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9 things to consider when choosing a VPN

Verified by Amy Reeves

Our digital footprint is expanding rapidly and the importance of online privacy and security cannot be overstated. A Virtual Private Network, or VPN, is an essential tool in the modern internet user’s arsenal. It encrypts your data, masks your online activity, and provides you with an anonymous IP address. This, though rare, effectively shields you from potential cyberthreats and intrusive surveillance.

However, with a plethora of VPN services available in the market, making the right choice can be a daunting task. Not all VPNs are created equal, and the best one for you depends on your specific needs and circumstances. That’s why we’ve put together this comprehensive guide to help you navigate the VPN landscape.

In this guide, we’ll delve into nine key factors you should consider when selecting a VPN:

Security and privacy: How robust is the VPN’s encryption? What security protocols does it use? Does it have a strict no-logs policy?

Server network and locations: How extensive is the VPN’s server network? Does it offer a wide geographical coverage?

Speed and performance: How does the VPN impact your internet speed? What factors affect its performance?

Compatibility and device support: Is the VPN compatible with your devices and operating systems? Does it allow simultaneous connections?

User-friendly interface and features: Is the VPN easy to use? Does it offer additional features like split tunnelling and ad-blocking?

Customer support and reputation: How responsive is the VPN’s customer support? What is its reputation among users and experts?

Pricing and plans: How much does the VPN cost? Does it offer good value for money?

Trial periods and money-back guarantees: Does the VPN offer a trial period or a money-back guarantee?

Additional factors: What other factors should you consider, such as VPN protocol options and bandwidth limitations, kill switch, Multi-hop, varying plans and split tunnelling. 

phil-png

What are the most important features in a VPN? Dr. Phil Legg Professor of Cyber Security at UWE

Most importantly, I want to be able to trust that my data is not being misused.

 

More companies are now offering a ‘no-log’ policy, meaning that I can use the service with confidence knowing that my data is not being used for other purposes. I would always want to ensure that the service has strong encryption – luckily most are using 256-bit AES nowadays which is currently the expectation.

 

VPN services will be slower than connecting without, so it is ensuring that this reduction in speed is acceptable for what I need to do online. Whilst most VPNs can be configured with mobile devices manually, having a good mobile app can enable a better experience for selecting geographical locations as required.

 

Cost is obviously an important consideration – there are plenty of free and paid-for options available, although it is important to give some consideration to what the business model of the company may be. Some will offer a free personal user service since their core business is for enterprise customers, however personal users may then experience a slow down of service.

Security and privacy

When choosing a VPN, it’s essential to consider the robustness of its encryption, the security protocols it uses, and its logging policy.

Robust encryption

Encryption is the process of encoding data so that only authorised parties can access it. A VPN with robust encryption ensures that your data is unreadable to anyone who might intercept it, be it hackers, your Internet Service Provider (ISP), or even governments.

Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) with 256-bit keys, often referred to as AES-256. This is the same level of encryption used by governments and cybersecurity experts worldwide, making it the gold standard in encryption.

Security protocols

A VPN’s security protocols determine how your data is routed between your device and the VPN server. Different protocols offer varying balances between speed and security. Protocols such as OpenVPN, IKEv2/IPSec are known for their high security and performance, providing a secure and seamless browsing experience.

No-logs policy

A strict no-logs policy is another crucial factor when choosing a VPN. This means the VPN provider does not store any records of your online activity. Ideally, this will have been audited by an independent third party. 

When it comes to security and privacy, it’s essential to choose a VPN that offers robust encryption, secure protocols, and a strict no-logs policy. These features ensure that your online activities are secure, private, and anonymous, giving you peace of mind as you browse the web.

Server network and locations

The amount of server locations should be an important part of looking for the right VPN — often the more servers, the better (NordVPN)

When choosing a VPN, the size and geographical spread of its server network are crucial factors to consider. These aspects can significantly influence the VPN’s performance, reliability and its ability to bypass geo-restrictions.

A VPN with a large server network can distribute its traffic more effectively, reducing the risk of server congestion and ensuring smoother, faster connections. More servers means more connection options, increasing the likelihood of finding a server that offers optimal performance.

The geographical coverage of the server network is equally important. A VPN with servers spread across a wide range of locations around the globe allows you to virtually ‘travel’ to more countries. This is particularly useful if you’re looking to bypass geo-restrictions – digital barriers that restrict access to content based on your geographical location.

