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These days, using a virtual private network is an easy way to improve your privacy while using the internet. However, if a VPN service doesn’t meet specific fundamental criteria, then it won’t help you as much as it should.
This guide will help you understand how we review and rank VPN services before you read those. Knowing this information will prepare you to judge services for yourself as you read our VPN reviews and figure out which of them meets your needs as a consumer.
If you’re not familiar with these services and how they work yet, check out our VPN 101 page.
We’d love to tell you that every review is based solely on objective, testable criteria that help determine precisely how good each VPN service is. However, the truth is that several subjective factors go into evaluating each service, and that’s the way it should be.
For objective material, we grade them against an existing standard, or against their competitors. A VPN price is an objective measure that you can evaluate based on your budget and against competing services. Other objective criteria include things like where the company is headquartered and where its servers are.
For subjective factors, we grade them on details like how consumer-friendly they are. When possible, we compare these to competitors to see which of them is the best, but that isn’t always possible. If a company offers a unique selling point, it’s often a subjective factor because most of its competitors will offer high-quality, objective factors.
For VPN reviews, a subjective factor is something like what experience user gets with their software, how difficult it is to set up and start using the service. Tech-savvy users may have no trouble configuring advanced computer settings, but casual users may not even know where to start looking. With our VPN reviews 2020 doesn’t have to be so challenging to figure out.
For the rest of this guide, we’ll look at everything we evaluate when writing a VPN review. However, regardless of their other factors, we always start by looking at some general information about the VPN and the company behind it. Here are some of the primary criteria we use.
When It Was Founded
Age is an integral part of evaluating a company because businesses that are more than five years old have usually proven themselves and obtained a steady base of recurring customers. Furthermore, older companies typically offer other services, and evaluating their performance can help us understand what they can provide to VPNs.
Looking at any controversies a company is involved in is also crucial for evaluating them. If they regularly participate in consumer-unfriendly activities, it is much harder to trust them even if their services seem high-quality.
On the other hand, if a company has a clean record or actively goes out of its way to support consumers, that’s a mark in their favor and earns them additional points.
This is usually a subjective criterion instead of an objective one. For example, one person may consider it a controversy if a VPN service has a data breach, while someone else may feel that no system is perfect, and it’s still better to use a service when possible.
Companies without controversies are fundamentally better. However, we strive to be as fair as possible in our reviews. If a VPN service was fundamentally a victim, or if something happened that nobody could reasonably expect them to have prepared for, we don’t subtract too many points.
General User Feedback
Finally, we research user feedback about the company. While we try to experience as much as possible ourselves, there’s a limit to what we can personally study. That’s where the wisdom of the crowds comes into play.
If most users report a great experience, that’s a definite positive, although we’ll still need to evaluate the services and see if they protect people’s privacy. After all, some people love companies that don’t truly protect them, which’s a problem.
User reviews are especially helpful for evaluating things like customer service. If people consistently report fast and useful responses, we know that the company is doing well there. On the other hand, if people report trouble getting help, that makes the company harder to recommend regardless of its service.
We also check for brand feedback, when applicable. Most VPN companies don’t have a brand beyond their service; for example, NordVPN is practically a household name thanks to their aggressive advertising campaign. However, some companies offer other services, and checking feedback on those brands is also useful.
This is one of the essential parts of reviewing a VPN service. If the best VPN service isn’t located in a privacy-friendly jurisdiction, 3rd parties could compromise it. That fundamentally defeats the point of using a VPN in the first place.
Jurisdiction is especially essential when you’re looking at the free VPN services. If a 3rd-party sponsors a company and their main goal is to collect information on users, that’s a huge issue.
Rating privacy-friendliness involves looking at both the laws of the jurisdiction and how well those laws are enforced. In corrupt countries, where privacy regulations are ignored, the theoretical protections they offer don’t mean much. In contrast, countries that rigorously enforce such laws are inherently more trustworthy and earn far more points when we’re reviewing them.
Here are some of the most privacy-friendly areas.
🇻🇬 The British Virgin Islands
As discussed in our Surfshark review, the British Virgin Islands do not have data retention laws. This means that companies are under no obligation to store data for others to look through later, and that means they can simply delete it as soon as it’s no longer needed.
This makes the British Virgin Islands something of a privacy paradise, and the islands know this. Many privacy-focused internet companies base themselves in the British Virgin Islands to take advantage of their civil laws and generally high support for businesses.
While it may be known mainly for the Panama Canal, this country recently joined the ranks of privacy-friendly countries thanks to Law No. 81 on Personal Data Protection. This law essentially states that data processing must be carried out with the data subject’s prior, informed consent.
Like the British Virgin Islands, Panama does not have a data retention law. It also guarantees people the right to request alterations or changes to their data and to refuse to provide personal data. However, since they only passed Law No. 81 in 2019, Panama isn’t as well-established as many other countries regarding proper privacy laws.
Panama is the headquarters of NordVPN, one of the largest and most well-known companies in this business.
Breaking the trend of Caribbean-esque privacy centers is Seychelles. Located north of Madagascar and east of continental Africa, their first law on this subject is the Data Protection Act 2002. Curiously, this law isn’t actually in force as of mid-2020, despite the island’s general support for privacy.
Even without this law, confidentiality is a crucial aspect of the country’s economy. Seychelles participates in a wide variety of offshore financial services, so maintaining confidentiality is key to earning and keeping their customers’ trust.
These islands aren’t quite as popular as many other destinations, but some VPN services like Anonine call Seychelles their home.
Thanks to its position overlooking the Mediterranean, Gibraltar is one of Europe’s most fought-over places. Although nominally a British territory (contested by Spain, although Gibraltar itself rejects Spain’s claims), the region is mainly self-governing on most matters outside of defense, foreign policy, and good general governance.
