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.
One of today’s leading VPN providers and another worthy mention on our list of top 20 VPN services, PureVPN is known for its service quality and customer support. The service has 450 servers in 101 countries, allowing users to surf the Internet and use any online solution without having to reveal their IP address. This is very useful to those who want to bypass Internet censorship.
Best for Frequent Flyers (VPN Anywhere): The name Hide My Ass (HMA) speaks for itself and can protect your data, identity and ultimately your derriere in a variety of far-flung places. Owned by security software company Avast, the HMA Pro VPN service has an extraordinary geographic scope with 900 servers in 190 countries, including Russia and Albania. The VPN service can obscure your location, protect data traffic and shuffle its IP addresses for greater anonymity. It lacks a firewall or ad blocker, though. There’s software for PCs (Vista, 7, 8, 10) and Macs (OSX 10.5), iOS and Android systems as well as some open-source routers. An HMA account supports up to five simultaneous users. Its blue and white interface is small and lets you choose among Instant Mode (one-click connect), Location Mode (pick your server) or Freedom Mode (the closest free-speech friendly country). Unlike PIA, you select a user name. At $12 a month, it’s more expensive than PIA but a full year costs $5 a month. Its UK headquarters means that HMA’s logs should be beyond the reach of American spy agencies.
Even if a company is at fault for deceptive marketing practices, it still has to comply with legal requests for whatever information it does have. Jerome told us, “In the U.S., however, there is a big difference between a request for data regularly stored for business purposes and a demand that a company retain information. VPN providers are not required to keep records just in case law enforcement might need them some day.” That means many companies could provide a list of their customers, but if they practice what they preach when it comes to no-logging policies, innocent customers looking for privacy shouldn’t get swept up in these requests.
With VPNs you can access streaming services which are usually blocked to overseas viewers. You can do this by simply connecting to a VPN server in the appropriate country. Unsurprisingly, both Netflix and BBC iPlayer attempt to block VPN users. These blocks are often ineffective, and many providers have found ways around them. For more information about unblocking the most common services see our VPN for Netflix and VPN for BBC iPlayer guides.
The number and distribution of those servers is also important. The more places a VPN has to offer, the more options you have to spoof your location! More importantly, having numerous servers in diverse locales means that no matter where you go on Earth you'll be able to find a nearby VPN server. The closer the VPN server, the better the speed and reliability of the connection it can offer you. Remember, you don't need to connect to a far-flung VPN server in order to gain security benefits. For most purposes, a server down the street is as safe as one across the globe.
A proxy server is another way to conceal your real location. By transferring data through a proxy server the data appears to be going to that server, not you - so for example if you’re in the US and the proxy is in Switzerland, the website or service will think it’s talking to a machine in Switzerland. The main difference is that VPNs protect all your traffic while proxies tend to be limited to specific types of data, such as peer to peer networking or web browsing.
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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.
Perfect Privacy is a 100% no logs and enforces no limits of any kind – unlimited devices and unlimited bandwidth. Their network is composed entirely of dedicated, bare-metal servers that offer fast speeds, high security, and lots of bandwidth (see real-time server bandwidth here). Like ExpressVPN, Perfect Privacy has also passed real-world tests that verified their no logging claims when one of their servers was seized in Rotterdam (customer data remained safe).
The downloader. Whether they’re downloading legally or illegally, this person doesn’t want on some company’s witch-hunt list just because they have a torrenting app installed on their computer. VPNs are the only way to stay safe when using something like BitTorrent—everything else is just a false sense of security. Better safe than trying to defend yourself in court or paying a massive fine for something you may or may not have even done, right?
While you're connected to a VPN, all your network traffic passes through this protected tunnel, and no one—not even your ISP—can see your traffic until it exits the tunnel from the VPN server and enters the public internet. If you make sure to only connect to websites secured with HTTPS, your data will continue to be encrypted even after it leaves the VPN.
Also, do be aware that some broadcasters have developed increasingly sophisticated methods to determine whether the IP address you represent is the IP address where you're located. The VPN may be able to protect your original IP address from being seen, but there are characteristics of proxy communications (like a slightly longer time to transfer packets) that can be used to identify users who are trying to bypass watching restrictions.
We contacted each of our finalists with simple questions about its service and troubleshooting. Most VPN companies provide technical support through online ticketing systems, meaning you’ll need to wait for a response. This means that self-help support sites are even more important, since waiting for a reply while your connection is down can be frustrating. Response times to our support inquiries ranged from 20 minutes to a day.
A mix of features and price make a good VPN, but plenty of bad VPNs masquerade as good ones. Look for articles written by trustworthy sources that discuss the merits of each service based on its features, versus simple rundowns and user testimonials, which are almost always polluted by a combination of fanatical users and corporate bootstrapping in attempt to get their names out to potential customers.
I recommend always using a VPN when using someone else's Wi-Fi network. Here's a good rule of thumb: If you're away from the office or home, and you're using someone else's Wi-Fi (even that of a family member or a friend, because you never know if they've been compromised), use a VPN. It's particularly important if you're accessing a service that has personally identifying information. Remember, a lot goes on behind the scenes, and you never really know if one or more of your apps are authenticating in the background and putting your information at risk.
We also like how easy it is to connect, and how clear and accessible the settings are, on all platforms when using the IVPN app. (ChromeOS has an option to use a less-secure VPN protocol with most providers, including IVPN. But TorGuard, our budget pick, supports the more secure OpenVPN on Chromebooks and tablets.) If you do want to tweak some settings, IVPN has easy-to-understand checkboxes for most options. For example, the kill switch (labeled “firewall”) has an easy on/off toggle. Anytime it’s on and the app is open, all traffic in and out of your computer will cut off if you forget to connect to the service or the secure connection drops for some reason.
CyberGhost is transparent about its company structure, posting photos and bios on its website of everyone from the CEO to the cleaning lady, and privacy fanatics will like that the company is based in Romania rather than the U.S. But CyberGhost's full-service subscription price is among the most expensive month by month — it's far better to just pay for a year at a time.
A popular VPN service, TorGuard has servers in over 50 countries and enables users to unblock websites and get around censorship. This ensures that wherever you are in the world, there is bound to be a TorGuard server near you. By default, the service enables users to make five simultaneous connections. This lets users run the service on all their devices. To better protect users, the service has a kill switch. However, this feature is not available on mobile devices. Likewise, a Domain Name System leak protection works on Windows and OS X.
If you don't know what Kodi is, you're not alone. However, an analysis of searches leading to our site reveals that a surprising number of you are, in fact looking for VPN that works with the mysterious Kodi. Dictionary.com defines Kodi as a possible misspelling of "Jodi," but PCMag analyst Ben Moore clarified for me that Kodi is "free, open-source software for managing your local collection of movies, television shows, music, and photos."
HotSpot Shield is a product that has had some ups and downs in terms of our editorial coverage. Back in 2016, they picked up some very positive coverage based on founder David Gorodyansky comments about protecting user privacy. Then, in 2017, a privacy group accused the company of spying on user traffic, an accusation the company flatly denies. Finally, just this year, ZDNet uncovered a flaw in the company's software that exposed users. Fortunately, that was fixed immediately.