Lightning-fast speeds, robust protection, and a comprehensive set of advanced security features
Did you know people are watching you? Right now, at this very moment, internet service providers are logging your online activities, companies are selling your data to marketers, and government agencies — quite literally — could be looking at you through your webcam.1
Most people are oblivious to exactly how vulnerable they are online, but some savvy consumers — like you — are looking to draw the curtains and reclaim their privacy. Increasingly, those folks are using VPNs.
Today I’m going to take a detailed look at one of the highest-rated VPNs on the market — NordVPN. I spent several days in the service — tinkering around, adjusting settings, pulling levers — and you’ll be surprised at what NordVPN has to offer.
Did You Know: VPNs came into popularity as ways for businesses to allow employees to securely access sensitive information while working remotely.
If you’re even remotely interested in cybersecurity, you’ve likely already heard of NordVPN. They’re one of the biggest names in the game — and for good reason. On paper, it seems that few VPNs can deliver the protection, versatility, and value of Nord. They really look like they’re in a league all their own.
That said, before working with the VPN, I wondered how much of their popularity was just hype and name recognition versus actual, concrete service. Before walking you through NordVPN, though, let’s start with some pros and cons that stood out.
When you break it down like this, NordVPN looks pretty untouchable. Let’s start where everyone starts, though, and talk about picking out and purchasing our subscription.
This process was nothing if not simple. The purchasing experience is straightforward, and it’s great to see that no matter the plan, they offer a 30-day, money-back guarantee. Note that some VPNs on the market will only issue a refund if you purchase their longest subscription packages, and even then you’ll only have a week or two to decide if you like the service or not.
We get more in depth in our NordVPN pricing and features guide, but here’s a quick breakdown of their three subscription packages.
|1 Month||$11.95 per month||None|
|1 Year||$4.92 per month||58%|
|2 Years||$3.71 per month||68%|
So they aren’t the cheapest VPN on the market – if you’re looking for a bargain check out my guide to Surfshark’s pricing and plans. Their month-to-month cost is a little steep, but if you’re looking to save in the long run, they’re tough to beat.
That said, though, we’re really talking about nickels and dimes if that’s the concern. In my experience, NordVPN’s prices are more than reasonable for the level of service you’re going to be getting.
Speaking of service — what exactly are you getting for your hard-earned money? Let’s run through that real quick. Obviously, we’ll dig deeper into these features in a bit, but for quick reference NordVPN includes:
That’s a pretty solid list right there. And if you sign up for two years, you’ll only pay $3.71 per month, which is less than the cost of a value meal.
I also want to point out that you can tack on two bonus features to your subscription plan. You can get NordPass Premium — essentially an encrypted password vault, and you can opt for NordLocker Premium — an encrypted 10 GB cloud storage locker. Each one will run you an extra $4.99 per month. I’ll unpack both features in just a bit and let you know if they’re worth the additional cost.
After you select your subscription package, you’re going to be directed to the payment page. What’s great here is that NordVPN gives you a multitude of ways to pay. There are the usual suspects like standard credit card payments, Google and Amazon Pay. But you also have the option of using an ACH Transfer, UnionPay, or paying with cryptocurrency.
Now, these latter three options are for people who really take their privacy seriously and might feel a little wary of giving their personal information to a service that’s supposed to keep you anonymous. While it might be overkill for some people, it’s great that NordVPN makes these options available.
A quick note on cryptocurrency — this is the most secure way to pay for your VPN, or anything on the internet, really. Because these payments are decentralized, there’s no way of tracing it back to you. If you’re really concerned with your privacy, you already knew that; but if you’re new to this, that’s why that option is there.2
Once your plan is selected, setup is a breeze. You give NordVPN your email address and your payment information, download your services, and you’re off to the races.
FYI: Be aware, if you’re on a Mac, your setup might be a little more confusing than for our Windows-using counterparts. You’ll download the app from the Apple store (which requires an iCloud account), and check your email to fully activate the service. I had to click “reset password” to get this to work.
Once you’ve got everything set up and logged in, you’re going to land on your NordVPN dashboard. For me, it looked like the screenshot below. I’m on a Mac, though. If you aren’t, your results may vary.
