The Best VPNs for Protecting Your Privacy
It seems like everybody wants to track you these days to market to you, "customize your experience", or collect data on your online activities. But you don't have to leave behind digital breadcrumbs every time you use the internet. A VPN, or virtual private network, is an essential privacy tool that keeps your browsing safe from the eyes of marketers, the government, criminals, and everyone who shares your home or work network.
By encrypting your connection from your computer or other device through the VPNs global network of servers, no one can use your network connection to monitor your browsing and your IP address won't be revealed to the sites that you visit. VPNs are particularly useful if you're browsing on public WiFi where your information is less secure. They can also bypass geo-restrictions on news and lifestyle sites, TV and movie streaming services, or services like Facebook, which more restrictive countries may block when you're traveling.
As useful as VPNs can be, there are countless options out there and many don't deliver what they promise. Worse, some VPNs have actually been accused of spying on their own customers' traffic for marketing purposes or worse. So how do you choose?
How I picked the best VPNs
I've been covering VPNs and privacy issues for years, and our team at Techlicious uses VPNs on a regular basis to confirm our site accessibility in different regions, as well as for testing VPN features and performance. From my experience, I consider speed and privacy as the most two most important (and obvious) factors for most people. But there are other features that you should also strongly consider, depending on how you will be using the VPN.
To help determine my current picks for the best VPNs, I used stats from the testing company AV Comparatives, which tested 35 popular VPN services for two hours every day for seven days to determine an average speed. Beyond raw speed stats, the number of access points, or servers, is also important. So in the event one server starts to get overloaded, you can easily switch to another one with more bandwidth available.
For privacy, every VPN provider should offer a strict no-logs policy. That means that the VPN provider doesn't retain any information that could be used to track your online activities. Unfortunately, many VPNs that claim a no-logs policy, don't actually meet that standard. To prove that they are sticking by their stated policies, many VPN providers will get an independent third-party security audit. In my rankings, I only considered VPN providers that have an up-to-date, independent third-party security audit.
Also critical to privacy protection is a VPNs kill switch to make sure your internet traffic doesn't become visible if your VPN connection drops. Some VPNs have a kill switch that will close down all internet access. Others let you choose which apps will be blocked from accessing the internet if your VPN connection drops.
Some VPNs offer additional protection through multi-hop, which double-encrypts your data and sends your traffic through two servers (the first server decrypts the first layer, and the second server decrypts the second layer to access your data before sending it through to the destination). This is important only if you need the strongest levels of privacy protection from sophisticated tracking entities (e.g., government law or security agencies).
Static IP addresses and split tunneling
VPNs typically use dynamic IP addresses, meaning you don't use the same (static) IP address every time you use your VPN. That's because static IP addresses are more expensive and easier to track and hack. But you may need a static IP address to access services like Netflix or work servers that require you to have a static IP address to authenticate yourself.
There are two ways VPNs can allow you to do this, either by the VPN assigning you a static IP address or by split tunneling, where you designate devices or services on a "whitelist" that don't use the VPN (in one tunnel) while you protect all other traffic with your VPN (in a second tunnel). If a VPN does let you choose a static IP address, it's usually shared, which means that everyone sharing your IP address looks the same. So, if someone sharing your IP address is identified as a bad actor, your IP address could be blocked. Some VPNs offer a dedicated static IP address at an additional cost.
Ease of use
Once I narrowed down the options, I tested each on my computer and phones for ease of use.
Finally, l factored in price and the maximum number of simultaneously connected devices. My top picks all have a relatively nominal monthly or annual fee, which you would expect from a well-run service. Though Proton VPN's basic level is free and offers solid protection for those who don't need the flexibility or feature of the full-priced options.
The best VPN for most people: Surfshark
If you can't afford downtime from your VPN, NordVPN provides a fast connection that's stable and secure.
Surfshark provides consistently high connection speeds with a broad range of advanced security features and an affordable price tag, making it my top pick for the best VPN.
Surfshark had double the download speeds of most other VPNs in the AV Comparatives test group of 35 popular VPNs, making it possible to stream 4K video and handle your home's regular internet traffic with ease. Upload speed was in the middle of the pack, which is fine for most people. In addition, gamers who need fast reaction time will appreciate that the latency was pretty low, only a few milliseconds slower than not using the Surfshark VPN. Surfshark has more than 3,200 servers and you can choose the country and, for some countries, the city you want to connect through.