For instance, streaming platforms, such as Netflix and BBC iPlayer,  offer different content libraries in different countries. If you live in the UK, are travelling abroad and want to access content only available for UK audiences, you’ll require a VPN with servers in the UK. By connecting to a UK server, your IP address will appear to be from the UK, granting you access to the UK library as if you were browsing from home.

The size and geographical coverage of a VPN’s server network play a significant role in the service’s performance and its ability to bypass geo-restrictions. Therefore, when choosing a VPN, it’s worth considering these factors to ensure you select a service that meets your specific needs.

Speed and performance

While VPNs offer a host of benefits, from enhancing online privacy to bypassing geo-restrictions, they can also negatively impact your internet speed. Understanding how and why this happens can help you choose a VPN that minimises this impact, ensuring a smooth and efficient online experience.

When you connect to a VPN, your internet traffic is routed through an encrypted tunnel to a VPN server before reaching its destination. This process, while crucial for securing your data, can slow down your internet speed. The level of encryption, the distance between you and the VPN server, and the quality of the VPN server can all influence the speed.

Server load and bandwidth

The number of users connected to a particular VPN server (server load) and the total amount of data those users are transmitting (bandwidth) can significantly impact the speed of your VPN connection. If a server is crowded or its bandwidth is almost fully utilised, you may experience slower speeds. That’s why VPNs with many servers and high bandwidth limits tend to offer better performance.

Protocol selection

The VPN protocol you choose can also affect your speed. VPN protocols determine how data is routed between your device and the VPN server. Some protocols prioritise speed, while others focus on security. For instance, PPTP (Point-to-Point Tunnelling Protocol) is fast but less secure, while OpenVPN offers a good balance between speed and security. More recent protocols like WireGuard are designed to offer high speed and security.

While VPNs can impact your internet speed, choosing a VPN with a large server network, high bandwidth limits, and flexible protocol options can help minimise this impact. It’s also worth noting that a slight reduction in speed is a small price to pay for the enhanced security and privacy that a VPN provides.

Compatibility and device support

We often find ourselves switching between multiple devices and operating systems throughout the day. Whether you’re browsing on your laptop, streaming on your smart TV, or checking emails on your smartphone, maintaining your online privacy and security across all these devices is crucial. That’s where the compatibility and device support of your chosen VPN comes into play.

Device and operating system compatibility

A good VPN should offer broad compatibility, supporting a range of devices and operating systems. Whether you’re using a Windows PC, a MacBook, an Android smartphone, or an iPhone, your VPN should have you covered. Some VPNs even offer support for less common platforms like Linux, routers, and smart TVs.

Before choosing a VPN, it’s important to ensure that it offers dedicated apps for all the devices you intend to use. These apps should be user-friendly and easy to set up, allowing you to connect to the VPN with just a few clicks.

Consider what types of devices you have and be sure your chosen VPN can adequately support the operating systems. (Surfshark)

Simultaneous device connections

Another important factor to consider is the number of simultaneous device connections the VPN allows. This refers to how many devices you can connect to the VPN at the same time using a single account. If you have multiple devices or if there are several people in your household who will be using the VPN, you’ll need a service that allows for multiple simultaneous connections.

Some VPNs offer unlimited simultaneous connections, while others may limit you to a certain number, typically between three and seven. Make sure to choose a VPN that meets your specific needs in this regard.

Router compatibility

Another key factor to consider is router compatibility. A VPN-compatible router can be important, especially for households with multiple internet-connected devices. By installing a VPN on your router, you can protect all devices connected to your home network, even those that don’t natively support VPNs, like certain smart home devices.

Connecting your VPN through a router counts as only one connection towards your limit, no matter how many devices are using the network. This is a great way to bypass the simultaneous connection limit imposed by some VPN providers.

For instance, NordVPN, ExpressVPN, and Surfshark all offer detailed guides on their websites on how to set up their VPN on various router models. However, it’s important to note that not all routers are VPN-compatible, and some might require a more advanced setup.

When choosing a VPN, ensure it supports all your devices, allows for enough simultaneous connections, and is compatible with your router. This will allow you to enjoy a secure, private, and seamless online experience across all your device

Compatibility and device support are key factors to consider when choosing a VPN. By ensuring that your VPN supports all your devices and allows for enough simultaneous connections, you can enjoy a secure and private online experience across all your devices.

