VPN stands for 'virtual private network' and is a piece of software that that helps to make you more anonymous online, encrypts all of your internet traffic, and let's you effectively trick your laptop or mobile device into thinking it's in another location.
The best VPN services are increasingly being used as a replacement for or in addition to traditional online security, but have plenty of other uses, too.
Install the best VPN possible and you'll have a tool that not only helps keep you secure online, but also get around blocked websites, access the freshest TV shows and much more.
It's certainly no surprise to see VPN downloads growing in popularity in 2020, millions of people around the world confined to lockdown looking for extra online security for home working and extra entertainment to stream - and the best bit is that VPN services are ridiculously easy to use, too.
It's equally unsurprising that there are so many you can choose from - the amount of options now available to download can be a little overwhelming. But TechRadar has tested and reviewed over a hundred of the best VPN providers (and the worst!) to come up with a definitive countdown, together with key information and specs on each.
So whatever you're intending to use your new VPN for online, we'll give you confidence that you're installing the right one and avoiding any that could potentially be downright dangerous.
What's the best VPN service?
The outright best VPN service right now is ExpressVPN. It's the best all-round option for speed, privacy and unblocking websites. A close second place and third place are Surfshark, whose downright simplicity to download and operate make it a really appealing option, and NordVPN - probably the most famous name in the VPN game - which is a really strong performer for streaming and security. Read more about these VPN services and the competition below.
Get 3 months free with an annual plan on TechRadar's #1 rated VPN
ExpressVPN delivered outstanding performance in our speed tests and excellent customer support plus a 30 day money back guarantee.
ExpressVPN offers access to more than 3,000 servers in 160 locations across 94 countries. That's a good start, but one of the first things you should be aware of is just how easy ExpressVPN is to use. No matter what device you want to use it on, you'll have it downloaded, installed and operational in no time at all.
Indeed, Express has maybe the widest platform support you'll find anywhere. We're not just talking about native clients for Windows, Mac, Linux, plus iOS, Android and even BlackBerry. There's custom firmware for some routers, DNS content-unblocking for a host of streaming media devices and smart TVs, and surprisingly capable VPN browser extensions for anything which can run them.
All that functionality could sound intimidating to VPN newbies, but ExpressVPN does more than most to help. An excellent support website is stuffed with detailed guides and tutorials to get you up and running. And if you do have any trouble, 24/7 live chat support is on hand to answer your questions. It really works, too - we got a helpful response from a knowledgeable support agent within a couple of minutes of posting our question.
The good news continues elsewhere, with ExpressVPN delivering in almost every area. Bitcoin payments? Of course. P2P support? Yep. Netflix unblocking? Naturally. Industrial-strength encryption, kill switch, DNS leak protection, solid and reliable performance and a clear no-logging policy? You've got it.
Downsides? Not many to speak of. The ExpressVPN service supports five simultaneous connections per user (increased from three), and it comes with a premium price tag. But if you want a speedy service, crammed with top-notch features, and with all the support you need to help you use them, ExpressVPN will be a great fit. While they don’t have a free trial, ExpressVPN has a no-questions-asked 30-day money back guarantee if you aren’t happy with the service.
Get the best overall VPN 2020
Our #1 recommended VPN is the one we would choose if we were getting one: ExpressVPN. TechRadar readers get 3 extra months free when they sign up for a year. And you can also give it a try first with a 30-day money-back guarantee.
Based in the British Virgin Islands, Surfshark has laid-back and playful branding. But when it comes to keeping you and your online identity secure, it's all business.
If you're somebody who is easily bamboozled and, ultimately, put off by complicated menus and myriad options, Surfshark - like ExpressVPN above - could be the ideal VPN for you. It keeps its interface completely stripped back and free from complication. All you'll really see are options for 'Quick connect' and 'All locations', accompanied by a Settings icon, and nothing else at all really. Whether that level of detail (or lack thereof) is a boon or a drawback entirely depends on your perspective.
The basics are all in place for starters. So that includes OpenVPN UDP and TCP, IKEv2 security protocols, AES-256 encryption, and a kill switch ready to stop your details leaking if ever your connection fails. In addition, Surfshark boasts a private DNS and an extra security blanket via a double VPN hop. Not to mention a logging policy whereby only your email address and billing information are kept on record. It's fast, too, whether you're connecting to a US or UK server or somewhere further away - say in Australia and New Zealand. Handy if you're trying to access your Netflix account from abroad.
