If you’ve been shopping for a VPN service in 2021, you’ve probably noticed how many providers are available. Using a personal VPN has grown in popularity in recent years, and for good reason. You may no longer be asking, “Should I use one,” but rather, “Which one should I choose?”

The answer might be different for different people. There are many features and providers to consider. Here, we guide you through some of the decision factors so you can select the best VPN for your needs.

Is a free VPN the best choice?

One of the first questions VPN shoppers might ask is whether to use a free VPN service or pay for one. If you’re familiar with what a VPN is, you probably know that there are costs associated with being a provider. A VPN is like a middleman for your Internet traffic, and just like you probably pay an Internet Service Provider for your home Internet, a VPN provider somehow has to cover the costs of their service.

You might compare free vs paid VPNs to free vs paid Internet access. For home Internet access, an Internet Service Provider maintains the infrastructure to deliver Internet to homes, and charges customers for it. If you go to a café and use their free WiFi, the café pays for the WiFi and might build that cost into how much they charge you for a cup of coffee. So, how would a free VPN provider build their costs into a free service?

A common way free VPN services cover their costs is through advertising. That might be showing you ads when you use the service, or by taking your Internet activity data (as well as their other customers’ data) and selling that to advertisers as marketing data. Given that one of the main reasons to use a VPN is to increase your online privacy, it seems that using a free VPN that covers its costs by using your Internet activity for advertising might not accomplish that goal.

If you decide you want to use a paid VPN service for your online privacy but you’re not ready to commit to a long-term subscription right away, many providers offer a free trial before you have to make that commitment.

Choosing a VPN for gaming, streaming, or torrenting

One of the key decision factors in choosing a VPN is what you plan to use it for. In your research, you’ll likely explore reviews to help narrow down your selection, and one of the best ways to make your choice is to take advantage of free trials, so you can take the VPN for a test drive, so to speak. 

The best VPN for you might not be the best one for someone else. Online privacy is the main concern for most VPN users, but if you intend to use one while gaming, watching streaming services based in other countries, or for torrenting, you will have other considerations too and might choose a different provider in each case.

Best VPN for gaming

Many avid gamers have not wanted to use a VPN while gaming due to increased lag caused by encrypting traffic and routing it through a VPN server. However, many VPNs have gotten faster and more efficient, and “gaming VPN” is less of an oxymoron than it used to be. In addition to the online privacy benefits, gamers may also be keen to hide their IP addresses due to threats like doxing and swatting.

Alternatively, some users don’t want to use a VPN for gaming, but do want to use a VPN for everything else other than gaming. In that case, they will want to pay attention to how easily and transparently they can do this. Do they have to do one thing at a time and remember to turn the VPN on and off as they need it, or can they keep their VPN on all the time while allowing games to bypass it?

If you’re a gamer searching for the best VPN specifically for gaming, take advantage of free trials, and test out your selections while gaming to see how they impact speed and performance. 

Best VPN for streaming

Most VPN services enable you to select a server in the country of your choice, and this can enable you to watch some streaming services as if you were located in that country. However, some streaming services have cracked down on this practice, and so not every VPN will enable you to watch the content you want. Testing out a VPN with the streaming services you want to watch is a good way to determine what works now, but keep in mind that your access may change as streaming services adapt. Before using a VPN to access a streaming service, be sure to check that doing so does not violate their terms and conditions.

Best VPN for torrenting

Torrenting is a form of peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing. Torrent downloads are quick because they are drawn from multiple nearby peers instead of from a single faraway location. To get access to the network users must become peers and allow a small portion of their computer’s resources to be used for hosting torrent data. While sharing files with other users isn’t illegal in and of itself, torrenting is often associated with pirating copyrighted material. However, there is perfectly legal content that people torrent, such as classic movies, TED Talks, and content in indie or niche genres that might not be readily available on large streaming services.

Often for torrenting, connection speed is most important factor in choosing a VPN so you can start watching content quickly. Unlike gaming, where download performance is most important, torrent users will also care about upload performance. This is another example in which taking advantage of free trials to test out VPN speeds while torrenting can help you to pick the best VPN for this purpose.

VPN features

Once you’ve thought about how you plan to use a VPN, the final step to select the best one for your needs is to compare features. This includes:

  • Ease of use: Is the interface easy to navigate and use?
  • Connection speed: You can test this if you do a free trial of the services you’re considering, and look at VPN speed comparison tests.
  • Server locations: In how many different countries are servers available?
  • Data limits: Does the service provide unlimited data, or is there a cap?
  • Simultaneous usage: How many devices can use your plan simultaneously?
  • Operating systems: Can you use the same VPN service on Windows, Mac, Android, and iOS?
  • VPN protocol: Do they use WireGuard, OpenVPN, or another protocol?
  • Encryption: Does the VPN use 256-bit AES encryption, the current best-in-class standard? 
  • Logging: Do they keep activity logs or have a no-log policy? What data gets logged?
  • Kill switch: Do they offer a kill switch, to close your browsers or apps if the VPN disconnects unexpectedly?
  • Split tunneling: Do you want to be able to do some online activities inside the encrypted VPN, and others (such as high-bandwidth activities) just on your regular Internet connection?
  • Support: Is support available 24/7? Is it available via chat, email, phone?

What’s the best VPN for your needs? Different people will have different answers. Considering the available features and reasons you want to use a VPN service will help you to answer that question.