Choosing between free vs. paid web hosting is one of the first dilemmas aspiring site owners face when taking their first dive into the ocean of available options. People and businesses understandably want to minimize their costs and find the best deal, but doing so could lead them toward poor service or even scams that expose sensitive personal data.
Many free web hosting services are like sirens luring sailors at sea. Attracted by the enchanting no-cost price tag, site owners who don’t do their research can wreck their online presence by signing up with an unreliable plan. However, trustworthy free hosting can be a great option for those looking to practice a new skill or create something temporary.
So, how can you tell which hosting service is right for you? And how do the two options compare, other than in the obvious difference of cost? We’ll answer these questions (and more!) throughout this article and get you into the calm waters and smooth sailing of a long-term hosting relationship.
Choosing the Best Free vs. Paid Web Hosting Services
Before worrying about how much to spend, you may need to take a step back: What is web hosting, anyway? Regardless of the sticker price, free and paid web hosting plans deliver the same basic service: storage space on a server plus all the underlying technologies needed to deliver your website to visitors all over the world.
As you probably imagine, you’ll typically find higher quality and faster performance with a product you pay for. Web hosting is an expensive business — no one is looking to give it away for free out of the kindness of their hearts. While premium hosts reinvest customer payments in upgrading their hardware and support training, many permanently free hosting plans are typically supported by ads placed on customers’ sites and producing stripped-down service with limited features.
Best “Paid” Web Hosting Services
Just because you’re opening your wallet for web hosting services doesn’t mean you have to fork over much. Many top-tier shared hosting plans can be yours for $5 or less per month — with even better bargains that can be found for less than $3 monthly.
In the world of web hosting, cheap doesn’t mean shoddy. Rather, think of it as high value. For example, these three hosts below offer beginner-friendly and affordable services that come with all the modern features, around-the-clock support, and top-notch security you’d expect to find at a much higher price than the deals we’ve been able to score for our loyal readers. Take a look at our reviews of the best values in web hosting:
Monthly Starting Price $2.95
- Known for high performance at a low price
- Endorsed by WordPress.org team
- FREE Weebly site builder and CloudFlare CDN
- FREE domain and unlimited storage
- Get 63% off today (was $7.99/month)
- Get started on Bluehost now.
Monthly Starting Price $1.39
- Unlimited everything, from storage to databases
- FREE site builder & WP performance upgrades
- FREE daily or weekly backups
- Custom control panel and auto-installation scripts
- SSH access & SSL certificates
- Get started on Hostinger now.
Monthly Starting Price $2.64
- Get 70% off by buying 36 months up front
- Unmetered disk space & bandwidth
- Unlimited email addresses & free SSL certificate
- One-click WordPress install & free blog tools
- Free 1-year domain registration on select plans
- Get started on HostGator now.
Best “Free” Web Hosting Services
As you’ve probably picked up, we’re not too keen on most free web hosting — unless it comes from one of the three companies we list below. We’ll go into more detail later on when we compare free and paid hosting services more closely, but these three options stand apart from the crowd. While many free hosting organizations are offered by a skeleton crew in some isolated far corner of the world, these are global brands known for integrity, reliability, and friendly communities of users.
Occasionally, you’ll find essentially extended free trials that are supported by a company’s premium plans instead of advertising. That’s what Wix, WordPress, and Weebly, plus a few others offer to aspiring website owners, students, and developers. You’ll likely miss out on some advanced features like a custom domain name, ecommerce functionality, or live chat support, but you’ll be able to test out the company’s full design interface and backend systems to make sure you’re investing in the right program. Learn more about Wix, WordPress, and Weebly in our reviews below:
- FREE pre-installed SSL certificate
- Access to dozens of customizable themes
- 24/7 support via community forums
- SEO and social media tools with Jetpack
- Get started on WordPress.com now.
Monthly Starting Price $0.00
- All-in-one hosting and drag-and-drop builder
- Start designing for FREE, upgrade whenever
- Easily build a blog, personal site, or online store
- 100s of FREE templates for websites
- $100 credit toward Google advertising
- Get started on Weebly now.
