NordVPN stands out in hands-on tests for both speed and advanced security features, making it our best overall VPN provider. NordVPN is located in Panama, which puts it out of the reach of the “14 Eyes” countries (an international surveillance alliance that works to collect and share data). That means its no-logging policies are more legitimate than VPNs that operate in countries with surveillance agreements (like the US).
This VPN provider also comes loaded with leading security features like Double VPN (your data is encrypted twice) and DNS (Domain Name System) leak protection. That means if your computer ever reverts to its original DNS, NordVPN will detect it and reroute your online traffic to the safe VPN “tunnel.”
But all those extra security measures can slow down your connection, so it might not be the best choice for online gamers and anyone else needs a lot of speed.
It was all hands on deck as we dug in to find the best VPN service provider. In addition to in-depth online research examining all the ins and outs of the most popular VPNs on the market, we also looked at expert and customer reviews and conducted our own hands-on tests. Four members of our team tried out six different VPNs, looking for how well each performed in these specific areas:
Setup and installation: How easy was it to install on different devices, how much time did it take, and were they any hiccups?
Performance: How well did activities like streaming, online gaming, and other online activities perform? Were you able to access services like Netflix?
Speed: How did the VPN affect upload and download speeds on different devices (desktop and mobile; iOS and Android)?
Mobile app functions: Was the app easy to install, and did it work as expected?
Features: What extra features are available, and did they deliver as promised?
If privacy is your top concern, NordVPN offers the most privacy protection of any of the VPNs we considered. This VPN service provides all the standard security you expect from a VPN, but they load on a bunch of extras.From Double VPN protection to DNS leak protection and military-grade encryption, NordVPN is like having your own private Secret Service agent when you go online.
You also get an automatic kill switch that instantly blocks access to the internet if you accidentally lose connection to the VPN. That means there’s virtually no way you can inadvertently expose yourself online when NordVPN is on the job. Plus, its Panama location ensures that even if your data is somehow tracked, the VPN provider can’t be forced to hand over any information.
But NordVPN came in second for speed and streaming. We ran into trouble downloading content on Netflix, and some sites wouldn’t load at all, including Amazon. That’s a major bummer if you want a VPN for safer online shopping. Our tester also noted that NordVPN worked better on her Mac than on her PC, so it might be a better fit for Mac users.
Our Tester’s Biggest Pros and Cons:
“No tech knowledge needed. As long as you can install an app, you’ll be fine.”
“The VPN made it hard to load some sites. I couldn’t get Amazon to load at all on my PC. On my Mac, Amazon was significantly slowed.”
ExpressVPN was the winner when it came to easy setup (everything was said and done in under two minutes) and the number of streaming services that it works with. But even though you get a hefty discount if you opt for the annual plan—it works out to about four months free—it’s still the most expensive VPN on our list.
One of the things that made ExpressVPN stand out is its educational tutorials. The ExpressVPN website provides security tips, online privacy news, and step-by-step guides about things like how to delete your search history. Our testers also reported no lag or diminished quality of video or audio when streaming—and download speeds were quick. Finally, ExpressVPN is located in the British Virgin Islands, another jurisdiction that isn’t subject to international surveillance agreements, so you can trust that its no-logging policy is legit.
ExpressVPN got dinged by our testers for higher monthly pricing and limited simultaneous connections. You can have only three connections, which is the smallest number of all the VPNs we looked at. It also has the fewest VPN server locations. And even though you get a hefty discount if you opt for the annual plan—it works out to about four months free—it’s still the most expensive VPN on our list.
Our Tester’s Biggest Pros and Cons:
“They sent a setup email right after signup and linked to handy resource pages to help me! The directions were super clear (even though I ended up not needing them because the setup was pretty intuitive).”
“Occasional lag on my phone. Support was available only in English.”
Quality streaming experience
Easy setup (best in our test)
Educational privacy tutorials
Bitcoin and other anonymous payment options
30-day money-back guarantee
Small number of servers
Limited simultaneous connections
Other VPNs We Considered
This VPN service is jam-packed with features and works with nearly every OS and device out there. IPVanish also has one of the most intuitive VPN apps we saw, which helps you navigate its feature-rich landscape. But if you’re not very tech-savvy, it may all feel a bit daunting at first.
Even though IPVanish won our desktop speed test (there was only a 9% drop in download speed), our tester noticed a big lag when browsing on their iPhone. Other minuses include its US location and a longer setup and installation process—it took the longest among all the VPNs we tested.
