A VPN service helps to make you more anonymous online, encrypts your internet use, and lets you effectively trick your laptop or mobile device into thinking it's in another location entirely.
And it's the versatility of the best VPNs that have made them such a game-changing bit of kit for laptops, desktops, tablets, smartphones, streaming devices, Smart TVs - even games consoles.
If you're entirely new to the world of VPNs, you've come to the right place. In this guide, you'll get a full explainer of what they are (VPN is short for 'virtual private network', by the way), what they do, how they work and why they're such handy, affordable everyday tools. While if you're already in the know, this is also the place to discover mini reviews of the best VPNs in 2021 following our most recent round of in-depth testing...
2021's very best VPN services
1. ExpressVPN - best VPN service in the world
ExpressVPN just can't be knocked off its perch at the head of the top VPN table. It ticks all of the boxes: fast server connections, serious security smarts, ridiculously easy to use, ace customer support - even free cloud backup thrown in. It's the very best around and you can try it for 30-days risk-free.
2. NordVPN - the biggest name in the business
NordVPN is jam-packed with features, unblocks loads of streaming services and boasts extra privacy perks like 'Double VPN' security and an independently audited no-log policy. And despite the quality on offer, the pricing gets really reasonable if you sign up for a multi-year plan.
3. Surfshark - easy to use VPN that's great value
If you're more concerned about grabbing a bargain than going for the all out best above, then Surfshark should be on your shortlist. From just $2.50 USD/£2/$AU3.50 per month it's a fantastic, premium option that's super simple to use and has become a TechRadar favorite.
For many, getting a VPN service will be all about privacy. You may want to use them to help keep your online life completely anonymous from prying eyes of your ISP (handy for keen torrenters) or even your government.
And because the best VPNs also let you change your IP address to one in a completely different city or country, these services have taken on a much wider use. VPNs are fantastic for streamers, for example, who want to have access to a whole world of shows and films on Netflix and more, or want to watch and Olympics live stream somewhere you ordinarily can't.
While if you’re on holiday and find your favorite app is banned (think about some of the internet censorship in Cuba, Turkey, China - even Canada), an online VPN will let you use the internet in the way you’ve become accustomed. And that’s just for starters…
Below you'll find handy VPN reviews of all the best services on the market, and further down the page there's stacks of information about the software.
The best VPN service of 2021 in full - top 15:
In May 2021 we completed our latest round of in-depth VPN reviews and, once again, ExpressVPN came out on top of the pile. It impressed in every test we threw at it and the 5-star rating we've given it is testament to the fact it can barely be improved upon.
So let's get in to some specifics. It starts well right from the off, as you you'll immediately note that ExpressVPN gives you the choice of over 3,000 servers in 160 locations across 94 countries.
Its five simultaneous connections will be more than enough for most subscribers (although most other VPN services on this list to permit more) and in addition to fantastic apps on Windows, Mac, Android, iOS and Linux (and dedicated extensions for Chrome and Firefox), it's also really easy to use on the likes of Apple TV, Roku, Amazon Fire Stick, smart TVs, PlayStation, Xbox and routers, too.
The service already used industry-standard encryption and a choice of various other protocols (including IKEv2, OpenVPN and L2TP/IPsec) to keep your data safe. But perhaps most exciting is that it has now begun rolling out its very own Lightway protocol that seeks to increase speed and reliability even further.
But away from the numbers and specifications, it’s in our real-life testing where ExpressVPN really shines. For starters, it’s fast. Really fast, with fantastic connection speeds across servers in multiple countries. And that's even when we're using the default OpenVPN protocol in our tests - they get even quicker with the aforementioned Lightway option turned on.
We also love just how easy to use this service is. That might seem obvious, but not every VPN provider out there has worked out how to make its tools intuitive, regardless of what device you're using it on. From desktop and mobile, to TV streamers and browser extensions, ExpressVPN is a doddle to set up and operate for both pros and inexperienced users.
For many people looking for a VPN, it all comes down to how good a service is at unblocking banned websites/services and getting around TV streaming hurdles. So we check to see whether they can unblock geo-restrictions that stop you watching services like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, BBC iPlayer and Disney+ from abroad – ExpressVPN unlocks them all without a hint of difficulty.