User-friendly interface and features

While the technical aspects of a VPN are undoubtedly important, the user experience should not be overlooked. After all, a VPN is a tool that you’ll be interacting with regularly, and its usability can significantly impact your overall online experience.

Intuitive VPN interface

An intuitive, user-friendly interface is a key feature of any good VPN. It should be easy to navigate, allowing you to connect to a server, change settings and understand your connection status at a glance. Whether you’re a tech-savvy user or a VPN novice, the process of setting up and using the VPN should be straightforward and hassle-free.

Some VPNs offer a one-click connect feature, which automatically selects the best server for you, making the process even simpler. Others provide an interactive map interface, allowing you to select a server by clicking on its location on the map.

Additional features

Beyond the basic functionality of masking your IP address and encrypting your data, many VPNs offer additional features that can enhance your online experience.

One such feature is split tunnelling, which allows you to choose which apps or websites are routed through the VPN and which are not. This can be useful if you want to access foreign content on a streaming app while maintaining local access to other apps or websites.

Ad-blocking is another useful feature offered by some VPNs. By blocking ads, these VPNs can enhance your browsing experience, reduce data usage, and even improve loading speeds.

Some VPNs offer built-in malware protection, adding an extra layer of security to your online activities. This feature can protect you from a range of threats, including phishing attacks, malicious websites, and harmful downloads.

Customer support and reputation

When it comes to VPN services, the quality of customer support and the overall reputation of the VPN provider are crucial factors to consider.

Customer support

Even with the most user-friendly VPN, you may occasionally encounter issues or have questions about its features or settings. In such instances, responsive and helpful customer support can make a significant difference. Good customer support can help you resolve issues quickly, minimising disruption to your online activities.

When evaluating a VPN’s customer support, consider the different support channels they offer. Do they provide 24/7 live chat support with an option to interact with a real person, not a bot? Can you reach them via email or phone? Is there a comprehensive knowledge base or FAQ section on their website? The more support options available, the easier it will be to get help when you need it.

Reputation and reviews

A VPN provider’s reputation is a testament to its reliability, performance, and customer satisfaction. User reviews can provide valuable insights into the real-world performance of the VPN and the quality of its customer support. However, remember to take individual reviews with a grain of salt, as they can sometimes be biased or based on isolated experiences.

VPN provider Trustpilot reviews Trustpilot rating Phone support Email support Live chat support
NordVPN 24,552 87% No Yes Yes
ExpressVPN 14,911 92% No Yes Yes
SurfShark 4,809 85% No Yes Yes

Pricing and plans

When it comes to choosing a VPN, pricing and the structure of the plans offered are significant factors to consider. The cost of a VPN can vary widely, and the best choice for you will depend on your budget and your specific needs.

Pricing models

Most VPNs offer several pricing models, typically including monthly, annual, and multi-year plans. As a general rule, the longer the term of the plan, the lower the monthly cost. For example, a VPN might cost £10 per month if you pay monthly, but only £5 per month if you pay annually. This means that while you’ll pay more upfront for an annual plan, you’ll save money in the long run.

However, it’s important to consider more than just the cost. The value provided by the VPN – in terms of its features, performance, and customer support – is equally important. A cheap VPN might save you money, but if it doesn’t meet your needs or provide a reliable service, it’s not a good deal.

Comparing prices across providers

Based on the data from the PDF you provided, here’s a comparison of the pricing for three popular VPNs:

VPN provider Monthly plan Annual plan Multi-year plan
NordVPN £10.39 £3.99/month £2.79/month
ExpressVPN £10.34 £5.98/month N/A
SurfShark £10 £3.08/month £1.77/month

As you can see, while the monthly prices are similar, there’s a significant difference in the cost of the annual and multi-year plans. SurfShark offers the cheapest multi-year plan, while ExpressVPN doesn’t offer a multi-year plan at all.

When choosing a VPN, it’s important to consider both the cost and the value provided. By comparing the pricing and plans of different VPNs, you can find a service that fits your budget and meets your needs. 

Varying plans

Many VPNs offer varying levels of packages, with additional servers, protocols, or features for an increased fee. For example, a basic plan might offer access to a limited number of servers and connect a certain number of devices, while a premium plan might offer access to more servers, advanced security features, such as a double VPN, priority customer support and more devices connected at the same time.

