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.
As part of our research, we also make sure to find out where the company is based and under what legal framework it operates. Some countries don't have data-retention laws, making it easier to keep a promise of "We don't keep any logs." It's also useful to know under what circumstances a VPN company will hand over information to law enforcement and what information it would have to provide if that should happen.
To be fair, not all pay VPN services are legitimate, either. It's important to be careful who you choose. Over on ZDNet's sister site, CNET, I've put together an always up-to-date directory of quality VPN providers. To be fair, some are better than others (and that's reflected in their ratings). But all are legitimate companies that provide quality service.
ExpressVPN is based in the British Virgin Islands which, although a British Overseas Territory, isn’t beholden to the strict data retention laws of the UK’s Investigatory Powers Act. If you’re after anonymous payment options, you can buy your subscription with bitcoin if you wish – and if you don’t want to, then ExpressVPN has a clearly stated no-logging policy. This has been put to the test by the Turkish authorities, who seized endpoint servers last December, and found no logs.
TorGuard was consistently one of the fastest services we tested. When we averaged three tests performed at different times of the week with Internet Health Test, TorGuard was the fastest service when connecting in the UK and Asia, the second fastest in the US, and the third fastest in Central Europe. OVPN was the next most consistent, but that company’s small network doesn’t have any servers in Asia, and it ranked fifth in the UK. Our top pick, IVPN, was the third most consistently fast after TorGuard and OVPN. However, we tested with each app’s default settings—since we expect most people won’t change them—and TorGuard’s default 128-bit encryption gives it an advantage in speed tests over VPNs that default to 256-bit encryption, as most services do. Still, we think 128-bit encryption is fine for most people who prioritize speed, and TorGuard’s consistency makes it a good value as our budget pick.
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.
One way to resolve the issue of trust is to be your own VPN provider, but that’s not a feasible option for most people, and it still requires trust in any company providing the hardware that your VPN would run on, such as Amazon’s cloud services. Multiple projects can help you cheaply turn any old server into a VPN, including Algo, Streisand, and Outline. By encrypting all the traffic from your home or mobile device to a server you manage, you deprive your ISP and a potentially villainous VPN of all your juicy traffic logs. But most people lack the skills, patience, or energy—or some combination of the three—to do this. If you don’t manage servers or work in IT, it may be harder to manage perfect operation and performance better than trustworthy professionals. Lastly, though you remove one threat from the equation by cutting out a VPN service provider, you also lose the extra layer of privacy that comes from your traffic mixing in with that of hundreds or thousands of other customers.
Hotspot Shield depends on a custom VPN protocol that's not been publicly analyzed by independent experts. We don't know how private or secure it really is. The company has been accused of spying on users (it denies the allegations), and complaints abound online about Hotspot Shield software installing on PCs without users' permission. All this, and the company's U.S. location, may scare away customers who want to protect their privacy.
Google is full of articles claiming that a VPN will prevent ISPs from gathering metadata, but unfortunately that is not true. A VPN hides the contents of your internet traffic and your location from the outside world, but you still have to rely on your ISP’s network to get there. Strictly speaking a VPN cannot prevent an ISP from logging your location, device details, and traffic volume.
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.
Hopefully, you’re not a candidate for government surveillance, but who knows. Remember, a VPN protects against your internet service provider seeing your browsing history. So you’re protected if a government agency asks your internet service provider to supply records of your internet activity. Assuming your VPN provider doesn’t log your browsing history (some VPN providers do), your VPN can help protect your internet freedom.
VPNs can be either remote-access (connecting a computer to a network) or site-to-site (connecting two networks). In a corporate setting, remote-access VPNs allow employees to access their company's intranet from home or while traveling outside the office, and site-to-site VPNs allow employees in geographically disparate offices to share one cohesive virtual network. A VPN can also be used to interconnect two similar networks over a dissimilar middle network; for example, two IPv6 networks over an IPv4 network.
It’s also a great way to enjoy unlimited streaming and outstanding security without committing to an expensive plan. After all, if you want to understand why people love VPNs without paying, you shouldn’t use a slow, spammy, free program. Instead, try a great service like ExpressVPN or NordVPN for free. If you love it as much as these real users did, keep it – and if not, cancelling your trial is easy.
ExpressVPN scored well in our recent round of testing in terms of speed – we recorded around 8.5MB/s (68Mbit/s) via both FTP and HTTP in the UK, while Dutch endpoints gave us 6.3MB/s (50.4Mbit/s) via FTP and 7MB/s (56Mbit/s) via HTTP, more than enough for general browsing, streaming and downloading. US connection speeds, as you’d expect, were rather slower at 2.5MB/s (20Mbit/s) via FTP and a good 3.2MB/s (25.6Mbit/s) over HTTP.
