Chances are you’re considering a virtual private network (VPN) service for its ability to safeguard your identity, location, and activities online. That’s an important task, so you want to consider your VPN options carefully. For instance, a VPN should keep your internet usage private and secure but not sacrifice too much speed. If anonymity is a concern, you need to know a VPN’s data collection policies. It also behooves you to know the number of servers and country locations a VPN offers; and what, if any, useful extras are part of the service.
Our in-depth VPN reviews cover all these issues and more, to help you choose the best VPN service for your needs. Whether your primary concern is anonymity, streaming your favorite shows from another country, speeds, or price, we have a number of picks for each category. Below those you can find information about how we test and what sorts of things to look for when choosing a VPN.
Updated 2/4/21 to update our top VPN picks and the layout of the article.
Best VPN overall: ExpressVPN
ExpressVPN – Best VPN overall
It’s hard to select the best overall VPN. Some services are weaker on privacy, but are significantly easier to use with tons of features, while others could stand an interface redesign.
For many years we chose the best VPN based purely on privacy, but that is no longer the sole concern of most people when choosing a VPN. Privacy is important, to be sure, but so are performance, extra features, a wide country selection, and ease of use. ExpressVPN has it all, making it our top choice for VPNs. ExpressVPN is one of the fastest VPNs we’ve tested, and it has a very easy-to-use app. Its servers are all diskless, running everything in RAM—a welcome practice that’s become fairly standard these days. ExpressVPN also has wide device support, as well as a smart DNS feature for set-top boxes, consoles, and more.
It’s not the cheapest VPN out there, but you do get solid value for the price, and the service is regularly bringing in third-party auditors to bolster its privacy credentials.
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NordVPN – Best VPN for features
If you like ExpressVPN’s speeds and features, but want something a little different, NordVPN is also an excellent choice. Nord is arguably more feature-filled than ExpressVPN, and the service is just one part of a larger suite of privacy and security focused products. The desktop app is very easy to use, and offers a lot of different features including access to the TOR network over VPN, multi-hop VPNs, and ad-tracker and malware blocking.
NordVPN has gone a long way to bolster user trust. After years of not being transparent, the company is now upfront about who’s running the show, it also undergoes third-party audits, carries out vendor assessments, and uses diskless servers.
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Hotspot Shield – Fastest VPN
While our pick for best overall VPN, ExpressVPN, boasts above-average speeds, Hotspot Shield is on another level. No other service comes close to hitting the speeds we’ve seen with this service. This isn’t just a one-off occurrence either; Hotspot Shield has consistently been at the top with speeds that are 12 to 15 percentage points above the competition. In our tests, Hotspot Shield maintained around 67 percent of the base speed. That’s substantially faster than you’ll see with most VPN services—though your experience may vary.
Still, Hotspot Shield has excellent speeds, it’s desktop application is very nice, and as a bonus it works with U.S. Netflix.
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Hotspot Shield review
Mullvad – Best VPN for privacy
As Hotspot Shield is to speeds, so Mullvad is to privacy and anonymity. We’ve never seen another VPN that actively resists knowing who you are the way Mullvad does. Mullvad doesn’t ask for your email address, name, or anything else. Instead it assigns a random account number that acts as your identifier and login. Mullvad accepts payments using standard methods such as credit cards and PayPal, but you can also mail your payment in cash to remain as private as possible. Mullvad has a no-logging policy and doesn’t collect any identifying metadata from your usage.
Mullvad is also fast, ranking within our top five for speeds. Though oddly we did find that on Windows, Mullvad’s OpenVPN configuration was actually faster than its Wireguard implementation.
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Coming in behind Mullvad is IVPN. This Gibraltar-based VPN recently moved to dumping email-based identifiers and going with randomly assigned account numbers instead. Similar to Mullvad, it accepts a variety of payment options for privacy including cash, as well as the standard credit cards, PayPal, and other options like Bitcoin and Monero. IVPN doesn’t rank as one of our fastest VPNs, but it does have acceptable speeds for most casual uses.
Another option is OVPN. This VPN doesn’t go to the levels that Mullvad and IVPN do, but it does only require a username and password to create an account. OVPN doesn’t require an email address, though you can add one as a backstop for account recovery should you forget your password. OVPN doesn’t rank in our top 10 for speeds, but it’s just outside the top performers at number 12.
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AirVPN – Best VPN for torrents
Torrents get a bad rap, and if we’re honest, that’s for good reason. Using torrents is the number one way to download pirated material including movies, TV shows, music, and games. But that’s not all there is to torrenting. It’s a very efficient way to download legitimate software such as Linux distributions and authorized content from sites such as BitTorrent Now.
