The best online dating sites and apps can help make connecting with others a little easier in a time where meeting new people has become more challenging. The coronavirus pandemic has changed the face of dating, but that doesn’t mean you have to put your desire for a companionship on hold.
Even if you’re not looking for love, the best dating apps automatically match you with like-minded people, so they can be a great way of expanding your social circle. Whether you’re looking for new connections, casual dating, or a deep and meaningful relationship, online dating sites can introduce you to people you might not otherwise have met.
With a smorgasbord of online dating sites available, it’s worth trialing a few to see which ones best suit your needs. Some, like Tinder and Plenty of Fish, are completely free and perfect for casual dating. Others, such as Elite Singles and eharmony, have a financial outlay but include more rigorous and tailored profile matching, making them ideal if you’re looking for a serious relationship.
While dating in 2021 may feel more challenging, the best online dating sites are quickly getting COVID-smart. Many are actively encouraging video calls as the new first date, which can make the whole process feel safer and less daunting. Others are using badging as a way for users to let others know how safe they feel to meet up and what precautions might need to be taken, such as ‘mask-only’ meet-ups.
If you need apps that include more choices for homosexual relationships, or you're looking for specific groups of people, check out our guides to the best gay dating sites, the best senior dating sites, the best Christian dating sites, and the best dating apps for women.
1. Match.com: Best online dating site overall
Match.com hosts group hangouts so you can get to know a lot of singles without any pressure. This can avoid the awkwardness of a one-on-one with someone you've never met before and is a great ice-breaker.
The Bucket List Event Series even pairs you up based on things you’d like to do before you die so you can make new and exciting memories to further foster a relationship.
Both the website and app are easy to use and because your matches appear with a compatibility number, you’re more likely to have common interests. Adding something unique to your profile, like your favorite MLB team, is also a fun feature that a lot of other dating websites lack. It might even help heal the rift between Yankees and Mets fans.
- Read our full Match.com review
2. OkCupid: Best online dating site for millennials
OKCupid's most important features - messaging and viewing other profiles - are free and the site is LGBTQ-inclusive. Our findings are in line with Consumer Reports data that found users were most satisfied with OkCupid over numerous other dating services. With free dating apps becoming more popular thanks to Tinder, people are gravitating toward free online dating apps, and this is one of the best.
Setting up your profile is fun because of the unique questions you’re asked, like what your ideal date would entail and whether you’d prefer to be weird or normal. You also answer these questions from the perspective of your ideal mate to ensure you are paired with compatible people. Along with up to six photos, you can also add more information to your profile about your lifestyle.
In our tests, OkCupid gave us the most matches. On top of that, about half of them were an 80 percent match or higher, meaning they are more likely to be compatible. To eliminate the likelihood of being bombarded with too many messages, you can only see messages from users you’ve “liked,” which is a clever feature. The free mobile app is also well designed and easy to use.
- Read our OkCupid review
3. Tinder: Best free dating app
Tinder is most widely known for being an app, but it’s also available online. Tinder lets users swipe on other user profiles: left to pass and right if you’re interested. Tinder's simple and unforgiving approach has made it one of the most popular dating sites available right now and it almost feels like a game while you're doing it.
All you need is a Facebook account and cell phone number to set up a Tinder account and once you’re on and specify what gender you’re interested in matching with, the app lets you upload up to six photos and write a short paragraph about yourself. You also have the option to link your other social media accounts so people can see what else you get up to. The whole setup process took our reviewers about three minutes and was far less comprehensive than sites like eHarmony, Elite Singles or Plenty of Fish.
Tinder is location-based, with a search radius of up to 100 miles from where you are, so you’re going to be looking at people relatively nearby, with matches only showing up if both parties swipe right on each other.
Using Tinder is free but you can upgrade to Tinder Plus or Tinder Gold if you want extra features like unlimited re-dos on profiles you’ve passed up and increasing your visibility on the app. Tinder is for brief encounters as well as those looking for their soulmate. The key to successful online dating is being honest about what you want.
- Read our Tinder review
4. eharmony: Most thorough dating site
eharmony is one of the most in-depth and thorough dating sites you can use. Signing up to it is a lot more involved than for other sites and can take 20 minutes or more.
Unlike some other dating apps it's not just about describing your appearance, although you do that too. You can also spell out your religious beliefs and career, as well as a comprehensive survey regarding what you want in a partner. The questions even go as far to ask whether you want to have kids, which is an important thing to agree on if you're looking for a long-term commitment.
That effort is rewarded with more relevant matches and fewer time-wasters. Invest in creating a comprehensive dating profile up-front and you're more likely to find a compatible partner.
You have to pay for a subscription to access most of the features on eharmony, including reading messages from prospective matches. In our testing the response rate was worth it, however. There is also an eharmony app that's easy to use, making this a great service to try if you like knowing as much as possible about potential partner compatibility.
- Read our full eharmony review
5. Elite Singles: Best dating site for professionals
Like many of the best dating sites around, Elite Singles asks questions not only about how you look physically, but what you’re like as a person. The profile setup survey asks a wide range of questions and took our reviewers about 25 minutes to complete, the longest of any dating service we tested.
