As we previously noted, we don’t recommend relying on our picks to get around geographic restrictions on copyrighted content. The practice is likely illegal, and it violates the terms of service of your ISP, VPN, and content provider. On top of that, it often doesn’t work—we couldn’t access Netflix over any of the services we tried, and of the four streams we loaded on BBC iPlayer, only two worked a few days later.
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.
For local VPN issues, you have a couple of options. First, consider installing VPN software on your router and not using a VPN on your local machines. Alternatively, many VPN services offer browser plug-ins that only encrypt your browser traffic. That's not ideal from a security perspective, but it's useful when all you need to secure is your browser information.
ExpressVPN has a wide range of client software, a dedicated proxy service for streaming media and its own DNS service. But in our 2017 tests, it dropped many connections and its overall performance was in the middle of the pack. It also allows only three devices to be connected simultaneously per account, and it's one of the most expensive services we evaluated.
Whether the VPNs you’re familiar with are the ones offered by your school or business to help you work or stay connected when you’re traveling or the ones you pay to get you watch your favorite shows in another country as they air, they’re all doing the same thing. For much more detail on what VPNs are, how they work, and how they’re used, check out this How Stuff Works article.
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.
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.
If you’re not looking to take advantage of its Channel Bonding functionality, users still benefit from a few tools designed to ensure users have a stable connection at all times. This includes its error correction algorithm that reduces packet loss and its automated, seamless network switching that acts as a failsafe should users step out of WiFi range or their primary connection fails.
Anti-Malware/Anti-Spyware Features: Using a VPN doesn’t mean you’re invulnerable. You should still make sure you’re using HTTPS whenever possible, and you should still be careful about what you download. Some VPN service providers—especially mobile ones—bundle their clients with anti-malware scanners to make sure you’re not downloading viruses or trojans. When you’re shopping, see if the providers you’re interested in offer anti-malware protection while you’re connected. For example, previously mentioned Hotspot Shield offers malware protection to its premium users. It may not be a dealbreaker for you, but it’s always good to have someone watching your back.
These folks have been around since 2010, and don't log anything. They provide a generous five connections, a connection kill switch feature, and some good online documentation and security guidance. Our one disappointment is that their refund policy is 7-days instead of 30, but you can certainly get a feel for their excellent performance in the space of a week.