Best VPN Service of 2021

We took some of the biggest names in the VPN industry and put them to the test. Who came out on top?

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Best Overall VPN

ExpressVPN
SecureScore™: 9.2/10

ExpressVPN is the best VPN service on the market today. Their balance of security and user-friendliness is unparalleled. And they have plans starting around $7 per month with three months of free service — one of the best deals we’ve seen.

See Pricing

Best Security

NordVPN
SecureScore™: 9.0/10

Trusted by professionals whose safety and freedom depend on their anonymity online, NordVPN offers some of the most powerful security in the industry. Their encrypted tunnels are more than secure, and for a limited time only you can get 72-percent off their two year plan.

See Pricing

Best Privacy

ProtonVPN
SecureScore™: 8.9/10

Headquartered in privacy-friendly Switzerland, ProtonVPN is one of the best services on the market for keeping your data away from prying eyes and sticky fingers, all for a relatively low price. If you act fast, though, you can snag one of the best deals of the year on ProtonVPN. For a limited time, you can secure two years of service for only $5.99 per month.

See Pricing

Best VPN Service Compared

List of the Best VPN Services for 2021

The open internet can be a scary place. Government agencies, internet service providers, and marketing agencies are watching our every move. And identity thieves, hackers, and other bad actors are looking to get their hands on our most sensitive data.

It’s no wonder that virtual private networks (VPNs) are growing in popularity. Globally, nearly a quarter of all internet users are using VPNs to keep themselves safe and secure online. But how do you determine which service is right for you?

We’ve spent countless hours putting the best VPNs to the test, and we’ve ranked them in seven categories.

Our SecureScore™:

  • Ease of Use
  • Reliability
  • Network Speeds
  • Private Web Browsing
  • Data and Identity Protection
  • Features
  • Overall Value

Best VPN Service Compared

System ExpressVPN ExpressVPN NordVPN NordVPN ProtonVPN ProtonVPN IPVanish IPVanish VyprVPN VyprVPN Ivacy VPN Ivacy VPN Surfshark Surfshark HMA HMA CyberGhost CyberGhost NortonVPN NortonVPN
Ranking 1st ExpressVPN View Plans 2nd NordVPN View Plans 3rd ProtonVPN View Plans 4th IPVanish View Plans 5th VyprVPN View Plans 6th Ivacy VPN View Plans 7th Surfshark View Plans 8th HMA View Plans 9th CyberGhost View Plans 10th Norton Secure VPN View Plans
SecureScore™ 9.2 9.0 8.9 8.9 8.9 8.3 8.0 7.9 7.8 7.4
Best Accolade Best Overall Best Security Best Privacy Best for Beginners Best Design Best User Experience Best Geographical Protections Best Network Best Streaming Best Add-Ons
Best Price $8.32 $3.17 $5.00 $3.75 $1.67 $3.33 $2.49 $2.99 $2.25 $4.99
Trial Period 30-day 30-day Limited Free Version 30-day 30-day Limited Free Version 30-day 7-day 45-day None
Best Feature RAM-Only Servers VPN-into-Tor Secure Core IP Scramble Private DSN User Interface Geo-Protections IP Shuffle Streaming Optimizations Identity Theft Protection Integration
Streaming Optimizations No No No No No No No Yes Yes No
P2P Optimizations No Yes Yes No No No No Yes Yes No
Kill Switch Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Integrated Yes
Tor-Ready No Yes Yes No No No No No No No
Crypto-Friendly Yes Yes No No No Yes Yes Yes Yes No
Read Review ExpressVPN Review NordVPN Review ProtonVPN Review IPVanish Review VyprVPN Review Ivacy Review SharkShark Review HMA Review CyberGhost Review NortonVPN Review

Detailed List of the Best VPN Services

  • How We Review

    1. ExpressVPN - Best Overall

    SecureScore™ 9.2
    How We Review
    Value
    9.4
    Features & Technology
    8.7
    Ease Of Use
    9.4
    Reliability
    8.9
    Network Speeds
    9.1
    Private Web Browsing
    9.0
    Data & Identity Protection
    9.6
    SecureScore™
    9.2

    ExpressVPN is one of the most popular VPNs on the market for a reason. They’re almost perfectly balanced between security, features, and user experience. Powerful enough to protect a journalist in China, and easy enough for your grandmother to use, ExpressVPN is our choice for the best overall VPN.

    • Extremely Secure
    • User-Friendly
    • RAM-Only Servers
    • Multiple Devices Supported
    • No Significant Slowdowns
    • 30-Day Free Trial Period

    • A Little Pricey
    • No Bonus Features
    • No Optimization for Torrenting or Streaming

    ExpressVPN is one of those services that just checks all the boxes. They’re well-established, their performance is impeccable, their security is world-class, and to top it all off, they’re really easy to use. They claim on their website that “it just works,” and in our testing, we found that was exactly right.

    Upon installation, ExpressVPN gets right to work with the click of a button. No confusing setup, no overwhelming user interface. Just a big button to press that says “connect.” But don’t let its simplicity fool you — ExpressVPN offers some of the strongest privacy protections in the industry.

    For starters, ExpressVPN runs their own private DNS on every server so there’s no potential for leaks. On top of that, all of their servers are RAM-only, meaning that your data is never written to a hard drive. Simply put — even if ExpressVPN wanted to, they couldn’t share your information with third parties. Once the server resets — that’s it. It’s erased completely and rebuilt entirely, even down to the operating system.

