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21st of July 2018

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Best free dating sites and apps for singles on a budget

Just to let you know, if you buy something featured here, Mashable might earn an affiliate commission. Why pay for a dating site when you can get it for free?Why pay for a dating site when you can get it for free?Image: Shutterstock / Kaspars Grinvalds2017%2f11%2f13%2fbf%2fleahstodart02lowrescopy.7d073By Leah StodartMashable Deals2018-07-11 22:54:43 UTC

If you're not sure about which dating site you should sign up for (AKA spend money on) or which app to download, testing them out for free first is a great idea. But for some dating apps and sites, the free version may actually be all you need.

Online dating is hard, y'all — but so is dating in person. Basically, dating is just the worst. Until you find someone you truly vibe with, that is. Then dating is *the best.*

At some point you've probably considered registering for a dating site — that is, until you see the subscription prices and decide that maybe it's cheaper to just sip a beer at a bar. Sorry, eharmony, but some of us don't have the funds to spend $40 per month on finding a significant other. We got bills, yo.

Or maybe you want to test the waters of online dating without investing a lot. The expensive sites do offer free trials, but seven days isn't enough time to find someone. What you need is a free dating site that gives you a full array of options and that isn't a total scam.

We did the research for you and have compiled a comprehensive list of the best free dating apps and sites, and will give you the lowdown on what type of person each one is best suited for. (And if you land a hot date out of this, we expect a thank you.)

Our top picks: OkCupid and Hinge

Our top pick for the best free dating app with a desktop version is OkCupid: Okay, we're totally biased because of their sweet ad campaigns, but this site has it all. OkCupid's matching strategies are based on non-traditional questions and push for lasting connections. Plus, since it's one of the first dating sites ever (it debuted in 2004), its trusted name brings along a robust user base. OkCupid is also geared toward liberals and is extremely inclusive and LGBTQ friendly, which is a major bonus in our eyes.

Our top pick for the best free dating app without a desktop version is Hinge: How could we not choose the love child of an all-in serious dating site and a laid back, millennial swiping app as our favorite? Hinge offers the minimalistic, download-and-go feel that impatient people love, but mixes in pinches of seriousness and a smart matching algorithm to give you a real shot at finding a long lasting relationship. It's really the perfect recipe. Basically, Hinge is what you suggest to someone who constantly complains about the crappy match pool or vulgar messages on Tinder. 

Note:  It's almost impossible to find a dating site or app that doesn't have some sort of paid upgrade feature, but these are the sites where the free option gives you everything you need to experience the full site (paid options simply give you more unlimited access, like unlimited swipes or returning to an accidental left-swipe). These aren't like Match or eharmony where you need to pay to do basically anything. There are significantly more smartphone apps that offer full-fledged freemiums than there are desktop dating sites, so having a smartphone is pretty much a necessity. 

Best dating sites that have a desktop version as well as a smartphone app

The classic dating sites that you think of where users sit down at a computer and message their boo for hours on end. These are usually aimed toward more serious relationships with extensive questionnaires, intelligent matchmaking, and significantly more features than app-only services.

OkCupid — Best for something more serious than swiping

Image: okcupid

The gist: OkCupid is a seriously hip LGBT-friendly site that has won the hearts of millennial and mature singles alike. I've said this a million times before and I'll say it again: OkCupid's advertising is outstanding. They deserve endless applause just for that, but I realize many people on dating apps care about more than the aesthetics. Good thing OkCupid is so much more than that, taking compatibility factors into account that other sites haven't even thought of.

Who it's good for: This is the place for, well, pretty much everyone who takes dating seriously, but still wants to have fun.  Though OkCupid's advertisements may have "DTF" plastered all over them, the site's intentions and matchmaking process are no joke. We also want to mention that OkCupid and its user base is pretty liberal. The ads with same-sex couples are an obvious giveaway, but OkCupid has snuck in other little features to weed out more conservative-minded people. For instance, they'll ask questions about whether you're for or against the defunding of Planned Parenthood or same sex marriage, and if you feel obligated to help fellow human beings — all as a way to tell right off the bat if your potential match leans left or right. (This can help you avoid awkward date conversations in the future.) Liberal ladies found that this worked to their advantage, as OkCupid released statistics showing that liberal-leaning answers to those questions made you significantly more likely (like 80% plus more likely) to find love on the site.