While no longer a part of the European Union thanks to Britain’s withdrawal in early 2020, Gibraltar maintains the Data Protection Act 2004, which governs and safeguards personal digital information. Gibraltar is a small territory, but a few providers like IVPN treat it as their home.
When it comes to privacy and neutrality, it’s hard to have a list without Switzerland somewhere on it. The home of companies like ProtonVPN, VyprVPN, and Perfect Privacy, Switzerland stands out from the crowd because privacy is enshrined in Article 13 of the Swiss Federal Constitution. That’s a higher level of legal force than most countries have.
Switzerland has too many privacy protection laws to cover in full here, but the Swiss Federal Data Protection Act is among the most notable acts. This law broadly covers rules about collecting data, regulations about processing, and supervising authorities’ general duties and assignments.
The act also establishes some basic principles, including that data must be processed lawfully, in proportion to the need, and only for purposes indicated at the time of collection (or otherwise provided for by law). Switzerland also mandates transparency so that the subject of data processing can be aware of all use of their information.
Aside from their long history of protecting information, it’s worth noting that Switzerland also bars foreign companies from working on their critical infrastructure. This makes it extraordinarily hard for third-parties to sneak monitors or controls into their systems.
Unfortunately, Switzerland has an uneven data landscape because each of their cantons (states) are responsible for certain aspects of technology and data protection. This means that adequately evaluating a VPN company in Switzerland requires looking closer than the national level. That’s not a huge flaw, precisely, but it’s worth noting.
Transparency is easily one of the essential parts of rating a VPN for a simple reason: If we can’t audit and check their systems, we don’t know that they’re providing the type of data privacy they claim. “Trust, but verify” is the motto here, and you shouldn’t trust anyone whose setup you can’t verify.
While it can be challenging to audit every company individually, some trustworthy external providers offer these services, which are good enough for our reviews. PWC provides a wide variety of technological and financial auditing services, and some VPNs have passed their strict metrics and therefore earned additional points from us.
Cure53 is another excellent, if less-known, source for transparency. This German firm conducts penetration testing – that is, they try to hack into websites and software – and trying to penetrate a VPN is one of the best ways of determining whether or not it works.
We like Cure53 because they’ve shown themselves to be a socially-conscious company. For example, they’ve offered free penetration tests for software and websites related to COVID-19, helping them meet regulatory burdens and otherwise improve themselves for use. That sort of offer is how companies earn our trust, and Cure53 has more than earned it.
NordVPN has passed two audits, including one conducted by PWC in May 2020. Unfortunately, the full review is not available for public viewing; it’s limited to current members of NordVPN, so we can’t link you directly to it.
However, this particular test involved significantly expanding on the original check, including covering their new servers and systems to see if those were functioning correctly. They’ve also announced that they intend to conduct more tests in the future, which is an essential part of establishing and maintaining trust with potential customers.
ProtonVPN took a different approach to their audit when they asked the entire internet to try their hands. They did this by releasing the source code for their system, which means that anyone with the knowledge to interpret the data can see how each part of their encryption functions.
This is a bold move, but it’s also one that displays immense confidence in the code. Open-source software is inherently more trustworthy because dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of people have likely checked the code over and found nothing to be concerned about.
This is the digital equivalent of a security company installing its locks on every building it owns. If you’re not willing to stand by your product, it is a lot harder to convince anyone else that they should buy it. ProtonVPN supports their product, and that’s why we rate them higher than competitors who aren’t willing to go to the same lengths.
iVPN.net is another mid-sized player in the industry, and they completed an in-depth audit of their systems in late 2019. In their report, what stood out to us was their willingness to admit that Cure53, the company doing the inspections, had found several significant problems.
It’s never good when a VPN has significant issues. However, they’ve addressed these issues since. Their willingness to admit to their failings is also a meaningful sign of confidence because customers can trust the company to be honest even when speaking up would hurt the company.
It’s never easy to do that. Many businesses prefer to hide all negative information to continue presenting a perfect front to the world. When it comes to privacy, though, the ability to establish and maintain trust is paramount. If you can’t trust a VPN, you shouldn’t use them.
Ultimately, iVPN.net’s willingness to admit to its flaws is a major positive. That’s why it received a higher score from us than it otherwise would have.
Can I Get More Information On Open Source Software?
Of course! This guide offers more information on open source software, including an overview of the software, licenses, and principles behind it. This is useful information no matter what else you’re doing online, so we strongly recommend reading the entire guide when you can.
What good is a VPN if you can’t use it freely on all your devices? That’s a serious question, and it’s one we ask when looking at the platforms a VPN covers.
In this context, cross-platform refers to a VPN’s ability to work with different types of devices. This includes desktop PCs, smartphones, tablets, gaming consoles, and even televisions. With the growth of the internet of things, cross-platform VPNs may also support household appliances or Wi-Fi-equipped cars.
Unfortunately, some VPNs do not offer cross-platform software. This means you’ll have to rely on manual settings. Having to do that work defeats the purpose of having a VPN in the first place, so it’s not a viable solution.
That said, VPNs that are cross-platform tend to be more expensive than VPNs with limited options. This presents an interesting question: Does an online VPN need to be cross-platform if you don’t need that support?
For example, if you only access the internet through a PC at home, then cross-platform capabilities are irrelevant. It may help the company get and keep more customers if it can cover all their devices, but it would be irrelevant for you as an individual user.
If you can save money when you get a VPN for PC use alone and don’t need anything else, that’s a tempting offer. I think an alternative strategy is better, though. Rather than trying to price by what’s covered, look for companies that offer discounts if you use limited types of devices on them.
There are many different sorts of payment plans out there, so something you can flexibly add devices to, or remove devices from, has plenty of benefits.