    FYI: In the countless hours we’ve spent working with VPNs, Express might have the tightest security protocol we’ve ever seen. For more information on what all this means as well as an in-depth look at how the service performs on a day-to-day basis, be sure to read our in-depth review of ExpressVPN.

    Now that isn’t to say ExpressVPN is beyond reproach. At $12.95 per month, they’re a little bit pricey, but if you sign up for a yearly subscription that cost drops to around $8 per month — more on that in our guide to ExpressVPNs costs and plans. Also, it’s worth noting that Express is currently offering a deal where if you sign up for a year, you’ll get 3 months free. That averages out to only $6.67 per month! And keep in mind that all of their plans have a 30-day, money-back guarantee. If you’re not happy with the service, you’ll get a full refund — no questions asked.

    That said though, we always keep coming back to just how easy to use and secure the service is. Express VPNs pros certainly outweigh the cons — so much so that they’ve earned the number one spot on our list of this year’s Top 10 VPNs.

  • How We Review

    2. NordVPN - Best Security

    SecureScore™ 9.0
    How We Review
    Value
    8.7
    Features & Technology
    8.9
    Ease Of Use
    8.6
    Reliability
    8.9
    Network Speeds
    8.9
    Private Web Browsing
    9.3
    Data & Identity Protection
    9.4
    SecureScore™
    9.0

    NordVPN has been on the market for almost a decade, and in that time they’ve been making a name for themselves. Their rock-solid core protections, elevated security, and advanced features make them a great option for day-to-day browsers and hard-core privacy enthusiasts alike.

    • Blazing Speeds
    • No DNS Leaks Detected
    • Elevated Security for Activists and Journalists
    • P2P File Sharing Optimization
    • VPN-to-Tor Functionality
    • Great Price

    • Slightly Confusing Setup
    • No Optimizations for Specific Streaming Platforms
    • Problems Connecting to Offshore Servers with Particular Protocols

    NordVPN is another heavy hitter in the VPN world. They bring a robust suite of core cybersecurity protections to the table as well as a handful of unique features that really make them stand out against the competition.

    For starters, they’re one of the few VPNs on the market that allow access to Tor right out of the box. In the most basic terms, Tor is software that allows you to browse the internet in near anonymity, and adding a VPN on top of that increases your security by orders of magnitude.

    With that in mind, it’s important to point out there are a few slight drawbacks to NordVPN. They aren’t the most user-friendly VPN we’ve encountered. The setup might be a little confusing for a novice, and when you start playing around with protocols and offshore servers, things can get a little muddled. That said — the folks that would be confused by this probably wouldn’t be tinkering under the hood to begin with, so it’s not too big of an issue. They’re also a little on the pricey side, but you can read more about that in our guide to NordVPN’s subscription costs and packages.

    Pro Tip: If you act fast, you can save big with NordVPN. For Black Friday, you can pick up a two year plan for only $79. That comes out to only $3.29 per month, which is the best deal we’ve seen for Nord.

    Overall, Nord’s prioritization of privacy and attention to detail is why they’re a top choice for folks like activists and journalists under restrictive regimes. And if it’s good enough for people whose freedom and safety depend on online anonymity, it’s certainly good enough for the average person looking to shore up their digital security.

  • How We Review

    3. ProtonVPN - Best Privacy

    SecureScore™ 8.9
    How We Review
    Value
    9.0
    Features & Technology
    8.9
    Ease Of Use
    8.8
    Reliability
    9.0
    Network Speeds
    8.5
    Private Web Browsing
    9.0
    Data & Identity Protection
    9.1
    SecureScore™
    8.9

    ProtonVPN is another one of our favorite services. Not only do they offer a host of advanced security features, they’re headquartered in Switzerland, meaning they are not beholden to any international data-sharing compacts. This is great news for anyone looking to get the utmost privacy out of their VPN service.

    • No Paying with Cryptocurrency
    • No Way to Change Protocols
    • Limited Customizability Options

    We’ve got to say, using ProtonVPN makes us feel like James Bond. Their exceptional privacy options coupled with their extreme security protocols makes Proton a great choice for anyone — from people whose safety depends on their privacy down to the guy who just wants to watch international Netflix.

    One of the major reasons we like them so much, though, has to do with their location.

    ProtonVPN is located in Switzerland, meaning they aren’t beholden to any international data-sharing agreements. In simpler terms — if any government authority approaches ProtonVPN and asks them to hand over data, they can — and will — legally tell them to take a hike. Their dedication to privacy alone makes them worthy of your consideration, but their features really set them apart in the industry.

    For one, ProtonVPN is Tor-ready. This means that you can use their service with the Tor browser right out of the box. They also offer a service called Secure Core, which is essentially a multi-VPN with an important caveat — with this feature engaged, all of your traffic will be bounced through privacy-friendly Switzerland, Sweden, or Iceland, adding an extra layer of privacy-minded protection to anything you’re doing online.

    Their pricing is also interesting. You can learn more by reading our guide to ProtonVPN costs and plans, but to break it down quickly: They offer a free version of their service, and you can build up your protections from there. This is an interesting approach that you don’t see often. Most VPNs require you to purchase a subscription before you can try out their offerings, but Proton is willing to let you test out their service without money changing hands. We like this approach — it shows they really believe in their product.

