Best VPN Services and Apps
Cybercriminals, spies, overeager retailers and, now, internet service providers can watch your internet traffic to find out what you do online, but only if you let them. To stop them, consider using a virtual private network, or VPN, which creates a secure tunnel through the internet for your data. Everything you do will be unreadable by the rest of the internet until it reaches the VPN servers at the other end of the tunnel.
But with hundreds of VPN services and clients available, it can be difficult to decide which to use. We looked at several popular VPN services that met three requirements: They have both desktop and mobile client software, they have servers in many countries and they offer unlimited data use.
Our Top Pick: IPVanish
Based on 15 hours of extensive testing — which included measuring latency, data throughput and how long it took to connect — IPVanish ($10 per month, or $78 yearly) emerged as the best choice for most users.
IPVanish wasn’t always No. 1 in each of our performance-test measurements, but it was often at least No. 2, while other services were less consistent in their reliability and data throughput. More importantly, IPVanish connected smoothly, and stayed connected, every time we used it. Not all the VPN services we tested did so.
Our runner-up, Avast SecureLine VPN, also offered overall performance and steady connections. But whereas IPVanish has a single license for all of a user’s devices, SecureLine VPN charges you for each computer, plus extra for an iOS or Android app, making it expensive for anyone with more than just a single laptop.
Our Testing Procedures
One basic test for a VPN service is seeing how long a VPN client takes to connect to a VPN server and get online. We installed each vendor's VPN client software on a Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Yoga notebook, an Apple MacBook Air, an iPad mini and an Android-based Samsung Galaxy S6 phone. We used all four devices with all VPN services.
- Using Wi-Fi on the X1 Yoga, we timed how long it took to connect to websites, measured latency times (how long it took a server to respond), and recorded upload and download speeds with Ookla's Speedtest meter, both with and without the VPN activated. We also saw how long it took to download a 428MB file of a 4K video shot by NASA about the International Space Station, both with and without VPN activation.
- We also measured how quickly a VPN service connected after we clicked the activation button. These readings, and those of the data speed and latency, were repeated three times and averaged.
- Using Wi-Fi on the iPad mini, we watched videos, including a 1-minute BBC clip of a big-wave surfer, with a VPN service activated. We compared each service's video playback with that of the others, watching for artifacts, dropped frames or pixelation.
- Using an LTE cellular connection on the Samsung phone, we listened to side A of the Grateful Dead studio album "Blues for Allah" on Spotify with the VPN service activated. (With the Opera desktop browser VPN, we listened to the same tracks using YouTube.)
- During each test run, we noted how many times (if any) we needed to re-establish the VPN link.
- We also used each VPN for a variety of more mundane things, such as receiving and sending email; retrieving, updating and saving Google Docs files; and playing a few online games.
All the services we reviewed use the AES-256 encryption standard, which would take a well-equipped hacker with a powerful computer many years to crack. Anyone eavesdropping on your Wi-Fi traffic in a café would see gibberish without the encryption key.
Using a VPN can also make it look like you're someplace else — a well-worn practice to evade online censorship, as in China, or to tap into your U.S. Netflix account while in Europe or Asia. I've used a VPN to read the morning paper in Beijing and to watch American TV broadcasts in England.
What a VPN Doesn’t Do
Two caveats: A VPN will give you more privacy, but not more security. If you end up on a website harboring malware, the VPN can't stop you from being infected. Also, although your data is encrypted as it travels between you and the far-off VPN server, it won't necessarily be encrypted once it leaves the VPN service to get to its final destination.
Best VPN Service: IPVanish
IPVanish is the most complete VPN service we tested. As its name implies, it lets you disappear online and surf anonymously.
It has client software for PCs, Macs, Linux systems, Android devices, iPhones, iPads and Chromebooks. Wi-Fi routers that can use the DD-WRT open-source firmware can be turned into VPN routers using IPVanish. It can also shield Android TV devices, but it can't match PureVPN's ability to protect other streaming TV services.