Alternatively, look for point-of-access VPNs. These deal with things like routers, which can affect your whole household.
A VPN browser extension is essentially a lightweight version of a traditional VPN. These usually take the form of apps for your browser that runs whenever it’s functioning and send all of your data to your VPN for processing.
By doing this, the browser extension can encrypt all of your data, hiding both your location and your IP address from third-party actors. The main selling point to a browser extension is its ease of use. You can turn it on or off as you desire while surfing the web, and if you leave it on, you can mostly forget about it while getting all the benefits of a VPN.
However, there’s one problem with a browser-based extension: It only protects your web browser. These extensions do not and cannot defend other applications, or tools on your computer. Even if you’re not aware of it, many software types are often sending back usage information and other data to their creators, and browser extensions won’t help there.
A full virtual private network protects all of your data, regardless of the source. That includes non-browser devices, such as game consoles, as well as other software from your computer. Full VPNs are generally more expensive than in-browser VPNs, but they’re also significantly better overall.
Many companies offer both, so you aren’t necessarily limited to choosing one over the other.
Which Browsers Support Browser Extensions For VPN?
Chrome, Edge, and Firefox all support browser extensions for VPNs. Firefox is particularly VPN-friendly thanks to Mozilla’s focus on user-friendly features, but even the ad-focused Google allows VPNs on Chrome.
Safari, the default browser on many Apple devices, is more complicated. Many VPN extensions do not work on Safari. Availability does change somewhat over time, but Safari’s tendency to block all “old” extensions with many of its updates means you could be stuck without a working VPN for an unknown period.
ExpressVPN and IvacyVPN are particularly compatible with browsers. Hola and Zenmate, which we’ve reviewed, are suitable for both Chrome and Firefox.
Why Should I Consider Using A Browser Extension?
That’s up to you. Like VPNs’ other features, whether or not a browser extension makes sense depends on how you want to use your computer. If you only use your laptop for browsing the web and don’t even install other apps, then a browser extension is all you need.
In virtually all other use cases, however, an app-based or hardware-based VPN is fundamentally better.
VPN On Router
We’re especially fond of router-based VPNs. These usually support every device in your house that’s using the internet, making them ideal for protecting your data. In contrast, an app-based VPN usually protects just one device. That’s better than only protecting your browser, but still not as good as it could be.
However, there is one more point to keep in mind: how your devices access the internet. This is mainly a problem for smartphones and related gadgets, which can access the internet both over Wi-Fi and through a telecom company plan.
To put it simply, a VPN protecting your Wi-Fi doesn’t help if you’re not using Wi-Fi. This is why it’s essential to check how you want to protect your information and how you want to access the internet. If you’re spending half of your time connecting in a way your VPN doesn’t interact with, you might as well not have it in the first place.
This is the other primary reason why device-based VPNs, at minimum, are the safest choice for consumers. These can protect you regardless of how you access the internet. That’s not as relevant for desktop computers or laptops, but since most people prefer to use one VPN for all of their technology, you should think about this capability no matter what device you focus on.
Advanced VPN Features
Some VPNs come with advanced features that can provide further privacy protections. Here are some of the most popular features, including how they work and what you should know about them.
This feature is mandatory for getting a high rank in our reviews.
A kill switch is a feature that automatically disables your internet connection if your VPN drops. Essentially, this makes sure that your data won’t suddenly get exposed to the world.
Obviously, it’s frustrating if you’re in the middle of something important, and your internet connection suddenly fails. That’s why high-quality VPNs also have at least 99.99% uptime and, therefore, no significant service interruptions.
However, if you don’t have a kill switch, you might not even know if your VPN fails or stops working. If your data can leak out while it’s not protected, that defeats the purpose of having a VPN in the first place. It’s better to err on the side of caution, especially because you can usually reconnect right away.
What Affects My Chances Of Disconnections?
That depends on the type of connection you have. However, there are three particularly common reasons for disconnections. Checking these can help reduce your odds of a disconnect and improve your overall network stability.
- Firewall/Router Settings
Some protective options, such as firewalls or antivirus programs, can interrupt your connection to a VPN. This can occur for many reasons, but the most common is that they think your VPN connection is suspicious and, therefore, something to disable.
The solution for most users is adding the VPN as an exception to the relevant program. This essentially tells the program to ignore your VPN and allow it to function unhindered, and that solves most problems.
Remember that multiple programs could react to your VPN, especially when you first install it. You may need to check several software pieces and add the VPN as an exception to each of them before it starts working. Most people don’t need to do this, but it can occur, so be aware of the possibility.
- VPN Protocol
Your VPN network protocol is how your data gets from the device you’re using to a web server that processes the information. Essentially, it’s the basic set of instructions that machines use while communicating with each other, and which one you use can have a significant impact on your VPN’s connection and performance.
Many VPNs start with UDP enabled. The User Datagram Protocol is the fastest because it delivers all of the information in a stream. However, this means it also has no error correction, so it’s more likely that your data will arrive corrupted. This can lead to network disconnects and failures.
The alternative is using the TCP protocol. The Transmission Control Protocol is noticeably slower because it attaches identifiers to each packet of information and provides instructions on which one should arrive next. Once the recipient acknowledges it, your device will send the next package.
If the receiver doesn’t acknowledge getting a packet, your device will try to resend it. This acts as a form of innate error-correction and results in significantly more reliable data transmission. Enabling TCP can solve many connection errors.
- Poor Network Connections
Finally, the last leading cause of frequent disconnects is weak signal strength. It’s true that VPNs allow you to connect to distant servers, but that’s true of practically anything you do on the internet. The power of your local connection is usually the most crucial factor in your overall signal strength.
You’re more likely to experience a connection drop in areas with low signal strength due to high data losses. Similarly, using the internet in heavy-use areas like libraries or coffee shops can lead to an unstable connection.
