Key Takeaways: Guide to The Best VPNs
- ExpressVPN is our favorite VPN, and a great starting point for beginners. All its features are easy to operate, and its speeds are fast enough that you’ll hardly notice it’s there.
- We’re also big fans of NordVPN, which has the fastest speeds, and Surfshark, which comes with unlimited simultaneous connections.
- If you’re looking for a free VPN, start with Proton VPN, which grants you unlimited data on servers in three countries.
Our staff at Cloudwards has always stuck by one core recommendation: If you take only one step to secure your online activity, use a virtual private network (VPN). If you don’t know which one to choose, we don’t plan to leave you hanging — this best VPN list is packed with details to help you make the decision.
The benefits of a VPN go on and on. You can use public WiFi networks without fear, conceal your IP address from advertisers, explore streaming content in other countries, connect safely to your home network from abroad and so much more. We’ve handpicked the most versatile VPN services from which we think you’ll get the most value.
Our top 10 VPN list covers a range of services, from free to premium, but we didn’t consider any without sterling privacy records and a clear commitment to their customers. Let’s start our exploration of the best of the best.
Reevaluated the VPN services; moved VyprVPN from seventh to eighth place due to its price increase.
Updated the review to include more information about each provider, plus added a graphic explaining how VPNs work.
Added speed charts to VPN providers.
03/09/2023 Facts checked
Rewrote the guide; updated for 2023 with all-new picks and additional information.
Updated the article to reflect ExpressVPN’s expansion of server presence from 94 to 105 countries.
Top VPN Services of 2023
Average speedDownload Speed92 MbpsUpload Speed9 MbpsLatency5 ms
- : PayPal, Credit card, Bitcoin, PaymentWall
Average speedDownload Speed94 MbpsUpload Speed9 MbpsLatency6 ms
- : PayPal, Credit card, Google Pay, AmazonPay, ACH Transfer, Cash
- : 6
Average speedDownload Speed95 MbpsUpload Speed9 MbpsLatency200 ms
- : PayPal, Credit card, Google Pay, Amazon Pay
- : Unlimited
- : PayPal, Credit card, Bitcoin, cash
- : 10
Average speedDownload Speed81 MbpsUpload Speed9 MbpsLatency39 ms
- : PayPal, Credit card, bitcoin, Amazon Pay
- : 7
Average speedDownload Speed94 MbpsUpload Speed9 MbpsLatency4 ms
- : PayPal, Credit card, Amazon, Paygarden, Apple Pay, Google Pay
- : Unlimited
- : PayPal, Credit card
- : 10
Average speedDownload Speed83 MbpsUpload Speed8 MbpsLatency2 ms
- : PayPal, Credit card, Cash, Bank Transfer, Bitcoin Cash, bank wires, EPS transfer, Monero, Swish, Giropay, Bancontact, Przelewy24, iDEAL
- : 5
- : PayPal, Credit card
- : 30
Average speedDownload Speed94 MbpsUpload Speed9 MbpsLatency2 ms
- : PayPal, Credit card
- : Unlimited
What Makes the Best VPN Service?
Most virtual private networks seem similar at the start, but upon careful examination, 10 providers stood out from the crowd.
- ExpressVPN — The best all-around VPN service
- NordVPN — The fastest VPN download speeds
- Surfshark — The best VPN with unlimited connections
- Proton VPN — The best free VPN
- CyberGhost — The VPN with the best server network
- Private Internet Access — A great VPN for entertainment devices
- Ivacy — The cheapest high-quality VPN
- Mullvad — The most private VPN
- VyprVPN — The best VPN obfuscation
- Windscribe — A highly customizable free VPN
The two most important things about any VPN are security and privacy. Does the VPN keep your IP address and online activity safe from prying eyes, and does it respect the sanctity of your personal data? The best VPNs need strong protocols, good security records, security-focused features and privacy policies guaranteed by audit.
Next, we look for another pair of almost equally important factors: speed and ease of use. If a VPN drags your speeds down too far for streaming, raises latency so high your games and video chats stutter, or has a user interface too muddled to figure out, you won’t want to use it — which means it can’t keep you safe.
Price is important, since we all need to save money. We also want a broad server network so users all over the world can get good speeds, and to explore streaming content from as many different countries as possible. Finally, we look for helpful features, knowledgeable customer service and the ability to unblock streaming platforms.
How We Test the Top VPN Providers
We spend time with every VPN we review, evaluating based on nine categories: features, pricing, user-friendliness, speed, security, privacy, streaming performance, the size of its server network and the quality of its customer support.
We can test some of these just by using the VPN and seeing how well it works. Some require a bit more focus, though. We run several servers through automated speed tests, taking the average of a month’s worth of numbers. We probe VPN security by running a DNS leak test and checking policies and audits, and customer service by asking basic questions.