    And remember, right now you can get up to 50-percent off a two-year ProtonVPN subscription. That’s one of the better deals we’ve seen.

  • How We Review

    4. IPVanish - Best for Beginners

    SecureScore™ 8.9
    How We Review
    Value
    9.0
    Features & Technology
    8.9
    Ease Of Use
    9.1
    Reliability
    8.9
    Network Speeds
    9.1
    Private Web Browsing
    8.8
    Data & Identity Protection
    8.7
    SecureScore™
    8.9

    IPVanish offers complete protection at reasonable prices, all in a user-friendly package. And right now IPVanish is running a sale where you can save 63 percent on a two-year subscription.

    • Extremely Affordable
    • Non-Techie Friendly
    • Kill Switch Functionality
    • More than 1,300 Servers Worldwide
    • No Connection Caps
    • Owns 90 Percent of their Points of Presence
    • Supported on Multiple Platforms

    • Controversy Regarding Logging in 2016
    • Variable Price Structure
    • Bare-bones UI
    • No Tutorial for Advanced Functionality

    Despite a few shortcomings, IPVanish is still a solid mid-tier VPN that’ll get the job done when it counts. They have a large server network, they’re user-friendly, and they have a couple of tricks up their sleeve to keep you protected from prying eyes.

    Here we’re specifically talking about their IP Scramble function. When enabled, IP Scramble hides OpenVPN protocol traffic that is recognizable by some countries with extreme internet censorship. Once enabled, you shouldn’t have any problems checking your Facebook during your business trip to China.

    That said, there are a few drawbacks. There was a controversy a few years back where IPVanish handed over their logs to the authorities, but they’ve since been acquired by a new parent company that conducted a third-party security audit — which they passed with flying colors. They also have a variable price structure that you can read more about in our guide to IPVanish’s pricing and plans, but suffice it to say, we don’t like it when a price suddenly jumps.

    At the end of the day, though, IPVanish is a great choice for anyone looking to add an additional layer of security to their day-to-day online activities, and we can recommend them for the average user.

    Pro Tip: Just so you know, IPVanish is currently running its Black Friday deal. For a limited time, yearly subscriptions have been cut by 59 percent, and the two-year subscription package has been cut by a whopping 64 percent. If you’re interested in IPVanish, now’s the time to buy.

  • How We Review

    5. VyprVPN - Best Affordable VPN

    SecureScore™ 8.9
    How We Review
    Value
    9.2
    Features & Technology
    8.4
    Ease Of Use
    9.0
    Reliability
    9.0
    Network Speeds
    8.4
    Private Web Browsing
    9.1
    Data & Identity Protection
    9.4
    SecureScore™
    8.9

    VyprVPN is a well-rounded, powerful service. Their setup is effortless, their design is impeccable, and their pricing is tough to beat.

    • Great User Interface
    • User-Friendly
    • Private DNS network
    • Comprehensive Security
    • Rock-Bottom prices

    • Slower Speeds
    • A Little Pricey
    • Some Kill-Switch Hiccups

    VyprVPN is one of those unicorn VPNs — it has everything we want and nothing we don’t. When we put Vyper to the test, we found it was incredibly easy to use, had an intuitive user interface, and all of the customizations available were for features we actually cared about and used on a day-to-day basis. It wasn’t the fastest VPN we’ve ever encountered, but the slowdowns we detected weren’t enough to turn us off to the service.

    The reason it’s number four on our list, though, is because it doesn’t offer any of the advanced features of VPNs 1 through 3. What you see is what you get with Vypr, but everything we saw, we liked. And honestly, you simply can’t beat the price.

    Simply put — what VyprVPN lacks in frills, it more than makes up for in solid core functionality. Vypr is a great choice for most people and checks all of the boxes for us. To see if Vypr is right for you, read our roundup of VyprVPN packages and costs. Right now their 36-month subscription package is only $1.36 per month.

  • How We Review

    6. Ivacy VPN - Best User Experience

    SecureScore™ 8.3
    How We Review
    Value
    8.4
    Features & Technology
    7.3
    Ease Of Use
    8.9
    Reliability
    8.1
    Network Speeds
    8.1
    Private Web Browsing
    8.5
    Data & Identity Protection
    8.6
    SecureScore™
    8.3

    Ivacy is an extremely user-friendly VPN that boasts a little extra security where it’s really needed.

    • Transparent Privacy Policy
    • High Speeds
    • No-Log Guarantee
    • Extra-Secure Encryption
    • Very User-Friendly

    • No Kill Switch on Mac
    • Some Features Only Available on Specific Platforms
    • User Interface Sometimes Sluggish

    Ivacy might be one of the most simple, easy-to-use VPNs we’ve ever tested. Right out of the box, there’s no fuss. There’s no setting anything up. There’s no dealing with network connections. There’s just a big button you press, and then you’re secure.

    Ivacy's dashboard after connecting.

    Ivacy’s dashboard after connecting.

    Simple, however, doesn’t mean it’s lacking power. If all you’re looking to do is hide your IP address, you don’t have to do anything more than this. Ivacy has you protected and will continue to keep your online activity anonymous until you switch that power button off.