We subsidize our free version by displaying advertisements and we do not collect or sell your personally identifiable information. Our free version provides the same basic level of protection that is included in our paid plans. If you would like to remove the ads and get additional benefits, then you can upgrade to Hotspot Shield Premium. When people upgrade to our premium version, it provides additional revenue to keep our service running smoothly.
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.
Providers can also log less-specific data about when or how often you connect to your VPN service. In some cases, these logs are a routine part of server or account management, and can be responsibly separated and scrubbed. In other cases, VPN providers take note of every connection and use that information to actively police individual customers. Though it’s reasonable for companies to protect their networks from abuse, it becomes a dealbreaker when companies keep extensive connection data for a longer period of time. Some VPN companies we spoke with explained how a log might note your current connection for authentication purposes, but that log is deleted as soon as you disconnect. This kind of “live log” isn’t a concern, and even those culled every few hours—or as long as the end of each day—shouldn’t be confused with logs of your traffic and online destinations.
NordVPN operates servers in over 50 countries with 12 in Asia Pacific. Torrenting is allowed on all servers. It’s on par with ExpressVPN when it comes to unblocking streaming services. It can bypass the Netflix proxy firewall in the US and Australia alike. It keeps zero logs of any kind and is based in Panama, where it is not subject to any data retention laws. NordVPN also offers special servers optimized for privacy and high-speed downloads, such as ultra-fast streaming, double hop VPN, Tor over VPN, and anti-DDoS.
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.
My recommendation, and the protocol I most often choose to use, is OpenVPN. OpenVPN is a non-proprietary, open-source implementation of a VPN communication layer protocol. It's well-understood, well-regarded, generally quite secure, and robust. In addition, it has the benefit of being able to communicate over port 443, which is the standard port for https communication, which means almost all firewalls will allow OpenVPN traffic -- and most won't even be able to detect that a VPN is being used.
IVPN goes further than the other leading candidates we considered by being transparent about who runs the service and is responsible for your privacy. The company lists its core team on its website, and its small team has an online presence on a variety of platforms. In contrast, only one employee at ExpressVPN has a public face: VP of marketing Harold Li gave us detailed answers to questions about policies and internal security, but couldn’t tell us much about who else worked there. (We discuss ExpressVPN in more detail in the Competition section—that company was almost our top pick but for this issue.)
While individuals are ultimately responsible for the information they share, having an extra layer of protection is highly recommended. We’re delighted that NordVPN has become our first official cyber security partner. With so much information constantly shared online, we’re committed to introducing greater levels of protection to secure the confidential data of our fans.
Websites using Google Analytics and various advertising networks can very well track and identify visitors based on a variety of different inputs with their browser (see browser fingerprinting). Therefore it’s best to use a VPN in conjunction with a secure browser configured for more privacy. See my guides: secure browser (an overview of different browsers) and also Firefox privacy, which deals with privacy configurations, tweaks, and add-ons.
Cost: To be billed every 7 days, you can subscribe to ZenVPN on a weekly basis for $2.95, which is equivalent to around $11.80/month. Another option is to just buy it a month at a time for $5.95/month. A third option is to buy a whole year at once (for $49.95) for what comes out to be $4.16/month. The unlimited option is more expensive, at $5.95/week, $9.95/month or $7.96/month if you pay $95.50 for the whole year.
VPNs initially are corporate networks ensuring safely encrypted connections between the company server and the employees. These systems give colleagues who are in different departments the possibility of collaborating without physical contact. VPNs are helpful and assist in office maintenance by allowing their employees to work from anywhere in the world or remotely in the comfort of their homes. The application and use of VPN technologies were started by the Chinese who were after getting the around the restrictions of the great firewall.
The free version won’t give you much mileage for streaming mind, which is perhaps just as well. Frustratingly, both BBC iPlayer and U.S. Netflix clocked that we were using a VPN, and stopped us from getting the goods. But if streaming isn’t why you’re seeking out a VPN, and you mainly need one for anonymised web browsing and downloads, then Kaspersky Secure Connection is ideal.
ExpressVPN is another highly-rated premium VPN service that has been praised for its customer service and includes all the features you'd expect from a top-rated VPN such as unlimited bandwidth, unlimited speed, and strong encryption. You're able to connect up to three devices simultaneously via ExpressVPNs thousands of servers in more than 94 different countries.
For example, when your computer is connected to a VPN, the computer acts as if it's also on the same network as the VPN. All of your online traffic is transferred over a secure connection to the VPN. The computer will then behave as if it's on that network, allowing you to securely gain access to local network resources. Regardless of your location, you'll be given permission to use the internet as if you were present at the VPN's location. This can be extremely beneficial for individuals using a public Wi-Fi.