The Best VPN
Because a fake mustache won’t fool online spies
There’s no such thing as total internet security (or anonymity), but using the best VPN service is the first step you can take to protect your identity online. So we looked at over 100 VPN providers and tested the best to determine which offered the most robust and reliable security measures, the fastest connection speeds, and the most competitive prices.
Fast and simple, this service offers an extremely high level of security and every premium feature, including multiple encryption methods and up to six simultaneous connections. Even better: It's pretty to look at and only $69/year.
A heftier $100/year, but it performed best in our speed tests.
Private Internet Access
It may not be easy on the eyes, but it's only $40/year.
If you wouldn’t ask a complete stranger to hold your wallet for you, then you shouldn’t be using public WiFi without a VPN service. And “public” doesn’t just mean your average coffee shop. Even if your WiFi connection is password-protected and comes from a trustworthy source, like a hotel or a university, a VPN service can seriously boost your online security.
ExpressVPN had the fastest connectivity of any VPN service we tested — a must for users whose primary concern is streaming videos — and also provides top-notch security, but at nearly $100 annually, costs a little more than NordVPN. If you’re looking for a low-cost VPN option that will still get the job done, Private Internet Access has no frills, but gives you the most bang for your buck (or your bitcoin, as the case may be) for just under $40 per year.
“VPN” stands for “Virtual Private Network,” and it’s exactly what it sounds like: an online network that keeps prying eyes away while you surf the web. A VPN essentially takes the data you send online — which includes personal information such as your IP address — and disguises it so that nobody spying from another computer can identify who’s sending it, or where it’s coming from. You’ll still be able to use the internet at normal or close-to-normal speeds, but hackers and government officials will have a much harder time tracking your every movement online.
Be warned: VPNs are not a one-stop security shop. “If someone really wants to get at what you have, there are tons of ways for them to do it,” explains Jennifer Golbeck, a computer scientist and world-renowned internet security expert at the University of Maryland, College Park. A VPN service improves your online privacy, but it’s not bulletproof protection against hackers, and it certainly won’t make you totally anonymous (as so many services claim). Golbeck describes a VPN as “absolutely the first priority if you’re on public WiFi,” though she notes that it’s most effective when used in conjunction with other common-sense security measures, such as an online backup service and a solid password manager.
How We Found the Best VPN Services
In reading through the countless blogs and online forums dedicated to internet security, we realized something pretty quickly: A lot of people are worried about their information being stolen. And they should be. As Ponemon Institute researchers concluded in 2014, hackers managed to steal the personal information of 110 million Americans in that calendar year alone. And we’re not just talking about names and addresses here — “personal information” can mean anything from email passwords to Facebook security questions.
With hackers and government organizations getting more sophisticated every year, we needed to find a VPN service that offers multiple levels of security and protections against leaks. First, we asked some of the field’s foremost experts what they look for in a VPN service. Then we analyzed the features and performance stats of more than 100 contenders.
In determining our top picks, we focused on the whole package: services that could combine top-level security and high speeds with a user-friendly interface for both desktop and mobile.
We cut services not compatible with both Android and iOS mobile devices (or that require a separate subscription for desktop and mobile).
Are you reading this on a smartphone? If so, you’re not alone. According to the Pew Research Center, more than two-thirds of Americans now own a smartphone, and nearly one in five spends more time surfing the internet on that phone than on a desktop or laptop computer. That figure is only going to increase as smartphones become more ubiquitous— and so will mobile data breaches. “Intercepting data is just as easy to do via a phone,” Golbeck explains, “but people use VPNs a lot less frequently on their mobile devices than they do on their laptop computers.”
Given the rise of smartphone internet use, it stands to reason that the best VPN services are the ones that seamlessly cover both desktop and mobile. This means that a single subscription should cover multiple devices, but it also means that the VPN should work across multiple devices (including Android and iOS) without any issues. Though nearly all VPN services can be “hacked” to work on Android and iOS devices, a surprising number of them offer no onsite support and no guarantees in terms of compatibility. In the case of Cryptostorm, for example, users have to seek out crowd-sourced guides on the member forum and hope for the best.
VyprVPN and NordVPN both feature dedicated mobile apps with user-friendly interfaces.
Contrast this with a service like ExpressVPN, which not only works across Android and iOS devices, but also features an incredibly easy-to-use mobile app that connects on demand and doesn’t waste a ton of battery life. Golden Frog’s VyprVPN also has great apps for iOS, Android, and a host of other platforms, all of which take the guesswork out of being protected. VPNs that are a pain to use on mobile (or charge extra money to do so) simply aren’t worth your time.