Let’s pause for a second and talk about this interface. I’ve reviewed a lot of these services, and let me just say — this is one of the most aesthetically pleasing I’ve come across; maybe second only to when I reviewed ProtonVPN. What does this have to do with the functionality of NordVPN? Very little, but it should be pointed out regardless. Look at the little ship!
Moving on, though, let’s talk about this UI’s functionality. The map — aside from being pretty cool — actually has utility. You can select which country you’d like to connect to by selecting individual pins, or you can go through the list on the left-hand side to select which country you’d like to route your traffic through. Pretty handy if you’re like me and you have no idea where Bosnia and Herzegovina is.
Spoiler alert — it’s here.
So this is all pretty and sleek, but here’s where I hit some roadblocks. Using the out-of-the-box settings, I was only able to connect to the three preset servers — downloads, speed, and browsing. Trying to connect anywhere else would result in error saying the network authentication failed.
After some quick Googling, though, I found the culprit. NordVPN is supposed to automatically use the “recommended protocol” for the servers you’re trying to connect to, but for some reason that wasn’t working for me. NordVPN’s resources suggested instead connecting using an OpenVPN protocol. Once I switched to that — it was smooth sailing. It was a little frustrating, but it’s a forgivable transgression.
Here it would make sense to take a minute to discuss NordVPN’s connectivity and their supported protocols. I found that either of the OpenVPN protocols (UDP or TCP) were the most stable. IKEv2 was fast, but there were a few hiccups every now and then.
Now NordLynx is interesting. This is a protocol built using the WireGuard architecture — an open-source protocol that is likely to eventually overtake OpenVPN in popularity. WireGuard is fast, modern, and prioritizes cryptography.3 That said, the protocol is still under development and has some issues with privacy. NordLynx is basically WireGuard with beefed-up security measures. In my tests I found NordLynx speeds were consistent, although there were occasional issues connecting to offshore servers.
If the above read like alphabet soup to you – don’t worry, you’re not alone. If you’re looking for similar protections without the fuss, you might be interested in our review of ExpressVPN. They exist in the same strata as Nord, but they’re a little more user friendly. That said, they are a little more expensive. You can check out our guide to ExpressVPN costs and pricing for more information.
So with all that in mind, let’s talk directly about NordVPN’s performance. Specifically — their speeds.
When you’re running a VPN, it’s fairly common for your connection speeds to suffer. Just how much those speeds suffer, however, is a product of how well-equipped your VPN service is. When I put NordVPN to the test, I was pleasantly surprised by the results.
With the VPN disconnected, my download speed was around 160 megs per second, and my upload speed was right at 125. Then when I turned on NordVPN using the speed optimization tool, my download took a bit of a hit, but my upload speeds were blazing.
Now there are all sorts of configurations and iterations you can mess around with, and everyone’s experience is going to be different based on location and connectivity. But in my experience, NordVPN in no way, shape, or form ever slowed me down. If anything it improved my speeds.
So that’s great news, but it’s only one side of the coin. Lightning-fast speeds mean nothing if those connections aren’t secure. So let’s do a little privacy checkup.
So to understand this privacy test, you first need to understand how the internet is built. I promise it’s not going to get super techy, so bear with me.
The internet as we know it today is based on the Domain Name System, or DNS for short. When you type www.safehome.org into your address bar, your computer sends a request to the DNS server and asks for the unique IP address of our site. Once that’s provided, your computer establishes a connection.4
Now, when you’re running a VPN, all of your traffic is supposed to be routed through the VPN tunnel — including DNS requests. Sometimes security flaws occur and requests travel to the default DNS servers belonging to your internet service provider. This kind of defeats the purpose of using a VPN, so you want to avoid DNS leaks.
Got it? Excellent.
There are several tools out there to test if you’re “leaky.” I used one that runs multiple queries to detect if any problems were occurring while I was using NordVPN.
That’s what you want to see — that each test is only connecting to one server. That means your DNS request is traveling only through the VPN tunnel, and through the tunnel only. For reference, here’s what the test looks like when I’m not using a VPN.
