The best cheap web hosting services: How to find the right provider

You can buy a month's worth of quality web hosting from a well-established service provider for less than the price of a Grande cappuccino. What's the catch? You'll have to dig a bit to make accurate long-term comparisons of the various offerings. That's where our Buyer's Guide can help.

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Can you really buy a month's worth of quality web hosting for less than the price of a Starbucks Grande cappuccino? Indeed you can, as we discovered when researching the web hosting services in this buyer's guide. The average advertised monthly price for the 10 hosting providers we looked at is a low, low $3.19 -- just add content.

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We also discovered, when we looked a little closer at the details of those cheap web hosting plans, that three of the immutable laws of bargains still apply here. If a deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Always check the fine print. And, most important of all: You get what you pay for.

You're an ideal candidate for the services we review here if you already have experience with web hosting and don't need much hand-holding. If you lack those technical skills, consider hiring a designer/consultant who has the requisite background, and let them help with the comparison.

Is the price right?

All these web hosting providers are well-established companies, and at a glance, they all promise pretty much the same entry-level offerings. The cheapest plans offer shared hosting for an introductory price of a few dollars a month. So, what's the catch?

For starters, these plans offer storage space and bandwidth on servers that are shared with other customers. The more sites that share a single server, the more likely your visitors are likely to encounter slow performance; shared servers also offer a greater risk of security breaches.

Some of the low, low prices you see on the landing page for these web hosting services are introductory offers. When the promotional period ends, the regular prices can be significantly higher. One noteworthy exception is Complete Internet Solutions, which promises, "Once you sign up your price will never go up."

Likewise, the low advertised price might require a lengthy commitment. At HostGator, for example, the advertised starting prices range from $2.75 to $5.95 a month, but when you click the Buy button, you'll see that those rates are for a three-year contract. If you'd rather go for a month-to-month deal, the price ranges go up dramatically, to $10.95 to $16.95, which is also the price you agree to pay when the promo period ends.

Another common gimmick is the "limited time" offer: Buy now before the price goes up! Some of the hosting providers we checked out included a countdown clock on the home page. When we went back a few days later for a second fact-checking pass, the countdown clock had been magically reset.

Those prices might still be a good value, but you'll have to dig a bit to make accurate long-term comparisons.

Upsells and options

Those dirt-cheap teaser rates are designed to lure you in, and some web hosting providers are not shy about making up the difference by charging extra for features like backup and site migration; here, too, you'll have to factor those costs in before you can make an informed choice.

A low-cost shared hosting plan is probably good enough for a personal website. It's also adequate for a basic business site whose main purpose is to serve as an online calling card and a landing page for visitors who want to know more about your organization. It's not a good choice for a site that occasionally needs to handle large spikes in traffic or e-commerce.

If you choose a cheap plan, expect regular upsell offers for more full-featured (and significantly more expensive) plans. Those upsells come in a wide range of plans. Some of the most popular include these:

Website builder tools Typically, you don't get much hand-holding with these services, as you might with turnkey solutions like Wix, Squarespace, or Wordpress.com. Some hosting providers do offer wizard-driven tools that allow less technical sophisticated customers to build a site by pointing and clicking. DreamHost, for example, offers its theme-based Remixer tool as part of a shared hosting plan.

Managed WordPress hosting Most of the companies listed here have a managed WordPress offering that insulates customers from the chore of managing the underlying web server or installing and maintaining their own WordPress instance. Most such offerings include a selection of ready-made themes; others include WordPress-oriented website builders.

Virtual private servers (VPS) In the bare-bones shared hosting environments, multiple tenants share the hardware and software resources of a single server. In a VPS, multiple tenants share the physical server hardware, but each server instance is isolated from the others using virtualization software, with resources (memory and storage, for example) assigned directly to the VPS. This configuration ensures that performance remains consistent, regardless of what's happening with other sites that share the physical server hardware. It also dramatically reduces the likelihood of security issues that can affect accounts in a shared hosting environment. This type of solution can be managed or unmanaged, and costs significantly more than a shared hosting plan. 