It might take some time and genuine effort to make a profile, but that's what you want if you're looking for something real. You'll fill out a questionnaire with your answers as well as what you would like your ideal match to answer. This makes the application-building process a lot more fun than other apps, making it feel like an online quiz. It asks a range of questions, from simple stuff to if you smoke and drink to more intimate things like how many dates you typically wait before sleeping with someone. Pro tip: The app says the the more questions you answer, the better your matches will be. The deeper you go, the more accurate your profile is — and in turn, OkCupid will have a way easier time finding matches for you.     

The downsides: While building your profile can be fun, it can get tedious — so it's probably no surprise that this isn't the site to use if you're looking for something quick and casual. Also, though OkCupid has a super sturdy user base (around 30 million users), variety of results won't be nearly as good if you're not in a populated area. For city dwellers, this is fine, but singles in smaller towns may want to opt for a different (AKA paid) site. 

The bottom line: OkCupid is the perfect happy medium for people who don't want anything to do with trendy swiping apps, but who also don't want to feel like they're desperately looking for marriage. OkCupid genuinely wants dating to be a good experience for you, and their multi-faceted matchmaking and modern vibe help you steer clear of feeling like a loser talking to people online. 

Plenty of Fish — Best for people looking for good chemistry

Image: plentyoffish

The gist: Though it's not the most attractive setup, Plenty of Fish is a great newbie choice for people just dipping their toes into the world of online dating. As a tried and true option that's been around for over 15 years, the 30+ crowd is way more familiar with Plenty of Fish than they would be with newer apps or even OkCupid, which recently received a modern makeover. The advertising, lengthy questionnaires, and profiles are extremely traditional, making this a safe bet for non-millennials, divorcees, and single parents who are not in the mood to mess around. Oh yeah, and its 90 million registered users beats out almost every other dating site's stats — so you're guaranteed to never get bored.

Who it's good for: This is the place where the older crowd can avoid the non-serious people and find other singles their age. Chemistry is the name of the game here, and the multiple questionnaires are no joke. This isn't a quick five-second set up like other apps, but that's only because Plenty of Fish truly wants you to dig deep so that they can give you the best quality matches. Not only does POF attempt to match you with people who you'll statistically get along with (based on how you've both answered questions), but it also wants to match you with people who are looking for the same thing as you. 

In the "meeting goals" section, you'll specify whether you're looking for something long term, looking to date but nothing serious, etc., and then Plenty of Fish will try to match you with others who answered similarly. The idea is to eliminate the awkward "What are we" conversations and set you up for success by pairing you with people who share your priorities. It feels like the site is geared toward people who have been unlucky with love in the past, which offers a sliver of hope to those who claim to be "forever alone." POF doesn't take all the fun away, though — you'll still get to swipe and have a fun and mysterious bio, aiming for serious connections without the serious feel.

The downsides: The desktop version's setup is possibly the most boring, thrown-together-at-the-last-minute looking thing I've ever seen. But I digress — quality front end development probably isn't what most people care about when signing up for a dating site. Hey, maybe they're just putting all of their focus on the matchmaking. Considering POF has such a large amount of users, I guess I can ignore the subpar aesthetics. Since the profile building takes some time, we'd suggest answering all of the questions on a desktop, but doing the actual swiping and matching on the app.

POF is also not bisexual friendly, which definitely sucks. A site with the M.O. that there are "plenty of fish in the sea" shouldn't be blocking options because of a fish's sexual preference, but OK. After seeing that, it's probably no surprise to you that POF only offers male/female gender options. 

The bottom line: If a site's janky aesthetics don't bother you, POF offers the largest variety of potential mates of all the apps on this list. Regardless of whether you're super picky with your type or have no idea what you want, there's pretty much no way you won't find a few people (out of 90 million) who you find interesting. If you're only looking to hook up, definitely stay away from POF — but if you're looking to settle down, POF's matchmaking has got your back.

Best smartphone-only dating apps

These are newer services, like Hinge and Tinder, that take never-before-seen approaches to online dating. They are aimed toward young people who are glued to their phones. Layouts are much more organized and similar to a social media profile, but have fewer features than sites with desktop versions. On the plus side, this minimalistic setup makes it easier to interact with more people on a daily basis.