I always recommend running some tests whenever you use a VPN to make sure there are no leaks — don’t just take the company’s word for it. After performing this test, I was pretty confident I was secure when using NordVPN.
So that about does it for the day-to-day functionality of NordVPN. Despite some initial hiccups and protocol reconciliation, this VPN is easy to use, lightning fast, and extremely secure. That right there is the trifecta you’re looking for with VPNs. But what fun would it be if we didn’t talk about some of the more advanced features NordVPN brings to the table?
Ah – but before we unpack those features, check out my full video review of NordVPN to find out exactly what to expect with this popular service.
NordVPN is one of the few VPNs I’ve come across configured for easy access to the Onion network right out of the box. If you don’t know what that means, I’ve got you covered. Be forewarned, though, this time we are going to get a little techy.
Onion routing is a technique for anonymous communication over a network. Encrypted data is transmitted through network nodes which peel away layers to uncover destinations — hence the name.
People who use this networking technique to access the internet do so through the Tor browser (short for The Onion Router), an open-source software allowing anonymous access to the internet by never communicating directly with websites’ servers. Think of it this way: Instead of going directly from your computer to the destination server, your traffic splits in two directions, goes to two other servers, reconvenes at another, and then goes on to the destination. The result is near complete anonymity.
Did You Know: The Onion Network was originally developed by the U.S. Navy with anonymity in mind. Using Tor will give you access to the regular internet, but it’s also how most folks access the deep and dark web.5
It’s beyond the scope of this article to talk about why you may or may not want to use Tor, but if you do decide to use it, you should know that without a VPN you’re still not necessarily safe. Simply put, Tor provides anonymity, but a VPN provides security. NordVPN understands that, and they’ve built their VPN in such a way that Tor users can also be protected.
NordVPN also provides subscribers with access to a dedicated IP address. When you’re connected in this way, your IP address won’t be shared with anyone else. If you’ve used VPNs for any amount of time, you know that websites often misidentify you and ask you to jump through some hoops to prove you’re an actual person and not a bot. Honestly, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to click on all the pictures of something.
When you’re using a dedicated IP address, though, this hassle is greatly reduced. Online shopping becomes a lot easier, and it also makes using telecom technologies a lot more stable, so your weekly Zoom call won’t cut out — maybe I should have put that in the cons category…
This is exactly what it sounds like. This is an advanced security feature that routes traffic through two VPN servers instead of one, effectively encrypting your data two times. This is probably unnecessary for the average guy that just wants to watch Canadian Netflix, but it’s absolutely necessary for people who need to be really serious about their security — I’m talking about political activists and journalists under restrictive regimes.
NordVPN also offers servers optimized for P2P file sharing. This is a bit of a legal gray area, but just know that if you’re on BitTorrent, you’ll be rerouted through VPN servers in Canada or the Netherlands to stay safe from authorities in jurisdictions that frown on this particular flavor of file sharing.
Some countries with extremely restrictive internet regulations actually have the capacity to scan for VPN traffic and terminate connections that are using them. With NordVPN’s obfuscation, though, you can bypass VPN blocks by either scrambling the data to hide identifying metadata or adding additional layers of encryption. Again, this isn’t super necessary for everyday browsing, but if your safety or freedom depends on your internet security, this is great functionality to have in your back pocket.
Like most higher-end VPNs, NordVPN also offers kill-switch functionality. This means that if your VPN connection is interrupted for whatever reason, your internet connection will also terminate. Now that might sound like it’s just an additional hassle to deal with, but a kill switch is actually a really useful security device. By terminating your internet connection immediately, NordVPN will ensure that your actual IP address is never exposed, securing your privacy. This is great for torrenters specifically, but also anyone interested in ensuring they’re completely covered at all times.
FYI: NordVPN’s kill-switch functionality is only active while using certain VPN protocols. If a kill switch is something you really need, check NordVPN’s resources to make absolutely sure you’re covered.
So that’s a pretty extensive list of advanced features, but we’re not done with NordVPN yet. Remember those two add-ons I mentioned when I was purchasing my subscription? Let’s talk about those real quick.