Dedicated servers This is the most expensive option of all, with physical hardware dedicated to a specific customer and not shared with other accounts. This option is most appropriate for high-traffic websites that can't afford any downtime, but the price is far from cheap. At A2 hosting, for example, the non-promotional price for a managed dedicated server starts at $200 a month, compared to $60 for a managed VPS, and $10 for a basic shared hosting plan.

Other evaluation criteria

When choosing a hosting package, there's more to consider than just a low price and a feature table packed with checkmarks. We considered a wide range of extra factors that can be crucial when it comes time to separate contenders on your shortlist of hosting providers.

Let's start with the most important factor of all: A money-back guarantee. Every provider we surveyed offers at least 30 days during which you can try the service risk-free. DreamHost has a 97-day "zero risk" guarantee for its shared hosting plans, and A2 Hosting offers a full refund for the first 30 days and a pro-rated refund for unused service after 30 days. We strongly recommend taking advantage of that trial period to test the following factors:

Customer support How many contact options does the provider offer for the plan you've chosen? If phone support isn't available and email and ticket-based systems are the primary mechanism for problem resolution, how quickly does the support team respond?

Bandwidth and storage For shared hosting plans, most providers offer "unlimited" data transfers and storage, but there's invariably a page full of fine print that requires you to abide by "reasonable" restrictions and acceptable-use policies. More expensive plans typically include hard limits on storage and monthly data transfer.

Backup Every provider offers the ability to create manual backups and download them to local storage, but the automated online backups are the most reliable way to recover from a disaster such as a sitewide compromise. Most hosting providers offer automatic backups, but some charge extra. Bluehost, for example, offers the Codeguard site-backup tool for an extra $2.99 per month. Be sure to check the retention policy to see how long backups are preserved.

Performance As a rule, the less you pay for a shared hosting plan, the more likely you are to encounter slow page loads because those low-cost plans typically cluster more shared accounts on the server. The simplest way to boost speed is to choose a higher-priced storage plan, especially one like A2 Hosting's Turbo plan, which includes support for caching and HTTP/2. Also, look for content delivery network options such as Cloudflare.

Security Every provider brags about its secure infrastructure, and as a solitary customer, it's impossible to put those claims to the test. You can, however, look for basic security best practices. Does the provider offer multi-factor authentication? Are crucial software packages updated automatically, or are you required to stay on top of updates yourself? How easy is it to add SSL support, and how much does it cost to renew a certificate? Ask the support department whether they will assist if your website is hacked, and if so, how much the repair will cost.

Email and domain options Several providers offer free domain registration as part of a hosting package, but of course, the cost of that registration is built into the bill for the plan itself. And don't expect to find any loopholes: Every provider that we checked with will assess a fee to recover that registration cost if you cancel your plan and try to transfer the domain. In addition, you can expect basic web-based email options from every provider, with some offering more advanced features. If email is important, make sure to test those offerings during the free trial period.

The listings that follow offer a starting point for your research and do not represent hands-on reviews or formal recommendations. All information was accurate as of September 2019, but details can change on a moment's notice. Because the details of promotional prices and hosting plans vary so greatly, we haven't included prices in the capsule listings that follow and instead recommend that you compare prices and plans carefully based on your long-term needs. Our goal is to provide the information you need to build a shortlist and then evaluate and compare alternatives, ideally using the trial period each provider offers.

Susan Preston of Clearly Presentable, a New Mexico-based website and presentation design firm, provided research assistance for these listings. 

A2 Hosting

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A2 (the name is a shout-out to the company's home in Ann Arbor, Michigan) makes it easy to get started, with free migration, one-click Softaculous installers for a wide range of software packages, and "optimized" WordPress installations. Website building software is included with all shared plans. Non-promo pricing of the high-performance Turbo tier is $25 a month, compared to $10 for the Lite tier.