Our goal is to review these VPN services from the average user’s perspective — no equivocating, no jargon, just an honest report on what you’ll encounter. The whole list below reflects that mindset. If there’s anything we can do to make it even more helpful, let us know in the comments on this article.
The 10 Best VPN Services for 2023
These 10 VPN services stood out from a crowded field of over 150. Each does at least one thing better than all the others, whether it’s security, torrenting, affordability or something else.
More details about ExpressVPN:
- Pricing: $6.66 per month (15-months plan)
- Provider website: expressvpn.com
- Extensive server network
- Unblocks streaming services
- Fast Lightway VPN protocol
- No anonymous payment options
ExpressVPN is an all-rounder, strong in every area that matters and shining in quite a few. One of its best assets is the size and reliability of its server network. There’s no padding here. Every server delivers good speeds and unblocks every streaming service. You’ll find ExpressVPN servers in 105 countries on six continents.
Ease of use is another standout. ExpressVPN’s user-friendly interface, on both desktop and mobile apps, sets the standard that the rest of the VPN market routinely copies. Few features are more than two clicks away. As for VPN protocols, it offers the proprietary Lightway VPN protocol, a speedy, open-source alternative to OpenVPN that rivals WireGuard in its speed and consistency.
ExpressVPN pioneered the use of RAM-based servers for added user privacy. To avoid getting too technical, any data saved on RAM is wiped every time the server reboots, which happens on an hourly basis. There’s no saved activity data for ExpressVPN or anyone else to see. ExpressVPN’s no-logging policy is backed up by an audit from F-Secure.
Almost all ExpressVPN’s features are available on all platforms. Also, don’t be fooled by ExpressVPN’s lack of specialized servers: rather than having distinguished servers for certain tasks, like torrenting, all of its servers offer all its features. This makes the VPN even more beginner-friendly. However, note that ExpressVPN doesn’t allow for multi-hop.
The Best VPN to Unblock Netflix & Other Streaming Services
Despite streaming being one of the most popular uses for a VPN, not every VPN provider can get around their firewalls. Some unblock a few, some can’t unblock any, but a rare few — including ExpressVPN, as our full ExpressVPN review shares — can get into them all.
Here, ExpressVPN is once again notable for its consistency: on average, this service got us into every platform with the fewest tries. We tested Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+ and several others, and ExpressVPN made each one work.
Price is the most common barrier with ExpressVPN. That said, while its monthly and six-month deals are more expensive than average — costing $12.95 per month and $9.99 per month, respectively — its annual deal brings the cost down to $6.66 per month. If you want to try ExpressVPN, all plans come with a 30-day money-back guarantee.
More details about NordVPN:
- Pricing: $3.19 per month (two-year plan + three months)
- Provider website: nordvpn.com
- Fastest average speeds
- Specialty servers
- Package deals
- Challenging mobile UI
- No NordLynx on special servers
- No split tunneling on macOS
NordVPN is the VPN for sheer download speed, so if that matters most to you, look no further. We’ll get more into NordVPN’s speeds later on. For now, we want to highlight how this service has more to offer than breakneck processing (see our NordVPN review to learn exactly how much more).
NordVPN comes with five types of specialized servers in addition to its fleet of normal locations. You can get dedicated IP servers for web hosting, double VPN servers for extra security through redundancy, obfuscated servers that help you circumvent censorship, P2P servers for torrenting and Onion over VPN servers for safely using Tor Browser.
It’s one of the best VPNs for streaming, able to unblock every major platform, and it comes with a well-written knowledgebase and helpful customer support experts. Really, the biggest complaint we can find is that its number of servers is fairly scant compared to ExpressVPN, with Africa and Latin America somewhat neglected.
The Best VPN Service for Fast Internet Speed
NordVPN has the fastest average download speed of any service we tested in our VPN speed comparison. Other services got close, including ExpressVPN, Surfshark, Windscribe and Mullvad, but each of those had at least one moment where the speed sharply dipped. NordVPN never wavered.
Consistently fast download speeds mean NordVPN is an ideal choice for exploring streaming libraries from all over the world. As long as you start with a fairly average home WiFi speed of 45 Mbps, you can sit in California and stream dramas from Japanese Netflix with nary a stutter. Its low latencies also make it one of the best VPNs for gaming.
If all you want is the VPN, NordVPN is gratifyingly cheap, coming in at just $3.19 per month for two solid years of use. It’s also part of the Nord family of products, which includes the NordPass password manager and NordLocker encrypted storage.
You can pay a little extra to have those included — $5.19 per month for two years is the best deal. You can try any NordVPN plan with its 30-day money-back guarantee.
- Unlimited GB
- Unlimited GB
- Unlimited GB
More details about Surfshark:
- Pricing: $2.49 per month (two-year plan)
- Provider website: surfshark.com
- Unlimited connections
- Excellent speeds
- Easy to use
- No proprietary protocol
- Can’t torrent on all servers
- Latency occasionally spikes
Surfshark is owned by the same company as NordVPN, and as a consequence, the two make a lot of similar choices. Both have specialized servers, rapid download speeds and a family of products other than the VPN. However, Surfshark is distinct from its partner company in a few significant ways — which our Surfshark review covers more closely.
