Silhouettes of two unknown people.
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VPNs are advertised as the best—even the only—way in which you can be anonymous while browsing. However, there are two big ways you could lose anonymity: The first is the logs some VPNs keep, and the second is the VPN sign-up process itself.

How VPNs Know Who You Are

Even if you’re using the best VPN out there, with up-to-date protocols, state-of-the-art encryption, and a privacy advocate’s dream of a no-log agreement, the VPN itself knows who you are for two reasons: your email address and your payment information.

Most VPNs (We’ll talk about the exceptions later.) require that you submit your email address to create an account. You probably signed up to your email provider with your real name and are using it in correspondence, giving the VPN at least one data point to connect with your account activity.

There’s also a chance that you used your email publicly somewhere, meaning that all anybody would need to do to find out more about you is to plug your email address into a Google search bar and watch the results roll in.

However, the data that can be gathered from your email address is small compared to what can be gleaned from your payment information. Most people default to their credit card or PayPal when buying stuff online, and, well, these companies know a lot about you, and they can share the information with whomever you make a payment to.

They can share not just your name and email, but also, your physical address and any secondary addresses that you use. This data can be a treasure trove to the wrong company, and there are plenty of untrustworthy VPN services out there.

Change the Way That You Pay

The best way to avoid a paper trail on your payments is to use either cryptocurrency, cash, or even gift cards. As a general rule, cryptocurrency can’t be traced—not in the same way that credit card transactions can be traced, at least—meaning that you can spend it wherever and whenever and that nobody should be able to find out that it was you waving fat stacks around.

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Most VPN services will accept the big names of crypto, like Bitcoin and Ethereum, or services like Bitpay that let you pay with Bitcoin at a set exchange rate. It definitely pays to check your VPN of choice first, as there are no hard and fast rules regarding which services accept what cryptocurrency. Our favorite VPN is ExpressVPN, and it lets you pay with Bitcoin, Etherium, and other cryptocurrencies.

That being said, crypto comes with two drawbacks. One is that its value relative to existing fiat currencies is unstable, meaning that you could be overpaying or underpaying from hour to hour (It pays to stay alert.). The second issue is that most cryptocurrencies aren’t anonymous so much as pseudonymous. If you use a transparent address when making your transactions, you can still be tracked.

A much more stable method and private alternative is cold, hard cash, but that comes with difficulties of its own, most notably how to get it over to your VPN provider. The only good way to get physical banknotes over to your provider is by mail, which some people might be a bit leery about thanks to the age-old advice to never send cash through the mail.

However, few actual postal services seem to repeat this advice: USPS, for example, lets you insure cash if you send it registered. Unless you live in an area where mailboxes are regularly broken into, it seems safe enough to send banknotes by mail. We figure that, if it was really that bad of an idea, no VPNs would offer it as an option at all.

Still, though, only three VPN services that we know of accept cash, namely, Mullvad, IVPN, and ProtonVPN. Mullvad and IVPN only need you to send the activation token (more on that later) and the appropriate amount in any number of currencies (euros are the default), and you’ll be signed up once the payment arrives. ProtonVPN requires you to work out your cash payment details beforehand over email.

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If you really want to avoid sending cash through the mail and don’t like any of the other options we mentioned, you could go old-school and use a USPS money order to pay for a service called Ghost Path. As far as we can tell, this is the only service that offers this option. Obviously, it only applies if you live in the U.S.

Although we found some mention of using gift cards, paid for with cash, to sign up to several VPNs, only Private Internet Access seems to accept them. It seems that no other providers accept gift cards from any issuer anymore.

Use Disposable Email Accounts

Using an anonymous form of payment is the first and most important step to staying hidden when signing up for a VPN. The other is to hide your email address. After all, if you use crypto but also use your regular email address, then you’re not anonymous. You can fix this by using a fake account by creating a throwaway account with Gmail or Yahoo Mail without using your real name when doing so.

If you don’t fancy doing this, you can also use a service designed for throwaway email, like 10 Minute Mail or Guerilla Mail. These kinds of disposable email accounts are enough for VPN services, although you’ll need to make sure that your account info is safe (A password manager like Bitwarden or KeePass is a good option.), as you won’t be able to use the service if you ever lose your account credentials or the like.

VPNs That Don’t Need Email

If you don’t want to bother with email at all, there are a few VPN services that don’t require an email address to sign up. Examples include the aforementioned Mullvad and IVPN as well as Windscribe and cryptostorm, although that last one isn’t recommended for newbies, as it’s not exactly user-friendly.

In all cases, your account with the VPN service doesn’t use an email address, but a randomly generated code instead. Signing up to them and using either cash or crypto should mean that there’s no trace of you whatsoever, meaning that you can use your VPN in perfect anonymity—as long as you use Incognito Mode and take other measures.

Fergus O'Sullivan Fergus O'Sullivan
Fergus is a freelance writer for How-To Geek. He has seven years of tech reporting and reviewing under his belt for a number of publications, including GameCrate and Cloudwards. He's written more articles and reviews about cybersecurity and cloud-based software than he can keep track of---and knows his way around Linux and hardware, too.
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