One of our favorite things about this VPN service (other than the price) is the fact that your subscription covers an unlimited devices and services. So if you plan to use your VPN on your laptop, desktop (compatible with Windows, Mac and Linux), tablet, a couple of mobile phones (iOS and Android both covered) and Amazon Fire TV Stick for watching overseas TV, the one account will cover you on all of them simultaneously.
Surfshark offers a 30-day money back guarantee, giving you plenty of time to give it a try before committing for a longer period. And even then, annual plans are very reasonably priced indeed.
One of 2020's best value VPNs
While Surfshark loses out to Express when it comes to sheer all-round quality, security and support, Surfshark has bite when it comes to pricing. Subscribe to a longer plan and you can bring the monthly spend down to less than $2/£2.
NordVPN's current products match or beat the competition in just about every area.
You get a choice of around 5,000 servers in roughly 60 countries, 2048-bit encryption, 6-device support as standard, strong DNS leak protection, kill switches (application-specific and system wide), proxy extensions for Chrome and Firefox browsers, and with payment options that include Bitcoin, PayPal and credit cards.
There’s also a fast, smart DNS-like SmartPlay feature which can be used to get around geo-restrictions and unblock a large number of streaming and other services.
Our performance tests found that Nord has upped its game from previous testing, connecting to all servers each time. And download speeds were well above average on all but the most distant connections.
If we have one quibble, it would be with the user experience that NordVPN supplies. Just little things like the destination cities not being listed in alphabetical order or searching through menus for specialist task functions left us scratching our heads about whether Nord has done enough user testing. But, as we say, these are pretty minor minus points.
NordVPN has a few options available included monthly subscriptions and an excellent value two-year special offer. If you want to give the service a whirl before you commit, NordVPN provides a 30-day money back guarantee. So if you want something much better than one of the best free VPN choices, Nord would be an obvious choice.
NordVPN | 70% saving on 2-years plan
NordVPN goes big on discounts with its long term plan. If you commit to Nord's excellent service for the next two years, it will slash 70% off the price, bringing things down to an effective $3.49 per month.
Romanian and German-based CyberGhost is a popular VPN provider whose mix of power and ease of use has won over more than ten million users.
The company covers the basics well, with more than 6,000 servers spread across 90-odd countries, apps for Windows, Mac, iOS and Android, torrents allowed and speedy live chat support.
The task-based app interface is a major highlight. CyberGhost doesn't just leave you to guess which server to use to unblock a website, for instance. Just choose a geo-blocked service from the list - Netflix, Hulu, BBC iPlayer, YouTube, more - and the app automatically connects to the best server and opens a browser window at the target site. Now that's what we call helpful.
There are plenty of extras, too. The service can block ads, trackers and malicious websites. Automated HTTPS redirection ensures you're always making the most secure connection. Optional data compression can save money on mobile devices.
It's not all good news. The desktop interface can seem complicated, the support site is poor, and although US and European speeds are good, a few of our long-distance connections barely reached 10Mb.
Overall, though, CyberGhost offers you a lot of unusual functionality for a very fair price, and it's well worth a closer look. Plus, its 45-day money-back guarantee is longer than most of the competition.
CyberGhost | Extra 6 months free with 1-year plan
CyberGhost is a pretty affordable VPN at the best of times, at an effective price of $2.75 a month. And now that it's throwing in six additional months absolutely free with its annual plan, it means your next year-and-a-half years of VPN is sorted for less than $50.
IPVanish is another strong performer in our VPN tests. The service also has some impressive stats: 40,000+ shared IPs, 1,500+ VPN servers in 70+ countries, unlimited P2P traffic, unlimited simultaneous connections and 24/7 customer support. On the subject of support, we really like that you can access it directly from your Android or iOS app on mobile.
The apps are a powerful highlight. Not only are there loads of them (Windows, Mac, Android, iOS, even Fire TV), but they're absolutely stuffed with unusual features, options and settings, trampling all over the horribly basic "list of flags and a Connect button"-type apps you'll usually get elsewhere.
