Finding your soulmate is priceless. Sure. But do you have to use a paid site to find a real relationship? Does a monthly fee really weed out people who aren’t taking the process seriously?
This wasn’t really an issue before 2012, but the Tinder-led surge of 30-second profiles and instant access to all single folks within 10 miles gave sites with tedious personality analyses and upscale subscriptions a run for their money — literally.
Vox said what we’re all really thinking: “At what point in the completely nightmarish process of online dating does one decide that it’s worth spending money on making that experience slightly less terrible?”
Is it worth paying for a dating site?
According to Reddit and Consumer Reports, not really. This Consumer Reports survey found that free sites actually scored better than paid sites on this when it came to overall satisfaction because they’re a “better value.” Unless you’re absolutely lost without those heavy-duty matchmaking algorithms, many free sites still offer the questionnaires, detailed bios, and compatibility ratings that indicate red flags and users you wouldn’t get along with.
There’s no one dating site that everyone is particularly psyched about. Swiping exhaustion and creepily persistent users are an omnipresent part of all online dating. Sorry, but a paid subscription isn’t a metal detector that pulls all of the upstanding, faithful singles up out of the crowd. When there are sites that can offer millions of users for free and success stories to prove they work, why not try them before spending $40 per month elsewhere?
A hefty price point doesn’t guarantee the absence of fakes or catfishes, either. (In 2019, some guy on Match.com posed as a millionaire and stole $80,000 from the woman he was talking to.) Many free sites are just as big on privacy and safety, requiring users to verify themselves through Facebook to increase transparency about age and first names. No paid sites have the safety features that Tinder does, which is the first of the Match Group apps to offer 911 assistance and location services to make meeting a stranger safer.
The aesthetic experience certainly isn’t what your money is going toward, either. Many of the older, subscription-based sites have been slow to modernize their UX designs, still relying on the very 2000s style of bombarding you with notifications for every wink, message, and whatever else.
Can you actually fall in love with someone online?
We’ve all accepted that online dating is great for finding a friend with benefits, but telling family members that it’s getting serious with that person you met online still takes convincing. However, recent studies show that meeting online can foster a pretty reliable romantic foundation.
A 2017 study cited in the MIT Technology Review found that people who meet online are more likely to be compatible and have a better chance at a healthy marriage if they decide to get hitched. Another study found that heterosexual couples who met online were quicker to tie the knot. These stats don’t take anything from correlation to causation, but they do make the case that people who sign up for dating sites that require thoughtful responses are in a better spot to settle down.
There’s an unspoken assumption that people on free dating sites are young, horny people with no disposable income and that people on paid dating site are mature, employed individuals who are ready to settle down. But eharmony, Match, Tinder, and OkCupid have rather similar age demographics, all with surprisingly close splits between people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s.
Which dating sites are actually free?
Waters get muddied when basically every damn dating site has some sort of paid and free version. True free apps let users do all of this as a baseline, and then offer paid perks such as the ability to see everyone who has swiped right on you or boosting your profile for a certain amount of time. Free-but-not-really apps are the ones that are technically free to use, but you have to pay to do just about anything including read or respond to messages.
Premium memberships of freemium apps are an affordable way to give more control over your pool of potential boos, but they probably don’t do much to expedite the grueling swiping process. When Tinder released Tinder Gold, it beat out Candy Crush as the Apple Store’s top-grossing app. People were that willing to pay to see who swiped right on them. That might be handy knowledge if you’re looking to get laid, but it’s hard to tell if it would help find someone that you like enough to share your life with. No one I know has kept a paid version of a free app for more than a month.
At any rate, there’s a certain serendipitous feeling that comes with the possibility that, out of the millions of users Hinge could have shown you that day, your soulmate popped up in the crowd of 10 likes you can give out per day (compared to the unlimited likes that come with Hinge Preferred).
These are the best free dating sites for finding a serious relationship:
Best for dating a liberal
Queer-friendly and inclusive • Lots of users • Expands compatibility to those with similar social justice views • Modern redesign that’s genuinely fun to navigate
Not great in small towns
Millennials who follow current events will enjoy OkCupid’s Tumblr-esque design and the focus on multi-faceted matching.
OkCupid genuinely wants dating to be a good experience and the woke vibe helps avoid feeling like a loser looking for love online. Unlimited matches with free account: No Unlimited messaging with free account: Yes A-List perks: No ads, a list of who’s liked you, and read receipts
Don’t let OkCupid’s cheeky ads about being “left-leaning” (like politics, but also…you know) make you put it in the “hookup” category. The focus on such weighted issues and profiles that require thought are a pretty big deterrent for people who aren’t taking dating seriously, and you can tell that most users are putting effort into finding lasting connections. Users can illuminate the issues they hold dear and weed out people they’d want to argue with by answering deal-breakers like “Would you date someone who keeps a gun in the house?” or “Should the government require children be vaccinated for preventable diseases?” Liberal ladies found that this worked to their advantage, as OkCupid’s own statistics found that liberal-leaning answers made users 80% more likely to find love on the site.