In terms of additional features, ExpressVPN goes above and beyond. Bitcoin payments, P2P support, kill switch, DNS leak protection, solid and reliable performance and a clear no-logging policy that’s been verified by independent auditors. It’s all there.
It’s really worth knowing about this VPN provider’s excellent levels of customer support. Its 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.
Frankly, we don't mask the fact of how highly we rate ExpressVPN. It's very simple... it is the best VPN you can get in virtually every scenario. Don't believe us? You can always take advantage of ExpressVPN’s quibble-free 30-day money back guarantee that you can use like a free trial – not that we imagine you’d need to use it.
Get the best overall VPN 2021 with 3 months FREE
Our #1 recommended VPN is the one we use ourselves. And the great news is that TechRadar readers get three extra months free when they sign up for an annual plan, as well as a year's access of unlimited Backblaze cloud backup (worth $60). Plus, you can also give it a try with a 30-day money back guarantee.
NordVPN's current product matches or beats virtually all of the competition in just about every area. When it comes to our overall title for the best VPN, ExpressVPN should watch its back!
For starters, the levels of security NordVPN has to offer have been impressing us for some time now. While it too offers AES-256 as standard, you also have the option to turn on its Double VPN system where all your internet traffic is encrypted not once, but twice. Handy to know where your internet anonymity is paramount like when you're on public Wi-Fi or, perhaps, torrenting.
It actually bests ExpressVPN on pure server count, cranking things up to an eye-watering 5,000 (in roughly 60 countries) and it allows for one more simultaneous connection at six.
Like its main competitor above, other features include strong DNS leak protection, kill switches (application-specific and system wide), proxy extensions for Chrome and Firefox browsers, and payment options that include Bitcoin, PayPal and credit cards. And it is also strong on unblocking Netflix and other services - although Brits abroad do have to resort to a workaround to access iPlayer.
The steps to take are all explained out in one of NordVPN's myriad troubleshooting articles. Not only are they plentiful, these guides are also really useful. And there's always chatbot and excellent live customer support on hand 24/7 if you're still struggling.
We also have a lot of love for Nord's dedication to putting the tarnishing news of historic data breaches behind it. It now brings in PricewaterhouseCoopers to carry out a thorough audit of its no-logging policy every year.
Last year's introduction of the provider's custom NordLynx protocol was certainly eye-catching. It has helped to make Nord's connection speeds even faster and more reliable, even from servers that are further afield. That said, this is one category where Express pips it to the post.
If we have one other 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 wishing for tweaks. That's especially the case when it comes to its otherwise effective mobile apps. But, these are pretty minor minus points and, as with any reviews you'll find on the internet, we understand that this ultimately comes down to personal preference.
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.
NordVPN gives you a big 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 65% off the price, bringing things down to around an effective $4 per month.
Surfshark is a service we really like and with a couple of very attractive USPs.
We'll come on to features, spec and the like in a moment. But there's no getting away from the fact that the main draw here is Surfshark's scarcely believable pricing. Sign up to its annual plan and the effective monthly cost comes in at less than $2.50 USD / £2 GBP / $3.50 AUD.
And that's for unlimited connections, too. 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. And theoretically you could even let friends and family members use your sub, too.
But the success of this VPN isn't exclusively based on cost. We'd also let Surfshark's laid-back and playful branding take some of the credit, which helps to make a potentially scary sounding bit of software look like a really user-friendly product.
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.
That all said, when it comes to keeping you and your online identity secure, Surfshark is all business. It has now added the new protocol in town WireGuard to its OpenVPN UDP and TCP and IKEv2 options. In addition, Surfshark boasts a private DNS and an extra security blanket via a double VPN hop. And we found it successfully gets to grips with unblocking geo-restricted access to Netflix, BBC iPlayer, Disney+ and others.
Surfshark offers a 30-day money back guarantee, giving you plenty of time to give it a try before committing for a longer period.
So where does it lose marks? Not too many places, but competition is tough these days - especially when Express and Nord have managed to improve their server speeds so substantially, while Surfshark's have remained merely 'good'. But it always feels like Surfshark is trying to raise its game, and in May 2021 it let independent security consultants Cure53 complete a security assessment to "to thoroughly examine and evaluate the security posture exposed by the Surfshark server" - it ultimately confirmed that there was "a very solid security premise at Surfshark".
