Potentially, strong encryption and good speeds should have made ActiVPN a premier lightweight VPN. But major failings mean that this is very much a second tier provider, and one that most customers will want to pass by.
Originally hailing from France but now quietly relocated to Hong Kong, ActiVPN promises fast speeds, excellent security, workarounds for censorship, unlimited data, and attentive customer support. Does it deliver on these commitments, or are they just marketing speak?
While it has many technical strengths, as this ActiVPN review will show, there are better VPNs around. Poor support means that users will struggle to make the most of the service, while its apps leave much to be desired.
Add in omissions like a kill switch, SOCKS5, and StealthVPN, and confusing customer information, and this is one to avoid, when it could have been a contender.
Security and privacy
Let’s kick things off with security and privacy – the number one consideration when assessing any VPN. ActiVPN offers the following headline security features to entice customers:
- AES-CBC 256 encryption with PKI RSA 2048 bits
- OpenVPN along with IPSec and PPTP if desired
- Crowdsourced security reports to improve the VPN’s service
Most importantly, ActiVPN performs pretty well where encryption is concerned. 256-bit AES with 2048 bits RSA offers a cipher that’s very hard to crack, and should protect your identity from malicious actors, providing DNS and IP leaks are avoided. And the availability of OpenVPN is another big plus, which is made even better by the addition of IPSec and PPTP (for a very fast, but much less secure service). That blend of security and flexibility isn’t routine.
However, there’s no kill switch, no Stealth VPN function, and no mention of how ActiVPN seeks to minimize WebRTC, IPv6 or DNS leaks. We’re told that our connections will be completely anonymous, with encryption applied. But there’s a black box feel to the ActiVPN website, where users simply have to trust the company that the necessary infrastructure is in place.
On the plus side, BitCoin payments are accommodated, so customers can anonymize their payments to a degree. There’s no wider choice of crypto-payment options, and gift cards aren’t covered, but it’s better than providers that rely on VISA or Mastercard.
Additionally, the company operates a “Bug Bounty” where users can submit security flaws they discover on the platform. In theory this should improve its security considerably, but users should note that the list of detected flaws hasn’t been updated since 2016, so whether the Bug Bounty is still operational is questionable.
Does ActiVPN keep logs?
Interestingly, ActiVPN’s list of key selling points doesn’t mention logging. That’s often a worrying sign, as data collection is rife within the privacy community, and relatively few providers can truly claim to live up to the “zero logs” standard.
Instead of a proper policy, the company provides a brief “Data Protection” statement, which suggests that the VPN doesn’t record connection times, browsing activity, IPs, DNS queries, data accesses – which is all positive.
Importantly, the VPN states: “We don’t know what you access, browse, upload or download with our service.” Note that this isn’t the same as saying that they can’t find out, or won’t if asked.
Moreover, while ActiVPN offers unlimited bandwidth, it does collect aggregate data usage statistics to throttle excessive users. And this suggests that the company has access to information about the amount of data being consumed – which could open the door to more detailed knowledge.
And while the VPN itself won’t log your original IP, an associated DNS protection tool included with the VPN will do so, unless instructed not to. So there’s a backdoor to providing the company with more information, and most users won’t be aware of it.
None of this means that the company is malicious, or that it’s selling data to third parties. Or even that it will betray users to law enforcement. But it’s food for thought. The Hong Kong jurisdiction may also be worth thinking about. While this means that the company can evade data retention laws, not everyone will want to access a VPN within Chinese borders.
Speed and performance
Speed is an area where ActiVPN performs relatively well. There are no restrictions on user speeds or bandwidth, so streaming and gaming shouldn’t be impaired one bit.
And in our speed test, we found evidence that most servers perform very well. Download speed drop-offs were hard to notice, at around 30-50%, and the same applies to our upload speed.
Lag wasn’t an issue for the YouTube content we used, and we tried servers in numerous countries just to be sure. Almost all of them allowed us to watch the test videos without any interruptions.
ActiVPN isn’t a large provider by any stretch of the imagination, but it does cast its net widely, offering an (almost) global service. The company offers 61 servers in the following locations: Hong Kong, France, the UK, the USA, Spain, Japan, Canada, Netherlands, Australia, Cuba, Germany, Romania, England, Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Switzerland, Chile, Costa Rica, Czech Republic, Panama, Poland, Russia, Sweden, Tunisia, Ukraine, South Africa, Singapore, Algeria, Israel, India, Morocco and Mexico.
That list includes plenty of countries that rarely host VPN servers, including a few in North Africa – an area historically poorly served by privacy providers. So there’s a good reach, and wherever users travel they should be within touching distance of a rapid connection.