Hinge — Best for finding a date that's *not* a random hookup

Image: hinge/screenshot

The gist: Hinge gives the modern feel and no-patience-required matching like Tinder, but with the relationship (rather than hookup) mindset that sites like eharmony or Match offer. Pretty much everyone is on the same page and knows that that this app isn't for sex, but there's no pressure to rush into marriage either. It's chill, it's legit, and traditional swiping apps should be worried.

Who it's good for: Hinge is the place for people who want a real relationship but don't want to commit to a full-fledged dating site with extensive questionnaires. Hinge literally labels itself the relationship app, or as I prefer, the "anti Tinder." Instead of seeing one profile at a time, Hinge is set up like Instagram, which creates a way smoother (and less judge-y) feel than swiping. 

While Hinge first started by showing you Facebook friends of friends, their algorithm has been getting smarter and smarter, and is now able to surpass friends of friends as a predictor of compatibility. This means you won't be matched with someone all wrong for you simply because you know the same person. Rather, Hinge will help you get to know the other person more deeply than any new app has attempted, by revealing answers to juicy personality questions and detailed information like future plans, religion, and vices. Seems like a pretty good recipe for a strong connection past looks, right? According to Hinge, 75% of their first dates lead to second dates, and we totally believe it.

The downsides: Hinge only gives you seven matches per day, which is a slight bummer. There's a wide range of people on this app, and having a day where all seven don't interest you is a definite possibility. If you want unlimited matches, you'll have to pay $7/month. But Hinge isn't meant for constant swiping — and everyone I know who uses Hinge (including myself) hasn't ever felt the need to upgrade past the free version. Having endless potential matches is overwhelming, and if you're trying to find someone you genuinely connect with, there's no  point to viciously rushing through every person in a 50 mile radius.

Hinge only offers M/F options as of now, which isn't great — but unlike Tinder and Bumble, Hinge's gaydar isn't broken and they won't send you a gender you didn't ask for.

The bottom line: We love Hinge. It's a step up from hookup apps but the perfect level of serious for 20 and 30 somethings who want something real, but don't need anyone asking how many kids they want just yet.

Tinder — Best for lots of options and impatient people

Image: tinder/screenshot

The gist: We'd look like total frauds if we didn't include Tinder. As much as we bitch about this swipe happy app, it's just too popular and works too well to leave it off the list. It has its obvious negatives, but the user friendliness, instant connecting, and massive potential match pool make it most people's first download choice when they need a quick hook up or confidence-boosting attention. Though it's technically in the "dating app" category, I'm not so sure that everyone's intentions on the app are to find a serious relationship — but it's definitely possible. Whether you love it or think it's trash, it's going to be one of the best for the foreseeable future, and those are just #facts.

Who it's good for: Tinder is place you go to find someone to flirt with ASAP. Everyone and their mother is on Tinder, and the wide variety of people means you'll never not be able to find someone close. Tinder is great for finding a quick hookup with someone nearby where you live, and it's especially handy if you're looking for a vacation fling or a local to show you around while you're traveling. It's pretty much online dating without the commitment: You can use it when you're bored, ignore it for three weeks, and come back to find new matches and a new crowd to swipe through.

This isn't to say that Tinder is only used for finding a one night stand or friends with benefits situation, though. A lot of people are truly on Tinder to find a real relationship, and it's likely that you know at least one couple that met on Tinder (if you don't, just look at these mushy Tinder success stories). 

Because you're making your swipe decision based on someone's photos and a tiny bio that's usually just a Parks and Recreation quote, Tinder gets a lot of shit for being superficial. But let's be honest with ourselves, guys — photos are still the first thing we'd notice on any dating site, even the ones that are supposed to be super deep and connection oriented. And if you're only looking for a casual encounter, this speedy, no-frills process is exactly what you want.

Downsides: You mean, other than the obvious fact that you'll probably get carpal tunnel from having to swipe through so many profiles? Well, there is no real matchmaking process, so Tinder will suggest literally every single person in the age range and distance radius that you set. (And if you specifically opted to only see matches of the same gender, Tinder will still throw the opposite gender in there, because they apparently don't believe that you can actually just be gay.)

