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?
Like most well-known VPN companies, IVPN supports a variety of privacy groups and causes. Pestell told us he worked with the Center for Democracy & Technology to improve trust in VPNs with a handful of transparency initiatives before they were announced. Neena Kapur of The New York Times (parent company of Wirecutter) information security team noted that IVPN’s leadership transparency and its relationship with CDT were significant pluses that contributed to its trustworthiness. Pestell was also the only representative we spoke with to offer to arrange for one of our experts to audit the company’s server and no-logging policies.1 We cover trust issues with VPNs at length elsewhere in this guide, but we believe that IVPN takes an active role in protecting its customers’ privacy and is not a dude wearing a dolphin onesie.
Once on the public internet, those packets travel through a bunch of computers. A separate request is made to a series of name servers to translate the DNS name ZDNet.com to an IP address. That information is sent back to your browser, which then sends the request, again, through a bunch of computers on the public internet. Eventually, it reaches the ZDNet infrastructure, which also routes those packets, then grabs a webpage (which is actually a bunch of separate elements), and sends all that back to you.
The ongoing saga of Facebook data harvesting and the implementation of the GDPR has personal privacy online as a hot topic once again. One common method for protecting yourself online is the use of a Virtual Private Network — or VPN for short. It allows you to safely send information when using public networks via a group of networked computers and faraway servers. Not all VPNs are the same, however, so we took some time to find the best VPN services.
Many VPN services claim that if you pay their fee, they'll provide you unlimited data transmission and won't throttle your speeds. Generally, this is true, but I'll give you my standard official "unlimited" warning: It's been my experience that when a vendor says something is "unlimited," it's almost always limited. Somewhere, there will be a note in the fine print or terms of service that allows the vendor to limit you in some way. It pays to read those agreements.
If you are interested in an added level of protection, there are intriguing gadgets called Tiny Hardware Firewalls. These devices range from about $30 to $70 and connect via a network port or a USB slot to your laptop. They make the initial network connection, and so your computer's communication is always blocked before it calls out to the internet.
Ideally, every VPN service provider would subject itself to independent audits to verify that it logs and operates as it claims. Right now, audits aren’t common practice in the VPN industry, though there’s a push to change that. Joseph Jerome, policy counsel at the Center for Democracy & Technology, told us about that group’s efforts to bring transparency to the VPN industry: “We would like to see security audits released publicly so security researchers can review them and attest to their veracity, as well as learn from the issues being identified.” The few companies we found that currently performed these types of audits had other dismissal-worthy failings, despite their valiant efforts toward transparency. And while such reports may increase your confidence when you’re shopping, there’s no guarantee that an audit makes a VPN service trustworthy: In other industries, conflicts of interest have led auditors and rating agencies (PDF) to miss or ignore major problems.
Yes. Although Netflix is now available almost everywhere, some places – notably the United States – enjoy a much larger catalog of titles than everywhere else. And some people want to access regional catalogs. In theory, all you need do to watch a local version of Netflix from somewhere else is connect to a VPN server in that country. You can sign into any regional Netflix page with any active Netflix account, no matter where that account is registered. The snag is that due to pressure from its content producers, Netflix now tries to ban IP addresses that it knows belongs to VPN and proxy services. Many VPN services have found sneaky ways around this ban, but it is a cat and mouse game. Please see our best Netflix VPNs for a list of services which still work with Netflix (most of the time).
The best VPNs offer a solid balance of features, server location, connectivity protocols, and price. Some are great for occasional use, others are geared towards getting around the location restrictions companies put on their apps and services, and others are targeted at people who do heavy downloading and want a little privacy while they do it. Here’s what you should look for.
Speed-wise, Avast SecureLine did well in our European speed tests, with us recording over 9.83MB/s (78.64Mbit/s) in our file transfer tests to the Netherlands. Its US performance was a little below average but still decent at 3.22MB/s (25.76Mbit/s), although UK performance was a bit slower than in our last round of tests, at 6.5MB/s (52Mbit/s) via FTP and 5.8MB/s (46.4Mbit/s) for an HTTP download.
A “kill switch” goes by many names, but the term describes VPN software that shuts off all network traffic in and out of your computer if the encrypted connection fails. A hiccup in your Wi-Fi or even with your ISP can cause a VPN to disconnect, and if you then maintain an unsecure connection—especially if the VPN software doesn’t alert you that it’s no longer protecting your traffic—that wipes out all the benefits of your VPN. We considered kill switches to be mandatory. And although we looked for apps that made it easy to add rules about when to activate kill switches, we considered special config files or manual firewall tweaks to be too complex. (iOS doesn’t support any kill-switch features; we address a few iOS-specific problems that apply to all VPN services in a separate section.)