First, Surfshark doesn’t limit the number of simultaneous connections on a single account (see below), the convenience of which can hardly be overstated. It has fewer types of specialty servers than NordVPN, but they’re more flexible — Surfshark lets you use multi-hop and static IP servers with every protocol, rather than just OpenVPN.
Surfshark stores all user activity on its server RAM, wiping all data when the server reboots every hour or so, and deletes any records of your activity as soon as your session ends. A full audit from Deloitte confirmed Surfshark’s no-logging policy is accurate.
Instead of a list of obfuscated server locations, Surfshark has NoBorders mode, which is active by default but can also be toggled manually. NoBorders constantly looks for restrictions placed on internet access, such as by restrictive governments. If it finds any restrictions, NoBorders automatically switches your connection to a server with obfuscation that circumvents the ban.
Top VPN Service With Unlimited Simultaneous Connections
Most VPNs limit the number of devices that can connect through one account. For example, if you use ExpressVPN and need to protect more than five computers, phones or tablets at once, you have to get a second subscription. Surfshark removes that limit, making it one of the best VPNs for large families, friend groups and workplaces.
Although Surfshark is the freshman of the VPN scene, with only about five years in operation, it’s committed to constantly growing and innovating. Its network recently passed 100 cities, with a high number of servers overall. Even more exciting is Surfshark Nexus, a proposed Tor-like technology that would let users connect to the entire network at once.
On top of all this, Surfshark is a top cheap VPN, with its two-year plan available for $2.49 per month. You can get Surfshark One (which includes an antivirus, data breach alert and safe search engine) for an additional dollar per month. All Surfshark plans also come with a 30-day money-back guarantee.
If you’ve already tried Surfshark and are not satisfied with its service, we have a guide on how to cancel your Surfshark subscription.
- Unlimited GB bandwidth, Unlimited devices, Secure VPN, Ad blocker, Cookie pop-up blocker.
- Unlimited GB
- Everything in Starter, plus Antivirus protection, Identity protection, Email Breach and Credit Card Alerts, Online Alias
- Unlimited GB
- Everything in One, plus Data removal
- Unlimited GB
4. Proton VPN
More details about Proton VPN:
- Pricing: Free, $4.99 per month (two-year plan)
- Provider website: protonvpn.com
- Unlimited data on free plan
- Streaming-focused servers
- Excellent privacy credentials
- Expensive paid plans
- Free plan limits locations
- Poor customer service
Although it may be best known for its free version, Proton VPN has a lot more going for it. More than any other VPN, it feels like a service that’s part of the community, working alongside regular internet users to preserve their safety and anonymity.
That shows through in its interface, which comes with several lovely quality-of-life features — chief among them the ability to change servers and toggle features without messing around in multiple windows. We also love that each server comes with a live test of its latency and download and upload speeds.
These speeds are constantly improving, even since our most recent ProtonVPN review. Proton VPN seems to be faster in every test we run, and has lately become fully capable of racing with the big dogs.
That’s on top of its impeccable, audit-guaranteed reputation for privacy, with a spotless record of protecting user information. In 2019, a Swiss court demanded data logs on behalf of an unknown foreign country; Proton VPN could not provide the logs, and the case closed. An audit from Securitum further bolstered Proton VPN’s privacy chops.
The Best Unlimited Free VPN Provider for Streaming
All right, let’s talk about that free plan. Proton VPN is the only reliable VPN provider to place no data limits on its free plan. Windscribe, TunnelBear, hide.me and the other best free VPN services all cap your daily or monthly allowance, but Proton VPN lets you surf and stream as much as you want.
That makes it ideal for streaming, which chews through a data limit pretty quickly. The only downside is that Proton VPN’s free plan limits you to servers in three countries — the U.S., the Netherlands and Japan. That said, it’s fantastic for checking out U.S.-only streaming platforms such as Hulu.
If you want access to all the servers, Proton VPN is a little more expensive, with $4.99 per month for 24 months being the best deal. Like NordVPN and Surfshark, it’s also part of a product family, with Proton Mail, Proton Calendar and Proton Drive available for a few extra dollars per month. The paid plans also have a 30-day money-back guarantee.
- Unlimited GB
- Unlimited GB
More details about CyberGhost:
- Pricing: $2.37 per month (two-year plan)
- Provider website: cyberghost.com
- Smart Rules give tight control
- Singles out virtual servers
- User-friendly UI
- Shares data with parent company
- Slower than average speeds
- Doesn’t include obfuscation
Almost any way you look at it, CyberGhost is a high-quality VPN. It works incredibly well, with helpful desktop and mobile apps, and a pleasing design on every platform. For a good price, you get seven simultaneous connections, the ability to unblock all the major streaming sites and P2P servers that make it one of the best VPNs for torrenting.
