The second most common question when travelling (after "Where is the nearest toilet?") is most likely "What's the wifi password?" From the free networks offered in the historic centers of cities and towns, to those in airports, stores, and most cafes and restaurants, wireless internet can be found, often even without password protection, practically everywhere. However, as soon as you connect to such a network, you become immediately visible and vulnerable to all of its users. The only real defense against this is through a virtual private network (VPN).
A VPN serves as a kind of tunnel which connects your device to a specific network. It protects your data, hides your location, and masks your IP address. In so doing, you become not only more anonymous and secure when online, but can also circumvent restrictive internet censorship, or access content which has been geo-blocked.
As these advantages have become known to the general public, VPNs have shed their niche status. Accompanying this growing popularity has been an explosion in the number of providers, each of which promises something better than the rest. Accordingly, selection has become a headache, but to help, we've evaluated 17 providers to find the best, crowning three winners.
ExpressVPN is the most versatile and impressive VPN which we evaluated. Its intuitive user interface makes for easy navigation, while in terms of performance, ExpressVPN lives up to its name, offering (some of) the fastest speeds. This is certainly in some part attributable to its global presence: 3,000 servers spread across 160 locations.
ExpressVPN comes in an elegant desktop client, mobile app, and browser extension. The browser extension was also our top pick for Chrome and Firefox, not only because it creates proxy connections, like most browser-based VPNs, but also serves as a kind of remote control for the desktop client, guaranteeing a highly secure OpenVPN connection.
The only drawback to ExpressVPN is its price, which exceeds the average among our contenders by quite a bit. ExpressVPN (rightfully) views its service as a premium product, and, as a result, wants its users to dig deep into their wallets to utilize it. Other providers cost less than half as much, with some free options also available, leading us to name two additional winners.
Just because NordVPN's 3-year plan costs half as much as ExpressVPN's most affordable subscription package does not mean that the former is only half as good as the latter. With 5,200 servers across 60 countries, NordVPN's server network is both much bigger than that of its rival, and also more concentrated. Compounding this, NordVPN secured first place in our speed ranking, owing to its exceptional upload and download speeds.
This power is embedded in an intuitive and elegant user interface, limited to the core VPN functions and a few extra features, such as integrated adware and malware blockers. The browser extension functions independently of the desktop client, creating an HTTPS-protected proxy tunnel to it which is lightning fast.
NordVPN's greatest shortcoming is its absence of split tunneling, a feature that enables users to select which programs will use the VPN connection they establish. Apart from that, however, our price-performance-winner doesn't really have any blemishes, shining, in large part, owing to its very reasonable 3-year subscription package.
Best Free VPN: Windscribe
Accompanying the popularity of VPNs has been the emergence of more and more free services. The most qualitative and secure options are primarily those which we'd term "freemium", namely, trial versions of subscription services meant to entice prospective users into signing up for a premium account. Windscribe presents a good example of just how well such freemium VPNs can perform on their own.
Users who are willing to register with an email address are treated to 10 GB of data per month (spread across all synced devices). Without an email address, this limit is reduced to 2 GB. The free version restricts access to 10 server locations, which is rather generous in comparison to other free VPNs. These limits should be enough even for basic surfing, whereby for heavy downloading, or streaming, they won't last very long. This shouldn't be too much of a problem though, as Windscribe only allows its streaming servers to be used by paying customers.
The switch from free to premium is particularly easy with Windscribe, since you can personalize your subscription. Customers pay per server location, per month. As a result, sporadic users of VPNs will be very satisfied with Windscribe, whether as a freemium or subscription-based service.
The places on the podium are limited, however, a number of providers have made solid efforts, which are also worthy of commendation. The table below provides an overview of how each VPN provider we looked at fared.
Functional Principle of a VPN
A VPN can serve a variety of functions. Should you have a corporate computer, you most likely already use a VPN to connect to your organization's intranet. The underlying concept is relatively simple: Your computer or device creates a secure tunnel between the company and your computer, irrespective of your physical location, enabling your network connection to function exactly as if you were sitting at the office. The connection between your computer and your company's intranet is encrypted, preventing eavesdroppers from seeing the data that is transmitted.
VPN providers utilize a similar principle. Through the provider's client, you determine which network access point you would like to connect to. Communication between your client and the VPN server is entirely encrypted. The provider's VPN server is configured so that none of the other network users can see you (and vice versa). Each user who connects to a VPN server has the same IP address when surfing, browsing, or streaming while on that network. Since most VPN providers do not save any connection data, it is not possible to trace your VPN activity to your original IP address.
A number of end devices connect to a VPN server using a VPN client, once the provider has made access to both available. This allows all users connected in this manner to securely and anonymously surf the web.
