Online casinos are a relatively new occurrence and many of our users may not be familiar with how they operate. This buying guide, as with all of the buying guides we produce for the categories we review, should give users an effective overview of what to look out for when choosing an online casino.
Similarly, as the online casino industry contains a great deal of industry-specific terms and jargon, this guide should help the novice user understand what it is these terms actually mean (and more importantly, what effect they have upon your overall profitability as a casino player).
Whilst this guide can only ever offer general advice, it is hoped that the information provided here coupled with the specific opinions expressed in our reviews will give our readers (both those who have used online casino sites before and those who have not) an opportunity to make an informed choice as to which site is best.
What is an Online Casino?
An online casino (also known as a virtual casino) is simply an online version of a traditional casino. The only major difference between traditional casinos and online casinos is that, in the case of the latter, there is no physical building in which the games take place. Gamblers have the capacity to play a range of games, wagering on these casino games with the intention of making a return on the stake.
Whilst most online casinos offer odds and return percentages at rates comparable to regular casinos, there is often more flexibility in the games that are offered online and many players find the opportunity to play a wider range of games an attractive feature of online casinos. In order to play and bet on most online casinos, users transfer funds into their online accounts from their bank accounts and then simply specify a stake before beginning to play.
Understanding RTP Ratings & 'House Edge'
Online gambling (as with its brick and mortar counterpart) is notoriously full of difficult to understand, industry-specific jargon. ‘RTP’ and ‘House Edge’ are, we think, two of the most important terms that users should seek to understand. RTP stands for ‘Return to Player’ and represents the percentage figure of funds paid back to the pool of players from the amount turned over by a particular site.
For example, if this figure was set at 90%, then for every $1,000,000 staked on games on a particular site, $900,000 would be returned to players in prize money. Users should be aware that this figure is not personal, that is, an individual user is not guaranteed at least a 90% return, but that all players collectively will receive 90% of staked funds back in prize money. Of course, the higher this figure is, the better the chance of winning – but it is by no means a guarantee!
The second term of some importance is ‘House Edge’, which in simple terms means the mathematical advantage a site has over the player of a particular game. These percentages do vary from game to game and site to site but on average, users should expect to experience house edge percentages of around 85%.
Games & Variety (Instant & Downloadable Client)
One of the most important elements of an online casino site is the availability of a range of exciting games, across a range of formats. Users can expect to find many of the same games they would find in a regular casino in an online casino – such as for example, blackjack, craps, roulette and more.
The online format of these games makes them extremely flexible and, as a result, many online casinos constantly alter or develop their games to reflect cultural trends or incorporate themes from popular film or TV franchises. Often these games remain functionally the same, but their ‘skin’ reflects the major elements of Iron Man, James Bond or other cultural or cinematic icons. We suggest users look out for sites that offer an interesting (and constantly changing) range of games across a number of formats.
Finally, users may come across sites that offer either ‘instant play’ games or games played through a downloadable client. The former requires no downloading on the part of the user and is played ‘in-browser’. The latter requires the downloading of an external client where the game is played independently of the internet browser. Apart from this distinction, there is no substantial difference between these games (in fact many sites offer users the option to choose either method to play the same games).
Welcome Payments, Bonus Schemes and Incentives
One of the most important elements for discussion in this buying guide is the practice of providing users with a range of monetary incentives for users making deposits on online casino sites. These can largely be split into three categories: welcome payments (cash payments added to a user’s account when they make their first deposit or first few deposits); ongoing bonus schemes (where users can accrue cash bonuses or non-cashable bonuses throughout the duration of their on-site play) and incentive schemes (such as, for example, comp points, where users can accumulate points which can be exchanged at a later date for cash or prizes).
VIP users may also gain access to a range of special features, invitations to VIP events or further monetary bonuses as their membership duration increases. Bonuses can be incredibly lucrative, so we advise all users to look for sites that offer substantial bonuses for early deposits (as well as ongoing incentives as play continues).
Whilst the games and bonuses on offer at a particular site are (for most users at least) the most important features of an online casino, some users may be interested in the additional features offered by sites. Online forums, for example, are often extremely popular, and allow users to discuss the games, preferences etc. with other like-minded individuals.
Many online casinos offer VIP clubs which come with a range of additional benefits, both online (in the form of additional bonuses etc.) and offline (in the form of event invitations and prizes). Many sites also offer newsletters, articles and ongoing promotions for regular users. Whilst for most users, these features won’t form the basis of the motivation to join a particular site; it’s all worth bearing in mind if you intend to be a member of a site for a while.
Customer Support and Gambling Awareness
Good customer service is one of the most important features of an online casino site and, whilst most users may never have need to make use of these features, they are invaluable when something goes wrong. Look out for sites that offer both user FAQs (to address common issues) and active customer support by email, online chat and telephone. Those companies offering customer support 24/7 by any or all of these methods are naturally the best, though not all sites do so.
As a result of the addictive nature of gambling we also think it’s important to seek a site that provides users with supportive features in the event that gambling becomes problematic in their lives. One of the best features is a ‘lock out’ feature which allows users to close down their account for a significant period of time (6 months is a common figure) in order to help the user break the addictive cycle that gambling can often create. Although we hope our readers will never require such features, they are an important part of the customer support regime in place on many of the sites we review.
Safety and Security in Online Gambling
As with many online industries concerning money, the safety and security of the sites in this category has been the subject of a great deal of discussion. In order to bolster the reputation of their sites, many online casinos lease or use software from well-known online software companies (such as Realtime or Playtech, for example).
These software programmes ensure that the security and credibility of every game is guaranteed by employing complex technology to ensure that the chance of winning a particular game is randomly generated. That said, it’s not impossible that an online casino site (regardless of how reputable they may appear) may be a ‘rogue casino’ that may be involved in practices intended to defraud users.
We advise our readers to remain vigilant for any attempts to gain access to their financial information, and report any problems (in withdrawing funds, problems with paying out or cheating software) immediately. If in doubt, users can check out online gambling forums that often maintain up-to-date lists of so called ‘rogue casino’ sites.
The Bottom Line
With so many variables at play on online casino sites, it can be difficult to decide which site is best for you. Often, this decision can be based upon something as simple as a desire to play a particular game (which may only be available on a particular casino site). In other instances, the decision could be based on the availability of monetary incentives and bonus schemes, the reputation of the site or the customer support available.
Whilst all the sites we have reviewed are of a high quality, we advise users to pick the site that seems right for them (being mindful of the advice included in this guide), taking into account the opinions expressed by our expert reviewer in the individual reviews. One of the most important things to note is that because these sites don't have a subscription charge per se, users can feel free to move around different sites and take advantage of the games (and bonuses) on offer at each site. Have fun!