7 Key Differences Between Free and Paid Web Hosting
You probably have a pretty clear sense of the main differences between free and premium services by now, but let’s drill down into some concrete comparisons of specific types of hosting. The service you need ultimately depends on the goals and expectations you have for your site, and your willingness to make it all happen.
Many of the features to look for in a web host are pretty easy to compare, particularly when they’re transparently measurable items like the amount of storage space or number of websites you can produce. But knowing how to get the best bang for your buck can be rather challenging. Some components of web hosting success, such as search engine optimization and customer support, are easy to overlook until you really need them. Here, we’ll cover a handful of critical features and examine how free and paid web hosting services typically treat them.
1. Bandwidth and Storage Space
Usually the most prominent stats on a hosting plan, bandwidth and storage refer to storing and delivering the files that make up your website. Web hosting bandwidth refers to the amount of data a website can deliver to its visitors over a certain period of time, while storage space represents how much room you have on a server to store files, folders, and databases.
Paid web hosting plans often remove all restrictions on storage and bandwidth, providing essentially unlimited resources to your site as long as you follow the host’s terms of service. Free hosts, on the other hand, often throttle back these assets in an effort to fit more customers and websites on each of their servers — meaning you may not be able to publish everything you envisioned for your site or reach as wide of an audience as you hoped.
Missing out on that potential to grow a website can be absolutely devastating to a new business, for example. Simple sites for students and professionals tend to fare better with free hosting plans, but only if you’re not needing to showcase large amounts of photography, music, or other resource-heavy files.
2. Features and Upgrades
Free web hosting can be a great foot in the door, but imagine coming home to an empty house. Companies that offer free services do so in hopes that, once you’re inside, you’ll eventually upgrade to a paid plan that includes the furnishings and features that more adequately meet your needs. After all, buying new furniture and wall decor is far easier than moving to a whole other house.
Free web hosting services usually hamper your ability to create exactly what you want. You likely won’t be able to create more than one website, and probably only a handful of pages that use a certain set of file types. You probably won’t have server access or helpful platforms like cPanel that enable users to configure backups, SSL certificates, install WordPress, or add email accounts.
3. Domain Name and Branding
Free and paid services may both tout a free domain name, but there’s a key difference: Free hosting companies give you a domain with their name in the URL. Whether you go to a reputable brand, like WordPress, or Joe Schmoe’s Free Hosting, your site will live at yourname.wordpress.com or yourname.joeschmoe.com — harming your site’s credibility and professionalism.
A custom domain registration may be available as an à la carte paid upgrade, but free hosts typically charge exorbitant fees compared with how paid plans treat domains. Many paid hosting plans give you a free custom domain name for a year, with renewal fees often half of what you’ll see elsewhere in the industry.
4. Privacy and Security
This one may be buried in the middle of our list, but it’s one of our biggest gripes about free hosting. Sure, features and performance and domain names are nice, but lax security standards can actually harm customers and their visitors by exposing sensitive personal and financial information. The worst free hosting companies are more interested in gathering your contact information and selling it to marketers than providing services, while even the slightly more reputable brands aren’t immune.
A 2015 security breach at 000webhost, for example, exposed more than 13 million user records, including names, emails, and plain-text passwords. The list of vulnerabilities is atrocious: login forms and admin areas not secured by SSL encryption, password reminders sent via plain-text email messages, and forms that exposed plain-text data in web server logs, browser histories, and other publicly viewable areas.
Rest assured knowing that the world’s largest hosting companies employ far more attention to securing their infrastructure and reputations.
5. Performance and Reliability
The restricted resources available in free hosting plans dramatically limit the hosting firepower available to deliver your website to the masses. Even if you find a platform with decent page load speed, you’ll likely have to contend with a few hours of scheduled downtime each day to help the overloaded servers continue to deliver other customers’ websites.
Unsurprisingly, paid hosts leverage modern technologies to stay on the cutting edge of performance and stability. Many have graduated from traditional hard disk drives to the high-speed solid-state drives, or SSDs, which offer page loads up to 20 times faster than those of competitors. Even better, the companies regularly show off their uptime guarantees, which promise your website will be available for all but perhaps 30 minutes a month — or your money back.