Politics aren’t the only compatibility factor here. OKCupid has in-depth user bios, but profile building isn’t long or tedious at all — the questions are smart and dive into your dating style without being too mushy. You’ll even get to see the percentage of how much you have in common based on question answers. It’s an algorithm that OKC has been perfecting since launch just a few years after eharmony.
Best for getting out of your comfort zone
Little to no effort to make a profile • No messages from people you haven’t liked back • Less judgement over the perfect profile picture • Premium perks can be earned just by using the app
Somewhat empty user base, especially in small towns • Paid version is too expensive for its bland features
This small user base allows CMB to find a handful of highly-compatible matches while you get on with your day.
2. Coffee Meets Bagel
Feeling rusty? CMB gets things rolling by sending ice breakers and encouraging parties to plan a date within a week of matching. Unlimited matching with free account: No Unlimited messaging with free account: Yes Paid perks: More likes per day
Millions and millions of active users is usually a plus. It is nice to know that your options are virtually limitless, but things go from flattering to chaotic real fast when people hit you up 30 seconds after matching. This happens on eharmony and Tinder alike — people want that connection, and they want it NOW. CMB’s slow and steady approach is great for singles who are rusty, a bit more introverted, or who simply don’t feel like scrolling every time they have a free minute. Every day, CMB offers seven of its best matches (bagels) for you, chosen by your answers to prompts, who you said yes or no to in yesterday’s batch, and who has already expressed interest with you, too.
CMB encourages users to get the ball rolling by only keeping your match for seven days. It’s less pressure than Bumble’s 24-hour time limit but still eliminates a list full of matches who don’t care enough to plan a meet-up. Plus, not being bombarded with available hotties 24/7 gives you more time to contemplate whether you genuinely want to get to know or if you’re just messaging them because you’re bored.
Your bagels are limited regardless of if you upgrade to a paid account, which doesn’t offer much past increasing your allowance of daily likes. Premium perks can also be earned for free just by using the app.
Best serious swiping app
Rapidly-growing user base • High chance for second date • One of the first swiping apps to actually use an algorithm
Not great in small towns • Best filters are no longer free
A trendy, more serious Tinder alternative, Hinge wants to find you a relationship so you can delete the app all together.
Millennials finally have an algorithm-based swiping app that’s less “Wanna bang?” than Tinder. Unlimited matches with free account: No Unlimited messaging with free account: Yes Hinge Preferred perks: Extra filters like weed use or height and a grid view of everyone who has liked you
Despite the fact that we’re actively seeking out new dating apps and feel a rush every time a cute contender swipes right back, no one looking for something serious wants to be on these. The whole point of online dating is to find your person so you can stop looking for your person. That’s the whole idea behind Hinge’s 2019 rebrand to “the dating app designed to be deleted.” But catchy slogans mean nothing without real-world success. Thankfully, these Hinge statistics offer a vote of confidence for anyone who’s skeptical about whether dating behind a screen can actually foster connections IRL. Beta trials of a feature called “We met” asked Hinge users how the first date went. Some 90% said the first date was great and 72% said they’d be down for a second date.
There’s a common understanding among users that Hinge isn’t just for sex, but there’s no pressure to rush into a relationship either. Instead of extensive cheesy questionnaires and spam emails about the 50 winks you were sent, Hinge uses your personal prompts, ethnicity, religion, education, and more to find you anywhere from five to 15 matches per day. Prompts range from “The most spontaneous thing I’ve ever done” to “Two truths and a lie.” Seems like a good recipe for a first convo that’s not about sex, right?
Best for lesbians who hate Tinder
Facebook verification confirms identity • Special places in bios for sexuality and pronouns • Four million users and growing quickly • Involvement in local queer events
Same profiles will pop up in small towns • Occasional biphobia • No algorithm past age and location
HER is a rapidly-growing safe space for queer women to make meaningful connections, but there’s no real algorithm.
Connect with queer women who want something real and free yourself from Tinder’s focus on threesomes. Unlimited matching on free account: Yes Unlimited messaging on free account: Yes Paid perks: None, because it’s completely free
The app that wants to “introduce you to every lesbian you’ve ever wanted to meet” is growing rapidly: HER has grown to 4.5 million users since its rebrand in 2015, and according to Statista, that’s pretty damn close to what Bumble is working with — and they’re ALL. WOMEN. If you tried HER a few years ago and were discouraged by swiping through the same people, your experience will be much different this time around.
In 2019, HER revamped its minimalistic profiles to let users get more creative in categories like gender, sexuality pronouns, diet preferences, and star signs, as well as a “What does this mean?” field in the sex, gender, and pronoun categories to create more well-rounded understanding of identity. There’s also a space for a text bio where you can showcase your sense of humor describe what type of relationship you’re looking for.
