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Surfshark VPN review

A feature-packed VPN for a very eye-catching price

surfshark vpn
(Image: © Future)

Our Verdict

Budget VPNs don't have to be feature-free, and Surfshark is the proof - it's absolutely stuffed with advanced functionality, yet you can sign up for half the price of some competitors.

For

  • Speedy WireGuard connections available on all apps
  • Unblocks Netflix, iPlayer, Amazon Prime, Disney+
  • Very cheap introductory deal
  • Speedy and helpful live chat support

Against

  • Kill switch issues
  • Below average OpenVPN speeds
  • Support website needs work
  • Very limited security audit

Surfshark is an interesting VPN which comes crammed with features, runs almost everywhere and has one of the best value introductory deals around.

The network has 1,700 servers distributed across an impressive 160 locations in 63 countries.

There are Windows, Mac, iOS, Android and Linux apps, Chrome and Firefox extensions, and a website-unblocking Smart DNS system for games consoles, TVs and more. 

Whatever you're using, there's no need to worry about annoying 'simultaneous connection' limits - you can install and run Surfshark on as many devices as you like.

The service is strong on the technical essentials, including strong AES-256-GCM encryption, WireGuard, OpenVPN and IKEv2 support, Shadowsocks to help you bypass VPN blocking, a no-logs policy, and a kill switch to protect you if your connection drops.

There's real depth here. Android apps can see through most VPNs by requesting your physical location, but not Surfshark - a GPS Spoofing feature enables it to return the coordinates of your chosen VPN server. 

Oh, there’s also URL and ad blocking, P2P support on most servers, VPN chaining (use two servers for one hop), split tunneling, the company's own zero-knowledge DNS servers, and 24/7 support via email and live chat if anything goes wrong.

Diskless Servers

Surfshark's diskless servers provide extra privacy and security as all data is wiped when their powered down (Image credit: Surfshark)

New features since our last review include Surfshark following ExpressVPN and NordVPN in moving to 100% diskless servers, greatly limiting the opportunity for attackers to compromise or extract information from the network.

Dark Mode

Surfshark's dark mode is easy on your eyes (Image credit: Surfshark)

App-related improvements include WireGuard support on the mobile apps, an 'automatic protocol' option if you'd prefer the app to decide, and various small but welcome connection-related tweaks (you can now set up a manual iOS connection from within the app, for instance.)

Editor's Note: What immediately follows is a rundown of the latest changes and additions since this review was last updated.

  • Server coverage changed. Surfshark now has over 1700 servers in 63 countries. (June 2020)
  • Surfshark upgraded its infrastructure to 100% RAM-only servers. (July 2020)

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Plans and pricing

As you'd discover from our dedicated Surfshark price and deals guide, the service's monthly plan is more expensive than some, at $12.95, and paying for a six months up-front still only cuts the cost to $6.49. But the 12 months +12 months free plan looks like a real bargain at $2.49, one of the lowest prices we've seen for a full-featured VPN.

If you worry about signing up for long-term plans, then so do we, but when the price is this low, it doesn't really matter. Just look at the figures: sign up for what's effectively two years at Surfshark and you'll pay $59.76 up-front; choose just one year at NordVPN and you'll spend $83.88. Even if you're barely using Surfshark after a year, it still looks like fair value to us.

A seven-day free trial for Android, iOS and Mac gives you some time to sample the service for yourself. We'd like something longer, with Windows support, too, but it seems unfair to complain when many providers have no trials at all.

Surfshark even delivers more than you'd expect with its range of payment methods, with support for credit cards, PayPal, cryptocurrencies, Amazon Pay, Google Pay and Ali Pay. 

But if, after all this, you sign up and find the company isn't for you, no problem - you're protected by a 30-day money-back guarantee.

No Logs

Surfshark keeps no logs on its users and the service protects your connection with AES 256 encryption and a kill switch (Image credit: Surfshark)

Privacy and logging

Surfshark's privacy features start with the VPN basics: secure protocols (OpenVPN UDP and TCP, WireGuard, IKEv2), AES-256 encryption, and a kill switch to block internet access and prevent identity leaks if the connection ever fails.

