Image: joshua l via flickr

If you've been thinking about trying online dating, you've probably thought a lot about what site you should start with. There are thousands of dating sites available today, from niche sites for people with very specific tastes or interests to large mainstream sites like Match.com and eHarmony. After you've decided whether you want a large site or a small one, the next decision is whether to pay for a subscription to a dating site, try the free version or a free trial of a paid site, or sign up for an entirely free site.

Free Dating Sites:

Free dating sites can be attractive because, well, they're free. You can make a profile and start communicating right away, without paying a thing. There are some downsides to this, however. With such a low barrier to entry, lots of people join free dating sites when they're not quite sure if they want to try online dating or not, and many lose interest quickly, so there are lots of inactive profiles and people who don't respond to their messages. If you're really serious about meeting someone online, it may take longer on a free site with less motivated members than it would on a paid site where everyone is paying to date and therefore taking the process more seriously.

Free dating sites also lack the screening that some paid sites provide. For example, Match.com filters members against sex offender registries to try to screen out people who pose a danger to their community. This is absolutely not a fail-proof method (and you should still be careful when meeting new people!), but since users must pay with a credit card (and therefore provide proof of their identity) it's possible for Match, while free dating sites don't have any way of verifying who people really are.

Free Profile on a Paid Site:

Most paid dating sites will let you browse or get started for free. Generally, you can set up your profile and see other users. Sometimes, you can even communicate with them for free. However, a paid account will significantly increase what you can do. With Match.com, Chemistry.com, and eHarmony, for example, signing up for a paid account will let you use all their communication tools and respond to messages you receive.

Full Membership with a Paid Site:

Paying for membership to a paid dating site will give you full access to all the site's features, including communication tools, winks, and advanced tools. What the paid membership includes can vary from site to site, but you should be able to see all the benefits before you pay. With a number of the sites we review, we have free trials of the paid features, which you can access using a coupon code available at the end of the review in the "see all discounts" section. Some sites, like Chemistry.com and eHarmony, also do free communication weekends periodically, so you could take advantage of one of those weekends to try out the service. (Keep tabs on our blog to find out about those weekends a few days before they happen.)

So What's the Bottom Line?

In general, yes, there are benefits to paid dating sites. The dating site that's best for you may depend on your goals and personal taste, but for many people we strongly recommend at least trying out a free trial of one of the top paid dating sites. We like that having to pay for a membership weeds out the dating pool to just people who are really interested in going out on dates and meeting someone, and we also appreciate the extra screening these sites can use on their members. And with a free trial or just one month of membership, it's not a huge investment if you don't like it. For even less commitment, keep an eye out for free communication weekends.

Online Dating