Finally, you may want a VPN to spoof your location to download content you shouldn’t have access to, but this too has limits. A VPN used to be the go-to solution to watch U.S. Netflix overseas. That changed in 2016 when Netflix opened up to almost every country on Earth. Since then, the company has invested a lot in detecting and blocking VPN users. Even people using a VPN inside their own country will be blocked by Netflix if detected.
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?
Since we first recommended IVPN in the spring of 2018, the company has added automatic server selection to its desktop applications, bringing it in line with other top-performing VPN apps. Alternatively, when you click on the location at the bottom of the app, you’ll see a list of all of the global IVPN server locations, color coded by speed. At the top of the list is an option to connect to the fastest one, and once selected, the app remembers your preference through future disconnects and reboots. You can also use IVPN’s multihop servers to route your traffic through two VPN servers—a feature unique to IVPN among the services we tested—though we don’t think this step is necessary for most people, given the slower speeds you’ll likely experience.
With double, 2048-bit SSL encryption, it’s easy to see that NordVPN values your privacy. But the company has also worked hard to build up its server network to include more than 5,200 server locations in 62 countries around the world. The service also comes with a variety of security tools for encrypted chat and proxy extensions, and you can use up to six devices simultaneously, which is higher than many companies are willing to go.
While a VPN can aid privacy and anonymity, I wouldn’t recommend fomenting the next great political revolution by relying solely on a VPN. Some security experts argue that a commercial VPN is better than a free proxy such as the TOR network for political activity, but a VPN is only part of the solution. To become an internet phantom (or as close as you can realistically get to one), it takes a lot more than a $7 monthly subscription to a VPN.
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When we tested other aspects of IVPN’s performance, it also satisfied our requirements. On the default settings, our real IP address didn’t leak out via DNS requests or IPv6 routing, let alone a standard IP address checker. The DNS-requests check indicated that the app was using the company’s internal DNS servers and that they were correctly configured. None of the 12 services we tested disclosed our true IP address (though some showed mismatched IPs). Every VPN we considered had to operate its own DNS servers in-house and not rely on ISP servers or public options like Google’s, which give third parties a chance to log or analyze the sites you visit. IVPN currently disables all IPv6 connectivity, though the company is looking at solutions to securely support it soon. Most companies we considered do the same; OVPN was the only company to support IPv6 addresses at the time of our testing.
Identity theft occurs when thieves steal your personal information and use it to commit crimes in your name — like taking over or opening new accounts, filing tax returns in your name, or renting or buying property. A VPN can help protect against identity theft by helping protect your data. It creates an encrypted tunnel for the data you send and receive that’s out of reach of cyberthieves.
In 2016, a federal court in Australia ordered ISPs to block BitTorrent tracker sites including ThePirateBay, Torrentz, TorrentHound, IsoHunt and SolarMovie. This has proven to be somewhat effective as visits from Australia to these sites have dropped by 53%. This doesn’t take into account VPN users — the sites can still be accessed with any of the VPNs we listed above.
Before anything else, understand that if you want to use a VPN you should be paying for it. Free VPNs are either selling your browsing data in aggregated form to researchers and marketers, or giving you a paltry amount of data transfer every month. Either way, a basic rule of thumb is that a free VPN will not protect your privacy in any meaningful way.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Australia is a market ripe for VPN providers. A VPN, or virtual private network, encrypts a device’s internet traffic and routes it through an intermediary server in a location of the user’s choosing. This can allow Australians to access content that’s geolocked in their own country. It can also provide a private tunnel through which to use P2P filesharing applications.
DNS servers are a bit like the phone books of the Internet: You can type in “thewirecutter.com,” for instance, and one of the many DNS servers behind the scenes can point you to the IP address of a server hosting the site. Most of the time, your DNS requests automatically route through your ISP, giving the ISP an easy way to monitor your traffic. Some VPN services rely on third-party DNS servers, but the best ones keep DNS servers in-house to prevent your browsing history, or your IP address, from getting out.
Most VPN services allow you to connect to servers in many different countries. In our VPN directory, we list both the number of servers the service maintains, as well as the number of countries. By default, you'll usually be assigned a server in your home country, but if you want to obfuscate your location, you may want to connect to a server in a different country.
Not all VPN services require that you pay. There are, in fact, many excellent free VPNs. But all of the free VPNs we've tested have some kind of limitation. Some limit you to just a few simultaneous connections or devices on an account. Others restrict you to a few hundred MBs of data per day or per month. Others limit you to just a handful of servers. Still others do all of the above.
The Android app is actually fun to use, and you got to give TunnelBear credit for really doubling down on its name by really running with the concept. TunnelBear does not currently support torrenting, so if that's an important feature you're best to look elsewhere. If you're only looking for a casual VPN for your phone, TunnelBear is a great free option with affordable pricing for upgrading to the premium service.
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.”
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.