The best VPN – short for 'virtual private network' – is software traditionally used to help keep you anonymous online and virtually change your location. However, while many may once have considered VPNs to be niche and techy, today's services are slick, simple to use, and have a huge range of uses beyond staying private online.
From unblocking overseas Netflix content to accessing censored news from within authoritarian regimes, they're hugely versatile – and no matter what devices you use, you can get connected in seconds.
If you already have a decent idea of what you need, just pick from our top three choices below. If you want to do some deeper investigation, just keep scrolling for our in-depth rundown of the best 15 providers. You'll also find links our reviews, plus connection speed data at the bottom of the page and a quick FAQ section.
1. ExpressVPN – Get 3 months free with the very best VPN (opens in new tab)
We think ExpressVPN is the best VPN on the market, 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 $3.29/mo, 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.
What is a VPN?
In short, a VPN is program 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, with the effect of 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 even 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 also allows you to access sites that might be banned by your ISP – perhaps that's YouTube or TikTok at school, or Western news 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.
What's the best VPN?
As VPNs become more and more mainstream and competition between providers becomes stiffer every day, it can be a tricky job deciding which is the best VPN for you. However, informed by our thorough testing, we can safely say there's one provider that's head and shoulders above the rest – ExpressVPN.
That's quite simply because it does it all, and makes the process quick and easy for any user, whether they're a VPN veteran or a total newbie. It's available on just about every device imaginable, and is reliable for unblocking a huge range of streaming sites, from Netflix and BBC iPlayer to Disney+, Amazon Prime Video, ESPN Plus, and more.
And, most importantly, it's super secure and boasts impressive privacy credentials across the board to keep you truly safe online.
To top it off, you'll also be covered by a 30-day money-back guarantee which means you can effectively test-drive the service and its 3,000+ servers for a whole month 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 2022(opens in new tab)
It's a big accolade to hand out, and competition is fierce in the industry, but from our extensive user testing and independent review process, we can confidently say that ExpressVPN is the best VPN you can buy today.
Starting with the headline figures, ExpressVPN already impresses: over 3,000 servers in 160 locations spread across 94 countries around the world. 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.
Under the hood, you'll be covered by 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 searing speeds. 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 very fast and very secure. Good stuff.
ExpressVPN's apps have recently had a full cosmetic refresh, and they're now attractive, simple to navigate, and very stable. The range of devices you'll be able to install the app on is huge, too – 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 enjoy the same protection.
More and more users are downloading VPNs to access geo-blocked streaming content, and if that's you, ExpressVPN really delivers. In our testing for our in-depth review, it reliably unblocked Netflix, BBC iPlayer, Disney+, Amazon Prime, and generally works impeccably for regional TV channels around the world.
However, if you're looking to install your VPN on loads of devices, you might have an issue with ExpressVPN's 5-device policy. That's similar to most rivals, but it's worth being aware of. And, of course, if you're looking for a real budget VPN, ExpressVPN might not be for you.
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.
Arguably the biggest name in the industry and with a considerable presence in popular culture, NordVPN isn't shy about touting its abilities. Thankfully, in our full NordVPN review, it lived up to the hype.
With over 5,000 servers in a generous 60 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 excellent connections speeds of around 760Mbps in our testing.
You'll get 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, and while not perfectly implemented yet, it's still in beta and should be polished in later updates.
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. Another slight downside is the fact that the browser extensions are very basic, but despite that, the apps are very capable, and you'll be able to install it on a huge range of devices.
When it comes to streaming, NordVPN really impresses. You'll be able to unblock Netflix, iPlayer, Disney+, Amazon Prime and more, and while unblocking results have been changeable for every VPN in recent months, Nord continues to be a safe bet.
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 the 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.
For those looking to keep costs to a minimum but still want to sign up for one of the best VPN services around, Surfshark should be on your radar. At less than $2.50 a month its price is certainly eye-catching, but don't fooled into thinking that it's a cheap knock-off.
Surfshark's apps are some of the best in the industry, with support for tons of devices as well as boasting an ever-growing number of expert features. You'll get a kill switch, split tunneling, standard AES-256 encryption, as well as additional benefits like MultiHop and Nexus – the latter of which is not currently fully formed, but look promising.
If you're a gear 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.
In the most recent testing for our Surfshark review, connection speeds rose considerably, and one the few complaints we had about the provider all but vanish – it's very much on a par with Express and Nord. Plus, Surfshark is currently proving to be very reliable for streaming. We've had some issues before, but in realistic terms, almost every provider has had issues at some point.
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.
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 excellent connection speeds when using both WireGuard 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.
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 performing as a Netflix VPN, reliably unblocking a number of useful locations, as well as BBC iPlayer, Disney+ and Amazon Prime. And, if you do come up against any issues, the support team is friendly and helpful.
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 in our last test we noticed this is up to 17. 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 – and 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)
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.
While PIA doesn't disclose its server network size, we believe it to sit at around 10,000 servers, which make it by far the most server-rich provider on the market. Combine that with 83 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.
It's also a capable streaming VPN, with access to Netflix, Disney+ and Amazon Prime. However, in our latest Private Internet Access review we found that it was unable to unblock BBC iPlayer. These are still excellent results, but this time round, it's unfortunately not a clean sweep.
