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Choosing an Online Fax Service: A Buyer's Guide

Fax machines might seem like a device out of antiquity in the modern, digital workplace. However, many businesses still need the occasional fax. Luckily, faxing has gone digital, too, and no longer requires bulky, expensive machines or a dedicated landline.

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 if you select a reputable vendor, these services are reliable and secure.

If you're looking for an online fax service for your business needs in 2017, here's everything you need to know about how to choose one. You can also see a full list of online fax service vendors, including our best picks and a breakdown of how we chose them here.

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

Online fax services digitize the entire faxing process. 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) or through the vendor's website. Many services offer a mobile application.

To send an online fax, 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 several reasons, primarily to keep costs down, particularly if your company 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.

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 (usually about a year).

Typically, online fax services offer a monthly subscription pricing model, with base fees ranging from $7 to $30 per month. This fee usually includes a set amount of incoming and outgoing faxes that is anywhere from 100 to 750 pages 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 page beyond the allotted amount.

Some online fax services offer pay-as-you-go plans. These services don't charge any monthly fees and don't require a subscription. Instead, you pay only for the faxes you send as you send them. Generally, these plans make sense only if you very rarely send 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 to pay an additional cost. The price varies, based on location, but be ready to pay anywhere from 2 cents to a couple of dollars more for each international fax you send depending on the country you're faxing your documents to. Some services charge one-time setup fees, which range from $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.

Most online fax services offer similar pricing and features, but there can be significant differences between vendors. Here are some tips that will help you evaluate services and find the best one for your business:

  • 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 few faxes each month, a pay-as-you-go plan might be a good choice. If your business requires more than that, it's best to pay for a package that includes a larger number of included faxes.
  • Ask for recommendations: 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.
  • 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 upfront 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 to consider 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. 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. You won't know which is best 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. Find out what the vendor offers in terms of customer support. Are there live agents available 24/7? Does the vendor offer live chat support or just email support? Again, look for recommendations from other small business owners who have 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. Here's what they had to say.

Do your due diligence. "Not all services are created equal, but it can appear that way when just looking at a website," Bill Ho, CEO of software company Biscom, told Business News Daily. "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."

Consider the service's capabilities. Jeffrey Hensel, sales and marketing director at North Coast Financial, suggests looking at various criteria before deciding on the best online fax service for you, including the availability of toll-free numbers and fax-to-email capabilities.

"Confirm that the faxes received by the service can be emailed. This is a must-have feature," Hensel said. "The convenience of receiving a digital version of the fax in your email inbox immediately is terrific. This is especially convenient for when you are working remotely. It also prevents unnecessary trips to the fax machine to check for a fax you are expecting."

Make sure the service is secure and compliant. Russ Fordyce, managing director at Broadview Networks (now part of Windstream), told Business News Daily that all small businesses should sign on with a fax service that guarantees HIPAA compliance – even if you don't work in the medical industry – because you never know when you might get a medical client.

"Also, security breaches are just way too expensive and time-consuming to deal with," Fordyce added. "You're better off investing in a secure system."

Ready to choose an online fax software? Check out Business News Daily's best picks.

Additional reporting by Jill Bowers and Ashley Smith. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of 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.