    Pro Tip: Just in time for Halloween, Ivacy is running a spooky promotion. You can get 5 years of protection for only $1.33 per month. That’s an 87-percent savings.

    However, Ivacy has a few different modes you can engage with simplicity prioritized. Smart Connect — Ivacy’s default mode — will allow you to select the city and server you’d like to route your traffic through, and Ivacy VPN will optimize your speed. Secure Download mode will prevent you from picking up nasty malware while you’re trawling around the internet, Streaming mode will optimize streaming services while unlocking content, and Unblocking mode will help you access geo-restricted content.

    Quite a long list of features with such a small price tag attached. Two years of Ivacy VPN service will only cost you $2.45 per month. Learn more about that in our guide to Ivacy’s pricing.

    That said, Ivacy isn’t without its flaws. It can be a little unresponsive, and at times it doesn’t feel as … polished … as some of its more expensive counterparts. But if you’re looking for a no-hassle, budget-friendly VPN, Ivacy is hard to beat.

  • How We Review

    7. Surfshark - Best Geographical Protections

    SecureScore™ 8.0
    How We Review
    Value
    8.3
    Features & Technology
    7.8
    Ease Of Use
    8.1
    Reliability
    8.5
    Network Speeds
    7.9
    Private Web Browsing
    8.0
    Data & Identity Protection
    7.7
    SecureScore™
    8.0

    Based in the British Virgin Islands, Surfshark offers a lot of bang for your buck. They take privacy seriously, your security is prioritized, and they’ve got some great geographic protections to boot.

    • Extremely Affordable Subscription Packages
    • Based In British Virgin Islands
    • No Logs Policy
    • Unlimited Device Protection
    • Bonus Identity Theft Protections
    • Multi-VPN Function
    • Great App

    • Split Tunneling only available on Android and Windows
    • No Tutorial
    • Limited Protocols options on Mac
    • No Camouflage Mode on Mac

    While Surfshark might not be as well known as some of the higher-ups on our list, you certainly shouldn’t discount it. They offer solid core protections, great bonus features, all at an excellent price.

    Actually — we need to clarify that last bit. Their month-to-month price is a little expensive, but if you sign up for a longer subscription term, you can likely pay for it with the change you find in your couch cushions. More on that in our guide to Surfshark’s pricing plans, but what we really want to talk about is the service.

    Pro Tip: Like we said above, Surfshark gets really affordable when you start talking about longer-term subscription packages. Even more so now that they’ve launched their Black Friday Deal where they’re going to toss in an additional three months free on their two-year plan. If you average that out, you’re only going to be paying $2.21 per month!

    Surfshark has some of the best geographic-based protections we’ve seen, making them a great choice for anyone who travels often for work or pleasure — particularly if that travel takes you to places that censor internet access. We’re talking specifically about their NoBorders mode which activates when it recognizes you’re connected to a network with strict restrictions like those found in Russia, United Arab Emirates, or China. With NoBorders engaged, you’ll be able to bypass these countries’ limitations.

    One thing we do want to point out, though — a lot of Surfshark’s advanced features don’t really play well with macOS. Just something to keep in mind if you’re doing your comparison shopping from your MacBook Pro.

  • How We Review

    8. HMA - Best Network

    SecureScore™ 7.9
    How We Review
    Value
    7.7
    Features & Technology
    8.1
    Ease Of Use
    8.3
    Reliability
    8.2
    Network Speeds
    8.0
    Private Web Browsing
    7.8
    Data & Identity Protection
    7.4
    SecureScore™
    7.9

    Hide My Ass, or HMA for those with sensitive ears, is a great VPN for folks that need something a little more approachable that still offers powerful protections, like a variable IP shuffle feature and a huge global network of servers.

    • Huge Global Network
    • User-Friendly UI
    • Multiple Device Connectivity
    • No Log Policy
    • IP Shuffle Randomization
    • Specific Servers Optimized for Streaming and P2P Connectivity

    • Kill Switch Could be Faulty
    • No Bonus Features to Speak Of
    • “Lightning Connect” Seems a Little Flawed
    • No Travel-Specific Functionality
    • Limited Customizability

    If we could give an award for “best origin story,” Hide My Ass would take that trophy. The cheekily-named VPN was developed by a 16-year-old looking to bypass his school’s firewall so he could play video games. Now, they operate one of the largest VPN networks on the planet. With over 1,000 servers in more than 190 countries, HMA claims that by using their service, you can unblock over six billion web pages. While we didn’t put that exact number to the test, we did find while testing HMA that their network is expansive, and their features are pretty solid.

    They offer both P2P file sharing and streaming optimizations, meaning that you can torrent while watching Italian Hulu if you feel like it. They also offer a pretty neat function called IP Shuffle that will randomize your connection every so often to make it harder for interested parties to track your location. They’re extremely user-friendly and — dare we say — fun to use.

    That said, this user-friendliness is a bit of a double-edged sword. There aren’t too many ways to customize the service to your liking and fewer advanced features. While that might not be too big of a deal for folks exploring VPN use, we could see advanced users quickly becoming frustrated by the lack of control. Ultimately, though, HMA offers a solid service at a reasonable price point — check out more details in our breakdown of HMA pricing plans.