When choosing a plan, consider your specific needs. If you’re a casual user who just wants to secure your internet connection and access geo-restricted content, a basic plan might suffice. However, if you’re in a position which requires advanced features, multiple simultaneous connections, or access to a large number of servers worldwide, a premium plan might be more suitable.

Different VPNs come equipped with different features and capabilities – carefully consider how you will use it to support your online activity. (Express VPN)

Trial periods and money-back guarantees

Committing to a VPN service can feel like a leap of faith, especially given the multitude of options available and the varying quality of services. That’s where trial periods and money-back guarantees come into play. These policies allow you to try out a VPN service before fully committing, reducing the risk of your investment.

The importance of trial periods

A trial period allows you to test a VPN service for a limited time without any commitment. During this period, you can evaluate the VPN’s performance, features, and user-friendliness, ensuring it meets your specific needs and expectations.

Some VPN providers offer free trials, while others offer trials for a small fee. Either way, a trial period gives you the opportunity to experience the service in your everyday online activities, from browsing and streaming to gaming and downloading. Some VPNs also offer free versions, which could also be used as a free trial period, but they usually have reduced capabilities. 

Money-back guarantees and refund policies

In addition to trial periods, many VPN providers offer money-back guarantees. This means that if you’re not satisfied with the service within a certain period after purchase (usually 30 days, but sometimes up to 45), you can request a full refund.

A money-back guarantee allows you to use the full-featured VPN service for an extended period, giving you a better understanding of what the service has to offer. It also demonstrates the provider’s confidence in their product; they’re willing to give you your money back if you’re not satisfied. 

Additional factors to consider

While the factors we’ve discussed so far are crucial in choosing a VPN, there are additional considerations that can further influence your decision. In addition to a lack of bandwidth limitations, a variety of protocols and multiple device connections, these include a kill switch, Multi-hop capabilities and specialised servers for gaming or torrenting. 

A kill switch is a security feature that automatically disconnects your device from the internet if your VPN connection drops unexpectedly. This ensures that your real IP address and personal data aren’t exposed, even if there’s a problem with your VPN. If you’re concerned about maintaining your privacy at all times, look for a VPN that includes a kill switch feature.

Multi-hop, also known as DoubleVPN, is a feature that routes your internet connection through two VPN servers instead of just one. This adds an extra layer of security and makes it even harder for anyone to trace your online activities. If you’re particularly concerned about security, or if you’re in a high-risk situation where your online privacy is of utmost importance, a VPN with a Multi-hop feature could be a good choice.

Some VPNs also offer specific servers optimised for certain activities. For example, if you’re planning to use your VPN for torrenting, you’ll want a VPN that offers dedicated P2P servers. Similarly, if you’re a gamer, look for a VPN that offers servers optimised for gaming. These servers are designed to provide low latency and fast speeds, improving your gaming experience.

The best VPN for you will depend on your specific needs. Make sure to consider all these factors and choose a VPN that offers the right balance of security, privacy, performance, and additional features.

VPN provider Protocol options Simultaneous connections Bandwidth limitations Kill switch Multi-hop Specialised servers
NordVPN OpenVPN, IKEv2/IPSec, NordLynx (WireGuard) 6 Unlimited Yes Yes, Double VPN P2P and torrenting servers
ExpressVPN OpenVPN, IKEv2/IPSec, Lightway (proprietary) 5 (monthly plan) 8 (6/12 month plan) Unlimited Yes No P2P and torrenting servers
SurfShark OpenVPN, IKEv2/IPSec, WireGuard Unlimited Unlimited Yes Yes, Dynamic Multi-hop Torrenting servers

Choosing the right VPN for you

Selecting the perfect VPN for your needs is a balance of various factors, each playing a pivotal role in your online experience. Let’s take a moment to recap these key considerations:

Security and privacy: Your digital safety is paramount. opt for a VPN that champions robust encryption, employs secure protocols, adheres to a strict no-logs policy, and bolsters your security with additional features like a kill switch and DNS leak protection.

Server network and locations: Broaden your digital horizons. A VPN with an extensive server network and global coverage empowers you to bypass geo-restrictions and unlock a world of region-specific content.

Speed and performance: Don’t compromise on speed. While VPNs can influence your internet speed, selecting a VPN with a vast server network, generous bandwidth limits, and adaptable protocol options can help keep any slowdown to a minimum.