It took about 3 minutes to set up the IPVanish client on a PC or Mac, and there's a tutorial for first-timers. Although the interface is dark and ominous-looking, it offers access to feedback and configuration details, and lets you resize the windows.
IPVanish lets you choose VPN servers in 60 countries, from Albania to Vietnam. You can also let the software choose the most efficient server connection. Dig into the settings, and IPVanish lets you automatically start the service when you boot your computer. The service supports up to five simultaneous users, which means you can share the account with family members or friends.
Each of IPVanish's Android (pictured above) and iOS apps takes about a minute to install and set up. The apps show your current IP address and to which server you're connected, as well as how long you've been online and how much data has flowed back and forth. But IPVanish VPN lacks the ability to block ads, a feature that’s now common among VPN services.
Over a month of testing, IPVanish had the lowest average latency — the delay in connecting to a website — among the VPN services we tested. At 21.8 milliseconds, its latency was about half that of Avira's Phantom VPN, and one-quarter that of PureVPN.
The IPVanish network delivered data to our system at an average rate of 41.2 Mbps (megabits, not megabytes, per second). That's a decline of 28 percent from the non-VPN download rate of 56.9 Mbps. That was slow enough to put IPVanish in second place behind the free Opera VPN system, which had a rate drop of 14 percent. IPVanish was able to upload data at an average rate of 17.9 Mbps — a drop of only 1.2 Mbps, or 6.3 percent, from the non-VPN upload rate.
IPVanish was the second-fastest in downloading the 428MB NASA video file, which took 12 minutes and 18 seconds. (However, it took only 2:59 to download the file without a VPN activated.) That's more than a minute slower than the race winner, NordVPN, but also nearly twice as fast as PureVPN. Throughout our testing, IPVanish never dropped a connection or needed to reconnect.
Establishing an initial connection with the IPVanish network can be a little tedious, though. When you launch the client software, it does a pretest and looks for the closest servers. That process takes about 11 seconds. (None of the other services did this.)
Fortunately, this only occurs when you open the app or application. When we clicked to connect to a remote server, it took an average of 9.5 seconds, slightly slower than average. My advice is to keep the app loaded to avoid the preliminaries.
IPVanish’s list price is daunting at nearly $12 per month, but like NordVPN and PureVPN, there are heavy discounts (in this case, nearly half off) for paying for a year upfront. As of this writing, even the monthly rate was discounted to $10 per month.
There's no free trial, but IPVanish has a seven-day money-back guarantee if you don't like the service. You can pay with a credit card, PayPal or Bitcoin, as well as with the German service Giropay.
IPVanish: The Bottom Line
It may not be the fastest or the cheapest VPN available, but IPVanish is an online jack-of-all-trades. It has the best software, a wide range of server locations and client applications for just about every computer, smartphone or tablet. It fulfills the promise of virtual private networks to protect all your data from snoops.
Runner-Up: Avast SecureLine VPN
By extending Avast's antivirus and security business to include the SecureLine virtual private network, Avast SecureLine VPN can help to totally lock down your online life. It does the basics well, with compatibility for PCs, Macs, iPhones, iPads and Android devices. But it doesn't work with Linux or Chromebook computers and ignores open-source-enabled routers.
With servers in 22 countries, SecureLine has far fewer connection points than NordVPN, PureVPN or IPVanish. Still, it should be fine for most travelers.
It takes about 4 minutes to get and set up the SecureLine software on a PC or Mac. One downside, however, is that the desktop interface stuffs everything into a tiny window that can't be enlarged, and it has fewer configuration options than the likes of IPVanish.
Installing the iOS or Android app takes about a minute. There's a helpful VPN configuration page in the app for iPads and iPhones. SecureLine lacks ad blocking on any platform, though.
SecureLine's performance was in the middle of the pack, with a connection time of 12.3 seconds and a latency of 37 ms. Our Lenovo X1 Yoga test system downloaded data at an average rate of 37.0 Mbps — a 30 percent drop from the non-VPN rate of 53.1 Mbps.