And we'd certainly say that a place in the top three out of the 200+ VPNs we've reviewed isn't bad going! And the above considerations are unlikely to put off the bargain hunters among you.
One of the world's best value VPNs
While Surfshark loses out to ExpressVPN and NordVPN 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 $2.50 USD.
Hotspot Shield is a premium package gives you full access to 1,800+ servers in more than 80 countries, support for connecting up to five devices, 24/7 customer support and, of course, absolutely no ads at all. It's yet more evidence that taking the plunge and paying just a few dollars a month gets you a far superior VPN experience - especially when you read more below about its exclusive pricing just for TechRadar readers.
Yes, some of those specs on paper are fairly unspectacular in the context of what some other providers give. But it's what our in-depth testing revealed that really stands out - and that's pure speed. If your main consideration when picking a VPN is speed (perhaps you're a gamer, streamer or torrenter) then Hotspot should be towards the very top of your shortlist.
Performance was a big highlight in our tests, with Hotspot Shield's proprietary Catapult Hydra protocol helping to deliver some of the fastest and most consistent download speeds we've seen and an average of 360-380Mb when using US or UK servers. Speeds remain high to some of the most distant locations, too.
- Exclusive price: sign up from just $2.49 / £2.29 per month
As well as being able to run the service on devices where you can use its native Windows, Mac, Android or iOS apps, Hotspot has 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 addition, especially if you only really wanted to keep your VPN on when shopping, banking, streaming, etc.
Really just want a VPN to help you stream more and varied content? Then this is another area that Hotspot really impresses. In our testing, we found that this service is pretty much on a par with Express and Nord when it comes to unblocking geo-restricted apps and services. So from watching foreign Netflix catalogs, to accessing HBO Max from outside the US, to using social media apps that your school or office might block, Hotspot Shield is a reliable tool.
If Hotspot uses 2021 to bring in some independent auditors to verify its logging practices, we'd be happier still. Especially as the provider does admit to logging VPN sessions, bandwidth, domains accessed and IP addresses. All of these are reasoned out on Hotspot's website, but we'd welcome an auditor's view on things. There's also room for improvement on its iOS app, which just doesn't quite match the high quality desktop or Android experience.
Subscribe for more than just a month at a time, and Hotspot Shield becomes one of the best priced premium VPNs on the market. And if you try it and still aren't impressed, then there's a generous 45-day money back guarantee that will let you get your money back without issue.
Save big with TechRadar's exclusive pricing
You can try one of our current favorite VPNs for 45 days risk free to discover for yourself why we rate it so highly. The biggest savings kick in if you choose to sign up for three years, as it brings the effective monthly cost down to a mere $2.49 USD / £2.29 - a price you won't find anywhere else on the web!
It may not be quite the fastest VPN, or the cheapest, or the most powerful, but Private Internet Access (often stylized as simply PIA) is still a likeable VPN provider with more than enough features to justify a place on your shortlist.
Its most notable claim of recent VPN reviews is a huge increase in PIA's server count. It's taken things from mediocre 2,000ish to an almost unfathomable 30,000+. That puts it way ahead of the rest when it comes to pure server numbers, and the network only seems to be growing.
That sure sounds impressive, but it wouldn't be worth a thing without the usability and security aspects. Fortunately, PIA offers a healthy mix of privacy features and security protocols (including WireGuard) - this extends to its first rate Chrome extension, which adds in the option to block location access, third-party cookies, website referrers and more.
Whether you're intending to use your VPN mostly on Windows, Mac, Android, iOS, Linux or maybe a mix, they're all reliable, easy to use, with more features than most. That's not just us saying that either, as the user reviews on the App Store and Play Store are generally really positive. And there's support here for up to 10 simultaneous connections, so it's easy to cover pretty much all of your devices on one reasonable subscription.
Speaking frankly, in its current state PIA will never get near featuring on our list of the fastest VPNs. It isn't the slowest around and won't significantly hold you up for most 'normal' web activity. But for gamers looking for an edge, streamers who hate the merest hint of buffering and torrenters not wanting to hang around, maybe you should go from one of the better/faster options on this list.
