Using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) when you're online is becoming increasingly important these days. While the internet is a public space, a VPN acts like an invisibility cloak and makes your online activity virtually anonymous, making it hard for someone to track you when you're online — whether you're concerned about your internet service provider, the government, or malicious hackers.
You've heard the advice before: Whether you're in the office or on the road, a VPN is one of the best ways to protect yourself on the internet. But how effective are VPNs? What's the best one for you? What are the downsides? Our executive guide aims to answer all your VPN-related questions -- including a few you probably haven't thought about before.
The VPN services market has exploded in the past few years, and a small competition has turned into an all-out melee. Many providers are capitalizing on the general population's growing concerns about surveillance and cybercrime, which means it's getting hard to tell when a company is actually providing a secure service and when it's throwing out a lot of fancy words while selling snake oil. In fact, since VPN services have become so popular in the wake of Congress killing ISP privacy rules, there have even been fake VPNs popping up, so be careful. It's important to keep a few things in mind when evaluating which VPN service is right for you: reputation, performance, type of encryption used, transparency, ease of use, support, and extra features. Don't just focus on price or speed, though those are important factors.
If you don’t mind doing a little extra tinkering in a more complicated app to save some money, we recommend TorGuard because it’s trustworthy, secure, and fast. TorGuard is well-regarded in trust and transparency; it was also the fastest service we tried despite being less expensive than much of the competition, and its server network spans more than 50 locations, more than twice as many as our top pick. But TorGuard’s apps aren’t as easy to use as IVPN’s: TorGuard includes settings and labels that allow extra flexibility but clutter the experience for anyone new to VPNs. And unlike IVPN, TorGuard doesn’t natively support OpenVPN connections on iOS, making it a significantly worse choice on Apple devices than it is if you use Windows, ChromeOS, or Android.
Don't mistake the cartoony layout of the TunnelBear VPN Android app — it's a simple-to-use app that offers serious VPN protection. You can create an account for free, which gives you 500MB of secure data a month but we'd recommend checking out a paid subscription that lets you connect up to five different devices at a time to servers in 20 different countries.
That said, many VPN providers are based outside the US, which complicates enforcement. Jerome continued: “Users can file complaints in a local jurisdiction, and local data protection laws may have more effective enforcement mechanisms. For example, privacy and confidentiality of communications are fundamental rights in the European Union. Data protection authorities in EU-member states are empowered to handle complaints brought by individuals and then provide users with information about the outcome of any investigation. But it is unclear how effective any of these remedies will be.”
We summarize the protocols above, and look at them in detail in VPN Encryption: The Complete Guide. Although L2TP/IPsec is fine for most purposes, we only really recommend OpenVPN and IKEv2. OpenVPN is very secure if properly configured. Indeed, Edward Snowden’s documents showed that even the NSA can’t crack well-implemented OpenVPN. It is also supported by almost every provider. But it is relatively slow. The newer IKEv2 is much faster and is considered secure, but has not been battle-tested in the way that OpenVPN has. It is not as well supported at present, although it is increasingly popular with providers thanks to its speed advantages over OpenVPN.
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.
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:
In the most recent round of testing, we've also looked at how many virtual servers a given VPN company uses. A virtual server is just what it sounds like—a software-defined server running on server hardware that might have several virtual servers onboard. The thing about virtual servers is that they can be configured to appear as if they are in one country when they are actually being hosted somewhere else. That's an issue if you're especially concerned about where you web traffic is traveling. It's a bit worrisome to choose one location and discover you're actually connected somewhere else entirely.
Avast SecureLine VPN offers good overall performance and steady connections, and it was the best of the limited-feature services we tested in 2017. But at $80 per year for software installation on five devices, it's more expensive than any full-fledged VPN service that doesn't limit installations. A single Mac or PC license is $60, while iOS or Android licenses are $20 each.
