Security is at the center of any good VPN, but it’s an area that can get stale with the overwhelming marketing VPNs use today. Terms like “military-grade encryption” have turned from a key selling point to somewhat of a dated joke, exposing the VPN’s disconnection from the current market.
We’re here to guide you to the most secure VPN you can buy, while avoiding lame marketing gimmicks. We’ll give our five top picks, as well as our thoughts on what makes a VPN secure. A lot of it comes down to encryption, protocols, etc, but depending on the angle you look at it from, privacy could play a role, too.
That said, there are a lot of VPNs that use the best in VPN security when you connect. Our picks — many of which are included in our best VPN guide — have proven over time that they’ll keep you secure. They aren’t the only options, just the ones we most recommend.
Most Secure VPN 2021
- : PayPal, Credit card, Bitcoin, regional payment systems, WebMoney
- : 5
- : Credit card, Google Pay, AmazonPay, ACH Transfer, UnionPay, Crypto Currencies, PayPal (via Paddle)
- : 6
- : PayPal, Credit card
- : 8
- : PayPal, Credit card
- : 5
- : PayPal, Credit card, Cash, Bank Transfer, Bitcoin, bitcoin cash, Swish
- : 5
What Makes a VPN Secure?
There are two topics when discussing VPN security: security and privacy. Though privacy may not be an inherent factor to security for you, it is for many. For example, if you’re tunneling in a country with strict censorship, your privacy may be the difference between a jail cell and your home (read our best VPN services for China to see the VPNs that are up to the challenge).
That said, there are factors that we considered that touch on both. Mainly, it comes down to track record. Though anecdotal evidence more than anything, shady practices on the part of the VPN usually come out in the wash. Read our IPVanish review for an example.
Because of that, providers that have been around a long time and maintain a solid customer base are generally a safer bet. As we’ll see, there are multiple factors that play into it, but as a short and somewhat helpful metric, track record works. It’s especially useful if you don’t have the first clue about what VPN security entails.
If you’re willing to dive in to the details, though, you’ll be rewarded. For example, Private Internet Access has a fantastic track record, defending in court on two occasions that it doesn’t keep logs. Though admirable, we won’t be including it in this guide. As you can read in our PIA review, it uses a lesser form of encryption, making it a liability for serious online tasks.
VPN security is dictated by your protocol, which, in most cases, helps define your encryption. The VPN protocol sets the rules for establishing the VPN connection, providing a roadmap for the two computers to communicate. OpenVPN is a must for protocols, and you can see why in our VPN protocol breakdown.
One of the things the protocol dictates is the level of encryption used on your connection. Encryption basically scrambles your data so someone else can’t read it. The protocol determines that your data will be scrambled using a certain process, but also decides the method the receiver will use to decrypt your data.
The process is long, complicated and better explained in our description of encryption. For the purposes of this guide, all you need to look out for is AES 256-bit. “AES” is the cipher, or method in which the data is scrambled, and “256” is the key size, or the number of bits that makes up the decryption key.
As the accepted form of encryption for banks, government entities and medical facilities, AES is considered by many to be the most secure option around, especially when paired with a large, 256-bit key. It’s featured in the OpenSSL library, making it a key factor when choosing OpenVPN as your protocol.
We look for security features, too. In particular, we like to see a kill switch, which is a tool that cuts your internet connection if the VPN fails, and any other features tailored for security. As we’ll see throughout the guide, each provider brings its own flare to security, so choose the feature set that’s most relevant to you.
Though not related to security per se, privacy is important when discussing the most secure VPN. Security isn’t just networking protocols and encryption methods. It’s also how data is handled and stored, making privacy a key aspect of VPN security.
Your data, if it’s stored, is a liability. Say you look a
t a few naughty videos (which you should do with our best porn VPN) and suddenly become a public figure. That past, as we’ve seen multiple times in the media, can come back to haunt you. We’re not condoning doing anything illegal — if you’re breaking the law, that’s that — but we’re not here to gauge your morals, either.
That history is forever tied to you, unless, of course, you don’t exist online. Traffic logs are a key concern for privacy, so we only chose VPNs that maintain a strict no-logging policy for the purposes of this guide.
Some logging isn’t the end of the world, though. For example, payment information needs to be kept on file for obvious reasons. We’re more concerned about personally identifiable logs, i.e. your IP address, location or browsing history. Logs that are necessary for operation, though, such as payment information, are less of a concern.
