If you're concerned about keeping prying eyes away from your data and search activity as you browse the web, it might be time to get a VPN. There’s no easy way to tell you this: That “secure” internet service provider (ISP) you’re paying for every month can legally sell your browsing history, throttle your speeds (no matter how fast your router is), alert authorities to any search activity they deem nefarious, and set limits on your data usage. And that’s in your own home.
Public WiFi hotspots, like those at coffee shops and hotels, present a whole other host of dangers. It doesn’t matter how new or supposedly “good” your laptop or smartphone is. Unsecured networks like these can easily be hacked or spoofed to redirect your passwords, credit card numbers, and a host of other deeply personal information right through a cybercriminal’s computer.
But you don’t need to make yourself an open target to hackers and marketers. A virtual private network, or VPN, installs in mere moments and—when used properly—offers formidable protection. We waded through a list of some 200+ VPNs, read all the VPN reviews we could find, then tested the most popular VPNs ourselves to help with your buying decision. Our top pick is ExpressVPN(available at ExpressVPN).
Whether it’s public WiFi privacy you’re after, or you’re just tired of having your data sold to the highest bidder, it’s a jungle out there. Protect yourself with the right VPN for your needs and budget.
Here are the best VPNs we tested ranked, in order:
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ExpressVPN earned a commanding top spot in our roundup of VPNs, scoring strongly in nearly every attribute we measured. There wasn’t anything that we could do to make ExpressVPN fail and we tried. It downloaded easily to all our test devices, including a clunky 2nd-generation iPad. During three weeks of testing, ExpressVPN's connection rarely even hiccupped. We streamed Netflix from the U.K., allowing us to binge “Modern Family.” Before we knew it, Manny’s voice had changed and Lilly could talk. The BBC iPlayer worked flawlessly even when utilizing a slow as mud personal hotspot.
Torrenting speeds, while not the fastest in the roundup, never dropped. Gamers will love the steady speed, while the international business set say it is a must-have for penetrating the Great Firewall of China. We especially like ExpressVPN’s “split tunneling” feature, which allows you to choose what tasks use the VPN and what stays in house. For example, you may want to use your home network printer while web surfing in France.
ExpressVPN has not only upped the ante on privacy, but also, customer service. Not only were they available via chat 24/7, but they are also 100% committed to their no-logs policy (meaning they do not keep records about users' personal details or where they go online).
At first glance, compared to the cost of other VPN services featured in this guide, ExpressVPN's $12.99 per month price tag can be a little shocking, compared to some other services, but they offer a 30-day money-back guarantee and, if you sign up for a one-year subscription, you'll get three months of service for free. When this is factored in, using the service can cost as little as $7 per month. ExpressVPN boast more server locations (160 countries) than any other VPN. Many VPNs rely on larger numbers of “virtual” servers, while ExpressVPN only claims to utilize 3%. What's more, ExpressVPN is committed to assisting users in underserved countries such as Chile. as well as nations with restrictive internet policies like Turkey and Vietnam.
But what ultimately won us over was ExpressVPN’s consistency, which to us equals peace of mind—the reason you want a VPN in the first place.
24/7 customer service
Basic plan only allows 5 devices to stream at once
My name is Holly Aguirre. I have years of experience torture-testing hardware peripherals at the PC Magazine labs, as well as all things home office, including cyber security. As of late, I’ve been covering the ongoing Jeffrey Epstein saga for Vanity Fair and Lifetime Networks, and consequently found myself in need of a reliable VPN. One good hacking will do that to you.
A good VPN has a number of elements, some of which we considered essential and some we considered as nice-to-haves. Data security is, of course, the chief priority. It’s also the most difficult to verify in any absolute sense. While we established some minimum requirements for consideration to our list—256-bit encryption, kill switches, and compatability with Windows, Mac OS, Android, iOS, and Linux—there’s no getting around the fact that your data has to pass through servers somewhere in the world that you don’t have control over. There’s a certain amount of trust involved.
We, therefore, looked for VPN services that are based in countries with strong privacy laws, that make commitments to transparency, and that allow 3rd-party audits to verify their security.
Secondly, we considered the various use cases for a VPN and created tests to evaluate them. VPNs with more features, like geo blocking and more servers went to the head of the class, even if they were more expensive.
Speed was another vital ingredient in a good VPN. Faster connections prove valuable for gaming, torrenting, streaming and much more. We used download, upload, and ping times to gauge speed, but with the full understanding that any number of other factors, such as location, time of day, and network capacity, can impact the speed in your home. For a better understanding of other people's experiences with the VPNs we tested, we looked to reviews from sites such as PCMag, Tom’s Guide, and CNet.
Finally, we took a hard look at customer service, payment options, cancellation policy, the number of devices allowed per account, ease of use, the number and location of servers, and other factors.
Each VPN was installed and tested on five or more devices: a blend of Windows and Mac OS, including laptops, iPads, and smartphones.
