It’s not easy choosing which is the best VPN provider. There are a lot of options available — the above VPN reviews will attest to that — so nailing down what the right pick is shouldn’t be taken lightly. After all, VPNs are the core of online privacy, so you don’t want to reach for the bargain bin when choosing a provider.
Our VPN reviews are the heart of our online security articles. No matter if we’re talking cybercrime or the best antivirus software, VPNs always play a role. As a primer for our best VPN guide and our VPN reviews, you can find our methodology for testing, as well as some frequently asked VPN questions, below.
So, if you’re interested in learning how to watch free movies online or if torrenting is legal, read on. VPNs allow you to stream, torrent and browse til your heart’s content. If you’re here looking for the best VPN for Kodi, make sure to check out our Kodi archive, too.
How We Rate
VPNs aren’t easy to evaluate given how many moving parts are required for one to work. There are a lot of use cases for VPNs, too, so trying to pigeonhole a provider into a particular niche doesn’t always work out. Because of that, we take an analytical approach to our VPN reviews, evaluating each provider across nine categories.
Features are what really make a VPN “pop” when we go to review it. There are a lot of providers that will get you connected securely — just see the list of VPN reviews above — so the features are often a key selling point on which provider you should choose.
There are some standard features, such as a VPN killswitch, that we always look for, but unique offerings are welcome, too. For example, Windscribe includes a privacy link checker (read our Windscribe review) and VyprVPN comes with a proprietary VPN protocol (read our VyprVPN review).
The options for free VPN services are few and far between, so you’ll have to spend a little money to get protected. That said, just because you’ll have to spend something doesn’t mean you should spend a lot.
When judging a providers pricing, we look at the value that provider offers. While price is a big factor in that, we also consider the overall user experience, any extra features, the number of simultaneous connections and the refund period.
Some providers understand that just because VPNs appeal to a more “techie” crowd doesn’t mean they need to be difficult to use. Some providers don’t. From sign-up to connection, this section accounts for how easy a VPN is to use.
Features come into play during this section, too. We evaluate what features are available easily in the interface. Split tunneling and port forwarding, for example, are commonly available features. However, very few VPNs actually provide a way to easily setup these advanced configurations.
Speed is an important aspect of any VPN. While we’ve taken a scientific approach to comparing multiple providers in our fastest VPN guide, this section of our VPN reviews expands each provider.
For testing, we gauge our unprotected speed using speedtest.net and then proceed to test five other locations around the globe. While it’s impossible to use the same locations for every VPN, we try to get a mixture of different results from the U.S., Europe and Pacific Asia.
You can read our VPN security guide for the details on what we look for when evaluating security. In short, though, the main mechanism we evaluate is the VPN protocol and level of encryption. If you’re uninitiated in the world of cryptography, we recommend looking at our description of encryption to get caught up.
Outside of that, we also look at any additional security features, such as a killswitch, double-hop servers and app kill. This is also the section where we run DNS leak tests using ipleak.org to see if the VPN is leaking requests, your IP address or WebRTC information.
The importance of VPN privacy cannot be understated. When using a VPN, you’re entrusting your data in the hands of another company instead of your ISP or the government. Because of that, a solid track record and clear stance on privacy is important. There’s some level of trust that goes into this section.
One of the reasons you’d want to use a VPN is to stream geoblocked content. In this section, we test multiple servers — usually around 10 — with Netflix, Hulu, BBC iPlayer and Amazon Prime Video. While there are plenty of other streaming platforms out there, these four give a solid baseline for if the VPN works for streaming.
You can read our best VPN for streaming guide if you want our top picks. In most cases, a provider will work with a couple of providers and fail with others. Note that this section is time-based. We write based on our experience at that time. You may have better or worse luck depending on what server you use at what time.
This category is important, though not as important as, say, VPN security. When evaluating server locations, we look not only at the raw number of servers, but also how they’re dispersed throughout the world.
In particular, we look at the Middle East, Pacific Asia and North Africa, as these areas are typically underrepresented in VPN providers. NordVPN, for example, easily has the largest number of servers, but HideMyAss, while having fewer servers, has better coverage of unique regions (read our HideMyAss review).
