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Choosing an Online Fax Service: A Buyer's Guide

Looking for an online fax service? Here's everything you need to know about how to choose one. If you're in a hurry, just scroll down to see our best picks and read our staff reviews of the services we chose to recommend. You can also see a full list of online fax service vendors and a breakdown of how we chose Business News Daily's best picks.

While fax machines might seem to be going the way of the Dodo bird, many small businesses still need to send and receive faxes to communicate with vendors and customers. The ability to communicate via fax can boost productivity and add a level of professionalism to your brand. Luckily, you no longer need a bulky, outdated fax machine or a dedicated landline in order to do so.

Online fax services allow you to send and receive faxes through your email account, as well as store those faxes digitally. Most services offer a low monthly subscription fee with little to no money down, and so long as you select a reputable vendor, these services are reliable and secure.

Most online fax services offer similar pricing and features, but there can be significant differences between vendors. When you're choosing an online fax service, it's important to note the number of outgoing and incoming faxes that are included in the monthly price, as well as any overage costs that might apply. Also, ensure that any company you select has a solid track record and a responsive, accessible customer service department.

Ready to choose an online fax service? Here's a breakdown of our complete coverage:

How online fax services work

Online fax services essentially digitize the entire faxing process. For the person you're communicating with, however, the experience is exactly the same as if you were using a physical fax machine of your very own.

There are a number of ways to send a fax using an online fax service: by special email address that includes the recipient's fax number (i.e., 18005551234@vendorname.com), through the vendor’s website or with a mobile application. You can create the documents you want to send in a word-processing program, such as Microsoft Word, or you can scan and upload paper documents. Once they are uploaded, the online fax service translates the document so that a fax machine can read it, and then sends it via a phone line. When you sign up for an online fax service, you'll receive a fax number, which others will use to send faxes to you. The service then converts the incoming documents into a digital format and sends them directly to your email address. For the sender, it's as simple as dialing your chosen fax number, just as that person would do if you had a fax machine.

Online fax services are viable options for a number of reasons. Primarily, a business might contract with an online fax service to keep costs down, particularly if it's a company that faxes infrequently. Convenience is another major selling point; you don't have to be in your office or near a fax machine to send and receive documents. Managing your incoming and outgoing faxes with an online fax service is as simple as being near a computer or mobile device.

Features and options

Many services offer additional features to enhance usability and security, though sometimes these come at an added cost. Convenient features include things like mobile alerts, integration with Microsoft Outlook, preset delivery times, digital signatures, customizable cover sheets, the ability to fax multiple recipients at once and the ability to forward incoming faxes to multiple email addresses. Some security features include SSL or PGP encryption and password protection to guard sensitive information. Most services offer these features, but it's important to check ahead of time and find out whether or not they cost more.

Another common option offered by vendors is the use of a toll-free fax number or a local fax number. Most services also offer long-distance and international faxing as well, though it often comes with an additional per-minute fee on top of the subscription cost. There are some online fax services that offer either send-only or receive-only plans, but many small businesses require the ability to both send and receive faxes. Some services limit the number of faxes you can store, while others limit the amount of time a fax can be archived. Generally, when a time limit exists, it’s usually about a year.

When you're comparing online fax services, be sure to evaluate the customer service department. If you have a problem with the service, you're going to want to be able to reach someone who can help solve it. Does the vendor offer 24/7 customer support? Is there a toll-free number to call? Does the service offer a live Web chat for support? Does the vendor's website offer tips and advice for troubleshooting? These are questions you should ask the sales representative ahead of time. It's also important to find out how easy or difficult the service is to use. Some online fax services are far more user-friendly than others. If the vendor offers a free demo trial, it would behoove you to take advantage of it.

Pricing

Typically, online fax services employ the monthly-subscription pricing model, with base fees ranging from about $7 to $20 per month. The monthly fee usually includes a set amount of incoming and outgoing faxes that is anywhere from 100 to 500 faxes each, with higher amounts included in more comprehensive plans. If you eclipse the monthly limit, you'll trigger overage fees, which often range from 3 cents to 12 cents for each additional fax beyond the allotted amount.

Online fax services also offer pay-as-you-go plans, although not as frequently as monthly subscription plans. These plans feature very low monthly fees of just a few dollars, and they do not include any faxes. You are then billed an additional rate for each incoming and outgoing fax. Generally, these plans make sense only if you very rarely send and receive faxes. Otherwise, it's far more cost-effective to purchase a plan that includes a prepaid number of faxes.  