To keep your connection secure, Surfshark has a kill switch that will disconnect your internet for all apps if you lose your connection to the Surfshark VPN server. Some other VPNs, including NordVPN, let you choose which apps will continue to work over your unprotected internet connection if the VPN connection goes down. You can also choose multi-hop any time you start a new VPN session.
Surfshark's split-tunneling feature is called Whitelister. When you turn on the feature, you can choose to either route individual apps via the VPN or bypass the VPN for specific apps, URLs and IP addresses. Once you set up Whitelister, you will always connect to your work server/s or streaming services like Netflix without using the VPN. You can also choose a static IP address from one of 27 servers in the U.S., Germany, Japan, Singapore, and the UK. It's easy to stick with one IP address because once you've connected to a server, you will find it on a list of "Recently Used" servers.
And, you don't have to keep track of how many devices are running Surfshark since you can have an unlimited number of devices connected simultaneously.
While the price per month for Surfshark is high at $12.95 per month, that rate drops dramatically to $2.49 per month with a yearly plan. And while there is no try before you buy, Surfshark offers a 30-day money-back guarantee.
The best VPN for working from home: NordVPN
If you can't afford downtime from your VPN, NordVPN provides a fast connection that's stable and secure.
NordVPN has more than 5,200 servers in 60 countries, so you have great coverage in most of the world. In the AV Comparatives testing, NordVPN was rated as "fast" (Surfshark had the highest rating of "very fast"), which is more than sufficient for most households. Where NordVPN shines is with better than average upload speeds (great for Zoom calls) and low latency, which is excellent for gamers. In fact, latency was the same as when no VPN was active.
For security, you can configure NordVPN's kill switch to disconnect your device from the internet entirely, or you can have internet access only disconnect for specific apps. That means you could ensure that all of your web browsing activity is protected while keeping a constant connection to Zoom or Microsoft Teams. NordVPN supports double-hop for an extra level of security.
NordVPN provides a lot of flexibility when it comes to connecting. If you don't care about VPN protection for certain types of online activities, you can use split tunneling, which routes only some of your traffic through the VPN. For NordVPN, you can either choose to disable the VPN for specific apps or enable the VPN for specific apps. If you don't want to use your VPN all of the time, you can also choose to pause your connection for 5 minutes, 15 minutes, or an hour instead of turning it off.
You have two options when it comes to static IP addresses. For no extra charge, you can pick a specific server in a city so you can establish a static IP address. Once you use a specific server, it appears in your list of "Recents," making it easy to reconnect. Or, you can pay an extra $70 per year for a dedicated static IP address.
NordVPN allows for up to six simultaneous connections and costs $11.95 per month, $4.92 per month for one year, or $3.67 per month for the first two years. There is no try before you buy, but NordVPN does offer a 30-day money-back guarantee.
The best free VPN: ProtonVPN
If you're looking for basic VPN protection with unlimited browsing for one device, the free version of ProtonVPN is an excellent choice. In addition to checking for a no-log policy and third-party security audit, you’ll want to perform due diligence on how a company makes money before trusting a free VPN with your data. ProtonVPN is a well-established company that has a strong reputation for its security and is using its free VPN to interest you in their paid product.
Proton VPN has 23 servers in three countries (the US, the Netherlands, and Japan) available for its free-tier customers, which should be adequate for most people. AV Comparatives test results rated the paid version of ProtonVPN as "mediocre," while latency was rated "low," and upload speeds were rated "fast." And Proton labels its free service as "medium speed" versus "high speed" for its paid tier, so this isn't going to be the speediest network out there. But in my testing, I was able to stream Netflix without any problem on my laptop and most users shouldn't notice any issues with regular browsing or video conferencing activities.
You can configure the kill switch to be always-on or turn it on and off for each session. The kill switch will turn off all internet for your device. The free version of ProtonVPN doesn't offer multi-hop.
You can use split tunneling, which routes only some of your traffic through the VPN. For the free tier of ProtonVPN, you can either choose to disable the VPN for specific apps and IP addresses or enable the VPN for specific apps and IP addresses. You can't just put in a domain name, like Netflix.com.
For a free service, ProtonVPN provides a solid basic VPN experience from a provider you can trust.
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