Welcome to Cloudwards.net’s guide to choosing the best VPN. Over the next few thousand words we’ll be talking about what VPNs are, why you should use them and how to pick the one that’s right for you. However, for those of you with more to do than browse the internet, we can already tell you that for most people most of the time, ExpressVPN seems to be the ticket, read our full ExpressVPN review to find out why.
That doesn’t mean you can just throw out our other VPN reviews in with the garbage, however, as there are plenty of other players out there that will maybe hit your sweet spot just that little bit better. If you’d like to be able to see at a glance what kind of features all major VPN providers have, make sure to check out our VPN comparison chart.
For those of you who still have trouble getting their head around the concept of a VPN, let’s take a look at what they are, before moving on to what we think makes them useful and how people can decide which provider is best for them. If you want to skip the wall of text and get straight to what matters most to you, the table of contents should help.
Best VPN Providers 2018
What Is a VPN?
A virtual private network essentially makes your connection to the internet all your own. Instead of going through a public server run by your internet service provider, a VPN will connect you to a different server through a so-called secure tunnel. That server then connect you to the wider web, keeping you shielded from prying eyes.
The effect is that your IP address is unknown to any site you connect with, which doesn’t seem that handy until you think about it a bit further. Many services on the internet, Netflix is the most famous example, will limit what you can watch depending on your geographical location. By using a VPN, you can make it appear like you’re accessing the service from another country entirely, thus circumventing these so-called geoblocks.
Though this may seem unnecessary to some that toe the “if you have nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to worry about” line, dissent in countries that censor the internet like Vietnam and China would be impossible without VPNs (we have an article on the best VPN for China as well as an article on censorship in China).
In short, VPNs are probably one of the most important tools you have when it comes to protecting yourself from spies and cybercriminals while browsing. Though there aren’t the only precaution you may want to take, read our online privacy guide for more on that, they are a massive first step in the right direction.
How a VPN Works
We have a full VPN guide for your perusal, but for those who are big into the tl;dr thing (don’t worry, so are we), we’ll give you the downlow in a few paragraphs here.
We’ll start at the beginning: when you access the internet, you’re doing so via a connection between your IP address (that stands for internet Protocol and it’s basically the address system of the internet) to another one. Much like sending a message via snail mail, whatever you’re doing only works if everyone uses the right address.
However, much like with the post, you may not always want people to know who you are. While this sentence may conjure up wannabe revolutionaries sending anthrax through the mail, we shouldn’t forget people sending private or confidential information through the post; you wouldn’t want your neighbors knowing that you regularly order stuff off sex sites or arrange your finances through a particular bank.
In meatspace we solve this dilemma with blank envelopes and anonymous PO boxes — your sex toys do not arrive in a large vermillion box with “Dick’s Discount Dildoes” stamped on it — while on the internet we can, for instance, encrypt our emails. When visiting sites, or streaming or torrenting, however, you’re better off just using a VPN and obliterating all trace of your presence, instead.
Instead of accessing a site directly, your internet connection gets routed through the VPN service’s server, instead, fooling the recipient into thinking you are, effectively, at that address. This is how, for instance, you could watch U.S. Netflix (which has a much larger offering than that in other countries) despite being in Britain or Australia. You just route your traffic through a VPN server in the States.
Note that doing so does reveal the biggest weakness of VPNs: they slow down your traffic. The fastest VPN services may only slow you down 10 to 20 percent, while slower services can take up to 80 from your speed (ouch). The best way to keep the Mbps high is to not just find fast providers, but also ones with a large geographic distribution of servers; that way there is always one near you (distance matters).
Now that we’ve talked a little about the tunnel, let’s talk a little about how exactly it secures your internet traffic. We have, of course, an in-depth article on VPN security, but here’s the recap.
Though it’s of course not a physical tunnel, it’s handy to picture it as such, connecting your computer to the server of your VPN service. Your internet traffic goes through it, and arrives safe and sound at the server, where it’s then broadcast to the internet as a whole, more or less.