1. The Most Secure VPN: ExpressVPN
Of course, it wouldn’t be our first pick by education alone. Your connection is secure, using a combination of AES 256-bit and OpenVPN to ensure you have the best balance of speed and security.
The flavor of AES 256-bit ExpressVPN uses is called AES-256-CBC. The “CBC” part stands for cipher block chaining, which basically means that each packet sent verifies with the one that came before it. With that setup, it’s easy to detect interruptions or irregularities in the stream and stop them before the damage is done.
You can also choose your transport protocol for OpenVPN — either UDP or TCP. UDP is fine for most, and the one we recommend if speed is your first priority. TCP uses packet authentication, meaning it verifies that each packet has been received before sending another. That can slow you down, but it’ll also help you bypass geoblocks that otherwise would be unconquerable.
Other Reasons We Like ExpressVPN
ExpressVPN’s security is sound, but that’s not all it brings to the table. In addition to being secure, it’s the fastest VPN we’ve tested. It stays quick close to home, but what’s impressive is that it can stay fast over long distances. Unlike a lot of networks, it’s resilient when it comes to speed, meaning you can truly tunnel anywhere in the world.
“Resilient” is the best word to describe ExpressVPN. It uses a familiar system, one that would normally feel stale, but its consistency makes the somewhat boring appearance shine. It doesn’t need extra bits and bobs to function. At its core, it’s enough.
It’s clear that ExpressVPN understands the old saying “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The streamlined approach and top-notch performance make it the perfect choice for any situation. You can learn more in our ExpressVPN review or try it yourself with its 30-day money-back guarantee.
- Easy to use
NordVPN has issues with speed — more on that in a minute — but its impressive array of features and top-notch security more than make up for its few shortcomings. It not only provides the necessary tools to stay secure online, but it also allows you to customize that security based on what you’re doing.
That customization comes in the form of NordVPN’s specialty servers, each of which is optimized for a different aspect of security. For example, the P2P servers are built to withstand the data-hungry and potentially malicious connections that come with torrenting. Those servers earned NordVPN a spot in our best VPN for torrenting guide, in fact.
Other servers include VPN over Tor, which allows you to connect to the Tor anonymity network, as well as Double VPN servers, which bounce your connection off two VPN servers before arriving at your destination. They’re similar in effect, but as you can see in our VPN vs. proxy vs. Tor guide, it may be a better idea to stick with Double VPN.
Your subscription also includes CyberSec, which is a malware and ad blocking tool that works surprisingly well. It pales in comparison to the best antivirus software, but it’s fine as a free inclusion.
Other Reasons We Like NordVPN
Most of NordVPN’s features center around security, so there aren’t many features to discuss outside of that. It’s still unusual in a few ways, though. For instance, NordVPN has a massive server network that even providers like ExpressVPN struggle to keep up with.
Plus, you can select the individual server you want to connect to, which is a luxury seldom afforded by VPNs. NordVPN’s network doesn’t cover as many countries as, say, HideMyAss (read our HideMyAss review), but it’s just as massive.
That comes at the cost of consistency, though. NordVPN presents you with all the options and asks you to make sense of it, meaning hunting down a server that’s fast, or even works, turns into quite the chore. It isn’t the worst thing, though, so NordVPN is worthy of a look. You can learn more in our NordVPN review or try it yourself with its 30-day money-back guarantee.
- Many security features
- Large server network
- Difficult server selection
- Inconsistent speed
TorGuard isn’t the prettiest VPN around, but it’s one of the best. Though issues in usability hold it back from being higher on the list, its core security is worthy of a bronze medal. It’s one of the most configurable options on the market, meaning you can tweak and twist until your techie heart’s content.
In particular, you can choose the type and level of encryption, as well as the data authentication method. Few providers give you that level of control, and though that could mean a headache for newbies, those who can harness the power will appreciate it. You can also choose to use no encryption, which is an option we think TorGuard should remove.
Like the other options on this list, TorGuard includes a kill switch, but it also includes a kill switch for specific applications. With it, you can, for example, tell TorGuard to block your torrenting client if the VPN fails while leaving your browser untouched.
Control is the star of the show for TorGuard. It doesn’t have the features of NordVPN or the streamlined experience of ExpressVPN. Rather, it gives you deeper control over your security, which, for the right user, is a good thing.
Other Reasons We Like TorGuard
TorGuard’s configurability doesn’t end with encryption. It’s one of the few providers that allows you to set custom scripts to run at various points in the VPN chain. You can set a script to run before connection, after connection and after disconnection. We imagine most people won’t use that feature, but if you know any programming languages, it’s nice to have.