AlwaysVPN, BartVPN, Bee VPN, Boleh VPN, BTGuard, Buffered VPN, CitizenVPN, Cryptostorm, EarthVPN, Elephant VPN, Faceless.Me, Ghost Path, IPinator, Liquid VPN, NeXTGenVPN, OkayFreedom, Proxify, ProXPN, SecretsLine, Secure Tunnel, SecureVPN.to, Spice VPN, Surf Bouncer VPN, SwissVPN, Unblock US VPN, Unspyable, VikingVPN, VPN.AC, VPN4ALL, VPNBook, VPNMaster, VPNv6, Zen VPN
VPN services that didn’t use shared IP systems got cut, too.
Of course, it doesn’t matter how many devices your VPN works on if it’s not keeping your information secure. One way VPNs do this is by using shared, anonymous IP addresses that mix in your internet traffic with other client traffic. An IP (Internet Protocol) address is a unique series of numbers assigned to a computer or gateway to identify it on a network. Every computer has one, and one of the primary goals of a VPN is to hide yours so no one can use it to track you online.
VPN services tend to offer two different kinds of IP systems: shared and dedicated. In a dedicated IP system, VPN users are assigned a single IP that is unique to them and not shared by any other users. In a shared system, users are assigned multiple IPs that are being used by a large pool of clients at the same time.
Shared IP Systems
Internet security expert and darknet researcher Bev Robb claims that shared IPs are definitely the way to go if privacy is your main concern. “I would disqualify a VPN service that does not use shared IP systems,” she says, but she takes it a step further than that: “If they don’t clearly state that they use shared, anonymous IP systems, I would be wary.” In Robb’s mind, the goal of any VPN service should be to “blend in with the crowd,” and it’s up to each individual service to ensure that users know how large that crowd is. That’s why we cut services that don’t make it clear that they use shared IP systems, or allow users to switch back and forth between shared and dedicated systems.
AceVPN, ActiVPN, AzireVPN, Blockless, Global VPN, GoTrusted, GTS VPN, HideIP VPN, Hotspot Shield, Ivacy, Kepard, Liberty VPN, LogMeIn Hamachi, My Private Network VPN, NolimitVPN, PandaPow, Privatoria, SaferVPN, Seed4.Me, ShadeYou, Smart DNS Proxy, SpotFlux, Steganos, Sun VPN, SuperVPN, Switch VPN, Total VPN, Trust.Zone, TunnelBear, VPN Baron, VPN Land, VPN Makers, VPN Tunnel, VPN.ht, VPNinja, WASEL Pro VPN
Not having a VPN kill switch was also a deal breaker.
One of the worst things a VPN can do is allow your true IP address — the one of whichever computer you’re working on — to be exposed online. The whole point of a VPN is to help you stay as anonymous as possible, and it’s obviously not doing that if it isn’t protecting your personal IP address. If you’ve ever wondered how identity theft can happen, this is one of the prime examples. If a hacker manages to track down your true IP address, they may be able to steal your browser information, router information, and details regarding your internet provider — a pretty good “starter kit” for gaining access to your computer’s hard drive. They might even be able to use your IP address to cloak their own illegal activity, meaning you might come home one day to a scowling FBI agent at your door.
When a VPN connection is working properly, this is almost never an issue. But sometimes VPNs get disconnected or fail to work, and that’s when it’s important to have a feature known as a kill switch.
NordVPN gets points for clearly labeling its Kill Switch and making sure users know when it’s engaged.
Think of the kill switch as a referee observing your internet connection from the sidelines. If there’s any kind of change in your IP address or if the VPN unexpectedly drops, it will blow a whistle and stop the session entirely. Just as a basketball player can’t keep shooting after a foul has been called, your computer won’t be able to connect to the internet until a secure VPN connection has been reestablished.
If you don’t have a kill switch when your VPN drops, you’ll stay connected to the internet and your true IP address will be exposed for all the world to see. Even worse, you might not even know it. “It’s important to know if your connection gets terminated, but it’s just as important to know what the service does in case that happens,” says Robb. “Does the company kill the connection, or do you just hang there with no VPN? You definitely don’t want to be hanging there with no VPN.”
We should note that some services call their kill switch by a different name (Hide My Ass!, a company that knows a thing or two about great names, calls its “Secure IP-Bind Technology”). But to make it into our next round, a VPN service had to have some form of clearly identified kill switch.
AirVPN, Anonine, Anonymizer, Astrill, BlackVPN, CactusVPN, F-Secure Freedome VPN, FrootVPN, IronSocket, KeepSolid VPN Unlimited, OverPlay, PerfectVPN, SecurityKISS, StrongVPN, SurfEasy, TheSafety.US, TigerVPN, UnoTelly UnoVPN, VPN Reactor
We also cut services that rely on a third-party DNS.
