Staying safe online is more important than ever, and one of the simplest ways to up your privacy game is to download the best VPN of 2023. Whether you're looking to stream more or just want to improve your anonymity, this page is the perfect place to start.
Virtual Private Networks make your online activity anonymous, and can also make you appear to be in a different physical location. That's perfect for avoiding surveillance, accessing websites your government, school, or workplace censors, as well as watching streaming content that's only available in certain countries.
While VPNs might sound techy, they're now very easy to use. They almost all offer simple, attractive apps for many different devices, and you can get connected in a single click. So, don't be intimidated – if you managed to install Facebook from the app store, you can install a VPN as well.
If you just want quick access to the three best VPNs of 2023, simply pick from ExpressVPN, NordVPN, and Surfshark below – they're our best-reviewed providers, and offer a range of price points and features. If you want more in-depth info, simply keep scrolling for our rundown of the 15 top VPNs available today, and a detailed FAQ section at the bottom of the page.
1. ExpressVPN – Get 3 months FREE with the best VPN (opens in new tab)
We think ExpressVPN is the best VPN in 2023, with great performance in just about every area. Its 30-day money-back guarantee lets you trial the service risk-free, and Tom's Guide readers can claim 3 months free – plus 1 year free of backup software Backblaze.
2. NordVPN – Big name offers serious security (opens in new tab)
Arguably the biggest name in the VPN industry, it's quite likely you'll have heard of NordVPN. Thankfully it's not all hot air, as Nord delivers a premium service that's hugely secure and great for streaming – and at just $3.49/mo including 3 months FREE, it's excellent value, too.
3. Surfshark – The best-value VPN on the market (opens in new tab)
For those looking for a premium VPN on a budget, Surfshark is well worth considering. With top-tier privacy and connection speeds alongside excellent streaming performance, it can compete with pricier rivals – all for just $2.30 a month, which includes 2 months FREE.
What is a VPN?
In short, a VPN is an application installed on your device that redirects your internet connection through its own servers around the world. This allows you to virtually change your location online, making you more anonymous and tricking sites like Netflix into showing you content that's blocked in your country.
A VPN also encrypts your traffic, which means that if it's intercepted, your activity can't be seen. That goes for hackers, your government, and even your internet service provider – a VPN lets you browse in total secrecy.
This in turn allows you to access sites that might be banned by your ISP – perhaps that's YouTube or TikTok at school, or Western news and social media if you're in Russia or China.
In short, the best VPN makes the internet a freer place, and allows you to do what you want, when you want to do it – and with the current VPN deals on offer, there's never been a better time to sign up.
What's the best VPN?
The competition between the best VPN providers becomes stiffer every time we re-review VPNs – and with new features and usability tweaks coming regularly from the developers, change is always on the horizon.
However, in our latest round of testing, only one provider earned five stars out of five: ExpressVPN.
The simple reason for this is because for the vast majority of users, it offers the best combination of rock-solid privacy, excellent apps on a huge range of devices, some very interesting additional features, plus great streaming performance with Netflix, BBC iPlayer, Disney+, Amazon Prime Video, ESPN Plus, and even more.
To top it off, you'll be covered by a 30-day money-back guarantee which means you can effectively test out the service and its 3,000+ servers for a whole month risk-free before you buy – you can find out all the details in our in-depth ExpressVPN review.
Get an in-depth look at the best VPNs of 2023(opens in new tab)
ExpressVPN is Tom's Guide's #1 VPN – get 3 months FREE (opens in new tab)
It's a big accolade to hand out, but from our extensive user testing and independent review process we can once again confidently say that ExpressVPN is the very best VPN you can buy today.
On paper, ExpressVPN already impresses: over 3,000 servers in 160 locations spread across 94 countries around the world, a kill switch, split tunneling and obfuscated servers. While some providers have more servers in total, very few have such a wide spread – meaning that wherever you're based, you'll get swift, reliable connections. It has an especially impressive range in Asia, which is often neglected by other providers.
All apps use super-secure, industry-standard AES-256 encryption, paired with OpenVPN and Lightway protocols. Lightway is the standout here, and the in-house, open-source protocol delivers excellent speeds – although in truth, some other providers deliver higher peak speeds when using WireGuard. Unless you're using a 1Gbps+ connection, though, you won't notice a difference.