The most practical solution to this depends on where you are. You may need to move physically closer to a wireless access point, or away from signal-interrupting barriers like particular walls.
If you’re experiencing loss of signals at home, you can do a few things to boost coverage. The easiest method is installing a Wi-Fi repeater. Repeaters are small devices that act as miniature routers. They connect to an existing wireless network, but also create a new network of their own and pass information through the first network.
If your regular Wi-Fi is like a bubble coming from your wireless access point, a repeater is like a second bubble centered on a separate location. This can let you create a strong signal anywhere in your house.
Double VPN (MultiHop)
The only thing more secure than one VPN server is two servers. This process, also known as VPN server chaining or MultiHop, is an added layer of protection when you’re particularly concerned about your privacy. It works as follows.
All of your data is encrypted on your device. That data is sent to a remote VPN server somewhere in the world. When it reaches the VPN server, it gets encrypted again and travels to a second server. That server sends it on to the next destination.
This process is even more laborious for third-parties to track than regular VPN activity. The double layer of decryption is already robust; even if someone can hack one layer, it will be twice as hard to get through two layers instead.
Many double VPNs use both UDP and TCP protocols, described above, for further security. By changing even the way the servers communicate with each other, techniques that work on one won’t get a complete picture of what’s going on.
Furthermore, your IP address is changed when it reaches the first VPN server. This means that the second server has no information about you, so if someone tries hacking it, they won’t see anything.
This setup ultimately means that even companies like internet service providers (ISPs) essentially cannot track your final destination on the web. They’ll know you’re using a VPN, but the cutoff between the first and second servers thoroughly hides your information.
When Is Double VPN A Good Idea?
Double VPN is a good choice when security is an essential aspect of your job. For example, if you are a journalist or a political activist, a double VPN setup significantly reduces the chances that a hostile party will be able to find you and interfere with what you’re doing.
Double VPNs are also useful for protecting sources of information ranging from emails to video chats. Your sources benefit from this encryption the same way you do, and the added level of security may encourage them to open up and share more information.
When Is Double VPN A Bad Idea?
Double VPN isn’t necessary for regular private browsing. A standard VPN connection more than suffices to give you secure links to websites and prevent people from tracking your IP address.
Double VPNs are also a poor choice when you need as much speed as possible. For example, if you’re playing an online game, a double VPN could create significant lag and prevent you from gaming competitively.
The slowdown’s main reason is the obvious one: The data has to go through multiple servers that could be located continents away from each other. Even with electrical connections, that takes time when the servers have to process the data. Network congestion can also slow things down.
In summary, a double VPN is an excellent feature for any provider to have, but it isn’t mandatory or necessary in all situations. A double VPN is the digital equivalent of a Swiss bank vault. It’s as secure as you can expect anything to get, but it’s overkill for anything you only need a basic locked box to protect.
Double VPNs highlight one more piece of information: marketing can be more effective if you don’t know what a company is talking about. Most VPN companies will focus exclusively on the benefits of using a double VPN system, but they won’t always mention the limits on connection speed or reliability.
Don’t allow companies to sell you on buzzwords or features. Instead, take the time to understand what they’re offering and how each element could affect you. Fortunately, reading this guide means you’re already well on your way to understanding their jargon and how to ensure you’re getting a great deal.
Split tunneling is a feature of VPNs where it routes some of your data through your VPN, while the rest of your data goes over another network at the same time. This is fundamentally less-secure than moving everything through your VPN, but there are a few times when it makes sense to use this feature.
When Does Split Tunneling Make Sense?
Split tunneling makes sense when you want to connect to multiple networks and don’t need all of them to be as secure.
For example, if you have bandwidth limits, moving all of your data through your VPN could take up that bandwidth and radically slow down all internet access in your house. Staying entirely on a VPN could also prevent you from accessing LAN devices that you trust, such as household printers. Travelers may want to access local and foreign internet services simultaneously.
Split tunneling solves issues like these by allowing you to download things without slowing down web activity, access any device on your local area network while still keeping your internet activity private, and even stream movies from foreign areas while using a local IP address.
This is a common feature among the better VPNs. If your VPN software doesn’t support split tunneling, you could end up encountering unexpected roadblocks in your daily activities, and we want to avoid that as much as possible.
Dedicated IP addresses are extremely helpful when using a VPN, especially if you want to use them for business or while making financial transactions.
For example, some servers don’t allow you to access them unless your IP address matches a whitelist of permitted systems. Similarly, banks and other financial institutions may treat you as suspicious if you have a different IP address each time you access their services. That could lead to getting locked out of your accounts at inconvenient times.
Dedicated IP addresses solve problems like these by giving you a static, virtual IP address. Other systems won’t treat this as suspicious, so it solves most of the issues associated with a floating or non-permanent IP address.
However, you may not see much discussion of this in our free VPN reviews. Even if you’re using the best VPN for PC, free services rarely include dedicated IP addresses. That said, even the cheapest VPN may include it as part of their package.
Custom VPN Protocol
Don’t confuse this with the UDP/TCP protocols discussed earlier. Those refer to basic data transmission protocols, and there are really only two standard options for that.
A VPN protocol, despite the similar name, is the system that anonymizes your requests by passing it through your VPN server. The main difference between these protocols is their security and speed. A higher level of encryption offers more security but also slows down your connections.
Which protocol works for you depends on your needs as a user. For example, if you’re playing competitive video games, you probably want as little lag as possible. On the other hand, if you’re handling sensitive corporate information, it may be worth slowing down to help safeguard your data.
There’s no universal answer to what the best protocol is, so we’re not going to try and claim that there is. While services can have their own customized protocols, most end up using one of the following options.
