Every time we connect to the open web unprotected, we’re literally spewing data out of a hole in our routers. A hole that anyone, in theory, could use to gain access to our devices: hackers, governments, marketers, and data farms. Judging from the number of potentially malware-infested ads served to us daily,1 it’s not even a challenge.
Quality VPNs seal that hole by wrapping a secure tunnel around our internet connections, from point of entry to exit. Then they cloak everything that passes through in unbustable bank-grade encryption.
Sound good? For a handful of VPN providers, like ExpressVPN, it isn’t good enough. They’ve taken online security to a whole new level with a fleet of advanced, independently audited, and privately owned and operated servers — making our data virtually impregnable. But is that extra privacy really worth the higher price tag it comes with? I took a good look at the results from my tests of ultra-secure ExpressVPN and tool-packed newcomer Surfshark to find out.
ExpressVPN and Surfshark: Four-Point Breakdown
How easy are they to use?
Out of the box, ExpressVPN and Surfshark both look and feel great with thoughtfully designed, nice-looking apps that are a snap to use at your desk or on the go. Both come with sturdy browser extensions (for anyone like me that lives in their browser), and you can fire them both up on your Amazon, Apple, or Android TV without a hitch.
How much privacy do I get?
Both ExpressVPN and Surfshark are upfront about the fact that they don’t record anything but the bare minimum of session data to keep your apps running smoothly. And, in case you really keep tabs on privacy, both of these Caribbean-based VPN providers are safe from the clutches of any international intel-sharing agreements, so your online activity is 100 percent off-limits to snooping governments and internet service providers (ISPs).
FYI: If a VPN provider doesn’t collect any data when you log in and use their products, they can claim to have a “zero-logs” policy. Zero-logs policies are nice in theory, but in practice, nearly all VPN services keep track of things like the number of devices we connect with (to police limits) and the version number of our apps (to improve quality and notify us when there are updates).
What kind of advanced features do they come with?
If you like to do a little tinkering under the hood without getting too technical, Surfshark has got just enough niche customization and premium add-ons to keep you busy. ExpressVPN, on the other hand, focuses most of its advanced tech on its private servers (more on both in a bit).
How much do they cost?
At first glance, ExpressVPN costs a fair chunk more than Surfshark ($8.32 per month versus $2.49). Private RAM servers don’t come cheap. But also remember that Surfshark’s oft-touted two-year deal is just that: a deal. That $2.49 price tag doubles upon renewal. We’ll take a look at the full pricing picture below.
Did You Know: Unlike servers that run off hard drives, RAM servers are wiped clean upon start-up, so data is never stored, making them the gold standard of VPN server hardware. Kudos to ExpressVPN here.
ExpressVPN and Surfshark: Key Differences
ExpressVPN and Surfshark Under the Hood
When I tested ExpressVPN, I discovered their apps didn’t leave much room for tweaking. For users who just want to flip the switch and let their VPN do its job, this is perfect. Still, I don’t want to sell ExpressVPN short.
This VPN offers a hearty selection of protocols, including their seamless, ultra- lightweight (less than a 1,000 lines of code!) proprietary Lightway protocol. ExpressVPN also has a kill switch and a handy split tunneling feature (in case you want to send temperamental apps and websites through your normal router connection). So it’s definitely more than just an on-off switch.
But if you’re looking for a wider selection of VPN privacy tools built into your apps, Surfshark may be more up your alley.
FYI: Protocols, like ExpressVPN’s Lightway, give your VPN tunnels the instructions they need to keep your data safe while it’s in transit.
First off, Surfshark can go head-to-head with ExpressVPN in the protocol department. Surfshark apps come with all the usual suspects, plus censorship-thwarting Shadowsocks and blazing-fast WireGuard. We’ll check out how well they actually work later.
Secondly, your premium Surfshark subscription comes with CleanWeb, a native ad and malware blocker. While this may not be as customizable a privacy option as Windscribe’s DNS content filtering tool R.O.B.E.R.T.2 — which is one of my favorites on the market, by the way — it’s an extra layer of security you’ll definitely appreciate on the day to day.
Surfshark plans also come with static servers. I’m lumping this feature in with the everyday features because you’d need a static server (and IP address) to do some pretty basic things with your VPN. These include things like run your own FTP server, use geo-location services, or access high-security banking apps (which are thwarted by constantly changing IPs).