ExpressVPN also uses its own TrustedServer technology, which ensures its RAM-only DNS servers retain no information about you or your activity. In short, ExpressVPN is fast and secure – and a recent update has added a well-needed kill switch to iOS. Combined with the 3 months free Tom's Guide readers can claim (opens in new tab), you get a lot for your money.
ExpressVPN's apps are a pleasure to use and almost identical across the board – once you've used one, you've used them all – and the range of devices is huge. Not only can you cover your PC, Mac, iPhone or Android, but your router, Chromebook, Linux PC, Fire TV Stick and a ton more can also enjoy the same protection.
One of the most common reasons to download a VPN is to access geo-blocked streaming content. Here, ExpressVPN really delivers. In our testing, it reliably unblocked a number of Netflix locations, BBC iPlayer, Disney+, Amazon Prime, and works impeccably for regional TV channels around the world. Only a few other providers like NordVPN and Surfshark can match this – and Express is still our #1 streaming VPN.
Of course, improvements can be made with any service, and the same is true here. For example, if you need a dedicated IP or port forwarding, a provider like PIA might be a better fit. Plus, ExpressVPN's five-device policy is a little limiting – although not hard to get around by logging in and out.
Finally, a word on customer support. If anything doesn't work as it should – perhaps you're having issues unblocking UK Netflix from the US, for example – the 24/7 live chat support is always on hand. In our experience they have been quick and knowledgeable, and in general much better than most other VPN providers' live chat teams. Plus, the on-site help articles are excellent, too.
When everything is tallied up, it all comes together to make a near-unbeatable package that's well suited to experts and newbies alike – and we think that premium price is well worth what you get.
Get 3 months FREE of the very best VPN (opens in new tab)
Tom's Guide readers can claim both 1 year of Backblaze and 3 months free on a 12 month plan with ExpressVPN – that's 15 months for the price of 12. But if you want to try before you buy, you'll be covered by a 30-day money-back guarantee to make sure it's the right VPN for you.
Back again at #2 is NordVPN, and in our full NordVPN review we found that arguably the biggest name in VPN is still one of the very best.
With over 5,500 servers in a generous 59 countries, NordVPN practically guarantees a speedy server wherever you are – and while it's not present in as many locations as ExpressVPN, you'll still be very well served. You'll likely be connecting to those servers with Nord's own NordLynx protocol, which is a reworked version of WireGuard. In short, it's stable, and delivered searing connection speeds of around 820Mbps in our testing.
You'll get split tunneling, an effective kill switch, AES-256 encryption, and you'll even get some unusual options like Onion over VPN and Double VPN which are designed to keep you even safer when browsing the web. Another interesting feature is Threat Protection – but while it's a nice addition, dedicated tracker blockers do work more effectively.
Nord's apps are powerful and fairly pleasant to use, but while the map-based interface works well on larger screen such as PCs and tablets, on smartphones it can be more of a hinderance than a benefit. A recent update also means the PC client can't be resized, and there are inconsistencies between platforms. Despite that, though, the apps are very capable, and you'll be able to install it on a huge range of devices – for just $2.99 a month (opens in new tab), it's excellent value.
Nord's most interesting new feature, however, is Meshnet. This allows users to link devices anywhere around the world via encrypted NordVPN connections, creating its own secure network. This has real power, and while Nord hasn't quite worked out how to make the feature clear to users yet, we're very excited to see where it goes.
When it comes to streaming, however, NordVPN really impresses. You'll be able to unblock Netflix, iPlayer, Disney+, Amazon Prime and more – and in recent months Nord has proved to be a little more reliable with Netflix than our top choice overall ExpressVPN. That's why you'll see it sitting pretty at the top of our Netflix VPN guide.
With a 30-day money-back guarantee and some attractive deals running throughout the year, NordVPN is a quality service that only misses out on the top spot thanks to some small UI quirks and, frankly, the sheer quality of the competition..
Save big on NordVPN's longest plan
(opens in new tab)If you want to save some money when signing up to Nord, you're best off going for its longest two-year plan. You'll get the best price on offer, plus the standard 30-day money-back guarantee that allows you to test the service before you commit.