There's a disadvantage to the whole swiping-based-on-photos thing, too: Because true matchmaking is nonexistent, that face of that hottie who you matched with might be the only thing you like about them. Matching based solely on physical attraction is just asking for awkward conversations, horrendous disagreements, and unsolicited dick pics down the road. You'll be lucky if you avoid being messaged something totally raunchy and uninvited, but most users are nice humans and will state their intentions in their bios.

The bottom line: Say what you want about Tinder, but it gets the job done. Everyone shits on the shallow matching, but that fast-paced action is exactly what many young people want. If it didn't work to some extent, Tinder's user base would have gone downhill a long time ago. Each time you open Tinder it's a complete toss up, meaning your next match could be your future spouse — or it might just be some rando asking if you're DTF. Love is a gamble, after all.

Grindr — Best for gay guys, obviously

Image: grindr/screenshot

The gist: Grindr is the world's biggest social networking app for gay, bi, trans, and queer people, helping singles get it on since 2009. Because there aren't a ton of women on it, it's usually known as the app for gay men — and at 3.6 million daily users, you could say it's hella popular. Though it's kind of pegged as a hookup app, finding a lasting relationship on here isn't impossible by any means. Just keep in mind that many users you'll come across aren't looking for anything serious. 

What it's good for: This is the place for gay people who can't stand the heteronormativity of apps like Tinder or Bumble, and is especially handy for those looking for a friends with benefits situation. Grindr users have no chill. It's gay paradise, y'all, and if you've been thinking that you've met every gay man in your area already, Grindr might be able to show you some newbies who you never knew existed. (Unless you're in a small town, then you'll probably see the same people recycled on your feed — but just wait until you go on vacation.)

Instead of swiping right or left to match, you'll get a borderline infinite collage of people who are close location wise, and honestly, it's super jumbled and scary to look at. It can be a pretty speedy process if you want it to be, and most users just looking to hook up will let you know right off that they're not trying to make small talk. That's not to say it's not for relationships — one of my good friends met his current boyfriend on Grindr — but at the surface level, it's ideal for quick, casual encounters. However, in 2017, Grindr launched their thoughtful LGBTQ online magazine called Into in efforts to make itself look more like a lifestyle brand and less like a hookup app.

Grindr also announced that they're working on an option for users to notify potential partners of their STD status as a way to stop the spread of infections among dating app users (particularly HIV and AIDS). They've tried this sort of thing before, but had some issues with sharing users' health information with third parties. Overall, their hearts are in the right place, and I commend them for trying to promote the importance of safe sex.

The downsides: Grindr is NSFW. Messages will be freaky AF, and you're 100% going to receive a ton of unsolicited (or solicited, if you asked) dick pics, so messaging on Grindr while you're on the train or in line at the store isn't quite as casual as other dating apps might be. You're also going to get badgered for pictures as well, so if you're uncomfortable with that, steer clear for a while.

Grindr is hookup heavy. It's nice that most users are honest about their intentions (AKA no feelings mixups), but people looking for a serious relationship might get discouraged. We're not quite saying this a downside, because for those who strictly want to hook up, this is heaven. It's just something to keep in mind.

The bottom line: If you're a gay man, an app that's specifically for you is your place to shine. There are obviously gay men on Tinder, Match, and many other dating apps, but that's probably their backup app, and you're likely to circle through the same batch. No one wastes time on here, and if you're in the mood and looking for someone ASAP, Grindr won't steer you wrong. Just don't expect to meet your date's parents any time soon.

HER — Best for queer women who are tired of straight people on Tinder

Image: her/screenshot

The gist: Claiming to the be the app that "introduces you to every lesbian you've ever wanted to meet," HER is the award-winning mix of dating and social media that lets you meet girls you know are girls, as it requires a Facebook account for signup and is solely for lesbian, bisexual, and queer women.  Language is inclusive — it's not a lesbian site aimed at a male fantasy — and they'll help you widen your dating pool beyond the circles you already know IRL.

