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What to Look For in a VPN Service Provider

ExpressVPN running on a Windows 11-powered gaming PC
Justin Duino / Review Geek
Looking at a VPN service provider’s website can be overwhelming and sometimes misleading. With this guide, you’ll know exactly which features are important and how to navigate the technical jargon and hidden policies on a VPN provider’s website before choosing your VPN service.

Whether you’re a technological pro or a novice, choosing a VPN provider is a daunting task. There are so many options out there that claim to offer the best, most secure experience, but each company throws around different buzzwords and confusing lingo. When you know exactly what to look for in a VPN service provider, this process is a lot less intimidating.

Do Your Own Research

When you’re searching for a VPN, it’s incredibly important to perform your own research. This guide will help you know what to look for in a VPN service provider, but you should take this knowledge and compare it to every VPN service provider you’re considering.

If you look at your favorite YouTuber who’s been sponsored by a particular VPN service, it’s important to remember that they’re paid to talk up that VPN service. Granted, many YouTubers will only take sponsorships from companies they believe in, but it’s worth noting. Major websites will also advertise major VPN services sometimes, but anything paid should be marked as such.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t consider articles from major websites or the thoughts of your favorite YouTuber. You absolutely can, and this can be a great way to start a list of VPN service providers you want to look into, but you shouldn’t make your final decision based on those opinions. Instead, take your list of possible VPN service providers and start looking into them one by one on the company’s website.

Pick Your Price (Don’t Go For a Free Plan)

There are plenty of free VPN services out there, but they’re not really free. Companies have to make money in some way, and if they’re not getting money from you, they’re getting it by promoting ads or by selling your personal data. Most people think about investing in a VPN to get away from these two things, so choosing the free route just doesn’t make sense.

Even the best VPN services don’t cost all that much, so springing for a paid plan over a free plan won’t set you back that much. Some companies may give you a free trial or a money-back guarantee so you can test out the service before making your final decision.


Like many other subscriptions, a VPN service subscription is typically offered at a monthly rate and a yearly rate. If you’re new to the service, you might opt for the monthly route just in case you want to switch to a different VPN service provider.

But if you think you’ve found your VPN service provider for life, an annual subscription will save you money. On average, a VPN service will cost you about $5 to $10 every month. The price drops by about $1 to $2 per month if you decide to pay annually.

Some VPN service providers even offer lifetime subscriptions, which means you pay a one-time fee rather than a monthly or yearly fee. Choosing a lifetime subscription is a bit of a gamble. On one hand, you can save a lot of money. On the other hand, you’re trusting the company not to go out of business or decrease support to your lifetime tier account because there’s no incentive of continual pay.

Make Sure There’s a Kill Switch

In short, a Kill Switch feature within a VPN service is a protective mechanism that helps keep your connection safe. The Kill Switch continuously monitors your connection to the remote VPN server, and if the connection drops in any way, it’ll cut off internet access to your device. This is important because it ensures that your device will automatically be disconnected from internet access until you’re able to reestablish the VPN connection.

Location and Number of Servers

A VPN connection is established between your device and a remote IP address, usually in a different country. Because of this remote connection over a traditionally long distance, there are three important details you should consider about a potential VPN provider’s servers: location, number of servers, and how fast the servers can and will be.

There are two different location-related matters to think about. First, you need to consider the VPN service provider’s home country because companies are required to follow the laws of its home country. Some laws can dictate whether a company is required to deny your privacy and collect, store, and provide data to its local authorities. Many VPN service providers will have server locations all over the world, but where the company is based is more important.

If you don’t want a government to obtain your data, it’s a good idea to avoid VPN service providers based in any country associated with the Fourteen Eyes Alliance. This includes the UK, US, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Norway, Belgium, Italy, Spain, Sweden, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Australia. Any of these countries may be able to obligate a VPN provider into disclosing personal user data at any time. Instead of these countries, try looking for a VPN from Switzerland, Iceland, Panama, Romania, or the British Virgin Islands.

Going this extreme route for absolute privacy isn’t necessary if all you want with a VPN service is no tracking from advertisers and protection from hackers in public spaces. A VPN from any of the countries listed above will give you privacy from an ISP and protection from hackers.

Second, it’s important to pay attention to where the VPN server you’re connecting to is located. When you fire up your VPN service on your device, you can see where your cloaked IP address is located. That information is never hidden from you when you connect.

If you want full privacy from governments as well as your ISP and hackers, the country that your VPN server is located in is just as important as the country the company is based in. Paying attention to your server location is also essential for accessing geo-blocked content on Netflix or YouTube. If you already know the content you might want to watch, see which country the content is available in, and then make sure your VPN service provider has server locations in that country.