What You Should Know About VPNs
VPNs, while simple to use, can be fairly technical to explain. Here's some useful terminology:
Kill switch: A feature on most VPNs that shuts off internet traffic the instant the VPN connection stops working. Ideally, this happens automatically. TunnelBear requires an additional install.
Log policy: A VPN may choose to retain logs of its customers and their internet traffic, or they may have a "no logs" policy. Often this is dictated by the laws of the country in which the company is based.
Encryption: Within the context of VPNs, encryption refers to the type of security algorithms (ciphers) that hide your personal information. Generally speaking, AES-256 is the strongest commonly-used encryption and is standard on most VPNs, though as with anything cybersecurity related, there is a lot of debate among experts as to how much security you're actually getting.
Protocol: The protocol is the set of rules that determine how your computer connects to the internet and transmits data, which dictates encryption, port access, and other things. Common options with good security include OpenVPN, IKEv2, and Wireguard. Some VPNs can be set to automatically determine the best protocol for your device, while others (like NordVPN) have you choose.
In addition to safe surfing, there are myriad reasons to use a VPN. Due to the global pandemic, telecommuting is a new reality for many office workers, and earlier this year IT departments were left scrambling to provide workers remote security solutions they once controlled in-house. Any one of the VPNs featured here is an easy fix to some of the more common data privacy issues. And in turn, a personal VPN can hide your online activity from your boss.
Additionally, you might use a VPN to stream geo-blocked content or improve online speeds.
Netflix and BBC iPlayer are just two streaming services in which your global location determines the content that you can see. Since a VPN spoofs your location, the right one can also unlock a whole new world of shows and news.
Perhaps you’ve settled in for movie night only to have Jason Bateman freeze in mid-sentence over and over. This may be happening because your ISP is allowed to throttle your connection speed whenever it likes, probably when everyone else is getting comfy, too. Connecting to a server via a VPN in a different time zone may increase your home internet speeds for content viewing and gaming alike.
Lastly, your web surfing habits, ad clicking and/or purchasing history could make you the victim of price gouging. Some shopping sites charge based on geographic location, perhaps to offset free shipping. Utilizing a good VPN—while it takes more time—could potentially save you a lot of money on travel and other goods and services.
Why We Didn’t Test Free VPNs
While there are free VPN options from a handful of reputable companies, this is one category where a little money goes a long way. The free options tend to be very slow or severely limited in the number of options they offer. And as you’re not a paying customer, you’re also subject to the very ads that you’re trying to avoid being tracked by. The one exception here is TunnelBear, which offers a free and robustly-featured version of its VPN capped at 500MB per month.
Other VPNs We Tested
When it came to upload speeds in both the U.S. and the U.K., NordVPN outpaced most of the competition, bested only by SurfShark in U.S. uploads. As internet traffic varies, we were mindful that our speed tests could depend on the time of day and, therefore, performed them on multiple devices at different times. That said, our torrenting speeds were some of the lowest in the bunch.
While not as sexy and dynamic as ExpressVPN, NordVPN gets a lot of points for providing ad blocking and extra malware protection along with the ability to customize your DNS settings and kill switches, which prevent leaks. Like Express, NordVPN unblocks the big streaming services with no hitches. If you have problems, they offer 24/7 customer support via chat.
NordVPN probably has the most name recognition in the roundup. It was also the victim of a hacking in March of 2018. No usernames or passwords were compromised, but their clients’ browsing data was reportedly accessed. Though this gives us pause, we also think that companies can learn valuable lessons from experience. In this instance, NordVPN has created a bug bounty program and conducted multiple audits to try and win back customer trust.
NordVPN is registered in Panama and boasts a massive network of some 5,400 servers spread over 55 countries.
The most intriguing feature unique to NordVPN is the Emergency VPN Assistance Program available to those facing oppressive “online censorship, targeted surveillance, or the threat of violence.” Anyone meeting these guidelines is encouraged to request immediate free emergency VPN service.
Pricing is currently on par with ExpressVPN with a 30-day money-back guarantee and they no longer accept PayPal as a form of payment.
There’s a lot to like about CyberGhost, especially the lightning-fast download speeds we achieved – the fastest in the roundup. Torrenting speeds were consistently above average by utilizing torrenting servers specifically designed for P2P sharing at high speed. It features auto kill switches, ad and malware blocking, and military-grade encryption.
CyberGhost sells itself as the ultimate VPN for streaming all forms of entertainment via a dropdown menu of dedicated servers. Indeed, it is by far the most varied of all the services, featuring Eurosport, ESPN+, and Globo should you fancy either kind of football.
We had no problems watching crystal clear commercial-free episodes of “Killing Eve” via the BBC iPlayer on our Microsoft Surface though connecting to U.K. Netflix gave us fits. The only devices that worked were iPhones. Though we experienced little to no buffering or lag time, we would’ve liked to have enjoyed “Monty Python” on a bigger screen.