You're also quizzed about your potential partner as well, asking you to decide how important it is that your matches have certain personality traits like morality, reliability and risk-taking. You’re also asked to decide whether physical appearance is important.
Setting up your dating profile is free, but using this service effectively requires a paid subscription. With a free membership, you know how many matches you have, but you can’t see their photos – just their profile information.
Elite Singles is worth trying though if you're over 30 as 90% of its users fall into this category, while 80% of its users have a university degree - ideal if you're looking for a well-educated partner.
- Read our full Elite Singles review
6. Plenty of Fish: Best free dating for relationships
Plenty of Fish's setup process is thorough and the free mobile app is comparable to others on the market.
Setting up your profile involves a rather in-depth chemistry assessment of more than 70 questions. This means you'll have to think a little bit about your own personality, how others perceive you and what you want in a mate. Questions include whether you consider yourself productive and whether you're seen as stubborn. You answer on a scale, which is nice because it means your answers can be more nuanced than yes or no. There are several other questionnaires available to continue to flesh out your profile, but they're not required.
Messaging and viewing user profiles is all free on Plenty of Fish. While our reviewers don't think the website is very well designed, the free mobile app is also an option that's easy to use.
The one downside to any service with free messaging is that you could feel overwhelmed if you find yourself with a flooded inbox. On average, the three fake accounts we set up for testing got 40 matches in 24 hours, the second highest of any service we tested. Of those only 22% were "top prospects," which is the site's way of saying those users are highly compatible with you.
- Read our full Plenty of Fish review
7. Coffee Meets Bagel: Safest dating site
Coffee Meets Bagel limits the number of profiles you can view at one time, forcing you to consider the profiles you do see more carefully. It’s also marketed as a ladies choice app, which means women must initiate contact with a match first.
Setting up your profile is fast and only requires a few quick facts about yourself and your appearance. After you write six phrases about yourself and three phrases about what you like in a date, you can start using Coffee Meets Bagel. There is no desktop version of this dating service, though, so you have to have a smartphone, Facebook account and cell phone number to use it. A Facebook account is required because, according to the website, matches are more successful when two people have mutual friends. The app accesses your list of friends to do this but won’t post anything to your page, so there’s no need to worry.
This dating app uses “beans” as currency. You can earn beans by logging in often, by purchasing them or by completing certain tasks like using the app’s Photo Lab. You then use beans to unlock special features in the app and to “like” other user profiles. The service gives male users 21 curated matches every day that they can either like or pass on. The women, in turn, get to see which men have liked them and decide whether to like them back. If they do, the matched pair can then chat for free.
In our tests, the maximum number of profiles we could like before running out of beans was five a day, which we would think keeps most people from being flippant about their matches. In our tests, our accounts got an average of three matches, which was rather low compared to other services we tried. The messaging feature also has a seven-day time limit for conversation between two people, which forces you to decide whether you want to take action on that potential love connection.
- Read our full Coffee Meets Bagel review
Dating apps: the best of the rest
We also tested and reviewed the following services, but they didn't make the cut for our list of best online dating sites:
Bumble: Available only as an app, Bumble shows you basic information about potential matches. Once two people have shown interest in each other, you have one day to start chatting or the match expires. Similar to Tinder, this free app is easy to use.
Zoosk: Zoosk verifies each user’s identity, which helps eliminate scammers and fake accounts. Available in a desktop version or app, the website pairs you up with matches based on a survey you take when you sign up.
Chemistry: This dating website asks users unique questions during the sign-up process, but we didn't get very many matches during out tests. It lacks an app, and you also can't send any messages unless you pay for a subscription.
Specialized dating sites
We tested online dating websites and apps aimed at broad audiences, but there are many options for tailored dating experiences.
If you’re looking for something specific in a mate, odds are there's a dating website or app just for that. For example, the Color Dating app allows users to focus on a specific ethnicity. Christian Mingle caters to singles of the Christian faith.
Silver Singles is a paid service for people entering their golden years who are looking for a relationship.
There are also options for people living alcohol-free lives, like Single and Sober. It's similar to OKCupid, but its users don't drink. In short, there are plenty of online dating options, no matter what you’re looking for in life.
How we found the best dating sites and dating apps
We spent more than a week testing more than a dozen popular dating apps and sites to figure out which are the most effective, affordable and ultimately the overall best dating apps. That meant monitoring three made-up profiles for 24 hours, collecting match data and using the every feature a dating website or app comes with. We looked at which websites give free access to other users’ profile photos and messaging, and whether you have to pay to access extra features. For on-the-go dating, we also used their apps and evaluated them based on how user-friendly they are.
In a world where everybody and their mother seems to be on free dating apps like Tinder, we especially looked for services that have both desktop and mobile platforms. We also prefer ones that cater to a wide audience and give users the most features for free.
We created three made-up online dating profiles and monitored the responses our profiles received.
We created a woman seeking a man, a man seeking a woman and a woman seeking a woman to make sure our data was well-rounded. All three profiles were similarly generic: They were white with bachelor’s degrees with low to midrange full-time jobs. To create these accounts we had to make email accounts and, for some sites, fake Facebook accounts and phone numbers as well.
