CactusVPN is Moldovan VPN provider that launched in 2011. The company has constantly evolved since then, adding more servers to its network and improving its user interface. Moldova is a good location for a data privacy service because the country lies just outside of the EU. This makes it free from EU data retention obligations. It is also right next door to Romania, which is fast becoming a VPN powerhouse.
BestVPN.com is keeping an eye on the changes at CactusVPN and we regularly update our reviews of the service. Take a look at our latest assessment of this VPN and smart Domain Name System (DNS) utility.
It’s difficult to assess CactusVPN without referring to rival services in Romania. The service and prices that this company offers have to be considered as part of that group. Of the three Romanian VPN stars – CyberGhost, ibVPN, and VPN.ac – CactusVPN is a close match to VPN.ac.
CactusVPN has just 20 servers in nine countries, whereas VPN.ac’s network has 79 servers in 21 countries. The annual price for the top plan at CactusVPN is $54.99, which is just a shade cheaper than the VPN.ac price of $58 for a similar service. Both services offer a choice of plans that have different levels of facilities.
CactusVPN offers five service plans. If you don’t think you’ll need to access servers in nine countries, you can save money by selecting a cut-down service. You get an allowance of five simultaneous connections on all plans.
As with most VPN services, longer subscription periods get discounts over the regular monthly price.
You get a 50% discount if you buy more than one plan, so you can make the cost of this service cheaper by sharing the discount with friends. This is a better idea than trying to share a subscription because CactusVPN specifically bans that practice. If you get caught sharing your login credentials with others, CactusVPN will terminate your account and you won’t get a refund.
The 30-day money-back guarantee is generous.
As well as credit and debit cards, the company accepts PayPal payments and Bitcoin. You can also pay with a dazzling array of payment methods through Yandex Money, Webmoney, and Qiwi.
All plans have the following features:
Servers in nine countries
Simultaneous connections to different servers
Apps for Windows, Mac OS X, iOS, and Android
Manual installation for routers, set-top boxes, and Linux
Peer-to-peer (P2P) allowed on Romanian, German and Dutch servers
Automatic WiFi protection
Per-app and system-wide kill switch
DNS and IP leak protection
Pool of IP addresses
Server speed tests
The small server network is probably the biggest detraction of this service. If you specifically want to access websites in the UK or the US, then the cheaper, country-specific options are good choices. CactusVPN has multiple servers in those countries, so simultaneous connections would be possible by connecting one device to each server.
If you just want cross-border access to streaming services and websites with regional restrictions, then the smart DNS service might be a better option for you. This service got me into Netflix US and UK from a foreign location. The Netflix service is notoriously difficult to get into from abroad. It not only blocks foreign access, but is good at detecting VPN traffic. Consequently, very few VPNs can get you into Netflix to watch content.
You can cut the cost of getting around regional restrictions by just selecting the smart DNS service. However, if you need the privacy afforded by a VPN as well, then you can get a combined bundle of the VPN and the smart DNS. Although, if you pay for the VPN, you might just end up using that for access to streaming services, because it works just as well as the smart DNS service for getting into US and UK sites, including Netflix. The smart DNS service has servers in the US, Canada, the UK, Germany, Poland, Sweden, and Switzerland.
Check out our Smart DNS guide to see how Smart DNS works and how it differs to a VPN.
CactusVPN states that it does not hold “traffic, DNS reqs, timestamps, IPs, bandwidth, connection logs or any other type of logs that can be tracked to a single person.” This is possible because the home country of this VPN service is outside of the political mainstream of the West, where the threat of terrorism has overridden national commitments to privacy.
The company admits that it will hand over any data on file should the authorities arrive with a subpoena. Realistically, few private businesses would do otherwise. However, there can be no trace of your activities through the VPN service because the necessary connection data is not stored after disconnection.
Unfortunately, the CactusVPN app doesn’t include the strongest security that the company provides. The app’s best security is provided by OpenVPN with Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) encryption. This implementation, however, only uses a 128-bit key for encryption. This is weaker than the industry standard of a 256-bit key for AES encryption.
For more information
This table from the CactusVPN site gives a summary of each of the VPN protocols available to users:
Logs & Legal
You can set up the VPN manually on your device. That will get you the option of using SoftEther instead of OpenVPN. This option includes AES encryption with a 256-bit key. The manual setup option is available for Windows, Windows Phone, Mac OS X, iOS, Android, Ubuntu, Chromebook, Boxee Box, and routers.
The session establishment sequence of the VPN uses RSA encryption with a 2048-bit key. Although this is respectable, many of the key players in the VPN industry have moved up to a 4096-bit key for this cipher.
CactusVPN implements perfect forward secrecy (PFS), which means that new encryption keys are distributed for each connection.
A good security feature of a VPN is the kill switch. This blocks the Internet connection if the VPN is not engaged. CactusVPN offers two types of kill switch. The first is a system-wide block and the second is the ability to specify apps that should be blocked from accessing the Internet if the VPN is not turned on.
The website theme is based on the antics of a lovable cartoon cactus, which assumes various poses to illustrate the subject of each section of the site.
The humor of the illustrations helps make the presentation of an essentially complicated topic easier to comprehend.
The main menu of the site remains fixed at the top of the screen as you scroll down. There are more links in the footer of every page.
