The internet can be a pretty dangerous place, and it pays to stay protected while online. That’s why the VPN industry is literally exploding right now.
Once reserved for the uber-tech nerds, privacy hawks, and internet outlaws, these days virtual private networks are going more mainstream, and they are becoming far more approachable. They’re easy to set up, they’re simple to use, and you don’t need a degree in computer science to troubleshoot them.
Did You Know: VPNs were originally designed for employees to work remotely without exposing organizational data.
But with this increased interest comes market saturation. There are plenty of VPNs out there that are hardly worth the download, and just as many that simply don’t work. For a novice, it can sometimes be difficult to separate the best from the bunk.
So in this article, I’m going to unpack a VPN that is definitely more of the former than the latter. I spent several days testing ExpressVPN to see how it stacks up against the competition. And you’ll be surprised at what I found.
ExpressVPN is one of the top-rated services out there — and with good reason. At first glance, they seem well-established, they seem fast, they seem secure. On paper that sounds great, but while using ExpressVPN, I did notice some distinct pros and cons emerge. Let’s take a look at those before we get to the heart of the matter.
So now that you’ve got a pretty good idea of what this service looks like, let’s start walking through purchasing the service, how it performs, and some of its more advanced features.
The purchasing process couldn’t be easier. You select the duration of the subscription you’d like, enter your email address, enter your credit card info, set up an account, and download the program. Bing, bang, boom, and you’re protected.
I do want to point out a few interesting items in this process, though. For starters, there are three subscription durations to pick from. As is most common in the VPN industry, the longer the duration, the less the month-to-month cost is going to be. Below is a quick guide to ExpressVPN’s pricing structure. And for a closer look, head on over to our ExpressVPN plans and pricing guide.
|1 Month||$12.95 per month|
|6 Months||$9.99 per month|
|12 Months||$8.32 per month|
Now for context, pricing is a little on the expensive side. For reference, with the right Surfshark plan, you’re only going to be paying $2.49 per month.
FYI: Looking to stretch your dollar a bit? Check out our comprehensive VPN deals and sales guide to make sure you’re getting a bargain.
And I’d also point out that all of these plans are fully refundable up to 30 days. That means you’ll have a month of trying ExpressVPN before you’re really on the hook for anything. That’s more than enough time to get a feel for the service and determine if it’s right for you.
Another interesting aspect is that ExpressVPN offers quite a few ways to pay, including by Bitcoin.
The ability to pay with cryptocurrency is important for folks who really take their privacy seriously. A quick word on that:
Despite its reputation, Bitcoin is not completely anonymous. By its very nature, transactions are stored in the publicly available blockchain, however, it’s far more difficult to trace transitions back to a specific individual than — say — if you were using a credit card. There are also obfuscation techniques, but that’s a little beyond the scope of this article. We’re here to talk about VPNs, not cryptocurrency, after all.1
Like I said, ExpressVPN is a little on the pricey side, but still, when you consider what you’re getting, you’re going to see it’s a reasonable service overall. And speaking of service, let’s take a look at ExpressVPN’s day-to-day use.
True to their claim that “it just works,” ExpressVPN was one of the simplest VPNs I’ve ever used. Its interface is super intuitive, and everything is where you’d expect it to be. Just one click, and you’re off to the races.
A quick word about the dashboard — honestly, there isn’t much to it. Beneath your big connection button and your server, you’ve got a toolbar that allows you to essentially bookmark your favorite sites, as well as a link to one of ExpressVPN’s resource pages that you might find interesting. This one was about cryptocurrency scams.
Speaking of — ExpressVPN offers a huge amount of resources for folks looking to learn about not only VPNs but cybersecurity in general. They’re well written (and recorded) with the layperson in mind and can be really helpful if you’re struggling to wrap your head about the alphabet soup of acronyms swirling around the VPN industry.
Going a bit deeper into the functionality, though, if you go into your settings and click on server locations, you can browse through 160 different locations in 94 different countries offering unlimited bandwidth. Now there are two things to point out here — one good, one bad.
First the good. Every single ExpressVPN server protects both your traffic and your DNS queries, and the servers are all RAM-based. I’ll explain more about what that means in the advanced features section, but for now just know these are unique, additional layers of security that not many VPN services offer.
Next, the not-so-good. None of these servers have specific optimizations. If you’re interested in torrenting or streaming, you’re going to have to figure out which servers work best for you through trial and error. If you’re looking for a service that does this work for you, check out my review of CyberGhost — they’ve got you covered.
Did You Know: The internet isn’t the same for everyone. Depending on where you connect from, you’ll have access to different media, different websites, and different services.
One final note on ExpressVPN’s day-to-day use. Right out of the box, it’s configured to connect to the fastest server using the appropriate protocol, but, similar to what I saw when I reviewed NordVPN, this function didn’t always work well. It would connect to the closest server, but there were a few times I could get better performance by manually selecting my protocol and server location. For more on the ins and outs of these two industry titans, check out our comparison of Express vs. NordVPN.