Selection of a VPN Provider
When searching for a VPN service, dozens of providers and hundreds of subscription options are available. Using our price calculator, you can easily filter and sort through all of these and find the best one for your needs.
Below, we discuss the criteria we used for selecting and evaluating the VPN providers in our review.
The most important criterion through which a VPN can be evaluated is its performance. Only when the provider offers adequate download and upload speeds, can the connection which is established be used productively and frequently.
Performance varies significantly depending on how much usage the provider's servers are subject to at any given time. For this reason, we did not evaluate VPN providers based on a single measurement of their speeds, but rather, assessed their performances continuously, over an extended period of time. The table below shows the average download and upload bandwidths of the providers which we examined over the last 365 days:
More information concerning our methodology can be found in our VPN speed ranking.
Establishing a secure connection to the Internet is a VPN client's main purpose. These are typically downloaded from a provider and relate to software which is installed on your computer, smartphone, or tablet. Most of the providers we evaluated offer clients for the two main desktop operating systems, Windows and macOS, as well as the two major mobile operating systems, iOS and Android.
VPN clients for Linux are relatively rare, and those that do exist are based completely on the OpenVPN protocol. OpenVPN offers users of a variety of operating systems an open source client, which allows them to connect to VPN servers. In order for this to function, however, the VPN provider first needs to support the OpenVPN protocol. Additionally, exact information about different VPN servers, and sometimes, certificates, are also needed to ensure secure encryption.
The connection of devices, such as routers, is usually performed through the OpenVPN protocol and selection of a specific server
A number of factors can make or break a VPN provider. One of the most important is definitely the user-friendliness of its VPN client. Here, how the interface is configured and arranged, as well as the ability to set languages are essential. All VPN clients we evaluated are offered in English, however, support for other languages is sporadic.
NordVPN's client's interface is highly intuitive
CyberGhost VPN or Zenmate provide two examples of services which offer very clear interfaces in German. On the main screens of each, only the option to choose a VPN server and an on/off switch are visible.
The interface of Zenmate's Windows client is clear and well-organized
Should you not want to become too entangled in all the hoopla of establishing a VPN connection, a simplified interface is most likely the best way forward. However, for those who want to customize their VPN experience, an expanded interface will be preferred. The latter allows users to set parameters and determine which regularly-used Wlans are trustworthy. Providers which offer both interfaces can appeal to VPN newbies and experts alike.
A protocol determines how two devices communicate with one another. In the case of VPNs, these pertain to the client and the server. At present, four protocols, IKEv2, OpenVPN, L2TP/IPsec, and PPTP dominate the VPN landscape. We've summarized the most important characteristics of each for you in a table to the side. In general, we recommend refraining from using PPTP, which is outdated. Since the discovery of grave security issues with the protocol, even Microsoft, its creator, has warned against its usage. The other three protocols, however, are all equally secure.
AES 256-bit for data, SHA 256 for control messages
AES 256-bit for data, SHA 256 for control messages, 2048-bit SSL/TLS for handshake encryption
AES 128-bit for data, SHA 256 for control messages
Fast, stable, secure, easy-to-install
Fast, safe, easy-to-hide
Easy-to-install, easy-to-hide, good support
Easy-to-install, fast, good support
Lacks support on older platforms
Installation is somewhat complex
Problems with restrictive firewalls
Areas of usage
Windows, macOS, iOS, Android
Windows, macOS, iOS, Android, Linux, routers
Windows, macOS, iOS, Android, Linux, routers
Windows, macOS, iOS, Android, Linux, routers
Security and Privacy
Both security and privacy are closely-related and essential to VPN usage. Privacy, in particular, has become something of a marketing by-word among nearly every VPN provider. NordVPN advertises itself by claiming that "You can hide your IP address and protect your private data from Internet providers, authorities, and cyber criminals." In regards to privacy, ExpressVPN promises "We never save sensitive information, and delete your activity and connection logs", going on to say that they never have any idea about how their customers use their service.
Every provider makes similar claims, promises, or guarantees, only changing a few words here or there. As a result, users should pay close attention not to what is said (or written) in advertising materials, but rather, how these promises are backed up. This can most often be seen in the privacy policies, or terms of service for each provider.
In relation to protocols, security problems are a perennial issue, and can have a sizable impact on privacy. The biggest and most recent problems with these (leaks), are described below:
Despite the use of a VPN tunnel, the domain name system (DNS) of your Internet provider continues to be used. As a result, your actions can be tracked.
If you already use IPv6, this address needs to either be blocked, or switched with an IPv6 address from your provider. Otherwise, every connection can be traced directly back to you.
Under certain conditions, the WebRTC browser plugin reveals your real IP address. A number of means exist for preventing this plugin from displaying your information so easily.