While this sounds like a VPN provider, OpenVPN is an open-source, free protocol that’s compatible with both the UDP and TCP transport protocols. What stands out about open VPN is that it’s been around for more than 15 years, and its community has continuously scanned it to try and find security vulnerabilities.
The frequent penetration attempts by enthusiasts mean that OpenVPN is one of the most secure protocol options available. Its primary security protocols use up to 256-bit encryption, which allows for an excellent balance of speed and effectiveness.
Some VPN providers use parts of OpenVPN in their setups.
There is one major flaw to this protocol, however. While it’s secure, it can’t hide as well from deep packet inspection. DPI is usually a function of firewalls and can help determine whether or not to allow something through. Custom protocols often add layers to disguise the real contents, allowing them to pass through DPI checkpoints in regulated areas.
WireGuard is a newer alternative to OpenVPN. One of its primary advantages is the fast, slim coding that helps reduce errors. Wireguard uses ChaCha20 for ciphers and encryption, which is similar to the AES-256 that OpenVPN, up above, uses.
The slim coding – about 10,000 lines, compared to nearly half a million for OpenVPN – also helps protect WireGuard from vulnerabilities. Fewer lines of code mean that there aren’t as many opportunities for a mistake in typing to create a vulnerability.
The main drawback of WireGuard is the fact that it requires a static IP address, and it needs to store the local IP address for authenticating packet transmissions. Fortunately, it is possible for VPNs to deal with this. However, that takes a little more coding and work than running a normal VPN, so WireGuard isn’t particularly widespread yet.
Layer 2 Tunnel Protocol
The Layer 2 Tunnel Protocol helps data move from one network to another. However, unlike many other VPN protocols, L2TP does not provide any encryption for the data passing through it. This means that it must be paired with an encryption protocol to protect your data.
To clarify, this isn’t a significant issue by itself. Protocols that include both tunneling and encryption are more comfortable to use, sure, but it’s not like we’re unable to use a tunneling-only protocol when there are plenty of encryption options to go with it.
The main option that companies pair with L2TP is known as IPSec. This encrypts each of L2TP’s packets as they move, hiding both the source and the destination while they’re in transit. IPSec is compatible with various encryption options, but most companies use AES 128-bit or 256-bit, which are functionally the standard choices thanks to their reliability.
The primary downside of L2TP is the fact that it uses a port that firewalls can easily block. In practical terms, this means your VPN needs to support port forwarding, or censorship agencies will find it much easier to shut down whatever you’re doing.
L2TP isn’t a fundamentally wrong choice, especially if you’re looking for privacy in a natural operating environment and don’t have any high-level censors trying to block what you’re doing. However, it’s not as good as OpenVPN, so we don’t give VPN services as many points if they’re using LT2P.
Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol
The Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol (SSTP) comes straight from Microsoft, making it proprietary technology instead of a freely-available open-source option. It’s fundamentally similar to OpenVPN, but not quite as good, and here’s why.
Like OpenVPN, SSTP allows traffic to go through an SSL/TLS channel. For those who aren’t as computer-savvy, this basically means it passes through firewalls quickly because all of the traffic appears normal.
However, SSTP is vulnerable to a problem known as TCP meltdown. In these situations, packets that aren’t confirmed can lead to a cascade of problems and force other packets to overcompensate. The exact mechanics behind this are too technical for our guide here, but the critical thing to know is that OpenVPN can circumvent this by switching back to UDP.
SSTP, on the other hand, only works with TCP. This means that TCP meltdowns are virtually unavoidable when they occur, and it could take some time to re-establish the connection.
In practice, SSTP has most of the upsides of OpenVPN, but several additional drawbacks that make it harder for people to use. This is the main reason why it’s not as popular as OpenVPN, though you’ll still find a few services that use it.
Internet Key Exchange Version 2
The Internet Key Exchange Version 2 is based on the original IKE developed in 1998. While not technically a VPN protocol, it’s usable with IPSec, and that makes it functionally a protocol. The security is about the same as the SSTP and L2TP described above, so it more than suffices for maintaining your privacy.
The main reason people use IKEv2 is its speed. In fact, in many cases, IKEv2 is the single fastest protocol that VPNs offer. On mobile devices, IKEv2 quickly re-establishes connections and resumes transferring information, which is particularly helpful if you’re always on the move.
Some devices have compatibility built into them because it’s so effective at maintaining connections in changing environments.
In static environments, such as a home Wi-Fi network, IKEv2 is similar to other protocols, and you won’t notice much of a difference between them. That makes it harder to recommend for home use when OpenVPN is a fundamentally better option, but IKEv2 is still worth considering for its versatility.
Point-To-Point Tunneling Protocol
PPTP is an older tunneling protocol for transferring information, and you may still see it listed with some VPN providers. It uses a lower form of encryption compared to other systems, which means it’s almost as fast as standard encryption.
However, PPTP is not suitable for security. In fact, it’s relatively easy for third-party groups to crack its code and see what you’re doing, which makes it a poor choice for most VPN needs. Most users never need to enable this option, even if the VPN services provide it.
Avoid any VPN company that only offers PPTP. It is not secure, and in our view, would not even qualify as a proper VPN service. Whether you’re looking for the best VPN for torrenting or the best VPN for streaming, PPTP is not good enough unless it is literally the only option that will work.
For more information on advanced features in VPNs, check out our reviews for Cyberghost, Ivacy, NordVPN, ProtonVPN, ExpressVPN, Astrill, Surfshark, Hotspot Shield, and HMA. These VPN services have rare or even unique features that set them apart from the competition, so reading the full reviews will help you learn about the real-world differences in characteristics that VPNs can offer.
We recommend reading reviews for multiple products, even if you’re confident that you’ve found the VPN service you want to use. There’s no substitute for personal knowledge and experience, so if you only see reviews for two or three products, you won’t have the same base as other people.