Surfshark’s static servers are free, but they’re not unique (i.e., you share them with other users). The only issue you might run into is overcrowding, which can dampen speeds and set VPN-sniffing streaming platforms like Netflix on your trail.
Pro Tip: Do a lot of file sharing? A File Transfer Protocol (FTP) server backed by a VPN lets you transfer files between devices over your computer network quickly and securely.
Still with me? Awesome. Because for a buck more a month, you can also ramp up your online security with Surfshark’s data leak alerts. (Check out my full Surfshark review for more on this.) It’s enough to say I was pleasantly surprised by how much identity protection Surfshark alerts actually gave me.
The list goes on with Camouflage mode (for Windows only), MultiHop, and NoBorders mode, but these are definitely not everyday needs for most of us. Just know that, while Surfshark doesn’t take its tweakable tech to the level of really hands-on VPNs like KeepSolid VPN Unlimited and Windscribe, it definitely packs a serious punch for its price tag.
Speaking of prices, ExpressVPN and Surfshark are a couple of VPNs with refreshingly straightforward yearly options. Which is — from one VPN user to another — what we should all be looking at, instead of the monthly plans. (Monthly plans just end up making us pay more for a service we’re going to be using long term anyway.)
So what’s the actual pricing situation with ExpressVPN and Surfshark?
FYI: Both ExpressVPN and Surfshark are based in the British Virgin Islands, which means they’re not required by law to keep user logs.
ExpressVPN’s 12-month plans will run you $8.32 per month. If you’ve been shopping in the VPN bargain basement, that figure is bound to seem a little steep at first glance. Consider that VyprVPN costs only $1.67 for three years and CyberGhost’s plans start at $2.25 for two years.
Then again, ExpressVPN’s $8.32 per month is par for the course when you compare costs with other big-name, high-power VPN providers. Both ProtonVPN and Hotspot Shield cost about $8 per month, for example.
Pro Tip: Want to compare these price tags with the best on the market? Head on over to our Top VPN Picks of the year and get a complete view of the VPN pricing situation, including exclusive special deals.
Where does Surfshark fit in? Not quite in the bargain basement. After your first two years, your Surfshark plan becomes a yearly subscription that costs $5 per month. Throw in data leak alerts for another $1 per month and that brings you up to $6.
If we compare ExpressVPN and Surfshark now, we get a more realistic pricing picture. Surfshark’s yearly plan costs about $85, compared to ExpressVPN’s $100 plan. In other words, ExpressVPN will run you about $15 more a year.
If you think of your VPN connection as a virtual tunnel with your device at one end and a random website you’re visiting at the other end, you can think of the servers in between as the tunnel’s engineers.
While ExpressVPN can’t boast the sheer server numbers of, say, NordVPN (5,000 plus), its server engineering is about the best on the market. In very basic terms, here’s why.
Did You Know: Domain Name System (DNS) servers process our requests to access websites. When our VPN provider handles those requests for us — rather than, say, our internet service provider — our online activity is private.
ExpressVPN owns and operates its own RAM servers. Not many upmarket VPN services can make this claim. Why is this good news for ExpressVPN users? One, ExpressVPN can personally vouch for their server security and upkeep (and don’t have to rely on, say, AcmeVPN in Liechtenstein).
Two, running off RAM (versus hard drives) means ExpressVPN’s servers wipe themselves clean — and reinstall their entire OS, including any security patches —upon every reboot, so there’s absolutely no data stored or buggy software versions floating about anywhere. Literally, if I were a hacker and I had to bust into ExpressVPN’s servers, I’d just go back to my day job.
FYI: Server numbers can vary wildly from VPN to VPN. VyprVPN has 700, for example. Private Internet Access operates 35,000-plus. But more servers doesn’t necessarily mean better performance. Want to know why? Check out our Complete VPN Buyer’s Guide and become your household VPN authority.
Finally, I mentioned that ExpressVPN is one of a handful of VPN providers that submit to yearly independent security audits. In ExpressVPN’s case, they hire outside cybersecurity firms PwC and Cure53 to inspect their servers (and everything else down to their source code and log files) to see if their tech is truly living up to their privacy statements. Their last audit3 was published in May 2021. By all accounts, the news was good.
Where does Surfshark fall on the privacy spectrum?
Like ExpressVPN, Surfshark runs its own private DNS on all its servers, so in theory you won’t ever have to worry about third-party servers potentially exposing your data to man-in-the-middle attacks. This is impressive.