  • Customer Support: Phone, chat, ticket available 24/7/365
  • Backup: Complimentary backups are provided for accounts up to 50GB "on a best effort basis." Each weekday backup is kept for seven days, each Sunday backup is retained for a month. Options for manual backups include full server, home directory, MySQL databases, and email forwarders/filters.
  • Security: SSL support is free, via Let's Encrypt, and two-factor authentication is standard. Out-of-date version detection is included, with WordPress, Joomla, and Drupal installations patched automatically.

Bluehost

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In business since 2005, Bluehost claims that its platform runs two million websites. Shared hosting plans above the basic level include one Microsoft Office 365 Email Essentials license, which is free for the first month. The company offers three tiers of managed WordPress hosting, with hundreds of free WordPress themes and a high-end option geared to online shopping. For $150, you can transfer up to five sites and up to 20 email accounts from another provider. The Weebly website builder is standard for all customers.

  • Customer Support: Available via call and chat, 24/7.
  • Backup: Automated backups are not free; instead, you can pay $2.99 per month for Codeguard, a site backup tool that does unlimited daily backups of your websites.
  • Security: Two-factor authentication is standard, and free SSL certificates are offered via Let's Encrypt.

Complete Internet Solutions

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Complete Internet Solutions claims to be the world's largest web hosting provider, with more than 26 million customers worldwide. Like every other provider, Complete Internet Solutions offers eye-catching low rates that require a multi-year commitment. But, they say, "We do not raise prices after the first term. Once you sign up your price will never go up." The "no hidden fees" policy means features like site transfers, website builder software, and unlimited email accounts are free. The biggest competitive advantage, however, is the company's claim that all of its 2500 employees are located in the USA: "We do not outsource anything."

  • Customer Support: The Support Center offers 24/7 support via phone, chat, and a ticketing-based system. At the time we checked, the ticketing system was promising a 10-minute reply time, with phone and chat options available immediately.
  • Backup: Daily, weekly, and monthly backups are maintained for one month. On-demand backups are also available.
  • Security: Two-factor authentication is not available for the hosting account but can be implemented on the CPanel management interface. Malware protection is standard and hacked accounts can be cleaned up for free. Private SSL certificates are free on the highest tier of shared hosting. Site transfer is included with managed plans

DreamHost

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You won't find any introductory pricing here. Instead, the low prices come with three-year commitments. Shared plans come in only two options: Starter (one website, email is an extra charge) and Unlimited (as many websites and email accounts as you wish). For those shared plans, there's a 97-day money-back guarantee. The company also has a full range of higher-end plans, including managed WordPress, VPS, and dedicated server offerings. Site transfer is included with managed WordPress plans and costs $99 with shared hosting plans.

  • Customer Support: Support is available 24/7, but live chat is limited to 5:30am to 9:30pm (Pacific Time) and phone support is via callback.
  • Backup: Automated daily backups are retained for two weeks.
  • Security: Let's Encrypt SSL certificates are free on shared plans; Comodo certificates are $15 a year. The DreamShield malware scanner costs $3 per month per domain, and you'll pay $199 for assistance in cleaning up a hacked website.

HostGator

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If we were looking for a generic hosting provider, we found it here. The prices are competitive, and you get free site transfers and a decent website builder package with every plan. The "QuickInstall" feature allows one-click access to tons of apps. We like the no-contract policy and the 45-day money-back guarantee.

  • Customer Support: Phone and live chat options are available 24/7/365 via phone and LiveChat.
  • Backup: Daily CodeGuard backups and weekly offsite backups are included.
  • Security: Two-factor authentication is not available. Server monitoring is standard.