But that's just the start. Surfshark has its own private DNS on each server to reduce the chance of others spying on your activities. And the ability to use a double VPN hop (connect to Paris, say, then leave the Surfshark network in New York) makes it even more difficult for anyone to follow your tracks.

Like ExpressVPN, Surfshark is based in the British Virgin Islands, and the company points out that this means it's not required to keep logs of user actions.

A FAQ page on logging spells this out, stating that Surfshark doesn't collect: 'Incoming and outgoing IP addresses; Browsing, downloading or purchasing history; VPN servers you use; Used bandwidth; Session information; Connection timestamps; Network traffic.'

The only data the company keeps about you is your email address and billing information, the FAQ explains, and some anonymous, aggregated stats: performance information, frequency of use of the system, unsuccessful connections, crash reports. 

We would like more information on these stats, how they're collected and what the company sees, but overall, there's nothing too surprising here. (If you're unhappy, you can limit this data collection a little, for example by disabling crash reporting in your app Settings box.)

The Surfshark website boasts that it has passed a security audit by the German Security company Cure53. And that's true, but this was limited to an examination of Surfshark's browser extensions, so it can't tell us anything about logging or other back end processes. And as it happened in November 2018, we're unsure that it tells us anything useful about the service as it is today.

Still, it's good to see that Cure53 found only two relatively small issues, and concluded that it was 'highly satisfied to see such a strong security posture on the Surfshark VPN extensions, especially given the common vulnerability of similar products to privacy issues.'

On balance, Surfshark appears to be saying and doing the right things, but we'd like more. A detailed privacy policy would be a good place to start, and we'd like wider and more frequent security audits, too.

Windows Client

Surfshark's windows client will look very familiar to those familiar with other VPNs (Image credit: Surfshark)

Windows app

Getting started with Surfshark was easy. We downloaded and installed the Windows client, chose the signup option, and were even able to select a plan and hand over payment from within the installer, no third-party browser required.

The Windows client interface is more versatile than most, adapting like a responsive website as you resize its window. At its smallest, the client looks much like any other VPN app, with a Connect button, status information and a list of locations. But expand or maximize the client window and it reformats to display new panels and options.

Getting connected is easy. Tap the button, desktop notifications tell you when Surfshark connects and disconnects, and the interface updates to display your new virtual location and IP address.

The Location list doesn't display latencies, but server load icons highlight your best (and worst) options, and a Favorites system enables managing commonly used servers.

A Static IP list enables connecting to locations in Germany, Japan, Singapore, UK and US, and receiving a fixed IP from each one (that is, your IP will be from the country you choose, but it'll be the same every time you connect.) This is very handy if you need to connect to an IP-restricted network while using the VPN.

Right clicking the Surfshark system tray icon displays a miniature app window, rather than the usual basic menu, allowing you to connect to the fastest server, choose one of your most recent locations, or open the full app interface.

Multi-Hop

Surfshark even includes a MultiHop feature that sends your traffic through two VPN servers for added security (Image credit: Surfshark)

A MultiHop tab passes your traffic through two VPN servers, ensuring that even if the exit server is compromised, an attacker still won't have your real IP. There are 15 routes available, where the first server is your initial connection (options include USA, UK, Singapore, Germany, France, India, Netherlands and Australia), and the second is where you'll appear to be to the outside world (France, Germany, Hong Kong, Netherlands, Portugal,  Singapore, Sweden, UK, USA.) The idea is that even if the exit server is compromised, the attacker will still only get an anonymous IP.

A Whitelister panel enables creating whitelists of applications, websites and IP addresses that will bypass the VPN (an equivalent of the split-tunneling feature you'll see with providers like ExpressVPN). If using Surfshark breaks a particular website or app, adding it to the whitelist should solve the problem.

Alternatively, you're able to set the Whitelister to route only your chosen apps through the VPN. That may be more useful if you're only using Surfshark for one or two tasks, maybe torrenting; set up your torrent client to connect via the VPN and everything else will use your regular connection.