Anecdotally, during the test period, I never really had an issue with ExpressVPN’s performance. From the time I turned it on, there were no interruptions, no significant slowdowns, and no real need to fiddle with it. It ran quietly in the background, and honestly, at times I forgot I was even using it. That’s really what you’re looking for in a VPN.
That said, if we want to get a little more technical, depending on how we connected, there were some problems. My point-in-time test, without the VPN running, clocked my download and upload speeds at 180 and nearly 160 Mbps, respectively.
That’s pretty fast. Now, when I connected using “smart connection” — the configuration that supposedly offers the “optimal experience” according to the company — I noticed significant issues with speeds.
Oof. With this connection enabled, my browsing experience went from IndyCar to go-kart in a hurry.
Now is that going to be your experience, too? It’s tough to say. Speeds on a VPN rely on a multitude of factors. It’s worth pointing out, though, that using smart connect consistently gave me slower speeds.
That said, there were certainly options that were plenty fast. By connecting to a server just a few states away, we were back in the game.
Not blazing fast, but not really enough to notice in day-to-day internet browsing. If you’re going to be torrenting or streaming, you might notice a bit of a slowdown, but again, this is a case-by-case basis. My experience might not be yours, and generally speaking, you should always expect to see a slight decrease in your speeds when using a VPN. That’s just the tradeoff — speed for security.
And speaking of security, ExpressVPN offers that in spades.
ExpressVPN prides itself on its security, and when put to the test, I wasn’t really able to poke any holes in its hull.
This test found no DNS leaks at all. To understand what this means, though, you need to understand a little bit about the inner workings of the internet.
When you type any address into your search bar, your computer is actually sending a request to a Domain Name System, or DNS, server to ask for the unique IP address of that website. This is a hugely complicated network of servers, but for simplicity’s sake, you can think of it as the internet’s yellow pages — it’s the reference material to find the correct identifying information — or IP address — for a website. Once the DNS server processes the request and sends you the address, your computer connects. For all intents and purposes, everything on the internet we use every day is located and accessed in this way.2
Did You Know: The Domain Name System in 1983 by Paul Mockapetris, allowed the internet to grow beyond its original, very limited academic applications.3
With a VPN, all of your traffic is supposed to be routed through the VPN tunnel — including those DNS requests. However, sometimes these requests “leak,” exposing sensitive data. When your DNS requests aren’t secure, it can provide someone with enough information to figure out what sites you’re visiting.
There are several “leaky” VPNs on the market today — usually lower quality ones that are open source or free-to-use. Is a DNS leak the end of the world? No, not necessarily, but if your primary purpose for using a VPN is privacy and security, why use one with this vulnerability? You wouldn’t just lock your front door while leaving other entry points unsecured, right?
Luckily, ExpressVPN takes this security to the extreme.
Before we dig into the advanced features, we recommend watching our live-test video review of ExpressVPN. We share everything you need to know about this top-rated VPN so that you can decide whether or not it’s right for you.
ExpressVPN is one of the few VPN providers on the market today that uses its own, private DNS on every VPN server. DNS requests are handled directly by ExpressVPN, so there’s no possibility of exposure to third parties. There are several benefits to this — notably that there’s no way for ISPs to filter internet activity, and response rates are lightning-fast.
FYI: There’s no need to opt into this service. Once ExpressVPN is set up and running, you’re automatically using their encrypted DNS servers.
A VPN protocol is a set of instructions that determine how your traffic travels between your computer and the VPN server to ensure a stable, secure connection. Some protocols are better for some purposes, and ExpressVPN gives you a lot of customizability here — which includes even a new-to-market, proprietary protocol called Lightway.
It’s also great that ExpressVPN gives you a little primer on what each protocol is and what it does so you can do some experimentation to optimize your personal experience. Bonus points there, certainly.
If your VPN service is ever interrupted, your sensitive data could become exposed. That’s why ExpressVPN has a kill-switch function that will terminate all internet traffic the instant it disconnects. This is great news for torrenters or others who might not exactly want what they’re doing online exposed.
FYI: Be careful if you’re torrenting, and always stay on the right side of the law. If you’re downloading copyrighted materials illegally, fines can be in the hundreds of thousands of
This function can be a little complicated, but essentially you can toggle which devices or applications are protected by ExpressVPN. There are a few reasons why you might want to do this — speed, streaming foreign media or accessing peripheral devices while maintaining secure connections. It’s not going to be necessary for your day-to-day browsing, but it’s great that this functionality is included.
ExpressVPN’s servers are RAM-only, meaning that data is never written to a hard drive. Since RAM requires power to store data, all information stored on the server will be erased when it’s reset. Additionally, the entire software stack — including the operating system — is reinstalled at each restart. If this sounds like a lot of technical jargon, that’s fine. What it ultimately means is that this really might be the most secure VPN network in existence.