The lack of any real science behind the matches past age and location is a bummer, but unlike Tinder, this doesn’t mean you’ll be suffocated with a hookup vibe. Searching #wemetonHER on Instagram should be all the beautiful, adorable success story proof that you need.
Best no-frills site
Massive user base • Numerous questionnaires cover *everything*
Boring, unattractive design • Not bisexual friendly • Too many dead profiles and bots
Janky design aside, POF seeks well-rounded chemistry with personality, sex, and relationship needs tests.
5. Plenty of Fish
Reddit users love POF’s pond of singles who actually reply, but the design needs a total overhaul. Unlimited matches with free account: Yes Unlimited messaging with free account: Yes Paid perks: Viewing extended profiles, see who has viewed your profile, and no ads
POF came out in 2005 and essentially looks like it hasn’t been updated since. Though it has gotten a lot of shit for being taken over by fake accounts and not deleting profiles that have been inactive for five years, it has still managed to rake in 90 million users over the past 15 or so years. People in this Reddit thread insist that some real chemistry — or at least a few good dates to give you hope — are possible as long as you have a strict vetting process.
The lengthy questionnaires and profiles are extremely traditional, making it a safe bet for people over 30, divorcees, and single parents who aren’t in the mood to mess around. One covers psychology, one covers relationship needs, one covers sex, plus the expected questions about interests and hobbies. POF finds out what makes you tick and lays it on the table in your profile, hopefully ensuring that the people who slide into your DMs resonate with something you said. Each test is 100-ish questions, but you’re only required to compete one. That said, POF suggests filling out as many as you can to help the algorithm fine tune its pickings and find you someone who complements you on all fronts.
Dating sites that aren’t free, but great for finding something serious
Match and eharmony have been perfecting their matchmaking algorithms since 1995 and 2000, respectively. Both teams are so confident in their abilities to introduce you to someone special that if you’re not happy after a few months, they’ll give you a few months for free. And while both sites are better if you pay for them, each does offer some features for free. Dive deeper into our picks for the best dating sites for finding something serious by going here.
Your best option overall
Huge, active user base • Lets you choose dealbreakers
Not free, but cheaper than eharmony • Prices change too often • Recent legal issues with FTC
Match’s proven success rate over the decades and evolving mobile adaptions keep it a go-to for all ages.
The OG dating site reigns supreme with a proven algorithm and more users than the population of NYC. Free features: View matches and send and receive winks, but no messaging Three months: $25.99/month Six months: $22.99/month One year: $19.99/month
Match continues to solidify its spot as a well-rounded choice for all ages because it refuses to get lost as an antiquated, corny dating site.You’re at least tediously scrolling through people Match thinks you’ll like based on shared interests like volunteering or clubbing, pet preferences, whether you want (or have) kids, and more. If something like smoking cigarettes is a deal breaker, you can indicate that, too.
Match has so many online daters in its arsenal (more than the population of New York City, in fact) that it’s hard to avoid the notification onslaught even if you live in a less-populated area. However, it should slow down once the algorithm starts learning about your swiping behaviors.
Most of us would like to believe that anyone paying $20 per month is genuinely looking for a seriously relationship, but Match has had its fair share of extreme catfishing (like the guy who claimed to be a millionaire and then scammed $80,000 from the woman he was talking to). But they’re working to make this better. In fact, Match is set to follow Tinder as the second Match Group app to utilize location-based emergency services via Noonlight as well as photo verification to authenticate users and ensure that they’re the same person that’s in their profile pictures.
Best for those dating to marry
High success rate speaks for itself • Questionnaire makes you think about what you need to work on • Super user-friendly
Historically not super LGBTQ-friendly • Not free (obviously)
If you’re laser-focused on hetero matrimony, this is the dating site you’ve been waiting for.
Casual daters and liberal folks will feel smothered here, but conservative, marriage-minded people will love the focus on settling down. Free features: 29-dimension personality quiz and reviewing matches, but no messaging Three months: $54.95/month Six months: $36.95/month One year: $22.95/month
As you might expect from a site that’s all about settling down and getting married, the sign-up process is a doozy. eharmony uses a comprehensive questionnaire with 29 dimensions to match you with people based on your long-term compatibility. You’ll rate yourself on prompts like “I’m an honest partner,” with sliding scale responses. There’s also a lot about church. (Pro tip: If finding someone who loves church as much as you do is really important, then eharmony is a good option.)
On paper, asking deep questions like these right off the bat makes total sense when pairing two people together — but they’re so basic. Then again, eharmony promises to pay for three months if you’re not satisfied after those three months, so they’re clearly pretty confident that all of those questions work.
Profiles also look really nice, like a fancy résumé designed by a graphic designer. You even have the option to put your favorite TV shows, music, sports, and more on your profile.
It should be noted that eharmony hasn’t always felt like a welcoming place to members of the LGBTQ+ community. Following a 2010 lawsuit, their gay and lesbian spin-off site Compatibility Partners has been folded into eharmony’s overall site, but users on Reddit as recently as 2019 say that it still seems geared more toward straight people.