The Best Free Dating Sites
We pitted OKCupid and Plenty of Fish — two of the best free dating sites — against Match and eHarmony — two of the most well-known paid sites — to see which came out on top. After two weeks of testing, we found that the best free account will return more (and better) matches, but the best paid sites have the edge on long-term relationships.
Making a great profile is easy with OKCupid's excellent mix of questions. Even better: It has the most robust algorithm that can target more meaningful matches.
A massive user base means there's a ton of potential matches. But we were underwhelmed by the quality of our interactions — and overwhelmed by all the notifications.
Evaluating an online dating site is always going to be at least a little bit subjective. The real gauge of quality is if you’re matched with someone compatible, right? And that’s going to be affected by all sorts of things, from your age to your looks to your location. So our mission became about which free dating sites are going to set you up best for success (however you may define it). We prioritized how easy it was to make a quality profile and waited for our matches to start rolling in.
Our Top Picks
OKCupid isn’t just the best free dating site — we discovered it’s the best online dating site period. It has a large user base that doesn’t discriminate, a clean and easy-to-navigate interface across all devices, and its matching algorithms gave us the best results in our tests. The key: You not only answer a bunch of multiple-choice questions about your lifestyle and preferences to create your own profile, but also get to choose which answers you want to see in your potential matches, as well as how important each of those answers is. Of the four online dating sites we tested in-depth, OKCupid is the only one to base its matching algorithms off such robust parameters.
Left: OKCupid’s algorithm takes into account what you want to see in your matches. Right: Your matches appear with what percentage you’re “compatible.”
A great matching algorithm doesn’t mean much, though, if it doesn’t translate into conversations and dates. During our two-week testing period, we found nine promising matches. That’s not great when you consider the 70-plus results OKCupid served up for us, but it was better than any other site we looked at. We also received the highest percentage of messages we rated “good.”
While all of OKCupid’s main features — messaging, viewing profiles, answering questions — are free, there is a paid option for those looking to get a little more out of their search. A-List subscribers get read receipts, incognito mode, and a larger inbox. There’s also a boost feature, which is supposed to ensure your profile gets seen by more users. (Emphasis on “supposed to.” Boosting fell totally flat in our tests.) While the $10-per-month price tag is already cheap compared to most paid dating sites, you can get that number down as low as $5 per month by agreeing to pay for several months of service at once — but we think its free version is more than enough for the average dater.
The aptly named Plenty of Fish has over 5.5 million unique visitors each month, and during our two weeks of testing, we received more profile views and messages on POF than on any other site. But ultimately, it fell short of the top spot because the quality just wasn’t there. POF has a reputation for casual dating, and it was obvious that many users weren’t trying too hard for meaningful connections. Profile questions were left blank and a lot of the messages we received were generic “hey’s” that made it hard to tell if we were talking to a real person or a spambot. Of the 114 messages we received, only five were from legitimate, interested users — 4 percent to OKCupid’s 12 percent.
POF’s website isn’t very intuitive, which can make finding that needle in a haystack even more complicated. Add to that a barrage of notifications every time someone so much as looks at your profile and it’s easy to see why some users get fed up and never come back. You’ll want to adjust the amount of notifications you receive unless you enjoy a nonstop live stream of what’s happening with your dating profile.
But that doesn’t mean POF is a waste of your time. According to one study, it’s responsible for 5.7 percent of online-dating marriages. In addition to a standard search function, POF offers personality and compatibility tests to help you home in on those users that are most in line with what you’re looking for. There are also plenty of open-ended questions so you can share a little more about yourself and your interests. The key here is to actually take the time to fill out all the questions. That in itself will make you stand out from the crowd.
Like OKCupid, POF has a paid plan for those who want to accelerate their chances of finding a partner. It costs between $10 and $20 per month, depending on how many months you buy. POF doesn’t give you a month-to-month option, so you’ll have to commit to at least two months up front. You’ll get the best deal if you pay for eight months of premium membership. This membership boosts your profile in searches, lets you upload more pictures, and shows you if your messages were read or deleted.
How We Found the Best Free Dating Sites
We made profiles on four dating sites — OKCupid, Plenty of Fish, Match, and eHarmony — and evaluated them on the quality of the matches they provided and overall usability. First, we looked at how easy it was to create a unique and interesting profile. A ton of generic open-ended questions like “What are your hobbies?” can only get you so far. We appreciated sites like OKCupid that went beyond that and offered fill-in-the-blank and multiple-choice options as well as some more unique open-ended questions.
We tested each site’s algorithms.
A note on our tester. Our tester was a straight, white, woman in her late 20s. Her experiences were of course impacted by these facts — your mileage may vary.
Algorithms are how a dating site determines which users are a good match for you and which aren’t. Ideally, this takes some of the legwork out of finding potential partners, but studies have shown there’s no evidence these algorithms help produce more lasting relationships and that similarity often has no impact on relationship quality. Still, algorithms can help weed out the most obviously incompatible users and give you a starting point, if nothing else.
We rated our interactions with other users.
Using a three-point scale (Bad, Mediocre, and Good), we categorized each message we received. Good messages were respectful, asked something about our profile, and displayed a sincere interest in getting to know us better. Unfortunately, even on the best free dating site, OKCupid, we only received “good” messages 19 percent of the time. The rest were either impersonal, spammy, a neg, and/or downright obscene.
And lastly, we looked at usability.
Chances are, if you’re serious about finding someone online, you’re going to be spending a lot of time on dating sites. You don’t want a buggy web page or a confusing interface making your job even harder. We favored sites with a clean visual design that made it easy to build your profile and search for matches.
Is it worth it to pay?
It depends on what you’re looking for. If you’re interested in casual dating, you can get by just fine on a free site. But if you’re interested in a long-term relationship, Match is worth checking out. According to a 2013 Pew Research Center study, Match had the most long-term relationships of all the dating sites surveyed. It also reported the fewest instances of harassment at 12 percent, while nearly half of OKCupid users reported being contacted in a way that made them feel harassed or uncomfortable.
As far as paid sites go, Match is relatively affordable with subscriptions starting at $31 for three months. You can get that price down to $25 per month if you’re willing to sign up for a year’s service at once. In our experience, Match’s search algorithm didn’t return as many good matches as OKCupid and its interface was a little cluttered. But it struck a good balance between open-ended and prefab questions, though they were often rather dull (“How often do you exercise?”).
Match is also a good choice if you’re interested in getting to know people in person, rather than through a series of emails or instant messages. Match organizes a number of game nights, speed dating, and happy hour events in cities across the country, and this can be a good way to meet people without dealing with the pressure of a one-on-one date.
eHarmony is another popular paid dating site with a huge user base, but it failed to impress us. It was the most expensive of the dating sites we looked at, starting at $40 per month for a basic plan. There’s a big up-front investment, considering, in our experience, its compatibility and personality tests that are supposed to help you find your best matches didn’t work out. We didn’t find any interesting matches and received fewer views and messages than on any other site.