8 critical features a VPN must have

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Given the large number of VPN services available, it can be challenging deciding which one to sign up for. While the websites of VPN providers are useful up to a point in terms of highlighting important features (and indeed limitations), sometimes more crucial info is buried deep in the site.

So to avoid any danger of you being razzle-dazzled by a VPN’s fancy website, we’ve put together this article which looks at the truly important features to bear in mind when picking the right VPN service for you.

1. Plentiful server locations

A VPN hides a user’s data by encrypting it with a tunnel created between the user’s device and the VPN’s web server. The user then takes on the IP address of the web server (rather than their true IP), and this leads to one advantage of a VPN, namely that a user can appear to be in a different geographic location than they are actually located in.

This can have many uses, such as being able to access streaming services or shopping sites specific to a certain country, bypassing what’s known as geo-blocking.

The important point to bear in mind here is that any good provider will have a healthy spread of coverage across a wide range of countries, giving you more options overall. Furthermore, the more servers available in each location, the better (as they’re less likely to be overloaded, so you’ll get better performance levels).

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2. Mobile apps

Any VPN will offer client software for a Windows PC. However, the real value of a VPN is in its mobile support, and in keeping your device safe as it accesses public Wi-Fi when you're out and about.

Therefore, when choosing a VPN, make sure that it supports the platforms for the mobile devices that you use. Most providers have apps for at least Android and iOS, but check out the setup instructions in the Support pages, too. ExpressVPN has guides on manually setting up Windows Phone, BlackBerry, ebook readers, Linux and many other platforms.

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3. Integrated kill switch

No VPN service is 100% secure, and they can be susceptible to IP leaks, which expose your true IP address when you are online. This can occur more frequently when the VPN service gets overloaded.

The solution is a VPN kill switch, that can monitor for the VPN connection failing – when the connection drops, that’s when your true IP will be exposed, and in this case, a kill switch shuts down the transfer of data.

In short, as the name suggests, it kills the connection, preventing unencrypted data from being transmitted (and your true IP from being leaked).

While not all VPN services offer a kill switch, some do, with the feature embedded in the client software. Look for an integrated VPN kill switch with the service, and be sure to turn it on in the VPN app’s settings; many are disabled by default.

4. Anonymous DNS servers

DNS (Domain Name System) resolution is the process that turns the address you type into your web browser's address bar, such as www.techradar.com, into the IP address that the worldwide web uses to direct traffic to the user. Most users perform the DNS translation, by default, through their ISP, although this can be easily changed.

Of course, when using a VPN the goal is privacy, and therefore we want the VPN to be set up to protect us in the DNS translation process as well (keeping data away from the potentially prying eyes of the ISP).

While the Google DNS translator is often used for its speed, this would be a lousy choice from a privacy perspective. Rather, there are DNS services that are designed for anonymity, such as FreeDNS or DNSWatch, and indeed, your VPN provider should be using its own anonymous DNS to better preserve your privacy.

5. No log policy

VPN services differ on their logging policies. Some VPNs may keep elements of browsing activity for months, for example – potentially data that could be turned over to authorities, if requested.

Ideally, you want a VPN which has a ‘no log’ policy, although be wary here, as many providers will claim they offer this, when the reality is they may still keep some data (such as session logs, for example). It pays to carefully read the VPN provider’s privacy policy and ensure there are no hidden catches in this respect. Alternatively, check out our extensive collection of VPN reviews where we thoroughly evaluate VPNs in this regard.

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6. Router support

Rather than installing the VPN on all your individual devices, an alternate strategy is to just install the VPN directly on the router of your home network, and then every device connected to the network will have the benefit of VPN protection.

While this is often a better plan, it requires two things: a compatible router, and a VPN service that supports this. Getting a VPN to work on a router is a good intermediate networking project, and for more details on how to do this, see our guide here.

7. Support for OpenVPN

While all VPNs keep your data private by creating an encrypted data tunnel between the client and the VPN server, there are multiple protocols for performing this data encryption.

The bigger the selection and more choice of protocols that a VPN offers, the better, but you particularly want a service which supports the OpenVPN protocol. This is the most modern protocol in mainstream use, and is considered highly secure – preferably your VPN will allow you to choose between the two flavors of OpenVPN (TCP and UDP), which we discuss further in this feature.

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8. Low price

Perhaps this seems like an obvious point to make, but we’ve included it because it’s important to realize that there are a very wide variety of plans and pricing levels when it comes to VPNs.

Almost always, you’ll get a much cheaper deal if you commit for at least a year’s worth of service, and you can get some truly bargain-basement deals with some providers.

At the same time, bear in mind that sometimes the most basic plans won’t have the full range of features, and you might be missing out on something good (say, for example, a proprietary protocol for avoiding being detected as a VPN connection, so you don’t subsequently get blocked or throttled).

If all this sounds confusing, it certainly can be, but the good news is we’ve already done all the hard work for you in our feature which highlights the best VPN deals.

Jonas P. DeMuro

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