FYI: RAM stands for Random Access Memory, and is used to temporarily store digital information. Data that is written to a hard drive, however, is far more permanent.
So that’s about it for ExpressVPN’s desktop experience. Before we talk about service overall and make a recommendation, though, we do need to take a look at their mobile app.
Enabling a VPN on your phone or laptop is one of the best ways you can stay protected from hackers and other bad actors. If you’re out at the cafe, connected to their Wi-Fi, there’s no telling who else is on that network and what they might be doing. Using a VPN with a strong mobile app and/or browser extensions is the best way to stay safe while you’re out and about. Lucky for us, ExpressVPN offers both. Included in your subscription is access to extensions for both Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome, and Microsoft Edge, as well as an app for either your Android or iOS device.
As you can see, the mobile app looks almost exactly like the desktop interface, and everything functions pretty much the same. You won’t have access to every feature — some of the protocols are missing, for example — but that’s to be expected. Phones aren’t computers, and the needs for securing them aren’t the same.
What is the same, though, is the commitment to privacy and security. Do you want to send your mobile traffic to Spain to prevent the sketchy guy in the booth behind you from getting your banking credentials? That’s no problem at all.
So there you have it. That’s a comprehensive look at what ExpressVPN brings to the table — their successes and their shortcomings. So what’s the final verdict here?
I spent quite a bit of time working with and testing ExpressVPN, and it’s definitely worth the money.
ExpressVPN might be one of the most secure VPNs I’ve ever seen. Their private encrypted DNS is like nothing else out there, and the fact that all of their servers are RAM-only means that security on their end is effectively flawless.
This is also one of the most simple, user-friendly VPNs I’ve encountered. A lot of folks are intimidated by VPNs, thinking that they’re exclusively for folks who know a ton about computers. Trust me, though — if you can check your email, you can use ExpressVPN effectively.
While there aren’t a ton of bonuses and add ons with ExpressVPN, items like split tunneling and the kill switch are advanced features that are always great to see. The kill switch is especially necessary for anyone who takes their privacy seriously.
With that in mind, here’s what I didn’t like so much…
The price is a little steep for what you’re getting. Now in the scheme of things, it’s not all that much. Really, there’s not a whole lot of difference between ExpressVPN’s $8 per month and, say, NordVPN’s costs of $5 per month, but it’s worth noting that there are other VPNs out there that offer comparable services for less money. If you’re really strapped for cash, ExpressVPN might not be right for you.
Another thing to keep in mind is that a lot of VPNs offer unique servers optimized for specific purposes like torrenting or streaming, and some even offer static, dedicated IP addresses, but this isn’t the case with ExpressVPN. Now does that mean you can’t torrent or stream using it? Of course not, but it might take some trial and error to find which servers and settings work best for you.
I have to say though, in this case, the pros significantly outweigh the cons. ExpressVPN’s dedication to security alone makes it well worth the cost of admission, and their ease-of-use makes this security accessible to pretty much anyone. All things considered, I can confidently recommend ExpressVPN for all but those with the most highly specialized needs.
Don’t feel like it’s a good fit? Head on over to our roundup of the best VPNs available. You’ve got options!
ExpressVPN is available on a variety of platforms, including macOS, Windows, and Linux, as well as devices like FireTV, PlayStation, and Xbox.
For a month-to-month subscription, ExpressVPN costs $12.95; however, if you sign up for a year, that month-to-month cost drops to $8.32.
ExpressVPN offers advanced security features like a dedicated, encrypted DNS and RAM-only servers.
No. While you can engage in these activities while using ExpressVPN, there are no specifically optimized servers.
Yes, ExpressVPN’s mobile app offers the same user-friendly interface and security of the desktop version.
Beigel, O. (2021, January 7). Buying and Using Bitcoin Anonymously / Without ID. 99 Bitcoins.
Shaw, K. and Fruhilnger, J. (2020, August 26). What is DNS and how does it work? NetworkWorld. https://www.networkworld.com/article/3268449/what-is-dns-and-how-does-it-work.html
Pramatarov, M. (2018, December 27). When and why was DNS created? CloudDNS.
Haitham, M. (2020, January 24). Is Piracy a Felony? Punishments and Fines for Illegal Downloading. Felonies. https://felonies.org/is-piracy-a-felony-punishments-and-fines-for-illegal-downloading/
Derek Prall is a VPN and cybersecurity expert with more than seven years of experience in the industry. He has spent thousands of hours researching identity theft protection, VPNs, and other ways to keep safe online. To date, Derek has written nearly 100 comprehensive resources for SafeHome.org. As a professional journalist, he has contributed to reputable publications such as TD Magazine, New Jersey Herald, and many others. Learn more about Derek here