Compatibility and device support: One size should fit all. Your VPN should be a digital chameleon, compatible with all your devices and offering enough simultaneous connections to cover your digital ecosystem.

User-friendly interface and features: Embrace simplicity and versatility. Seek out a VPN with an intuitive interface and bonus features like split tunnelling, ad-blocking, and malware protection for a seamless and enhanced online experience.

Customer support and reputation: Trust in the tried and tested. A VPN with responsive customer support and a sterling reputation is more likely to deliver a reliable, top-tier service.

Pricing and plans: Balance cost with value. Consider both the price tag and the value offered by the VPN. Remember, longer-term plans often provide the best bang for your buck.

Trial periods and money-back guarantees: Try before you buy. These policies allow you to test the VPN service before fully committing, ensuring it’s the right fit for you and reducing the risk of your investment.

Additional factors: Sweat the small stuff. Don’t overlook VPN protocol options, the number of simultaneous connections, and any potential bandwidth limitations. These can all influence your VPN experience.

Remember, the perfect VPN for you hinges on your specific needs. Whether you’re a streaming enthusiast, a privacy advocate, or a globe-trotting digital nomad, there’s a VPN out there that’s tailor-made for you. Take the time to consider your needs, do your research, and you’ll find a VPN that offers a secure, private, and enjoyable online experience. 

Frequently asked questions about choosing the right VPN

There are several VPN protocols, each offering a different balance of speed and security. OpenVPN is widely regarded as the most secure due to its high level of encryption and open-source nature, which allows for regular security audits. However, newer protocols like WireGuard are gaining popularity for their combination of speed and security.

Most reputable VPN providers offer apps for both Android and iOS devices. These apps allow you to secure your mobile internet connection, safeguard your data, and access geo-restricted content, all from the palm of your hand.

While free VPNs can be appealing, they often come with limitations such as data caps, fewer servers, slower speeds, and potentially weaker security. Paid VPNs, on the other hand, typically offer a more robust set of features, stronger security, and better performance. If online privacy is a priority for you, a paid VPN is generally the better choice.

The best way to determine if a VPN keeps logs is to check its privacy policy. Trustworthy VPNs adhere to a strict no-logs policy, meaning they don’t keep any records of your online activities. However, the specifics of what constitutes “logs” can vary, so it’s crucial to read the policy carefully.

Round up of today’s best VPN deals
NordVPN 2 year £2.49 /Month
£2.49 /Month
Surfshark 24 month £1.79 /Month
£1.79 /Month
ExpressVPN 12 month £6.77 /Month
£6.77 /Month
CyberGhost 2 year £1.78 /Month
£1.78 /Month
Proton 2 year £4.27 /Month
£4.27 /Month
PIA 2 year £1.57 /Month
£1.57 /Month
Atlas 2 year £1.34 /Month
£1.34 /Month
PrivadoVPN 2 year £1.99 /Month
£1.99 /Month
Windscribe 12 month £4.53 /Month
£4.53 /Month
IPVanish 2 year £3.58 /Month
£3.58 /Month

Mark Oldham

Writer

Mark is the IT Manager and a governor at Sir John Thursby College, in Burnley, having joined the college as an IT Technician more than 10 years ago. He also writes about IT, education, and cyber security topics, and has written a book, a guide to Windows 11.

For the Independent Advisor, Mark writes about the benefits of VPNs as well as cyber security and helping people stay safe online.

Amy Reeves

Editor

Amy is a seasoned writer and editor with a special interest in home design, sustainable technology and green building methods.

She has interviewed hundreds of self-builders, extenders and renovators about their journeys towards individual, well-considered homes, as well as architects and industry experts during her five years working as Assistant Editor at Homebuilding & Renovating, part of Future plc.

Amy’s work covers topics ranging from home, interior and garden design to DIY step-by-steps, planning permission and build costs, and has been published in Period Living, Real Homes, and 25 Beautiful Homes, Homes and Gardens.

Now an Editor at the Independent Advisor, Amy manages homes-related content for the site, including solar panels, combi boilers, and windows.

Her passion for saving tired and inefficient homes also extends to her own life; Amy completed a renovation of a mid-century house in 2022 and is about to embark on an energy-efficient overhaul of a 1800s cottage in Somerset.