  • How We Review

    9. CyberGhost - Best for Streaming

    SecureScore™ 7.8
    How We Review
    Value
    8.1
    Features & Technology
    7.8
    Ease Of Use
    7.1
    Reliability
    7.5
    Network Speeds
    7.9
    Private Web Browsing
    8.0
    Data & Identity Protection
    7.9
    SecureScore™
    7.8

    A great choice for streamers and file sharers alike, Cyberghost is a strong VPN with nearly universal appeal. It’s user-friendly enough to not be intimidating, but powerful enough to protect you where it counts.

    • No Noticeable Speed Reductions
    • Great Streaming Optimization
    • Up to Seven Device Connections Per Subscription
    • Multiple Protocols Supported
    • Kill Switch Functionality
    • Free Trial Periods on All Subscriptions

    • Month-to-Month Plans Are Pricey
    • Dedicated IP Addresses Cost Extra
    • No “Fastest Connection” Function on Desktop
    • Some Bonus Features Don’t Work as Well as They Could
    • Program Feels Unresponsive at Times

    CyberGhost is another great entry-level VPN with some interesting advanced features and bonus functionality. Although these features cost a little extra, they offer data breach alerts and a password checker in addition to their full suite of VPN protections.

    Pro Tip: Cyberghost is currently throwing in three months free on their two-year subscription plan. If you act fast, you’re only going to be paying $2.17 for this spooky service.

    And those are pretty robust. Although you’re not going to get the Jason Bourne-level security offered by ExpressVPN or NordVPN, CyberGhost isn’t a service to take lightly. Their network is expansive, their performance is solid, and their protections are complete.

    Where they really stand out, though, is with their streaming optimizations. Not only do they offer specific servers for watching media, they have servers tuned for specific streaming services. And we’re not just talking about Netflix and Hulu — we’re talking ESPN sports, Comedy Central, and even Crunchyroll. They’re the only service we’ve seen so far that gets this granular.

    Overall, CyberGhost is a great choice for anyone looking to add an additional layer of protection to their day-to-day browsing. Now if your freedom or safety depends on anonymity, you might consider something a little more robust, but for the average consumer, CyberGhost may offer everything you need and then some. Check out our rundown of CyberGhost pricing to see if this VPN makes sense for you.

  • How We Review

    10. NortonVPN - Best Add-Ons

    SecureScore™ 7.4
    How We Review
    Value
    7.1
    Features & Technology
    6.4
    Ease Of Use
    6.5
    Reliability
    8.1
    Network Speeds
    7.9
    Private Web Browsing
    8.0
    Data & Identity Protection
    7.9
    SecureScore™
    7.4

    NortonVPN offers simple protections from a well-trusted name in cybersecurity. Their simple, no-frills service also integrates seamlessly into Norton’s larger suite of identity theft protections and cybersecurity offerings.

    • Extremely Affordable
    • Reliable Safety
    • Integrated into Norton Suite of Service
    • Simple User Experience

    • Speeds on the Slow Side
    • Not Optimized for Torrenting or Streaming
    • No Kill Switch

    At the end of the day, NortonVPN is a reliable, affordable service. It offers little by way of advanced functionality, but it will certainly get the job done if you’re looking to protect yourself during everyday browsing. In our review of NortonVPN, we found nothing to indicate there were any security flaws, and their day-to-day performance was satisfactory.

    There’s not much to say about NortonVPN’s advanced functions, because there are very few. It does come coupled with an ad blocker that works surprisingly well, but that’s about it.

    Where NortonVPN becomes really appealing, though, is if you couple it with Norton’s larger suite of cybersecurity and identity theft protections. If you’re looking for total, comprehensive coverage — this is likely the service you’ve been waiting for. Check out our review of NortonLifeLock identity theft protection to get a more complete picture of what they’re offering — but be forewarned — it’s extensive.

What is a VPN?

Not exactly sure what a VPN is? That’s fine! Consider this your crash course.

VPN is short for “Virtual Private Network.” Through highly technical processes, they help people remain virtually anonymous online. There are numerous reasons why people choose to use VPNs, from security and privacy, to enhancing streaming services and torrenting. Should you use one? Keep reading to find out.

Before we get into that though — a brief history. The first VPN was built in 1996 by Microsoft engineers looking for a way to transmit private data over a public network. They were then made popular in the late 1990s and early 2000s by organizations looking to protect their data while employees worked remotely,1 but they’ve been exploding in popularity recently as data breaches and identity theft incidents have become rampant and people are becoming more aware of just how exposed they are online.

CyberGhost’s desktop

CyberGhost’s desktop

FYI: The first “VPN” was also the first instance of peer-to-peer tunneling protocol, or PPTN.2

VPNs work just like any other computer program. You install them on your device, switch them on, and they go to work (so far, so simple). Some are more complicated than others, as many offer advanced features and settings. And like any product, some work fantastically while others aren’t even worth the download. But understanding how they work and which service is right for you is exactly why we’re here.

VPNs work just like any other computer program. You install them on your device, switch them on, and they go to work — easy enough, right. Some are more complicated than others, as many offer advanced features and settings, but for the most part, any layperson can instal a VPN on their computer without needing to take a collegiate computer networking course. In some cases, it takes only seconds to complete the process.

Like any product, though, some VPNs work fantastically, while others aren’t even worth the download. But understanding how they work and which service is right for you is exactly why we’re here.

How Does a VPN Work?