If you want to send faxes internationally, expect an additional cost. The price varies, based on location, but be ready to pay anywhere from 2 cents to 10 cents more for each international fax you send. Some services also charge one-time setup fees, ranging from about $10 to $25.

Most vendors offer more than one plan, so you can select whichever one works best for your business. Some plans cater to infrequent users, while others are made for businesses that send out faxes regularly. If you don't send a lot of faxes, you can usually pay less for a lower monthly fax limit; if you have a lot of faxes to send, then it's worth a few dollars more for a higher limit. Some vendors will also offer "corporate packages" for big businesses that send a high volume of faxes.

How to choose an online fax service

While most online fax services offer similar feature options and pricing models, no two are identical. Invest some time in weeding through all the options to find the best service for your business. Here are some tips that will help you do just that:

  • Assess your needs: Knowing the volume of faxes you'll need to send and receive each month is key. Use this information to determine which vendor and plan is the best fit for you. If you reliably only send and receive a handful of faxes each month, a pay-as-you-go plan might be a good choice. If your business is much more fax-oriented than that, it's best to pay a higher fee that includes a larger package of free faxes.
  • Ask for recommendations: It's not enough to just take a vendor's sales representative at his or her word. Make sure you talk to other business owners who use online fax services and see which ones they recommend. What are some things they like about their service? Is there anything they would change? While there are many competing vendors, finding recommendations from other entrepreneurs is a great way to narrow down your choices. If you can, get several personal recommendations from business owners in your network whom you trust.
  • Contact vendors: After you've gathered recommendations, contact the top contenders on your list to get a sense of the service you can expect. How a company handles the initial call from a prospective client is always telling. Is the representative up-front about all the applicable fees and the included features? Is the rep willing to spend the time to explain how the service works? Is he or she overly pushy and aggressive in trying to make a sale? Is the representative friendly and attentive? These are all questions worth asking before choosing a vendor.
  • Understand fee structures: Always ask for a detailed breakdown of all monthly fees and any additional costs, including setup fees, long-distance and international fees, and overage costs. Understanding the fee structures is crucial when you're trying to estimate what your total monthly costs will be. Be aware that some vendors will offer low rates, but then sneak in additional, hidden costs. Reputable vendors are straightforward about their fees, no matter how they are structured. Make sure they're willing to give their fee schedule to you in writing.
  • Request free demos: Most online fax services will offer a free product demonstration. Take advantage of this offer to test out the service before you sign up. A demo will allow you to find out which service is the most user-friendly, because there can be vast differences between two seemingly similar services. Some are better than others, but you won't know which unless you try it out for yourself.
  • Evaluate customer service: Before you have a problem, you'll want to know that the vendor's customer service department will be there for you. And, you'll want an immediate resolution when you do have a problem, so find out what the vendor offers in terms of customer support. Are there live agents available 24/7? Does the vendor offer live Web support or email support? Again, look for recommendations from other small business owners who have used the service to see if they have any experience with the company's customer service department.

Some entrepreneurs and professionals who have had experience with online fax services weighed in to offer a few pieces of advice to anyone considering utilizing such a service in the near future. Here's what they had to say.

"[Businesses] should do their due diligence when selecting a service," Bill Ho, CEO of software company Biscom, told Business News Daily. "Not all services are created equal, but it can appear that way when just looking at a Web site. While many people look at cost per page as a major deciding factor in choosing a service provider, they should also look at a provider’s reliability record and talk to existing customers."

"The need for faxing typically comes into play when a government agency is involved, or where there is a contract involved. Before you send anything, even with a fax, seal it in a PDF file, first," Becky Cole, chief capacity builder for grant-writing company Connecting Resources Together, said. "Sometimes when you fax something to someone, if the recipient has their own online fax service, whatever you send will be received by them as a PDF file. Whatever service they use will convert the document to that file format and that is how they will retrieve it."

"For a new business owner, make sure that you’re okay with sensitive info, such as a credit card, faxed over the Internet. That’s a security issue," K. B. Lee, founder and CEO of Ever Bamboo shoe deodorizer, said. "That’s the inconvenient part about Internet fax, as we still ask customers to call in with their credit card info [instead.] A traditional fax line would not have that issue."

Click here to see Business News Daily's best picks.

Ashley Smith also contributed to the reporting within this article.

Adam C. Uzialko

Adam received his Bachelor's degree in Political Science and Journalism & Media Studies at Rutgers University. He worked for a local newspaper and freelanced for several publications after graduating college. He can be reached by email, or follow him on Twitter.