If you’re sensing a theme here, it’s that security is really important when it comes to picking the right VPN service. And one of the biggest security risks we encountered in our research involves DNS.
What is DNS? DNS (Domain Name System) basically works like a telephone directory for the internet, assigning a unique IP address to each domain name. When you type in the name of a website like Reviews.com and hit “Enter,” your request goes to a DNS server, which then sends you back the IP address that corresponds with that website.
The problem is, not every VPN service runs its own DNS servers. If a VPN service gets its IP addresses from a third-party DNS server that it doesn’t control, that third party could be logging your requests without you (or your VPN service, for that matter) knowing about it.
“A third party could definitely log DNS requests,” warns Robb. “My preference is to go with a VPN provider that owns their own data servers and hosts their own DNS servers.” This protects your web history and ensures that all of your requests remain encrypted, as opposed to sending requests in unencrypted form to a third-party DNS. It’s not enough that a VPN service advertises “no logs” if it uses a third-party DNS such as Google DNS, which happens to be one of the most common third-party DNS solutions out there.
While private DNS servers aren’t totally invulnerable to DNS leakage, they do take away the third-party risk. Services like VyprVPN and ExpressVPN do a great job of explaining the benefits of private, encrypted DNS on their websites, while services like Hide My Ass! automatically resort to third-party DNS servers like OpenDNS without much explanation (VPN Shazam’s disclaimer literally amounts to: “It’s complicated! Just trust us!”). We think “no logs” should really mean “no logs,” so we cut from contention any services that don’t use their own, secure servers.
ExpressVPN’s explanation of why it doesn’t use third-party DNS.
Hide Me, Hide My Ass, LimeVPN, Noodle VPN, PrivateVPN, PureVPN, TorGuard, VPN Area, VPN Shazam
Finally, we cut any services that didn’t pass our speed test.
Speed is an incredibly important factor in choosing a VPN service, as most VPNs tend to slow down browsing and streaming to some extent. At this stage, we were left with 13 remaining contenders, all of which boast the security of an armored tank. But the problem with most tanks is that they’re slow, and we wanted to find one that drives like a Lamborghini.
For testing purposes, we selected the top 35 websites from the Alexa Top 100. We then used a Terminal-based command known as “curl” to request each of these 35 websites in sequence and get a readout of the average time it took to connect to each site. We repeated this test three times while connected to each VPN. (Note: this test excluded VPN S, which we couldn’t connect to no matter how many times we tried. Needless to say: it was eliminated.)
Because speed is often determined by how far away a particular server is from a computer’s location, we used different servers for each test. IP Vanish, for example, has servers located in Dallas, Chicago, and Los Angeles, so we tested each once and then took the average of the three. For greater uniformity among our results, we only tested servers in similar locations of the US when possible. We also tested the connection without a VPN multiple times to measure the extent to which each VPN was slowing it down.
IVPN and ExpressVPN turned in the most impressive speed results, each showing a less than 10 percent decrease in speed with the VPN connected. In two of its three tests, ExpressVPN even turned in a faster browsing speed than a regular connection, though IVPN showed slightly more consistent results across the board. NordVPN and Private Internet Access also turned in acceptable speed scores, with each slowing down browsing by about 10 percent. The worst speed scores belonged to Proxy.sh, OctaneVPN, and Invisible Browsing VPN, which slowed down speed by more than 60 percent. The latter two didn’t help their cause with unwieldy (or just plain ugly) desktop interfaces.
Though it doesn’t translate to “speed” in the literal sense, we were impressed by ExpressVPN and other services that allow unlimited server switches, as this lets users test out as many services as they want to find the absolute fastest connection during each browsing session.
Cyberghost, Invisible Browsing VPN, Mullvad, OctaneVPN, Proxy.sh, Slick VPN
Our Picks for the Best VPN Services
We poked and prodded to find cracks in NordVPN, but we couldn’t find anything that failed to impress us about this simple, elegant, and highly secure VPN service. At $69 for a full year of service, it ranks among the less expensive options (Golden Frog’s VyprVPN, by contrast, can cost as much as $120 per year) but still offers more premium features than just about any other service out there. Users can choose from three encryption methods (PTP, L2TP/IPSec, and OpenVPN) to further customize their security on desktop and mobile, and a single subscription covers six simultaneous connections. That’s three more than other top contenders like IVPN and Proxy.sh, giving you a perfect excuse to go out and buy those three extra cellphones.
