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.
Think about all the times you’ve been on the go, reading emails while in line at the coffee shop, or checking your bank account while waiting at the doctor’s office. Unless you were logged into a private Wi-Fi network that requires a password, any data transmitted during your online session could be vulnerable to eavesdropping by strangers using the same network.
When we say that in theory VPNs can’t be intercepted, that’s because VPNs are like any other form of security: if you use them on a device that’s already been compromised by malware such as keyloggers or other security threats then they can’t do their job properly. If you’re on Windows, then good quality, up to date anti-virus software isn’t a luxury. It’s absolutely essential.
Although it has a no logs policy, the vendor collects user activity data and could opt to share them with third parties. The service can be used for torrenting but the company warns against copyright infringements. One weak spot is the service’s customer support. It has no live chat support and it takes more than 24 hours to get a reply. However, a knowledge base is available in the company’s website.
VPNs can make your browsing private, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re anonymous. VPN services can and do log traffic (even the ones that say they don’t log do need to log some information, or they wouldn’t be able to function properly), and those logs can be requested by the authorities. Think of a VPN as being like curtains: people can’t peek through your curtains if you’ve got them closed, but curtains won’t hide your house.
DNS servers are a bit like the phone books of the Internet: You can type in “thewirecutter.com,” for instance, and one of the many DNS servers behind the scenes can point you to the IP address of a server hosting the site. Most of the time, your DNS requests automatically route through your ISP, giving the ISP an easy way to monitor your traffic. Some VPN services rely on third-party DNS servers, but the best ones keep DNS servers in-house to prevent your browsing history, or your IP address, from getting out.
Free VPN Providers are more likely to log your activities and serve contextual ads while you’re connected. They’re also more likely to use your usage habits to tailor future ads to you, have fewer exit locations, and weak commitments to privacy. They may offer great features, but if logging and privacy are important to you, you may want to avoid them. However, if you just need quick, painless security while traveling on a budget, they’re a great option.
Private Internet Access' client interfaces aren't as flashy or cutesy as some other services' software, but they're clear and simple enough for newbies to start right away. A toggle switch reveals all the settings a VPN expert would ever want to play with. You can also skip Private Internet Access' software and connect directly to the servers, or use a third-party OpenVPN client.
When we took at look at your five favorite VPN service providers, we noticed a few things. First, being the “best” is big business for VPN providers, and they’ll fight dirty to be one of them. Second, there are so many VPN providers that it’s difficult to choose a really good one. VPNs are not all created equally, and in this post, we’re going to look at what a VPN is, why you want one, and how to pick the best one for you. Let’s get started.
Obfuscation – Obfuscation is a key feature if you are using a VPN in China, schools, work networks, or anywhere that VPNs may be blocked. However, if you are not in a restricted network situation, obfuscation is generally not necessary and may impact performance. (See the best VPN for China guide for a great selection of VPNs with built-in obfuscation features.)
An impressive and fast VPN service, Buffered VPN offers total online security and world-class customer support. The service boasts of providing access to content from any country in the world. This is achieved through the service’s server locations in 45 countries. It supports Windows, Linux and Mac platforms, but can also be set up on Android and iOS. The service offers excellent latencies and fast upload speeds, very good for browsing.
To narrow the hundreds of VPN providers down to a manageable list, we first looked at reviews from dedicated sites like vpnMentor and TorrentFreak, research and recommendations from noncommercial sources such as That One Privacy Site and privacytools.io, and user experiences and tips on various subreddits and technology-focused websites like Lifehacker and Ars Technica. We settled on 32 VPNs that were repeatedly recommended. From there, we dug into the details of how each one handled issues from technology to subscriptions:
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.
Routers – When you install the VPN on your router, all the devices that connect to your router will be using the encrypted VPN tunnel – without the need to install VPN software on each device. The router will only count as one VPN connection under your subscription, even if there are numerous devices using the router’s encrypted VPN connection. There are some important considerations before you do this – see my popular VPN router guide for setup tips.
NordVPN’s customer service is also quite good. They offer 24/7 live chat support directly through their website and many support guides and tutorials. Right now NordVPN is extending the 75% discount price exclusively for three-year plans. All subscriptions come with a 30 day money-back guarantee, allowing you to try the service risk free. [Learn more >]
ExpressVPN is also one of the best VPNs for streaming. Whether you are using a VPN with Kodi or streaming Netflix with a VPN, ExpressVPN offers great apps for streaming devices and high-capacity bandwidth for HD videos and downloads. Their customer service is also top-notch, with 24/7 live chat support and a 30 day money-back guarantee with all subscription plans. [Learn more >]
A VPN client is software that runs on your device in order to securely connect it to a VPN server. All major platforms (Windows, macOS, Android, iOS, and Linux) come with a built-in VPN client that can be configured manually, although OpenVPN always requires a third party client to be installed. Most VPN services now offer custom clients and apps, which are the easiest way to use their service as they come pre-configured with all the correct settings. They also typically offer a range of funky and useful features that are not available by simply manually configuring the built-in VPN client. To clear up any confusion, a ''VPN client'' and a ''VPN app'' are exactly the same thing. Traditionally, the word client is used for desktop software and the word app for mobile software, but it is becoming increasingly common to talk about VPN apps on the desktop. The terms are interchangeable.
Every service we tested accepts payment via credit card, PayPal, and Bitcoin. That’s plenty of options for most people, and you can always use a prepaid debit card if you don’t want your billing information tied to your VPN account. IVPN and OVPN are the only ones to accept cash payment through the mail, if you really don’t want to make a payment online. Private Internet Access and TorGuard accept gift cards from other companies—IVPN doesn’t, but that option isn’t worth the additional hassle for many people when other secure, private methods are available.
When purchasing VPN service from a provider, consider whether you will need customer service. Read reviews and look at what kind of support the VPN host will provide for customers. Some hosts may only offer phone support while others may also offer chat or email support. It’s important to find a service which offers customer support that you are most comfortable using. You can also search for reviews within a search engine (such as Google) in order to better evaluate the quality of customer support.
Cost - VPNs aren't too pricey, but they vary from vendor to vendor. If your main concern is price, then go with something inexpensive, or free - like Spotflux Premium VPN or AnchorFree HotSpot Shield Elite. By all means, try a free server but they do have a few drawbacks since they attract a lot of users. Free servers are often slower, and since most are ad-supported, they place adverts on the online pages you access. Others can even limit the speed of your connection, as well as your online time or amount of data transferred.