IPVanish wasn't the top performer in our 2017 round of testing, falling in about the middle of the pack. But it was one of the most reliable VPN services, connecting smoothly and staying connected every time we used it. IPVanish has excellent client software, although you can connect to the company's servers manually, and a decent array of about 850 connection points in 50 countries. However, its subscription price is kind of high, and its U.S. base may be a negative for some potential customers.
One of the most important factors when you’re choosing a VPN provider is also the hardest to quantify: trust. All your Internet activity will flow through this company’s servers, so you have to trust that company more than the network you’re trying to secure, be it a local coffee shop’s Wi-Fi, your campus Internet connection, your corporate IT network, or your home ISP. In all our research, we came across a lot of gray areas when it came to trusting a VPN, and only two hard rules: Know who you’re trusting, and remember that security isn’t free.
Finding the best free VPN is an exercise in balancing those restrictions. TunnelBear, for example, lets you use any server on its network but limits you to 500MB-1GB per month. Avira Phantom VPN lets you use as many devices as you like and any server you like, but also restricts you to 500MB per month. AnchorFree Hotspot Shield also places no limits on the number of devices, but restricts you to 500MB per day and only US-based servers. Kaspersky Secure Connection also doesn't limit your devices but doesn't let you choose a VPN server—the app does it automatically.
A virtual private network (VPN) gives you online privacy and anonymity by creating a private network from a public internet connection. VPNs mask your internet protocol (IP) address so your online actions are virtually untraceable. Most important, VPN services establish secure and encrypted connections to provide greater privacy than even a secured Wi-Fi hotspot.
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Let's start with the basic idea of internet communication. Suppose you're at your desk and you want to access a website like ZDNet. To do this, your computer initiates a request by sending some packets. If you're in an office, those packets often travel through switches and routers on your LAN before they are transferred to the public internet through a router.
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.
“In terms of encryption protocols, PPTP, L2TP/IPsec, IKEv1, IKEv2, SOCKS, Softether and OpenVPN are all supported with up to 256-bit encryption. This is an excellent range of different protocols and guarantees that browsing, downloads and communications are kept extremely secure. Moreover, the company’s decision to make Malaysia its home is a shrewd move, as it is a country which does not currently have legislation requiring the logging of internet data.” Jun 12, 2014 Vpncomparison.org
To choose the best VPN for you, don’t just look at the price, not least because many services offer massive discounts if you take out a longer term subscription. Start with the basics: how many simultaneous connections can you have? Are there particular security protocols you want to use? Does the provider have servers in the places you’ll want to use it from and the places you want to connect to? How much data will they log about you, and how long do they keep it for?
Beyond the CNET directory, it's always good practice to search "the Google" for a company or product name and read the user reviews. If you see a huge number of old complaints or new complaints suddenly start showing up, it might be that there's been a change of management or policies. When I'm looking for a service, I always base my decision partially on professional reviews and partially based on the tone of user reviews.
If VPN connections get blocked by your network because of strict network management or government censorship, TorGuard offers a “stealth” connection to avoid deep packet inspection. Specifically, TorGuard uses Stunnel (a clever portmanteau of SSL and tunnel) to add an extra layer of encryption and make your traffic look like normal, secure Web traffic. If you’re having connection issues, you can enable Stunnel with a checkbox on the main application window, but only if you select TCP from the protocol list. (Otherwise, the box is unclickable, with no explanation as to why.)
ExpressVPN attempts to build trust in other ways, even without a public face. Court records from 2017 demonstrate that when Turkish authorities seized ExpressVPN servers in the country looking for information, they found nothing of value, as promised by ExpressVPN’s no-logging policy. ExpressVPN also highlights initiatives such as open-source leak-testing tools, developer content about how the company implements different technologies, and support for the efforts of OpenMedia and the EFF. The ExpressVPN representative even offered to arrange a confidential call between our writer and the owners of the company. However, without being able to discuss their identities or learn about other senior leadership, we believed that wouldn’t have been enough to change our recommendation, so we declined. In the end, trust is such a crucial part of deciding which VPN to use that we had to pass on ExpressVPN.
This was technically #8 in the ranking, but after we saw it mentioned positively so many times in Reddit discussions, we decided to bump it up. Private Internet Access VPN, otherwise known as PIA, attempts to give off reliability vibes with its home page (children on bikes was an interesting choice), which some might feel conned by. However, we've gathered that Redditors believe that this wasn't a farce, and that it's actually a super trustworthy option. It was Mashable's top choice too, due to the fact that it comes with a ton of user-friendly features and doesn't kill your device to install. However, it's not the most aesthetically pleasing interface of the bunch, and some users mention that they had to switch VPNs simply because of that. But if you don't care about the looks so much as server reliability, variety of features, and speed, it's a good choice. Reddit user KaiForceOne writes:
CyberGhost has been around since 2011 and has come out strongly as a supporter of "civil rights, a free society, and an uncensored Internet culture." We really liked how the company specifically showcases, on their Web site, how folks normally prevented from accessing such important services as Facebook and YouTube can bring those services into their lives via a VPN.