One’s super fast, one’s super affordable. We popped their hoods to see how these popular VPN services measure up.
The internet used to be a giant sandbox where you played with whoever you felt like, however you wanted. No one was keeping tabs. It was pretty cool.
Today, just about everyone is keeping tabs — internet service providers (ISPs), browsers, websites — and selling whatever you do in the sandbox to the highest bidder.
If that creeps you out, you’re not alone. In the past year, virtual private networks (VPNs) — which keep unwanted guests out of your sandbox — have exploded around the world.1 That demand has forced VPN services to get smarter and smarter.
This week, I’m getting my hands dirty on two of the most popular VPN service providers on the market: industry stalwart NordVPN and Surfshark, a new contender that’s been turning heads with its super-affordable yearly plan.
Did You Know: A reliable VPN encrypts digital activity, like browsing, by scrambling it up like an egg. But that doesn’t mean Google can’t keep tabs on you. If you’re browsing while logged into your Google account, Google is watching. Google can also track you via the cookies you activate on website visits. That’s why surfing with privacy-oriented browsers and ad blockers is the key to keeping your digital footprint hidden.
NordVPN and Surfshark: Key Similarities
At first glance, you may be looking at NordVPN and Surfshark side by side and thinking: This is too good to be true, right?
Both VPN services are sophisticated, well-thought-out digital privacy options for just about any household, with solid performance over a range of server choices (though you’ll have to tweak the protocols, as we’ll see below).
Both companies are obsessive about transparency and privacy. For example, both NordVPN and Surfshark are 100 percent disk-free, running off zero-knowledge DNS servers. Both hired cybersecurity pros to back those claims up with actual security audits — and took the time to lay their policies out super clearly in their privacy statements, so it isn’t just lip service.
NordVPN and Surfshark are easy to install, too, and work smoothly on whatever operating system or device you throw at them.
And, this will probably come as no surprise, both have some sensational advanced features under the hood that will make your inner Edward Snowden very happy — without the hassle of having to connect to HBO Go from an igloo in Minsk. Features like NordVPN’s Double VPN (Multihop on Surfshark) and VPN split tunneling (Whitelister on Surfshark).
Finally, both work like a charm if you want to unblock Netflix, Disney Plus, Amazon Prime Video, and more.
So, if NordVPN and Surfshark both give you all that power, control, and privacy — and pack as much of it as possible into dashboards smoother than Billy Dee Williams’ moustache — how do you even begin to choose?
Let’s find out.
In the meantime, if you’ve heard enough and want the complete lowdown on Surfshark, check out Derek Prall’s excellent Surfshark review. For our hands-on experience with NordVPN, don’t miss our full NordVPN breakdown.
Pro Tip: Need a little extra security? A double VPN connects you to a server that routes that connection through yet another server. Whitelisting, just like split tunneling, allows you to permanently reroute any apps, websites or IP addresses you trust, or that don’t accept VPN connections, from your VPN to your normal internet connection.
NordVPN and Surfshark: Key Differences
Servers and Household Connections
Will having literally thousands of servers to choose from make your VPN experience better? Not necessarily. But if you’re looking for sheer numbers and reach, NordVPN (5,421 servers in 81 locations across 59 countries) is Starbucks to Surfshark’s Dunkin’ Donuts (1,700 servers in 63 countries). Though, to be fair, Surfshark has been beefing up its server reach lately, so you can expect those numbers to keep climbing.
What will definitely affect your VPN experience is Surfshark’s unlimited simultaneous connections, compared to NordVPN’s kind of measly six.
Now, you may be asking: “Wait, why do I need more than six connections at once?”
Maybe you don’t personally. But when your 7-year-old starts streaming Netflix and your Uncle Bobby’s in town for the Fourth of July wondering why he started seeing Weight Watchers ads after he used his Fitbit to walk to the beer bucket, you’ll get the picture.
Families will probably be happier with Surfshark’s endless simultaneous connections.
NordVPN’s 5,000+ servers in 81 locations mean less users crowding the same servers, which usually means better speeds for you. If sheer performance is your key concern, then NordVPN will be a safer bet.