The good news continued when we tried some real-world tests. Servers were always up, and connected quickly; download speeds were above average; torrents are supported on every server, and we were able to unblock US Netflix with ease.
There are some issues, too. The apps are powerful, but that means there's a lot to learn, and we noticed a few small usability issues. A small number of servers didn't appear to be in the advertised locations, and there is no kill switch in the iOS app.
Overall, if you need its ten simultaneous connections, or the power and configurability of its apps, take the plunge with this VPN service, and if somehow you end up unhappy you're protected by a 30 day money-back guarantee.
Unlimited VPN connections and free cloud storage
IPVanish has been loitering around our top few best VPN services for some time now. Even with it's huge discount for an annual plan, it comes out a bit higher in price than some. But you're paying for high quality here, as many simultaneous connections at any one time as you can handle and a whole year free of SugarSync cloud storage - so fantastic value overall.
It may not be quite the fastest VPN, or the cheapest, or the most powerful, but Private Internet Access is still a likeable VPN provider with more than enough features to justify a place on your shortlist.
The network covers more than 60 locations across more than 40 countries, for instance, with P2P supported on all servers (expert-level extras like port forwarding and SOCKS5 support are thrown in).
Apps for Windows, Mac, Android, iOS and Linux, along with browser extensions for Chrome, Firefox and Opera, and detailed tutorials for routers and other devices, meaning the service can run almost anywhere.
The apps aren't always as easy to use as we'd like, but they're strong on the security fundamentals and have plenty of expert-level extras. The Android app doesn't have a Favorites system, for instance, which means it takes fractionally longer to find commonly-used servers. But it's otherwise easy to use, can automatically protect you when you access unsecured Wi-Fi, has a kill switch to protect you if the VPN drops, and can even vibrate your handset to tell you when it connects.
Good-looking browser extensions also deliver more than you'd expect, and include a host of privacy-related extras along with the VPN (Flash blocking, cookie cleaning, camera and microphone protection, and more).
Speed was above average in our performance tests, and although prices have risen slightly recently, Private Internet Access still looks like good value to us.
Hotspot Shield has a decent free VPN, but the commercial Hotspot Shield Premium is a whole lot better. Paying from just a few dollars a month gets you unlimited bandwidth, full access to 3,200+ servers in more than 80 countries, support for connecting up to 5 devices, 24/ 7 support, and of course absolutely no ads at all.
Performance was a major highlight in our tests, with Hotspot Shield's proprietary Catapult Hydra protocol helping to deliver some of the best download speeds we've seen, even from the most distant locations. Not only that, but those speeds are consistent, too.
As well as being able to run the service on devices where you can run its native Windows, Mac, Android or iOS apps, Hotspot has recently added functionality to support use on routers, Linux and TV streamers, too. A SmartVPN feature - that let's you select websites on which the VPN will be bypassed - is another welcome recent addition.
There are a few issues to report, like no Bitcoin support, a shortage of configuration options in the apps, and an inability to unblock Amazon Prime Video, at least during our tests.
These won't matter to everyone, though, and if you're just looking for raw speed at a very low price then Hotspot Shield is well worth a look, and the 45-day trial makes it easy to test the service for yourself.
As usual, you can get the very best value for money by increasing the length of the subscription. The longer you commit, the less you'll pay in the long run.
With a name like StrongVPN, you expect a VPN service that will be a heavyweight when it comes to privacy and security. So of course there's the usual array of zero-logging, minimal personal information gathered at the start, no information selling and turn off-able cookies. All of which is admirable - we'd just have liked to see a bit more specific detail readily available on the provider's website without digging into the 1,000+ pages of small-print.
Outside sheer brawn, StrongVPN takes something of a minimalist approach, favouring strength over style. But what it does, it does with aplomb. For starters, you have to applaud the decision to include the ability to connect up to 12 of your devices at any one time. So that will cover your desktop, laptop, mobile, tablet, streaming device and...well, a fair few more.
It's certainly sparser than some of the competition in terms of numbers. Read up and down this page and the 900-odd servers, 46 cities and 26 countries perhaps feels a bit short. But what that doesn't reveal is the performance on show from StrongVPN, with some of the best connection speeds we've seen from any provider. With the exception of the Poland server (for some reason), our test speeds were impressive across the board.