For our fake dating profiles, we counted how many matches and messages we received in 24 hours. We also noted whether you could block or report inappropriate behavior, how long the profile setup process was, how in-depth setup questions were, and whether we encountered any obvious bots. For sites that require you to “like” users to get matches, we did so to the first 30 accounts we came across.
And don’t worry; on sites that let us send and receive messages for free, we made sure to tell anyone who reached out that the accounts were created for the purpose of a review and would soon be deleted.
How much do the best dating sites cost?
A lot of dating websites and apps advertise the fact that they’re free, but be careful what you’re signing up for. Setting up a profile is always free, but most of the websites we tested offered only some of their matching services free of charge. Many dating websites make you pay to view user photos and send messages. Dating apps, on the other hand, are predominantly free. Upgrades are available if you want to use the app’s extra features, but for the most part a free account is all you need.
Even free dating websites and apps give you the option to sign up for a premium option, which does in fact cost you.
If you want access to the best dating sites, you’re going to have to pay for it. Premium options cost about $10 each month for basic service, or if you want more effective pairing with people you’re more likely to get along with for an average of $40 per month. You could also pay less if you purchase a membership for several months at a time.
What the experts say about dating sites
Julie Spira, a Los Angeles-based author, online dating expert and CEO of Cyber Dating Experts, said honesty is the key to online dating success. This is becoming easier and easier with social media.
“These days because people are connecting their Instagram accounts to their mobile dating app we have an opportunity to see what someone looks like in real life and whether those photos match the profile,” she said.
With more than 20 years of experience in the field of online dating, Spira said mobile dating apps like Tinder and Bumble have made online dating a generational occurrence.
“It’s not unusual for someone to say their little sister or adult child is on a dating site and their mother or grandmother are on dating sites,” she said.
Even though dating apps can seem commonplace, 26-year-old Abby Einrem met her fiancé David on Plenty of Fish in 2015 but doesn’t like telling people that because online dating seems “desperate.”
In fact, according to a fact sheet provided by the public relations team at Match.com, the internet was the No. 1 place where singles met their last first date in 2017, bucking any assumption that most people are just looking for hookups online. Only 14 percent of singles met their mate through friends, and 6 percent met them at a bar.
Sharon Kroll and fiancé Lee Wallender are the Seattle-based writers and dating experts behind The Dating Gurus. Kroll said it’s easy to get lost in the sea of possibilities when online dating so it’s important to limit the number of sites you’re onto to three and make sure you’re not spending all day checking them. It’s also important to make the first message you send count.
“Whether you’re a guy or a girl you have to actually read the person’s profile or little blurb and do your homework,” she said. “Search for clues about the person’s occupation or interests and be prepared in the first contact to initiate a conversation about those specifics.”
Online dating success tips
Even though it might feel like online dating is mostly about luck, academics have been studying it for some time now. In fact, the longer online dating continues to evolve the more information there is to look at.
Of the romantic partnerships formed in the United States between 2007 and 2009, 21 percent of heterosexual couples and 61 percent of same-sex couples met online, according to a study by Stanford sociology professor Michael J. Rosenfeld and reported by the New York Times.
While this might make you feel like your online dating habits are on display, the fact that they’re being studied can actually be really helpful. For example, one 2018 study from the University of Michigan found the best way to start a successful conversation is to simply say "hey." That same study found both men and women tend to aim high in online dating, messaging matches who were on average 25 percent more attractive than they were.
If you feel like most of the people you match with don't end of looking like they do in their profile, there's science to back that up. A study of 80 online daters found two thirds of users lied about their weight or appearance in some way, with no correlation to whether the user was male or female. Having this knowledge in your back pocket can be useful while scrolling through Tinder or eHarmony and result in more matches and long term connections.
Also, according to the Pew Research Center, public perception of online dating has become more and more positive. That being said, research is showing a lot of people use online dating as a form of entertainment and never actually intend to go on a date. The same Pew Research study found one-third of people who have used online dating services have never actually gone on a date. In short, don't be too disappointed if you find yourself striking out. It might be that there aren't a lot of people in your area looking for a meaningful connection.
If the thought of signing up for an online dating service without any help is scary then read our online dating tips.
Spam & bots
The downside of online dating is the lack of face-to-face interaction, at least when you first start chatting with someone. This leaves users vulnerable to chat bots, or computer programs made to trick real users into thinking they’re interacting with a real person. These programs often attempt to steal credit card or other personal information from real people.
One sign you may be chatting with a bot is that they continually urge you to buy goods and services. Bots are computer programs, which means you should also keep an eye out for odd responses or unnatural wording. While people slip up with the occasional typo, bots often phrase things strangely. Regardless of whether you think the person you’re talking to is real, never give out your credit card information; it’s not worth having your identity or money stolen.
If you’re not sure whether you're chatting with a bot, try being sarcastic; bots don’t pick up on that kind of humor. Finally, if you think you may be chatting with a bot, ask to meet in person. If they continually cite reasons why they can’t meet you, there’s a good chance that you're not talking to a real person.
Check out our article on online dating scams for more.