While VPNs should work without you knowing they’re there, problems aren’t uncommon. In such a case, a solid support team is needed. During the final section of our VPN reviews, we test support by live chatting, emailing and/or calling to gauge the swiftness and quality of the responses.
This is usually done by sending a dummy question that can be found in the VPN’s knowledgebase. The goal is to see if a support rep will take the time to answer the question or simply redirect us to the knowledgebase entry.
Speaking of which, we also look at any self-help options, including a knowledgebase, community forum or YouTube channel. In addition to them just being present, we also look at the quality and thoroughness of the content.
Top VPN Providers
While there are special cases in which you may want to use one VPN over another, we have our top five VPN providers ranked based on the criteria above. Note that we only rate individual sections — the overall rated is calculated from that — so rest assured that the providers in our top five are truly the best.
ExpressVPN isn’t just a little better than other VPNs; it crushes the competition. Our second rated provider, NordVPN, came close in our ExpressVPN vs. NordVPN comparison, but our top dog still came out with the crown. From streaming to torrenting, ExpressVPN ticks all of the boxes we want to see from a provider.
The strongest aspect of the service is its consistency. ExpressVPN explifies VPN privacy, security and speed, and does so with resilience. If you want a VPN, ExpressVPN is the de facto choice. You can learn more in our ExpressVPN review.
NordVPN is the antithesis of ExpressVPN. It throws all the consistency out the window in favor of a more robust feature set and interface and higher top speed. While throwing caution to the wind comes with some usability woes, there’s no doubt that NordVPN has a lot of raw power and, because of that, it’s the second best VPN service you can buy.
The best aspect of NordVPN is its features. For the same price as other top-tier VPN providers, you have access to an inclusive malware blocking tool, double-hop connection and Tor over VPN. It may not be the best optimized, but the value is undeniable. You can learn more in our NordVPN review.
CyberGhost is similar to NordVPN — you can see how similar in our NordVPN vs. CyberGhost comparison — but it’s not as fast as our second best VPN provider. That said, CyberGhost has a lot of features, and it’s pretty cheap, too. The features, ease of use and low price point make up for any speed issues it may have.
It isn’t as fast as NordVPN, but it is more consistent. CyberGhost performs best with the IKEv2 protocol it installs with, so if you’re not too worried about being blocked by firewalls, it’s a good choice. It also includes the highest simultaneous connection limit out of our top five VPN providers, so it’s great for families, too. You can learn more in our CyberGhost review.
Private Internet Access is all about ease of use. It’s the most inexpensive provider of our top five, and comes with a decent number of features, to boot. While it’s annoying to use the application through the tray, Private Internet Access comes with a great balance of value, security and privacy.
At around half the price month-to-month of our other top picks, Private Internet Access is the de facto choice for saving money. It even offers a two-year plan that’s less than a single year most other places. You can learn more about the pricing, as well as PIA’s other features, in our Private Internet Access review.
TorGuard is a security-focused VPN provider that’s perfect for tinkerers. While not the most accessible for newcomers, TorGuard puts all aspects of the VPN in your control, giving a great amount of control over how the VPN works and how secure it is.
It’s also extremely fast. While not quite meeting the levels of ExpressVPN, TorGuard gets close when it comes to speed. Additionally, it comes with an excellent list of features, including secure email, custom scripts and app kill. You can learn more about those in our TorGuard review.
VPN Frequently Asked Questions
While we cover most topics in our best VPN guide, there are some basic questions that are surprisingly difficult to find answers for. We’re going to answer for frequently asked questions about VPNs so you can get up to speed.
What Is a VPN?
Our what is a VPN guide is the best source for this topic, but we’ll provide you an overview here. “VPN” is an acronym for virtual private network. It’s a network, meaning there are multiple servers connected together, it’s private, meaning no one outside the network can access it, and it’s virtual, meaning that the servers aren’t physically connected together.