NordVPN has a lot of excellent feature members love. For example, you get top of the line security features from this company including a kill switch that automatically shuts down your session when the connection is not secure. You can choose between a single app kill switch or a full system kill switch, too. NordVPN also offers IP hiding, so your identity is safe with them. Don’t forget the double VPN servers that encrypt your data twice for added security.
Type the server information that the owner of the VPN gave you. Type the IP address in the "Internet address" text box and the server name in the "Destination name" text box. Put a check mark in the box next to "Don't connect now; just set it up so I can connect later." You will need to finish setting up your connection before you can connect. Click "Next."
Other VyprVPN features include automatic connection on startup, automatic reconnection, and a kill switch to stop traffic from being sent over unsecured connections. Premium users can also enabled Chameleon mode, which tries to hide the fact that you’re using a VPN at all, a cloud VPN server image that you can deploy to hosted servers on AWS, DigitalOcean and VirtualBox.
Let's talk about what happens when you use a VPN app on your computer or mobile device. Any VPN app will require an existing network connection to be able to connect to the VPN service provider. This means that even if you set your VPN app to automatically launch when your device boots, there will be a period of time when your computer is connected to the internet directly, not through your VPN.
Switzerland is famed for its privacy-friendly legislation, and that’s where VyprVPN operates from - although its servers operate in 72 other countries to deliver unlimited data. If you’re used to VPN services absolutely killing your data speeds you’ll be positively surprised by VyprVPN: we found that our data speeds actually increased when we enabled the VPN! Not only that but there are plenty of useful options including auto-connect, a kill-switch and enhanced security via the service’s proprietary Chameleon protocol and its own DNS. VyprVPN has a free trial too so you can try it our and see what you think before you commit!
In the past, some VPN services would offer different pricing tiers, each of which offered a different set of features. One way to separate these pricing tiers was to limit the bandwidth (how much data you can transfer). With premium services, this practice is now almost unheard of, and all of the services we have listed do not limit their users' bandwidth. Bandwidth limits live on, however, in free VPN services.
TunnelBear is designed for a very specific group of people: people who want a VPN service but don’t want to mess around with configuration or become IT experts to make their connections more secure. And it caters brilliantly for that market, with a very straightforward interface and jargon-free writing. In truth, all of the VPN services these days do this but TunnelBear tries very hard to stand out. It’s not for power users - there isn’t much you can change - but with up to five simultaneous connections, servers across 20 countries and decent performance on US and Canadian websites. Longer connections can be slower, though: it’s when the relatively small number of server locations makes itself obvious. There’s a free version that limits you to 500MB of monthly traffic, and if you pay annually the price of the full version drops from $9.99 to $4.99 per month.
No reputable VPN service logs any kind of user activity, unlike your internet service provider, which can easily log every website you visit by storing all your DNS requests sent in cleartext. The only VPN on this list that maintains 24 hours worth of basic connection logs (no activity) is VPN.ac, and they clearly state their reasons (security) for doing so. There have been shady VPNs that have cooperated with government agencies, such as PureVPN (see logging case) and I do not recommend these providers.
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The second thing that happens is that the web application you're talking to does not get to see your IP address. Instead, it sees an IP address owned by the VPN service. This allows you some level of anonymous networking. This IP spoofing is also used to trick applications into thinking you're located in a different region, or even a different country than you really are located in. There are reasons (both illegal and legal) to do this. We'll discuss that in a bit.
Early data networks allowed VPN-style connections to remote sites through dial-up modem or through leased line connections utilizing Frame Relay and Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM) virtual circuits, provided through networks owned and operated by telecommunication carriers. These networks are not considered true VPNs because they passively secure the data being transmitted by the creation of logical data streams. They have been replaced by VPNs based on IP and IP/Multi-protocol Label Switching (MPLS) Networks, due to significant cost-reductions and increased bandwidth provided by new technologies such as digital subscriber line (DSL) and fiber-optic networks.
Many companies proudly display “warrant canaries” on their websites. These are digitally signed notices that say something to the effect of “We have never been served a warrant for traffic logs or turned over customer information.” Law enforcement can prohibit a company from discussing an investigation, but in theory, it can’t compel a company to actively lie. So the theory goes that when the warrant canary dies—that is, the notice disappears from the website because it’s no longer truthful—so does privacy. The EFF supports this legal position, though other highly regarded companies and organizations think warrant canaries are helpful only for informing you after the damage has been done. Such notices may provide a nice sense of security, and they are important to some people, but we didn’t consider them essential.
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.
ExpressVPN’s “#1 Trusted Leader in VPN” claim may be a bit difficult to prove, but the service offers a compelling list of features nonetheless. It also constantly tries to make consistent improvements in speed and simultaneous streaming capabilities, and with support for all major platforms (Windows, MacOS, Android, etc.), you won’t need to worry about compatibility. ExpressVPN shows up on a number of “best VPN” lists, and so its relatively high prices are justified.