There are three ways to get to the support ticket screen – this is where you ask the help desk for assistance. The first method is to click on the Support option in the top menu of the site. This gives access to the support hub, which has links to installation guides and tutorials, as well as a button through to the support ticket page.
The client area has a support section. This can be accessed from the left hand menu that is present in all of the screens in the client area.
The support section of the client area shows current support issues that you have raised. You can open a new ticket by clicking on the “Support Ticket” button at the top of the screen.
The third method of reaching the support screen is to click on the “Submit ticket” button on the support tab of the app.
The support form is straightforward. Once you submit your query, you’ll receive a confirmation email. Answers will appear in the support page of the client area. CactusVPN will notify you by email when a new reply is available.
Try out the system with the one-day free trial before you buy one of the plans. This trial gives you access to both the VPN and the smart DNS service. This is exactly the same as the company’s top service plan.
Click on one of the “Free Trial” buttons or links that are dotted about the site.
You can use a Facebook account, or a Google+ account to get into the service. If you don’t want to allow the VPN company access to your Facebook or Google accounts, you can enter an email address instead. If you want total anonymity with this free trial, you can create a webmail account just for contact with CactusVPN. However, the email address you enter has to be real, because your account details will be sent to it.
Look for the welcome email in your inbox. You will need to create a password for the client area of the website. This function is accessed via a button in the email.
Your next task is to download the app. The download section of the website is difficult to find – it is actually accessed off the support page of the client area. The downloads are easier to get to through a link in the welcome email.
The CactusVPN Windows VPN Client
You can change your generated username and password in the website’s client area. Your log-in credentials for the client area are your email address and the password that you set up through the link in the welcome email. The VPN app requires different log-in credentials. These are generated strings of random characters, which you’ll never remember. Thankfully, you can change them to something comprehensible.
In the client area, click on the name of your active package.
The first section of the package details gives you the opportunity to change your username and password.
The first time you access the app, you’ll need to enter those credentials.
Make sure you tick the “Remember password” checkbox so you don’t have to log in again whenever you open the app.
The main screen of the app is very simple. However, resist the temptation to connect straight away – you don’t know which VPN protocol the app has been set to.
You can choose a protocol in the settings tab.
Before you deal with the protocol settings, slide the “DNS leak protection” setting to On. This setting’s default position is Off.
Select the protocol from the drop-down list at the top of the settings page. We recommend using OpenVPN. This selection will open up two more fields, which let you choose between Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) and User Datagram Protocol (UDP). If you want to use streaming services or video chat, select UDP. This is a quicker, “connectionless” option that is preferable for interactive services. The second of the OpenVPN settings fields lets you select a port to connect to.
The Settings tab is the home of the kill switch. If you ant to turn it on, click on the slider next to “Stop internet traffic if VPN connection is dropped.” To specify kill switch block for individual applications, click on the “Apps Killer” tab at the top of the window.
To connect, go back to the connection tab. You can reorder the list of available servers by speed by clicking on the button next to the server drop-down list.
After selecting a server, click on the Connect button to turn the VPN on. Once the VPN is operating, the Connect button will change to a Disconnect button.
CactusVPN Performance (Speed, DNS, WebRTC and IPv6 Tests)
These speed tests were performed from Nottingham, UK, using the site, testmy.net. For each category, five test runs were performed.
The first test run examined the speed of an unprotected connection, to establish a baseline. This measured the performance of a Virgin Media internet service on a connection to London. The next two test conditions also connected to London, but through CactusVPN servers. In these two cases, the connection settings specified the use of OpenVPN with UDP. The first test connected with the CactusVPN server in London. The second test ran through the CactusVPN server in the Netherlands. The company recommends the use of its Dutch or Romanian servers for P2P downloading. The “Netherlands 3” server came up as the fastest of the company’s Dutch servers when the app’s speed check reordered the server list.
The last tests measured the performance of a connection to New York in the US, both without a VPN and with the CactusVPN server in Chicago mediating the line. Again, this VPN ran with UDP on the OpenVPN protocol.
In all cases, the VPN gave a very respectable performance. When there are very slight changes in speed, those differences could easily be caused by the variable performance of the underlying internet service. Despite extra routing and work to encrypt and decrypt all transmissions, CactusVPN hardly impaired speeds at all.
Cactus VPN produces its app for Windows, Mac OS X, iOS, and Android. Manual setup is also available for those platforms, plus Windows Phone, Ubuntu, Chromebook, Boxee Box, and routers. If you are able to set up the VPN manually, you will get access to a better implementation of the AES encryption system than the application offers. This is because the SoftEther VPN implementation available for manual installation includes AES with a 256-bit key, whereas the OpenVPN option in the app uses AES with a 128-bit key.
CactusVPN Review: Conclusion
The CactusVPN system has improved a lot since its inception. The service gets around regional restrictions and the server network offers good speeds. The only detraction of this service is the company’s small server network.
30-day money-back guarantee
24-hour free trial
Good IP and DNS leak protection
Dedicated servers for P2P downloads
Strong privacy procedures
I wasn’t so sure about:
Small server network
Weak AES encryption in the OpenVPN implementation
Support staff not up to speed on the app
If you want to get around the regional restrictions on streaming services, you have to use a VPN server in the same country as the website that you are trying to access. As CactusVPN only has servers in nine countries, you may find that this service is not for you. Those who are catered for by the CactusVPN server locations will find the good speeds and competent cloaking of this VPN fulfil all of their requirements.