It may seem small to the uninitiated, but support for custom scripts opens the possibilities with TorGuard. You can tell it to launch Chrome in incognito mode after connection or tie Windows power settings into the disconnection process. There are a lot of interesting and unusual possibilities with TorGuard, opening the imagination of techies in a way few VPNs can.
The customizability is nothing compared to TorGuard’s speed, though. It’s very fast, rivaling ExpressVPN in many locations. TorGuard has a few dud locations in its network, though, which makes it less desirable. You can see our speed results in our TorGuard review or try it yourself with its seven-day money-back guarantee.
- Very fast
- Highly configurable
- Support for custom scripts
- Difficult to use
- Inconsistent locations
AirVPN looks like it requires a degree in computer science to use — the checkout process alone needs reading material — but the security of the service is undeniable. Though it seems to be in on a joke that no one else was told, its exclusivity brings with it many rare security features.
Like NordVPN, AirVPN supports double-hop connections. In fact, it supports up to five hops, which, in turn, uses the five simultaneous connections AirVPN supplies you with. Like many of the service’s features, you’ll need to configure multi-hop manually, which, in this case, means setting up multiple virtual machines.
It has an interesting take on a kill switch, too. We’ve had exchanges with AirVPN about network lock, which it claims isn’t a kill switch per se. Rather, network lock stays on your connection constantly, meaning if at any point you’re disconnected from the VPN, you’re disconnected from the internet, too.
AirVPN is built exclusively around OpenVPN, and it makes several configurations files available for download. Though not relevant for most, if you know what you’re doing, you can download a configuration for a non-traditional install or just to dig into the guts of the protocol.
Other Reasons We Like AirVPN
While not as fast as TorGuard or ExpressVPN, AirVPN is quick. During our testing, we noted locations in the U.S. and the Netherlands that kept most of our unprotected speed intact, while locations in Canada and the UK took more of a tax than we’d like. Even so, the performance was solid.
It’s inexpensive, too. AirVPN isn’t as cheap as Windscribe (read our Windscribe review), but for the number of devices and flexibility of plans, it’s a great value. It also doesn’t keep payment information on record, so privacy nuts can rest assured that they’re invisible.
Depending on who you ask, there’s either a lot to like or dislike about AirVPN. The core service is solid, but the community and complicated interface are intimidating. If you’re up for the task, though, AirVPN can deliver. You can learn more in our AirVPN review or sign up for a three-day trial account to try it yourself.
- Difficult to use
- Not many features
Mullvad is one of the best VPNs that no one’s talking about. It was a pioneer of the OpenVPN protocol, continues to look toward the latest in VPN technology and proves that you don’t need to be a die-hard techie to enjoy a privacy-focused VPN.
It offers an unusual take on how you set up and use a VPN, too. Instead of asking you to set up an account and put a payment method on file, all you need to do is generate an account code. That account code is good for three hours of use for free, after which you can purchase as much or as little time as you want.
The way you pay for the service is up to you, too. Mullvad accepts any amount of cash in any currency as payment. Simply mail an envelope of money with your account number, and you’ll be credited for whatever the money is worth. Mullvad’s flat rate of $5 per month makes it cheap, too.
Despite its age, it’s clear that Mullvad retains something that’s been lost in the world of online subscriptions. It puts the power back in your hands, allowing you to make the decisions about how you want to pay and use the service. The dedication to privacy is clear and Mullvad should be commended for that.
Other Reasons We Like Mullvad
As AirVPN demonstrates, it isn’t especially easy to find a privacy-centered VPN that’s also user-friendly. Mullvad proves that they exist, though. With a no-nonsense interface and quick speeds, Mullvad is the perfect VPN for newbies and techies alike.
It isn’t perfect, though. A lack of features and limited network make it feel less than when compared to ExpressVPN or NordVPN. As with pricing and payment, Mullvad doesn’t fuss around with anything but the necessities for running the service. Depending on what you prefer, that could be a good or bad thing.
For us, it’s both. Mullvad’s streamlined process is excellent, but extra meat on the bone wouldn’t hurt. You can read our Mullvad review to learn more or generate an account number to try it for three hours.
- Accepts cash
- Authentication method
- Easy to use
- Small server network
- Lacking features
What VPN are you using? Let us know in the comments below and don’t forget to check out our VPN library. As always, thanks for reading.