Virtual private networks (VPNs) have been having a moment recently. The once-niche way to protect your online activity took off, in part, due to massive marketing budgets and influencer collaborations convincing consumers they can solve all your security woes. But deciding the best option for your browsing needs requires digging through claims of attributes that aren’t always totally accurate. That has made it harder to figure out which VPN service provider to subscribe to, or if you really need to use one at all. We tested out nine of the best VPN services available now to help you choose the best one for your needs.
What you should know about VPNs
VPNs are not a one-size-fits-all security solution. Instead, they’re just one part of keeping your data private and secure. Roya Ensafi, assistant professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Michigan, told Engadget that VPNs don’t protect against common threats like phishing attacks, nor do they protect your data from being stolen. But they do come in handy for online privacy when you’re connecting to an untrusted network somewhere public because they tunnel and encrypt your traffic to the next hop.
In other words, VPN services mask your IP address and the identity of your computer on the network and create an encrypted “tunnel” that prevents your internet service provider (ISP) from accessing data about your browsing history. Even then, much of the data or information is stored with the VPN provider instead of your ISP, which means that using a poorly designed or unprotected network can still undermine your security.
That means sweeping claims that seem promising, like military-grade encryption or total digital invisibility, may not be totally accurate. Instead, Yael Grauer, program manager of Consumer Reports’ online security guide, recommends looking for security features like open-source software with reproducible builds, up-to-date support for industry-standard protocols like WireGuard, IPsec or PPTP and the ability to defend against attack vectors like brute force.
Who are VPNs really for?
Before considering a VPN, make sure your online security is up to date in other ways. That means complex passwords, multifactor authentication methods and locking down your data sharing preferences. Even then, you probably don’t need to be using a VPN all the time.
“If you’re just worried about somebody sitting there passively and looking at your data then a VPN is great,” Jed Crandall, an associate professor at Arizona State University, told Engadget.
If you use public WiFi a lot, like while working at a coffee shop, then VPN usage can help give you private internet access. They’re also helpful for hiding information from other people on your ISP if you don’t want members of your household to know what you’re up to online.
Geoblocking has also become a popular use case as it helps you reach services in other parts of the world. For example, you can access shows that are only available on streaming services, like Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Prime, in other countries, or play online games with people located all over the globe.
Are VPNs worth it?
Whether or not VPNs are worth it depends how often you could use it for the above use cases. If you travel a lot and rely on public WiFi, are looking to browse outside of your home country or want to keep your traffic hidden from your ISP, then investing in a VPN will be useful. But, keep in mind that even the best VPN services often slow down your internet speed, so they may not be ideal all the time.
We recommend not relying on a VPN connection as your main cybersecurity tool. VPN use can provide a false sense of security, leaving you vulnerable to attack. Plus, if you choose just any VPN, it may not be as secure as just relying on your ISP. That’s because the VPN could be based in a country with weaker data privacy regulation, obligated to hand information over to law enforcement or linked to weak user data protection policies.
For users working in professions like activism or journalism that want to really strengthen their internet security, options like the Tor browser may be a worthwhile alternative, according to Crandall. Tor is free, and while it’s less user-friendly, it’s built for anonymity and privacy.
How we tested
To test the security specs of different VPNs and name our top picks, we relied on pre-existing academic work through Consumer Reports, VPNalyzer and other sources. We referenced privacy policies, transparency reports and security audits made available to the public. We also considered past security incidents like data breaches.
We looked at price, usage limits, effects on internet speed, possible use cases, ease of use and additional “extra” features for different VPN providers. The VPNs were tested across iOS, Android and Mac devices so we could see the state of the apps across various platforms (Windows devices are also supported in most cases). We used the “quick connect” feature on the VPNs to connect to the “fastest” provider available when testing internet speed, access to IP address data and DNS and WebRTC leaks or when a fault in the encrypted tunnel reveals requests to an ISP.
Otherwise, we conducted a test of geoblocking content by accessing Canada-exclusive Netflix releases, a streaming test by watching a news livestream on YouTube via a Hong Kong-based VPN and a gaming test by playing on servers in the United Kingdom. By performing these tests at the same time, it also allowed us to test claims about simultaneous device use.
VPNs we tested:
Best VPN overall: ProtonVPN
The VPNs we tried out ranked pretty consistently across all of our tests, but ProtonVPN stood out as a strong option because of its overall security and ease of use. The Proton Technologies suite of services includes mail, calendar, drive and a VPN known for its end-to-end encryption. This makes it a strong contender for overall security, but its VPN specifically came across as a well-rounded independent service.