If you're looking for a cheap VPN that outperforms products twice its price, look no further than Surfshark. The services in this guide are ranked by quality, not price, so to see a VPN that's so affordable sitting at #3 is seriously impressive.
In our Surfshark review, we found its apps great to use, and offer all the privacy and security essentials such as AES-256 encryption, a kill switch, split tunneling, and the superfast WireGuard protocol. Surfshark's been hard at work on extra features like MultiHop, and Nexus – the latter of which is not currently fully formed, but looks promising.
If you're a hardware hoarder, Surfshark's unlimited simultaneous connections policy will be very attractive. Essentially, you can install one plan on any number of devices – great for complete protection, or even sharing with those in your home. And, as a Linux VPN, Surfshark is one of the few providers to offer a full GUI – most others are only command line. Very impressive for a VPN that costs well under $2.50 a month (opens in new tab).
In the most recent testing, connection speeds rose considerably, and on our 1Gbps connection it maxed out at a staggering 950Mbps. That makes Surfshark one of, if not the fastest VPN we've ever tested. Plus, it's currently proving to be very reliable for streaming. We've had some issues before, but almost every provider has at some point.
However, when we put Surfshark's kill switch through our rigorous testing procedure, we did manage to catch it out and get it to reveal us very briefly. However, the situation in which this happened is unlikely to happen in the real world. And, unfortunately, Surfshark's support isn't quite as good as ExpressVPN's or NordVPN's.
Overall, Surfshark is an excellent budget option, and when you consider its incredibly low price, any small issues it has seem to fade away!
A thoroughly premium service at a bargain price (opens in new tab)
Surfshark is a great option for those who want a simple VPN to set and forget. It's perfect for streaming almost any service, the apps are powerful and simple, and you'll get a 30-day money-back guarantee as standard so you can test-drive the VPN before you commit.
Private Internet Access has been around for a long, long time, but unlike other dinosaurs of the VPN game, it's stayed on an upward trajectory rather than falling to the new guard. In fact, it's risen another place to #4 since our last Private Internet Access review.
While PIA doesn't disclose its server network size, we believe it to sit at around 10,000 servers, which makes it by far the most server-rich provider on the market. Combine that with 84 available countries and you've got yourself quite the spread.
PIA really stands out when you get under the surface a little. Its desktop apps offer port forwarding – a relative rarity – and its kill switch is super reliable. Also, its proxy browser extensions are also very good, with updated tech that allows for faster browsing. For newbies and those looking for a simpler experience, though, this could very well be a little annoying or intimidating.
It's great for streaming, with access to Netflix, Disney+, Amazon Prime, and BBC iPlayer. We expanded our streaming testing even further this time round, and the only service stopping PIA from scoring a clean sweep was Aussie streamer 10Play.
We're also still waiting for PIA to complete a full independent security audit, but the good news is that it's started the process. The zero-logging policy has been audited and confirmed as true, so now we're just waiting on the full shebang.
For those looking for a highly featured, reliable service that's keenly priced, we'd recommend giving PIA a go – it has a 30-day money-back guarantee so you can test it out risk-free.
Sign up now on the PIA website (opens in new tab)(opens in new tab)
The Swiss-based Proton brand has had quite makeover recently, and its star product Proton VPN has been given a well-earned bit of zing. Now that the fresh new look matches its stellar performance, it's even easier to recommend.
With good connection speeds when using both WireGuard (510Mbps) and OpenVPN (the latter assisted by Proton's proprietary VPN Accelerator tech), alongside a comprehensive zero-logging policy and string encryption, Proton VPN will certainly appeal to those looking to use their VPN for absolute online privacy.
What's more, Proton VPN also offers its Secure Core servers, which are located in physically secure locations in privacy-friendly countries. You can choose to use these, and then route to a destination of your choice for added anonymity. Proton Unlimited also adds the entire privacy suite of Proton Mail, Proton Drive, and Proton Calendar for a fairly reasonable price.
However, it's not all work and no play for Proton – in our testing for the full Proton VPN review it proved to be a real standout when it comes to unblocking Netflix, reliably accessing a number of useful locations, as well as BBC iPlayer, Disney+ and Amazon Prime. However, just like PIA, it couldn't crack 10Play when we tried.