Most providers take a very transparent approach to leaks, and answer related questions in their FAQs. If you aren't entirely convinced, and prefer to assess your provider on your own, there are platforms available for doing so. In the table below, we've provided an overview of reliable and free online services that can be used. The VPN providers in our report did not evidence any leaks during our review.
Apart from ensuring that protocols are fundamentally secure, and that weaknesses are identified and corrected, VPN services have another security duty, namely, ensuring that user anonymity is consistently preserved. The longer one uses a VPN connection, the more likely it becomes that the Internet connection will be lost. Most of the time, this entails a few seconds, however, even these are more than enough cause your VPN tunnel to cave in. The problem arises in that routers automatically re-establish your connection to the Internet, however, without the VPN's 'cover', since it isn't immediately available. During this time, your surfing activity is as clear as day.
To prevent this from happening, most providers integrate a so-called "kill switch" into their clients. This severs your Internet connection the moment that a disturbance to your VPN tunnel is noted. Surfing can only commence once the VPN tunnel has been 'cleared'.
The kill switch function automatically severs your Internet connection when a disturbance is noted to your VPN connection and for security reasons, should always be activated
VPNs don't only offer more secure or anonymous usage of the Internet. One of the most important reasons for their popularity is their ability to unlock geo-blocked streaming content for users anywhere in the world. At the head of this list is US Netflix, access to which only requires (alongside a solid VPN) a valid Netflix account.
If a VPN provider has concealed its US server well, you will be able to connect to Netflix and instantly stream the latest episodes of your favorite series, or films in their original languages. This is particularly handy for Americans living or working abroad.
US Netflix isn't the only stop though, as TV channels such as ABC, CBS, or HBO can also be streamed online without ever stepping foot in any of the 50 states.
Only a handful of VPN providers publicly advertise these functions, however, you can test them during free trials. NordVPN or ExpressVPN are almost always reliable. We had particularly good results with East Coast servers in the US, or special, dedicated servers for US Netflix.
For fans of soccer, the possibility to watch the UEFA Champions League is also available. During the competition, Swiss Television streams at least one Champions League match live per week. Watching along is easy, so long as you connect to a VPN server in Switzerland.
Through the use of a VPN, you can take full advantage of programming which is only streamed in specific countries
VPNs dont only help with streaming, but can also provide added security when using TOR. "The onion ring" (TOR) is a network that facilitates anonymous online communication. At first glance, TOR does much the same as a VPN, however, in a slightly different manner. To connect to a TOR network, you need a TOR browser. This uses various server nodes to access the desired Internet address, with the request passing through multiple TOR servers before it arrives at its destination.
The entry point into a TOR network is known as its "entry node". From this point, your request is encrypted and dispatched, also concealing your address: each node only knows the address of the previous node. After three or four server 'stops', the request exits the TOR network, winding up at its destination. The exit point from a TOR network is known (unsurprisingly) as its "exit node".
At this point, supposing you are still following along, you certainly want to ask whether it makes sense to combine VPNs with TOR. Under certain circumstances, simultaneously using the protocols of both is highly practical. The TOR network is under constant attack, with IP addresses and sometimes even personal user data made off with on occasion.
To prevent you from becoming a victim of cyber criminality, we recommend a combination of VPN and TOR when accessing the so-called "Darknet".
To do this, first establish a secure VPN connection, entering the TOR network afterwards. Should the TOR network be successfully attacked, you won't be compromised, since your 'inner-defense', provided by the VPN, will still be completely intact. Cyber attackers will be able to make off, at most, with your VPN provider's IP address.
A number of VPN providers, including NordVPN, ExpressVPN, and HideMyAss allow parallel usage of VPN and TOR. A complete overview of the services that support this can be found by clicking on "Tor Access" on the feature list.
File sharing continues to be seen as an explicitly illegal activity in most developed countries. Torrents are well-liked as an exchange platform for large data which has been sourced legally. Many Linux distributions like Ubuntu or Debian can be acquired using the Torrent network. In so doing, developers can offer their software for free, whereas, offering it on (paid) servers might even cause them to incur charges for its download and usage.
Unfortunately, many providers are very restrictive and forbid downloading over P2P networks. Should this be a deal-breaker for you, you can view the providers that allow P2P by clicking on "P2P allowed" on our feature list.
In the "streaming" section above, the value of server locations in different countries has already been addressed. Put briefly, these allow you to pretend to be connecting to a service or website from a location different than where you physically are.
In terms of location, two important parameters should be kept in mind, namely, countries and servers. The number of countries relates to the number of states in which a provider has servers. For example, ExpressVPN has servers in more than 90 countries, NordVPN in more than 60, and CyberGhost, 30. In addition to the connection to the server's location, the distance from your physical location also plays an important role. Should you only want to hide your location, in say, Europe, it is important that the provider offers as many European-based servers as possible; should they only have a European server in Croatia, this will make connections emanating from that country seem more suspicious, than if the provider had servers in each EU member state.