Who it's good for: This is the place for queer, bisexual, trans, and lesbian women to go when they're so over men pretending to be women online or if they're tired of being asked for a threesome by straight couples. The fact that it's made by queer women for queer women was a much needed addition to the online dating world, and knowing that it's a safe space is really nice. This is due to the fact that HER requires a Facebook account to register, which does a pretty good job at solving one of the main issues that comes along with online dating as a lesbian: Desperate men posing as women, attempting to do...well, as much as they can, and being all around creepy and invasive.

Another refreshing aspect is that HER goes way past being a hookup app — that is, without adding pressure to find a romantic partner. While it can be used to couple up and find local matches that you never knew existed, you can also get involved in local LGBTQ events, read LGBTQ news, and make friends through its social-media like feed.

Mashable's Heather Dockray pays homage to it in her piece on the best queer dating apps, choosing it as the best app for queer women: 

"Gay men have so many great/sometimes problematic apps to choose from — Grindr, SCRUFF, Jack'd, Hornet, Adam to Adam. And queer women basically have one: HER. Thankfully, HER is a non-offensive, user friendly app good for folks seeking long-term relationships as well as those who want a more, uh, temporary arrangement." 

The downsides: It's going to take a while for HER to get to the Tinder level user base. Though Tinder isn't a strictly lesbian app, that's still where most of the queer women are. Unfortunately, Tinder has a lot of straight girls saying that they're "interested" in women just to find friends or a threesome, and you'll still have men's profiles thrown into the mix when you didn't ask for that. Right now, you'll just have to choose between HER's peaceful lack of straight presence and less variety of users or Tinder's extreme heteronormativity and unbeatable amount of users.

The bottom line: The number of users might not compare to Tinder's just yet, but HER is making serious strides toward becoming a total boss of an app (and toward taking a ton of queer lady users away from Tinder). The low-pressure atmosphere is super inviting, and the fact that you can do anything from find a girlfriend to find friends to attend an LGBTQ movie night makes it unique for multiple reasons. It just rocks, okay?

Happn — Best for people who believe in love at first sight

Image: HAPPN / SCREENSHOT

The gist: Since Tinder completely flipped the world of online dating upside down in 2014, numerous apps have tried to compete and give them a leg up on the powerhouse — but to no avail. That is, until Happn came along. Happn uses your current location to alert you of other users nearby, so if you're too scared to talk to a random cutie on the train, Happn can help you match with them and tip you off to other singles who are nearby. (No, really — one of my friends literally watched a guy next to her on the train "like" her on Happn. It's a thing.)

This also means that you can finally detect who's taken and who's single in a crowd or at the bar (if they have the app, of course), which makes things a lot less awkward. AskMen's review said it best: "Happn formulates a happy medium between algorithmic online dating and chance encounters."

Who it's good for: This is the place for rom com enthusiasts. Everyone would love for the story of how they met their person to be something serendipitous and crazy — but let's be real, the chances of that happening completely on its own aren't great. Happn acts as a wingman that steps in and introduces two strangers — by alerting app users of cuties who are physically close by. The uniqueness of the idea on its own is enough to make people hop on the Happn bandwagon.

The idea of matching people who have already crossed paths hasn't really been seen before, and Happn knew damn well that young people would jump on anything fast paced and spontaneous. You're pretty much getting a notification for every time a hottie is within walking distance, and who would say no to that? On a more serious note, it's honestly exciting to wake up in the morning thinking you might just have a love at first sight moment in the Starbucks line. (Yes, technically that's always possible, but not everyone is keen on introducing themselves to attractive strangers in person. Happn just wants to decrease your number of missed opportunities.) 

The downsides: There aren't really any filters other than preferred gender and age, which is pretty broad — so half of the people who Happn suggests to you might hate all of the things you like, have opposite political views, or just be the opposite of your type in general. Of course, you can swipe to avoid matching, but it would obviously be nice to narrow options down a little more. 

The bottom line: Most dating apps use location to tell you who's around, which is cool — but what's cooler is finding potential soulmates who are in walking distance rather than going through the painful process that is setting up a first date. If anything, it's just exciting to see who could be nearby and waiting to fall in love with you.

hater — Best for cynics who are closet hopeless romantics

Image: hater

The gist: As the name of the app blatantly states, hater is where "haters" can find their romantic partner via hating on the same thing. With mosts apps, you're paired up over shared interests or mutual physical attraction — but the bond over disliking something super specific is way stronger. At the beginning of 2018 (and hater's first birthday), the app had already been downloaded a million times — so it's gaining traction pretty quickly. I am hoping and praying that this becomes the next Tinder.