It's getting trickier by the day to pick faults with Proton, but there are still a couple of sticking points. Firstly, while some servers do support P2P traffic, there are relatively few compared to the competition – although if Proton detects P2P activity, it'll seamlessly redirect you to a compatible server. Prices have recently dropped across the board, but it's still not cheap. However, sign up for 2 years and you'll get a decent deal, with a generous 10 simultaneous connections to boot.
Overall, Proton VPN is very much on the up, and it's evident the developers are putting in some hard work rather than resting on their laurels. Thanks to that, Proton VPN is a service we can wholeheartedly recommend.
Sign up now on the Proton VPN website (opens in new tab)(opens in new tab)
Our Windscribe review found the provider's free VPN that gives users 10GB of data a month very useful, but it also offers a fairly-priced paid service that delivers unlimited data and lets you connect as many devices at once as you like. Most other VPN services permit only five to 10 at a time.
Windscribe is compatible with many platforms – including routers and Amazon Fire and Kodi TV set-top boxes. The service offers a great variety of connection options, has a wide geographic reach with hundreds of servers, and presents an appealing, if minimal, user interface. It's also good for watching overseas Netflix, and has dedicated 'Windflix servers' to enable this – although we couldn't tap into Netflix Japan this time round.
The service's Chrome VPN extension is a standout feature. As one of the best on the market, it offers tons of features and can be used without installing the desktop client – great for work computers of other devices you can't install software on.
For those that do install the desktop client, you'll notice the brand-spanking Windscribe 2.0 software has tidied up the interface and offers a ton of nifty features – although newbies may be overwhelmed. One such feature is Decoy Mode on Android which, although very niche, could be invaluable to dissidents in truly extreme situations.
Once of our previous complaints was that Windscribe simply wasn't very fast compared to others, but since then it's upped the ante, topping out at a respectable 700Mbps.
You can pay for a Windscribe subscription with Bitcoin, you don't even have to provide an email address, and the service is based in Canada, which may appeal to users wary of US authorities.
Overall, for those looking to test out a VPN with a free service and then sign up once you know it works, Windscribe is an excellent option.
Sign up on the Windscribe website (opens in new tab)(opens in new tab)
CyberGhost is another long-standing name in the world of the best VPNs, and in that time it's developed a reputation for privacy, streaming performance, and torrent-friendly servers.
With over 8,900 servers, CyberGhost has one of the largest server networks in the industry, and with a spread of 91 countries, there's plenty of variety when it comes to picking which to connect to.
In our most recent CyberGhost VPN review, the Romanian provider delivered great connection speeds of up to 730Mbps (although this is down since our last test), and while few users will have base connections capable of such heady heights, it's still quite an accolade.
CyberGhost's apps had an overhaul last year, and with the introduction of Version 8, the experience is much more modern and sleek. However, you'll only be able to install CyberGhost on 7 devices – and after that, you'll need to unregister a device to use another, rather than simply logging out on one device like almost all other providers allow.
CyberGhost's apps offer some very useful dedicated streaming features like Netflix and iPlayer-optimized servers. It's fairly capable when it comes to unblocking, and in our last testing we saw it unblock some Netflix libraries (not the UK), iPlayer, and Amazon Prime Video. Disney+, however, was unavailable.
One of our biggest issues with CyberGhost in our last review was that it hadn't undertaken a security audit of any kind. This time round it's still not perfect, but it has had its no-log policy audited by Deloitte. Let's hope a full server and app audit is in the works
Sign up now on the the CyberGhost website (opens in new tab)(opens in new tab)
IPVanish is a US VPN that's been in the game for a long time, and it's widely regarded as a safe, reliable, and trustworthy provider. It's designed for the more techy user, it boasts a bunch of useful additions and powerful apps that display all the data you could wish for.
In our testing for the IPVanish review, we saw the provider deliver respectable speeds of around 720Mbps when using WireGuard, which is comparable to close rivals CyberGhost and Windscribe. Its OpenVPN speeds are poor, at just 120Mbps in our testing, but most users will be using the new protocol anyway. 'Scramble' is an interesting feature that allows VPN use in countries like China, and while it's not quite as robust as other specialized China VPN services, it's still very useful.
