Last update: 06.18.2019
Promising top-of-the-line safety and complete anonymity, CactusVPN aims to be a contender in an increasingly crowded VPN market.
Launched in Moldova and now based in Romania, a VPN-friendly country with no data retention laws, the creators of CactusVPN have been working on their project since 2011. Contrary to some bigger providers, the CactusVPN team is unafraid to show their faces – you can meet the core group on their website.
But is this VPN truly sharp enough for all your anonymous browsing needs, or is it actually closer to a spineless house plant? Read our CactusVPN review to find out.
Is CactusVPN safe to use?
CactusVPN supports six different encryption protocols:
- SSTP (default)
We were a bit surprised to find SSTP as the default protocol, but on the other hand, using Windows – for which Microsoft created this protocol – probably had something to do with it. Unfortunately, this company has allegedly cooperated with NSA and FBI, which should be a red flag to anyone who needs a VPN connection to handle sensitive information.
Contrary to what the CactusVPN website tells us, you can’t choose the latter protocol out of the box. It requires a separate SoftEther VPN client, which is available for download at no cost. This less-known protocol is based on OpenSSL and designed to prevent man-in-the-middle attacks and Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) from detecting it. It’s both fast and secure, so you should definitely check it out.
Depending on the protocol, CactusVPN uses either the AES-128 cipher with an RSA-2048 handshake and SHA-1 HMAC authentication, or a safer combination. Not a fan of obscure technical abbreviations? In simpler terms, it’s a level of encryption that should remain unbreakable until the invention of quantum computing (which should take a while).
CactusVPN has a kill switch named “Stop internet traffic if VPN connection is dropped” in the client. It also offers an option to kill specific apps in case of VPN failure. A torrenting client should probably be at the top of your list for the selective kill switch feature.
Does CactusVPN keep logs?
This VPN service doesn’t keep logs of your online activities:
We do not store any IP addresses, traffic logs, connection timestamps, used bandwidth or session duration information that could be traced to a single person
The only information about you, such as your name or email address, is collected and stored exclusively to create and maintain your website account. This also means that nothing will be passed to third-parties.
In other words, the company doesn’t store any data that can lead back to you or identify you as an individual, while the VPN itself prevents your IP address from leaking to your ISP or any other parties.
Is CactusVPN leak-proof?
While our initial test in 2018 has found no IP, DNS, or WebRTC leaks, this time it turned for the worse. CactusVPN had DNS leaks according to three different tests. Even turning on the DNS leak protection setting didn’t help.
This is sad news because if a VPN service leaks your true IP address, there’s not much point in using it as all your actions can be easily traced back. We sincerely hope that CactusVPN will address this issue in the near future.
Speed and performance
CactusVPN offers 25 servers located in 15 countries, which is a low number compared to the bigger VPN brands on the block. The company looks to solve this problem by offering their Smart DNS service. It’s a method that tricks a geo-restricted website by changing your DNS settings to appear to be local instead of re-routing your internet connection traffic through a VPN server.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t help if you want to unblock content from countries other than the US, the UK, Germany, Poland, Canada, France, Sweden, Switzerland or Australia.
Speed test results
We performed a connection speed test for this CactusVPN review from Europe, with a baseline speed of 263 Mbps. We used the OpenVPN (TCP) protocol, which we choose for all of our tests when possible. Finally, we counted the speed drop-off from different locations with the VPN turned on.
Baseline speed, Europe
- Download: 263 Mbps
- Upload: 260 Mbps
Nearby location (Germany)
- Download: 72 Mbps (drop-off 73%)
- Upload: 84 Mbps (drop-off 68%)
The United Kingdom, London
- Download: 68 Mbps (drop-off 74%)
- Upload: 122 Mbps (drop-off 53%)
The United States, Manassas
- Download: 21 Mbps (drop-off 92%)
- Upload: 27 Mbps (drop-off 90%)
The United States, Los Angeles
- Download: 18 Mbps (drop-off 93%)
- Upload: 12 Mbps (drop-off 95%)
- Download: 7 Mbps (drop-off 97%)
- Upload: 1 Mbps (drop-off 99%)
- Download: 11 Mbps (drop-off 96%)
- Upload: 1 Mbps (drop-off 99%)
To conclude, CactusVPN offers good speeds in nearby locations and average or below-average results from locations on other continents. Having in mind that our baseline speeds were pretty high, be sure to experiment with different servers and protocols to see which combination works best for you.
Ease of use and multiplatform support
CactusVPN is available on the following devices and platforms:
- Android TV
- Amazon Fire TV
- Chrome (extension)
- Firefox (extension)
You can also manually set it up on Windows Phone, Ubuntu, Chromebook, Boxee Box, and multiple router models. Smart DNS and Proxy options support even more OS and devices.
You can connect five devices simultaneously, but they must use separate servers. This wouldn’t be a big deal if CactusVPN offered a larger server list. However, you can use CactusVPN on a router to make it seem as if you’re only using a single device.
Downloading and installing the CactusVPN client is easy.
The toughest part will be clicking that Next button multiple times before the setup finishes.
When you start the client, you’ll see a window asking you to choose whether you want to sign in to use the VPN or the Smart DNS service. Choose between the “VPN” and “Smart DNS” tabs. If you purchased the VPN-only version, choose “VPN” and input your login details.
The main menu of CactusVPN client is solely for choosing a location and connecting to the desired server, which can be clumsily sorted by the speed that probably translates into latency. The second tab is for connecting to Smart DNS if you bought a plan that includes it.
