Is a VPN really worth it?

Is a VPN really worth it
(Image credit: ExpressVPN)

In tech circles we spend a lot of money, but there are some decisions that are easy and a few that are hard. We know that a smartphone is an essential nowadays, so paying up to $100 a month or more for the latest model isn't something we generally anguish over. 

We invest in high-speed internet, powerful laptops, high-end earbuds, voice-controlled speakers, mirrorless cameras, glowing keyboards, VR headsets... The tech elite will always want the fastest and most functional option possible, so that's why when it comes to getting the best VPN (Virtual Private Network), it’s almost a no-brainer if you care about privacy, security, and anonymity.

Unlike some of those other products, the cost of a VPN is rarely astronomical, even if you choose the premium commercial options and add all of the perks (as explained below). Nowadays, there are fewer downsides too, and with the introduction of tech like the WireGuard protocol, the loss of connection speed that many fear is all but negligible. And, the truth is that a VPN provides a layer of encryption for all your internet traffic that's generally worth the cost and trouble.

Adding up the costs 

You might not be totally convinced a VPN is worth it, and as always, it’s smart to evaluate the pros and cons. From a purely unbiased perspective, a VPN ranks up there with an antivirus client in terms of how you are protected online from a data breach or unethical hacking.

To understand the actual costs, it’s a good idea to investigate the levels of service available. For example, Hotspot Shield offers a free VPN that allows 500MB of data use per day. That'll work fine for many online activities such as browsing websites and checking email, but it won't last long if you start watching videos or sending attachments – and that's before you start to consider restrictions with services like Netflix.

Thankfully, the costs only go up a small amount if you choose paid-for options. For example, ExpressVPN (our top-rated provider) tends to charge only a little over $5 per month for unlimited access at faster speeds – plus you'll have more than 3,000 servers all over the world to choose from.

Moving up to enterprise clients for business purposes, choosing products from Cisco or Microsoft will be much more expensive, but there will also be more assurances about service level agreements, technical support, encryption level, and reliability.

The main point to make here is that the decision is often not whether you should use a VPN (since there are so many free and low-cost options), it’s how much you should pay. And this depends on what level of protection you need and what you're doing online.

Is a VPN really worth it?

(Image credit: Petter Lagson)

Level of protection and service

Assuming you can justify the low cost of a VPN, the next decision is related to how much protection and security you need. Let’s make one thing clear here – a VPN is a smart choice for those who need extra security, privacy, and anonymity online because you don’t want to be a pawn for advertisers serving you ads, you don’t want to get hacked, and you like to protect your identity. It does not imply you are stealing software or streaming illegal movies. A VPN is a justifiable security measure for anyone who uses the internet.

So, on to the level of protection of protection you need. A free service will usually provide encryption for one device, and often for only one country where you will access web servers. The speed will also likely be throttled, so you won’t be able to download 4K movies in a matter of minutes.

It’s also worth noting that a VPN is not a silver bullet. One of the important realizations to make is that your Internet Service Provider (ISP) still knows your identity and location no matter what since the VPN creates a tunnel from your existing, established connection.

Here’s an example of how that works. Let’s say you are connecting at home using a cable modem. When you connect to Wi-Fi or directly to the modem, your ISP gives you an IP address that is tied to your location and identity. That IP address can be tracked by the ISP. So, the actual connection itself, the ability to even browse the web or download files, is traceable.

A VPN forms a secure connection over the existing internet feed. When active, your ISP can’t see which websites you are visiting or what you are downloading, but they can see the bandwidth level you are using, and they still know you are using an IP they provided to connect. A good analogy here is to driving a car. An ISP knows which car you are driving and at what speed, but they don’t know where you're going or what you've got inside.

Determining whether a VPN is worth it should at least involve some thought process about that fact – that the ISP still knows that you connected and handed you an IP address.

