The 30-Second Review

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. 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.

Best Overall

Fast and simple, this service met all of our requirements for top-notch security while you browse the web, including multiple encryption methods and up to six simultaneous connections. Even better: It's pretty to look at and only $69/year.

Best for Streaming

A heftier $100/year, but it performed best in our speed tests.

Best if You're on a Budget

Private Internet Access
A clunky, unintuitive web portal, but it's only $40/year.

  • January 19, 2018 - We’ve updated our review to include additional tips for secure web browsing. We’ve also made some light changes to our methodology to include up-to-date sources. Our top picks haven’t changed — we still think NordVPN is the best VPN service for most users. But we’ll be taking a comprehensive look at additional providers over the next couple of months, with another updated slated for this March.

The Best VPN Service

“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 on your laptop or mobile device. 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. The best VPN allows you to continue using the internet at normal or close-to-normal speeds, but scrambles outbound data enough that hackers and government officials will have a much harder time tracking your every movement.

Do you need one? After speaking with security experts, we’d frame like this: 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.

Best Overall

NordVPNTop-notch security for $69 per year.

The best VPN services combine top-notch security features that protect against unwanted data collection, a simple interface that makes it easy to connect to the server of your choice, and a no-bull privacy policy that doesn’t couch its promises in vague language. They also have a fast enough connection speed to make it seem like you’re not actually using VPN at all. All of our top picks have these aspects in common, but NordVPN came out on top. It performed well during every round of our hands-on testing, which assessed both the connection speeds and user interface of every top contender. It also has rock-solid, reliable security — and simple, elegant apps for both desktop and mobile — all for $69 per year.

If you're looking for additional options, 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.

But no matter which service you choose, 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 even the best cannot make you totally anonymous (as some services imply). A good VPN is “absolutely the first priority if you’re on public WiFi,” Golbeck told us. But 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 — we look at some of these additional options down below.

Our Picks for the Best VPN Services

Best Overall

NordVPNReliable, elegant, and secure — all for a reasonable price.

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 cell phones.

Screenshot of NordVPN VPN

These features are all nice on paper, but we truly fell in love with NordVPN once we tried it for ourselves. 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 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, it’s well above average: Our tests indicated a roughly 14 percent decrease in browsing speed, and since we’re talking milliseconds here, it’s a discrepancy we didn’t even notice. To sweeten the deal, NordVPN also offers dedicated streaming servers.

Another stand-out feature? 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.

And finally, it’s surprisingly pretty to look at. Rather than simply displaying a list of servers and countries, NordVPN presents you with a beautiful interactive world map that works great on both desktop and mobile. If you do decide to switch over to the list format, it clearly displays the exact distance of each server from your current location, ensuring that you always know where your best connection will be.

Best for Streaming

ExpressVPNConsistently the fastest VPN connection we could find.

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.

ExpressVPN offers 136 server locations spread out across 87 countries (versus NordVPN’s undisclosed number of servers across 49 countries). This wealth of options means you can find a connection almost anywhere in the world. ExpressVPN also allows unlimited server switches, which lets you 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).

Screenshot of ExpressVPN VPN

ExpressVPN’s clean, well-designed desktop app is almost as impressive as 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.

Best If You're On a Budget

Private Internet Access offers a lot of things we like: Speed, a responsive support team, thousands of servers for you to hop between, and a low price. It runs just $40 a year, roughly half the cost of a subscription with NordVPN. In short, Private Internet Access is a VPN that does what it says it’s going to do, and does it on the cheap.

Screenshot of Private Internet Access VPN

Compared to the sleek designs of our top picks, we found the Private Internet Access interface notably clunky.

And as you can see from the screenshot above, Private Internet Access also 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).

But as you can also see from the screenshot, that is one ugly and unintuitive app. And we found the website similarly confusing. We only recommend Private Internet Access to experienced users who just want a VPN that won’t skimp on the truly important stuff, like speed and security. If you’re new to using VPN services and need help getting set up, this provider will be harder to figure out than our other picks.