When it comes to streaming, it's also a mixed bag. We got access to US Netflix, BBC iPlayer, Disney+ and Prime (which is an improvement from last time we checked), but unlike providers further up this list, we couldn't tap into any other Netflix locations like Australia or Canada.
One of our biggest criticisms in our last review was that IPVanish rarely updated its apps – and it looks like the devs were listening. The brand new interface looks great, retains many of the in-depth features we loved, while integrating a favorites function as well as in-app support. However, on the flip side, it's a shame that some niche features have been removed, rather than tucked away more neatly.
Overall, though, while it's lost a little ground on the top services, IPVanish is still well worth considering, especially if you're a fan of in-depth, techy software.
Sign up now on the IPVanish website (opens in new tab)(opens in new tab)
Mullvad is a very interesting proposition – it eschews 'gimmicks' for true privacy performance. However, while this certainly endears the Swedish provider with techies and old-school VPN veterans, the crowd-pleasing likes of ExpressVPN and NordVPN arguably offer a better proposition for the casual user.
With no tricks and a very transparent website, Mullvad's one of the few providers that avoids making disputable claims of "unblocking anything" or
Rather, it leads by example by never taking any personal details, accepting cash payments sent through snail mail, and offering simple, effective and open-source apps. New additions include the ability to purchase account numbers through Amazon – an anonymity plus point – and a fresh DNS server audit.
It also avoids the incredible complexity of other 'expert' VPNs, and while a very small selection of users will want to tweak countless DNS settings, many will simply appreciate the no-nonsense approach to online privacy.
As we said, though, Mullvad does lack in some important areas that many users won't want to compromise on. While connection speeds are very impressive, in line with IPVanish, CyberGhost, and the like, it's not able to unblock any streaming services – and likely never will.
The apps also lack some fairly commonplace usability features like automatic selection of the nearest/fastest location, and no favorites list. Plus, if you run into any issues you'll have to rely on email support or the bare-bones support site rather than live chat.
Overall, though, if you're looking for a transparent, privacy-focused VPN, you could do a lot worse than Mullvad.
Sign up now on the Mullvad website (opens in new tab)(opens in new tab)
Hide.me has been around since 2011, and in that time it's developed quite a following and has made quite an impression on the VPN industry.
With around 2,000 servers in 75 locations, it's in the mid-pack when it comes to network size – outstripped by PIA, CyberGhost, NordVPN, and others – but in practice this is more than enough for just about any user. Connections are lightning-fast too, topping out at a mega 880Mbps in our last round of testing.
Hide.me's Windows VPN apps are powerful and configurable, with plenty of protocol choices, DNS protection, torrenting support, and more. It's evidently aimed at the advanced user, and those with the knowledge and inclination to trawl through the settings will be greatly rewarded.
However, for many, it's quite possible that it'll all be too much and won't deliver such a seamless experience as more welcoming providers like ExpressVPN – and its Mac offerings are much weaker than the competition.
It's also worth noting that we experienced some minor technical issues with the apps, including an issue with the kill switch which could potentially compromise users when changing server.
In our streaming testing, Hide.me impressed. It's able to access a number of Netflix locations alongside BBC iPlayer, Showtime, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+, and more.
Finally, Hide.me also has some excellent privacy credentials – although it hasn't undertaken any kind of audit since 2015, and even then there's very little detail. But, overall, it's a great choice, especially if you like to tinker with your software – and the new free 2TB cloud storage plan courtesy of Internxt isn't to be sniffed at.
Sign up now on the Hide.me website (opens in new tab)(opens in new tab)
For those who've never used a VPN before – and perhaps are a little intimidated by options like Hide.me and IPVanish – TunnelBear could be the perfect choice. You can start off with a limited free plan (which admittedly only gives you 500MB of data a month), or upgrade to the full service which gives access to over 3,000 servers in 48 countries. Check out the full TunnelBear review for more detail.
TunnelBear's simplicity, though, is also its downfall. While it's easy to use, so are ExpressVPN and most of the other top-rated providers, but once you get used to using them, you'll have the choice to explore in-depth options if you want to. No such luck with TunnelBear, though, as there's a dearth of configuration – and what new features are being developed are only partially integrated, so there are some considerable inconsistencies.