Whatever your reasons, when it comes to torrenting, a VPN makes it easier—especially if the network you’re on blocks torrenting. There are many VPNs among our top picks that could be used for downloading torrents, but our preferred choice is AirVPN. This no-frills VPN has a reasonable number of servers and country locations, really good speeds, excellent network transparency, and a focus on user protection. The price is also right at about $58 a year.
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AVG Secure – Best VPN for novices
If you want something that’s all about ease of use then AVG Secure is a good choice. First, it comes from a known and trusted security company, so there are fewer worries about data security than with one of the independent services. The key thing with AVG Secure is that the interface is easy to understand and use. It has a big “Change location” button to help you select the country you’d like to appear to be in. The app also tells you what your current IP address is and how long you’ve been connected to the VPN. That’s pretty much it. This VPN also works with streaming services and it has P2P servers. One thing it doesn’t have is a lot of extra features, which is actually perfect for anyone looking for a no-frills VPN.
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AVG Secure review
Private VPN is also a nice option for novices, with a mobile-style interface featuring a big on/off button and location options just a tile-click away. The other nice feature about Private VPN is that once you’re done being a novice you can click the Advanced view to get a more complex interface and mess around with other features that are beyond a simple click-and-go app.
PersonalVPN – Best U.S.-based VPN
If you want a VPN based in the good ol’ USA, we recommend WiTopia’s PersonalVPN. The speeds are good, the price is right, and the app is very easy to use. It’s true that a lot of VPN review sites stress the importance of having a VPN that’s outside of the so-called Five Eyes countries, which includes the U.S.—some will even say to avoid the Fourteen Eyes. The idea being that if you use a U.S.-based VPN your activities may end up being secretly monitored by Western authorities. Snowden revealed such truths back in 2013. But if you’re using a VPN to access your accounts for Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or any other U.S.-based service, then staying outside the Fourteen Eyes is more or less pointless. Sure, that VPN with an exotic locale may be able to easily ignore U.S. subpoenas for data, but the American online services you use are another story. Besides if an American VPN does you wrong, it’ll be a lot easier to hold it to account than one based in Singapore, or even Sweden.
Private Internet Access – Best budget VPN
Choosing the best VPN for you can often come down to price. When that’s the case it’s hard to beat Private Internet Access. It’s got very good speeds and an everyday price of just $40 for a full year. It really is hard to beat for that simple reason. This no-frills VPN offers a good server and country count. Plus, advanced users can adjust their level of data encryption, data authentication, and handshake protocols.
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Private Internet Access review
At $60 a year, VPN Unlimited is not quite the steal that Private Internet Access is, but it covers the bases, works with Netflix, and is priced affordably for five-device support.
What is a VPN?
VPNs create a secure tunnel between your PC and the internet. You connect to a VPN server, which can be located in the United States or a foreign country—say, France or Japan. Your web traffic then goes through that server to make it appear as though you’re browsing from that server’s location, and not from your actual location.
When you’re using a VPN, it’s difficult for others to snoop on your web-browsing activity. Only you, the VPN service, and the website you’re visiting will know what you’re up to.
A VPN can be a great response to a variety of concerns, such as online privacy, anonymity, greater security on public Wi-Fi, and, of course, spoofing locations.
While a VPN can aid privacy and anonymity, I wouldn’t recommend fomenting the next great political revolution by relying solely on a VPN. To become an internet phantom (or as close as you can realistically get to one), it takes a lot more than a $5 monthly subscription to a VPN.
Beyond that, a VPN is an excellent choice for staying secure while using Wi-Fi at the airport or your local café. Hackers sitting on public Wi-Fi can try to hack your PC, but a VPN makes that task much harder.
Finally, you may want a VPN to spoof your location to download content you shouldn’t have access to, but this too has limits. A VPN used to be the go-to solution to watch U.S. Netflix overseas. That changed in 2016 when Netflix opened up to almost every country on Earth. Since then, the company has invested a lot in detecting and blocking VPN users. Even people using a VPN inside their own country will be blocked by Netflix if detected.
There are VPNs that can fool Netflix, but they are rare and there are no guarantees these services will outsmart Netflix forever.
Beyond Netflix, a VPN can help to download an Android app that is only available on a foreign version of Google Play, or stream content from regionally restricted services such as the UK-bound BBC iPlayer or Disney Plus.
One final note of caution: Do not rely on your VPN to protect banking information on an open Wi-Fi connection. Whenever possible, leave online financial dealings for home over a hard-wired connection.
