How to choose a VPN: 9 main features

Julie Cole
Julie Cole | Contributing Writer
Last updated: January 6, 2021
How to choose a VPN
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Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) are a proven way for everyday internet users to protect their privacy. They enable users to encrypt everything they send and receive, keeping their IP address, browser history and location hidden from outsiders. And, they can also work around the blockers put in place by sites like Netflix. But, how to choose a VPN, you may wonder.

VPNs are becoming ever more popular among web users worldwide, with good reason. But before you join the VPN community, make sure you know how to choose a VPN. Providers vary in numerous ways, and a wrong move could both cost you money and leave your security at risk.

Key things to think about how to choose a VPN

Geographical spread

#1 Geographical spread

One key way we assess VPNs is by comparing how many servers they have, and how widely they are spread across the world. Some offer a handful of servers, while others have hundreds. By and large, the more servers a provider has, the faster their connections will be. And a higher server count usually also means that you’ll be able to get around geoblockers more effectively.

If you’re thinking about using your VPN for travel, make sure that your chosen option has a few servers in the region you are visiting. And if you are heading to a jurisdiction with a reputation for censorship, it’s often worth investing a little more money in a high-end VPN which reliably works around government censorship.


#2 Speed

Whenever you use a VPN, you are essentially adding an extra layer of weight to the data you send across the internet, which inevitably slows it down to some degree. But not all VPNs slow down your connection to the same level.

This is an area where you get what you pay for, so consider buying a VPN that has more efficient servers, manage bandwidth effectively, ensuring that it’s servers aren’t overloaded, and clients are better at finding the fastest servers for each user.

With lower-quality VPNs, servers are liable to become clogged with traffic and speeds can vary dramatically from server to server. But this isn’t always the case, so check reviews and use their speed tests as a guide.


#3 Protocols

Protocols are the most important tools used by VPNs to keep data safe and secure when it is transmitted over their networks, but the quality of these protocols can vary.

Some really outdated services still rely on the Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (which dates back to the 1990s), or L2TP/IPSec, which is an extension of PPTP but offers more reliable encryption.

The most reliable mass-market protocol currently available is probably OpenVPN TCP or UDP, which is regularly updated and featured in most high-end VPNs. But beware: OpenVPN based protocols suffer a little from high latency. So if you want a medium level of protection and speeds that are suitable for streaming, an L2TP based protocol may be more appropriate.

VPN jurisdiction

#4 VPN jurisdiction

If you want to know how to choose a VPN that is best for your needs, double check where the provider is based. This makes a huge difference. That’s because major countries around the world have created alliances to regulate the internet, imposing various degrees of surveillance and transparency on VPN providers.

The main alliances are known as “eyes”, and include the 5-eyes, 9-eyes and 14-eyes. Generally speaking, it’s advisable to stay clear of VPNs based in the core 5-eyes countries (the UK, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand), as well as Israel, which has information sharing agreements with all five nations.

The same applies to France, Denmark, the Netherlands and Norway (who complete the 9-eyes), as well as Germany, Belgium, Sweden, Italy and Spain (rounding off the 14-eyes).

Fortunately, that leaves plenty of potential countries, from Bulgaria and Estonia to Switzerland, Mexico or Slovakia.

Unblocking sites like Netflix

#5 Unblocking sites like Netflix

Find ways to work around the geoblockers used by streaming services like Netflix is one of the top priorities for many VPN users, but not all VPN providers are as skilled at beating the defenses of entertainment sites.

If Netflix or similar sites is your prime reason for using a VPN, make sure you go for a client which has a reputation for keeping up to date with the blockers used by streaming sites, and check VPN reviews for testimonies from customers with similar interests to yours.


#6 Compatibility

When buying a VPN, always remember that it needs to be linked to a reliable client, and these clients need to be compatible with your device. There are awesome options for Windows, macOS, and Linux, as well as for iOS and Android phones. So choose a high-quality VPN that offers support for your device.

If you’re looking for a VPN that works across multiple devices, check that your preferred option is compatible with both platforms. That way, you can avoid the frustration of discovering a great VPN for your desktop, only to find that it doesn’t also work on your iPhone.

Ease of use

#7 Ease of use

If you’re a relatively inexperienced VPN user, one of the key aspects of working out how to choose a VPN is finding a service which is easy to use. You probably don’t want to have to navigate endless setup options, so pick a company which limits the amount of work needed to get up and running.

VPN clients vary from relatively complex software that can be heavily customized, to very simple, stripped-down clients which are designed for regular users. Don’t get stuck with an overly complex client if all you need is a standard VPN experience.

Value for money

#8 Value for money

Unless you are considering using a free VPN (in which case, check out the section below), you’ll have to pick a payment package when you create an account.

Every VPN varies in terms of payment terms and different packages come with different features. Some work out cheaper if you need a VPN for a month or two, while others are better value for contract terms of a year or 18 months, so shopping around is definitely advisable.

Another key point here is privacy. Many people don’t want to use credit cards to pay for VPN connections, but not all providers offer alternatives. If you are keen to keep your payment private, look for VPNs which accept gift card or crypto-currency payments instead.

And always bear in mind that cheaper is not necessarily better. By paying a little bit more, you can enjoy much more reliable security and performance. Try to balance these factors with cost before finalizing any payments.

Customer service

#9 Customer service

VPNs are like any IT product. They require strong customer service to ensure that users are taken care of and any issues are resolved as quickly as possible.

Sadly, not all VPNs take the effort to build a solid customer service base. So exercise caution. Even if VPNs offer appealing user interfaces, speeds and prices, you’ll regret signing up for a service which doesn’t offer a point of contact when things go wrong.

Why I use a VPN: 5 REASONS to use a VPN explained

What about free VPNs? Are they worth exploring?

Finally, when it comes to learning how to choose a VPN it’s important to know the difference between free and paid VPN services.

Basically, free VPNs tend to be much less reliable than the best paid alternatives. There may be a few free options which offer some protection, but many exist to gather data for their own profit-making purposes. Most are packed with ads, and they are also associated with a host of security breaches.

Instead of going for a purely free VPN, it’s much better to opt for providers who offer free trials. That way, you can find out what they have to offer and sample a few alternatives before you find one you trust.

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  1. Declan

    I had thought I knew everything necessary to choose the best VPN. But no! There are still more to learn especially by keeping up with your blog post on VPN. I can hardly be wrong choosing a VPN

  2. Gina T

    Thanks for the guide ! I’m looking for a great VPN but I don’t really know where to look and which one is the best out there. This was really helpful thanks !

  3. 456Alessandro D

    Choosing a VPN is subject to understanding what features that I need and considering my geo-location. I would rank privacy and security top in my preferred features while making a choice. Next I would consider speed and then other factors may set in.

  4. EmmaH

    The first criteria I always check is where the VPN is based, depending on your needs, a VPN based in Panama or Switzerland will be more interesting than a VPN based in Italy or France. Then it’s the speed, I’ve tried Tor, so the speed is really important to me.

  5. 242MJas

    I always make it a point to try the free trials first before I decide to purchase the full paid service. I’ve tried a few VPN service providers now and after a few trials and error, I found NordVPN to be the best so far.

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