Anyone who wants to see what you’re up to can only see the IP address of the VPN server, because yours is hidden more or less behind that. However, the key here is that the encryption needs to be strong, or people could just look in whenever they wanted. This is something very important to take away from this: internet traffic is inherently insecure.
The only way to make sure that what you’re doing on the internet stays private is by having a tunnel and then encrypting it. This is also how you tell good VPNs from bad ones (what’s that PureVPN review doing here?): the latter sometimes won’t have encryption at all — making them technically proxies — or have it so weak that anyone with a will can crack it (check out our article where we compare VPN vs proxy vs TOR for more on the differences between these).
The best VPNs, on the other hand, will have high-strength encryption or even double-hop encryption, where anyone looking to snoop will basically keep running into a wall of code keeping them out. There are several of these encryption protocols, some more used than others, with the most popular being IPSec, L2TP, OpenVPN and PPTP.
We have an article on the differences between PPTP vs OpenVPN if you’d like to know more about how protocols do what they do, but for this overview article we’ll skip discussing the merits of all these different types of encryption to avoid burying you in technobabble. Laymen will probably be happy to know that there is a tunnel between your computer and the VPN server which keeps your data safe from prying eyes.
Now that we know how a VPN works and how it keeps your traffic secure, let’s talk a little more about the why. Fact is, we’re being spied on. We kinda knew ever since the Patriot Act was passed that much of the world’s traffic was being monitored in the name of combating terrorism, but ever since Edward Snowden spilled the beans, there’s no doubt about it: we’re being watched.
Besides government monitoring, you also need to worry about your internet service provider. The modern world might not exist without ISPs, but they have proven time and again that they are not our friend when it comes to our data. European lawmakers have proven remarkably foresighted when it comes to protecting citizens’ data from being sold on by ISPs, American legislators have very much chosen the side of Comcast, Time Warner, et al.
Combine to this the very real chance that net neutrality may be revoked in the U.S., and it’s practically imperative that anyone in that country use a VPN (though how any FCC decision regarding net neutrality would affect VPNs is unclear), just to make sure that their personal information doesn’t become yet another bargaining chip in whatever game of poker corporations and politicians are playing in the States.
If multinationals and spies weren’t enough to worry about, criminals, too, are always interested in getting their hands on your data, either to use for their own ends (think credit card numbers) or to sell on to marketers (not the most squeaky clean profession). A good example where a VPN will help protect you from criminals is when using hijacked public WiFi: try as they might, the hackers won’t be able to grab your data.
So far the benefits about cloaking your data with a VPN, let’s now turn to how it’s useful to be able to hide your location from whichever website you’re visiting.
VPN and Geoblocks
Generally speaking, the main reason why most people first become interested in VPNs is not to protect themselves, but rather to watch Netflix. Though it would be easy to place a mean sneer here, fact is that any reason to start using one is a good reason, so we’re always happy to recommend our best VPN for Netflix and best VPN for BBC iPlayer picks.
VPN and Netflix (& Every Other Streaming Site)
Netflix is a great example of geoblocking because it is one of the best visited sites in the world — there are about three countries where the service isn’t available and none of them are exactly vacation spots — yet also has wildly differing libraries from country to country.
Netflix U.S. has around 5,000 shows and movies available, for instance, while Netflix in most European countries has more around 3,000. It’s not just quantity, either: Netflix U.S. has few to no Marvel movies, while Netflix in the Netherlands has all but the very latest releases on prominent display.
As we discuss in our article on the Netflix VPN ban, this may feel a little unfair, especially as everyone around the world roughly pays Netflix the same amount (between currency exchange rates and all Europeans are roughly 15 percent worse off than Americans, while Asians reportedly pay a little less).
The solution, then, is simple: get a proxy, route your traffic through there and, voila, Netflix is the same for everybody. Not quite: Netflix has deals with distributors all over the world, with each of them having their own deals with different movie houses, meaning that if you log into another country’s Netflix and watch a film that you couldn’t otherwise, you’re effectively making someone else miss that income.
Though few readers are likely to let a tear for the poor movie moguls, it does open up Netflix to potential disagreements, which has in turn led to one of the most advanced VPN prevention systems in the world being developed. Netflix quickly and easily detects whether or not you are where you say you are.
