What to look for in a VPN service

If you’re shopping around for VPN service, then knowledge is certainly buying power.

In a world of NSA spying, social media algorithms and governmental censorship, a VPN is becoming part and parcel of our daily online requirements.

So, what do you look for?

In a nutshell, a VPN – Virtual Private Network’s job is to maintain privacy, anonymity and encrypt your data. Therefore, you are looking for the best service that provides these in a way that suits you.

As we know, we don’t all need the same thing.

Depending upon who you are and what your role is, you might decide to simply go for the top of the range package and be done with it. This post will tell you exactly what to look for.

You might be more specific and want to understand what you are buying, or you might have a specific need for a certain time frame, again, this post will tell you what to look for and suggest what you need.

 

Let’s first talk money:

Money

Usually budget is a large, or even the main factor when you sign up for a new subscription service.  With VPN services, the prices are very reasonable, often the top end packages are no more than $20 a month. If you pay annually, it can work out a lot cheaper, so look for those deals.  Of course, you may simply want the cover for a few months, but even then, the prices are generally very good.

There is one caveat here – don’t go for the free options. Researchers have looked into several free VPN services and found some of them don’t even do the basic job of encryption, which begs the question, what are they doing with your data?

 

VPNs are invaluable for the following:

Privacy

Encrypting your data

Bypassing censorship

Geographic restrictions

Torrenting

Public Wi-Fi

The Full Monty.

If you want to go for the entire package the following is what you are looking for:

Strong initial handshake: The hello can I trust you start to your VPN session. You want an   RSA encrypted handshake, one that is as secure as possible.

Excellent levels of encryption: AES-256-CBC. OpenVPN. 2048 bit or better handshake. Forward secrecy.

OpenVPN is harder to block as it runs along similar technology to SSL protocols and can be hard to tell from the HTTPS, that is used to connect to secure websites.

Speed: At least 1Gbps. To give you an idea of how fast this is, to download an MP3 file of 3MB will take less than 1 second.  To download a TV episode of 350MB, takes 3 seconds. 10Gbps is similar to warp speed. (Though server location, in many instances can be more important than speed.)

Servers: Look for a company that has servers dotted around the globe and are real servers.  We are talking bare metal, not virtual, not cloud-based, and double check they are not ‘virtual VPN locations’ i.e. they say they have a server in Pakistan, but actually it’s just down the road in Florida.  This is important for geopolitical censorship, for speed, for the honesty of your provider and for accessing websites that have licenses only in specific countries.

IP addresses: Look for a service that offers plenty of IP addresses with options. Shared IP is popular because if many people are using the same IP, it’s hard to trace a single user.

No logging: This may sound like a no-brainer, but if you want to be anonymous – why then have the company log everything you do?  Look for a company that has a strict no logging policy. This also applies to payment methods. If you want to pay by cryptocurrency due to privacy – make sure that’s an option too.

Bandwidth: Most of us stream our movies, our music, etc. As such bandwidth is important. You should be looking for unlimited bandwidth, with no restrictions.

Customer service: This is a big one. There is no point in signing up to a service if when you need them you get crickets, or, you have to wait days for a reply. 24/7 is what you are looking for, and a decent response time with it.

Money back guarantee: This gives you piece of mind that you’re dealing with decent folk. If their service isn’t right for you, you need the peace of mind that you can get your money back. Simple decency really.

Concurrent connections: Probably not something that comes to mind immediately, but if you are in the coffee shop on public Wi-Fi and your laptop has VPN but your phone doesn’t, and you need to access something on your phone, it may expose you to the possibly dodgy free network. Look for deals with a minimum of two concurrent connections. Phone and laptop as a minimum.

What else do they offer? Look for exclusive extras that take the service up a notch above the others. What are they offering – such as access to iPlayer, Netflix, modulating IP addresses?  What are they offering that the others aren’t?

 

Let’s put these into a few real-life situations, to give you more of an idea of what you need.

 

Reasonable Anonymity: You want to look as if you are coming from a different IP address.

Anonymity

Your IP address is your ‘home address’ and is easily traced back to you. VPNs maintain your privacy and hide your IP, but not all VPNs will do this in the same way.

What you need. Ideally, you want a large number of IP address that dynamically (randomly) apply one public IP address per user. You might consider servers outside of the country you are in to make it look as if you are based in another country. You’ll want a no logging policy and a fairly wide user base with many users sharing one public IP address. Shared IPs give more privacy as it’s harder to locate one person among many using the same IP.  Think of looking for a needle in a haystack.

Dynamic IPs are better for port forwarding and general surfing/gaming/streaming.

Look at how often you can swap the IP, and how often the service does this for you. Some services always used a shared IP – meaning many of their customers are on that one IP address. Of course, some websites wise up to this and put restrictions in place, hence the need to change the IP.  We do not recommend static IP addresses as they can be easier to trace; we recommend using shared IPs, public IPs or modulating IPs.

 

 Public Wi-Fi

Public Wi-Fi

A VPN will give you secure access to a public network. Public Wi-Fi is notoriously unsafe with who knows who having a rifle through your data. If public Wi-Fi is your concern, then you need to ensure the VPN uses the best encryption. Plus, some public Wi-Fi hotspots may not give you access to certain sites because the owner of the hotspot can set the parameters.

What you need: You are looking for strong encryption that will hide your data and your location. Encryption is the most important consideration with public Wi-Fi.

You’ll want shared IP addresses as this gives you added privacy, and some VPN services will provide a firewall along with this. Don’t forget connection to at least two devices simultaneously – phone and laptop. You can, of course, opt for the public IP and modulating IP.

 

Geographic restrictions:  Are you traveling, and or wanting access to a site on another continent?

Geographic Restrictions

This is becoming more of an issue and will probably become even more prevalent due to licensing laws. Recently the EU brought in new privacy measures, and this has resulted in many websites not being available from certain global locations.

The most widely referenced restrictions are Netflix and the BBC.

If you need to ‘be’ in a different country to access their websites, then you need to make sure the VPN service has servers in the location you need to ‘be’ in. For example, if you are in Iceland and you want to watch iPlayer, you can’t unless the website believes you are in the UK or a country that has the iPlayer license. Not all VPNs will get around this, so check on the website if they offer this specific service.

When it comes to Netflix, you can ‘be’ in the USA and so get the entire catalog, not the half catalog that those outside of the USA have to tolerate.

What you need: As well as the obvious hiding your location with a dynamic or public  IP address and  strong encryption, you want to look for a diverse number of servers and check the location of them – again, if you need to ‘be’ in the UK, then you want to make sure the company has a server there, or, the company has a way to proxy traffic to those sites internally.

 

Torrenting:

Torrenting

Torrenting is essentially file sharing, but instead of downloading or sharing a file in one go, torrenting breaks the file up into smaller ‘packets’. These packets are shared throughout a network of computers that are downloading the same file, but they all have slightly different parts of the file, as such, you can be downloading and uploading at the same time. This affects bandwidth.

What you need: If torrenting is for you, you need a VPN that hides your download and upload trail and has a kill switch should the VPN drop. A kill switch is important because if the service drops, your computer will revert back to your IP address. A kill switch does as it says and cuts the entire connection to the internet should the VPN connection stop.   You also need a no logging policy erasing any digital footprint, and one that preferably doesn’t send you DMCA notifications, because, no logging, right? Speed is very important – as torrenting can be frustrating on a slow connection.  You also want a service that offers P2P. It goes without saying that you also want high-level encryption and unlimited bandwidth.

 

We really hope this helps you gain a much better understanding of VPN services and how they can assist you. For more information about VPNs, do have a look at our blog and our informative internet guides.