And if you're seeking the best VPN to unblock streaming sites like Netflix and BBC iPlayer from overseas, StrongVPN is looking like a powerful choice, too. You can see for yourself with the provider's 30-day money-back guarantee.
Most VPNs are clones of each other, identikit me-too services with barely any original features at all. ProtonVPN does things a little differently. There's nothing revolutionary here, but the service does have plenty of appealing aspects to help it stand out from the crowd.
Tired of anonymous 'free' VPNs with no website and just a Gmail contact address, for instance? ProtonVPN is a real company, with a track record in security. The company has a free product, but this doesn't come with ads or scary logging policies, and it doesn't have any annoying bandwidth limits. You can use it just as much as you need.
ProtonVPN doesn't compromise your security by using weak protocols like PPTP. It supports only IKEv2 and OpenVPN, uses top-of-the-range encryption, and can route your traffic through multiple servers and even the Tor network for the maximum possible privacy.
Not interested in the technicalities? There's plenty more to like: Bitcoin support, great-looking mobile and desktop clients, lots of features (including some unique configuration options) yet still easy to use for beginners. Speeds are generally above average, there's P2P support, and the service unblocked Netflix during our last review.
ProtonVPN isn't perfect, unsurprisingly. It doesn't have many servers or locations, US speeds were usable but below-par in our last tests, and it's expensive if you need all the features we've described here (though a basic plan is only $4 a month.) This is a powerful and trustworthy service, though, and if that's your top priority, we'd recommend you take a look.
TunnelBear is a Canadian-based VPN service with a strong emphasis on ease of use and bear-related humor. (Ease of use does get priority over the bear puns, fortunately, though sometimes it's a close-run thing.)
This focus on simplicity means there's not too much here for demanding users. TunnelBear only offers 20 locations, for instance. There are very few low-level tweaks or settings, not even the ability to change protocol. And if you want to manually set up the service on a router, games console or anything else, the feeble support website leaves you mostly on your own.
But if you're happy with the basics, there's plenty to like here. TunnelBear has apps for Windows, Mac, iOS and Android, for example, as well as extensions for Chrome, Firefox and Opera. We got connected easily, and had no problems downloading torrents or accessing US Netflix (although BBC iPlayer remained out-of-bounds.)
TunnelBear scores plus points for privacy, too, with the company hiring independent specialists to run a public security audit on its servers, systems and code. If only other providers were that brave.
Performance was another highlight, with speedy UK and European servers, solid results from the US, and even the slowest Asian locations managing a very acceptable 20Mbps.
Swiss-based VyprVPN is a well-specified service which boasts more than 70 server locations and a stack of unusual high-end features.
The company has its own zero-knowledge DNS service, for instance. Its proprietary Chameleon protocol could help you get online even in VPN-blocking countries like China and Iran. And platform support covers everything from the regular Windows, Mac, Android and iOS apps, to routers, Android TV, QNAP, Blackphone, Anonabox and more.
We like the fact that VyprVPN has turned the logging situation on its head. Losing significant brownie points in the past, we now see that VyprVPN has had an independent audit to confirm that there is absolutely no logging whatsoever occurring. And there's more good news if you're looking for website unblocking, with the service giving us easy access to US Netflix and BBC iPlayer. And its Windows client has been markedly improved from previous versions, too.
So there's a lot of good stuff...what about any negatives? We found a few quibbles during our latest round of testing - the Windows kill switch, for example, had its issues. And in our real life speed tests, VyprVPN was looking a tad more lethargic than in previous years and slower than what most others on this list managed.
Struggling with Vypr? Then the website support resources are definitely much less detailed than other VPN services - but at least there's 24 hours a day, seven days a week live chat support on hand if you really get stuck.
VyprVPN isn't quite perfect, then, but there's undoubtedly a lot to like - a must for your VPN service shortlist.
Windscribe is a capable VPN service which delivers more than you might expect in many areas. You get clients for Windows, Mac, Android, iOS and Linux, for instance, as well as Chrome, Firefox and Opera extensions, and guides for manually setting up the service on routers, Kodi and more.
The network has locations in 110 cities spread across more than 60 countries, but its 400-odd servers in total are far fewer than what most other providers have on offer.
While this sounds great on paper, real-world testing highlighted some problems.