Most VPNs are not suited for the Netflix challenge, meaning that only a handful, like we linked above, are up to the task. Even then, however, it may ben necessary to cycle through servers from time to time to avoid being caught by Netflix (and getting the dreaded Netflix proxy error).
VPN and Censorship
This game of cat and mouse between consumers and Netflix kind of reads like an old-fashioned boys’ book where the hero needs to stay ahead of some mean teacher or something. In the end, however, it’s all pretty much harmless and Netflix doesn’t censor your account or anything when you get caught; all you need to do is just disconnect the VPN and be a good boy, instead (or, you know, try another server).
Things are a little different in other climes, however, especially places with a more authoritarian take on what is allowed to be said and what isn’t on the internet. The example that usually springs to mind is China with its two million censors trawling through all online communication, though it could very well be Iran or Vietnam where someone gets into trouble for disagreeing with the government in an online forum.
For people in these countries, VPNs are much less a case of whimsy and more a case of survival, be they human rights activists, businessmen or just people who want to exercise their universal right to speak their mind. In fact, as VPN detection systems grow smarter, there is a real threat to these groups that need to use them to live a life comparable to that in the western world.
What to Look for in a VPN
If we take all the above considerations together, what kind of criteria could you use when deciding between different VPN providers? Let’s take a look below at what we here at Cloudwards.net think are the most important things to keep in mind, as well as a few providers that will serve you well in each regard.
Best VPN Providers 2018
It doesn’t matter how safe, private or fast a VPN is unless you can easily figure out how to use it, which is why we’ve put usability as our first criterion. As we all know, some apps and programs are just a plain old mess, with buttons in illogical places, strange terminology and oddly layered menus that make you question the designers’ mental health and regard for humanity.
All the providers below have put some common sense into their interface design, making it so you’ll be using their program like a pro with a few hours of first firing it up. For examples of how this should not be done, check out our ZenMate review and TunnelBear review.
With a streamlined interface that has you connecting to the server you want in just a few seconds, ExpressVPN takes the ribbon in this section. The app is exactly that, a smartphone style app that you can move around the screen and takes up little space. Connecting to a server is done by hitting the honking big button right in the center and server selection is a matter of hitting another button.
Besides that, ExpressVPN does not confuse you with too many options, most of the action takes place under the hood. If you do want to change something, you’ll have to mess with configuration files instead. This may take the fun out of using it for some geeks, but most users will probably appreciate the no-frills approach.
NordVPN probably has the best graphical interface among VPNs. You operate the program mainly through the main screen, which is a map of all server locations. It gives you a great control-room feel and will satisfy your hidden ambitions to rule the world, though probably only temporarily. Connecting is as easy as clicking on a location marker.
If you want a bit more detail, NordVPN offers that, too, but the sheer wealth of information coming at you can be a slight bit overwhelming. This is the main reason we feel a bit more comfortable recommending ExpressVPN, as sometimes with NordVPN you’re spending a little too much time scrolling through server lists.
CyberGhost takes a different tack to the other two in this section: instead of giving you an interface and letting you figure out where to connect to, it instead gives you “profiles,” expected internet behaviors, then tailors a server to your choice. You can still, of course, do it the old-fashioned way, but CyberGhost is obviously expecting the not-so-savvy to be using its service and we’d bet that this approach may work very well.
We’ve ranked it three, however, because more experienced users may find themselves a little hobbled by the profiles. Also, it’s not always clear what certain toggles in the settings do, necessitating a trip to the support section of the website. That said, however, as you can read in our CyberGhost review, the service still beats most of the competition by a mile.
When we talk about speed in VPNs we actually mean how badly they slow you down; no VPN will speed up your connection, sorrowfully enough. The very best VPNs will only see a slowdown of a few percent when connecting to a nearby server, while the worst can drop by 60-80 percent, even for a server just a few hundred kilometers away.
The trick seems to be to make sure that the service you like also has good servers in all the right places, or at least near to them. The only good way to test this is to simply try out a service and then mess with all the different locations they offer, or have people like us do that bit of heavy lifting for you. That said, let’s take a look at three very fast VPNs.