Looking for another VPN service with unlimited connections and a sweet price tag? You’ll probably like IPVanish’s yearly plans.
FYI: Netflix has its own ideas about what subscribers around the world should be watching in their own countries, and they do everything they can to enforce them, including blocking VPNs. Two of the most common techniques? Keeping a list of IP addresses associated with a VPN server, and keeping tabs on multiple connections with the same IP address. A smart VPN can find a way around both.
Ease of Use
I’ve already talked about the pitfalls of the NordVPN desktop dashboard in my NordVPN vs. IPVanish comparison guide. In a nutshell, we love the way NordVPN’s map view looks. The minimal, blue-and-gray design is fantastic. The problem is, it’s not very functional. There are too many geo pins (smashed together when you zoom) and not enough city labels.
So if you were in an igloo in Minsk with Edward Snowden, and you popped open the NordVPN desktop client to watch HBO Go, you might not even know where you were.
Combine that with the fact that NordVPN doesn’t remember the last places you visited when you close it, and you’re better off with the simple countries list, which works just fine.
Surfshark, on the other hand, has a totally different approach to their desktop client: no-frills, mobile-first, and responsive. Which means they started with a stripped-down mobile app and kept that design and functionality the same across all screen sizes, including desktops.
I loved this because I had the same experience wherever I was (and I didn’t have to get used to separate desktop and mobile apps). That experience, I should point out, doesn’t include any fancy map view, but it’s a snap to use and takes care of business.
With Surfshark, you also get this little goody: a static IP list that gives you a unique, fixed IP address (in Germany, Japan, Singapore, the U.K., or the U.S.). Just for the record, NordVPN has the option, too, but it’s $70 per year.
Static IPs aren’t just good for hiding your traffic from totalitarian regimes. If you teleconference much or work remotely, you’ll want to use a dedicated IP address for a safe, private connection,2 whether you’re at your desk or on the go.
Who wins this one?
We’re all for intuitive web design that puts users first, so we’re going with Surfshark here, with this disclaimer: We think, in time, you’d get used to either dashboard. What’s actually under the hood may be a stronger selling point.
NordVPN vs. Surfshark: Special Features
Adblocking, Anti-hacking, and Private Browsing
Both services offer native adblocking. NordVPN, which is rebranding itself as an all-in-one security, privacy, and storage solution, has CyberSec. CyberSec also includes malware blocking and Onion support, and it’s free with your basic subscription.
Surfshark has Clean Web, which I found even works on YouTube. So that guy asking you if you’d prefer a pizza or salad for breakfast before your videos start? You never have to see him again.
But Surfshark goes one step further. If you want a no-frills identity theft protection service that sends you alerts whenever one of your email addresses has been compromised, you can purchase it for another $.99 per month. (We’ll take a good look at pricing in a minute.)
Finally, while NordVPN cooperates with Onion, the dark prince of private browsers, Surfshark advertises its own private search feature called Surfshark Search. In its own words, Surfshark Search is a “bare-bones, ad-free, zero-log private search service” that runs off the Bing API. So you essentially get a supercharged incognito mode not even Google can sink its claws into.
We didn’t spend too much time using Surfshark Search, and, frankly, we aren’t big on Bing. If you are, this could be a match made in heaven.
You need a kill switch. It’s what shuts off your internet connection if something goes wrong and your VPN goes down. NordVPN has two kill switches, one for the desktop client and one for its mobile apps. They both work great.
Surfshark’s desktop kill switch works, but it’s not completely user-friendly. One, it’s all or nothing. Once you toggle on the kill switch, Surfshark won’t let you connect to the internet unless you have the Surfshark app running.
It doesn’t have to be that way. VyprVPN, for example, gives you this extreme option, but it also gives you the second less strict alternative of only cutting your internet connection when your VPN drops. See how that held up in my VyprVPN review.
The second hiccup I experienced was that Surfshark didn’t alert me when the kill switch cut my internet connection. Nine times out of ten auto-connect will kick in before you even notice, but still. That should probably get a fix.