What to look for in a VPN
Before anything else, understand that if you want to use a VPN you should be paying for it. Free VPNs typicall sell your browsing data in aggregated form to researchers and marketers, or give you a paltry amount of data transfer every month. Either way, a basic rule of thumb is that a free VPN will not protect your privacy in any meaningful way.
The next thing to consider is a VPN’s logging policies. In other words, what kind of data is a service collecting about you and your VPN activity, and how long is that data saved?
Privacy is the basic principle of a VPN, and what good is it to avoid passive government surveillance only to have a VPN provider record all your website visits?
Ideally, a VPN will say it only keeps logs for the briefest of periods. Some providers, for example, only log activity in RAM during a session or automatically send all records to oblivion once they’re created. Other providers may keep records for a few hours, days, weeks, or even months.
VPN policies also vary when it comes to personal information. Some VPNs want to know very little about you, preferring users sign on with a pseudonym and pay with Bitcoin. That’s a little exotic for most people, which is why many services also accept PayPal.
Paying this way isn’t ideal for privacy, but it means the VPN doesn’t have your payment information on record—though it would be available from PayPal.
After the logging policies, you want to know how many servers the VPN offers and how many country connections it has. The number of servers provides an idea of how much load a VPN can take before slowing to a crawl due to overwhelming traffic.
The country connections, meanwhile, matter most to those who want to spoof their location; however, non-spoofers should also make sure there are connections in their home country. If you live in Los Angeles, for example, and want access to American content, then you’ll need a VPN that provides U.S. connections. It won’t work to try and watch Amazon Prime Video over a Dutch VPN connection, because as far as Amazon’s concerned your computer would be in the Netherlands.
Some users will also want to research a VPN provider’s peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing policies. There are VPNs that block torrents. Others turn a blind eye to them, but will sell you out in a heartbeat should you be up to no good. P2P is not our main focus here, but we will note in each review whether a particular provider allows file sharing or not.
Finally, how many devices does a VPN support from a single account? In this age of smartphones, tablets, laptops, and PCs, a VPN’s cost should include licensing for at least five devices. Also, a provider should have Android and iOS apps to make it easy to connect a smartphone or tablet to the service.
How we tested
We judge VPNs on a variety of criteria including overall connection speeds, privacy protection, usability of the interface, country choices, server count, and cost.
Speed tests are kept as simple as possible. We connect to five different global locations for a given VPN—typically North America, Europe, the United Kingdom, Australia, and a wild card somewhere in Asia–on three different days at different times of the day running the test at each location multiple times.
Before the test begins we check the speed of our base Wi-Fi connection using an online speed test. Then we connect to the VPN’s servers around the world and run the speed test again. We then show each result, average them out, and calculate the average as a percentage of the base speed.
Remember that internet speeds can vary wildly based on location, routers, PCs, time of day, connection type, the load on the VPN and speed test servers, and numerous other factors. In other words, our test results will likely differ from yours. For that reason, consider our speed results only as a rough guide for how each VPN performs.
Judging server choices by country is also kept simple. We expect a VPN to offer a variety of country connections with a minimum of at least 20.
Privacy and anonymity is judged on the guarantees the companies make, as well as its reputation from any news items we’re aware of that may impact the trustworthiness of these claims. We also take a look at the data encryption, authentication, and handshake protocols used.
Finally, for pricing we expect to pay $60 per year, and anything over that needs to justify its cost with extra features or unique selling points of some kind.
Other notable VPNs
There are many more worthwhile VPNs than just our favorites listed above, including AVG Internet Security, CyberGhost, ESET Security Premium, FastestVPN, Hide.me, HMA Pro 4, OVPN, Trend Micro Maximum Security, Windscribe Pro, Perfect Privacy, PrivateVPN by TrunkSpace Hosting, PureVPN, Speedify 10, VPNCity, ClearVPN, Malwarebytes Privacy, TorGuard, VeePN, AceVPN.com, and SurfEasy.
We’ll keep evaluating new ones and reevaluating services we’ve already tested on a regular basis, so be sure to come back to see what else we’ve put through their paces.
Editor’s note: Because online services are often iterative, gaining new features and performance improvements over time, our reviews are subject to change in order to accurately reflect the current state of the services.
Ian is an independent writer based in Israel who has never met a tech subject he didn’t like. He primarily covers Windows, PC and gaming hardware, video and music streaming services, social networks, and browsers. When he’s not covering the news he’s working on how-to tips for PC users, or tuning his eGPU setup.