To truly understand whether a VPN is right for you, there's no substitute for trying it. Installing some clients, connecting to the best servers, testing your favorite websites and seeing how they work for you.
But that takes time, and effort, and maybe money. Or, at least, you might have to cross your fingers and hope the refund guarantee really is as unconditional as the company claims.
Sometimes, there's a simpler way. In our experience, you can get a good idea of a VPN’s quality simply by drilling down into its website, and taking a detailed look at how the firm presents itself and its products.
This approach can't tell you whether a VPN is good. It won't help you see whether clients are easy to use, servers are fast, or if the provider will unblock the sites and services you need.
But what it will do is help you identify a bad VPN before you waste any real time and money on it, and that's a very good place to start.
- You might also be wondering: Why isn’t a VPN hiding my real location?
1. Vague feature details
Visit most VPN provider websites and they'll immediately hit you with their major selling points. Take the time to read every section and look at the details the company is giving you.
A good provider understands the key details you're after and makes them very obvious. Locations, platforms supported, technical features, price and any refund guarantee – all these elements should be visible on the front page or just a click away.
A bad provider will focus almost entirely on generic VPN benefits, like encrypting your connection or helping you access blocked websites. Crucial points like the number of countries covered or the apps provided might not even be mentioned, and there's little hope of finding details on kill switches, protocols supported or anything faintly technical.
There's usually a very simple reason for this total lack of boasting: the provider doesn't have anything to boast about. Whatever the cause, it's a reason to be skeptical, and maybe move on to a service with a more visible feature list.
2. Unrealistic claims
When you're browsing a VPN provider’s website, don't just skim through the various claims. Take the time to read any descriptions, and think about how realistic they might be.
A good VPN will give you plenty of details about general service benefits, and talk about special features of its own. Sometimes the firm might oversell itself a little – several VPNs market themselves as the ‘world's fastest’ – but the claims will at least be plausible. Maybe they really are the fastest, for instance, at least in a few areas.
A bad VPN goes much further, often pushing exaggerations so far that they become misleading.
This might start in a small way, perhaps guaranteeing to unblock every site in the world, or using a Netflix logo to suggest the provider unblocks the site, without actively saying that.
We've seen others go too far on security. A good VPN will point out that it protects you on public Wi-Fi, and maybe includes a feature to block malicious sites. A bad VPN will make it sound like it gives you complete protection against all forms of malware, hacking and trackers. One we've previously reviewed claimed it "detects and protects you from any form of online threat."
It's time to worry when a service makes claims that almost certainly cannot be true. One now defunct VPN stated that it would make your internet connection four times faster, for instance. We regularly see others stating that they won't slow you down.
There are a few situations where a VPN can improve speeds, for example if traffic is being throttled, but they're exceptions, not the rule. Most people will see a cut in performance when they use a VPN, and you should be wary of anyone who tries to tell you otherwise without explaining why.
- Check out the best free VPN services of 2018
3. Dead websites
As you browse a VPN website, look for signs that this is a busy company, always doing something to try and improve the service.
A good VPN will not only have a news page, a blog, and maybe social media, but the company will keep these up-to-date with genuinely interesting and worthwhile content.
A bad VPN won't much care about any of that. If it has social media at all, you're likely to find it either hasn't been updated in months, or just cycles through the same old automated posts (a ‘special deal if you sign up today’ that crops up every few weeks).
Check out the rest of the service, too. Go to any FAQ or Support pages and look for dates telling you when a document was created or updated. If the service has iOS or Android clients, go to their app store pages and look for the last release date.
This is just a general indicator, and frequent updates aren't a guarantee of a good VPN. But a near dead website is a strong sign that this might be a bad VPN, and not somewhere you should be spending your time or money.
4. Hard to identify
VPNs can be responsible for securing some very important and confidential information, so it's crucial that you know your provider is trustworthy. This starts by trying to identify the company, and understanding who or what is behind the service, and where they're located.
The best VPNs will have an About Us or similar page which might give you a company name, a location, a history, some kind of background on the service. Not just a generic line such as ‘we're a bunch of security experts who got together to make the best VPN ever’, but something with real detail.
Others will tell you at least a little about themselves. Where they're based, maybe, so you can understand how that affects logging and legal disclosure policies. And they'll give you an email address, live chat or some other system where you can ask questions.
A bad VPN won't just keep basic details quiet, it will actively try to hide them from you. A VPN app might have no website, a company name that doesn't exist anywhere else on the internet, and a generic 'email@example.com' email address with no obvious connection to the service.
If you only want to use that kind of VPN to unblock YouTube, you might not care very much. But we'd think carefully before trusting such a secretive service with anything important.
5. Poor website support
All VPNs have issues, and even the most knowledgeable experts need help sometimes. Taking time to check a provider's support pages will help confirm that the company knows what it’s doing, and show how much time and effort it’s putting into helping users.
ExpressVPN is an excellent example of a good support website (opens in new tab). There are multiple detailed setup guides for lots of different apps and platforms, including eight for Windows alone. Troubleshooting FAQs help you solve problems, and there's live chat and an email address if you need expert assistance.
A bad VPN will look very different. If you get any website-based support at all, it will cover just a few questions. Most of those won't relate to the information you really need (setup, solving problems, major account issues). Topics may seem incomplete or out of date, perhaps giving you some ideas about setup on Windows 7, but nothing on Windows 10. And if you browse a few articles, you'll probably find they're short, poorly written, and just don't provide the information you're likely to want.
If you know what you're doing, you might not be too concerned about web support, but we've found it's often a good indicator of general service quality. In reality, an experienced VPN provider should be able to create a simple minimal support site within a week, so if a company hasn't finished the job in a year or more, that's a sign that something may be wrong. Unless there's some other compelling reason to trust the organization, move on and find a provider who'll give you the service you deserve.
- Check out our best VPN (opens in new tab)