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11 Top VPN Features, What To Look For Before You Buy

Most extensive VPN features can be overwhelming — like split tunneling or DNS leak protection. If you’re only looking to stream, game, keep it simple.

Most extensive VPN features can be overwhelming — like split tunneling or DNS leak protection. If you’re only looking to stream, game, keep it simple.

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      How Do VPNs Work?

      Virtual private networks (VPNs) work by channeling your internet traffic through a secure server, preventing hackers from being able to intercept your IP address and browsing activity.

      Most consumer-grade VPN users are looking for ways to make web browsing more secure — both at home and while using public Wi-Fi. But how do you know what features to look for?

      And for those looking to stream, game, or torrent, the more extensive VPN features can be overwhelming — like split tunneling that allows you to choose which traffic to encrypt, and DNS leak protection that prevents requests from being exposed to eavesdroppers.

      Add to that the many VPN and review websites riddled with jargon, and it can be difficult for users to understand exactly what they’re getting or why having a VPN is useful.


      Do you need a VPN?

      Without a VPN, your IP address can give away your geolocation — which can pose more than just cybersecurity risks.

      Take, for example, ByteDance (TikTok’s parent company). Its employees were discovered monitoring U.S. journalists’ physical locations by tracking IP addresses in an attempt to identify their sources [*].

      Websites that use TLS (Transport Layer Security)/SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) protocols appear as HTTPS in the URL. You could argue that an HTTPS website can encrypt your traffic as you browse. 

      But this encryption only applies to the domain that you’re on; and it’s only as strong as the signing Certificate Authority. Self-signed certificates are generally less reliable.

      Still, there are many nuances when it comes to protecting your browsing data. A VPN is a good fallback if you’re looking to add another layer of security to protect your online privacy.

      ⛳️ Related: What Is VPN on iPhones? Why You Need It & How To Turn It On

      11 Meaningful VPN Features To Look For Before You Buy

      Trustworthiness and security are the biggest determining factors to consider before you purchase a VPN. You can only trust VPN providers more than your internet service provider (ISP) if they’re forthcoming about their privacy policies.

      Avast, for instance, was banned from selling consumer browsing data by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and was required to pay $16.5 million as a financial remedy [*].

      Aside from trustworthiness, there are other key features you should look for in a secure VPN, including:

      1. Easily understandable privacy and terms of service policies

      Many terms of service and privacy policies are overly long and convoluted for the average consumer, potentially shepherding users to agree to terms that they don’t fully understand.

      Look for VPNs with terms and policies that are easy to read. Specifically, you should understand their privacy standards, whether they use third-party trackers, and their logging policies.

      Note: Third-party trackers collect information about your browsing history. Any VPN that uses them but also claims to have a no-logging policy is contradictory.

      ⛳️ Related: The 8 Best Anti-Tracking Software for Online Privacy (2024)

      2. Free trials and money-back guarantees

      VPNs perform differently depending on your device, network, and location. A free trial is a risk-free way to test a few different VPNs and see which one works best for your use case.

      Aura, for instance, offers a free 14-day trial which includes its VPN along with comprehensive identity theft protection.

      Some VPN services also provide money-back guarantees — so if you’re not happy with their pricing or connection speeds, you won’t be out the money you spent.


      3. Server locations and speed

      VPNs with more servers are typically faster. However, the location of the servers is also important.

      You want to choose VPN servers that are geographically close to you; these are usually faster due to more bandwidth.

      Aura does not cap your connection speed — but in general, VPNs may reduce your internet speed given the extra security steps involved. This reduction in speed is unpredictable.

      4. Type of encryption

      When you connect to a VPN server, it performs a TLS handshake with the VPN client to make sure your connection is secure.

      Once the connection — also known as the control channel —  is encrypted, the actual data itself flows through a separate data channel.  A VPN protocol then determines how traffic is encrypted on this channel.

      Public-key (asymmetric encryption)

      Public-key encryption, also known as asymmetric encryption, uses a public key to encrypt and a private key to decrypt. Without the matching encryption key, hackers won’t be able to retrieve your data.

      Symmetric encryption

      This method works by scrambling your data into an unreadable format. Because it uses the same key to encrypt and decrypt information, it's faster than asymmetric encryption.

      • Advanced encryption standard (AES). AES — a symmetric encryption algorithm — is widely used in encryption packages and VPN protocols. Aura is one example of a VPN provider that uses AES-128 bit encryption. Other variants include AES-192 and AES-256.

      Other protocols such as Wireguard and IKEv2/IPsec combine both types of encryption. OpenVPN — an open-source protocol — often uses TLS for the control channel and AES for the data channel.

      5. Kill switch

      If your VPN connection drops for even just a few seconds, it could reveal your IP. Sometimes called a network lock, a VPN kill switch cuts your device’s internet access in the event that your VPN gets disconnected.

      This feature is especially useful if you’re using a public Wi-Fi network to transmit personal data such as your bank account login details or Social Security number (SSN).

      6. Mobile and web apps

      Web-based VPN services can be accessed directly from your browser without having to install any software on your device.

      But these services only provide browser-level protection, which could leave you vulnerable in other places that you access on the internet.

      VPN apps for iOS, Android, and other operating systems provide device-wide protection by securing all of your traffic and browsing activity.