But PIA still does plenty to stand out from the crowd and the pricing beats a lot of the competition - often throwing in free extra months or additional security licences when you sign up for more than a year.
VPN service CyberGhost has been a firm favorite of ours for some time now, and it's no surprise that it has a user base of over ten million subscribers. The company covers the basics well, with more than 7,000 servers spread across 90-odd countries, apps for Windows, Mac, iOS and Android, torrents allowed and speedy live chat support.
If you're somebody who will largely be using your VPN on a Windows desktop or laptop, that's where CyberGhost really shines. Beneath its clean, easy to follow interface lies a sea of fantastic features and functionality. It will quickly connect you to the right server for you if you're specifically looking to stream or torrent, for example.
And extra touches like its Smart Rules panel shows that the engineers at CyberGhost have really put some thought into the user experience. It allows you to automatically connect to your preferred server launch a particular app (such as your default browser in incognito mode) when you boot up your computer. A genuinely useful added bonus.
We need to spend just a bit of time mentioning the speeds CyberGhost demonstrated in our most recent tests. Even before we jumped on the WireGuard protocol, we witnessed some connection speeds that give the likes of NordVPN and ExpressVPN a run for their money. Although further afield (like in New Zealand), these began lagging behind a little.
Website unblocking has historically been another string suit of CyberGhost's, but it has been somewhat patchy in recent times. Yes, it can get around geo-restrictions on certain services like Netflix US and Disney+. But it can't handle others like BBC iPlayer, nor can it get access to exclusive Netflix content in other regions like Canada and the UK.
But with a meaty 45-day money back guarantee and fair pricing (especially if you're willing to commit), CyberGhost is still well worth a closer look. With parent company Kape showing more and more ambition in this cybersecurity field, you should be in capable hands of an organisation that continually seeks to push the envelope.
Windscribe is a trusted name in the realm of VPNs and it delivers a high quality product with plenty going for it. You get clients for Windows, Mac, Android, iOS and Linux, for instance, as well as slick browser extensions for Chrome, Firefox and Opera extensions. A single subscription covers unlimited devices, too, so you can cover them all with Windscribe.
Streaming Netflix (in some regions), Amazon Prime Video, BBC iPlayer and YouTube via Windscribe was also possible. That makes the provider a sound option for streamers that want to watch overseas content or their own programming from abroad. While Windscribe seems to have put plenty of effort in to maintaining high VPN server speeds, too.
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.
Windscribe doesn't tick every available box then, 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 a generous 2GB-10GB data allowance a month.
IPVanish has been a reliable performer in our VPN tests for years. The service has some impressive stats: 40,000+ shared IPs, 1,600+ VPN servers in 70+ locations, unmetered 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.
There's something about IPVanish that just feels immediately comforting when you get started. It's probably the reassuring graphs and charts in the desktop app that does it. But rest assured, it's not just about looks as IPVanish has the security smarts (AES-256 encryption, kill switch, DNS and IPv6 leak protection) to fit the bill as a great choice for the privacy conscious.
While the Android and iOS apps don't seem to get updated or refreshed that often, there's probably a good reason for that - they function really well. The Android VPN app is a particular feather in IPVanish's cap, with more settings and options than most of the competition and the ability to really configure it to your ideal set up.
With the likes of Nord, Express and Hotspot all rolling out their own proprietary security protocols, IPVanish is beginning to look a little bit left behind in terms of modernisation and speeds as we plough on into the 2020s. It doesn't even offer WireGuard yet. And our latest round of testing showed struggles to unblock Amazon Prime Video, BBC iPlayer and large swathes of Netflix shows, which makes it hard to wholeheartedly recommend if you're looking to uncover a new world of content to stream.
But overall, if you need its unbarred 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.
ProtonVPN is a VPN service that continues to grow in terms of servers (almost doubling its network in the last year), making notable improvements to its clients and apps, and adding new features and support.
That all only adds to our opinion of a VPN provider that 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. And it's even begun auditing its apps to show they comply with today's rigorous privacy standards. On to your desktop clients next please, Proton.