Ease of use and multiplatform support
ActiVPN is available for the following platforms:
- PC (Windows and Linux)
However, getting started is far from straightforward. It’s not a question of choosing to download the client, installing the software, then enjoying the service for Mac or PC. Instead, users need to set up OpenVPN manually on each device. The pictures leading customers through the process are instructive, but all in French, which will alienate plenty of entry-level buyers. They are also geared towards an older version of Windows (which isn’t the only out of date content on the ActiVPN website).
There are guides for setting the client up on routers, streaming boxes, and smartphones, but in all cases there are more user-friendly options around if you just want a plug and play mobile app. This is a huge drawback to ActiVPN in general. Although it has strong security features, those features won’t help people who struggle to set up protocols, and troubleshooting will be a pain if there are any conflicts. That doesn’t have to be the case these days, and you get the feeling that the VPN’s creators have been left behind a bit here.
When you do get the app running, it’s a mixed bag. Establishing connections is simple, but choosing specific servers isn’t. The client doesn’t allow you to easily choose geographical regions, and there’s no indication of which servers are best for streaming, P2P, and so on. It’s a primitive piece of software, and way behind industry leaders.
Unblocking Netflix and other streaming sites
So, does ActiVPN unblock the holy grail of streaming content sites – US Netflix?
Unfortunately, no. Even though it has servers in the US, all of those were blocked from accessing US Netflix.
In fact, we couldn’t access any Netflix in any countries with this VPN provider. The same goes with BBC’s iPlayer, Hulu, and other popular streaming sites.
Check out our Best VPN for Neflix list
P2P and torrenting
While the VPN all of the usual things about dissuading users from committing illegal acts, there is no specific prohibition for torrent downloads, so if you intend to set up a protected P2P connection, you may well be in luck. However, don’t expect to find a step-by-step guide to setting up the VPN with a SOCKS5 proxy, or dealing with uTorrent issues if they arise.
The FAQ section is a real mess, and finding relevant help is almost impossible. And remember: there’s no kill switch to fall back on if torrent clients cause your coverage to fail.
However, if you persevere, you’ll find that the unlimited data and bandwidth offered by ActiVPN is handy for torrenters, and the speeds aren’t too shabby either. There are worse options for torrenters, that’s for sure.
Online censorship in China and elsewhere
ActiVPN definitely works in China, which is unsurprising given its Hong Kong base. However, this isn’t the same as being able to work around the Great Firewall, which Beijing employs to limit digital access for Chinese web users.
Some users around the web report that ActiVPN provides reliable web access in Beijing, albeit not at stellar speeds. So it’s worth a try is evading censorship is a priority. However, the Hong Kong jurisdiction is potentially a worry. Being based there, ActiVPN may work closely with Beijing to allow it to sell products to Chinese users, and the trade off could be data sharing or restrictions. We can’t know for sure, but there are VPNs around that don’t entail those kind of risks.
ActiVPN currently offers the following customer support options:
- A poorly compiled, and not very easy to follow FAQ section.
- An email comment form which guarantees feedback from the company’s team within 2 business days
That’s all of the support options available for users, which isn’t very impressive. There’s no phone support of live chat, so users will either have to wade through the poorly written FAQ content, or take their chances with the email contact form.
Although the company claims to have an average response time of 34 minutes, the 2 day guarantee isn’t very encouraging. If you are seeking a refund and have a deadline to meet, be prepared to send the necessary emails way ahead of your contract’s expiry.
When you email the VPN, responses can be informative, but don’t expect beautiful writing. The team isn’t staffed by English speakers, and their responses can be a little confusing, so there may be a need for further clarification. All in all, it’s not a performance we can praise, and the company should really be doing better here.
Customers can choose from the following payment packages:
- 1 month for $11.80
- 1 year for $3.93/month
- 2 years for $2.62/month
There’s a huge discrepancy between the expensive monthly charge and longer packages, which offer very competitive rates. This wouldn’t be a problem if the VPN offered a free trial or a money-back guarantee, but neither of these come as standard features. So users will have to spend a lot of money to try it for one month, or commit to longer contracts for a service they aren’t familiar with. That’s not a good business practise.
Payment methods are via standard credit cards, PayPal, or Bitcoin, and payments can be made through the website (for Mac or PC users), or via third party portals like iTunes or Google Play (for smartphone users).
As for refunds, the company policy is as fuzzy as its privacy statement. Customers are entitled to “reimbursement” if they are “unable to connect to the service.”
“ActiVPN may refuse some requests if the customer did connect to several servers, or did connect at least five times, or if the customer is refusing ActiVPN to assist her/him or not answering to our solicitations.”
What does this mean? It certainly isn’t a clear refund policy designed to protect consumer rights. Sadly, it’s typical of ActiVPN’s approach to communication.
Things started well with AES-256 encryption OpenVPN, fast speeds, and – probably – zero logs. But this ActiVPN hit a few snags along the way. There are some surprising security omissions, such as a kill switch.