Hide Your Browsing Activity From Your Local Network and ISP: If you’re using a public Wi-Fi connection, your browsing activity on non-HTTPS websites is visible to everyone neraby, if they know how to look. If you want to hide your browsing activity for a bit more privacy, you can connect to a VPN. The local network will only see a single, secure VPN connection. All the other traffic will travel over the VPN connection. While this can be used to bypass connection-monitoring by your Internet service provider, bear in mind that VPN providers may opt to log the traffic on their ends.
ExpressVPN has 148 locations in 94 different countries which means you can dial your IP address into 148 locations around the world. ExpressVPN delivers great performance - and it’s put the effort into its software too, with dedicated apps for Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS, Android and BlackBerry as well as some Smart TVs, Amazon Fire TV Sticks, Apple TV, PS4 and Xbox and even your router. Not only that but there are solid online tutorials too, so even if VPNs are dark magic to you they’ll have you up and running in no time. P2P is fully supported and it's super speedy so you can torrent using the maximum bandwidth of your broadband connection and there’s a kill switch that keeps your IP address hidden if anything goes wrong with the VPN or with your internet connection. ExpressVPN is reasonably priced, delivers a good service and has support for three simultaneous connections. There’s no free trial available but there is a no-fuss 30-day money back guarantee if the service doesn’t meet your requirements so that's a good way to test it out if you're unsure. We have used the 24/7 customer service a number of times and can vouch for its effectiveness - we had a couple of issues with using the service on a PC and were able to sort it within a few minutes using the instant online chat support.
Hands down, ExpressVPN is the number one most highly-acclaimed VPN service on the market, and it’s no secret why. With a massive amount of servers, great deals, and superior quality service, ExpressVPN blows the competition clear out of the water. In case you’re a see it to believe it kind of shopper, ExpressVPN lets you test drive the service with its 30-day money-back guarantee. Don’t like it? You’ll get your money back, no questions asked. For real.
A good VPN will have plenty of servers spread out over a large number of locations and countries, and you generally want a service that's based not in your own country or in a country that's good friends with the one you live in. Support for OpenVPN, the current standard for VPN protocols, is preferred, and you want to be able to connect multiple devices simultaneously.
Price-wise, Norton WiFi Privacy is pretty generous, too. A one-year subscription (for one device only), costs just £19.99 for the first year, and a 5-connection account costs £29.99 per year. However, the price jumps up after the first year, to £39.99 for 1 device and £59.99 for 5 devices. That’s still better than some, mind, but you may want to disable auto renewal, just in case.
When we test VPNs, we generally start with the Windows client. This is often the most complete review, covering several different platforms as well as the service's features and pricing in depth. That's purely out of necessity, since most of our readers use Windows (although this writer is currently using a MacBook Air). We currently use a Lenovo ThinkPad T460s laptop running the latest version of Windows 10. We periodically upgrade to a newer machine, in order to simulate what most users experience.
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.
The service’s no logs policy means that it does not store user online activity data and promises not to release them unless required by law, ensuring that your information is in safe hands. What sets this service apart from others is its refund policy. Users are able to use it for up to 10 hours or 10GB of bandwith and still get a refund, a far more generous policy than what others have to offer.
Using a VPN can also let you appear to be anywhere in the world that has a VPN server to connect with, allowing the streaming of content in unapproved places. While traveling in China, Azerbaijan and other places, I’ve logged onto a US-based VPN server to watch Hulu and Netflix programs rather than the hotel’s lame pay-per-view movies. To the servers, I appeared to be in the U.S. and able to stream content.
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.
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.
A lot of people started using a VPN to evade geo-restrictions. But despite its forbidden benefits to users outside the US, a VPN is a great tool that can protect you and enhance your online experience over the internet by providing you with sufficient security and privacy. When it comes to selecting the best VPN, you have plenty of choices. There are many cost-effective VPN options, and all of them will vary in monthly offerings. Choosing the best VPN is easier once you narrow down the competition. The best indication of a good VPN service provider is that they have the right security and the right support in place for you.