To understand how a VPN works, you have to know a little about the architecture of the internet. In very simple terms, the internet we use every day is a network of connected devices. Every device that has internet capability is assigned an IP address which helps identify data and send it to the right place.

CyberGhost Mobile App

CyberGhost’s mobile app

On the unsecured internet, your IP address is visible to anyone who cares to find it. And in the right hands, that address can be used to collect all sorts of information about you.

FYI: Most of the time it’s relatively harmless when you surf the web with your IP address exposed, but bad actors can use it to gather your sensitive information to sell and trade on the dark web.

Enter the Virtual Private Network…

A VPN protects you in two ways. First, your data is encrypted — meaning it’s all scrambled up, so that if it’s intercepted on its journey through the net, there’s no way for bad actors to interpret it. Then it is sent from your computer through a secure tunnel to a server operated by your VPN provider where it is then reassembled. Since your data leaves at that endpoint, your actual IP address is hidden, and since it’s encrypted in transit, it makes it much harder to trace who you are and what you’re doing online.

Very simply put, a VPN is the next best thing to a digital invisibility cloak.

Is a VPN Really Necessary?

It’s an interesting question, and it’s one you have to weigh with another question: How much do you value your privacy? If you’re online and not using a VPN, you have to assume what you’re doing is being watched. Now does that mean there’s always a hacker waiting to nap your banking information every time you check your email? No, but you can’t completely discredit that potential, either. Do you really need a home security system? Hopefully not. But you’ll be happy you have one the night a burglar tries to break in.

TunnelBear General

TunnelBear’s general settings

FYI: A VPN alone might not be enough to protect you from every cyber threat out there, but by adding a VPN to an already robust cybersecurity protection posture, you’re going to be in a much better position to thwart attacks.

So remember, VPNs are not a silver bullet. If someone directly targets you, they may still get what they’re looking for if they put in enough effort. The point is that a VPN, coupled with other cybersecurity systems like antivirus software and malware blockers along with solid digital security habits like creating strong passwords and avoiding sketchy areas of the internet, will make you far less likely to fall victim.

In the world of cybersecurity, you never want to be low hanging-fruit, and a VPN will go a long way to putting your “fruit” out of reach of no-good fraudsters.

Are VPNs Hard to Use?

In the early days of the internet, VPNs used to be a little unwieldy. They were difficult to set up and understand, and the only people using them were the people who really needed them. Today, however, that’s not the case at all.

Surfshark Connected Tab and Killswitch

Surfshark

Most VPNs on the market today are extremely accessible and user-friendly. Even if you don’t consider yourself to be tech savvy, you can still enjoy the protections offered by a VPN service. While the average user might not want to get too deep into the advanced functions and settings of their VPN — if you can download a program and flip a switch to “on,” you can work most VPNs.

FYI: The best VPNs available today (including most of our top picks above) are surprisingly user-friendly. Seriously … they’re plug-and-play simple.

How Much Do VPNs Cost?

Simply put — not that much. There are plenty of free services out there, although those are usually ways to introduce you to a provider and convince you to purchase a subscription plan further down the line. There are also open-source VPNs out there, but these are usually a little complicated and can be buggy. If you’re looking for a solid, secure, reliable service, you’re more than likely going to have to pay for it.

VyprVPN is one of the most affordable services out there

The good news, though, is that VPNs are extremely affordable. Most services offer a suite of protections on a month-to-month basis — usually between $10 and $15, and then offer savings if you sign up for longer subscription durations. These savings can be pretty significant, too. If you sign up for a year or two, you might end up paying around $2 or $3 per month. Not bad when you consider the potential cost of your identity being stolen or your bank account being drained.

Did You Know: Most VPNs offer some sort of money-back guarantee on their longer-term subscription plans. The most common duration we’ve seen is a 30-day risk-free trial period.

What Features Should a VPN Have?

Since there are so many VPNs coming to market and jockeying for position, they’re all trying to bring a little something different to the table. Some focus on speed, others focus on privacy. Some offer streaming optimizations, others focus on torrenting. Keep in mind there are a few features that all VPNs should have, though. Here’s what to look for when making your decision.

No-Log Guarantee

Also sometimes called “zero-log,” this means the VPN provider will not collect any information transmitted through their network. The whole point of a VPN is to increase your anonymity online, so you want to make sure you’re using one that doesn’t collect your personal information, your browsing habits, what you’re downloading, or who you’re corresponding with.

One caveat, though. Any VPN provider can say they’re a zero-log service, but when the rubber hits the road, they’ve caved and given their customer’s data to government agencies — data they said they weren’t collecting.

To avoid this, look for a VPN that’s been independently audited by security experts.

Kill Switch

We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again. Any worthwhile VPN will have a kill switch. When the kill switch is engaged, the VPN will terminate your internet connection if the VPN service is interrupted for any reason. While this might seem like a headache, it’s actually an important security measure. The kill switch prevents your real IP address from ever becoming exposed if your VPN isn’t working correctly, and thankfully, the best VPNs always have one built in.

HMA Kill Switch

HMA’s kill switch

Here’s a tip, though. Not all VPNs have their kill switch enabled right out of the box. Once you set yours up, make sure you go into the settings and ensure it’s turned on.

Large Server Network

You always want to select a service that offers a large network of servers. This will not only ensure your speeds won’t suffer while using the VPN, but it will also give you more options on where you want to route your traffic.