Connections times to those servers are decent - not too slow, but certainly not the fastest around. But there was largely good news on website unblocking: we could view US Netflix, BBC iPlayer and even our US Amazon Prime Video content.
Unfortunately, there's no 24/7 support, so any questions you have might not get answered for a while. Although the company does at least point out that it uses its own in-house staff, rather than outsourcing it to some minimum wage worker who just reads off a script, so it could be worth the wait.
Windscribe doesn't tick every available box, then, but the service does have a lot of interesting features. If you're looking for a new VPN, use the free plan to find out what Windscribe can do for you. The free plan limits you to ten locations but gives you an exceptionally generous 10GB data allowance a month.
VPN Unlimited from KeepSolid isn't perfect - in fact, it's got one or two real irritations - but if you can get past those, it's still a quality VPN.
Our main issue here is the five-device limit on the basic plans. This refers to specific devices, so if you connect two phones, two laptops and a Smart TV, for instance, you can't connect anything else, even if all your devices are turned off. You can delete items from the list to connect others, but only one a week, which can be hugely inconvenient.
If you'll never hit the device limit, or course, that won't be an issue. And even if you do, there are solutions. You can add support for extra devices at $0.99 a month each, or opt for a plan which supports up to ten.
Once you're past any multi-device issues, VPN Unlimited performs very well. It runs on almost anything (Windows, Mac, Android, iOS, Linux, Apple TV, even Windows phone), and unblocks Netflix and BBC iPlayer with ease. Torrents are supported on some servers, but whatever you're doing, high performance servers mean it won't take very long.
Interesting extras include an option to get a personal VPN server with traffic dedicated just to you, ensuring you'll always get the best performance.
If you only need the basics, though, you can sign up for a very cheap plan if you're prepared to commit. It's far lower than most of the competition in fact, and you even get seven days to try the service before you hand over any cash.
Most VPNs claim they have a huge network, but the Avast-owned HideMyAss! really means it, with servers in 280 locations across more than 190 countries worldwide. And so while other providers might give you just a handful of locations outside Europe and North America, HideMyAss! manages 14 locations in the Middle East, 20 locations in Africa, and more than 50 in Asia Pacific.
You can use HideMyAss! (or HMA as it seems to prefer these days) almost everywhere, too, with custom apps for Windows, Mac, Android, iOS and Linux, OpenVPN support for maximum compatibility with other devices, and tutorials to help you set up the service on routers, Smart TVs, games consoles and more.
The apps are easy to use and cover the basics very well, but they miss in a few areas. The best VPN apps have a kill switch to block all internet access if the VPN connection drops, for instance, and can automatically reconnect in a few seconds. HideMyAss! only blocks the apps you specify, making it more time-consuming to set up, and you're left to handle any reconnects yourself.
If you can live with this, though, there's a lot to like here, including P2P support, above-average speeds on most servers, and 24/7 live chat support if anything goes wrong.
What is a VPN?
Still asking yourself: "OK, but what is a VPN?". A VPN is a piece of software that allows you to use the internet via secure, encrypted tunnels. That means prying eyes can't get hold of any information or personal data you share, but has a second function of letting you spoof your IP address to somewhere else in the world - handy for streaming sport and TV shows from abroad and unblocking restricted websites.
Virtual Private Networks - an explanation
As we say, VPN stands for ‘virtual private networking’, which is a popular internet security method. It involves technologies that aim to add a layer of security to both private and public networks. These include broadband and internet hotspots.
VPNs therefore a secure and private solution within the wider internet itself that allows users – whether they are individuals, or part of an organisation, or business – to send and receive data while maintaining the secrecy of a private network.
That means you could use one to create a secure "tunnel" into your company network to enjoy access to private internal systems, but also means you could browse in complete privacy online and access content you might otherwise not be able to get such as Netflix or using your VPN for BBC iPlayer.
All the traffic that passes through your VPN connection is secure and cannot, in theory, be intercepted by anyone else, making it the safest mainstream way to browse the web privately (but not always anonymously).
Just bear in mind though that VPN setups are only as secure as the weakest link in the entire chain. So if your device has already been compromised with malware already, using a VPN won't save you from being spied upon, although a good antivirus could.