This worked as advertised for us, and it's great to see a VPN provider deliver this level of split tunneling support on the desktop. (If they support it at all, most VPNs save the feature for their mobile apps.)

Surfshark's CleanWeb feature blocks ads, trackers and malicious links. We're unsure how effective this might be, though, as in our quick tests we found specialist tools like uBlock Origin blocked more ads and offered more control.

A NoBorders mode aims to help you get online in countries where VPNs are commonly blocked. Surfshark doesn't explain in detail what this does, but presumably it tries to obfuscate your traffic in some way.

More conventional features include options to launch the VPN along with Windows, or change the protocol between WireGuard, OpenVPN UDP and TCP, IKEv2 or Shadowsocks (an alternative way to direct traffic through an encrypted tunnel, commonly used to bypass internet censorship in China.)

Kill Switch

You can enable Surfshark's kill switch from the settings menu (Image credit: Surfshark)

A kill switch is on hand to block your internet connection if the VPN drops. It works, too, but not quite as well as we'd like.

Our first issue is that it's only available in the most extreme form, where the kill switch prevents you accessing the internet at all, ever, unless you're connected to Surfshark. We prefer the more standard approach where the kill switch is only active if the connection drops within a VPN session, and you still have the option to close the app and use your regular internet connection, instead.

In another complication, although the kill switch successfully blocked our internet traffic when we forcibly closed the VPN, it didn't display any notification to alert the user. If you're browsing and the VPN drops, all you'll see is your internet connection fails with no obvious reason why. This may only last for a few seconds, until the app auto-reconnects, but it's still potentially annoying.

If you don't have the kill switch active, the problem gets worse. If the VPN drops, not only will your connection remain active, but the client won't warn you. And as we found the app occasionally failed to reconnect, again without warning the user, your identity and data could be exposed for some time.

Surfshark's Windows client needs some work, then, but it's generally easy to use and there's a lot of functionality to explore.

Android App

This is the user interface of Surfshark's Android app (Image credit: Surfshark)

Mobile apps

Mobile VPN apps are often far more basic than their desktop cousins, but Surfshark's Android offering is surprising similar. There's more or the same interface, the same location list, multihop connections, CleanWeb's ad and malware blocking, and split tunneling for apps and websites with the Whitelister.

There's the same WireGuard, OpenVPN/ IVEv2 and Shadowsocks protocol support, and a kill switch to protect you if the VPN drops.

The Android app throws in extra features, too: a choice of encryption methods (AES-256-GGM or Chacha20Poly1305, maybe giving you better speeds), a 'use small packets' option to improve performance with some mobile networks, and the ability to automatically connect to the VPN when you access mobile, secured or unsecured networks.

And if any of this doesn't work as it should, you can send bug reports, raise or browse tickets from within the app (no need to open your browser and waste time hunting for the right area of the support site.)

iOS App

Surfshark's iOS app also shares a similar look and feel to its desktop counterpart (Image credit: Surfshark)

It's much the same story with Surfshark's iOS app: the look and feel are very similar, and you still get the kill switch, the choice of protocols (OpenVPN, IKEv2, WireGuard) and more. It's an impressive setup, especially for the iOS end of the range, which is often short-changed for features in comparison to other platforms.

Put it all together and these are impressive apps, well implemented and straightforward to use. A nice antidote for anyone tired of losing VPN functionality on mobile devices, and considerably more than we'd expect from a $2.49 a month service.

New Speedtest Image

We used Ookla's Speed Test to measure Surfshark's performance (Image credit: Ookla)

Performance

Surfshark's support for OpenVPN includes providing downloads of configuration files for each of its servers. That's good news if you're planning on manually setting the service up on other platforms which can use them, and it also allowed us to use our automated performance testing software to check out a sample of Surfshark's locations.

There was good news all round. We had no connection failures, connection times were faster than average, and all servers returned IP addresses for their advertised locations.

We switched to a UK data center to see just how fast Surfshark could go, but OpenVPN results were disappointing at an average 70-90Mbps.

We ran the same performance tests from a US location. Speeds were a little higher (and more consistent) at 100-105Mbps, but that was half the 200-220Mbps reached by ExpressVPN in its last review.