Simply put, the larger the network, the less crowded it will be. For context, some of the larger VPNs have thousands of servers in hundreds of countries — those are the ones you’re looking for.

Support for Various Protocols

VPNs use numerous encryption protocols; these are essentially the language the VPN is speaking. You want to select one that has support for the most common and most secure protocol out there — OpenVPN. OpenVPN has been around for about 20 years, and it’s always improving.

You might also consider, though, selecting a provider that supports what we think will be the next big thing in VPN protocols, WireGuard. It’s extremely fast, extremely secure, open source, and almost absurdly lean.

A Mobile App

You’re most vulnerable when you’re connecting to networks you’re unfamiliar with, so it’s critical that your VPN has a mobile version that’s easy to use and secure.

In fact, we’d argue this might be the most important feature of the VPN you select. You never know who’s on a public Wi-Fi network with you — they might be up to no good.

What Are Some Advanced VPN Features?

There are countless advanced features offered by VPNs, and a lot of them are use-case-specific. Generally speaking, though, there are a few interesting functionalities offered by some of the better VPNs on the market that you might want to look out for.

ProtonVPN Dashboard

ProtonVPN’s Multi-VPN functionality.

  • Multi-VPN: This is called a lot of different things by a lot of different services, but it always essentially does the same thing — routes your traffic through not just one, but multiple VPN servers. While this makes it much harder to trace your data back to the source, also understand that switching this function on will likely decrease your speed significantly.
  • Geographic Protections: Again, different VPN services brand this function differently, but it always works on the same principle. Countries with extreme internet censorship like China, Saudi Arabia, and Russia actually have the ability to scan for known VPN protocol traffic and terminate connections. With geographic protections in place, the VPN will obfuscate your data even further, making it much harder for these governments to detect.
  • VPN into Tor: If you’re looking for the absolute most secure way to browse the internet as an average consumer, using a VPN coupled with the Tor network is really the gold standard. A handful of VPNs on the market today are configured to work with the Tor browser which allows access to the internet via onion browsing, which bounces encrypted traffic off of numerous endpoint nodes. It’s a little too technical to fully explain here, but suffice it to say, this is the highest level of security the average consumer can get.
Tor icon

Did You Know: Onion routing, the method by which Tor operates, was developed in 1995 by engineers at the U.S. Naval Research Lab to create internet connections that don’t reveal who is talking to whom.3

Do Streaming Services Work With VPNs?

Not all streaming services are created equal, and their libraries can differ wildly based on where you’re located in the world. A lot of folks use VPNs to have unfettered access to their preferred streaming platforms’ media by spoofing their location. Want to watch American baseball while you’re on vacation this summer in Europe? A VPN can help you do exactly that.

Be aware, though, as some streaming services are catching on to this and blocking standard VPN traffic. Will you get in trouble for doing this? We haven’t heard of that happening yet, but be aware that if your streaming provider notices you’re using a VPN, your connection might be disabled until you turn it off.

Can I Stream Netflix with a VPN?

Truth be told, it’s kind of a gamble. There are a lot of services out there that claim to unlock Netflix’s international libraries, but a few years ago Netflix really began cracking down on users accessing their services with a VPN. What works today might not work tomorrow.

NordVPN Dashboard France

NordVPN’s dashboard

That said, most VPNs don’t exist in a vacuum, nor are they static. They’re constantly updating and tweaking their configurations and offering new protocols that can bypass restrictive networks. By selecting a VPN that offers streaming optimizations, you’re more than likely going to be able to access everything Netflix has to offer.

What Is Torrenting, and What Does it Have to Do With VPNs?

When you download something from the internet by traditional means, the file is usually coming to you in its entirety from one server location. Torrenting, on the other hand, is a little more complicated.

Using this type of download, a large file is broken up into tiny parts, called packets. Instead of downloading one large file, you download a “tracker,” which is essentially a map of where to find the packets across the network, and instructions on how to alternate the location you’re downloading from.

Think of it like this — rather than buying a sandwich from one store, you’re getting the bread, the meat, the cheese, and the toppings from different places. No one store really knows you’re making a sandwich, and you’re putting it together back at your house. This is a really simplified explanation of torrenting, but should help illustrate it conceptually speaking.

BitTorrent Logo

BitTorrent is one of the most popular Torrent clients online today.

Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with downloading in this way, but many of the files downloaded by torrenters are copyright protected — like music, movies, games, and software. While there’s a lot of legal gray area here, and a ton of online debate surrounding this, make no mistake: downloading copyrighted material is against the law.

Now, what does this have to do with VPNs?

It’s pretty simple, actually. Some ISPs and governments block known torrent sites, and VPNs can help you access them. Additionally, there are several services on the market that offer optimized servers for torrenting. While there are certainly legitimate, legal uses for these sites, just be careful you don’t wind up in legal hot water.

Can I Be Tracked Using a VPN?

While there have been cases of authorities tracking down VPN users engaging in illegal activity, we can’t come up with an example where this was done by matrix-level hacking. It’s usually a lot more mundane — like a law enforcement agency subpoenaing the records of a VPN service and internet service provider logs and cross-referencing other known pieces of information.

Surfshark Static Servers

Surfshark’s server list

FYI: There have been cases of “no-log” VPNs being so in name only, and actually working with government agencies when asked to reveal their clients’ data. Always be sure you go with a reputable service, ideally one that’s been through a third-party security audit.

