Our top picks are proven to work with streaming apps and sites, reliably clock the fastest speeds and have the most useful set of privacy features. Their logging policies are the most transparent, fair and privacy-focused. Their apps are well-designed, quick to install and above all, easy to use. The best services also offer friendly customer support you can rely on to help you quickly should you get stuck.
The IVPN app’s default settings are great for most people, who should be happy just smashing the Connect button and not fiddling with settings. The desktop app defaults to a secure OpenVPN connection with AES 256-bit encryption (what we consider the standard at this point), and the mobile app can (and should) be toggled to OpenVPN as well. Our budget pick, TorGuard, defaults to the weaker (but also acceptable) AES 128-bit encryption unless you manually change it, and hasn’t added OpenVPN support on its iOS app.
Using Wi-Fi on the Windows laptops, we timed how long it took to connect to websites, measured latency times (how long it took a server to respond), and recorded upload and download speeds with Ookla's Speedtest meter, both with and without the VPN activated. We also timed how long it took to download a large video file, both with and without VPN activation.
The student/worker. This person has responsibilities to attend to, and uses a VPN provided by their school or company to access resources on their network when they’re at home or traveling. In most cases, this person already has a free VPN service provided to them, so they’re not exactly shopping around. Also, if they’re worried about security, they can always fire up their VPN when using airport or cafe WI-Fi to ensure no one’s snooping on their connection. Photo by Ed Yourdon.
Various countries around the world restrict access to one type of online content or another. Social networks, games, chat apps – even Google itself is not beyond the reach of censorship. In addition, many academic institutions and workplaces enable firewalls to limit access to websites for various reasons. These range from seeking to increase productivity to restricting inappropriate content.
Tests are run on connections ranging from 10 Mbps to 30 Mbps connections. Our testers are in different locations around the world, but we never plot the results of speed tests from different locations together. The internet in Buenos Aires will almost always be slower than in Berlin, for instance, so that wouldn’t be a fair comparison. We do add multiple tests to the same plot even if we ran them days or weeks apart, so long as they are from the same location.
Thankfully, there's a workaround for this problem. Instead of using the VPN app from the company from which you've purchased a subscription, you can download the standalone OpenVPN app. Open it, and you can enter your subscription information from the VPN company you've decided to work with. The OpenVPN app will then connect to the VPN company's servers using our preferred protocol.
Anti-Malware/Anti-Spyware Features: Using a VPN doesn’t mean you’re invulnerable. You should still make sure you’re using HTTPS whenever possible, and you should still be careful about what you download. Some VPN service providers—especially mobile ones—bundle their clients with anti-malware scanners to make sure you’re not downloading viruses or trojans. When you’re shopping, see if the providers you’re interested in offer anti-malware protection while you’re connected. For example, previously mentioned Hotspot Shield offers malware protection to its premium users. It may not be a dealbreaker for you, but it’s always good to have someone watching your back.
A lot of people avoid using VPN providers based out of the United States on the premise that US law would compel those providers to log all VPN activity. Counterintuitively, there are no such data logging requirements for US-based VPN providers. They might be compelled under another set of laws to turn over data if they have any to turn over, but there is no requirement they even keep the data in the first place.
VPNs also cloak your computer's actual IP address, hiding it behind the IP address of the VPN server you're connected to. IP addresses are distributed based on location, so you can estimate someone's location simply by looking at their IP address. And while IP addresses may change, it's possible to track someone across the internet by watching where the same IP address appears. Using a VPN makes it harder for advertisers (or spies, or hackers) to track you online.