Getting the best VPN you can continues to be an essential piece of kit to keep your online life as safe and secure as possible in 2020 - especially in the light of current world events.
As well as being the ideal service to help you use the internet safely and get around blocked websites, the best VPN providers will also let you access the freshest films and shows in foreign Netflix catalogues, stream in safety, access geo-blocked websites and much, much more (even if they're not much use for watching sport in distant climes, right now!).
The best VPN service 2020 - our top picks
An abbreviation of Virtual Private Network, a VPN service allows you to change or 'spoof' your IP address to a secure server. That helps to make you more anonymous online and let's you effectively trick your laptop or mobile device into thinking it's in another location. It's no surprise that the best VPN options have become so popular, increasingly being used as a replacement for or in addition to traditional online security.
And it's similarly unsurprising that there are so many VPN services you can choose from - the amount of options now available to download are overwhelming. Luckily for you, TechRadar has tested and reviewed over a hundred of the best VPN providers (and the worst!) to come up with a definitive top 12, together with key information and specs on each.
So whatever you're intending to use your new VPN service for, 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 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 IPVanish that handles P2P and torrenting particularly admirably. Read more about these VPN services and the competition below.
The best all-round VPN service for speed, privacy and unblocking
Number of servers: 3,000+ | Server locations: 160 | IP addresses: 30,000 | Maximum devices supported: 5
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, alongside 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.
One of the fastest swimmers in the VPN sea
Number of servers: 1000+ | Server locations: 60+ | IP addresses: N/A | Maximum devices supported: Unlimited
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.
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.
If you're somebody who is easily bamboozled and, ultimately, put off by complicated menus and myriad options, Surfshark could be the best 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.
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.
A really solid VPN solution
Number of servers: 1,300 | Server locations: 75 | IP addresses: 40,000+ | Maximum devices supported: 10
IPVanish is another strong performer in our VPN tests. The service also has some impressive stats: 40,000+ shared IPs, 1,300+ VPN servers in 70+ countries, unlimited P2P traffic, ten 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 BBC iPlayer and US Netflix.
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 7-day money-back guarantee.
60%+ discount on up to 10 VPN connections
IPVanish has been loitering around our top 3 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, and up to 10 simultaneous connections at any one time.
Feature-packed clients and impressive configurability
Number of servers: 5,700+ | Server locations: 110+ | IP addresses: N/A | Maximum devices supported: 7
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 5,000 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.
Fantastic VPN service for browsing online privately
Number of servers: 3,200+ | Server locations: 70+ | IP addresses: N/A | Maximum devices supported: 5
Hotspot Shield is 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 70 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.
But there's a problem, too. As Hotspot Shield only uses its own Catapult Hydra protocol, and no longer supports standards like OpenVPN, you can't manually set it up on your router, games console, Chromebook, or anywhere else you might want to use the service. That means the service can only work on devices where you can run its Windows, Mac, Android or iOS apps.
There are a few other issues, like no Bitcoin support, a shortage of configuration options in the apps, and an inability to unblock BBC iPlayer, 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 7-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.
Previously one of the best - but security concerns have been revealed
Number of servers: 5,500+ | Server locations: 55+ | IP addresses: N/A | Maximum devices supported: 6
NordVPN's current products match or beat the competition in just about every area.
You get a choice of over 5,500 servers in 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 three-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.
That all said following the recent news that the popular virtual private network was hacked in 2018, we have decided to reduce NordVPN's review score down to 4 from 4.5. We are continuing to monitor the fallout of this and we will, in due course, make any changes if deemed necessary for your benefit - you can read a more in-depth analysis here.
A strong all-round VPN for a fair price
Number of servers: 3,300+ | Server locations: 50+ | IP addresses: N/A | Maximum devices supported: 10
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 50 locations across 32 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.
Strong by name...
Number of servers: 950+ | Server locations: 46 | IP addresses: ?? | Maximum devices supported: 12
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.
If you want an easy-to-use VPN service, you got it
Number of servers: 1,000 | Server locations: 20+ | IP addresses: N/A | Maximum devices supported: 5
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.
Great for performance and security
Number of servers: 700+ | Server locations: 70+ | IP addresses: 200,000+ | Maximum devices supported: 5
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.
Download speeds are mostly high, too, with only a few of the more unusual and out-of-the-way locations - Taiwan, Macao, the Maldives - lagging behind the rest. Even they managed around 8-10Mb, enough for many tasks.
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.
So there's a lot of good stuff...what about any negatives? We found a few quibbles during our latest round of testing, especially when using with its clunky Windows client that feels like a throwback to the internet of days past. Struggling with Vypr? Then the website support resources are definitely much less detailed than other VPN services.
VyprVPN isn't quite perfect, then, but there's undoubtedly a lot to like - a must for your VPN service shortlist.
- Basic: $9.95 monthly or $3.75 per month billed annually
- Premium: $12.95 monthly or $5.00 per month billed annually
A VPN service which gives you unlimited connections
Number of servers: 400+ | Server locations: 110 | IP addresses: N/A | Maximum devices supported: Unlimited
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 is a good size with locations in 110 cities spread across more than 60 countries.
While this sounds great on paper, real-world testing highlighted some problems. Connections times could be slow, and although performance was generally good, some long-distance servers barely managed a crawl. There was mixed news on website unblocking, too: we could view US Netflix, but Windscribe didn't get us access to BBC iPlayer.
There's no 24/7 support, either, 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.
Looking for a bargain? A free plan limits you to ten locations but gives you an exceptionally generous 10GB data allowance a month.
12. KeepSolid VPN Unlimited
Some multi-device hassles, but a fine VPN underneath
Number of servers: 400+ | Server locations: 80+ | IP addresses: N/A | Maximum devices supported: 5-10
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.
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 favourite TV shows and live sports while you're out of the country. If you've ever tried to stream something on your tablet 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:
- Get a Premier League live stream to watch every single match
- And for elite European soccer see how to live stream Champions League
- Rugby your game? Here's how to get a Six Nations live stream
- See how to get an NBA live stream from wherever you are
- Watch Game of Thrones online - see how to catch up with season 8
- 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
What is a VPN?
VPN stands for ‘virtual private networking’, which is a popular internet security method. The latter involves technologies that aim to add a layer of security to both private and public networks. These include broadband and internet hotspots.
A VPN (virtual private network) is 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 500 servers will automatically beat another with 100.
2. Check the number of simultaneous connections supported. Typically, this is 3-5, which allows you to have a PC, 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 "Favourites" 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 a good VPN candidate, be sure to take it for a trial before you spend any big money. But a short 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.
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.