CyberGhost comes with all the basic features, including a kill switch and split tunneling for everyone. It builds on them with advanced options like Smart Rules (the most sophisticated set of VPN automations on the market) and static IP addresses. If that’s not enough, it has a vast server network, which you can read about below.
CyberGhost has a strict no-logging policy, and like ExpressVPN, builds its infrastructure to avoid saving any logs of user data. An independent audit by Deloitte found these claims to be accurate at least as of September 2022.
Speed is CyberGhost’s main downside, with its download rates lagging behind direct competitors like ExpressVPN — though they’re improving. We’ve also had some security concerns about its parent company, Kape Technologies, but an independent 2022 audit by Deloitte largely put those to rest. Our CyberGhost review has the details on that saga.
The VPN Provider With the Highest Number of Servers
CyberGhost currently has the most servers of any VPN service, with over 9,000 (yes, really!) around the world. These servers are spread across 117 locations in 91 countries, including often-overlooked regions like East and West Africa, Central and South America, and Central Asia.
Not only does a wide range of server locations give you more streaming libraries to explore, it also promotes better performance for everybody. The closer you are to a VPN server, the better the speeds you’ll get. CyberGhost is also refreshingly transparent about which of its servers are virtual and which are physically located in the countries they spoof.
It can be difficult to figure out exactly how much you’ll pay for CyberGhost, since it seems to be constantly offering a limited-time sale. However, one month is more expensive ($12.99), six months is reasonable ($6.99 per month) and the two-year plan is downright cheap ($2.37 per month). You also get an extra-long, 45-day money-back guarantee on any CyberGhost plan longer than a month (and a 14-day refund period on the monthly plan).
6. Private Internet Access (PIA VPN)
More details about Private Internet Access:
- Pricing: $3.33 per month (one-year plan)
- Provider website: privateinternetaccess.com
- Proven no-logs policy
- Unlocks Netflix & Prime Video
- Low latencies
- Hard to reach customer care
- Can’t unlock Hulu & BBC iPlayer
- Unneeded interface options
Private Internet Access (PIA) may sound like a store-brand VPN, but its performance is far from generic. Its design may not be anything special (though being tied to the toolbar on Windows and macOS does set it apart), but its feature set shines. The rapidly growing PIA now boasts a kill switch, custom DNS support, port forwarding and Shadowsocks support.
However, latency and security did the lion’s share of work in getting PIA on this list. Its servers returned incredible latencies in our speed tests all over the world, with a global average of 147 ms — beating out ExpressVPN and CyberGhost and essentially tying with NordVPN. This VPN can help you video chat all over the world and play online games practically anywhere.
A Good VPN App for Firestick & Roku
Private Internet Access makes it easy to stream content from abroad on a smart TV device like Roku or Amazon Fire Stick. You can install the full app on most smart TVs and get complete encryption, or if that’s too slow, use the more lightweight smart DNS option to change your location without encryption. Note that your activity may be exposed if you do that.
PIA goes a step further than most by freely sharing its Android package kit. With a bit of tech savvy (or a helpful relative), you can use third-party apps to install PIA on a device that doesn’t explicitly support it. Of course, you can always just install it on a compatible router, another task PIA makes simple.
Private Internet Access offers 10 simultaneous connections on each subscription. Prices are quite cheap, with one of the best one-year deals in the business, and a three-year option that’s not too shabby either. All PIA plans are covered by the 30-day money-back guarantee.
More details about Ivacy:
- Pricing: $1 per month (five-year plan)
- Provider website: ivacy.com
- Cheapest top-tier VPN
- Split tunneling for everyone
- Broad server network
- Lackluster speeds
- Few protocols on macOS
- Unresponsive customer care
Ivacy hasn’t always had a place among the top VPNs, but we had to include it on this list for one big reason: there is no cheaper paid VPN worth your time right now. Yes, there are free VPNs like Proton VPN and Windscribe, but if you’ve decided to pay for a premium VPN, you won’t pay less than with Ivacy.
Happily, it also disproves the idea that you only get what you pay for. Ivacy is a high-performing VPN with a long list of features, including a kill switch, split tunneling on all apps and dedicated IP addresses. It also comes with servers optimized for streaming performance — and they work. Our tests unblocked seven different services, including Netflix and BBC iPlayer.
That isn’t to say Ivacy is free of downsides. The macOS app only includes IKEv2 and IPsec, lacking the more secure WireGuard and OpenVPN. Speeds were pretty slow on several servers too, though latency was generally low. Our full Ivacy review is the best place to learn more.
Ivacy has a no-logging policy similar to the other VPNs on this list. We can’t verify it as closely as the others, though, since Ivacy hasn’t made its audit results public. It’s also not clear whether its infrastructure is designed to protect user privacy, such as with RAM-only servers. However, it’s important to note that Ivacy has not been caught misusing customer data so far.