Surfshark wasn't done yet, though. We run our speed tests using OpenVPN as standard because it's the most commonly supported protocol, but Surfshark also now supports the next-generation WireGuard. Would that make a difference?

One word: yes. Oh, yes. Switching to WireGuard roughly doubled our UK speed to an average 150Mbps, and we reached more than 200Mbps from some US locations. That's not the fastest we've seen - NordVPN's new NordLynx protocol routinely beat 300Mbps in our last review - but it's a solid result that competes well with many big names.

To check worst case speeds, we used the client to choose distant servers highlighted as having the heaviest load. The results were surprisingly impressive, with for example UK to Argentina averaging 30-35Mbps, even when the app flagged Argentina as one of Surfshark's most overloaded locations. 

Put it all together and it looks like Surfshark can deliver very acceptable performance, almost all of the time. The speeds you'll see will depend very much on your location and target servers, though, so it's important to take the trial and carry out performance tests of your own.

Unblocking

Surfshark was able to unblock Netflix in all of our tests (Image credit: Netflix)

Netflix

If you're tired of VPNs who vaguely hint about their unblocking abilities, but never make any real commitment, you'll love Surfshark. Not only does the company say up-front that it unblocks Netflix, it also names the 15 countries where it currently works (US, France, Japan, Italy, Australia and more.)

This wasn't just overblown marketing-oriented confidence, either. We were able to access US Netflix from all five of our test locations.

YouTube has only the most basic of geographic protections, so we weren't surprised to find that Surfshark also allowed us to browse US YouTube content.

BBC iPlayer can sometimes be more of a challenge, but not this time. Surfshark bypassed its VPN blocking with ease, giving us access from our three test UK locations.

The good news kept coming, too, with Surfshark getting us into both US Amazon Prime and Disney+, giving it a perfect 100% in our unblocking tests.

Support

Support guides even include tutorials on how to set up Surfshark on Chromebooks (Image credit: Surfshark)

Support

If Surfshark doesn't work for you, the support site has setup and installation tutorials, troubleshooting guides, FAQs and other resources to point you in the right direction.

While there's a little useful content there, it's mostly related to setup, for example including guides to setting up the service to run on various routers. Surfshark has added some articles recently and they now cover the key essentials, but most are brief and distinctly short on detail.

Organization is a problem, too. If you want to know about the iOS app, for instance, enter 'iOS' in the Support search box and most providers point you to one or two 'How to use'-type articles that tell you everything you need to know. Here, you just get a list of articles responding to a host of common iOS-related issues: a simple 'how to install', then 'How to fix slow connection issues', How to change App Store region, 'How to set up OpenVPN on iOS' and so on. It's good to have all that detail, but what's lacking here are ExpressVPN-like one-stop manuals which tell you everything you need to know about a particular app. Hopefully that'll be addressed in the future.

Fortunately, if you have any issues, support is available 24/7 via live chat. We tried this while trying to diagnose a connection issue, and had a friendly reply in under 60 seconds. 

The support agent seemed to be follow a general script a little more than we would like, for example asking us very standard system-level questions ('do you have any other VPNs installed?', 'what antivirus are you using?'), even after we explained that our problem was connecting to a single server, and the reason was because of a 'host not resolved' error (our DNS couldn't find an IP address for the server name.)

We can't blame the agent for following what works probably 95% of the time, though, and this did change as the conversation went on. The agent listened to us, realized the script wasn't enough, made more relevant suggestions and gave sensible answers to our own questions, over a session which lasted around 30 minutes.

Although there are no guarantees, our overall impression was a positive one. This felt like someone who was following a script because it was helpful, not because it's all they could do, and when we went off-road, they were more than capable of following us and discussing more complicated issues. That's very good news, and again, it's much more than we would expect for a service costing from an initial $2.49 a month.

Final verdict

Surfshark is a powerful and (initially) low-priced VPN with an array of advanced features. There are some issues, too, but the service has seen some major improvements over the past year, and it deserves to be on your VPN shortlist.

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