Our favorite VPN for many reasons, ExpressVPN’s main attraction is the insane speeds it provides. Though not every server will provide the same great mileage, you can always go to the next one if you didn’t like the one you picked; there are over 1500 servers in 94 countries, so one is bound to be doing alright.
Messing around with the service has shown that speeds slack off around 10-15 percent within a few hundred kilometers, then decrease steadily from there, with transatlantic connections (this was tested from western Europe) dropping 45-50 percent with the U.S. East Coast. This is pretty good by any standard, though it does mean that you want some serious bandwidth if you want to watch Netflix U.S. from Europe.
Private Internet Access is one of the staunchest soldiers in the battle for the net and is one of the fastest VPNs, to boot. During the testing for our latest PIA review, the service handily beat all others except for ExpressVPN. This is partly due to PIA using a lighter encryption protocol than the other two entries on this list, but is impressive nonetheless.
The drawback here, however, is that outside the U.S., server coverage is a bit sparse, so you lose some speed simply because you’re connecting to a server further away. If, however, you have a PIA server around the proverbial corner, you’ll see next to no drop-off.
A very close third, NordVPN did very well in our testing for our NordVPN review. Though it has only roughly half the servers ExpressVPN does in just over 50 countries, it generally does well within a few hundred kilometers from your location. However, its speeds do flag pretty hard when going transatlantic, so it’s not the best for Netflix or BBC iPlayer over long distances.
Generally, though, speed drops are only a few percentage points higher than with ExpressVPN, meaning it’s still well above the curve compared to most others. Add to its extensive network, and NordVPN, much like ExpressVPN and PIA, will keep your connection fast.
We’ve let it shine through a bit in the last section, but in a way server locations and speed are directly related, simply because closer servers means better speeds. On top of that, having more geographically distributed servers to choose from means that you’ll have more options to circumvent geoblocks as well as throw off snoopers. Note however, that just having lots of servers isn’t good enough: wide networks are where it’s at, especially if you travel a lot.
ExpressVPN may only have a server or so per location, but the machines themselves are powerful and the locations diverse, if not downright exotic. It’s not many services that allow you to connect to Algiers or Vientiane. Of course, more regular locations are also provided, such as New York City or Amsterdam, but it’s still pretty neat you can surf from some place you’ll likely never physically step foot in.
Though no provider has the spread of ExpressVPN, few can beat the sheer volume of servers that NordVPN offers. Almost all of the countries on the NordVPN map have several servers (usually dozens, if not more), giving you plenty of choice which one works best for you. Add to that a decent server spread, and you’re in business.
CyberGhost may not be the best represented in North America, Asia or Latin America, but no other service has as many servers in European countries. Not only is every single country on the continent covered — even exotic locations like Bosnia and Moldova have several servers — they’re all in good nick, too, meaning you’ll be getting some great speeds.
Not to be confused with privacy, which we’ll be discussing in the next section, security is all about how a provider keeps your data safe. Some of the worst VPN providers won’t even bother encrypting the tunnel, leaving you to think you’re safe when you are very much not (the very worst, like Hola VPN, may even slave your computer into a botnet).
The following three providers all guarantee a high standard of encryption, plus a few other extra features that will keep you safe as you browse and download.
Once again we’re leading with ExpressVPN simply because not only does it offer a great range of excellent security options, it also allows you to customize them as you see fit, though you will need to get under the proverbial hood and mess with the OpenVPN configuration files. It’s not hard, but it is an extra step.
The service lets you pick from several protocols, each with their pros and cons, as well as types of encryption. On top of that, it comes with DNS leak protection as well as a killswitch, which terminates the connection if the VPN stops working for even only a second. This last feature is especially important for people evading censorship and torrenters as they won’t have to watch their connection like a hawk, praying it holds.
Another great secure provider, NordVPN offers fewer options than ExpressVPN, but offers them right in the app itself rather than through config files. The drawback here is that NordVPN’s excellent security slows the service down a bit, without any way of configuring it yourself, like, say, PIA does.