It's based in Switzerland - already feels safer, right? - and offers really stylish apps that are a joy to use and are enhanced by working kill switches and desktop-like features. Pay by Bitcoin, if you like, and enjoy solid P2P support for torrenting and a range of streaming services unlocked.
Proton has also started to improve its streaming skills, too, becoming a reliable provider for getting around geo-restrictions when you're abroad. It breezed past BBC iPlayer, aces Amazon Prime Video and netted us access to foreign Netflix catalogs without much trouble at all. Although it should be noted that this is only the case if you have a Plus subscription - you won't get this kind of quality from its free or Basic tiers.
Of all ProtonVPN's plus points this year, it has begun lagging behind the rest when it comes purely to server speed, and it's yet to adopt WireGuard to help it compete. And, like Windscribe above, it's high time it hired a few customer support staff to answer queries readily at all times of the day. We also feel just a little bit irked that the 30-day money back guarantee works on a pro-rata basis - if you use it for 15 days, say, you'll only get a 50% return. Feels like poor form, although at least Proton has a very useful free VPN if you do want to give it a try without any cost whatsoever.
So ProtonVPN isn't perfect. It still doesn't have that many servers or locations, and it's quite expensive if you need all the features we've described here (though a basic plan costs less than $5 a month). This is a powerful and trustworthy service, though, and if that's your top priority, we'd recommend you take a look.
Well you can't accuse StrongVPN of being vague when it comes to its name. Unlike premium services such as CyberGhost and Windscribe, there's no doubt left in anybody's mind what StrongVPN is all about.
And the similarities with those bigger names doesn't end there. StrongVPN offers a litany of protocols (L2TP, SSTP, OpenVPN, IPSec and IKEv2) including the super speedy WireGuard on all of its apps, and an impressive roughly 60,000 VPN IP addresses.
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.
And if your primary aim is to find the perfect piece of software to help you stream all your favorite services, we found that StrongVPN easily unblocked streaming sites like Netflix, Disney+ and Amazon Prime Video from overseas (although we had no luck with BBC iPlayer).
But it comes up short in other areas - read up and down this page and the 900-odd servers, 50-something cities and 30 countries perhaps feels somewhat behind what the others on this list offer. And our latest set of speed tests weren't overly encouraging either.
But see for yourself - StrongVPN still has a lot going for it, as well as that familiar 30-day money back guarantee. And, as an extra added perk, it will throw in 250GB of free secure cloud storage from the reputable SugarSync when you sign up for one of StrongVPN's already-reasonable annual plans.
Of all the VPNs on this list, it's HideMyAss! that tops the lot when it comes to server location numbers. It's somehow scouted out servers in around 200 locations across more than 200 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, 50+ in Africa, and more than 55 in Asia Pacific.
Of course server variation is far from everything (in fact, it's a fairly minor 'win' in the grand scheme of things). but the jocular provider has been around a while now and is owned by reputable cybersecurity company Avast. It clearly takes privacy very seriously, and joins the list of VPN providers that have brought in independent auditors to confirm that it's firing on all security cylinders.
Its apps are easy to use and cover the basics very well. 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.
That said, it's online support website is pretty underwhelming. We're just glad that there are customer advisers available via 24/7 live chat that you're able to speak to in the event that any of the set up or use becomes problematic.
We're afraid that's still not going to help the streamers among you though. Other than Netflix and iPlayer, HMA really struggled to unblock most of the other big names in TV streaming. A black mark, but won't matter to you if your main reason to grab a VPN is for sure-fire anonymity online.
VyprVPN is the second Switzerland-based provider on this list and is probably one of the more famous names on it as well. It boasts plenty of the features you'd expect of a modern VPN, including a no-logging policy that's audited by an outside security company, instantaneous live chat support, and the speedy WireGuard protocol on its desktop clients and mobile VPN apps.
It may only have 700-odd servers - much less than most of the competition these days - but they're spread far and wide across 60+ countries and are all fully owned by VyprVPN itself. That means it doesn't have to rely on third-party web hosts, thus making the whole operation immediately feel more secure.
If you're looking for website unblocking, this service gave us easy access to US Netflix, BBC iPlayer, Disney+, Hulu and many more during our testing. The only blemish was Amazon Prime Video, but that does generally tend to be a more challenging service for VPNs to handle.
