We’ve shown you how to build your own VPN for remote gaming and browsing that also protects your security, shown you how to make a VPN even more secure, and shown you dozens of services that operate free and paid VPNs you can sign up for and use. We’ve even put the question to you several times to tell us which VPN service providers you think are the best. So how do you pick a solid VPN service?
While it hides your IP address, a VPN is not a true anonymization service. For that, you'll want to access the Tor network, which will almost certainly slow down your connection. While a VPN tunnels your web traffic to a VPN server, Tor bounces around your traffic through several volunteer nodes making it much, much harder to track. Using Tor also grants access to hidden Dark Web sites, which a VPN simply cannot do. That said, some services, such as NordVPN, offer Tor access on specific servers.
To verify that each service effectively hid our true IP address, we looked at a geolocation tool, DNS leaks, and IPv6 leaks. When connected to each service’s UK servers, we noted whether we could watch videos on BBC iPlayer, and using US servers we noted whether we could stream Netflix. We also visited the sites of Target, Yelp, Cloudflare, and Akamai to check whether our VPN IP addresses prevented us from accessing common sites that sometimes blacklist suspicious IP addresses.
Also, do be aware that some broadcasters have developed increasingly sophisticated methods to determine whether the IP address you represent is the IP address where you're located. The VPN may be able to protect your original IP address from being seen, but there are characteristics of proxy communications (like a slightly longer time to transfer packets) that can be used to identify users who are trying to bypass watching restrictions.
Even though Tor is free, we don’t think it’s the best option for most people. If you aren’t familiar with Tor, this handy interactive graphic shows how it protects an Internet connection, and this series goes into more detail about how Tor works. Runa Sandvik, a former researcher with The Tor Project who is now part of the information security team at The New York Times (parent company of Wirecutter), described it as “a tool that allows users to remain anonymous and uncensored.” When we asked expert Alec Muffett about whether he personally used a VPN, he told us he actually spent most of his work time using Tor. But Tor has a reputation for slow connections, can be blocked by some websites, and isn’t suitable for some peer-to-peer applications like BitTorrent.
Server switching is a feature -- offered by most VPN service providers -- that allows you to change what region or country you're going to connect to. Most providers allow you to switch as often as you'd like (although you usually have to disconnect, then change your configuration, and reconnect). This may be useful if you're trying to hide your location, or if you're running into some communications glitches on the server you're currently using.
This is important to understand. Consumer VPN services protect your transmission from your location to their location, not from your location all the way to the destination application you're using. If you think about it, this makes sense: A consumer VPN service is operated by a completely different company than, for example, Facebook or your bank.
VPNs are primarily used to keep a shred of privacy while navigating the internet in an age where your every move is monitored. Search engines love to keep track of you for marketing purposes, and your ISP might even be using your browsing history to make a bit of profit. A VPN effectively blocks that from happening, and it can even help get past government restrictions if you're living in a less-than-free country. If you travel or frequent coffee shops, Wi-Fi hotspots can be easily compromised, but a VPN will keep your data safe.
Inside the Preferences pane, you can also tick boxes to automatically launch or connect the app when you boot your device. Anyone using the Windows or macOS app should tick the box to autoconnect “when joining insecure WiFi networks.” You can also tag individual Wi-Fi networks as trusted or untrusted, to make sure you’re always protected even if you forget to connect the app manually. These network rules—not offered on most apps, including IVPN’s mobile apps or any of TorGuard’s apps—will make sure you don’t forget your VPN when you need it the most.
Since we last tested VPNs, we've given special attention to the privacy practices of VPN companies and not just the technology they provide. In our testing, we read through the privacy policies and discuss company practices with VPN service representatives. What we look for is a commitment to protect user information, and to take a hands-off approach to gathering user data.
We asked TorGuard detailed questions about the company’s internal policies and standards, just as we did with five other top-performing services. TorGuard CEO Benjamin Van Pelt answered all our questions, as he has done for other outlets multiple times since the company launched in 2012. Though TorGuard’s answers weren’t as in-depth as some other companies’ responses, Van Pelt is a public figure who has been willing to talk about TorGuard’s operations at length. In 2013, ArsTechnica got a close look at TorGuard’s engineering and network management skills as the company rebuffed repeated attacks on its servers. Even though the company’s marketing is wrought with overreaching claims about being “anonymous”—an inaccurate boast that makes some experts cringe—the technical and operational standards of the company are focused on protecting customer privacy. In one interview with Freedom Hacker, Van Pelt notes that if there were problems on a server, such as someone using it for spamming, the company couldn’t restrict a single user. “Rules would be implemented in that specific server which would limit actions for everyone connected, not just one user. Since we have an obligation to provide fast, abuse free services, our team handles abuse reports per server – not per single user.”
The solution is also able to bypass firewalls through stealth connections. Additional security is provided through an ad and malware blocker, which can be switched on and off. For those who enjoy torrenting, the software supports such process, with certain servers optimized for P2P networks. This is designed to keep high-speed browsing on other connections. However, the service warns users to keep torrenting activities confined to specific cities around the world.
To narrow the hundreds of VPN providers down to a manageable list, we first looked at reviews from dedicated sites like vpnMentor and TorrentFreak, research and recommendations from noncommercial sources such as That One Privacy Site and privacytools.io, and user experiences and tips on various subreddits and technology-focused websites like Lifehacker and Ars Technica. We settled on 32 VPNs that were repeatedly recommended. From there, we dug into the details of how each one handled issues from technology to subscriptions:

When you're away from home or the office and you connect to the internet, you'll most often be doing so via Wi-Fi provided by your hotel or the restaurant, library, or coffee shop you're working out of in that moment. Sometimes, the Wi-Fi has a password. Other times, it will be completely open. In either case, you have no idea who else is accessing that network, and therefore, you have no idea who might be snooping on your traffic.