We're also still waiting for PIA to complete a full independent security audit, and while we've heard news of one being set up, it currently lacks this very important proof that the claims it makes are true. We don't necessarily doubt them, but in the current climate, it's lagging behind here.
But, for those looking for a very reliable service that's keenly priced, we'd still 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)
CyberGhost is another long-standing name in the world of the best VPNs, and it that time it's developed a reputation for privacy, streaming performance, and torrent-friendly servers.
With over 7,800 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 absolutely searing connections speeds of up to 850Mbps, and while few users will ever reach 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, and to go along with that it's very capable when it comes to unblocking. In fact, in our last testing we saw it unblock Netflix, iPlayer, Disney+ and Amazon Prime Video. Good stuff.
However, a significant downside is the fact that CyberGhost hasn't undergone an independent security audit. A couple of years ago this was a bonus, but it's now become the norm, and we'd love to see CyberGhost open itself up to scrutiny.
On the whole, though, CyberGhost has earnt its place near the top of our rankings with excellent streaming and great speeds. Well worth checking out.
Sign up now on the the CyberGhost website (opens in new tab)(opens in new tab)
With over 3,000 servers worldwide, there are plenty of locations to choose from to ensure a reliable connection. However, in our recent testing, we've noticed Hotspot Shield's proprietary Catapult Hydra protocol fall behind the fastest VPN services using WireGuard, and while it used to be one of the very fastest, it's now distinctly mid-table with peaks of only 310Mbps.
That won't be an issue for many users, though, and in our most recent testing it proved excellent for streaming, unblocking the full gamut of Netflix, BBC iPlayer, Amazon Prime and Disney+, and torrenters will also find it very usable.
In terms of privacy, Hotspot Shield impresses with an excellent kill switch that we couldn't break, as well as a bundled call blocker and password manager. However, some users may be concerned that the provider does log a small amount of user data when in use.
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)
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.
It boasts a decent 2,000+ servers over 75 locations, and while that can't quite match up top the might of PIA or CyberGhost, in practice it's more than enough to provide reliable, speedy connections. And speedy they are – WireGuard tops out at an incredible 900Mbps, and Hide.me's OpenVPN speeds are more than twice many rivals, topping out at almost 600Mbps. Reality check, though: your internet connection almost certainly can't match that.
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 newbies, it's quite possible that it'll all be too much and won't deliver such a seamless experience as more welcoming providers – and its Mac offerings are much weaker
It's also worth noting that we experienced some minor technical issues with the apps, and the kill switch had an (admittedly non-critical) problem.
In our streaming testing, Hide.me impressed. It's able to access US Netflix alongside BBC iPlayer, Showtime, Amazon Prime Video and Disney+.
Finally, Hide.me also has some excellent privacy credentials - although it hasn't yet undertaken a security audit. 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.(opens in new tab)
Our Windscribe review found the provider's free service 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.
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 few nifty features.
However, Windscribe's network performance wasn’t quite as impressive, and in our testing it delivered slower connection times than its competitors, even when using the newly introduced WireGuard. It's still good enough to stream with, but it's got nothing on the very fastest providers out there.
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.(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. Seemingly 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.
IPVanish has only recently implemented WireGuard, but thanks to that update it's now one of the fastest services we've tested. Its OpenVPN speeds aren't quite as impressive, 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.
An improvement from our last IPVanish review, the provider can now get you access to Netflix, BBC iPlayer and Disney+, but unfortunately we weren't able to watch Amazon Prime Video when connected.
One area of IPVanish that will divide opinion is its apps – they're chock full with interesting features like individually selectable servers. a kill switch and split tunneling, a map interface for choosing locations and a rolling speed and data graphs. For some this could be really interesting, but many will see this as too much going on. There's a reason why ExpressVPN's stripped-back apps are so highly-rated by users.
On the topic of apps, IPVanish doesn't tend to deliver such frequent updates as its competitors. While they're stable, this does mean that new features are slow to arrive, and if there's something new on the horizon, it could still be months before it's introduced – just look at how long WireGuard took to arrive.
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, but 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 not to make any disputable claims of 'unblocking anything' or 'guaranteed anonymity'. 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.
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. While connection speeds are very impressive, 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 rather than live chat.
Overall, though, if you're looking for a transparent, privacy-focused VPN, you could do a lot worse than Mullvad.
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.(opens in new tab)
For those who've never used a VPN before – and perhaps are a little intimidated by the prospect – 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 1,000 servers in 46 countries. Check out the full TunnelBear review (opens in new tab) 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.
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)(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).(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.
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. Plus, while we know it's cheap, we didn't appreciate being served ads in a commercial product.
Overall though, you can't sniff at that price, and if that's your only concern, Ivacy might be for you.
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.
|Hotspot Shield||300-310Mbps||200-210Mbps (IKEv2)|
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 VPN, 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.
How do you test VPNs?
When testing VPNs, we check every aspect that might be of concern. To begin with, we look at what personal details a service needs, and any essential features like encryption. Then we consider pricing, and whether money-back guarantees are on offer, and whether it works on other operating systems as a Mac VPN or Linux VPN as well as on Windows.
During the physical testing, we test speeds over a number of servers, check for DNS leaks, test kill switch functionality plus any and all other additional features, and measure connection time and if the apps crash.
Finally, we review how easy the apps are to use, and test the services on desktop and mobile 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.