Identity and location

Another factor to consider is that there are other ways to determine your identity and location. Your actual internet feed is encrypted and your location is obfuscated, but that’s only true if you never type in any location data or personal data. If you fill out a form online and type in a name, address, phone number, and credit card, you have revealed your identity.

A VPN protects your internet travels, but you should also be aware of the fact that there are other ways to determine your location and identity online. For example, it’s possible to reveal your location based on GPS data, and Wi-Fi signals can be used to triangulate your position as well. A VPN certainly provides robust encryption and protection, but it's only for the internet – not for other signals you might transmit unknowingly from a phone or laptop.

This does not rule a VPN out by any means. In fact, it should prompt you to consider one even more. It’s fortunate you can use a VPN to protect your online activity. The costs are low compared to other services we know are important and valuable, and the level of protection and service, even for free clients, provide more privacy, good protection, and peace of mind.

Which VPN would we recommend?

we would recommend the aforementioned ExpressVPN most highly

Out of all the VPNs on the market, we would recommend the aforementioned ExpressVPN most highly. That's because not only does it provide excellent encryption, very stable connections and great additional privacy functions, but it's also incredibly easy to use and has apps for tons of devices.

If you're looking to stream Netflix abroad, or you're looking for a torrenting VPN, Express works really well, and if anything goes pear-shaped, you've got the support of class-leading live-chat assistance 24/7. If you think you'd like to test out ExpressVPN, you'll be covered by a 30-day money-back guarantee - and Tom's Guide readers can also claim 15 months for the price of 12.

at around $2.50 a month Surfshark could be your best option

However, if you're looking to upgrade from a free service with the minimum cost, at around $2.50 a month Surfshark could be your best option. While it's not as powerful as Express, it does have some very useful features and works seamlessly on pretty much any device you install it on.

With 3,200+ servers in 63 countries, you'll get a great selection of locations to choose from, plus you'll also have 24/7 live chat support. And, if you're not sure, Surfshark offers a 30-day guarantee too, so you can try before you commit.

Mo Harber-Lamond
VPN Editor

Mo is VPN Editor at Tom's Guide. Day-to-day he oversees VPN, privacy, and cybersecurity content, and also undertakes independent testing of VPN services to ensure his recommendations are accurate and up to date. When he's not getting stuck into the nitty-gritty settings of a VPN you've never heard of, you'll find him working on his Peugeot 205 GTi or watching Peep Show instead of finally putting up those shelves.

  • BlueCat57
    Several months ago I replied to someone that, "your VPN is not safe from hacking". He mocked me. Now, about once a week I see an article about a VPN being hacked.
    I used to use a VPN to bypass geo-restrictions for UK, Canadian and Australian TV. I know that the UK and Australia have now found a way to block that access. Dang, I haven't tried Canada in several months, now I have to try that, though I no longer have an HTPC hooked up to our TV.
    Is a VPN really worth it?
    I wouldn't subscribe to one now. My privacy "horse" (or cow) left the "barn" in 1984 when I first went online with a 300 baud modem and an Apple Mac. I'm sure that all of my interactions on the BBS from way back then are stored on 5.25" floppies in some dude's garage just waiting for me to become a public figure so they can blackmail me. (errr, not to imply that I ever did anything I would be embassed of).
    I was able to buy "Lifetime" and "Unlimited" devices at a deep discount, so I'm set for "life".
    If there was truly a way to bypass geo-restrictions to watch current TV shows, I might give it a try again, but there is AcornTV and BritBox and quite frankly, I already watch way too much TV.
    If you have current needs to slow down those seeking to invade your privacy, use a VPN.
    If you are someone who might be targeted, then a VPN is only going to slow them up.
    Put your time and effort into keeping your system backed up (and I mean daily if you produce a lot of work, and weekly, monthly, quarterly, annually and off-site backups) and use secure passwords (change frequently, a different one for every account, long pass-phrases, etc.) and encrypt your local drives/devices.
    Or, just screw it, enjoy life and assume that you will be screwed at some point and you'll just deal with it then.