The main group of countries that can share information freely is called the Five Eyes. They come from the UKUSA agreement that, although began back in 1941, was only made public knowledge in 2005. The agreement is between Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States, hence the name Five Eyes. Those countries have agreed to collect, analyse and share information between each other, and much of this intelligence is believed to be related to internet activity these days.
IPVanish can be run on any computer and mobile devices. It is capable of simultaneously using different types of connections. Paying with Bitcoin gives users additional security features as cryptocurrency cannot be tracked unlike government currency. This is because information required when paying with bitcoin are but an email address and a password.
Logging: When you connect to a VPN, you’re trusting the VPN service provider with your data. Your communications may be secure from eavesdropping, but other systems on the same VPN—especially the operator—can log your data if they choose. If this bothers you (e.g., you’re the privacy/security advocate or the downloader), make absolutely sure you know your provider’s logging policies before signing up. This applies to location as well—if your company doesn’t keep logs, it may not matter as much where it’s located. (There’s a popular rumor that US-based VPN providers are required to log, in case the government wants them. This isn’t true, but the government can always request whatever data they have if they do log.) For a good list of VPN providers that don’t log your activities when connected (and many that do), check out this TorrentFreak article.
With hundreds of VPN services and clients available, it can be difficult to decide which one to use. We've extensively tested several popular VPN services that met three requirements: They had both desktop and mobile client software (with one exception), they had VPN servers in many countries, and they offered unlimited data use, at least in their paid versions.

^ Cisco Systems, Inc. (2004). Internetworking Technologies Handbook. Networking Technology Series (4 ed.). Cisco Press. p. 233. ISBN 9781587051197. Retrieved 2013-02-15. [...] VPNs using dedicated circuits, such as Frame Relay [...] are sometimes called trusted VPNs, because customers trust that the network facilities operated by the service providers will not be compromised.


Setting up ExpressVPN and connecting to a VPN server was easy enough. Performance, when connected to the VPN server, was average at 49 Mb/s down and 16 Mb/s up, compared to our usual speeds of 125 Mb/s down and 20 Mb/s up. Netflix complained about a proxy being in use when we used the automatic configuration option, but it worked fine when we manually selected a local U.S. server. Amazon Prime Video played just fine, and our other internet tests completed without issue.

The student/worker. This person has responsibilities to attend to, and uses a VPN provided by their school or company to access resources on their network when they’re at home or traveling. In most cases, this person already has a free VPN service provided to them, so they’re not exactly shopping around. Also, if they’re worried about security, they can always fire up their VPN when using airport or cafe WI-Fi to ensure no one’s snooping on their connection. Photo by Ed Yourdon.
Generally speaking, transfer speed tests via NordVPN’s UK endpoints continue to impress, with FTP downloads clocking 10.4MB/s (83Mbit/s) and HTTP downloads at 10MB/s (80Mbit/s). However, we saw unusually slow FTP results from our Dutch reference server, at an anomalous 5.1MB/s (40.8Mbit/s), compared to an HTTP download at 9.9MB/s (79.2Mbit/s). That said, U.S. speeds have improved on previous tests, coming in at around 3.5MB/s (28Mbit/s) for both FTP and HTTP transfers.

The student/worker. This person has responsibilities to attend to, and uses a VPN provided by their school or company to access resources on their network when they’re at home or traveling. In most cases, this person already has a free VPN service provided to them, so they’re not exactly shopping around. Also, if they’re worried about security, they can always fire up their VPN when using airport or cafe WI-Fi to ensure no one’s snooping on their connection. Photo by Ed Yourdon.


That said, many VPN providers are based outside the US, which complicates enforcement. Jerome continued: “Users can file complaints in a local jurisdiction, and local data protection laws may have more effective enforcement mechanisms. For example, privacy and confidentiality of communications are fundamental rights in the European Union. Data protection authorities in EU-member states are empowered to handle complaints brought by individuals and then provide users with information about the outcome of any investigation. But it is unclear how effective any of these remedies will be.”
When purchasing VPN service from a provider, consider whether you will access content outside the country you physically are located in. When you browse the internet, you have an address which shows where you are. This is called an “IP address.” If you try to access content in another country, your IP address may not allow you to do so because there may not be an agreement between that country and yours about the legal rights of the content. However, you can use a VPN host with “exit servers” which will show your IP address as being within that country. Thus, you will be able to access the content in another country by using the exit servers. When picking a VPN host in order to do this, you’ll want to look at the locations of your host’s servers in order to ensure that they have servers in the country where you want to access content.
Welcome to the CNET 2019 Directory of VPN providers. In this directory, we're taking a look at a few of the very best commercial VPN service providers on the Internet like CyberGhost, IPVanish, Hotspot Shield, Private Internet Access and others. Rather than looking at the wide range of free providers, which often have a lot of limits (and dubious loyalties), we are looking at those vendors who charge a few bucks a month, but put your interests first, rather than those of shadowy advertisers and sponsors. Our VPN rankings are based more than 20 factors including number of server locations, client software, dedicated and dynamic IP, bandwidth caps, security, logging, customer support and price. 
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