Of course, reading dozens of reviews is probably too much, especially if you’re busy and don’t have unlimited amounts of free time to dedicate to researching VPN services. Dealing with that is one of the main reasons we rank services in the first place.
However, if possible, We recommend reading the reviews for at least eight different VPN services. This is enough to help you gain a better understanding of what sets them apart from each other and what types of trends you can expect from the industry as a whole.
When it comes to VPNs, size matters. If VPN servers are oversold, too many people will be using them at once, and everything will start to slow down.
That said, the quality of the servers is almost as important as the number. High-end servers can handle more processing and simultaneous users than a low-powered server can. This means that a VPN with fewer servers could offer a faster, better experience than a VPN with more servers.
In other words, the number of servers is not the only thing that matters. More servers are always a good sign, but we’d be failing in our research if we didn’t consider those servers’ quality when assigning points and determining our final rankings.
Having servers in many locations is also important. This makes the network redundant and allows you to act like you’re in different places more effectively. All of this brings up another interesting point about servers and loads.
Servers And Mainframes
Did you know that VPNs don’t use the most reliable technology on the market? It’s true! VPN server networks range from about 30 to 5000+ servers located around the world, but they’re not the best things on the market.
That honor belongs to mainframes, which are mostly scaled-up versions of servers with more fault-tolerance and computing power. A higher-end mainframe could do the job of an entire server farm all on its own.
That said, mainframes are also more expensive than traditional servers. A “cheap” mainframe is likely to be at least six digits assuming you can even buy it outright to start with, while a higher-end model could run into the tens of millions. VPNs simply can’t afford that.
(It’s also wrong to run your entire VPN business out of one box because if there’s a physical disaster that smashes the mainframe, your entire service will go down.)
Managing Server Networks
The best VPN deals include access to networks that have their own servers or, even better, their private data centers. This is more important than it seems at first.
Suppose a company owns and has physical possession of its servers. In that case, it can guarantee that outside actors won’t be able to access the servers or physically adjust them to compromise the security. Owning a personal data center is even better because it means they can secure the building and add new servers as needed.
Companies with large server networks include:
Mid-size server networks:
Small server networks:
Note that size is fundamentally relative, and the size of server networks can change quickly. A smaller system might add dozens or even hundreds of servers when it decides that it’s ready to grow.
More often, companies add new servers once they see that their average load is starting to approach the limits of the existing servers. This minimizes up-front costs while providing steady and reliable service to customers as the company grows.
In short, we don’t judge a company too harshly just because it has a comparatively small number of servers. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad service; it just means the company doesn’t have as many customers and doesn’t need more servers.
We rarely remove points for having few servers unless a company has a meager number of them. Instead, we rank companies better for having a lot of servers. This is an important distinction.
People use VPNs for many reasons, including business and journalism. However, for most consumers, streaming content from other parts of the world is the number-one reason to use a VPN. In other words, rather than looking for the best VPN overall, people are looking for the best VPN for Netflix.
Some people also look for the best VPN for multiple devices, especially when more than one person in the household wants to watch a streaming service at the same time. We could spend all day talking about the technical aspects of VPNs, but our reviews wouldn’t be complete without discussing the main reason people look for a VPN in the first place.
There are three primary factors we consider when evaluating the streaming functionality of VPNs, and helping answer questions like “Is a VPN worth it for streaming?”.
The first factor we consider is the connection speeds. This is simple when you get down to it: if the VPN is too slow to stream video in decent quality to wherever you are in the world, then it’s not good enough to buy. It doesn’t matter how good a product is in theory if it can’t achieve your goals.
Netflix recommends a speed of at least 5 Mbps for streaming HD-quality video and 25 Mbps for 4K video. Your VPN should provide at least this much speed. Note that the VPN isn’t the only factor determining your internet speeds, though. Your internet service provider also has a major impact on this.
The second factor we consider for streaming is the geographic location of servers. Having servers in many countries makes it easier to get content from those countries, and that’s an essential part of operating a high-quality VPN service. It’s hard to call something the best VPN for streaming without this.
This isn’t restricted purely to entertainment content, either. Some people use VPNs to access content from their home country after they move around the world, whether it’s short-term access during a business trip or a long-term residency in another nation. Working in countries both large and small helps create a better VPN service.
The final criterion is dedicated streaming servers. This mainly consists of servers exclusively devoted to streaming video content from popular sources, which makes it easier to manage and maintain a secure connection.
Video is one of the most bandwidth-heavy things that people use the internet for, so dedicating servers to streaming tends to make things work much smoother and more effectively. It’s not a deal-breaker if companies don’t have dedicated servers, but it definitely helps.
Keep in mind that accessing streaming-dedicated services may come with extra fees.
Does It Support Torrenting?
Torrenting always been a popular way for users to share files with each other.
Torrenting is especially useful when you’re downloading larger files. A 10 MB PDF file is easy enough to download over any standard connection. However, imagine trying to download 300 GB to get the latest version of your company’s software. That’s going to take far too long over a standard connection unless you have a genuinely incredible connection.
Torrenting is used by many large-scale companies, including Blizzard Entertainment, Twitter, and even Facebook. Given all the legal uses for torrenting, a high-quality VPN service should provide support for this. Support for torrenting is particularly useful when you’re traveling abroad and might have difficulty accessing things through local servers.
Avast Secureline VPN and Cyberghost are VPN services with dedicated torrenting servers. Like the dedicated streaming servers described above, having servers focus exclusively on tasks like this allows for faster and more reliable performance.
Is A Free Version Available?
In general, you won’t find a truly free VPN, no matter how hard you search. The main reason for this is that running the VPN itself costs money. The hosting company needs to buy or rent its servers, and it also needs to pay for electricity to run those servers.