You've also got no choice but to run TunnelBear's client software – unless you use Linux – which may concern some privacy-minded users, and there's no option to set up TunnelBear connections on routers or other devices. Finally, this tiny Canadian firm is now owned by US antivirus giant McAfee, which may mean TunnelBear is subject to US search warrants.
But, if you're after a VPN to set and forget, TunnelBear's not a bad option.
Sign up now on the TunnelBear website (opens in new tab)
IVPN is in much the same boat as the preceding Mullvad – it's a VPN provider that has firmly stuck its flag in the ground of online privacy (good) but doesn't bother with some more modern features like Netflix unblocking we've come to expect (bad).
To sign up you don't need to hand over you email or any other personal details, and with plans starting from just a week long, it's flexible, too. However, if you want the IVPN Pro plan, you won't be getting a bargain. In fact, just 1 year of IVPN costs almost twice as much as a 2-year plan with Surfshark or PIA, and more than 1 year of ExpressVPN, widely regarded as one of the most premium-priced services.
For your money, though, you do get a lot. WireGuard support comes as standard, as does ad and tracker blocking, and payment via BTC. On the Pro plan you'll get Multi-Hop connections and port forwarding, the latter of which may appeal to enthusiastic torrenters.
In short, IVPN is an alternative to Mullvad and operates in much the same space – but with a cooler logo. Well worth considering if you don't care about streaming.
Sign up now on the IVPN website (opens in new tab)(opens in new tab)
Oh, how the mighty have fallen... Once one of the very best VPN services out there, in our latest Hotspot Shield review we found that the once top-five simply hasn't kept up with the competition. That's not to say it's not a decent service, but over the past couple of years other providers have along leaps and bounds, while Hotspot has stayed much the same.
Still running its in-house Catapult Hydra protocol, Hotspot Shield maxed out in our testing at around 375Mbps. That's hardly a snail's pace, but since the advent and widespread adoption of WireGuard it's one of the slower big-name providers.
With 3,200 servers in 80+ countries, you'll get a great spread of locations to connect to. And, to its credit, we found it very effective for unblocking a wide range of streaming services like Netflix, Prime, BBC iPlayer and more.
However, with a below-par support site, more session logging than most other VPNs, a kill switch that has the potential to fail in extreme situations (namely if your router reboots) and no independent audit, it's not quite up with the best.
So, Hotspot Shield remains a solid VPN, but due to a number of small app inconsistencies as well as low peak speeds, some logging and the competition's steady improvement, it needs to keep up, or risks being left behind.
Sign up now on the Hotspot Shield website (opens in new tab)(opens in new tab)
One of the best antivirus (opens in new tab) providers Bitdefender has launched a standalone VPN product. Bitdefender VPN used to come bundled with the antivirus package, but now it's available on its own, and for a very reasonable price.
Built around Hotspot Shield's Catapult Hydra protocol, Bitdefender VPN offers decent speeds, similar to what Hotspot Shield can make. However, that reliance on Hotspot Shield does mean Bitdefender doesn't have much control over its logging policy, and it's also impossible to manually set up as a router VPN, too.
Bitdefender's app is about as simple as possible – which will be positive or negative depending on what kind of user you are. You'll get an on/off button, a choice of 30 or so server locations, a nifty checkbox you can use to make sure you're protected if you start P2P traffic, and fully-functional kill switch to protect you from drop-outs. That's it.
The only close to unique feature is Bitdefender's autoconnect menu. You can set the VPN to activate if it detects P2P, banking, mature content, dating, and a number of other kinds of website, which may well be quite attractive. Beyond that, though, there's little in the way of features that would make you choose the service over those higher up this list. Read more in our full Bitdefender VPN review (opens in new tab).
Sign up now on the Bitdefender website (opens in new tab)(opens in new tab)
If you don't mind signing up for a massive five years, Ivacy is just about the cheapest VPN you can pick up. At around $1 a month it's incredibly good value, but you do have to ask yourself: will Ivacy have kept up with the competition in five years' time?
Beyond that, Ivacy is a pretty decent VPN overall, and quite unlike Bitdefender, its apps are full to the brim with interesting additions. You can filter your servers for the best ones to use with any particular streaming provider, save your favorites, choose between a number of protocols, and the app even claims to scan downloaded files for viruses. You'll also get a kill switch and split tunneling – although disappointingly the kill switch doesn't work when using WireGuard.