Hostinger

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Hostinger has some of the absolute lowest introductory prices we've seen, with limited-time offers starting at 99 cents per month and a promise that "if you renew you keep the low price." Their website builder is limited, but the templates we saw looked well designed. They also boast of cutting-edge "Next Generation Tech," such as "customizable server-level caching solutions that can serve up to 3x more requests per second" and data centers in seven global locations. That's an odd mix, but we suspect it will be appealing to tech-driven bargain hunters.

  • Customer Support: We were slightly put off by the lack of live chat for new customer inquiries, and a customer service rep confirmed that phone service is not available; instead, customers get live chat and email support options.
  • Backup: Daily backups are standard.
  • Security: Two-factor authentication is not available. "Coming soon," we were told. Most of the security features they highlight are intended to protect against DDoS attacks.

InMotion Hosting

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Something is refreshing about the fact that InMotion Hosting's landing page isn't about rock-bottom prices. Instead, there's a list of reasonable price tags on a wide range of plans, with commitments to open source and investments in technology (like "category A, PCI compliant" data centers) prominently featured over flashy branding. Entry-level tiers include strict limitations on the number of websites and allowed storage. Management tools include a CPanel option that's different from most. Free "no downtime" transfers are available. The QuickStarter web builder package is available for a one-time charge of $99

  • Customer Support: The support center offers an almost overwhelming number of options, but traditional chat, phone, and ticket options are available for customers.
  • Backup: Automated backups are an option, "available at checkout."
  • Security: Two-factor authentication is standard

iPage

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iPage has been around for more than two decades and offers one-size-fits-all options that are perfect for any small business that has a hard time making decisions. The $1.99 per month starting rate resets to a not-too-painful $7.99 tariff when the introductory period ends. The free web-builder software offers hundreds of themes but supports a maximum of six pages. The VDeck control panel might confuse anyone expecting the generic CPanel option (see this review for a detailed comparison).

  • Customer Support: 23/7 phone and chat support is standard.
  • Backup: Backup plans are an extra-cost option, with Basic and Pro tiers ranging from $1.27 to $2.99 per month based on contract length.
  • Security: Two-factor authentication is not available, but a support rep said it will be implemented "soon."

Namecheap

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Wait, Namecheap does web hosting? As longtime customers, we had the same reaction, given the company's long reputation as a reliable provider of low-cost domain name registration services (thus the name). But you will indeed find a full range of services here. The lowest tier is extremely basic, with no backups and metered bandwidth. But other offerings, especially the EasyWP managed WordPress plans, deliver a competitive mix of features and prices. Namecheap is famous for its Black Friday specials; if you're attracted to their offerings, we suggest marking your calendar and checking for deals in late November.

  • Customer Support: Support is quick via a chat and ticket system. We couldn't find a phone number for support calls.
  • Backup: This is the most thorough backup regimen we've seen, with a rotating schedule that retains the most recent six daily backups, three weekly backups, and 11 monthly backups. Email accounts are backed up, too.
  • Security: Two-factor authentication (with TOTP support) is standard. SSL certificates are free for the first year.

SiteGround

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Full disclosure: We're longtime SiteGround customers, so our descriptions here are based on firsthand experience and not feature tables. The company's introductory prices are attractive, but the normal prices after the first year can cause sticker shock for some. Higher tiers offer some impressive performance tweaking tools. One-click WordPress transfers are free; professional transfers (managed by an actual person) are also free above the basic tiers. A new client area offers "friendly site tools" with an easier interface for databases, email account creation, and other normally intimidating tasks. This interface can replace the traditional CPanel.

  • Customer Support: SiteGround offers 24/7 chat, phone options, and a ticket system. In our experience, the chat system offers extremely quick response times.
  • Backup: Free daily backups are retained for 30 days; on-demand backups (up to five at a time) are available on the mid-high tiers.
  • Security: Two-factor authentication is standard. Let's Encrypt SSL support is free and standard. The company has a long history of attention to security and it shows in its approach to updates.

Disclosure: ZDNet may earn a commission from some of the products featured on this page. Neither the author nor ZDNet were compensated for this independent review.

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