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.)
Once you are in the digital world, you must remember that without using the VPN, your IP address and location are available to the entire Internet. Moreover, every device you use has a personal IP-address, through which you can be easily found, as well as all your online activity, can be tracked. When using VPN, you get different solutions including anonymity, maximum protection of your data, the ability to bypass geo-blocking, censorship and bothersome advertising. The virtual private network server to which you are connecting encrypts your traffic and assigns your device a new IP address. Thus, in the online world, you will be in complete safety. Hackers and third parties will not be able to track your traffic, data or determine your actual location.
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.
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.
When we initially researched and tested VPNs for this guide in early 2018, technical and legal reasons prevented app developers from using the OpenVPN protocol in apps released through Apple’s iOS app store. During 2018, both the technical and licensing hurdles were removed, and VPN providers started adding OpenVPN connections to their iOS apps. We’ve already noted that our top pick, IVPN, has added it, as have ExpressVPN and PIA. In a future update, we’ll specifically test these upgraded iOS apps, but in the meantime the updated IVPN app has worked as promised for several Wirecutter staffers who use it regularly. Because this OpenVPN support makes it much easier for anyone with Apple devices to create a reliably secure VPN connection, we wouldn’t recommend a service without it to anyone with an iPhone or iPad.
Most Secure (Double Encrypted Data): By using a map of the world to show VPN servers, NordVPN is among the easiest security apps to use: just pick a spot and click to connect. With more than 5,200 connection points, NordVPN has servers in 62 countries, in places like Egypt, Russia and Turkey. You can use NordVPN with Windows 7, 8 and 10, Mac OSX (10.10 or newer), Android, iOS, Chrome and Linux systems as well as some routers and smart TVs. While PIA and HMA go small, NordVPN’s app can run full screen with its connection map on the right and a server list on the left. You can pick a specific server or the area’s fastest. In addition to NordVPN’s Double VPN option that encrypts data twice, Cybersec can block annoying ads as well as prevent going to malicious and phishing sites. Unlike PIA, NordVPN lets you choose your user name. With headquarters in Panama, NordVPN is beyond the reach of American spy agencies and the company doesn’t keep a log to worry about. At $12 per month or $7 a month over a year, NordVPN is expensive compared to PIA, but allows 6, not 5, simultaneous users. With NordVPN, connecting is as simple as clicking on a map.
Since December 2017, when the FCC decided to burn Net Neutrality to the ground, more and more people have become obsessed with online privacy (or lack thereof). Your internet provider can choose to slow down your internet if they want, and they could also go after sites like Netflix and demand money for offering high viewing speeds. And keeping your illegal stream or questionable search history private? Forget about it.
When purchasing VPN service from a provider, consider what platform you will use. Do you want to use mobile devices or your computer? If you travel a lot and the use of mobile devices such as smartphones or tablets is important to you, then ensure that your chosen VPN host supports such a connection or even provides apps for your specific mobile devices.
Not all mobile VPN apps are created equal. In fact, most VPN providers offer different services (and sometimes, different servers) for their mobile offerings than they do for their desktop counterparts. We're pleased to see that NordVPN and Private Internet Access provide the same excellent selection of servers regardless of platform. These apps received an Editors' Choice nod both for desktop VPN apps and Android VPN apps.
OpenVPN: OpenVPN is very secure, open-source and widely used. Most VPN services support it, but except for Chrome OS and Linux, few operating systems do. This protocol can be used in either TCP (web) or UDP (streaming) mode; the latter is sloppier but faster. You'll need either the VPN service's client software or one of the many free alternatives. Either way, you'll still need to pay for the VPN service.
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.
Some VPNs offer great service or pricing but little to no insight into who exactly is handling them. We considered feedback from security experts, including the information security team at The New York Times (parent company of Wirecutter), about whether you could trust even the most appealing VPN if the company wasn’t willing to disclose who stood behind it. After careful consideration, we decided we’d rather give up other positives—like faster speeds or extra convenience features—if it meant knowing who led or owned the company providing our connections. Given the explosion of companies offering VPN services and the trivial nature of setting one up as a scam, having a public-facing leadership team—especially one with a long history of actively fighting for online privacy and security—is the most concrete way a company can build trust.