The second important parameter is the number of servers. Here, we often have to take providers at their word, however, some services do allow users to connect directly to all of their servers. As an example, NordVPN offers use of more than 1,400 servers. The more servers available, the better the provider can contend with high usage. This means that your connection speed won't be throttled by other users and that enough bandwidth will be available for your online activities.
NordVPN offers more than 1,400 servers spread across 60 countries
As every good realtor knows "location, location, location". This holds true for VPN providers too, but in regards to where their administrative or corporate headquarters are located. The jurisdiction in which a VPN provider is physically based determines their legal responsibilities and culpability, playing a major role in how their privacy policies are structured. The corporate headquarters of NordVPN's owners, Tefincom S.A., are located in Panama, a country which does not mandate the saving of user data.
The second-largest VPN provider, ExpressVPN, is based in the British Virgin Islands, an exotic location that follows much less restrictive data protection laws than those found in the US or Europe.
For these reasons, in the search for complete anonymity, you should also pay attention to where your VPN provider is located. Most promise not to log your data, however, as noted above, users are left with little option but to take providers at their word. Whether a VPN provider will truly resist the attempts of authorities to access your data, depends largely on where the provider is based.
Alongside the above-mentioned criteria, there are two more factors that should play a role in your decision: the length of your contract, and the number of devices that can be simultaneously connected to the VPN.
Among virtually all providers, the contract's duration essentially determine how much you will have to pay to use the service per month. At the beginning, we recommend a monthly contract, since it offers flexibility, albeit at a high premium. The longer that a contract is agreed for, the cheaper the monthly price (or yearly price) will be. For NordVPN, the difference in price between a monthly and a yearly contract is greater than 400%, when calculated on a monthly basis. This holds true for nearly all other services as well.
A second important consideration is the number of devices which can be simultaneously connected to a VPN. Should you want to use multiple devices at the same, enter the number as a parameter in the selection criteria for the features, and the most compatible offer will be shown.
Download volume no longer plays a role among any of the providers we reviewed, all of which offer unlimited volume. Some free or freemium services have data limits, however.
There are a lot of good reasons to use a VPN. Alongside privacy and security, the ability to stream or access geo-blocked content from abroad, is perhaps the most convincing argument.
Finding the right provider depends largely on your needs. But, have no fear: Our overview shows which services offer a 30-day-money-back-guarantee. To cancel, most often a simple email to the support team stating that you want to close your account before the 30 days are up is enough to get your money back.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
What is a VPN and what benefits does it offer?
A virtual private network (VPN) creates a virtual tunnel between you and your Internet provider, through which your data and traffic is encrypted, your IP address is masked, and your location is concealed. A VPN helps in staying anonymous and secure online.
What is a VPN provider?
A VPN provider is a company that offers VPN services. Alongside VPN infrastructure, including servers, encryption, and protocols, providers offer users applications and extensions, which allow them to establish VPN connections, ideally, anywhere, anytime.
Which VPN provider is the best?
As in any area, stiff competition exists in the world of VPNs between all providers, with each having their fans and clientele. Speaking in objective terms, such as performance or server network size, clear winners and losers emerge. Everything else is a question of taste: User interfaces are diverse, as are the number of features that are offered, and we can't forget about price either. For our big VPN review, we put some of the most well-known and reputable VPN providers through a rigorous set of evaluations, recommending an overall winner, a price-performance winner, and the best free VPN.
Are VPN services free?
An Internet search for "VPN" and "free" will return hundreds, or even thousands of results, especially for mobile apps. Make no mistake, there are a number of free VPN services, however, holding to the old-truism "if you're not paying for the product, you are the product", these are more than likely to sell your data to finance their operations. Freemium VPN services are far more secure. These are subscription-based services which offer free versions intended to tempt users into purchasing a monthly, or yearly plan. Since they are free, these often have limits, be it in terms of data volume, or the number of servers that can be connected to, and as such, are a mixed bag. Our Top 3 free VPN services can be found here.
How do I establish a VPN connection?
Most VPN clients make establishing connections a piece of cake: Often, a single click on a large button in the center of the client is enough to connect to the fastest available server. Should you want to connect to a specific server in a particular country, all that's needed are a few more clicks. Somewhat more complicated, but still relatively easy, is manually configuring a VPN connection. We explain how to do this on Windows, macOS, Android, and iOS.
How safe is my VPN?
There are a number of tools that allow for you to gauge the security and reliability of your VPN. IP, DNS, and WebRTC leak checks evaluate if your VPN 'tunnel' is configured properly, or if your anonymity is compromised owing to the wrong settings being in use.