaps more alarming, is the surprisingly high percentage of VPN providers that do not offer any purchase anonymity options whatsoever. Even though the question of possible anti-privacy practices in the VPN industry is beyond the scope of this investigation, the fact that so many VPN services have access to their users’ personally identifiable information does raise some concerns.
This is especially important considering the fact that, more often than not, these VPN providers position themselves as the foremost defenders of online privacy.
Check out our other research:
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- Study: how the world’s top websites track your online behavior
- Who is dominating the rising VPN market in 2019? Here are the numbers