Best VPN service of 2021
A virtual private network can help maximize your security and anonymity online.
What is a VPN?
A commercial virtual private network is a technology that allows you to create a private connection over a less private network by creating an encrypted tunnel between your computer and the internet. You can install a VPN just like you would any other app or program on your smartphone or computer. A VPN can let you get around censorship in your country or access geo-restricted media content from another country — and prevents your internet service provider from being able to intrude on your privacy by snooping on your web browsing. VPNs do this by allowing you to appear as though you’re connecting from a different location or country.
A VPN is great for anyone using public, unprotected Wi-Fi, such as what’s offered in airports, bars, or coffee shops. Your VPN protects your sensitive information — from your work projects to bank account login information — from being seen by malicious actors who trawl public Wi-Fi networks. When you browse the internet while on a VPN, your computer will contact the website through your VPN’s encrypted connection. The VPN will then forward the request to you and forward the response from the website back through its secure connection.
For more beginner-focused VPN help, we’ve demystified some of the jargon in our guide to all the VPN terms you need to know.
Do I need a VPN?
People who access the internet from a computer, tablet, or smartphone will benefit from VPN usage. A VPN service will almost always boost your privacy by encrypting your online activity. Communications that happen between the VPN server and your device are encrypted, so an internet service provider or someone on your Wi-Fi network spying on you wouldn’t know which web pages you access. They also won’t be able to see private information like passwords, usernames, and bank or shopping details, and so on. Anyone who wants to protect their privacy and security online should use a VPN.
Does everything I use to need a VPN?
If your goal is to protect your personal data from prying eyes, you want a VPN on whatever you are using. That means having a VPN to protect your laptop, your phone, your Xbox, and your smart TV.
If your goal is to use a VPN to gain access to streaming services that have been made unavailable in your country for whatever reason, you want a VPN on whatever you are using to access those streaming services. This could be as simple as a VPN for your Chrome browser or setting up a VPN for your Amazon Fire TV Stick.
Whatever your reason for wanting a VPN, it’s usually a good idea to have it set up on as many of your web-connected things as possible.
The best VPN right now
Let’s look at each of our VPN vendors below in more depth. Keep in mind that this is an evolving list: It’s constantly being updated. We’re actively working on more VPN testing and research, so expect this guide to change throughout the year as our VPN use continues and we put each option through its paces.
Number of IP addresses: 30,000
Number of servers: 3,000-plus in 160 locations
Number of simultaneous connections: 5
Country/jurisdiction: British Virgin Islands
Three months free with a one-year plan, plus a free year of Backblaze cloud backup (limited-time offer)
ExpressVPN tells us its network is powered by TrustedServer technology, which ExpressVPN built to ensure that there are never any logs of users’ online activities. In the privacy world, ExpressVPN has a strong track record, having experienced a server seizure by authorities which proved its zero-log policy true at the time.
While its speeds consistently compete with heavy-hitting competitors, our 2020 speed tests saw ExpressVPN produce a 52% overall loss of our normal internet speeds, representing a significant slowdown compared with its 2019 score of 2% speed loss.
Like the rest of the top five VPN services we’ve reviewed, ExpressVPN offers a useful kill-switch feature that prevents network data from leaking outside of its secure VPN tunnel in the event the VPN connection fails. Unlike the others, though, ExpressVPN gained points from us for its support of Bitcoin as a payment method — something not all of our favorites offer, but which adds an additional layer of privacy during checkout.
The company has been in business since 2009, and ExpressVPN has a substantial network of fast VPN servers spread across 94 countries. Its best plan is priced at less than $7 a month for an annual package, which includes three months free.
A speed leader, packed with features
Number of servers: 3,200-plus
Number of server locations: 65
Jurisdiction: British Virgin Islands
$2.49 a month (81% discount) for a two-year plan
While Surfshark’s network is smaller than some, the VPN service makes it up on features and speed. Let’s start off with the biggest win it offers unlimited device support. If you want to run your entire home or office on Surfshark’s VPN, you don’t have to worry about how many devices you have on or connected. It also offers antimalware, ad-blocking, and tracker-blocking as part of its software.
And it’s fast. With more than 3,200 servers in 65 countries, we lost less than 17% of the average internet speed during our most recent speed tests. That’s faster than the 27% speed loss we saw in previous tests and pushes it ahead of ExpressVPN to be the current front-runner in our speed comparisons.
Surfshark received generally high marks when its Chrome and Firefox extensions were audited for privacy by German security firm Cure 53 (PDF link of full report) — though that audit was commissioned by Surfshark.
The company has a solid range of app support, running on Mac, Windows, iOS, Android, Fire TV, and routers. Additional devices such as game consoles can be configured for Surfshark via DNS settings. We particularly like the feature that allows you to whitelist certain apps and websites to automatically bypass the VPN. For some business uses, this can be critically important.