All of that’s great, but what really made us fall in love with NordVPN was actually using it. Connecting to a VPN every time you log onto the internet can seem like a real pain — and with some services it is. VPN S, for example, was never able to establish a stable connection in multiple tries, while OctaneVPN offered up a clunky, confusing desktop interface that reminded us of the ‘90s for all the worst reasons.
But NordVPN’s simple, dedicated mobile app for Android and iOS allows you to establish a secure connection with just a tap of your finger. A lot of VPNs feel like they’re made for coders or even criminals — just check out the cheesy image on SlickVPN’s homepage — but NordVPN offers an inviting, unintimidating interface for all levels of user.
While NordVPN probably won’t give you the fastest speeds possible, we found it to be more than adequate and slightly above average. Our tests indicated a roughly 14 percent decrease in browsing speed, and since we’re talking milliseconds here, that’s a discrepancy most people won’t notice. To sweeten the deal, NordVPN even offers dedicated streaming servers to ensure a faster connection when it really matters. (Note: Reviews.com does not condone illegal streaming or torrenting, but we acknowledge that it’s a feature a lot of people look for in a VPN.)
Finally, NordVPN offers an additional level of security simply because it’s based in Panama and operates under Panamanian jurisdiction. Unlike other countries, Panama has no mandatory data-retention laws, so users can be absolutely sure that the company’s “no logs” promise doesn’t contradict local laws. This isn’t something that most people need to worry about, but it does reinforce the notion that NordVPN protects your information as well as — if not better than — any other service out there.
Oh, and did we mention that it’s pretty to look at? Rather than simply displaying a list of servers and countries, NordVPN presents the user with a beautiful interactive world map that works great on both desktop and mobile. Of course, if you do decide to switch over to the list format, it clearly displays the exact distance of each server so you always know where your best connection will be.
As with NordVPN, we are huge fans of ExpressVPN’s clean, simple desktop and mobile interface, which doesn’t bog you down with unnecessary information, but makes it clear that you’re protected. A large graphic of a padlock clicks into place as soon as you successfully connect to a server, and bold green and red color-coding leave no doubt as to your current state of security.
With an impressive 136 server locations spread out across 87 countries, you’ll be able to find a connection almost anywhere in the world. ExpressVPN allows unlimited server switches, so you’ll be able to test out as many as you’d like to find the fastest connection. And once you do, boy, is that connection fast. ExpressVPN finished at the very top of our speed test, slowing down browsing by less than 10 percent without compromising anything in the way of security (the network is SSL secured with 256-bit encryption).
ExpressVPN’s desktop app is clean and simple, but even more impressive are its speeds.
Combine high speeds with two of the cleanest desktop and mobile apps we tested, and ExpressVPN is a perfect service for people who prefer not to be reminded by slow connection speeds that they’re using a VPN service. It’s pretty stable at those speeds, too; none of the connections we established were dropped at any point of the test. The only real downside we could find was the price: At nearly $100 per year, ExpressVPN is considerably more expensive than NordVPN, without offering much more. It may be worth it if you use a VPN primarily for streaming and other activities that necessitate super-fast speeds, but otherwise it’s hard to justify paying that much more.
Here’s what you’ll get with Private Internet Access: fast performance, responsive live support, a ton of servers to choose from, and one of the most budget-friendly VPN prices out there. An annual subscription will only set you back $40, or roughly half of NordVPN’s asking price. Basically, this is a VPN that does what it says it’s going to do, and does it on the cheap.
But before we get too ahead of ourselves, Private Internet Access does have its deficiencies, some of which might matter to you, and some of which might not. For starters, the app and website aren’t easy on the eyes, and the website especially may confuse users who need more instruction to set up a VPN connection. The site provides a few instructional videos, but if you’re new to using VPN services, they still might leave you a little confused.
A look at the Windows desktop app for Private Internet Access.
As you can see from the screenshot above, Private Internet Access offers compelling features such as a kill switch, DNS leak protection, and PIA MACE, which automatically blocks ads and malware when engaged. There’s even IPv6 leak protection, which ensures that you stay protected when connecting to an IPv6-enabled website (more on that later).
As you can also see from the screenshot above, this is one ugly and unintuitive app. Users who aren’t already familiar with what to look for might find themselves lost and unsure if they’re connected, so we only recommend Private Internet Access to more experienced users who want a VPN that will run in the background, but not skimp on the truly important stuff, like speed and security.