We’ve shown you how to roll your own VPN using Hamachi, and even how to set up Privoxy to secure your web browsing once you have your personal VPN set up. Hamachi isn’t the only option: you can also download and configure OpenVPN (a free SSL VPN) on your own home server,, or if you have a router that supports it, enable OpenVPN on your home router so you can connect back to it when you’re abroad. Combined with Privoxy, you get the privacy and anonymity benefits of a VPN without spending a dime.
You can pay for a Windscribe subscription with bitcoin, and you don't even have to provide an email address. The service is based in Canada, which may appeal to users wary of U.S. authorities. The only feature lacking is a kill switch to stop all internet activity if the VPN connection is lost while in use, but Windscribe argues that its built-in firewall prevents data leakage.
Trusting a VPN is a hard choice, but IVPN’s transparency goes a long way toward proving that its customers’ privacy is a priority. Founder and CEO Nick Pestell answered all our questions about the company’s internal security, and even described the tools the company used to limit and track access to secure servers. The top VPN services gave us a variety of answers to these questions, some of which were frustratingly vague. ExpressVPN was the only other company to outline these controls and assure us that these policies were well-documented and not half-practiced.
It’s also fast with impressive 830+ server locations, which makes it an excellent choice for P2P file-sharing, online gaming, and HD streaming. There are no annoying bandwidth caps here, and you can connect to Netflix US, BBC iPlayer, or France’s Canal+ if you wish – there’s a server for every need. The double encryption will understandably slow things down.
Connecting to a VPN is fairly simple. In Windows, press the Windows key, type VPN, and click the Set up a virtual private network (VPN) connection option. (If you use Windows 8, you’ll have to click the Settings category after searching.) Use the wizard to enter the address and login credentials of the VPN service you want to use. You can then connect to and disconnect from VPNs using the network icon in the system tray – the same one where you manage the Wi-Fi networks you’re connected to.
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The country connections, meanwhile, matter most to those who want to spoof their location; however, non-spoofers should also make sure there are connections in their home country. If you live in Los Angeles, for example, and want access to American content, then you’ll need a VPN that provides U.S. connections. It won’t work to try and watch Amazon Prime Video over a Dutch VPN connection, because as far as Hulu’s concerned your computer is in the Netherlands.
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There are different levels of security protocols, each with its own level of security and features. Some of the most common are IPSec, L2TP, IKEv2, OpenVPN, and PPTP. OpenVPN is a newer technology, but it is highly configurable and easily bypasses firewalls in any country. L2TP isn’t capable of encryption; it instead creates a tunnel, and it should be paired with IPSec, which takes care of encryption. PPTP is a protocol that has been around since the mid-1990s, but because it does not encrypt, you will want to be sure to use another protocol with it that covers encryption. IKEv2 is an IPSec-based tunneling protocol that will reestablish a VPN connection if a user temporarily loses Internet connection.
Fortunately, there are some brave companies that are still trying to stay one step ahead of Netflix’s VPN catchers. Currently, Windscribe Pro is our top choice. The service delivers good speeds on its U.S. servers, and has a very simple approach to Netflix: Just select the “Windflix” connection from the desktop app or browser extension and you’re good to go. Windflix is still technically in beta, but it works well and there’s even a Windflix U.K. option if you’d like to experience Netflix from the other side of the pond.
The client is uniform across every device I have used (Windows, Android, and Amazon FireOS). I would like to say I was quite happy that ExpressVPN is one of the few VPNs (that seem trustworthy) that actually had a client in the Amazon App Store for the Fire tablets. No more need for sideloading, manual updates, or sketchy OpenVPN clone clients. At first the speeds weren't the greatest on the "Smart Location" server (New York). These speeds capped at about 12Mbps down and 10Mbps up. I have 150Mbps/15Mbps service. After hunting for other servers I found a few that provide roughly 60Mbps/15Mbps service throughout the US and Canada. DNS Leak tests were successful in that I am not leaking.
Every service we tested accepts payment via credit card, PayPal, and Bitcoin. That’s plenty of options for most people, and you can always use a prepaid debit card if you don’t want your billing information tied to your VPN account. IVPN and OVPN are the only ones to accept cash payment through the mail, if you really don’t want to make a payment online. Private Internet Access and TorGuard accept gift cards from other companies—IVPN doesn’t, but that option isn’t worth the additional hassle for many people when other secure, private methods are available.
This is when the VPN uses a gateway device to connect to the entire network in one location to a network in another location. The majority of site-to-site VPNs that connect over the internet use IPsec. Rather than using the public internet, it is also normal to use career multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) clouds as the main transport for site-to-site VPNs.