6. Search Engine Rankings and Optimization
Compounding the effects of poor performance, slow page loads can have a major impact on website traffic and where you’ll rank in search engine results. Google has counted site speed in its algorithm since 2010, making it a vitally important metric for online businesses. Organic search drives more than half of web traffic, compared to just 5% that comes from social media.
Regardless of performance, free web hosting providers often supplement their revenue by displaying ads on your site — with no regard to their relevance or professionalism to your site’s subject matter. Add to that the prevalence of dubious or otherwise spammy websites on free hosting platforms, and one can understand why search engines don’t rank the domains of those companies highly.
7. Technical Support and Assistance
Finally, perhaps the most important component to a valuable and worthwhile hosting experience: Who can you turn to when something goes wrong? If the answer is a community forum or vague, rarely answered email address, you may as well not even bother. If free hosting providers don’t invest in their infrastructure, what makes you think they’ll hire and train all the people needed to serve a large customer base?
On the other hand, paid hosts employ hundreds or thousands of customer service agents from around the world who are available via phone, chat, or email ticket to offer the best support imaginable. Many carry certifications in the top hosting technologies, or even personally contribute code or volunteer with open-source projects like WordPress. Even better, the providers will often create and maintain self-help articles and video tutorials in an online knowledge base for you to access anytime.
Do I Need to Pay for Web Hosting?
Technically, you can create a basic website without paying for hosting — but we don’t recommend it. Affordable plans and upscale free demos exist with nearly every type of hosting, giving you so many features and perks for such a meager investment. Here’s a basic rundown of what we think:
- Pay for hosting when: You want to create a professional website, personal blog, or online business that you’ll want to share with others.
- Don’t pay for hosting when: You’re looking for a small, temporary website that does not have major requirements or sensitive information.
That being said, if you know you’re in the early stages of your project or want to try practicing a new programming language, we can understand the appeal of not having to open up your wallet. Instead of signing up with a sketchy service, though, we’ve cultivated a list of the best programs for a variety of specific hosting needs:
Whichever route you choose, be sure to do your research by reading the fine print and online reviews to make sure you don’t encounter any surprises — and lose control over your data as a result.
How Much Should You Pay for Website Hosting?
Just like at the grocery store, what you spend on hosting depends on what you buy. Your receipt wouldn’t show the same dollar amount spent for the purchase of 100 apples versus one apple, would it? Here’s our breakdown of what you can expect to spend at the major levels of hosting:
|Type of Hosting||Estimated Price||Best for:|
|Shared||$2-$5 per month||Beginners, bloggers, new businesses|
|Cloud||$5-20 per month||Small businesses and developers|
|VPS||$10-$50 per month||Medium businesses, app developers|
|Dedicated||$50-$100 per month||Large companies|
Of course, hosting is just one piece of the hosting pie. When looking to figure out how much it will cost to build a website, don’t forget about your domain name, design and development, content, and other features and improvements like a content delivery network, email, domain privacy, or enhanced security.
Thanks to the bevy of free and open-source technologies available, you should be able to get started for right around the web hosting sticker price. As introductory discounts expire, your needs change, and your site grows, however, don’t be surprised when those numbers start to grow somewhat.
Make the Right Investment: Web Hosting Doesn’t Have to Be Expensive
As we’ve tried to show you, a good website doesn’t have to break the bank. You may be able to skate by for a little while without spending a penny, but you’ll be happier in the long run by investing just a few dollars a month toward your online safety and success.
Even though the prices we’ve found from some of the industry’s leading hosts are also among the most affordable, you can almost always find discounts and coupon codes to make your purchase that much more affordable. Save a little extra by clicking on these coupons we’ve secured for our loyal readers:
Keep in mind, most hosting deals like the ones above and those that include a free domain registration only apply to your first term (usually a year). Prices will likely go up afterward but then stabilize for the long term — giving you a regular expenditure that you can plan your budget around.
Whichever host you choose, pay attention to the features available with each type of plan, along with renewal rates and free trials. The last thing you want is any surprises!