The Lowest Prices on the VPN Market
As we said above, Ivacy currently has the lowest price of any VPN we could find online — at least any VPN we’d recommend, as there are quite a few shams that offer a low price and little else. The best deal is its five-year plan, which costs a total of $60, working out to exactly $1 per month. For a VPN that works, this is amazing.
The other plans aren’t bad either, at $9.95 per month or $3.98 per month for a year. There’s also a 30-day money-back guarantee on the longer Ivacy plans (annual and five-year), but the monthly plan has only a seven-day refund period.
We’ve already been pretty thorough about Ivacy’s pricing, so we’ll just mention that the five-year deal also comes with two terabytes of cloud storage provided by Internxt, and a subscription to the Sticky Password password manager.
More details about Mullvad:
- Pricing: $5.30 per month (one-month plan)
- Provider website: mullvad.net
- Anonymous subscriptions
- Excellent local speeds
- Two levels of kill switch
- No IKEv2 support
- Speeds suffer at a distance
- Limited number of servers
Mullvad, named for the Swedish word for “mole,” is a VPN built to protect your right to privacy. Yes, it shares that mission with every other worthwhile VPN, but Mullvad works even harder to protect your rights than the other entries on this list. In fact, it’s the only VPN where you can buy a subscription with no identifying features whatsoever (see below, or visit our Mullvad review).
Don’t worry, though: Mullvad hasn’t forgotten that VPNs can also be convenient and even fun. It tops its privacy credentials with some of the best speeds in the business, with average download speeds and latencies neck-and-neck with Windscribe and NordVPN. Speeds did slacken off on the more remote servers, though.
Mullvad servers up a fine menu of features, including a kill switch with two settings — one that shuts off the internet if your VPN connection drops, and one that prevents you from connecting in the first place if your VPN isn’t active. It’s also got a configurable set of blockers for ads and objectionable content.
The Best Private VPN to Protect Sensitive Information
Mullvad also identifies each account with a random sequence of numbers. No names or email addresses are required. If you pay cash, Mullvad has no way to know who you are, even if it decided to start keeping logs one day. It’s the best VPN that can claim, it perfectly preserves your privacy.
Mullvad follows an unusual pricing model. No matter what, it always costs $5.30 per month (though it’s priced in euros, so the cost might fluctuate with the exchange rate).
To subscribe, you add money to an account, and top it up regularly like a parking meter. As long as you have at least $5.30 in there, your account continues indefinitely. That means no long-term savings, but an incredibly friendly choice for one month at a time. Mullvad’s monthly plan also comes with a 30-day money-back guarantee, though it can’t refund cash.
More details about VyprVPN:
- Pricing: $5 per month (one-year plan)
- Provider website: vyprvpn.com
- Competitive annual pricing
- Unlocks all streaming apps
- Chameleon protocol for obfuscation
- Slow download speeds
- No anonymous subscriptions
- No desktop app for Linux
VyprVPN is close to being one of the greats, but a few nagging flaws hold it back. Even so, this is a solid VPN for some specific use cases, and a strong alternative choice overall. It comes with a user-friendly app and a decent server selection, including a handful of locations in Africa, South America and the Middle East (visit VyprVPN vs ExpressVPN to see how they compare).
Like Mullvad, VyprVPN’s kill switch can be set to prevent you from getting online without a VPN connection, and it also has a rare exception for local area network (LAN) traffic. There’s split tunneling too, but it’s sadly only available on macOS and Android. You can program it to connect automatically whenever you connect outside a list of trusted WiFi networks.
We were disappointed with VyprVPN’s performance in our speed tests, especially since it scored a perfect six out of six at getting around streaming geoblocks. If you’re near a server location in a country with an interesting streaming library, VyprVPN could be a great choice, but you might see pixelation and buffering with servers farther away.
The Best VPN for China
We’d like to see an up-to-date audit, though, since VyprVPN is now owned by U.S. company, Certida.
It also has Chameleon, a house-built protocol that disguises VPN traffic. Thanks to Chameleon, VyprVPN is one of the best VPNs for China, whose Great Firewall bans all undisguised VPN traffic. Check out our detailed VyprVPN review if you’re still on the fence.
VyprVPN has had a rollercoaster of pricing over the past few years. It used to offer incredible prices, but then pricing skyrocketed. Luckily, VyprVPN changed its mind again and has now settled on a middle-of-the-road two-tier system: either pay $10 for one month, or $5 per month for a full year. That’s still comparatively cheap for what you get. VyprVPN plans also come with a 30-day refund period.
