If Your VPN Doesn't Have These 3 Things, It's Time to Upgrade
Is your virtual private network giving you your money's worth? Here are the key features you should expect from a good service.
Rae HodgeFormer senior editor
Rae Hodge was a senior editor at CNET. She led CNET's coverage of privacy and cybersecurity tools from July 2019 to January 2023. As a data-driven investigative journalist on the software and services team, she reviewed VPNs, password managers, antivirus software, anti-surveillance methods and ethics in tech. Prior to joining CNET in 2019, Rae spent nearly a decade covering politics and protests for the AP, NPR, the BBC and other local and international outlets.
With all of the lofty, yet hard-to-verify claims covering the splash pages of nearly every VPN service on the market, it can be maddening to cut through the clutter. To keep you sane and save a bit of time in your VPN search, we've highlighted a few key factors to watch out for that, in our experience, are indicative of a good VPN.
For the majority of consumers, the 30-day money-back guarantee might be the most important signifier of a quality VPN. Why? Every VPN on the market is clamoring for attention with claims that are often difficult or even impossible to verify. So until you test drive the VPN across several different kinds of connections, you really don't know if it will perform well, or if you're buying a lemon.
Especially for services that amount to hundreds of dollars a year, an easy refund policy with prompt turnaround is a great sign: It's the least a company can do in good faith to show confidence in its product.
It can be easy to get fooled here: Some VPNs offer refund policies upfront, only to offer limited or no customer service support when you try to get your money back. We recommend checking for 24/7 chat support and sending a couple of test emails. We've taken customer service and responsiveness into consideration for all of our VPN recommendations.
The rule of thumb is the greater the number of servers a VPN offers, the faster speeds you're likely to achieve while using it. And while a VPN's speed doesn't depend solely on having a high server count, we've yet to see competitive speeds out of a VPN that didn't have a high server count.
When we reviewed ExpressVPN, with its impressive fleet of 3,000-plus servers globally, the company's most attractive quality was its speed. The use of any VPN can typically cut your internet speed by half or more, but ExpressVPN reduced our overall internet speeds by less than 2% during testing.
One potential catch to watch out for, however, is any VPN service that limits the number of times you can switch between servers. Being able to quickly and easily switch your connection to a different server is important for both your privacy and finding a faster route for traffic. What's the point of offering a massive network of servers around the world if you can only try a handful of them?
There are dozens of factors to consider when evaluating a VPN's level of likely security. Has the company been caught keeping or sharing user activity logs? Has it undergone -- and published the results of -- an independent third-party audit of its operations? Does it uphold minimum encryption standards, and offer a kill switch? All of them are important, and the wrong answer to any can be a deal-breaker.
But one factor often precedes positive answers for all of the above questions: the VPN's jurisdiction, or the country where it's headquartered. Jurisdiction often acts as a sort of shorthand for the privacy-minded, communicating real consideration for those looking to extricate themselves from passive participation in multinational intelligence-sharing agreements.
A VPN that is based in a jurisdiction squarely outside of those countries which participate in programs like Five Eyes, Nine Eyes or 14 Eyes (including the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada), with an ownership structure visible for public verification, is more likely to catch our eye. It should catch yours too.