Surfshark also offers three special modes designed for those who want to get around restrictions and more carefully hide their online footsteps. Camouflage Mode masks your VPN activity so your ISP doesn’t know you’re using a VPN. Multihop jumps your connection through multiple countries to hide your trail. Finally, NoBorders Mode “allows [you] to successfully use Surfshark in restrictive regions.” Just be careful. Doing any of these three things could be illegal in your country and could result in severe penalties. During our testing, we didn’t see a single IP address or DNS leak and had no trouble accessing Netflix.
Unlike many of the other VPN providers, Surfshark doesn’t offer a one-year plan. Its best offer is $2.49 a month, for its two-year plan (you pay about $60 upfront). A six-month plan is $6.49 a month (about $39 upfront), and month-by-month plans are $12.95 a month. Definitely take advantage of its generous 30-day trial to decide if you like this service (and if you choose the two-year plan, maybe set a reminder in 23 months to see if you can talk it into a continued discount rate).
Best VPN for reliability and security
Number of IP addresses: 5,000
Number of servers: 5,200-plus servers
Number of server locations: 62
$3.67 a month (69% discount) for a two-year plan
NordVPN in-depth review and hands-on testing (ZDNet)
NordVPN is one of the most recognized brands in the VPN field. It offers a generous simultaneous connection count, with six simultaneous connections through its network, where nearly all other providers offer five or fewer. NordVPN also offers a dedicated IP option, for those looking for a different level of VPN connection. NordVPN offers a kill-switch feature and the ability to VPN into Tor. We detected no privacy leaks during our tests.
In our most recent speed tests, NordVPN’s performance was on par with many of its competitors, reducing our speeds by 53% on average (which is slower than the 32% loss measured in previous speed tests). We found NordVPN’s speeds were reliably fast. There were never any sudden dips or service interruptions, and where we expected the VPN to underperform, it proved itself up to the task.
The company’s two-year VPN subscription plan currently costs $3.67 a month ($99 billed at once). That price is lower than most contenders but creeps up for the one-year plan ($4.92 a month or $59 total) and the monthly plan ($11.95 a month). But it does have a full 30-day refund policy.
While NordVPN has lived on this list for a long time, we moved it to the penalty box in October 2019 to re-evaluate our recommendation after a report emerged that one of its rented servers was accessed without authorization in 2018. Nord’s actions following the discovery included — eventually — multiple security audits, a bug bounty program, and heavier investments in server security.
While we’d have preferred it if Nord had self-disclosed the issue much earlier, the fact that the breach was limited in nature and involved no user-identifying information served to further verify that NordVPN keeps no logs of user activity. As a result, Nord remains on this list as a recommended vendor.
High-security standards at high speeds
Number of servers: 1,259
30-day money-back guarantee
Plus Package: $8 per month ($96 charged yearly)
When we speed-tested ProtonVPN, we saw an impressively small 9.6% speed loss compared with average speeds clocked without a VPN. ProtonVPN’s base speeds sent it blazing past most of our roster of tested services and into second place behind ExpressVPN. Even more impressive is Proton’s ability to reach those speeds despite a relatively small fleet of 1,259 servers in 55 countries. Like ExpressVPN, Proton also costs more than most of the VPNs we’ve reviewed. Even so, ProtonVPN’s high-security standards and legacy of transparency may make this VPN option worth the price.
Along with its options to send your traffic through a secure bunker of private servers, we love ProtonVPN’s transparency policies: It’s completely open-source with routinely published audits and includes a built-in route to VPN into Tor servers. We’re also confident recommending its mobile app since it has eliminated the use of some weaker security protocols, like PPTP and L2TP, which are still used by some other VPNs.
On price, we’d like to see ProtonVPN come down a bit. ProtonVPN’s standard package, called Plus, runs $8 per month ($96 charged yearly). That price is higher than the Editors’ Choice Award-winning ExpressVPN, whose best plan is priced at $6.67 a month for an annual package. ProtonVPN also gets beat on price by NordVPN’s two-year plan at $3.75 per month ($45 a year), and Surfshark’s two-year plan at $2.95 monthly ($30 a year). While ProtonVPN offers a $4 per month package, that package doesn’t come with enough valuable features to make it competitive against NordVPN.
Best VPN choice for beginners
Number of IP addresses: 40,000-plus
Number of servers: 1,600-plus
Number of server locations: 75-plus
Number of simultaneous connections: Unlimited
$5.20 a month (57% discount) for a one-year plan
A big win for IPVanish is its fun, configurable interface, which makes it an ideal client for those who are interested in learning how to understand what a VPN does under the hood. Its multiplatform flexibility is also ideal for people focused on finding a Netflix-friendly VPN.
A unique feature of the IPVanish VPN, and one we’re intrigued by, is the VPN’s support of Kodi, the open-source media streaming app that was once known as XBMC. Any serious media fan has used or built Kodi or XBMC into a media player, and the integrated IPVanish Kodi plug-in provides access to media worldwide.
At $10 a month or $80 a year, IPVanish is obviously trying to move you toward its yearly program. We’re a little disappointed that it only allows a seven-day trial, rather than a full 30 days, but it does offer a full money-back guarantee. That said, the company gets kudos for its recent increase from 10 to now-unlimited simultaneous connections. We also liked its connection kill switch feature, a must for anyone serious about remaining anonymous while surfing.