      No matter what VPN type you use, regular software updates are important. Attackers hacked Ivanti VPN appliances after the company announced vulnerabilities in January 2024 [*]. These hackers were able to gain remote access to the VPN tunnel and its administrative functions without needing valid credentials.

      7. Simultaneous connections

      Simultaneous connections allow you to connect your VPN in multiple places at once, like your computer and mobile device.

      Some VPN providers cap your number of allowed devices, while others offer unlimited connections. Aura’s family plans extend VPN protection for up to 50 devices (10 per adult).

      Did you know? When Netflix detects that many users are repeatedly connecting from the same IP address — and therefore, a VPN or proxy service — it blocks that IP. To gain access again, switch servers or look for a VPN that offers you a dedicated IP.

      8. Customer support

      While email support is common with most VPN providers, it may not be much help if you’re experiencing downtime — especially on a weekend or holiday.

      Look for a VPN that also provides phone support, or ideally, live chat support. 24/7 live chat support is even better.

      9. Data logging policy

      The best VPN services have a no-log policy, meaning they won’t log data that can be used to track a user’s online activity.

      But not all VPN providers are transparent about their logging practices. SuperVPN — a free VPN service provider — suffered a data breach that exposed 360 million user records, despite the company’s claim of not storing user logs [*].

      To be certain about what information a VPN provider collects, you should check its privacy policy.

      Aura’s VPN product doesn't log your IP address and will anonymize your browsing data so it can’t be traced back to you. Your IP address will only be recorded for select purposes, such as protecting against fraud in financial transactions.

      10. Simple router setup

      Some devices don’t support VPN functionality — including some smart TVs, IoT devices like doorbell cameras and voice assistants, and gaming consoles.

      But, there’s a workaround. You can install a VPN directly to your router in order to provide blanket coverage across your entire network.

      However, not all VPNs provide router connections that are easy to configure. If you have multiple devices that aren’t VPN-compatible, it makes sense to look for either a VPN that provides router software or a dedicated VPN router.

      ⛳️  Related: How To Tell If Your Wi-Fi Is Hacked (And How To Fix It)

      11. Optional features

      Some VPNs offer extra security features and add-ons that can give you peace of mind when you browse and shop online.

      Optional features you might want to look for in a VPN are:

      • Ad blockers and anti-track tools. Ad blockers can improve your VPN speed. Anti-track tools prevent intrusive site trackers from being able to secrete information about your browsing history. Aura includes an anti-track feature on all of its plans.
      • Split tunneling. This feature lets you choose which of your traffic is secured and which traffic can connect to local networks normally.
      • Warrant canaries. Warrant canaries offer a way for VPN providers to inform their users if they’ve been served with a warrant. The absence of a warrant canary can signal that the VPN has been served with a secret subpoena. However, some VPNs — like NordVPN [*] — replace their warrant canaries with transparency reports.
      • DNS leak protection. DNS leaks happen when your device sends DNS requests to an unintended server — potentially revealing your browsing activity to hackers. Many VPN providers use their own DNS servers to prevent leaks.
      • IPv6 leak protection. IPv6 is the most recent IP address standard. However, since most people still use IPv4 addresses, only some VPNs currently offer IPv6 leak protection.
      ⛑️ Protect your online accounts, identity, and privacy — with a single app. Aura combines identity and fraud protection with advanced digital security, 24/7 support, and up to $1 million in insurance coverage. Plans start at $3/month.

      A VPN Alone Can’t Keep You Safe Online — Aura Can.

      On their own, VPNs mask IP addresses and provide a secure connection for browsing. What they don’t protect against are threats like malware, phishing attacks, and social engineering. They also won’t help if your information and credentials are among the Dark Web flotilla.

      Contrary to popular belief, a VPN is not a tool for anonymization. If a VPN provider doesn’t have a no-logs policy, it will be able to see all of your internet activity.

      And while VPNs can limit IP-based tracking to prevent hackers from seeing your online activity, you’re not immune from browser fingerprinting.

      Websites that you visit can still gather information about your browser. Some websites use browser fingerprinting to track your interests and activity across the internet — information that is often sold to data brokers.

      At the end of the day, VPN use on its own — without taking additional steps to improve your online security — will not be enough.

      • Use a separate browser profile when you’re on a VPN. VPNs don’t encrypt information stored on your device, and that includes session history saved by your browser. Creating a separate browser profile to use with your VPN (or browsing in incognito mode) are workarounds to this.
      • Use a password manager.  A good VPN won’t help if hackers are able to steal your passwords without having to intercept your internet connection. Password managers make it easy to create and manage unique passwords for each of your online accounts.
      • Enable multi-factor authentication. Multi-factor authentication (MFA) makes it difficult for hackers to break into your accounts because it requires multiple forms of identification verification — often through an app, SMS, or by using a security key.
      • Encrypt your devices. If your device is lost or stolen, you never know in whose hands your information might end up. Apple devices such as Mac computers remain encrypted until valid logins unlock them. You can also turn on encryption for your iPhones, iPads, and iPod Touch [*].
      • Sign up for a complete digital safety app like Aura. Aura’s comprehensive identity theft protection solution combines a VPN, antivirus software, anti-track and Safe Browsing tools, and a secure password manager. These features are available on all Aura plans and are included in a 14-day free trial.
      Aura’s privacy-first plans start as low as $3 per month. Sign up today
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