ProtonVPN’s no-logs policy has passed audits, and the company has proven not to comply with law enforcement requests. Because it is based in Switzerland, there are no forced logging obligations, according to the company. Plus, it’s based on an open-source framework, and has an official vulnerability disclosure program along with clear definitions on what it does with personal information.
While ProtonVPN offers a free version, it’s limited compared to other options, with access to server networks in just three countries. Its paid version, starting at about $5.39 per month, includes access to VPN server locations in more than 65 countries on 10 devices at a time. For dedicated Proton Technologies users, they can pay closer to $8.63 for a monthly plan to access the entire suite.
ProtonVPN passed our geoblock, streaming and gaming tests with only a very small toll on connection speeds. It also comes with malware-, ad- and tracker-blocking as an additional service, plus it has a kill switch feature on macOS, Windows, Linux, iOS and the latest version of Android. It’s available on most major operating systems, routers, TV services and more including Firefox, Linux and Android TV.
Best free VPN: Windscribe
By signing up for Windscribe’s free plan with your email, users can access 10GB per month of data, unlimited connections and access to more than 10 countries. We selected it as the best free VPN because of its high security and wide range of server locations compared to other free VPNs. It has over 500 servers in over 60 countries, according to the company, and can be configured to routers, smart TVs and more on top of the usual operating systems.
Windscribe doesn’t have a recent independent security audit, but it does publish a transparency report showing that it has complied with zero requests for its data, runs a vulnerability disclosure program encouraging researchers to report flaws and offers multiple protocols for users to connect with.
On top of that, it’s easy to use. The set up is intuitive and it passed our geoblock, streaming and gaming tests. The paid version costs $5.75 to $9 each month, depending on the plan you choose, and includes unlimited data, access to all servers and an ad/tracker/malware blocker. Or, for $1 per location per month, users can build a plan tailored to the VPNs they want to access.
Best for streaming services, frequent travel and gaming: ExpressVPN
We picked the best VPN service for travel, gaming and streaming based on which one had access to the most locations with high speed connections and no lag. ExpressVPN met all those criteria.
An internet speed test measured faster upload and download speed compared to using no VPN, practically unheard of compared to the other VPNs tested. But this is likely a fluke due to the VPN service circumventing traffic shaping by the ISP or another disparity because even top VPNs will in some way slow down speeds. With 2,000 servers in 160 cities, according to the company, it had one of the broadest global reaches. It also passed our geoblock, streaming and gaming tests, and it does regular security audits. Plus, Network Lock is its kill switch feature, which keeps your data safe even if you lose connection to the VPN. Subscription costs range from $8.32 to $12.95 per month depending on the term of the plan, and include a password manager.
With ExpressVPN, users can connect to up to five devices at once, which is on the lower side compared to other services. That said, it works on a bunch of devices from smart TVs to game consoles, unlike some other services that lack support beyond the usual suspects like smartphones and laptops.
Best cross-platform accessibility: CyberGhost
Because several of the best VPN services connect to routers, cross-platform accessibility isn’t always necessary. By connecting a VPN to your home router, you can actually connect to unlimited devices in your household, as long as they all access the internet through that router.
But if you use VPNs on the go, and across several devices, being able to connect to a wide range of platforms will be indispensable. CyberGhost offers simultaneous connectivity on up to seven devices for $2.11 to $12.99 per month depending on subscription term. It supports several types of gadgets like routers, computers, smart TVs and more. It’s similar to the support that ExpressVPN offers, but CyberGhost provides detailed instructions on how to set up the cross-platform connections, making it a bit more user-friendly for those purposes.
From a security perspective, CyberGhost completed an independent security audit by Deloitte earlier this year, runs a vulnerability disclosure program and provides access to a transparency report explaining requests for its data. While it did pass all of our tests, it’s worth noting that we had trouble connecting to servers in the United Kingdom and had to opt to run our gaming test through an Ireland-based server instead.
Best for multiple devices: Surfshark
As we mentioned before, connecting to a router can provide nearly unlimited access to devices in a single household. But Surfshark VPN is one of few VPN services that offer use on an unlimited number of devices without bandwidth restrictions, according to the company. And you get that convenience without a significant increase in price: Surfshark subscriptions cost about $2.49 to $12.95 per month, and the company recently conducted its first independent audit.
We ran into some trouble connecting to Surfshark’s WireGuard protocol, but tested on an IKEv2 protocol instead. The VPN speed was a bit slow and struggled to connect for our geoblock test at first, but ultimately passed. What makes it different from other VPNs with unlimited connection options is that it has access to a larger number of servers and is available on more types of devices.