Choosing the best VPN provider can be a tricky task, and the fact of the matter is that everyone has different needs, wants and preferences. Some users will prefer a simple, Spartan interface with few options that makes it easy to get going, while others will relish the chance to configure the software down the tiniest detail. Many people might be looking for a streaming VPN, while others might not be interested in accessing geo-blocked content and simply want the most secure VPN.
So, it’s only fair to say that there’s no one-size-fits-all provider that will deliver the ‘perfect’ product for every person. That being said, though, some providers like the highly rated ExpressVPN perform admirably on all fronts, and there are some providers out there – free VPN services especially – we’d advise anyone to steer clear of, no matter what they’re looking for.
But what do real people actually use day to day? We’ve certainly got our own preferences, but do they match up with true user experience? We surveyed over 1,000 VPN users on a number of factors, and when we saw which VPNs they used, there were a few surprises in store…
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1. ExpressVPN – 13.39%
Unsurprisingly – for us, at least – the majority of users we surveyed used our current #1-ranked service ExpressVPN. That’s likely down to the fact it covers all the bases: it’s zero-logging, it’s a fast VPN, it’s great for streaming, and it’s simple to use. There's a reason why it scored five stars out of five in our ExpressVPN review, after all.
2. ProtonVPN – 12.58%
As the best free service on the market, ProtonVPN takes the second spot. Again, we’re not surprised. Seeing as paying and non-paying users were split almost exactly 50/50 in our survey, it’s evident that the combination of more than one location, unlimited data and great security for free have drawn in plenty of users.
While for more serious users we’d still recommend a paid VPN, ProtonVPN is as good as you’ll get if you don’t want to part with your money in exchange for staying secure online.
3. NordVPN – 11.56%
A giant in the industry, NordVPN was always a shoo-in for this list. We’re almost surprised it didn’t take the top spot thanks to its aggressive marketing and impressive performance, but almost 12% is still an enviable market share.
4. Private Internet Access – 7%
Widely regarded as a safe option, Private Internet Access doesn’t rank quite as highly as it once did in our testing – but it’s still evidently very popular in the real world. This is probably thanks to its great performance as a torrenting VPN and features such as port forwarding, which many of the bigger names have forgone in the name of simplicity.
5. Surfshark - 4.67%
Still something of a newbie in the industry, the cheap VPN Surfshark has made great waves since its launch. It’s popular with users looking to bag a super reliable Netflix VPN on a budget, and while it doesn’t have the legacy users or reputation of stalwarts like PIA or Nord, it’s definitely made its mark in the VPN world.
The rest – and those we didn’t expect
The excellent Windscribe notched up 4.67% of the vote, super speedy Hotspot Shield an impressive 3.25%, simplistic TunnelBear 2.74%, US-based IPVanish 2.23% and streaming-centric CyberGhost 1.52%. However, in our survey we couldn’t name every VPN, so we allowed users to input their own provider if we’d missed them in the line-up.
With 1.21% of the vote, the understated and secure provider Mullvad is still going strong, despite being somewhat crowded out of the market by noisier opposition.
Less promising, though, is the fact 1.11% of our surveyed users subscribe to TurboVPN. Somehow it’s been a big name in the business for a good while, and despite poor performance and an above-average price point, it continues to retain users. If that’s you, we recommend testing out some other providers – but if it works for you, it works for you.
Just over 1% of users also reported that they use a self-configured VPN. Fifteen or more years ago this was the only realistic way of using a VPN on your own device, but as the software has become more mainstream, providers like those mentioned here have cropped up to take out the legwork. If you’re still committed to maintaining your own server, though, we salute you.
It's well worth noting that overall, over 23% of surveyed users subscribe to services other than the 'big' providers' that we gave specific options to select. Users submitted a huge range of different providers from AirVPN to Witopia, but many of these had two or three instances at best.
While we're all for encouraging start-ups and small businesses, we believe online privacy is an area where no sacrifices should be made – and we're glad to see the majority of users going for established names that are proven to be safe, rather than taking a chance with a smaller, cheaper service that might not do what it says on the tin.
In a nutshell – which VPNs do people use?
We’re happy to see all of the top entries are reputable providers that are secure, effective, and have excellent customer support – that’s evidently the reason they’re ruling the roost at the moment.
However, with a number of users opting for some less-than useful providers (and even one poor soul using the virus-laden Betternet), we’d strongly advise any current VPN users to consider the options available, and when your contract runs out, don’t be afraid of changing. There are even some excellent VPN deals on offer that could keep both you and your wallet safer.
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Which VPN do we recommend?
ExpressVPN – our top-rated service today (opens in new tab)
With over 3,000 servers worldwide and excellent speeds on just about all of them, ExpressVPN is a versatile, secure solution for streaming, torrenting, and day-to-day browsing. You can test it out risk-free for 30 days and claim your money back, and now Tom's Guide readers can get three months absolutely FREE.