Other VPN Services to Consider
Cyberghost’s free VPN service takes money out of the equation, which may be a deciding factor for some users. Generally speaking, we would advise against using a free VPN, because the speeds are inevitably slower; the security is inevitably more lax; and the overall experience is just worse. But if not spending any dough is your top priority, you won’t find a better free VPN out there than Cyberghost. The service is easy to use and offers all of the key protections we look for in a top VPN, including shared IPs, a kill switch, and DNS leak protection. But you’ll only be able to connect on one device, and the service will be noticeably slower than what you’re used to — by about 40 percent, according to our tests. If you can spare just a few dollars a month, Private Internet Access is the better way to go.
Did You Know?
It’s easier than you think to get hacked through social media.
Robert Schifreen, the founder of SecuritySmart and an expert on internet security, warns that a VPN won’t help you if you aren’t smart about how you use the internet. Social media sites like Twitter and Facebook are one area where he sees a real vulnerability.
“If you want to get hacked as a result of using social media, it’s very easy. Just make sure you post loads of personal information. Make it public. And use the same password on your social media accounts as you use everywhere else.”
Conversely, you’ll stay much more secure if you don’t post too much info about yourself online. Golbeck agrees, adding that a potential hacker shouldn’t be able to find the answers to your security questions by looking at your profile. “A lot of that data — What elementary school did you go to? What was your pet’s name? — is really easy to get from social media profiles,” she says.
You shouldn’t sweat paying with a credit card — as long as you trust the site.
Because VPN services are so concerned with anonymity, nearly all of them offer the option to pay via PayPal or bitcoin instead of a credit card. This is a nice option to have, but Golbeck says that you shouldn’t be too concerned about paying with a credit card as long as you aren’t doing so on an unsecured WiFi connection. “A credit card is often a good way to pay for things, because in many countries you’re covered if the VPN operation turns out to be a scam,” she notes. None of our top picks are scams, so no worries if you stick to those.
IPv6 leaks may be a cause for concern.
To understand what IPv6 is, it helps to know what IPv4 is. Until quite recently, all IP addresses were defined by the Internet Protocol version 4, or IPv4. But when IPv4 addresses started running out around 2011, a new protocol — IPv6 — was created to expand the total available number of web addresses. Because IPv6 is still relatively new, most VPNs don’t do a great job of directing IPv6 traffic through their secure tunnels. This means that, when your browser makes an IPv6 DNS request, it may not be protected by your VPN.
This is referred to as an “IPv6 leak,” and it may compromise your security if and when it occurs. Some VPNs offer the option to disable IPv6 requests in the OS, but if you really want to be sure that you aren’t experiencing IPv6 leakage, test your IPv6 connectivity using test-ipv6.com. The good news is that most VPNs, including all of our top picks, are in the process of adding IPv6 support, and this problem should be temporary. It’s hard to say when IPv6 will be fully deployed, but it now accounts for about 13 percent of internet users. Google continuously updates a chart that shows the percentage of users accessing the site over IPv6, and that’s as good an indicator as any.
You’ll probably never be totally secure, so act accordingly.
No level of encryption or security feature is enough to keep you totally free from being spied on, so don’t treat the internet like it’s your own personal playground. The best a VPN can do is make it much harder for hackers to see your activity, and that’s usually more than enough for most people. But if you happen to be a journalist with sensitive information or a person that the National Security Agency (NSA) is targeting, don’t bet on a VPN protecting you. “If you’re a target, they’ll be able to get at you,” cautions Golbeck, who warns that some hackers or agencies might even resort to physically stealing your computer. If you do suspect that you’re being individually targeted, think twice before trusting your fate to a VPN and ignoring other security measures, including everything from malware protection to physical locks.
The Bottom Line
While there’s no such thing as “total anonymity” online, a VPN is an essential internet security tool that can shield you from prying eyes while surfing the web on a public WiFi connection or even an unsecured home WiFi connection. Most VPNs compromise security in favor of speed or vice versa, but the best of them find a way to deliver both at a price that won’t break the bank.
Always check to see if you’re using a secure http connection. Even without a VPN, there’s one super-easy way to see if your connection is secure. When logging onto email or using a social media site like Facebook, look at the URL and make sure there’s a green lock followed by “https” at the front. It should look like this:
This means you’re connected through a secure http connection, which ensures that a website is only sending you encrypted information. “If you’re on a site and it’s not secure, just put that ‘s’ after the ‘http’ in the address bar, and on a lot of sites it will switch you over to a secure encrypted connection,” says Golbeck. “It’s a really simple little step that anybody can do, but you don’t know to look for it unless somebody has told you.”
Invest in a great antivirus, password manager, and other security tools. As we’ve tried to reiterate throughout this article, a VPN is not enough on its own. The best internet security plan also protects against malware and includes tools ranging from a password manager to an online backup service. If you’re using Chrome, Golbeck also recommends using the Do Not Track extension so that third-party advertisers can’t track your activity across the web.