- Unlimited GB
- Unlimited GB
- Includes 3 Users, $99 per year per additional user, Multiple User Management. Global Business Servers, Dedicated Account Manager
- Unlimited GB
- Includes 3 Users $99 per year per additional user, Multiple User Management, Your own dedicated server, Fast and easy deployment
- Unlimited GB
More details about Windscribe:
- Pricing: Free, $5.75 per month (one-year plan)
- Provider website: windscribe.com
- Free servers in 11 countries
- Unlimited device connections
- Customizable blockers
- Free plan has data limits
- Cramped interface
- No human live chat agents
Windscribe may be tenth on our list, but it’s still head-and-shoulders above most VPN providers you’ll encounter. The Windscribe free plan is the main attraction of this service, boasting 11 server locations, compared to Proton VPN’s three. If you want to spoof a foreign IP address without paying, Windscribe may be your best choice. Just be careful of the 10GB data limit if you’re streaming (15GB if you tweet about Windscribe).
Windscribe’s features include a kill switch, the power to set trusted WiFi networks and split tunneling (except on iOS, Linux or outdated macOS installs). You can turn Windscribe into a hotspot to let other people use the VPN without installing it on your router. There are also browser extensions for Chrome, Firefox and Opera, which you can run alongside the desktop VPN to get double-hop connections.
Paid users get R.O.B.E.R.T., a set of programmable blocking rules for everything from ads and malware to clickbait and crypto mining. Speeds are great as well; in our tests, Windscribe kept pace with seven other top VPNs. The only real reason it’s this far down is the interface — its cluttered, overstuffed design is likely to turn away new VPN users.
The Best Free VPN for Torrenting
While Proton VPN is the best free VPN for streaming due to its lack of data limits, Windscribe is a better free VPN for torrenting. Not only are its download and upload speeds slightly faster, but it offers split tunneling on more devices.
With split tunneling, you can have the VPN protect your torrenting client from prying eyes, while enjoying unprotected speeds for more innocuous tasks. Windscribe doesn’t have P2P-optimized servers, but it allows file sharing on every server. Visit our Windscribe review for a more complete accounting of what this scrappy service can do.
If you decide to pay, Windscribe offers the option — unique to this list — of building your own subscription by paying for only the server locations you need. It costs $1 per month per location, with a $3 minimum. Each new location adds 10GB to the data limit, or you can remove the limit altogether and include R.O.B.E.R.T. as well for an extra $1.
Otherwise, the one-month plan costs $9 and the one-year plan costs $5.75. Unfortunately, Windscribe has a terrible money-back guarantee on its paid plans — just three days — so you should just use the free version to test the VPN out.
- Up to 15 GB free with email confirmation and Tweet
- Unlimited GB
VPNs That Didn’t Make the Cut
We’ve reviewed a few VPNs that we like, but for whatever reason they just can’t compete with the top 10. In some cases, it’s because they didn’t quite reach the heights of their competitors, while others have a clear flaw holding them back.
IVPN — A Good VPN for Privacy
Similar to Mullvad, IVPN is a privacy-focused VPN that aims to gather the smallest possible amount of data. It doesn’t require an email address, identifies all its users as numbers and includes a cash payment option. Unlike most VPNs, it doesn’t even log the connection times of your sessions. It got a perfect privacy score in our full IVPN review.
With all that said, Mullvad pulls off the balancing act of being extremely private while maintaining great speeds and a smooth user experience. IVPN’s servers can be slow, and its apps hard to parse. Still, we could see it making the top 10 one day, and our full IVPN review concurs.
- 7 day plan ($2)
- Unlimited GB
- 7 day plan ($4)
- Unlimited GB
HMA VPN — A Massive Number of Servers
HMA VPN (formerly HideMyAss) is best known for a truly enormous VPN server network. With 290 locations spread across 210 countries, its size dwarfs practically everyone else’s, making it an excellent choice if you want to watch movies or search for deals anywhere in the world.
The catch is that only the number of locations beats the competition, not the number of servers themselves. With just a few servers spread across so many locations, HMA tends to have high latencies and inconsistent download speeds. Also, most of its servers are virtual, and might not give you the performance you expect from their stated location.
That’s to say nothing of its sketchy privacy record, which you can read all about in our full HMA VPN review.
- 7-day free trial option
- Unlimited GB
1-month plan, 6-months plan, 1-year plan, 2-year plan
- Unlimited GB
Norton Secure VPN — VPN From an Antivirus Giant
Several antivirus companies package VPNs with their main scan-and-destroy programs, with Norton Secure VPN being the most talked about. Although it’s convenient, we don’t recommend using any of these, as they tend to be very stripped down without saving you much money.
Norton Secure VPN in particular didn’t do well in our tests. It lacks features, its speeds aren’t impressive and it wasn’t always able to pass a DNS leak test. The latter is a dealbreaker for our top 10 list.
- Unlimited GB
- Unlimited GB
- Unlimited GB
Free VPNs vs Premium VPNs: VPN Cost Comparison
As you’ve seen in the list above, there are some free VPN providers we’re happy to recommend. As a whole, though, free VPNs are a risky proposition. They have to make money somehow, and it might be at the expense of your privacy.