VPN uses: 10 handy ways you can use your VPN
You'll see that most VPN services out there talk about security first and foremost on their websites. But they've become much more than that in modern times. Among the most popular VPN uses are:
- Safer public Wi-Fi: Don't risk others getting their grubby hands on your data and identity when using hotel, airport or shopping centre public Wi-Fi. Jump on a VPN and be sure that everything you do is encrypted
- Unblock foreign Netflix: Not strictly allowed in the company's Ts&Cs, but a VPN can help you watch that film or show that has landed on your country's Netflix yet but you just know is available somewhere else in the world
- Full internet access in countries with censorship: Governments in China, India, UAE, Russia, Turkey, Cuba and many more block certain services and sites - think WhatsApp, Facebook, YouTube, even Google! VPNs can help get access to them if you're in those countries for holiday or business
- Safe torrenting: Even if your torrenting habits are purely lawful, its P2P nature means that you still risk being exposed to folk trying to steal your data. Turning on a VPN while you torrent will help keep your data encrypted and identity safe.
- Stream sport: Your country not showing that boxing, soccer, basketball or cricket match? Find out what country is and then use a VPN to get on a server there and watch as if you were in that country
- Working from home: Covid-19 related lockdown has been a catalyst for more and more people working from home. Individuals and businesses can make sure they stay safer online with a VPN
- Cheaper holidays: You've probably heard before that flights and hotels can cost different amounts dependant on your IP address. Luckily, a VPN can help mask or change your IP address...
- Quicker internet: If you're somewhere that throttles your internet speeds by dint only of your location, then geo-spoofing to somewhere else entirely could help you avoid the slow down
- Better gaming: Not only can you make sure that your identity is protected when you game online, but most VPN providers will also protect you against troublesome DDoS attacks, too
- Social media unblocking: Schools and offices can be such spoilsports, blocking social media and games sites so you can't use them. Not unless you jump on a VPN server in an entirely different location...
How to choose your VPN
There are several factors to consider when you're choosing a paid VPN. Here are six tips.
1. Does the plan have servers in every country and region you need? Having more than one server in a country can help spread the load, but doesn't guarantee improved performance, so don't assume a plan with 6,000 servers will automatically beat another with 1,000.
2. Check the number of simultaneous connections supported. Five is the bear minimum you should accept, which allows you to have PCs, mobile and tablet connected at the same time. But beware, many companies say this is for a single user only, and they all have fair usage policies to prevent people hogging resources. If you let the entire family download and stream videos separately then you'll run into trouble.
3. Some providers list the connection protocols they use. OpenVPN and IKeV2 are good choices, fast and secure. You might see SSTP and the older PPTP, as well as protocol options (TCP or UDP for OpenVPN). You don't need to understand the low-level details, but having the extra choice can help the service make faster and/or more reliable connections.
5. It's important to consider the client, the software which handles your connections. These all have a list of servers and a Connect/ Disconnect button, but could you use more? Some clients display server load and ping time in the interface, helping you choose the right server. Regular users might appreciate a "Favorites" system to save and recall specific servers. If you know what you're doing, having access to low-level network settings will help you tune the whole system.
6. Finally, there's the price. Beware of apparently cheap deals: these may have restricted features, exclude taxes, be discounted for the first billing period only, and renew automatically, so that apparent one-off £3.99 might become almost £10 next month. Look for a 'Pricing' link, read the small print, and if possible use something like PayPal where it's easy to check and cancel a subscription yourself.
Once you've found what looks like the best VPN candidate, be sure to take it for a trial before you spend any big money. But a VPN free trial can only tell you so much, so once that's expired, pay for a month, run as many tests as you can, then upgrade to a better value plan (usually yearly) if you're still happy.
How do VPNs work?
A VPN is designed to make using the internet safer, more private and more convenient, and it does that by creating a secure connection between you and the site or service you want to access. All traffic between you and the site or service is encrypted, so it’s meaningless to anyone else.
To make this happen, a VPN takes your internet traffic and reroutes it through its own servers – so instead of going like this:
Your device —> The website
And back again like this:
The website —> Your device
It goes like this:
Your device —> Secure VPN servers —> The website
And back again like this:
The website —> Secure VPN servers —> Your device
That doesn’t just improve security - although that’s the main reason for doing it - it also disguises where you are. Your computer, smartphone, tablet or games console might be in London, but as far as the website is concerned you could be connecting from New York, or from Mumbai, or from Naples.