But the absolute worst-case Surfshark kill switch scenario is this: You don’t have the killswitch activated (because you’re tired of it shutting down your internet when you close the app) and your VPN drops. In that case, you’d just be browsing totally naked without any alert from Surfshark.
Don’t get me wrong. Surfshark gets so many things right. It would be great to see a happy ending to these easy-to-fix but pretty serious day-to-day security issues ASAP.
Did You Know: A lot of companies force employees to change their company email passwords every few months. According to the password management experts at AgileBits, that’s actually a bad idea.3 Using one strong password will keep you safer. Why? Because when you’re forced to create so many new passwords, you tend to make them easy to remember with minor variations, (e.g., John1995!). Just the kind of passwords hackers are looking for.
If your eyes glaze over when acronyms like PPTP and SSTP pop up in a conversation, I get it. But you’re probably going to like this next bit. Plus, protocols are just such an important part of your VPN experience, it’s not a bad idea to familiarize yourself with the basics. So what’s a protocol?
Let’s say your VPN is a private tunnel that connects your devices to a pitch-dark parking lot in the middle of an empty field — where thousands of other private tunnels empty out — before connecting them to their final destination, which could be a website, app, or torrent.
Your protocol is the software that determines how well your tunnel does its job. Obviously, the quality of that software plays a huge role in the quality of your connections and your online security.
Surfshark gives you a pretty nice pick of top-notch, ultra-secure protocols, including OpenVPN, IKEv2, WireGuard, and even Shadowsocks4 (hello, Beijing?).
But NordVPN takes it to a whole new level with their blazing fast, proprietary, WireGuard-based NordLynx. How fast is that cat? We’ll see in a minute when we run a speed test.
Winner under the hood?
Let’s just say that Surfshark’s private browsing and adblocking package isn’t going to break your wallet at an extra $.99 per month. Plus, you get data leak alerts if any of your email addresses have been compromised and a private browser.
That said, NordVPN gives most of that to you for free, and their ad-and-malware-blocking features are tried and tested.
There’s also this: When NordVPN advertises private browsing support, it’s the real deal (Onion), not super incognito Bing. When you couple that with the fact that NordVPN can go head to head with any special feature under Surfshark’s hood — and gives you the rubber-burning NordLynx protocol — we’re really tempted to save that one buck and use it on the more expensive NordVPN basic subscription.
NordVPN is the clear winner here.
Apps and Browser Extensions
Want to connect to your VPN via Chrome or Firefox? NordVPN and Surfshark both have you covered. Both keep you safe on the go, too. You can program your VPN to automatically kick in when you’re connecting to Wi-Fi hotspots or any untrusted networks outside your household.
Otherwise, NordVPN’s map view is still pretty cluttered on the mobile app, and Surfshark’s user experience on Android and iOS is the same as it is on your desktop.
It’s true that the Surfshark Android app does give you some nifty extras like a choice between encryption methods and a “small packets” option to boost mobile performance.
Are these game changers? Not really.
Pro Tip: WireGuard5 is the latest word in VPN protocols. It’s blazing fast, but it’s still new and won’t keep you 100 percent anonymous yet — unless you’re using NordLynx (see below). For complete anonymity and stability, go with OpenVPN or IKEv2, the industry standards.
Security and Logging
Beyond the basics like industry-standard AES-256 encryption, diskless servers, and all the extras we’ve already covered, both NordVPN and Surfshark have recently committed to external audits.
NordVPN had a very good reason: They were hacked badly in 2018. When they rebuilt, they brought PwC AG Switzerland onboard to make sure everything under the hood was up to snuff. They passed with flying colors, and did it again in 2020.
It’s nice to see that Surfshark wanted to let us know that they take security seriously, too, with the 2018 audit of its Chrome and Firefox browser extensions by German cybersecurity firm Cure53. Is it enough? Frankly, we’d welcome a deeper audit with a little more heft.
If NordVPN wins here (and it does), it’s not only because of that more thorough Swiss audit; it’s because we’ve seen the impressive steps NordVPN has already taken to position itself as an integrated privacy, security, and storage solution.
Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines …
Seriously, we don’t want to milk too much suspense out of this. We already mentioned the lightning-quick NordLynx protocol. But how fast is it?
Let’s just say that NordLynx is no slowpoke. We clocked it breaking 350 Mbps in the U.S. several times. But that was on a 500 Mbps line, and I know that not everyone has one.
And, like I found out when I tested Hotspot Shield, the “fastest VPN in the world,” the proprietary protocol isn’t always the fastest. For both those reasons, we leveled the field for our NordVPN vs. Surfshark comparison speed tests with a 160 Mbps line running tried-and-true OpenVPN protocols.
Surfshark, the underdog, wasn’t going to have it easy. And it didn’t. Connecting over OpenVPN, we saw speeds hovering around 95 Mbps.
Connecting with OpenVPN, NordVPN didn’t break any speed records, but it hit 140 Mbps easily, which is fast enough for most of us.
Which would we choose if we were stranded on a desert island with a Chromebook and it was finally time for season four of Ozark, NordVPN or Surfshark?
Folks, NordVPN is our winner here, even without NordLynx.
NordVPN vs. Surfshark: Service and Support
There are two kinds of people in the world: FAQ people and chat people.
If you’re a chat person, both NordVPN and Surfshark offer speedy human support via email and 24/7 live chat.
If you like troubleshooting via online guides and tutorials, you’re going to like NordVPN better. Their library has a lot more content, and it’s high-quality and well-organized.
Surfshark’s shelves, on the other hand — or fin, as it were — are still a little bare with hardly anything on the important topics you’ll likely need help with once you get started.
NordVPN vs. Surfshark: Subscriptions and Pricing
Apples to apples? A yearly Surfshark subscription — even with adblocking, email hacking alerts, and private browsing for an extra $.99 per month — is less than NordVPN’s basic intro offer. With Surfshark, you pay $3.48 per month, or less than $40 and change per year.
At $3.71 per month for the first two years, NordVPN is still more expensive. And, remember, after the first two years, you’ll be paying $9.92 per month (or $119 per year) for the basic package. We haven’t even gone into storage or a password vault, which Surfshark doesn’t offer at the moment, but NordSec, NordVPN’s umbrella service, does.
So What’s the Best VPN Plan for Me, NordVPN or Surfshark?
When you’re choosing between two VPN service providers like NordVPN and Surfshark, you’re essentially choosing between a sleek new Lenovo and a Mac.
The Lenovo does just about everything right, and looks great, but if you’re looking for that polished “ecosystem experience” — and have the extra money — you’d likely go with the Mac. (Sorry, Bill Gates.)
At this point in time, NordVPN can offer that experience. It’s a family of premium security (NordPass), privacy (NordVPN), and storage (NordLocker) tools designed to make your digital life as risk-free and integrated as possible with a rich documentation library, stellar support, constantly evolving features, and killer speeds.
But, like a Mac, it costs more. Significantly more than a VPN service like Surfshark.
If you’re looking for a mostly reliable, affordable product that’s still ironing out a few bugs, and you aren’t gung-ho about committing to an ecosystem, then getting your feet wet with Surfshark might be a good idea.
But we can’t help but recommend NordVPN (it’s ranked in our top three favorite VPNs for a reason). So if you have a little more pocket change, go with NordVPN. All things considered, Nord has the better VPN compared to Surfshark.
NordVPN is decidedly more expensive than Surfshark; but still, it’s reasonably priced for what you get.
Surfshark isn’t necessarily a clunker, but we didn’t manage to break 95 Mbps on a 160 Mbps line. NordVPN ran a steady 140-145 Mbps.
Live support is great for both. NordVPN has superior documentation.
Short answer: no. For another $59.88 per year, you can add a NordLocker subscription to your NordVPN basic plan. That will give you 500 GB of secure storage. Surfshark doesn’t offer storage at this time.
Pretty much anything you have: Windows, Mac, Android, iOS, Fire TV, and Linux. So don’t worry about platform compatibility, unless you’re trying to stream off a John’s Phone.6
Yes, they do, for Chrome and Firefox.