Price: Free TorVPN users are limited to 1GB/mo downloaded before they’re cut off, and Premium accounts start at 5 EUR/mo ($7mo) for 5GB/mo and go up to 30 EUR/mo ($38/mo) for 100GB. Keep in mind they have a no-refunds policy, and that even though you ride the Tor network, they’re a separate entity from the Tor Project. You can read more about their pricing and plans here.
I was trying to torrent a UFC event that I happened to miss recently, 500+ seeders and 200+ leechers for a 720p recording. Not the best ratio, but certainly doable considering. The download wouldn't even start. CyberGhost does have an option for torrenting servers specifically, but they're always "busy" and they use the term "too popular" as if that's some sort of excuse. I've used the program for a few days and I'm going to get a refund as soon as humanly possible.
A VPN can protect your devices, including desktop computer, laptop, tablet, and smart phone from prying eyes. Your devices can be prime targets for cybercriminals when you access the internet, especially if you’re on a public Wi-Fi network. In short, a VPN helps protect the data you send and receive on your devices so hackers won’t be able to watch your every move.
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.
The TorGuard Windows client was easy to install and made quick work of connecting to a VPN server, including the ability to choose a server location prior to connecting. The internet speed on our test system dropped from our usual 125 Mb/s download to 53 Mb/s, and our upload ran at 17 Mb/s compared to our usual 20 Mb/s. That’s not the best performance in our testing, but all internet services that we tested worked without a hitch, including Netflix and Amazon Prime Video.
Nevertheless, the point of a VPN is to remain private and to have your internet activity kept as private as possible. For that reason, we’re choosing Mullvad as the best overall VPN (see our full review of Mullvad). The company recently released an overhauled desktop client, and the VPN does a great job at privacy. Mullvad doesn’t ask for your email address, and you can mail your payment in cash if you want to. Like many other VPNs, Mullvad has a no-logging policy and doesn’t even collect any identifying metadata from your usage.
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.
A powerful VPN service, Hotspot Shield is ideal for those who enjoy using public Wi-Fi. It is basically a free VPN that comes in the form of an application or as a browser extension. Security is assured as the service uses OpenVPN , which makes use of the same encryption as HTTPS does. This feature is particularly effective in protecting credit card information during online purchases.
When choosing your VPN, do your research and mind the legal aspects. Countries like Germany, France or Japan are cracking down on copyright infringement, while the members of the 14 Eyes treaty have draconian data retention laws and extensive surveillance. So, if you’re looking to maximize your privacy, you might want to avoid connecting to servers in those countries.
Whereas most providers say they log nothing, that’s not always the case. Some record very little data like the day you subscribed, the amount of data you’ve consumed, and delete those logs when you end the session. Other providers log your IP address, the servers you used, and store those logs. If they’re based in the US, UK or any other country with data retention laws, they can be compelled to hand over that data to law enforcement.
Cost: This VPN service comes in three plans: Basic, Pro, and Premier, any of which can be purchased on a six month, one year, two-year, or three-year basis. The premier plan is $5.83 /month if you pay all 36 months up front, the professional plan is $4.44/month if you buy all three years at once, and the basic plan is $3.06/month for three years. Basic also lets you pay monthly, for $5.99/month.
Cost: To pay for NordVPN on a monthly basis will cost you $11.95/month. However, you can get it cheaper at $6.99/month if you buy 12 months at once for $83.88 or for $3.99/month when you purchase a 2 year plan for $95.75. Nord is also running a special that allows you to purchase 3 years of service for $2.99/month when you pay the full $107.55 upfront every three years. There's a 30-day money back guarantee and a free 7-day trial option.
In addition to blocking malicious sites and ads, some VPNs also claim to block malware. We don't test the efficacy of these network-based protections, but most appear to be blacklists of sites known to host malicious software. That's great, but don't assume it's anywhere near as good as standalone antivirus. Use this feature to complement, not replace, your antivirus.