For all intents and purposes, you can’t be tracked while using a VPN. Your online activity might be able to be pieced together after the fact, though.

That’s why it’s extremely important to read your VPN provider’s privacy disclosure to understand exactly what they’re keeping track of and what jurisdictions or authorities they’re beholden to.

Are VPNs Illegal?

In most countries, no. VPNs are perfectly legal. VPN use is restricted in some countries where the internet is highly regulated like China, Russia, and Iran, but even then the laws are pretty unclear, and very few people have ever been prosecuted for their use.4

Of course, what you do while using your VPN might be against the law. Downloading copyrighted material, for instance, is still a bad idea; and if you’re using your VPN-into-Tor functionality to access the dark web to do things you wouldn’t want your mother to know about, you can still get into a lot of trouble, VPN or no VPN.

NordVPN on Mobile

NordVPN’s mobile app

If you just want to use your VPN to stay safe online and maybe watch some Canadian Netflix every now and then, you’re 100-percent legally within your right to do so.

Who Uses VPNs?

It’s not just tech nerds and privacy hawks. All kinds of folks use VPNs these days. In fact, their popularity is quite literally going through the roof. Some estimates show about 31 percent of internet users are currently using a VPN to go online, and about half of those folks say they’re using their VPN to remain secure on public Wi-Fi.5

While most people using VPNs are only doing so to shore up their online security, there are plenty of folks who need VPNs because their safety and freedom depend on it. This might include folks like journalists, organizers, and activists in countries where the internet is heavily censored and regulated.

Make no mistake, online privacy is a really flimsy thing, and it’s up to all of us to fight for a free and open internet.

FYI: There are some VPNs that take the fight for internet privacy very seriously. Through their Internet Freedom Hub, TunnelBear has handed out about 20,000 free accounts to activists and journalists across the globe, for example. They also offer student discounts and resources to help keep the internet free and open.

ExpressVPN browsing location

ExpressVPN

Do I Need a VPN?

Your online security is up to you, and it’s your call if you think you need a VPN or not. At the end of the day, they’re a security tool. They aren’t necessarily silver bullets, and finding the one with the right features for your needs can be a process of trial and error.

There are several scenarios in which we’d strongly suggest using a VPN — either for your own safety or if you just want to better experience online life. Here’s a shortlist of internet activities to consider:

You Often Use Public Wi-Fi

If you find yourself working from cafes, hotels, and other public places, we recommend investing in a VPN. Even if you’re on an “official” channel, you never know how secure that network actually is, or who you might be sharing it with.

You Handle Sensitive Data at Work

Data breaches happen all the time, and the most common involve human error. If you regularly handle items like social security numbers, payment information, or other pieces of personally identifying information in your professional life, you really should consider using a VPN.

FYI: As remote work is becoming more mainstream, many IT departments are requiring VPN connectivity to access their networks. Check with your company before investing in a VPN, because third-party services might not integrate well with your current network.

You Regularly Travel to Regions with Censored or Regulated Internet Connections

If you regularly visit China, Russia, the UAE, or any other country that heavily regulates or censors the internet for personal or professional reasons, we highly recommend using a VPN while you’re there. Not only will you be able to access the websites and media you’re used to, but you’ll also prevent any intelligence agencies from sticking their nose where it doesn’t belong.

Your Privacy and Security is Important to You

Ultimately, if you value your privacy online in general, you should seriously consider investing in a solid VPN. The internet is a rapidly changing place, and accessing it without the proper security measures in place can be risky.

Our Final Thoughts on VPNs and Digital Privacy

The internet and our relationship with it is constantly evolving. When we were using 56k modems to dial up America Online years ago, it was unthinkable that one day we’d be doing the majority of our shopping online, or that our professional lives would take place in almost entirely digital spaces. That video chats would be the norm and that our media would stream digitally through our televisions.

While this is all very exciting, it’s also intimidating. There are new threats popping up every day, and we have to remain vigilant if we don’t want to become victims. And luckily, staying safe online doesn’t require a Ph.D in computer science anymore — it’s as simple as downloading some user-friendly software and flipping a switch. VPNs are easier to use, cheaper, and more accessible than ever. Hopefully this comprehensive guide has helped you in your pursuit of digital privacy and finding a VPN that makes sense for you.

Top
Citations
SafeHome.org only uses high-quality sources to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial guidelines to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. CactusVPN. (2021). VPN History & The Future of VPN Technology.
    https://www.cactusvpn.com/beginners-guide-to-vpn/vpn-history/

  2. Kerrigan, S. (2018, April 27). Virtual Private Networks: How They Work And Why You Might Need One. Interesting Engineering.
    https://interestingengineering.com/virtual-private-networks-how-they-work-and-why-you-might-need-one

  3. Tor. (2021). History.
    https://www.torproject.org/about/history/

  4. Das, S. (2020, February 20). Should You be Using VPN in India? Understanding its Laws and Privacy. News18.
    https://www.news18.com/news/tech/should-you-be-using-vpn-in-india-understanding-its-laws-and-privacy-2506307.html

  5. Vojinovic, I. (2021, March 21). VPN Statistics for 2021 – Keeping Your Browsing Habits Private. DataProt.
    https://dataprot.net/statistics/vpn-statistics/