Other VPN Services to Consider

We wouldn’t normally suggest a free VPN service, since our research suggests that these providers are typically slower, and offer less-stringent security plus a generally underwhelming experience. But Cyberghost's free VPN hit all of our check boxes, and if cost is your sole determining factor, you won’t find a better free option. 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. There are a few trade-offs: You can only connect on one device, and during our speed tests, service slowed down by about 40 percent, enough of a difference that browsing could become frustrating. If you can spare just a few dollars a month, we’d suggest our budget pick, Private Internet Access, as a more reliable option.

IVPN is also worth a shout-out. It ranked an impressive second place in our speed test, and unlike Cyberghost, boasts an interface that’s simple and streamlined enough for newbies to figure out quickly. The company also has a clear commitment to privacy, with a transparent privacy policy, as well as a collection of privacy guides designed to clear up any confusion. At $100 a year, IVPN is on the pricey side, however, and didn’t distinguish itself among our very top picks. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it offered nothing we couldn’t already get from NordVPN or ExpressVPN.

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.”

Robert SchifreenFounder, SecuritySmart

“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,” Golbeck explains. Instead, make sure your security questions revolve around topics that no one else is likely to know, whether long-buried childhood nicknames or hobbies you’ve never shared with anyone.

Invest in a secure password manager.

Between the danger of having your password stolen, the necessity of periodically changing your password to keep Facebook and Gmail happy, and the experts who warn against using the same password for all of your accounts, it can be a struggle to keep up with your own credentials. A good password manager can be a lifesaver, keeping track of all your login info for you — all you have to do is remember one master password.

  • Don’t rely on the password manager embedded in your browser. You’ve probably gotten the helpful browser prompts: “Do you want Chrome to remember your password?” Just say no. Wired reports that web browsers don’t have the same commitment to encryption that third-party managers do. Opera, for instance, experienced a data breach in 2016 that exposed the log-in credentials of 1.7 million users.
  • Do use an encrypted, third-party password manager. Unlike your web browser, these providers rely upon incredibly complex algorithms that are nearly impossible to crack. We like Dashlane, which offers both a free service tier and a $3.33 a month service tier, and you can also look into similarly priced options like 1Password ($2.99 a month).

Additional security measures are also important: antivirus software, lock screens, and secure connections.

These suggestions might feel too simple to matter, but they all bear repeating:

  • Make sure your devices have a lock-screen enabled. Setting your phone down or walking away from your laptop for even a minute or two in a public place can pose a security risk.
  • Invest in good antivirus software for your computer. Large companies like McAfee, Norton and Kaspersky are perennial favorites, and free antivirus providers like Avast and AVG are also popular (although you’ll have to put up with ads.) These services help flag potential issues if a hacker does slip through your defenses.
  • Always check to see if you’re using a secure http connection. 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. 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 should look like this:
    HTTPS screenshot for VPN
  • If you’re a Google Chrome user, Golbeck also recommends using the Do Not Track extension so that third-party advertisers can’t track your activity across the web.

But you don’t need to worry about using your credit card — as long as you trust the site.

Concerned about identity theft?We take a look at identity monitoring services in a separate review. These services do nothing to prevent sensitive data from being stolen (that’s what measures like a VPN are meant to do), but they ensure that you’ll find out about suspicious account activity almost immediately.

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 paying with a credit card isn’t actually that risky, so long as you aren’t 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 on that front. But the same rule of thumb holds true for other credit card transactions. Many credit card companies offer some form of protection that ensures you’re not on the hook for fraudulent charges.

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.

IPv6 leaks may be a cause for concern.

To understand what IPv6 is, it helps to know what IPv4 is. Until a few years ago, 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 roughly 20 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.

The Best VPN Provider: Summed Up

VPN Provider
Best...
NordVPN
Overall
ExpressVPN
For Streaming
Private Internet Access
On a Budget