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). The overhead to using a VPN isn't that significant either (adding about 10-15% in extra data usage), and the truth is that a VPN provides a layer of encryption for all your internet traffic that's worth the cost and trouble.
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Adding up the costs
You might not be totally convinced a VPN is worth it, and 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.
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 high-end 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.
- Read our comprehensive guide on how to setup a VPN
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?
Out of all the VPNs on the market, we would recommend the aforementioned ExpressVPN the 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.
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.