By Collin Brennan

The Best VPN Services

“VPN” stands for “virtual private network,” and 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. To determine the best VPN services, we spoke to the field’s foremost experts, analyzed features and performance stats, and compared more than 100 providers. Our three finalists work on both laptop and mobile devices, offer multiple levels of security and a no bull privacy policy, and won’t slow you (or your internet speed) down.

The 3 Best VPN Services

NordVPN

Best
Overall

NordVPN

Reliable, elegant, and secure—all for a reasonable price.
Pros
Extra security
User friendly
Good value
Cons
Could be faster

Why we chose it

Extra security

We poked and prodded to find cracks in NordVPN’s stellar security measures, but couldn’t find anything that failed to impress us. Users can choose from three encryption methods (PTP, L2TP/IPSec, and OpenVPN) to customize their security on desktop and mobile, and a single subscription covers six simultaneous connections (that’s three more than other top contenders we considered like IVPN and Proxy.sh). NordVPN also offers an additional level of security simply because it’s based in Panama, where there are no mandatory data-retention laws. This means users can be absolutely sure that NordVPN’s “no logs” promise doesn’t contradict local laws.

User friendly

In our quest to find the best VPN service, we were often faced with confusing interfaces that reminded us of the ’90s (and not in a good way). This made connecting to the VPN a real pain. NordVPN, on the other hand, boasts a simple, dedicated mobile app for Android and iOS that allows you to establish a secure connection with the tap of a finger, and its interface is inviting for all users, regardless of skill level. Rather than simply displaying a list of servers and countries, NordVPN presents you with an interactive world map. If you do 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.

Good value

At about $84 for a full year of service (could be cheaper with multi-year plans), it ranks among the less expensive options compared to other services, but still offers more premium features than just about any other service out there.

Points to consider

Could be faster

While NordVPN probably won’t give you the fastest browsing 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.

ExpressVPN

Best
For Streaming

ExpressVPN

Offered consistently faster speeds than other finalists, but a little pricer.
Pros
Super fast service
Excellent connectivity
Clean interface
Cons
Expensive

Why we chose it

Super fast service

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). It’s pretty stable at those speeds, too; none of the connections we established were dropped at any point during the test.

Excellent connectivity

ExpressVPN offers 160 server locations spread out across 94 countries (versus NordVPN’s 5,114 servers across 61 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.

Clean interface

As with NordVPN, we are huge fans of ExpressVPN’s clean 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.

Points to consider

Expensive

At nearly $100 per year, ExpressVPN is more expensive than NordVPN, without offering much more. It might 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.

Private Internet Access

Best
On a Budget

Private Internet Access

Not as elegant as our other picks, but fast, simple, secure—and particularly affordable.
Pros
Great value
Cons
Clunky design

Why we chose it

Great value

Private Internet Access offers a lot of things we like: Speed, a responsive support team, thousands of servers for you to hop between, and – best of all – it’s half the price of our best overall pick, NordVPN, for a yearly plan. Private Internet Access also includes 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).

Points to consider

Clunky design

When we last evaluated Private Internet Access, the service had a rather ugly and unintuitive app. And we found the website similarly confusing. While it seems to have had some design updates, we’ve yet to fully assess the service and its design since our original testing. Accordingly, 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.

Guide to VPN Services

A VPN service can’t protect against user error. Do your part by taking these precautions.

Use existing security features

To ensure a website is only sending you encrypted information, always look at the URL and make sure there’s a lock icon followed by “https” at the front. “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,” advises Jennifer Golbeck, a computer scientist and world-renowned internet security expert at the University of Maryland, College Park. It should look like this:

HTTPS screenshot for VPN

Other small tweaks that make a big difference include staying on top of your operating system updates (developers often patch up old security holes in newer versions), enabling the lock screen on your devices, purchasing good anti-virus software, and setting up remote swipe in case your phone is ever lost or stolen.

Avoid oversharing on social media

Without realizing it, your posts on sites like Twitter and Facebook could be providing hackers with the clues they need to get past standard security questions. “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 said. She suggests choosing security questions that revolve around topics that no one else is likely to know, whether long-buried childhood nicknames or hobbies you’ve never shared with anyone. You should also make your accounts private and regularly mix up passwords so that your accounts don’t all use the same one.

Invest in a password manager

Speaking of passwords, we know everyone’s growing digital presence can make it hard to keep up with your credentials. This is where a good password manager comes in, keeping track of all your login info for you, so all you have to do is remember one master password. We recommend Dashlane, which offers both a free service and an expanded $4.99 a month premium service, or the similarly priced 1Password ($2.99 a month). These encrypted, third-party password managers rely on incredibly complex algorithms that are nearly impossible to crack and are far safer than the “password managers” embedded in your browser (When it asks, “Do you want Chrome to remember your password?” do yourself a favor and just say no.)

VPN Services FAQ

Do I personally need a VPN?

After speaking with security experts, we’d frame it like this: If you wouldn’t ask a complete stranger to hold your wallet for you, then you shouldn’t be using public Wi-Fi without a VPN service. And “public” doesn’t just mean your average cafe or airport – even if your Wi-Fi connection is password-protected and comes from a trustworthy source, like a hotel or a university, a VPN service seriously boosts your online security.

What’s the benefit of using a VPN for business purposes?

Because businesses have more proprietary information to protect, they’re a bigger target for thieves. For small businesses in particular, VPNs represent a layer of security that doesn’t require exhaustive resources while allowing remote and travelling employees to keep sensitive information private when connecting to public Wi-Fi.

What’s an IPv6 leak?

Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6), was created in the ’90s to address the concern that the widely used IPv4 would eventually run out of web addresses to assign to users. IPv6 is not yet widespread (it accounts for only about 25% of web traffic), so some VPNs fail to properly direct traffic through their secure tunnels. If you’re worried, some VPNs offer the option to disable IPv6 requests in the OS. You can also test your IPv6 connectivity using test-ipv6.com.

What’s the difference between a dedicated IP system and a shared IP system?

In a dedicated IP system, VPN users are assigned a single IP that is unique to them. In a shared system, users are assigned multiple IPs that are being used by a large pool of clients at the same time. On the surface, a shared system might sound like the worse deal – why pay for a service you have to share? It does come with a downside: If too many users share the same IP, websites and browsers might assume that the traffic is spam, which could block or slow your connection and force you to reconnect on a different server. But internet security expert and darknet researcher Bev Robb told us if you’re serious about protecting your privacy, a shared anonymous IP is the only real option worth considering. “If they don’t clearly state that they use shared, anonymous IP systems, I would be wary,” says Robb, adding that the goal of any VPN service should be to “blend in with the crowd.”

Can my router be equipped with a VPN?

Yes, and a VPN-equipped router will make it so that you don’t have to manually connect your devices to VPN each time you log onto the internet. This also allows you to encrypt devices that aren’t typically VPN compatible, like smart TVs and gaming consoles. You can either buy a router that comes pre-configured with a VPN or go the DIY route (first, be sure that your router is compatible with your VPN service by looking on the VPN’s website. In general, any router that supports DD-WRT will work.) Once you’re done setting it up, check that the VPN is live by doing a leak test, on a site like ipleak.net. It should display a virtual location, where your VPN server has settled, instead of your actual location. The only downside is that you’ll have to sacrifice some bandwidth and speed: Expect about a 10 percent reduction.

The Best VPN Services: Summed Up

NordVPN
ExpressVPN
Private Internet Access
Security
Excellent
Good
Good
Usability
Good
Good
Poor
Speed
Above Average
Excellent
Above Average

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