There are two kinds of free VPNs. The reputable kind funds its free service by selling premium subscriptions that unlock more features and remove limits — you could call these “freemium” VPNs. The disreputable kind, many of which we’ve cataloged in our worst free VPN warning list, make money by selling your browsing history to advertisers.
It’s also common (though not universal) for free VPNs to be shoddily made, sporting major security holes or lacking encryption altogether. Even the ones we like (see “What Are the Best Free VPN Services?”) impose strict limits on what you can do without paying.
Given that you can get some of the best VPNs for just a couple dollars per month, it’s almost always easier to just pay up.
VPN Money-Back Guarantee Offers
If you only need a VPN for one specific thing — say, you want a foreign IP address to stream a one-time event in another country — that’s a different matter. For a short time, you can use any top VPN for free by availing yourself of its money-back guarantee.
For example, ExpressVPN offers a 30-day money-back guarantee with no questions asked. If you request an ExpressVPN refund within 30 days of purchase, you’ll get it, no matter what length of time you subscribed for.
A money-back guarantee can act as a free trial. You can sign up for a VPN, use it for the one thing you need, then get a refund. However, you almost always have to pay first, and you won’t get your money back if you wait too long.
Refund periods range from three days (Windscribe) to 45 days (CyberGhost). If you send proof of a serious technical issue, it’s sometimes possible to get a refund outside the designated period.
What Are the Best Free VPN Services?
Not all free VPNs are out to scam you. The best free VPN services have free plans because they don’t believe an individual’s right to privacy should depend on their budget. It’s not entirely out of the goodness of their hearts — they do still want you to upgrade. We chose our top three free VPNs, but you can see a full list in our best free VPN article.
1. Proton VPN
Proton VPN came in fourth on our overall list for a reason: it’s a fantastic VPN that just happens to have a free service. Its free plan comes with some harsh trade-offs, as you can only use servers in three countries, but you can use those for as much traffic as you want. It’s perfect for the many streaming platforms only open to Americans, such as Hulu.
Windscribe takes a different approach. It limits free users’ data to 10GB — or 15GB if you tweet about Windscribe — but opens up servers in 11 countries. This makes it a good choice for basic browsing or limited streaming. You also don’t have to pay the full fee to upgrade, as you can build a plan with only the servers you need.
TunnelBear didn’t make the best list, but there’s nothing wrong with it — we just found 10 VPNs we liked better. Its free plan unlocks its entire server network, but limits you to 500MB per month (1GB if you tweet about TunnelBear). That’s enough for casual use, but not nearly sufficient for streaming. Our full TunnelBear review has more details.
Why Should You Use a VPN?
At its core, a VPN only does one thing: it encrypts your browsing activity and reroutes it to a server that can’t be traced back to you. It’s relatively simple (see the next section), but that one action branches out into a whole range of use cases.
For one thing, using a VPN hides your activity from your internet service provider (ISP), which can otherwise see it clearly. ISPs, not to mention other apps on our phones and computers, have lately been emboldened to harvest personal data from their customers, but you can protect your privacy by always connecting to a VPN before you go online.
In an era when the Five Eyes, Nine Eyes and 14 Eyes nations use each other as proxies to spy on their citizens, a VPN can keep your online business hidden from the government. It also removes the risk from unsecured public WiFi networks, which hackers can otherwise exploit to steal information and transmit scams.
You can even use a VPN for entertainment. One of the top uses of VPNs worldwide is streaming TV and movies from other countries, whose Netflix libraries would otherwise be inaccessible due to copyright laws.
How a VPN Hides Your Real IP Address
Normally, when you connect to the internet, your hardware and software follow a series of steps. Your web browser contacts your ISP and asks it to request a certain website, designated by an entry in the domain name system (DNS). Your ISP sends the request, receives the domain in return and forwards it to your browser, where a website appears.
A virtual private network (VPN) adds an extra step. Whenever a request leaves your web browser, the VPN intercepts it and protects it with encryption. It then uses a VPN protocol to connect your home network to one of its servers, and sends the encrypted request along.
Once it arrives, the VPN decrypts the request and everything proceeds as normal. When it’s time to send data to your home network, the VPN routes it back through the encrypted “tunnel” it created (this is why using a VPN is sometimes called “tunneling”).
The key difference is that since your initial request is encrypted, your ISP can’t tell which device it came from. The VPN severs the link between you and your browsing activity. Your ISP can see that you’re using a VPN, but that’s it — and nobody will be able to reach your personal device to do any harm.
It’s important to understand that a VPN can’t protect you from every danger. If you use weak or repetitive passwords, click links in phishing emails or get your credentials compromised in a data breach, the VPN won’t help. Even so, hiding from your ISP — and whoever it might share your data with — takes you a long way toward total online security.
