How to Find the Best VPN Service For Your NeedsWe’ve written about how great virtual private networks, or VPNs, are for protecting your privacy online. We’ve also written about how dangerous using a free VPN can be, and how many of them make money by selling user data or don’t provide a private network, which defeats the point of using a VPN. With so many VPN services out there, including a number of bad ones, how do you find the best VPN for your needs? Read on and we’ll tell you what you should be looking for in a VPN service based on how you want to use it, as well as how to tell if a VPN is private and secure.

What features does it have?

The first step to find the best VPN for you is to determine what exactly you’ll be using it for. If you just want some extra protection from snooping and identity theft while you surf the Internet using your local coffee shop’s insecure public Wi-Fi network, you could possibly get away with using the trial version of a paid service, such as TunnelBear. You will probably have to deal with monthly data restrictions, but the service will be less likely to sell your data or infect your device with adware compared to services that advertise themselves as completely free. However, if you want a VPN to stream or download at home, the better option is to pay for a service with unlimited data. You’ll also need to look up which countries your VPN service has servers in if you want to use your VPN to get around regional restrictions on content. For example, if you’re in the U.S., to watch shows on Netflix that are exclusive to the U.K., you would need a VPN service with a server in the U.K. Another consideration is whether you need a VPN for your mobile device as well, as not every service has a corresponding mobile app.

Apart from the features you need, you also should look at any restrictions a VPN service has before signing up. Even the best VPN companies limit the number of devices per account that can connect to its services at the same time, and some will not work with specific programs (usually torrenting software). Though this is uncommon, some VPNs even throttle your bandwidth during peak times or after certain data limits, which is counterintuitive since one good reason to get a VPN is to bypass bandwidth throttling from Internet service providers. Unfortunately, these restrictions can be hard to find on VPN service websites, or buried in a VPN company’s user agreement, so it’s important to thoroughly research a service before you settle on it.

Will it protect my privacy?

Privacy is a big selling point for nearly all VPNs. When you’re using a VPN, your Internet connection is encrypted, and it’s difficult for hackers or your nosy Internet service provider to see what you’re doing. Your VPN service can see what you’re doing, though, and not every VPN service treats user privacy with the same amount of care. Some keep minimal logs of user activity that are only used to improve service quality and get deleted after a few months, and others keep extensive logs and willingly share them with multiple third parties.

To see how a VPN service handles privacy, the first place to search is in its privacy policy. Keep an eye out for what the service does with “non-personal information,” as well as what it defines “non-personal information” as. The best VPN companies are transparent with their customers, so if a service that is advertising total anonymity also states in its privacy policy that it has the right to share your IP address with others, that’s a sign you shouldn’t trust it. You should also be aware of the country in which your VPN service is based, as some countries have a better track record of respecting online privacy than others. To make shopping around easier, you can use resources from VPN review websites, such as this VPN comparison chart, to quickly compare service features.

Will it keep me secure?

Unless you’re only using it to stream U.K. Netflix in the U.S., a VPN isn’t any good if it’s easy to breach or leaking your private information, so it’s important to find a VPN service that uses good security technology. Ideally your service will use a software called OpenVPN, also known as SSL/TLS, as it’s fairly new and open-source, so it has a lot of configuration options. Other VPN technologies are okay, but you should probably stay away from any service that uses PPTP, as that protocol is old and riddled with security issues.

You will also want to make sure your VPN service doesn’t leak your IPv6 address or DNS requests, which is a surprisingly common problem. An IPv6 address leak means your Internet service provider, or a hacker on your network, can see your Internet history, location and other information related to your browsing habits. DNS leaks are even worse, as they not only allow observers to see your browsing history, but they also leave you open to DNS hijacking, a form of man-in-the-middle attack. In a DNS hijack, a hacker using the same network as you can reroute your web browser to a website of their choice, potentially one infected with viruses that enable ransomware attacks and identity theft. Luckily, it’s easy to test your VPN for leaks by using sites like WhatIsMyIPAddress.com and DNSLeakTest.com. Just visit those sites with your VPN turned off, note the IP address it shows you, then turn your VPN on and check to make sure your IP address is different. If it still shows the same address, you’ve got a leak.

It may take some digging for you to find your personal best VPN service that is both trustworthy and packed with the features you want, but once you do, you’ll have access to a new level of online safety and privacy. For more ways to keep your personal information out of other people’s hands, keep reading our privacy blog.