Who it's good for: This is the place for young, cynical singles who don't want to admit that they're secretly hopeless romantics. hater's algorithm uses your swipe patterns to hone in on your dislikes in order to find you people who you won't hate, which is especially great if Tinder or Bumble are full of people you do hate. Guys, I am obsessed with this idea. Swipe left to hate a topic (there are the red mad emojis everywhere and I love it). Their logo is even an upside-down heart.

Most dating sites will match people on the traditional personality traits and interests — and having the same values and hobbies as your SO is obviously important. But what the creators of other apps might be ignoring is the fact that there's one thing stronger than the bond from two people liking the same thing, and that's two people hating the same thing. As seen on ABC's Shark Tank, the hater app is basically Tinder for people who have very strong feelings about the things they hate. This is perfect if you hate everything your ex loved, and you're trying to ensure that you never date a person like that again. Hate anything from slow walkers, to Donald Trump, cargo shorts, the phrase "Live. Laugh. Love," you name it — you know, all of the important stuff that matters in a relationship. 

The downsides:  Uh, well, not a lot of people know about it. Though its download rate has been picking up rapidly over the past year, it's gonna be a little difficult to find mutual haters who are actually near you. I'm in the United States, and most of my matches were from Europe — which is fine if you're just looking to bitch about the same thing together, but not awesome if you're trying to start a legitimate relationship. (Give it time, though. I believe in this.) There's no desktop version (most modern apps will skip that), but the smartphone app is really hip and slick.

The bottom line: With the combination of the modern aesthetics and the ability to bond over hating the same thing, I really don't see it taking long for cynical millennials to become obsessed with this. It's still up and coming with a small user base compared to the Tinders and OkCupids of the world, so I wouldn't depend on hater to find me the love of my life just yet. But the premise is too good to pass up, and if you download it now, you'll be able to say "I was on that five months ago," when everyone else finds out about it.

The League — Best for picky people with high standards

Image: the league/screenshot

The gist: You know those really exclusive clubs that always have a line around the corner, terrifying bouncers, and a crazy cover? The League is the dating app version of that. Considering their motto is "Date intelligently," and the fact that they require both Facebook and LinkedIn to be accepted, you could probably guess that this is the place to come if you're tired of meeting people who don't value hard work and never Venmo you when they say they will. We'll warn you, though: As far as dating apps go, it's on the serious end. This isn't an app you can download and then forget to check for a month. 

What it's good for: The League is the place for people who are picky about their partner's education and career path. If you've tried any type of online dating or dating app before, you know that the pool of potential partners can be frightening. It's genuinely overwhelming to skip past all of the sketchy people to get to the handful of good ones, and even then, they could totally be catfishing you. The League does the social media creeping for you, and requires all users to connect their accounts with a Facebook and LinkedIn account.

You only get five matches a day, and that might seem like a tiny number compared to unlimited swiping on Tinder — but it's only because The League lets you use ultra specific filters, and it takes time to handpick the best of the best for you. If nothing else, being accepted into something so "fancy" is a huge confidence boost.

Downsides: The League is so exclusive that there's a literal wait list to be accepted onto the app — and it takes forever. There are ways to speed up the process, like being referred by a friend who's already on the app or paying some ridiculously expensive premium fee to bypass the wait. There's also no desktop version, but that doesn't matter to a lot of people.

Also, there are some weirdly strict rules here, too (or as Thrillist's Lauren Brewer puts it, "What is this fucking militant dating app?"). Because you only get five matches a day, it won't be long until you come across a day where none of those five matches catch your eye. You'll have to suck it up though — because if you go too long without swiping on anyone or not contacting those matches, The League will call you out for being flaky or you'll get kicked off — and you'll have to pay $25 to be re-admitted.

The bottom line: If you're one of those people who downloads Tinder in the spur of the moment and then forgets about it, The League isn't for you. However, if you're good at regularly checking your apps and are looking for someone with the same hardworking values, sign up now. 

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