That means VPNs can also protect your privacy and get round “geo-blocking”, which is when a site uses your location information to decide whether or not it’s going to let you see or hear something.
Why do I need a VPN?
There are lots of reasons why you might need a VPN. One of the most important ones is data security, especially when you’re out and about. How often have you connected to a Wi-Fi hotspot somewhere public, such as in a bus terminal, train station, café or airport? Wi-Fi hotspots aren’t particularly secure things, but with a VPN you can be confident that nobody’s eavesdropping when you do your online banking or send the boss your top secret world domination plans.
A VPN protects you from fake hotspots, which are convincing-looking Wi-Fi hotspots designed to steal people’s data and/or personal information. Even if you connect, your data can’t be intercepted.
VPNs can also protect your privacy by disguising your location. For some of us that means it prevents those ubiquitous trackers from following us around the internet, and it enables us to get past geoblocking when we travel – handy if you want to catch up on that box set but aren’t in the same country as your subscription. But for others it’s life-saving, because it evades censorship and government monitoring of communications. A VPN makes it much harder to identify the source of an upload, or what websites a person might have visited.
How do I get a VPN?
Thankfully, downloading and installing your new VPN is much easier than trying ti understand the ins and outs of how they work! All of the best VPNs listed above make it really quick to get started on desktop or, if you're on mobile, then you could go to the App Store or Play Store and download them there, instead.
Usually, the prices are quoted in their effective monthly cost, but note that you will need to pay the full amount upfront.
Once installed, you can then get extensions added to your chosen web browser, and go about adding functionality to your various devices. That includes your computer and mobile phone of course, but also your games console, tablet, TV streaming devices - even your internet router.
VPN services: what can I use them for?
If there’s one worry when it comes to using technology and the internet, it’s privacy. By using a VPN, you can, in theory, prevent your internet service provider (ISP) and government from seeing your internet history.
VPNs have also emerged as a popular tool in the freedom of speech movement. You’re able to avoid censorship within organisations (check out our best China VPN page, for more information on that) and from third-parties. For example, if you have a view that goes against the priorities of your employer, you don’t have to worry about them finding out.
People also use VPN technology to “geo-spoof” their location. This results in users customising their location settings to be able to use overseas services. A great example of this is watching a TV programme or online product that’s only available in a specific country, perhaps due to legal or licensing issues - that's why using a VPN for Netflix has become so popular.
You can resort to a VPN to protect yourself from hackers too. If you’re outside and sign up to use a public internet hotspot - perhaps in a cafe or library - there is the chance someone could try to break into your device. This can lead to you losing valuable data, such as passwords.
This technology is also emerging as a popular force in the world of business. When you’re traveling around for meetings all the time, it’s normal to connect to third-party networks. With a VPN, you can access your firm’s intranet without the worry of being targeted by cyber criminals.
Many VPN services - there are about 400 of them on mobile and desktop - offer different pros and cons, so if you're looking to access Hulu or BBC iPlayer from a different region, dial into your office network or simply stay safe and secure online, you'll find a service tailored precisely to your needs.
Furthermore, a VPN can be used to avoid having your internet connection throttled, and that’s certainly relevant at the moment given what Verizon is up to over in the States. According to reports, the ISP has capped Netflix streaming at 10Mbps, and also throttled video on its unlimited plans meaning that smartphone viewers can’t achieve a better quality than 480p.
It’s also interesting to note that while phishing remains a major danger online, a VPN can help protect you against malware or con tricks when web browsing.
VPN services: what will they let me watch?
As well as keeping you safe and sound while browsing the web, VPN services are also handy for catching your favorite TV shows and live sports while you're out of the country. If you've ever tried to stream something on your tablet or laptop while on holiday only be told that rights restrictions mean you can't, then this is for you! Changing your IP address to a server in your homeland will get around the problem.
We've produced individual guides on how to watch certain shows and events with a VPN:
- Basketball's back and here's how to get an NBA live stream
- Elite European soccer see how to live stream Champions League
- Smell the tyres and petrol - watch an F1 live stream
- No need to go down to the ball game with an MLB live stream
- Watch Game of Thrones online - see how to catch up with every season
- How to watch Handmaid's Tale season 3 online from anywhere
- Watch Peaky Blinders online whether or not you're in the UK
- How to watch Friends - stream every episode online from anywhere
Free vs. paid VPN: Which is truly better?