SecureLine uploaded at an average rate of 16.5 Mbps, representing a 14 percent drop from the non-VPN rate of 19.3 Mbps, and required no reconnections during testing. The VPN client let the BBC surfing video and Spotify music play without incident, but the download of the 428MB NASA video file to an iPad took a slow 14 minutes and 21 seconds — a 376 percent slowdown from the non-VPN time of 3:01.
SecureLine's weeklong free trial might be enough for your next trip, and it’s a great way to try out a VPN. After the week is up, you'll need to pay $59.99 per year, or $7.99 per month, for a single PC or Mac license, plus more for each machine you add.
To use SecureLine with iOS or Android devices, you’ll need to get a separate license that costs $19.99 per year, per platform, or $2.99 per month. You can pay with a credit card or PayPal. Other services have a single license for all platforms, and Avast is working on a combined license.
Avast SecureLine VPN: The Bottom Line
If you already use Avast security products, adding SecureLine is a no-brainer, but you might need to pay a lot more to cover more than one notebook and more than one phone.
The latest version of the Opera web browser has a built-in client for SurfEasy's VPN service, and it’s entirely free to use. Of the six services we reviewed, Opera VPN is also the easiest to get started with.
For PCs running Windows, macOS or Linux, you'll have to go into the Settings menu, click Privacy & Security, and then check the Enable VPN box. (If you already have Opera installed, you may have to update to the latest version to get this option.) After that, just open the Opera browser to a new tab, click or tap to start the VPN and pick your connection location. When you're connected, the VPN logo in the address bar turns blue — a reassuring notification absent from all of the other VPNs here.
If you want to use your tablet or phone with Opera VPN, you'll need to install the free app for iOS (pictured) or Android devices. Then, as with the other services, you’ll need to start the VPN and then a browser. There's no Opera VPN client for Chromebooks or routers, although there's a SurfEasy VPN client extension for Chrome browsers.
It may be a quick starter, but Opera VPN can connect to the internet only through five countries: Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, Singapore and the United States. In contrast, PureVPN lets you choose from 141 countries. The Opera VPN can block ads.
The Opera VPN service was the best of the bunch in the all-important download-speed contest, with an average download rate of 46.8 Mbps — a 14 percent decline from the non-VPN rate of 54.4 Mbps. On the other hand, Opera VPN's upload rate was only 15.4 Mbps — a 44 percent decline from the non-VPN rate of 27.4 Mbps and the slowest rate of the six services we reviewed.
Latency grew from 10.8 ms to 23.6 ms, or 118 percent, when Opera VPN was switched on. (Because the service is built into the browser, we couldn't adequately measure how long it took to connect after activation.)
It didn't require any reconnections, but Opera VPN took 13:18 to download the 428MB video file — a 4,331 percent slowdown from the 3:05 it took without any VPN operating. That's off the pace set by NordVPN and IPVanish, which downloaded the file in 11:15 and 12:18, respectively.
The VPN played the BBC surf video in the Opera desktop browser window without any skips or stutters, but because the VPN is active only from within the browser, it couldn't play our Spotify menu. However, it did play the same list of songs in YouTube flawlessly.
Opera VPN: The Bottom Line
Think of Opera VPN as the poor man's VPN, best for those who want only occasional protection. But if you want to protect all of your internet activities, look instead to one of the dedicated VPN services.
Avira Phantom VPN
Avira's Phantom VPN is an extension of the company's antivirus software and offers up to 1GB of free VPN service a month.
It's compatible with Windows PCs, Macs, iPads, iPhones and Android devices, but not Linux boxes, Chromebooks or open-source routers. You can connect to servers in any of 20 countries, but that's a small fraction of the number offered by PureVPN. There's no ad blocker, but you can use Phantom VPN with as many systems as you like.
It took us about 4 minutes to install the client software on a PC or Mac. The desktop interface has a small window that can't be resized, although you can move it, and there isn't much that can be customized or configured.
While its overall performance was good, Phantom VPN had reliability problems. It required three reconnects during testing and often took three or four tries to get online.