Android user that knows you'll be using the VPN frequently on your phone? Then VyprVPN is a fine foil. Open up the app and it looks just like the full Windows client (that's a good thing, by the way) and features a hatful of handy features: kill switch, DNS leak protection, start-up and auto-reconnect options, URL filtering. The iOS app doesn't quite squeeze as much in as the Android version (no kill switch, for example), but it's still nice to use on iPhone.
It functions admirably on Windows, too, although we did get some niggly kill switch issues there. And using OpenVPN as default, we found the connections speeds to be a fair way down on average - a problem that should be avoidable if you just use WireGuard.
VyprVPN isn't quite perfect, then, but there's undoubtedly a lot to like - a must for your VPN service shortlist.
TunnelBear is a Canadian-based VPN service with a strong emphasis on ease-of-use and bear-related humor. Fortunately, usability does get priority over the bear pun, though sometimes it's a close-run thing!
The focus on a product that's simple an effective is actually quite refreshing in a sea of other VPNs that claim to have every tiny feature under the sun. Whether you're going to be using TunnelBear on desktop or generally on its very attractive mobile apps for Android or iPhone, this provider makes using a VPN an absolute doddle.
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.
While we're on the subject of other providers, however, TunnelBear does come up short in a few areas of direct comparison. There's support for starters, with not a lot of online articles and a complete omission of live chat support present. You can't pay by PayPal for your subscription (although Bitcoin users have that option) and it's very surprising these days not to see a money back guarantee available if you're dissatisfied. So if you really do like the look of this provider, we'd suggest giving the underpowered free version a whirl first.
And streamers bear-ware (wow, it really rubs of!) as this VPN really struggled in its attempts to unlock foreign Netflix and BBC iPlayer catalogues.
But if you're happy with the basics, there's plenty to like here. Performance was another highlight, with speedy UK and European servers and solid results from the US.
Bitdefender boldly holds the top spot in our best antivirus guide, but the company's venture into the realm of standalone VPN services is still a relatively new one. Gladly, we can certainly say that Bitdefender Premium VPN is improving fast - even if it's not yet ready to join the ranks of our top 10 best VPNs.
Yep, if you're looking for a fully fledged VPN solution to unblock every streaming service out there (we only managed Netflix), add extra features like DNS leak protection and kill switches on every app, and myriad server locations in every conceivable city, then we suggest casting your eyes upwards to another name on this list.
But if you're a Bitdefender stalwart or have had your head turned by the price, then there's still plenty here to like. First and foremost, the speeds. It uses the same Catapult Hydra protocol as Hotspot Shield above, which means Bitdefender immediately becomes one of the very fastest VPNs on test.
It's delightfully easy to use, too. If you feel yourself becoming a bit anxious of this new software called a 'virtual private network', Bitdefender really eases you in with stripped back VPN apps and desktop version (although you could also deem that a negative - as we say, this is definitely far less feature-filled than the competition).
But thanks to the firm's brilliant internet security software, we'll be keeping an interested eye on Bitdefender's VPN offering as it continues to improve and add key features.
VPN Unlimited from KeepSolid is quite a frustrating beast. It has plenty of good things going for it: Netflix unblocking, WireGuard support, AES-256 encryption, reasonable pricing. And it appears that its loyal subscribers really like it, with strong scores on app stores and user review sites - reassuring, considering some will have inevitably signed up with the provider's somewhat unusual Lifetime option.
In our testing, we recorded some fantastic server speeds, too. They were especially impressive where we connected to nearby US servers, but things remained above average when we jumped on those further afield. And that was on OpenVPN, too, so doesn't account for any boosts afforded by the swift WireGuard protocol.
Unfortunately, we're faced with a 'but' alongside almost every positive when we talk about VPN Unlimited. It's fast on Windows, but we found lots of bugs and technical issues, like the inability to connect via WireGuard, kill switch fails and general stability issues and crashing.
It unlocks Netflix, Disney+ and iPlayer, but we had no luck with (the admittedly tricksy) Amazon Prime Video. A sub covers your choice of five or 10 devices, but this refers to specific devices (so, say, if you connect two phones, two laptops and a Smart TV, 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). There's a seven day free trial, but no longer term money back guarantee. There's decent web-based support, but no functioning live chat customer advisors.