Even if the company gets a great deal in one part of the world, a high-quality service needs to run servers in many countries. For the best VPN free electricity still wouldn’t be enough to keep the systems going.
VPNs that pretend to be free usually offer minimal services compared to any paid plan and support themselves through advertising. Keep in mind that companies who sell ads may also collect information about the people seeing those ads so they can present themselves better to potential clients.
Naturally, this defeats the purpose of using a VPN to protect your privacy, which is why we rarely recommend using a free service.
However, the lack of genuinely free VPNs doesn’t mean you’re entirely out of options. For example, ProtonVPN offers a sample of its services with three free servers. This has several obvious drawbacks, including slower connection speeds and no ability to tap into content from anywhere in the world. It’s also not a good choice for streaming.
Accessing ProtonVPN’s free servers can be a great way to save money if you only need a VPN for a little while and don’t care about fast connection speeds. For example, if you’re going on vacation for a week and want some extra privacy during that, using this free service is often good enough.
OperaVPN is a strange exception to the usual rules because it’s a core, included feature of the Opera web browser. Companies that offer other products and services usually have an easier time maintaining VPNs because they don’t have to rely solely on the VPN for their revenue. OperaVPN is also far more official than most VPN services.
Unfortunately, OperaVPN is a minimalist service. It doesn’t support mobile devices most of the time, limiting you to desktop computers. It’s also fundamentally a browser-based VPN, which means it won’t protect any of your other software or activities. Finally, OperaVPN uses essentially no encryption, meaning that while your IP address is private, your other info isn’t.
This is a good example of why it’s so important to evaluate information before you start using a VPN. If you assume that services are fundamentally the same because so many of them have VPN in the name, you may end up sharing far more of your personal information than you intended.
That said, if you’re not trying to protect your information and you just want to access content in other areas, free VPNs can be a good choice. For example, some people have devices that they use exclusively for streaming, and they don’t add any of their other information to it. If the data isn’t there, even the best snoopers can’t access it.
Accessing content without needing to protect your information is the only scenario where using a free VPN is truly viable. We do not recommend it for any other purpose.
Free Trial Available
As you learned above, there are some fundamental flaws with free VPNs that make them hard to recommend if you want to protect your privacy. That said, there’s no substitute for personal experience, and that’s where free trials enter the picture.
Trials give you the opportunity to test a system before you commit money to using it. This is a common feature of higher-quality VPNs, and it always earns extra points when we’re rating them.
Free trials come in three primary forms.
Time-limited free trials
The first form is time-limited free trials. These are usually 3 or 7 days and give you access to most or all of the VPN’s features for the duration of the trial. We consider these to be the best form of a trial because there’s no up-front cost, and you can get a much better sense of how the VPN works in practice.
In rarer cases, time-limited free trails may have a set number of hours you can use, rather than a days or a weeks to experience it. This setup isn’t as common, but it can be a viable alternative if you don’t use the internet regularly.
Companies that offer free trials include Cyberghost, Ivacy, and PrivateVPN. Keep in mind that the exact details of the trial vary by company. For example, we’ve seen trial periods as short as couple of hours. We think that’s far too short for people to learn your system, and it may take them longer than that to set up a technologically-complex VPN system.
The second form of a free trial is money-back guarantees. These are almost always 30 days, starting from when you first use their service. While these aren’t technically free unless you choose to cancel your subscription, the fact that you can get all of your money back if you don’t like their software gives you an extra layer of security.
We don’t like this as much as a genuinely free trial where you don’t have to pay anything up-front, but it’s better than having no testing phase. However, we also do some research to evaluate how well the company responds to requests for getting money back.
Good companies will immediately cancel your service and refund your money. Bad companies may try to delay things, or even refuse to give your money back.
Remember, you aren’t out of options if a company is being stubborn about this. In most cases, your bank, or credit card provider can reverse the charges on their end, and there’s nothing the VPN can do about that.
This is part of your rights as a consumer. It’s best to avoid making chargebacks if you can. Doing too many of these may cause your financial institution to scrutinize you, and that’s often more trouble than it’s worth. However, if a VPN refuses to honor its written money-back guarantee, most financial institutions will gladly enforce that on your behalf.
This guide offers more information about initiating chargebacks. You don’t necessarily have to go through with it if a VPN is refusing to honor its guarantee, either. In many cases, simply threatening to file a chargeback is enough to get them to comply and return your money.
Threatening to make a chargeback works for the same reason you don’t want to make too many of them yourself: If a merchant has too many of those, they’ll fall under a lot of scrutiny. Trying to keep a few dollars isn’t worth the public scrutiny from financial companies. In the worst-case scenario, chargebacks could end their business entirely.
Free Trial With Limited Functionality
The final form of a trial is a free VPN with limited functionality. The upsides to this are free VPN and the fact that it’s being run by a company that gets revenue in other ways and doesn’t need to bombard you with ads.
However, we don’t like this as much as either of the options above because it usually involves limited access to the VPN’s services. If your goal is determining whether or not a VPN is fast enough to stream to your household, for example, then using a slowed-down trial server doesn’t provide the information you’re looking for.
That said, limited VPN services have a couple of advantages that are worth considering. First, most of them do not have a time limit. This means you can use them for months or years before you buy a subscription plan, and that’s extremely pro-consumer. Don’t worry about taking advantage of this, either. If the VPN didn’t like people doing that, they wouldn’t allow it.
The second advantage is that free VPN services usually offer a good look at the interface and options available. Even if you can’t click on all of those options to change them, it’s a great way to look at things and investigate them at your own pace.
This is particularly useful when you’re not very tech-savvy, but you need to learn more about access ports and other complex aspects of technology to set up your VPN.