When everything was working, it took Phantom VPN 6.4 seconds to connect, making it one of the fastest to reach the internet. It delivered data at 33.2 Mbps — a 36 percent decline from the non-VPN rate of 52 Mbps. Phantom VPN uploaded data at the relatively rapid rate of 20.3 Mbps — a decline of only 4.7 percent from the non-VPN rate of 21.3 Mbps. But it downloaded the 428MB test file in a pokey 16 minutes and 19 seconds — a 472 percent slowdown.
Avira has a generous free offering, giving you 500MB of VPN service per month. If you register for a company account, also free, you'll get to 1GB free per month. If you go past that, you can pay $10 a month, or $78 a year, for a Phantom VPN subscription with a credit card or PayPal. There’s no restriction on how many devices can use a single account.
Avira Phantom VPN: The Bottom Line
Occasional VPN users, or those who want to protect only email, will love the free gigabyte of Phantom VPN service. But the service would be vastly improved by better reliability.
Rather than displaying a list of connection points, NordVPN displays a visual map with pushpins showing where it has hardware available.
Just click on the closest one, or let NordVPN select the fastest connection. It has connection points in 57 countries, a handy connection wizard to ease setup anxieties and tutorials.
NordVPN has client software for Windows PCs, Macs, iOS and Android devices, Chromebooks, Linux boxes and routers.
The desktop software installs in 5 minutes, and the service allows up to six simultaneous connections, so it's good for protecting your phone, tablet and laptop while traveling. There's no ad blocking, however.
Overall, NordVPN required a couple of reconnections during our month-long testing. Although its download speed of 34.7 Mbps was off by 36 percent from the non-VPN speed of 54.1 Mbps in suburban New York, NordVPN had an abysmal download speed of 420 Kbps during informal testing in London and required 3 hours to download the 428MB test file there.
That very slow rate might be an anomaly, but it gives us pause about using NordVPN while traveling. In New York, however, that same file took 11:05 to download, the fastest of any VPN service we tested.
NordVPN's upload rate was 16.8 Mbps — 36 percent slower than the non-VPN rate. Its latency was 26.9 milliseconds, which was about 149 percent of that without a VPN. Both readings were near the median of the six services we reviewed.
You can use the company's free three-day trial to see if NordVPN works for you. After that, it costs $11.99 a month, or $69 a year, payable via credit card, PayPal or Bitcoin.
PureVPN had the best choice of connection locations and the widest range of apps, but it didn't always deliver the data. Despite having the most widely distributed servers of the six products we reviewed and excellent software, PureVPN had far from top-rank performance.
PureVPN has client software for Windows PCs, Macs, iOS and Android devices, Linux systems, Chromebooks and open-source routers. There are also ways to protect streaming set-top boxes, such as Roku, Android TV and Apple TV.
There's no built-in ad blocker, but the company's free Bad Ad Johnny Chrome extension does the trick on desktops. PureVPN is working on versions for Firefox, Opera and Safari.
The PureVPN desktop client took less than 2 minutes to install on a PC or Mac. It shows a half-screen window that lets you set connection cities as well as select from 141 countries, ranging from Afghanistan to Yemen. You can run up to five simultaneous sessions from different devices.
Despite having some of the best VPN infrastructure, PureVPN's performance was at the back of the pack, with an average 105.6-ms latency — roughly 10 times the non-VPN ping value of 10.3 ms. PureVPN worked well in New York, but when we tried it out in London, the network was slow and required two reconnections.
Overall, the PureVPN network downloaded data at an average rate of 33.9 Mbps, representing a drop of 37 percent from the non-VPN baseline of 54 Mbps. It uploaded data at 19.2 Mbps, down 29 percent from a pre-VPN average of 27.1 Mbps. It took 21 minutes and 50 seconds to download our 428MB test file to an iPad — the worst time of the bunch and more than twice as long as NordVPN took.
There's no free trial period or allotment, although the company promises a seven-day money-back guarantee. PureVPN costs $10.95 a month, with steep discounts if you pay for six months, one year or two years up front; the latter is about $60, or about $2.50 per month. You can pay with a credit card, PayPal, Bitcoin or the Chinese service Alipay.