Coupled with data breach alerts (for an extra buck a month) and some neat built-in features like NoBorders mode (using virtual servers to access difficult-to-get-to destinations) and Camouflage mode (masking your VPN), Surfshark will certainly have you covered in pretty much any niche privacy situation you could imagine.
Pro Tip: VPN masking, or hiding the fact that you’re connecting via a VPN, can help you in a number of pretty basic situations. One of the most common uses of VPN masking is to outsmart streaming platforms that don’t like VPNs, like Netflix or Amazon Prime.
That said, on the day to day, while Surfshark’s security is top-of-the-line (industry standard protocols with AES-256 encryption), their servers aren’t diskless like ExpressVPN’s, which means data isn’t automatically wiped. And, while Surfshark did submit to a security audit (back in 2018), it was only to check their browser extensions.
The bottom line? Surfshark has taken some serious security strides for a VPN that’s only been around for three years, but they’re not at ExpressVPN’s level yet.
FYI: RAM stands for random access memory. Unlike data stored permanently on hard drives, RAM data only appears when you need it.
Speed isn’t an end in itself. Still, VPN performance does matter, and not just on speedy base connections. If your connection is choppy or sluggish to begin with, those extra megabits gained or lost can be the difference between browsing comfortably and watching page loaders spin.
ExpressVPN and Surfshark aren’t known for their rocket-powered speeds, and during my initial speed tests on U.S. connections on a 130-180 Mbps line, I didn’t find anything to write home about. Other than a one-off snafu with ExpressVPN’s “smart connection” (not so smart for me that day actually), neither service slowed me down so that it affected my day-to-day browsing.
But that isn’t exactly what you’d want to hear if you were uploading a 200 MB work presentation while celebrating Uncle Jordie’s Zoom birthday 500 miles away in Nashville — so I wanted to give them both a second shot on a faster line.
When I ramped up the speed with a 400 Mbps baseline connection (and tested the faster, newer protocols, Lightway and WireGuard), two things happened: ExpressVPN broke the 300 Mbps barrier and Surfshark ran a steady 230-250 Mbps.
It’s not quite up there with the blazing-fast 397 Mbps I hit with NordVPN, but good enough for just about anything I’d be doing online.
What’s the lesson here? Speed tests are capricious for a number of reasons: fluctuating server loads and base router connections, time of day, distance, etc. Add to that the fact that sometimes recommended connections don’t perform as well as lightspeed protocols you choose yourself.
What I can say beyond a doubt is that the very minimum you should expect from either ExpressVPN or Surfshark is a stable connection. For heavier lifting, you may run into turbulence, but it’s nothing a little tweaking can’t solve.
Did You Know: Supersonic VPN connections are fun to test and write about, but you actually only need a 10 Mbps connection to stream HD.
Which Is the Better VPN, ExpressVPN or Surfshark?
Surfshark’s sleek apps are packed with powerful privacy features that work out of the box on whatever devices you run them on, including your TV. Surfshark is fast and secure, too, with next-gen protocols and private DNS servers.
ExpressVPN can’t go head to head with Surfshark in extra privacy tools, but are extra privacy tools what you’re really looking for? A VPN to get past the Great Firewall4? Or a MultiHop connection that mimics the privacy of the Tor network?
Or are you looking for complete privacy when you’re online doing the things you do everyday? Browsing. Sharing files. Ordering from Amazon. Streaming Netflix. Gaming.
If, like me, you’re in the last camp, the extra $15 per year you’d pay with ExpressVPN is a small price to pay for the peace of mind you’d gain from total security. So, even though I really liked using both of these VPN services, at the end of the day, I’d give ExpressVPN the nudge.
FYI: The Great Firewall is the virtual equivalent of China’s Great Wall. It uses advanced tech and censorship laws to create a state-regulated version of the web that blocks access to many foreign websites.
ExpressVPN costs more per month than Surfshark ($8.32 compared to $2.49). Just remember that upon renewal, Surfshark subscriptions shoot up to just shy of $5 per month.
ExpressVPN has better all-around security with diskless, privately owned and operated servers they audit yearly.
Yes, you won’t have any problems streaming with either ExpressVPN or Surfshark. ExpressVPN unblocks Netflix, Amazon Prime, and about 23 other services. In our tests, Surfshark worked on Netflix, Disney Plus, and Amazon Prime.
ExpressVPN (running its proprietary Lightway protocol) was faster in our latest round of speed tests.