7-day money-back guarantee
App features that can be confusing
TorGuard Anonymous VPN Pricing
TorGuard VPN was the most technologically challenging VPN we tested. Our tester was able to get it set up and navigate the features, but it wasn’t a simple process. TorGuard offers some advanced security features, like DNS leak protection and the option to turn off your connection to the internet when TorGuard isn’t running, but it requires more tech knowledge than we expected to take full advantage of everything this VPN offers.
The biggest disappointment was that after trudging through the high-tech setup, the one thing our tester really wanted to do (stream a favorite show in the UK) didn’t work. We think TorGuard will do the job to ensure your privacy online, but we recommend it only for diehard techies. If you’re just looking for a simple VPN solution, this isn’t it.
Built-in DNS leak protection
Dedicated IP address add-on for streaming
7-day free trial
High tech app and features
VPN Terms to Know
Let’s face it—when it comes to VPNs, it gets technical fast. To help decode the VPN lingo, we’ve put together a quick list of common terms you need to know.
VPN (Virtual Private Network)
A VPN is a like a secret tunnel that gets you to the internet from your home network or mobile device undetected. It hides your connection and everything you do while connected (shopping, browsing, bingeing on Netflix) so that hackers and other cybercriminals can’t get to you.
DNS (Domain Name System)
The DNS is the internet’s phonebook. It takes the words we use to find a website (like SafeWise.com) and translates it into language your computer understands. Basically, it converts everything into numerical IP addresses. DNS servers are the GPS that gets you to your internet destination. They can also be tracked, which gives hackers information about what you’re doing online.
DNS Leak Protection
This is a security feature offered by many VPNs. A DNS leak is a breach in your internet connection, and due to glitchy Wi-Fi connections or a flaw in your device, a leak can happen even if you’re using a VPN. These leaks are usually momentary disconnections that leave your internet browsing and other activities vulnerable. Leak protection is a VPN feature that blocks any access to the internet—even for a second—if the VPN isn’t active.
Encryption is the process of translating data into a code so that it’s protected, even if there is a security breach.
The 14 Eyes
If this term makes you think of James Bond or Killing Eve, then you’re on the right track. The 14 Eyes refers to global surveillance alliances that are in place to collect and share data. It’s called the 14 Eyes because there are 14 countries involved, including the US. When it comes to keeping your information private, a VPN company based in one of the 14 Eyes countries can be forced to share any data they’ve collected–even if they have no-logging policies. A list of 14 Eyes countries is included below.
The United Kingdom
The United States
VPNs are all about privacy, so when you use one, you don’t want to leave a record of your online activities. If a VPN claims to have a no-logging policy, that means the VPN servers keep no record of what you do on the internet when you’re using the VPN. Most VPNs advertise a no-logging policy, but some are more reliable than others. If the VPN provider is located in a 14 Eyes jurisdiction, then any records that do exist (like your account information) could still be accessed by a government or law enforcement agency.
Why should I use a VPN?
A VPN is one of the fiercest protectors you have when it comes to online privacy—it creates a private network no matter where you are. We recommend always using a VPN when you’re on public Wi-Fi networks, but it can be smart to use one on your home Wi-Fi network as well. Here are some of our top reasons to use a VPN.
Hide your actual IP address and location.
Encrypt all the data that’s transmitted over your internet connection.
Access websites that are available only in certain countries and bypass censorship restrictions.
Prevent hackers from accessing your internet connection and data.
Shop online safely.
What devices can I use with a VPN?
You should be able to use a VPN with any device that connects over the internet. Whether its a PC, Mac, tablet, smartphone, or a home Wi-Fi router, you can use a VPN to protect your online activities. You can also use VPNs with some smart TVs and with Amazon Fire TV.
Will a VPN slow down my internet connection?
Probably. Most VPNs have an impact on both download and upload speeds. But there have been so many advances in VPN technology that most of the time that lag isn’t detectable. You’re most likely to notice sluggish performance during streaming activities, like watching a movie or online gaming. If you notice a big difference, try using a VPN server that’s close to your physical location. If the problem persists, contact customer service.
Are free VPN services as good as paid ones?
Probably not. That’s not to say you’d be better off with no VPN over one that’s free, but when it comes to protecting your information from online threats, it’s worth a little investment. We didn’t include a free VPN among our recommendations. Instead, we chose paid VPN services because they are less likely to experience a data leak or share your information.
If you want a VPN only for occasional web browsing, then a free VPN could be enough protection. But if you’re online regularly—and especially if you conduct any banking or other financial transactions online—we recommend going with a paid VPN service provider.
Rebecca has honed her safety and security skills as both a single mom and a college director. Being responsible for the well-being of others helped her learn how to minimize risk and create safe environments. Learn more