Companies that offer free VPN instead of traditional trials include Windscribe, Zenmate, and ProtonVPN. All three of these are excellent choices overall. In fact, ProtonVPN is one of our top choices among all VPN providers, so don’t think a free VPN is always the mark of a company you can’t trust. Rather, it’s easier for a bigger, better company to offer this service.
Remember, Trials May Change Over Time
VPNs are businesses, and their offers can change over time. They may adjust the length or features of their free trials. They could also add or remove services like free VPN.
Most companies don’t make changes often, but even though we’re an authority on this subject, you should not rely exclusively on our guides when making decisions about VPNs. Some people will tell you to listen to them no matter what, but we both know you can’t trust statements like that.
Instead, we want to equip you with the knowledge necessary to make your own judgments about VPN services. That’s the main reason this guide is so long when we could have written two or three paragraphs describing how we rank and review VPNs.
If we notice something is different, we’ll correct it as soon as possible to keep our guides up-to-date. After all, a guide that doesn’t describe services accurately isn’t useful to you. However, if things slip through the cracks, you should be able to address it yourself.
The fact that you’re reading this disclaimer suggests you’ve already read most of this article, and therefore you’re already equipped with the knowledge you need. Before we close things out, however, there’s one more topic we want you to know.
What’s the real price of your VPN service? When answering questions like “are VPNs worth it?”, this is almost half of the answer all by itself. If a service costs too much for what it offers, it’s a bad deal. Similarly, if it doesn’t charge enough, that’s suspicious because it’s probably making money somewhere else, too.
For this part, it’s difficult to give a good answer because prices change over time. These can change more often than any other part of the company’s service, though users may be able to lock in whatever price they start at. We don’t want to give you a price for a company that turns out to be wrong. However, we can describe the general trends of the industry.
On average, VPNs cost somewhere from $3 to $12 per month, for an annual cost of $30-$150. Some companies theoretically charge more but have constant sales that reduce their price to this range. This is mainly a marketing tactic designed to make you feel like you’re getting a better deal.
Most companies charge month-to-month or in 1-year plans. This means you could end up paying a lot of money up-front for access to their services. We give VPNs more points if they have free trials or money-back guarantees alongside their high up-front costs.
Prices may vary if you’re buying monthly instead of getting an annual plan. In most cases, annual plans get a big discount over month-to-month. Companies use this to incentivize sticking with them for a long time. They’re also hoping that by spending more time with them, you’ll be more likely to renew your subscription once the year ends.
VPN Lifetime accounts
Companies like VPN Unlimited and GooseVPN have started offering Lifetime accounts. These typically cost several hundred dollars (or more), roughly the equivalent of a 7+ year subscription to their service.
By now, you know a lot more about what goes into our reviews and how to judge the best VPN for yourself. Whether you’re looking for extra privacy or just want to stop 3rd parties from accessing certain content, VPNs have a lot to offer. However, if the VPN itself isn’t good enough, you can’t accomplish your goals.
Remember, a cheap VPN isn’t necessarily a good VPN. It’s up to you to decide how to balance privacy and security with the costs of using a VPN service. The best VPNs offer a fair deal, plenty of customer support, geographic dispersal, and have an outstanding reputation as a company.
Now that you know how we rank servers, head over to our Best VPNs page. This page includes our ranked list of the top VPN services, as well as links to reviews for each of them that explain why they have that particular rank.
Just remember that the numbers only consider the VPN as a whole, not how it may specifically matter to you. Consider your own needs first, then look for VPNs that match those needs. You may need to skip over some of the best overall VPNs, or you could find out that the best choices, in general, are also the right choice for you. There’s no way to know until you look.
- ProtonVPN – High-speed Swiss VPN
- NordVPN – Big & Fast VPN
- IvacyVPN – Award-Winning VPN
- Mullvad VPN – Privacy-centric VPN
- Hotspot Shield – Fastest VPN according to Speedtest
- Surfshark – Feature-rich VPN
- ExpressVPN – Trusted leader in VPN
- VyprVPN – Privacy. Freedom. Wherever you are.
- Speedify – VPN with Channel-Bonding technology
- PrivateVPN – The fastest growing VPN
- Astrill VPN – An advanced VPN
- FrootVPN – A good cheap VPN
- VPNTunnel – A classic VPN
- PureVPN – Many Features
- IVPN – A transparent VPN
- Namecheap VPN – probably the best cheap VPN
- GooseVPN – Super-easy, secure VPN
- Windscribe – Beyond basic VPN
- Anonine – Proven with time VPN
- PerfectPrivacy – A Classic VPN
- SaferVPN – A super simple VPN
- StrongVPN – Strong VPN
- ibVPN – 15 years of expirience
- CyberGhost – Powered by 15 years of expertise
- PrivateInternetAccess – Great value VPN
- BoxPN – Simple and Cheap VPN
- IPVanish – A big VPN
- TigerVPN – A friendly VPN
- ZenMate – Free & Paid VPN
- TunnelBear – Easy-to-use apps
- SmartyDNS – A VPN and Smart DNS
- CactusVPN – Cozy VPN
- VPN Unlimited – Lifetime account option
- FastestVPN – Amazing 5 years deal
- TrustZone – For tech-savvy users
- AvastVPN – From the creators of Avast
- AVGVPN – VPN by AVG company
- hola VPN – An easy browser VPN
- VPNSecure – User-friendly VPN
- HMA – Servers in 290 locations
- Surfeasy – Surf Easy VPN
- TouchVPN – VPN for any platform
- Dashlane – Password manager and VPN in the bundle
- TurboVPN – A Free & Paid mobile VPN
- Easy-Hide-IP – An affordable VPN
- Opera VPN – Free VPN in the Opera browser
- limevpn – Cheapest VPN
- Betternet VPN – One of the free VPNs
- Norton VPN – A VPN from tech giant