Instead of connecting directly to the website you want to go to, you connect to the VPN first and route all of your traffic through it. By doing it this way, you conceal your IP address, location and browser information, making your go invisible online.
What Can I Do With a VPN?
Once you go invisible, there are a lot of new possibilities. As far as what you can do with a VPN, it usually boils down to torrenting and streaming. When you’re torrenting, you’re opening what’s called a peer-to-peer connection, meaning there are multiple other peers (computers) connected to yours, each sharing a small amount of the file you’re downloading.
This, obviously, opens some security issues, as the other computers could trace that connection to identify who you are. Since you’re first connected to the VPN, whatever the peer on the other side of the connection wants to do is targeted at the VPN server, meaning you’re safe from others on the connection.
Depending on where you live, streaming with Netflix or Hulu is already possible, but not all of the content available on those platforms is available to you. Because of distribution geoblocks, streaming platforms only release certain content in certain regions. For example, if you wanted to watch season 4 of Better Call Saul on Netflix, you’d have to be in the UK.
Streaming across multiple regions becomes possible with a VPN. By replacing your IP address with the IP address of the VPN server you’re connected to, you can trick the streaming platform into thinking you’re in a location that you’re not in. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always work, so make sure to read our best VPN for Netflix guide if streaming is of importance.
However, it may be more simple than that. If you live in or are traveling to a country with strict censorship, using a VPN can simply allow you to access the internet. The best VPN services for China, for example, have options that bypass deep packet inspection, allowing you to move around censorship easily.
Why Do I Need a VPN?
If you want to do any of the things listed above, you need a VPN. However, even if you’re not interested in streaming, torrenting or bypassing censorship, a VPN is a good idea. With an onslaught of government spying around the globe, a VPN will keep your data in your hands where it belongs.
Privacy is a key topic when using a VPN, so even if all you do is watch YouTube and check your email, a VPN is still important. By encrypting your internet connection and spoofing your IP address, a VPN makes it look like you’re someone else online. In such a configuration, you can bypass the data collection of the government, Facebook, Google and just about everyone else.
Furthermore, you can keep your connection secure. Since the connection between you and the VPN server is encrypted — usually with 256-bit AES — anyone spying on your network won’t be able to see what requests you’re sending. With a VPN, you’re securely connecting to a fortress that protects everything you do online.
Is a VPN Legal?
In one word, yes, VPNs are legal, except if you’re in one of the handful of countries that have banned them. China is one of these countries, and Russia and Turkey have policies in place that boil down to an outright ban.
Will a VPN Slow Down My Internet Speed?
One question that should be asked more is: will a VPN slow my internet speed? The short answer is yes. As always, the long answer is a little more involved. When connecting to a VPN server, you’re adding overhead to your network time. It takes time for the request to be encrypted, then to travel through the VPN server and onto the open internet.
However, there are cases where a VPN can actually increase your speed. In the recent panic surrounding net neutrality, there was a lot of talk of ISP throttling. ISP throttling is when your internet service provider throttles, or reduces, your speed when connecting to certain websites. In some cases, your speed may be reduced from simply using too much bandwidth.
Because a ISP can reduce your speed, you may be getting slower internet than what you’re paying for. When using a VPN, though, your ISP doesn’t know what you’re doing and, therefore, its automated systems can’t discriminate against your connection. In such a case, a VPN could actually improve your internet speeds.
How Do I Get a VPN?
Setting up a VPN is a lot simpler than it used to be. In the all of the reviews above, you’ll find links to purchase a VPN subscription. Simply follow the instructions provided by the VPN, download it and connect. We walk you through the process for any VPN that has a more involved setup during the course of each review.
As you can see, our VPN reviews aren’t taken lightly. Our approach attempts to account for any issues that may arise during use, including streaming performance, speed and usability. While some amount of our reviews is left up to personal preference, we believe our top five best VPN providers are truly the best.
You don’t just have to take our word for it here, though. Above, you can read any of our long-form VPN reviews to see if you agree with what we saw. We invite you to leave your thoughts on if you think a VPN is worth it there.