5 things to watch out for in VPN small print

Internet users seeking privacy and tighter security have increasingly been turning to the best VPNs out there in an attempt to keep their personal information safe. With more and more of these VPN services around these days, a simple net search turns up a ton of choices.

So when you’re comparing VPNs and choosing a provider, it’s really important to find out exactly what you’re getting with any given service – and what’s left out. The phrase ‘the devil is in the details’ certainly applies when it comes to VPNs, and you should pay extra attention to any small print – the latter often not being located on the main web page, but rather, it can be buried in other parts of the site.

Always research a VPN provider as thoroughly as you can, and remember that there are some common issues you should be particularly aware of. Those potential pitfalls are what we’re going to highlight in this article. 

1. Count those devices

Just about every paid VPN service includes unlimited bandwidth for the month – you’re not restricted on this front. However, most providers do place a limit on the number of devices which can be simultaneously connected to their service.

Most users these days will have a smartphone, tablet and PC, and some households with multiple family members could easily exceed a dozen devices between them. It’s therefore important to work out how many devices you will be using with a VPN, and to check how many connections any given provider supports (and whether this varies according to subscription plan).

As an example, NordVPN supports six simultaneous devices, which is plenty for most individuals, but may not be enough for many larger families.

2. Unsupported devices

Just about every VPN supports a Windows computer with native software. However, these days, folks are utilizing an increasingly diverse number of platforms to access the internet, such as Chromebooks, iOS tablets, Macs and Linux PCs – and not every provider supports all these pieces of hardware.

So it pays to make sure that the devices you own are supported by the VPN service, although you may have to hunt around the provider’s website to find this information.

It’s also worth noting that you can circumvent these support issues by installing the VPN directly on your router, which will by default give every device connected to the router protection from the VPN service. However, in this case you still need to make sure that the VPN supports installation on a router.

By way of an example, IPVanish, as seen in the image above, supports a wide variety of devices, including the less common Windows Phone platform, Chromebooks (that are not consistently supported despite their rising popularity), and even Amazon’s Fire TV.

However, for users who have a BlackBerry handset, Blackphone, Boxee box, or Synology NAS, IPVanish does not support any of these devices – although VyprVPN does, and is known for supporting a huge amount of platforms.

3. Worldwide presence

The whole point of a VPN is to be able to tunnel your data to another IP address. There are times when a VPN is used to provide anonymity from an ISP, and this is often best done with an IP address at the other end that remains in your home country. Although sometimes, to get around geo-blocking content restrictions, you might want a VPN server and IP address in another country.

There’s also the consideration that a VPN provider with more servers and IP addresses is preferred as it is less likely to be overloaded, and you’re more likely to be able to find a closer server location which should provide the best performance.

Therefore, when weighing up the pros and cons of VPN services, be sure to compare the number of available IP addresses, and take account of how many countries they are located in. Also, if you plan to use a certain service that has a geographic restriction, then make sure the VPN has a server in that location.

Once again, discovering this info can necessitate a little searching, but it can be found. PureVPN, for example, states that it has over 750 servers located in 180+ locations worldwide, across a total of 141 countries, which should be more than enough to satisfy most users’ needs.

4. Location, location, location

A VPN is designed to provide anonymity when you’re online, but bear in mind that VPN providers will respond to lawful requests from the government for whatever logs of each user’s activity these services keep. So users need to consider the country which any VPN service is based in, and that particular nation’s attitude to privacy.

Switzerland, known for centuries for its secretive banks, is a haven for secure VPN services. For example, providers located in Switzerland do not need to retain any data, so therefore there is nothing to hand over. The country is also pro-downloaders in that it has weak laws on copyright infringement.

Finally, the Swiss government does not advocate blocking IP addresses to restrict access to any websites. As an example, one provider based in Switzerland is the aptly named SwissVPN.

5. Kill switch

A VPN is only as good as the encryption it provides, and this must work consistently. Unfortunately, there are times when a VPN can go wrong, such as when it suffers from an IP address leak. Or if the VPN connection happens to drop, data can continue to be sent without the benefit of encryption (and your true IP can be revealed).

VPN providers are aware of this, and have developed a solution: the kill switch. This is built into their software, and when the VPN tunnel goes down, and data is about to be exchanged unencrypted, the kill switch kicks in to stop the flow of the data.

So check the small print to be sure that your VPN service includes a kill switch, because really, this is a must-have feature. PureVPN, to take an example, offers a built-in kill switch. Note that you may have to make sure the kill switch feature is activated, as in many cases, it can be turned off by default – so check the software setup details from your VPN provider to ensure it’s on.

As an alternative, you can implement your own third-party kill switch functionality by using a separate piece of software, as we discuss in our feature highlighting the best VPN kill switches.

Jonas P. DeMuro

Jonas P. DeMuro is a freelance reviewer covering wireless networking hardware.