How to choose the right VPN for you - 9 key things to look out for

VPN graphic
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Whether you want to boost your online security or have the flexibility of watching content from worldwide streaming catalogs, you may be thinking of getting yourself one of the best VPNs. This security software is indeed perfect for encrypting your personal data and overcoming geo-restrictions that many streaming platforms apply to their content. 

So far, so good. But then, after scrolling through infinite reviews and VPN deals, it's easy to get lost inside the VPN world without being sure which is the right service for your needs. A voice inside you keeps asking: 'which one should I choose?'

The range of VPNs on offer is huge nowadays, with new products popping onto the market all the time. Choosing the right one can be a really demanding task, whether you're a newcomer or simply want to change provider. 

If you are not sure about which features to look for in a VPN, read on this guide to be equipped with all the tools for making the best choice for your own needs.

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Why do you need a VPN? 

There are heaps of things that a Virtual Private Network can do. First of all, you should think carefully which VPN uses you're looking for before deciding which one could be the best for you.

According to a recent TechRadar survey, around two-thirds of respondents said that they use a VPN to protect their general privacy. Half use them as a way to access blocked websites or apps, while around 40% of readers want to stream shows and movies only available on catalogs overseas. Other VPN uses include avoiding government surveillance and censorship (35%), torrenting (25%) and gaming (16,6%). 

If all VPNs are meant to ensure your connection is encrypted and anonymous, different services have certain features that make them more suitable for a specific use. Let's see them now in more detail.  

1. Pick the path to privacy

If your primary concerns is protecting your privacy from governments and ISPs snooping on what you do online, you will have to choose your service amongst the most private VPN available. 

First of all, you need to look at the software technology, and there's one feature in particular that is central for a secure VPN: encryption protocols. Every protocol defines how the app and server connect with each other as well as the methods used to send and encrypt data. VPNs offer several ways to anonymize your data into an encrypted tunnel.

The WireGuard protocol is a relative newcomer into the world of VPNs but is already seen as the gold standard for privacy and security. On top of that, it delivers some of fastest connection speeds around. Major providers are now offering this protocol - like CyberGhost and Private Internet Access - while others - like ExpressVPN and NordVPN - have developed their own protocols based on it.

A padlock icon next to a woman working on a laptop

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

When looking for a VPN, make sure that the service offers the most secure encryption methods available, like Blowfish and AES (Advanced Encryption Standard). The last is indeed been recognized as the worldwide standard for solid cybersecurity - you'll frequently described by providers as 'military-grade'.

After that, you should make sure that the VPN provider's policies are the most privacy-friendly that can be. Offering a robust no-logging policy means that the provider pledges to only log the absolute essential details of your sessions and never in a way where the information could be tracked back to you. We've found that the likes of ExpressVPN, NordVPN and TunnelBear are among the providers that have the clearest and least invasive policies.  

You should also opt for a provider outside the Five Eyes countries to avoid intrusive authorities, even better choose a VPN registered in one of the so-called Privacy Heaven nations. These include Panama, British Virgin Islands - where ExpressVPN is based - and Malaysia. 

2. Boost your streaming experience

Looking for a VPN that's going to unlock international catalogs of shows, movies and live sports that you wouldn't ordinarily be able to stream at home?

You should start by making sure that the service works with your chosen streaming platform. Of them all, Netflix is obviously the most popular but also one of the toughest to unlock. Using VPNs to stream, say, shows exclusive to US Netflix, is one of the reasons that their use has become so popular in recent years. But the service has got very aggressive in stopping this kind of activity, so you'll want to double check your getting a working VPN for Netflix.

Or do you prefer watching your favorite TV shows on BBC iPlayer, Disney+ or Amazon Prime? These tend to be easier nuts to crack, but it's worth checking out lists of the best streaming VPNs to make sure that you're getting a service that will be of use.

Couple laying in bed and watching Netflix

(Image credit: Shutterstock / WeDesing)

A fast and reliable connection is also vital. Plus, you should choose a service offering many servers locations across different countries to have the flexibility to browse amongst worldwide catalogs - most premium VPNs have over 2,000 servers across more than 50 countries.

Last but not least, find a VPN that supports a wide range of devices - from smartphone and tablets to laptops and TV. There are even ways to use your VPN on streaming devices like Amazon Fire, Apple TV, Roku and gaming consoles.

3. Torrenting anonymously

Without condoning any copyright breaches, watertight security is certainly something you'll want if you plan on using a VPN for torrenting.

An integrated kill switch is vital to avoid any unexpected data leaks, boosting in this way your online safety. In fact, even the encrypted tunnel can get interrupted momentarily at times. This feature will cut the connection when a tunnel goes down to prevent your data being exposed to your internet service provider.

Also a fast connection speed is crucial when downloading big files. Plus, make sure to choose a VPN without any caps on bandwidth consumption.