Large families or device hoarders will appreciate the seven simultaneous connection allowance, as well as the ability to program your wireless router to encrypt all devices pinging that network. ExpressVPN also offers this service, in addition to plug-and-play encrypted routers should the thought of programming anything cause you hives.
We like the optimal data compression feature, which could save a bundle on your device’s data usage. For those seeking extra privacy, CyberGhost allows users to pay with gift cards, like Starbucks or Best Buy.
SurfShark made a strong case for itself on features, but fell a bit short on speed. In addition to great functionality and security, it offers a money-back guarantee. SurfShark is also the only VPN in this roundup to allow for unlimited devices.
SurfShark achieved some of the fastest download speeds, except when it came to torrenting, where it took nearly double the time as ExpressVPN and NordVPN.
SurfShark worked well streaming U.K. Netflix, BBC iPlayer and we even watched HGTV dubbed in Italian, which is a great way to learn a new language and install your own toilet.
SurfShark offers 256-bit encryption. The kill switch is automatic, and it also features double protection in “MultiHop” mode, pinging two servers at once adding an additional layer of protection. It boasts 1,040+ servers in 61 countries and offers browser extensions for Chrome and Foxfire that we found useful, especially on our Microsoft Surface. That said, only the browser extensions have been audited by a 3rd party, unlike the more thorough audits of ExpressVPN and NordVPN.
A 24/7-support chat line makes SurfShark the best cheap VPN of 2020. Add-ons like HackLock will alert you of would-be hackers in real time for an additional $1 per month, cheap peace of mind for the uber-paranoid.
HMA is a robust and quality VPN maintaining 1,000+ servers in 190+ countries. It boasted the fastest torrenting speeds in the roundup and skirted geo roadblocks set up by the streaming services. We connected to several though there was a little effort involved. We found it’s encryption methods and security features top-notch. The user interface is one of the easiest to use and we chuckled at the donkey animation going stealth every time.
It is reasonably priced and found a lot of different coupons floating around out there that could net you big savings on a VPN that is worth it at full price. Try it for 7 days for free (!) and rest easy knowing there’s also a 30-day money-back guarantee. HMA offers a month-to month plan as well as 12 and 36 month subscriptions. HMA limits its single-license users to 5 devices at a time. However, if you sign up for a family plan, it's bumped up to 10 devices.
As of August 2020, HMA has been audited by a third-party as a "no-logs" VPN. This should alleviate most of the concerns regarding the fact that HMA is based in the UK, which has poor data privacy protections.
TunnelBear VPN is beloved by so many for its ease of use and, no doubt, its adorable hibernating mascot. In addition to the approachable aesthetic, TunnelBear also offers a free version of the plan for up to 500MB per month. You'll hit that data cap quickly if you're doing any serious video streaming or torrenting, but it's the only free VPN we can currently get behind. The price for the paid version is on par with its competitors.
TunnelBear boasts a respectful 4,000 servers in 20 different locations and features 256-bit AES encryption, the same as the big dogs in this roundup. The security is routinely audited by 3rd parties and that, combined with the free trial, makes it an good choice for sensitive communications in countries with intrusive surveillance policies.
When going into GhostBear mode, your TunnelBear spoofs VPN traffic to appear as normal traffic eluding deep packet inspection, which is helpful when surfing around restricted areas. VigilantBear is the nickname for TunnelBear’s kill switch. Both of these modes are not automatic and must be downloaded via a browser extension. Call us lazy, but we’d rather see that as a built-in. Every time the connection is dropped, which for us was fairly often, TunnelBear roars (literally) and alerts you that you are reconnected. Do we know how long we were exposed and vulnerable? Good question.
As a general use VPN service, however, TunnelBear, comes up short for a number of reasons. Tunnelbear will not work with Netflix, BBC iPlayer, Pandora, or a host of other streaming services. There's no live chat for troubleshooting. TunnelBear also has a strict no refund policy, putting it at odds with ExpressVPN, NordVPN, and others.
Also, it did not work with our older iPad, and specifically states that it has limited support for Linux. Unless you have an up-to-date Windows, Mac, Android, or iOS device, make sure you try the free version to check for compatability before committing to a contract you can't get out of.
Holly Aguirre stared her career as a rock journalist and found herself smack dab in the PC Magazine labs where she torture tested hardware peripherals. That led to a stint covering all things home office, including cybersecurity. As of late, she’s been covering the ongoing Jeffrey Epstein saga for Vanity Fair and Lifetime Networks, and consequently found herself in need of a reliable VPN. One good hacking will do that to you.
Our team is here for one purpose: to help you buy the best stuff and love what you own. Our writers, editors, and lab technicians obsess over the products we cover to make sure you're confident and satisfied. Have a different opinion about something we recommend? Email us and we'll compare notes.