However, there are a few usability issues that we weren't hugely impressed with. Automatic server selection didn't often give us the server we'd usually choose, and Streaming Mode threw up a host of problems like hidden IP addresses and unswitchable servers.
Overall though, Ivacy is far superior than you'd expect from a product that's just $1 a month, and if price is your only concern, Ivacy might be for you.
Sign up now on the Ivacy website (opens in new tab)
How we test the best VPN services
When it comes to recommending a product that users will entrust with quite possibly every byte of their online life, we have to be absolutely sure that our choices are correct, and thoroughly tested.
Unlike some sites, we don't simply reel off a spec sheet and declare the provider with most impressive claims the winner. Instead, we have a dedicated team in-house that gets hands-on with all the providers listed (and more).
Every 6 months, after scouring the website for new claimed features or changes in policy, we sign up to a plan and install it on a range of devices. The Windows app sees the most rigorous testing, and it's here that we'll try to break the kill switch, ensure any leak protection is working correctly, and measure connection speeds.
The other apps, including the Mac VPN, iPhone VPN, and Android VPN also see comprehensive testing, and we'll check every available setting in every app to make sure it's functioning as promised by the provider.
As we use the apps, if anything appears to be behaving strangely we'll investigate that. We might dig into the source code, or view the contents of its RAM. This general usage stage is also how we make decisions on aesthetics and ease of use – although these are admittedly more subjective.
Then comes the streaming testing. We'll test each VPN with all the big streaming sites from a number of locations to ensure it's working as claimed. As Netflix is still hugely popular and somewhat troublesome when it comes to VPNs, we test the biggest providers every month to make sure our recommendations are still relevant.
VPN speed testing – our results
Good connection speeds are incredibly important to VPN users – if a VPN slows your internet to a crawl it's unlikely to be used regularly, leaving more devices unprotected. And, now that one of the most common uses for VPNs is streaming, being able to load HD and 4K content without buffering is more important than ever.
In our review process we test every VPN service on a 1Gbps line. We measure the speeds with a number of tools, including the Ookla SpeedTest website and CLI, nPerf, Netflix's Fast and others. We then take the average (median) of each tool's results to generate an accurate range of speeds. We repeat these tests morning and evening to ensure accuracy.
Which VPNs work with Netflix?
Netflix is still the most popular online streaming service, and it also turns out it's now one of the most problematic for VPNs.
Netflix shows different content in different countries, so US subscribers will be able to watch different shows to those in the UK, Japan, or Germany. By using a VPN, though, you can virtually change your location, but recent updates by the streamer means that its VPN detection and blocking tech is more effective than ever.
We test the top providers every month (at a minimum) to make sure our recommendations are up to date. Below, we'll outline which locations the best VPN services can currently unblock.
- ExpressVPN: UK, US, Australia, Canada
- Proton VPN: UK, US, Australia (mixed results), Canada
- Surfshark: US, UK, Canada, Australia, Japan
- NordVPN: US, UK, Canada, Australia, Japan
- IPVanish: US
- Hotspot Shield: US (mixed results)
- CyberGhost: US
Best VPN FAQ
How do I choose the best VPN service?
Choosing the best VPN for can be a tricky process – that's why we've put together this comprehensive guide. However, for most people, we'd recommend our #1 VPN ExpressVPN (opens in new tab) as the best choice.
It works great as a VPN for Netflix, a torrenting VPN, and even an iPlayer VPN, so whatever you need your VPN to do, it's got you covered – all the while keeping you protected with its rock-solid encryption.
If you're after a cheap service, we'd also recommend bargain VPN Surfshark (opens in new tab) as a great option. It's not as fully-featured a ExpressVPN, but now available for just $2.49 a month it's a little more affordable.
As a middle ground, fan-favorite NordVPN (opens in new tab) is also useful. It offers serious security for a decent price, and has apps for tons of devices.
Is it illegal to have a VPN?
Short answer – no.
Using a VPN is not illegal, and it's perfectly legitimate to want to protect your data and activity. Having one on your computer and using it regularly in pursuit of watertight web security and location spoofing is in no way unlawful.