Illustration to represent torrenting

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

4. Is a free VPN enough?

You may be be tempted to opt for a free service to save some bucks. But free does not necessarily mean better, especially when it comes to security services. 

If you are looking for a VPN to unlock geo-restricted content when traveling, you should know that many free versions have problems working with streaming platforms. They often have a limited bandwidth of data allowance available. Plus, they may slow down your internet connection. 

And you can't be sure that the free software you're downloading will offer the same security protections as paid versions. In fact, without asking users for a fee, companies need to turn to advertising to keep the software running. Beside offering a poor online experience, ads are also known to collect your personal information - exactly what you are trying to avoid with a VPN. And in the very worst cases, they may actually end up infecting your device with malware or viruses.

So if it's all doom and gloom, why would you ever go for a freebie? Well, they may be perfectly fine if your requirements from a VPN are less about the added bonuses like streaming and torrenting, and more about just wanting that extra layer of online privacy. For example, they're handy if you want anonymity when visiting somewhere known for heavy internet censorship, or you like the idea of ensuring you're fully encrypted when surfing in a café or airport - just make sure that you choose one of the best free VPNs and avoid the duds.

5. Paying the price

Assuming you go for a premium paid-for provider, consider how much use you're likely to get out of your VPN before you sign up - the best pricing is reserved for people who commit to longer subscriptions. Sign up for a single month, and you're likely to pay upwards of $10. But if you think that you'll be using your new VPN for the next year or two, then the value gets much better.

The best cheap VPNs, for example, bring the effective monthly price all the way down to just a few dollars per month. Surfshark costs less than $2.50/£2 per month when you sign up for its two-year plan. While we've seen PureVPN come as low as $1.15/pm if you're happy to sign up for a full five years.

The likes of ExpressVPN may be more expensive, but throw in added extras like Backblaze cloud backup for free. So look out for any added extra you get.

On top of that, many of the top VPN providers offer risk-free trials - you’ll need to pay the money upfront but you can get a full refund if you leave within the first 30 or 45 days.

6. Make it simple with easy-to-use apps

Once you've subscribed for a service, the next step is to correctly install your new VPN on your chosen device. This is likely to be on your laptop or smartphone, but also other platforms like your home router, streaming device or smart TV.

Long gone are the days of struggling to configure a VPN on your system. Nowadays, every provider has its own applications and clients, and most of the best ones work really hard on their user experience developing easy-to-use apps and user-friendly interfaces.

You obviously can't give them all a test-drive before picking, but consider independent VPN reviews to get an idea of which are easiest to use. Providers like TunnelBear and Surfshark, for instance, offer a really friendly and intuitive application for both computers and mobile. While our testing also found the likes of ExpressVPN, NordVPN and Private Internet Access are all also offering some of the best mobile VPN apps around. 

ExpressVPN working on several devices including Apple TV

(Image credit: ExpressVPN)

7. Protect all your devices with one sub

Make sure that your most frequently used devices are compatible with your chosen VPN before subscribing. Luckily, pretty much all the top providers support the main devices like Windows, Mac, Android, iOS and Linux, and they tend all to work with a range of streaming devices, too. That said, even some of the better VPNs are not available on all platforms, so be sure to check.

Installing a VPN on a router is a good way to cover all your devices at home in one go. But it's going to be a nightmare if you choose a VPN that isn't compatible with your model.

You'll also want to know how many devices you can use at once with the same subscription. ExpressVPN, for instance, only offers up to five connections at once - that's one of the lowest amounts around. In contrast, providers like Surfshark and IPVanish don't put any limits of platforms you can use simultaneously at all.

8. Turn your VPN provider into a privacy powerhouse

If you are looking to boost your online security even further, you may want to integrate your VPN with other privacy-friendly applications, such as secure email or cloud storage services. If that sounds tempting, choose a VPN provider where you can upgrade your subscription with these tools.

Doing so will effectively help turn your VPN into a all-singing all-dancing internet security suite

For instance, the same company operating ProtonVPN also offers also ProtonMail - an encrypted email service.  ExpressVPN offers free unlimited secure cloud backup from Backblaze when you subscribe for a year plan, And NordVPN now includes Threat Protection, which promises to save you from web trackers with malicious ads, harmful websites and infected files.

ProtonMail on a MacBook

(Image credit: ProtonMail)

9. On-call customer service

A feature often overlooked, an effective customer service could be really handy for coping with any issue you may have - because even the most advanced services can have hidden difficulties at times.

Ideally, it should be 24/7 and delivered by different methods, like email, online portal and live chat.

Chiara Castro
Senior Staff Writer

Chiara is a multimedia journalist committed to covering stories to help promote the rights and denounce the abuses of the digital side of life—wherever cybersecurity, markets and politics tangle up. She mainly writes news, interviews and analysis on data privacy, online censorship, digital rights, cybercrime, and security software, with a special focus on VPNs, for TechRadar Pro, TechRadar and Tom’s Guide. Got a story, tip-off or something tech-interesting to say? Reach out to