You may have come across articles like our best VPN guide on your travels around the web, but at Tom's Guide we don't simply check a spec sheet and pull a ranking out of thin air.
Instead, twice a year, we put all the reputable VPN providers we can think of through a rigorous program over eight weeks, stress-testing kill switches, picking apart privacy policies, accessing streaming services around the globe, and a whole lot more. At the end of the process, we have a crystal-clear idea of which providers are worth signing up for, and which shouldn't be touched with a bargepole.
We've just come to the end of our most recent testing session, and here we've pulled together our very favorite provider, a few VPNs that have shown great improvement, and some that have declined in quality – plus a couple we absolutely do not recommend in any situation.
ExpressVPN comes out on top – again
It's probably no surprise, but the British Virgin Islands-based VPN giant remains at the top of the table. While there's seriously stiff competition coming at it from every angle, ExpressVPN covers all the bases without compromise.
In our testing it also performed very well when it came to unblocking Netflix and other streaming sites, but ExpressVPN's biggest selling point is the fact it's incredibly simple to use, and it just works.
Overall, we don't think any other provider on the market matches it as a full package, and to learn more, just head through to our in-depth ExpressVPN review.
ExpressVPN – Get 3 months free with the very best VPN
We think ExpressVPN is the best 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.
Ones to watch
Beyond ExpressVPN, though, there were a few interesting findings this time.
First up, and arguably most notably, is the rise of Hide.me into our top 10. With incredibly fast connections of up to a staggering 900Mbps, Hide.me delivers a speedy, solid VPN experience. Its apps are incredibly customizable, and while this could intimidate newbies, experienced VPN users will relish the chance to get stuck into the details
In our last round of testing, ProtonVPN blew us away with its stellar streaming performance, unblocking a huge range of Netflix locations alongside BBC iPlayer, Disney+, and the rest. However, we had a sneaking suspicion it wouldn't last, since the privacy-focused provider hasn't traditionally been known as a leading streaming VPN.
However, this time round ProtonVPN is still impressing like before, and it looks like the dev team have put in the hard yards to ensure users can stream whatever they want, wherever they want.
5th overall and a real contender, Private Internet Access has long been a favorite with users, but a recent shake-up in pricing means it's now directly undercutting cheap VPN provider Surfshark. PIA is now just $2.19 a month on a 2-year plan, compared to Surfshark's $2.30 on a similar plan.
We hadn't reviewed IVPN in a couple of years, so we made sure to check it out this time around – and we're glad we did. While it's fairly expensive and not great for streaming, for those who prize anonymity above all else it will be very tempting.
It's similar to rival Mullvad in that it requires no email to set up, accepts cash payments, is totally open-source and delivers excellent connection speeds, but IVPN makes much more of an effort to ensure its apps are user-friendly and easy to use.
When some rise, other inevitably fall, and in this round of testing we saw a couple of big, established players drop significantly.
Old favorite IPVanish hasn't necessarily become worse, but in the past couple of years the progression of the VPN industry has been so quick that providers who haven't kept up are now quite evidently lagging behind.
While IPVanish is still a seriously fast VPN, it's unreliable for streaming, the mobile apps lack some key features and are rarely updated. It's still a very capable service, but all that combined has meant a slip down the rankings for this once-great US VPN.
Although not quite as noticeable as IPVanish's fall from grace, Hotspot Shield is another big provider that's struggling to keep up. It's stellar streaming performance has helped it maintain rank this time around, but its proprietary Catapult Hydra protocol – once the fastest in the business – simply can't keep up with VPNs that have implemented WireGuard, and its mobile apps are underpowered.
We may be splitting hairs here, as Hotspot Shield is still sitting at 7th in our rundown of the best services, but we haven't seen much innovation recently, and that could hurt the provider in the long term.
Down and out
Although they might be on upward or downward trajectories, we'd still consider every VPN mentioned so far as a quality product we'd be happy to recommend. However, a couple of providers we tested were, frankly, very poor – and in one case, dangerous.
We've known about FastestVPN for a while, and although we didn't have high hopes, we thought we'd give it a shot. It's incredibly cheap, bottoming out at a minuscule $0.66 a month on the lengthy 5-year plan, but in some situations you really do get what you pay for.
Good points include free cloud storage and password manager, 10 simultaneous connections and ad blocking tech, but that's about it. With relatively poor speeds it didn't live up to its name, it was unable to unblock any streaming site, support is shoddy, it's very rarely updated, and the developers still haven't implemented WireGuard. Must do better.
However, while FastestVPN could still be called a VPN that 'worked', Urban VPN proved to be absolutely shambolic.
We found 2 pros – Disney+ unblocking and an unlimited-data free VPN plan – and a whole host of cons. *Deep breath* It can't unblock Netflix, the free version logs your browsing history, takes screenshots, records your IP address, and shares your bandwidth with other free users, we can't confirm if the stated parent company really exists, there's no support, there are close to zero features, it's unreliable when connected, and delivers connections slower than 10Mbps. Need we say more?
We're not going to send you to the Urban VPN website
Which VPN should you pick?
For the vast majority of users, ExpressVPN will provide the best experience in the widest range of applications. Rivals NordVPN and Surfshark are also worth considering as slightly cheaper alternatives, while ProtonVPN and Private Internet Access may also be appealing to certain users.
All we can say, though, is to always do your research, and choose a reputable VPN. Thankfully, all you need to do is read our guides and reviews to find out everything you need to know – as they always say: we've done the hard work so you don't have to.