Some companies now offer a basic service that won't cost you anything at all. Are the free VPN services as good as their paid-for counterparts then? Not so fast.
As you'd expect, there are catches, and they typically start with a data cap. Avira Phantom VPN's free plan limits you to 500MB a month, PrivateTunnel offers 2GB, whereas ZPN has a generous 10GB allowance - not bad at all.
Free products also typically have usage restrictions. Most companies don't want you to soak up all their bandwidth on torrents, so ZPN is typical in blocking P2P.
Hide.me's 2GB free plan also has some common limits. There's "best effort" bandwidth, which means paying customers have speed priority and you get what's left. And the choice of locations is limited to three: Canada, Netherlands and Singapore.
Hola's free-for-personal-use plan doesn't have the same kind of restrictions, but even here there's a catch. The service routes traffic through its free users rather than dedicated servers, so signing up allows others to (securely) share a small part of your bandwidth and resources.
Then there's the adverts and the session limits (CyberGhost) and the general lack of service level agreement: free means that it doesn't come with any implicit warranties.
Free plans are fine for simple needs, then - maybe protecting your laptop's wireless hotspot traffic on the occasional trip - but if you're looking for anything more advanced, a commercial product is best.
The immediate benefit is that you know your personal data remains safe, even if you're on a public Wi-Fi hotspot. Local snoopers might be able to see the connection, but there's no way to find out what it is or where it's going.
VPNs also give you a new digital identity in the shape of an IP address from another country. This makes it harder for websites or anyone else to track you, allows some people to bypass government censorship, and helps the rest of us avoid those "not available in your country" messages on YouTube or other streaming sites.
Best of all, despite the low-level network technology involved, you don't need to be any kind of expert to make VPNs work. For the most part, all you have to do is choose the country where you'd like an IP address, click Connect to start, Disconnect when you're done - and that's it.
Are VPNs legal?
VPNs are legal in most of the world, but some countries have either banned VPNs altogether or put very severe restrictions on their use. Those bans are more relevant to the people that live there than to people who travel there: we’re not aware of any tourists being thrown in the clink for running a VPN to secure their hotel Wi-Fi, but clearly it’s wise to be careful in more repressive regimes.
In countries that do restrict VPN use there’s often a distinction between approved and unapproved ones. For example, in China VPNs must be approved by the Chinese government, which suggests that they’re the last things you should rely on to hide your activities from the Chinese government. If you use an unapproved one, you can be fined heavily.
In the United Arab Emirates, you can be fined over half a million dollars and/or thrown in jail for using any VPN. It’s a similar story in Russia, while in Iran use of an unapproved VPN can put you in prison. In Uganda, ISPs block all VPN services, Oman bans unapproved ones and Iraq, Belarus and Turkmenistan ban all VPNs. So does North Korea.
VPN services: how we test them
We were looking for features, value, and clear and honest pricing. Free ways to learn more about a service - free plans, trial periods, refund periods - were important, and we also looked for companies which maintain your privacy when you signed up (no email address required, trials available without credit cards, Bitcoin available as a payment option).
VPN performance is difficult to measure as there are so many variables, but we used multiple techniques to try and get a feel for each service's abilities. We first used speedtest.net to measure the latency, upload and download speeds for a distant connection (typically UK to California), repeated the test immediately with the VPN turned off, and looked at any changes.
We followed this up with a much shorter connection (typically UK to Netherlands) to see a more typical peak performance, ran a second benchmark to confirm our results, and ran some general browsing tests - including streaming HD video - to look for other problems.
VPNs will always give you a new IP address, but some services may have DNS or other leaks which give clues about your identity. We visited IPLeak.net and other privacy sites to look for problems.
In terms of the client and interface, we were looking for good server selection tools (by country, region, server, speed, with filters, a Favourites system, perhaps with server load or ping time displayed), with plenty of configuration options, but also a client which stays out of the way until it's needed.
Finally, we weighed up these individual factors, came up with an overall score, and narrowed these down to the 10 best VPNs around. All the software in the top five scored at least 70 points out of 100.