The Settings tab gives you some basic options like choosing a protocol, turning the kill switch or DNS leak protection on or off, and toggling when CactusVPN starts. The less common is the App Killer solution, which allows you to choose the programs that’ll close in case your VPN connection fails. This might prove useful if, for example, you’re torrenting in a country where it’s illegal while also downloading a huge update for your OS.
Unblocking Netflix and other streaming platforms
For streaming enthusiasts looking to avoid cycling through dozens of VPN servers, CactusVPN offers a premium option: Smart DNS. Smart DNS can unblock websites from a variety of regions at the same time without restriction. As an example of Smart DNS in action, you can stream a US-exclusive show on Netflix while you keep a live news report on BBC iPlayer running in another browser tab in the background.
Moreover, using Smart DNS to stream is usually faster, since your traffic is not routed through servers as it is with VPNs. Also, Smart DNS is easy to set up and configure, and you don’t have to possess the in-depth technical knowledge to do so.
You can also unblock Netflix and other streaming platforms via CactusVPN, but the results were far from encouraging. We managed to stream our movie on one of the US servers, while all of our other attempts ended up with Netflix catching us sneaking in from another country.
The speed was enough to stream Netflix in UHD (4K), because the service requires at least 25 Mbps and CactusVPN gave us 34 Mbps.
The results from other servers were also pretty decent. Even the most distant Australian one managed 18 Mbps, which is still good enough for Full HD, which is still good enough for most users.
P2P and torrenting
As you’re probably already aware, torrents are one of the best file sharing options. However, torrenting with CactusVPN is allowed on the European servers only. This means that you’ll need a good internet connection to have decent download speeds in other continents.
You can feel safe when torrenting with CactusVPN because they have a no-logs policy and there’s no personal data that can be given to the authorities. The only concern that we had is the DNS leaks. Therefore you should check for them first to be sure your connection is safe.
Is it good for users in China?
China is one of the few countries that have placed strict restrictions on internet activities for its residents. If you’re planning to visit China, odds are you’ll want a great VPN to help you access all the sites and services you want to while still preserving your privacy and anonymity.
Oddly enough, we did not manage to find any specific information regarding China on the CactusVPN website. This deliberate vagueness might indicate that CactusVPN cannot bypass China’s “Great Firewall.” However, we couldn’t positively ascertain this at the time of writing our CactusVPN review.
Theoretically, the lack of a “stealth protocol” means that this provider should have trouble avoiding the Deep Packet Inspection (DPI), which ultimately leads to a blocked service. Thus, we cannot duly recommend using CactusVPN in China.
CactusVPN subscribers have these support options:
- Setup tutorials
- Submitting a ticket
- Learning center
- How to start guide
CactusVPN offers customer service that mainly operates through a 24/7 ticketing system. After submitting a ticket, you should expect a prompt answer to your query – if you ever need to reach CactusVPN’s staff, that is. When we contacted the response desk for this CactusVPN review, we found them to be very helpful.
Unfortunately, their live chat is not a 24/7 service. But you can still reach them for 16 hours a day on Monday through Friday and for 8 hours a day on weekends.
If you prefer to make your own research first, their official website has dedicated user help sections. These include tutorials for setting up the CactusVPN apps on different platforms, a complete FAQ section, and an official Learning Centre for those who want to educate themselves about online safety.
Pricing & plans
CactusVPN offers four different plans with three pricing options for each:
- US VPN, UK VPN, or Smart DNS for $4.99/month
- US VPN, UK VPN, or Smart DNS for $12.99/quarterly (save 14%)
- US VPN, UK VPN, or Smart DNS for $38.99/year (save 35%)
- VPN + Smart DNS for $6.99/month
- VPN + Smart DNS for $17.99/quarterly (save 14%)
- VPN + Smart DNS for $54.99/year (save 35%)
While the savings are nothing to brag about, the price of the VPN + Smart DNS plan is adequate.
Although the Smart DNS plan is self-explanatory, the US and UK VPNs give you only servers in that particular country. Having in mind that the US has five and the UK has four, paying for that much is a ridiculous idea. We recommend either taking the VPN + Smart DNS plan or choosing another provider with a decent server fleet.
All plans come with a 30-day money back guarantee. A really nice addition is the 24-hour free trial that has no restrictions, allowing to test both the Smart DNS and the VPN service without bandwidth limits. You don’t need to fill in your payment details until you decide to subscribe.
When it comes to parting with your money, you can pay for a subscription by:
- Credit or debit card
- Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies
- Boleto Bancario
- Yandex Money
The list is quite impressive for a VPN of this caliber. What’s more, if you prefer your payments completely untraceable, CactusVPN gives you an anonymous payment option with BitPay.
This provider allows up to 5 different devices at a time. However, you cannot be connected to the same server at the same time.
So how did this VPN fare in the “sharpness vs. house plant” test from the intro section of our CactusVPN review? All in all, it’s somewhere in between.
This service has good privacy capabilities (save for the DNS leaks) and a decent pricing policy. The company also offers Smart DNS, which is a good alternative to VPN in terms of connection speed and unblocking streaming platforms. They also have a good customer support team and a variety of payment options, including an anonymous one.
The most glaring problem remains the lack of servers and locations, which makes torrenting a bit of an issue for some. That’s why at the moment we can recommend this provider only to European users.