Streaming With a VPN
When you use a VPN, you appear to be browsing the internet from the VPN server instead of your home network. Websites that change based on your location look at the origin of your connection to determine what you see. Using this loophole, you can watch movies, shows and videos that are restricted to certain regions.
Suppose you want to watch some old favorite episodes of The Office, but you live in the United States, where it’s no longer on Netflix. Just boot up your VPN and select a server in Canada (you’ll get the best speeds from closer locations), and you’ll see Netflix’s Canadian page instead, where your friends from Dunder Mifflin can still be found.
One critical note: Streaming services are constantly trying to ban VPNs, since they technically make the streaming service violate copyright law. The VPNs on this list maintain servers that can circumvent streaming VPN bans, but others might get caught. If your VPN can’t unblock a certain site, you’ll see an error message or just fail to log in altogether.
VPN Security & Privacy Features
In addition to its core functions of encryption and IP masking, a VPN should have a few extra features before we consider it truly secure.
The first is a kill switch, found on all our top 10 VPNs. If your connection to the VPN drops for any reason, the kill switch cuts off your internet connection as well, so you don’t end up without protection. A kill switch is especially useful if you’re torrenting, as any visible BitTorrent activity can leave you vulnerable to throttling, copyright trolls and letters from your ISP.
A VPN also needs DNS leak protection. A DNS leak occurs when a request travels straight from your computer to your ISP, bypassing the VPN and showing up without encryption. The best VPNs have firewalls in place to prevent this from happening. To check whether a VPN is leaking, look up your IP address before and after connecting to a server — it should change.
Finally, a reputable VPN will have a zero-logs policy. VPN providers can technically see what you do on their servers, potentially logging and selling your activity when nobody else can. Top VPNs guarantee their privacy policies by getting third-party audits and storing data on RAM servers that regularly erase themselves.
How to Install & Use a VPN
All the VPNs on our list are easy to set up. Go to the VPN’s website and find the pricing page — it’s normally behind a button that says something like “get VPN” or “get started.” Add a payment method, and either get your random user ID (Mullvad and IVPN) or enter an email address (most others).
Once you have an account, find the download page for the device where you want to install the VPN. Download the client and follow the steps on the installation wizard. You may need to log in again when you first start the app.
If you see the main page and some kind of “connect” button, you’re ready to go! You can either quick-connect to the fastest available server or choose a server location from the list. Make sure to connect to the VPN before opening your browser if you want full protection.
How to Set Up a Router VPN
When you install a VPN on your router, every device that connects through your home WiFi network gets VPN protection. The router only counts as one device toward your simultaneous connection limit.
Installing a VPN on your router is a great way to stretch a subscription further while also protecting devices that don’t explicitly support a VPN client. Some devices, especially smart TVs and game consoles, don’t come with native support for VPN apps. A VPN-protected router is the best way to keep those devices safe.
The process is different for every router, but it’s not as hard as it may seem. If you plan to install a VPN on your router, check the VPN’s website to see if it’s compatible with the type of router you’ve got. The VPN provider’s site should also include a guide for how to complete the router installation.
What the Community Says: Best VPN Services
A recent post on the Reddit community r/vpnreviews, with 97% upvotes, describes our top pick ExpressVPN as being able to operate effectively almost anywhere in the world, providing strong speeds and a varied server network. r/Privacy users recommend it for both iOS and Windows.
It’s easy to find positive reviews of top VPNs on Reddit, but it’s also a favored hangout for skeptics and highly informed users. When putting together a list of the best, it’s important to engage with what Reddit is saying.
Different posts can demonstrate different experiences. For example, one of the highest-voted posts of the past year claims that Mullvad is blocked by both Netflix and Amazon Prime, which our review found to not be true at all (Hulu was blocked, though).
It’s also not infrequent for Reddit users to accuse reviewers of being paid shills. A high-ranking negative review of NordVPN has a comment claiming that ExpressVPN paid for the post. This is a common attack on VPN reviewers, and some are definitely sketchy. However, there are others (like us!) that don’t sell good reviews and can recommend services honestly.
Final Thoughts: Best VPNs
That wraps up our ultimate guide to the best VPN services you can get in 2023. ExpressVPN tops the list, thanks to its friendly interface, fast speeds and reliable security features. NordVPN, the fastest VPN of all in our tests, comes in just behind it, with Surfshark coming in third as our favorite budget option.
Do you have any favorite VPNs that we missed, or any suggestions? We’d love to discuss our top VPNs with you in the comments. Leave a message below, and as always, thanks for reading!
VPN stands for “virtual private network.” A VPN provides a network of servers that encrypt your internet traffic, replacing your IP address with the server’s so nothing you do online can be traced back to your real identity.
ExpressVPN came out the best in all our head-to-head comparisons. It’s fast, secure, user-friendly and ideal for streaming and torrenting.
ExpressVPN gets our highest rating, beating out the competition in most of the nine areas we use to evaluate VPNs.