In a VPN-verse where the competition is getting better and better, VPN Unlimited just feels a bit undercooked. It runs on almost anything (Windows, Mac, Android, iOS, Linux, Apple TV, even Windows phone), and torrents are supported on some servers. And if you only need the basics, then the price is far lower than most of the other services on this list.
We're looking at how our readers use VPNs, in order to help improve our coverage and make sure we're giving the best advice. We'd love to hear your thoughts in the survey below. It won't take more than 60 seconds of your time.
Virtual Private Networks - an explanation of VPNs
VPN stands for ‘virtual private network’ and describes a piece of software that has fast become an everyday piece of online kit for individuals and businesses alike. They're popularity in recent years has been staggering - largely based on their offering a means of additional cybersecurity, but also for the other applications they offer.
All the traffic that passes through your VPN connection is secured by encryption and cannot, in theory, be intercepted by anyone else, making it the safest mainstream way to browse the web privately and, for the most part, anonymously. That allows individuals, organizations and 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, because you end up directing all of your traffic through an independent, secure server, also means you could browse and access content you might otherwise not be able to get where you are physically - such as a Netflix catalog in another country or using your VPN for BBC iPlayer.
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...
Best VPN FAQ
What is the best VPN for 2021?
Right now, ExpressVPN tops our list of the best VPN. The reasons are many (and explored in depth in this article) but in short it's because it delivers reliable, fast server connections; is jam-packed with security smarts; is a joy to use whether on desktop, mobile or other devices; has a proven track record of unlocking blocked websites and streaming services; and in the unlikely event you do run in to difficulties, has fantastic, human customer support available 24/7.
You can try it out for 30 days risk-free thanks to its completely no-quibble money back guarantee. And when you sign up for an annual plan now, it also throws in a whole year of secure, unlimited cloud backup - courtesy of Backblaze.
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.
When is the best time to buy a VPN?
For most products like laptops, smartphones, mattresses and more, we'd usually suggest you wait until Black Friday deals or other sales events hit. And while the top VPN providers are starting to get the hang of these sales seasons, there are pretty much constantly some excellent VPN deals to be had across the entire year - so don't feel like you have to wait.
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.
You can explore the inner machinations of this software further in our full guide: "How does a VPN work?".
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.
Should I pay for a VPN?
Some companies now offer a basic service that won't cost you anything at all. So, are free VPN services as good as their paid-for counterparts then?
In short... no. As you'd expect, there are catches, and they typically start with a data cap. TunnelBear VPN's free plan limits you to 500MB a month, for example.
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. Then there's the adverts and the session limits 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.
How do I get a VPN?
Thankfully, downloading and installing your new VPN is much easier than trying to 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.
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.
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 your top 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.
VPN services and what you can 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 10Mb, 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 they can let you 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 - here are just a few of them:
- It's finally happening - discover how to get an Olympics live stream
- Track postseason twists and turns with an NBA playoffs live stream
- More of a baseball fan? Then beat the blackouts with an MLB live stream
- Elite European soccer: see how to live stream Champions League
- Smell the tyres and petrol - watch an F1 live stream
- Grapple fan? Discover how to watch UFC live streams around the world
- Watch international soccer with our 2021 Gold Cup live stream guide
- Follow more zany adventures and watch Ricky and Morty season 5 online
- Prepare the suntan lotion - it's time to watch Love Island again
- See all the emergency room drama - how to watch Grey's Anatomy
- Gripping UK crime drama with Line of Duty season 6
How we test VPN services
When we test these services for our VPN reviews, we're looking for features, value, and clear and honest pricing. Free ways to learn more about a service - free plans, trial periods, refund periods - are important, and we also looked for companies which maintain your privacy when you sign 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 use speed test tools to measure the latency, upload and download speeds for a distant connection (typically UK to US), repeated the test immediately with the VPN turned off, and looked at any changes. We follow this up with a much shorter connection (such as UK to Netherlands) to see a more typical peak performance.
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're looking for top VPN server selection tools (by country, region, server, speed, with filters, a Favorites 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 weigh up these individual factors, came up with an overall score, and narrow these down to the best VPNs around.