Youtube image of Nord VPN servers worldwide
Nord Security

Most VPN service providers will have many servers to handle a large influx of traffic and give the company room to grow as more people invest in a VPN service. As an example, NordVPN has over 5,000 servers. Generally speaking, the more servers a VPN provider has, the faster and more reliable your connection will be. That said, if you’re checking out a smaller VPN provider and the company only has 500 to 1,000 servers, that doesn’t automatically mean your service will be horribly slow.

The number of servers a VPN provider has will impact your overall performance speed and bandwidth, but so will simply establishing a VPN connection. When you use a different IP address other than the one that’s at your current location, there’s going to be a slight delay in speed. However, prolonged buffering during video playback or a download is something no one wants, and you shouldn’t have to experience that with a good VPN service.

Many free VPN services or low-end paid plans will limit or cap your internet usage even if you have an unlimited plan with your Internet Service Provider (ISP). If a VPN provider offers unique configurations for different purposes, like streaming, gaming, and so on, that’s a good sign. But unfortunately, the only way to truly know the speeds you’ll get with a VPN provider is to try it out yourself. This is another instance where a free trial or a money-back guarantee come in handy.

Strong Encryption Protocols

The biggest selling point of a VPN service is that your data is encrypted when it’s traveling back and forth between your device and the remote VPN server. When your personal, private data is traversing the internet from one point to another and back, strong and reliable encryption protocols are immensely important.

Two keys and a keyhole with one's and zero's inside depicting encryption
Nord Security

Though it is helpful, you don’t necessarily need to know how a VPN securely encrypts your connection. You just need to know a few keywords or terms to look out for while you’re searching for a VPN service provider. Information about the company’s encryption and security protocols should be easy to find—and often prominently displayed—on its website.

Two of the most popular features in secure VPN services include AES-256 encryption and OpenVPN or IKEv2 protocols. You should definitely avoid any VPN providers offering 128-bit encryption rather than 256-bit because it’s less secure, and that extra bit of protection is worth it. Bonus points if a VPN service provider accepts anonymous payments and incorporates open-source software, including but not limited to OpenVPN protocols.

Two-Factor Authentication

Many people are familiar with Two-Factor Authentication through their email address accounts or bank accounts. Put simply, Two-Factor Authentication (2FA) ensures that if you log in from an unfamiliar location, you’ll receive an authentication code to your email address or smartphone, depending on how it’s set up.

2FA plays a huge role in preventing phishing attacks, which involve a hacker getting their hands on someone’s login credentials through one scam or another. In order to prevent a hacker from logging into someone’s account—even with the correct credentials—2FA adds an extra layer of authentication and requires a user to verify their identity with a one-time password, usually sent by email or text and only valid for a short amount of time.

It’s important to note that even with 2FA, a VPN service isn’t immune to hackers or credential theft. The best defense to being hacked is having an amazingly secure password that’s difficult to guess, and optimally, a string of random characters. Of course, these passwords are difficult to remember, so having a password manager is essential.

Multi-Device Availability

It’s possible that you could just need a VPN service for your laptop while you’re in the airport or your local coffee shop. But if you’re investing your hard-earned money in a VPN service, why not choose one that offers protection for all your devices? You can use a VPN service with your laptop, desktop, smartphone, or tablet, as long as it’s offered by the provider you choose.

Drawing of a laptop, desktop, tablet, and smartphone setting in a row

When researching multi-device availability with a VPN service provider, you should pay attention to how many devices your VPN service could protect in total as well as simultaneously. Also, be sure to check that all of your platforms and operating systems are supported in the VPN service you’re looking at.

For Full Privacy, Choose a No-Log VPN

Without a VPN service, your internet browsing habits are monitored by your Internet Service Provider (ISP). Everything that you do online—especially shopping of any kind—is tracked, stored, and often sold as a neat bundle of data to advertising agencies or governments. When you select a VPN service provider and start using a VPN while you’re browsing online, you might think that it automatically prevents data collection of your browsing history, but this isn’t always the case.

A VPN service provider that advertises “no logs” or “zero logs” is one that doesn’t store any data on the websites you visit or files you download while connected to a VPN server. Sometimes, a VPN provider will claim to keep no logs when it actually keeps quite a few, so it’s important to investigate the company’s privacy policy.

It’s impossible for a VPN to keep absolutely zero logs because at the very least, the company will have your login info and email address on file. However, some VPN providers save way more data than is necessary, like your originating IP address, your entire online history, your name, and other information about the device you’re connected to the VPN server from. These data-hungry VPN providers are the ones you’ll want to avoid. By thoroughly reading a VPN service provider’s privacy policy, you can identify what data each one hangs onto and what they do with the stored data.

Sarah Chaney Sarah Chaney
Sarah Chaney is a professional freelance writer for Review Geek, Android Authority, MakeUseOf, and other great websites. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English with a Creative Writing concentration. Her degree, paired with her almost two years of professionally writing for websites, helps her write content that is engaging, yet informative. She enjoys covering anything Android, video game, or tech related. Read Full Bio »