However, using a VPN to hide illegal activity doesn't make you above the law, so downloading copyrighted material is still illegal even with a VPN. Similarly, using a VPN goes slap bang against Netflix's Ts&Cs, and the provider has the right to terminate your subscription if they catch you – although that's never actually happened.
Countries like China and the UAE have made laws against VPN use, but due to their use in business it's impossible to outlaw VPNs outright. However, in those cases it's well worth reading up on what you may or may not be permitted to use a VPN for, and consider if the very small risk is worth taking.
What are the VPN dos and don'ts?
The best VPN can make it look like you're located somewhere you're not. It's a well-worn practice to evade online censorship, as is done in some countries, or to tap into US streaming services while in Europe or Asia. We've used VPNs to read the New York morning paper in Beijing, and watch US TV in London.
But there are some 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 prevent you from being infected.
Evading geographical restrictions on streaming content has become trickier in recent years. While a simple proxy will work for accessing overseas prices and written media, sites like Netflix and BBC iPlayer have cracked down on VPN users and invested in tech to detect them. If discovered, you'll still be blocked from streaming, so making sure your chosen VPN can access what you want before you sign up is essential.
What makes a great VPN?
The most basic qualities you should look for are speed, privacy and ease of use. These might seem like basic attributes, but in reality few providers have found a happy medium.
Connection speed relies on having a wide range of well-maintained servers. This allows the VPN to provide excellent speed and bandwidth to everyone using its servers.
Finally, although many users might be au fait with tech, more and more newbies are looking to start using VPNs. If that's you, it's definitely worth making sure that your provider has well-designed apps on all the devices you expect to use with the service.
Are no-fee VPNs any good?
Naturally, free services are very popular products because everyone likes to save their money. And, they can be handy bits of software if you're not somebody that's likely to keep their VPN turned on all the time and just want it for occasional use for staying safe on public Wi-Fi. Oh, and if you don't mind ads...
For most people, though, free services provide a false economy. They tend to have limited servers in just a handful of locations, often restrict you to a single device and almost always have a limit on the amount data you can use per day or month.
Those data limits rule out using your VPN for streaming or torrenting, and if you want to keep your VPN running 24/7 for a permanent privacy layer, a no-fee VPN just isn't going to work.
What VPN protocols are there?
There are several different VPN protocols, not all of which are used by all of the VPN services we reviewed. Most operating systems have built-in support for at least one of these protocols, which means you can use that protocol – and a willing VPN service – without client software. The full-fledged VPN services have online instructions for how to do this, as well as how to set up routers to connect directly to the services.
OpenVPN: OpenVPN is very secure, open-source and widely used. Most VPN services support it, but except for Chrome OS and Linux, few operating systems do. This protocol can be used in either TCP (web) or UDP (streaming) mode; the latter is sloppier but faster. You'll need either the VPN service's client software or one of the many free alternatives. Either way, you'll still need to pay for the VPN service.
L2TP/IPsec (Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol with Internet Protocol Security): L2TP is not secure itself, so it's generally paired with the IPsec secure-networking standard. The combination of the two was once thought to be very secure when properly implemented, but some VPN services suggest that you use OpenVPN instead. L2TP/IPsec has native support in Windows, OS X/macOS, Android, Chrome OS and iOS. Most VPN services support it.
IKEv2 (Internet Key Exchange version 2, generally with IPsec): This is a new-ish standard that is very secure when properly implemented. It has native support in Windows, iOS and recent versions of OS X/macOS.
SSTP (Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol): SSTP is a Microsoft protocol with native support on Windows Vista and later versions. It's thought to be quite secure, but only Microsoft knows for sure.
PPTP (Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol): This standard is largely obsolete, with many known security flaws, but it's fast. It has native support built into Windows, Android and older versions of Mac OS X and iOS; Apple dropped support with macOS Sierra and iOS 10. Use PPTP only for streaming content, as it won't protect your data.
WireGuard: The newest of these protocols, WireGuard combines reportedly excellent security with great speeds. Developed from the ground up, it uses far less code than its predecessors, meaning a better, simpler user experience. However, it's not yet supported by many VPN services, although as it gains traction more and more are beginning to implement it. Some, like Mozilla VPN, solely use WireGuard.