This feature allows you to encrypt files locally on your computer or store up to 10 gigs in a secure cloud. Pretty interesting feature, but I’m not totally convinced it’s worth the $4.99 per month NordVPN charges. Your computer likely already has the ability to encrypt files on its own, and nowadays storage costs are extremely low. For context, in 1981, a gigabyte of storage cost around $500,000. These days, it costs around three cents.6
That’s not to say NordLocker doesn’t add value. For folks who share a computer with others or travel often with a laptop full of sensitive materials, it can be a real lifesaver. It’s not something I’d use that often, but you might really appreciate this service.
This add-on, in my opinion, is a little more valuable. Even if you’re taking every security precaution available, you’re still vulnerable if you’re using weak or repeated passwords. NordPass takes memorizing random strings of letters and numbers out of the equation by storing all of your passwords securely in one place.
NordPass also offers password-specific tools including a password generator, a password health gauge that will tell you if you’re using any passwords that put you at risk, as well as a scanner to check if your data has shown up in any known data breaches. I think this is well worth the extra $4.99 per month.
One last thing to talk about before we wrap up here. We’ve seen that NordVPN is definitely a solid choice when you’re at home, but how does it function when you’re out and about?
In a word — great. The mobile version of NordVPN’s UI is just as sleek and just as functional, and their protections are just as strong on the mobile app.
The quick-connect function made things really simple, and you have access to some more advanced settings if you needed to configure the VPN for any specific purpose — including the ability to switch between different protocols. This isn’t functionality I’ve found with many VPN mobile apps, so it’s pretty neat to see it with NordVPN.
NordVPN clearly took a lot of time optimizing their mobile experience. This app does not feel like an afterthought at all. Dare I say it might be the best VPN for mobile I’ve encountered so far.
So … that’s certainly a lot to consider!
We’ve unpacked every aspect of NordVPN with the intention of getting to know its functionality, utility, and overall value. But what’s the final word here? Is NordVPN worth the hype?
I’m going to say yes, it lives up to the hype, but with some caveats. At 30,000 feet, NordVPN is a fantastic service. It’s secure, it’s fast, it’s affordable, its mobile app is tremendous.
At 10,000 feet, we can’t forget to talk about their exhaustive list of advanced features. NordVPN’s Tor optimization is so unique, and their heightened security with obfuscated servers and double-VPN functionality easily elevate them from consumer- to professional-grade. If you’re a causal browser or an activist in a hostile country, you’ll be protected.
That said, at 1,000 feet there was some frustration during the setup, and there were some inconsistencies when switching between protocols — so much so that I had to do some serious digging into the troubleshooting section of their site and even went so far as having to reset everything in our terminal to restore it to its quote-unquote factory settings.
Now is this going to be your experience? I can’t say for sure. But friction points and hiccups aside, NordVPN is still head and shoulders above many of the VPNs I’ve tested and reviewed so far. I’m confident in recommending it to any of our readers.
NordVPN is supported by macOS, Windows, and select Linux distributions. They’re also available on iOS and Android devices, and they have extensions for Firefox and Chrome.
One NordVPN subscription is good for up to six devices, or you can install NordVPN on your home’s router to cover any device connected through that network.
Month-to-month, NordVPN is $11.95. If you sign up for a yearlong subscription, that month-to-month cost drops to $4.92, and if you sign up for two years, the month-to-month cost is $3.71.
Yes, NordVPN easily integrates with the Onion network via Tor and has elevated protections for people using their service in countries with heavy internet regulation.
Yes, NordVPN has optimized servers for protecting torrenters.
Curran, D. (2018, April 6). Are your phone camera and microphone spying on you? The Guardian.
Reiff, N. (2020, July 13). What Are the Advantages of Paying With Bitcoin? Investopedia. https://www.investopedia.com/ask/answers/100314/what-are-advantages-paying-bitcoin.asp
Constantin, L. (2020, April 2). What is WireGuard? Secure, simple VPN now part of Linux. CSO.
Shaw, K. and Fruhlinger, J. (2020, August 26). What is DNS and How Does it Work? NetworkWorld.
Klosowski, T. and Murphy, D. (2020, December 7). What Is Tor and Why Should I Use It? LifeHacker
Klein, A. (2017, July 11). Hard Drive Cost Per Gigabyte. BackBlaze.
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