NordVPN’s greatest strength is its so-called double-hop encryption through its DoubleVPN servers, meaning it runs a tunnel through one server before running it through another. This slows down your connection something awful, but does make it virtually uncrackable.
Third is CyberGhost, which offers 256-AES straight out the gate like the two above but doesn’t quite have the range of options they offer. That said, it’s still an excellent service that makes for a solid choice when using it, especially when connected to its torrenting servers or through the specialty servers for people who live in democracy-free countries.
Securing a connection is one thing, but protecting your data is quite another. As we said earlier, a VPN is in an excellent position to simply gather all your data and then sell it on themselves, which is why you want a service that is proven to keep no logs. Logs, in this case, are basically the sign-in sheet for the internet and can show where you were and what you were doing at any time.
Below are three services that will, under no circumstances, keep logs of any kind, not even so-called metadata (which is information about what you were doing, not always completely anonymized).
ExpressVPN keeps no logs whatsoever, though it does keep track of how much bandwidth you consume without any identifiable data. If somehow were able to still take a look at what you’re doing, the service’s IP addresses are shared by multiple users, a ball of yarn that is impossible to unravel. If somehow someone were able to get a warrant on ExpressVPN, its HQ is in the British Virgin Islands, which has some of the best privacy laws in the world.
Much the same goes for NordVPN: the service is based in Panama (you know, that country where the rich and powerful were stashing their cash because it knows how to keep a secret?) and therefore cannot comply with most warrants; even if a warrant was served, however, there’s nothing to hand over as NordVPN is strictly no logs.
All the above is well and good, of course, but what do you do if there’s a problem of some kind, or if you have a question? There are few things as annoying as having to wait for an answer or to deal with a carousel of clueless techs before you finally find out the one thing you need to start using a service again.
Once again, not all services are created equal, but among our usual suspects are a few services that do very well indeed in dealing with customers by offering service 24/7 and having well-trained staff (note that the time of day may impact our below results).
CyberGhost has yet to leave us hanging while processing a request: it offers both live chat and email support and they always reply quickly and thoroughly. During the writing of our CyberGhost review we ran into some technical difficulties and the answers we got allowed us to get back to using the app within minutes.
Second by virtue of a wait time that’s around five minutes longer, ExpressVPN takes good care of its users. Staff are helpful and knowledgeable and if they for some reason don’t know the answer to whatever you’re asking, they’ll refer you to the next agent without fuss.
NordVPN has another lightning-fast customer service team that seem to all be in possession of comp. sci. degrees. Answers are delivered within about fifteen minutes and are always on the money.
We’ve saved the bottom line for the end of the list: how much does it cost to use a service? Sorrowfully enough, Cloudwards.net favorite ExpressVPN did not make this section as, at over a little more than $8 per month, it is rather pricey.
Below are the three providers that offer the lowest monthly price, though do note that this is when you sign up for the annual plan. Also, please note that we’ve included none of our best free VPN services, nor any cheap services with bad track records; for the why on that, please read our SaferVPN review or VPNUnlimited review.
At just over $3 per month, PIA is an absolute steal, considering you get a full service with all the bells and whistles. If you’re low on funds, accept no substitute.
Coming in at $5 per month when you subscribe for an entire year, VyprVPN’s base package is a great deal. For a few dollars per month more, you can also take a few extras on board, which may or may not be what you’re looking for; we’re happy to be given the choice.
This Romanian service is also only $5 per month, though since its suite is a little less packed than the other two, we ranked it last. That said, with its great speeds, CyberGhost is definitely worth the money.
And there you have it, six criteria to decide which VPN works best for you, as well as some general guidelines on what to look out for. Generally speaking, Cloudwards.net recommends you always go with a service that offers a killswitch, is guaranteed to offer a secure tunnel and keeps no logs. Those three requirements will always lead to a VPN that is safe, and safety in this case is key.
If on top of that you’re also looking for user-friendliness, speed and good value for money, we can always recommend ExpressVPN, NordVPN and PIA; all three services offer great usability, wonderful customer support and will be relatively kind to your wallet.
Which criteria ring most true for you? Any services you would recommend? Let us know in the comments below and, as always, thank you for reading.