There's a joke from the early days of online computing: On the internet, nobody knows you're a dog. In other words, you're effectively invisible; no one can see who (or what) you are. Unfortunately, that's just wishful thinking: Hackers may be able to tell exactly who you are — and steal crucial personal information as well. So how can we protect our identities and activities? Although there's no such thing as absolute privacy, there's one tool you should think about adding to your arsenal: a virtual private network, or VPN.
This is one of those things that sounds complicated but really isn't. Imagine you're tooling down the highway in your car, you and hundreds of other drivers. A hacker is flying overhead in a helicopter; he can easily pinpoint your location and follow you everywhere you go. You're totally unprotected.
Now imagine you're driving in a tunnel instead, one that's just for your car. The hacker can't see you, doesn't even know you're there. There's that "invisibility" we talked about.
When you connect your laptop to an open Wi-Fi network or network at, say, a coffee shop or on an airplane, you're driving that unprotected highway. But when you use a VPN connection — a combination of software and service — you're in a tunnel. The best VPN services ensure that it’s virtually impossible for a hacker to detect you, monitor you or steal anything from you.
VPN pros and cons
Let me pause to make something clear: A VPN service will not protect you from viruses or malware, nor from things like phishing threats or ransomware. VPNs work and function to hide your internet activities from observers who might wish to track them for identity theft or other purposes.
Here's the good news: If you work primarily at home, you probably don't need a VPN provider. That's because you're connecting to your own Wi-Fi network and home router with private internet access; as long as it's reasonably secure (starting with password-protection), a VPN would be overkill. It's the open, public networks out in the world with a lot of internet traffic that pose the biggest threat. (That said, if you live in an apartment and you're, um, borrowing Wi-Fi from a neighbor, you're definitely vulnerable — because if that network is open enough for you to hop on, it's open to anyone.)
There are a few other caveats to using a VPN provider. First, because your internet connection will be routing through a secure server (the aforementioned "tunnel"), there's a performance and bandwidth hit. You might find that with the VPN activated, sites load a little slower or Netflix streaming isn't quite as reliable with decreased internet speeds. Public Wi-Fi networks tend to be on the slow side to begin with; this added layer of protection can make connection speeds even slower.
Second, the VPN service itself may collect non-personal data about your browsing activities and may even sell that data to third parties. (I know, quite the irony.) Note that your ISP (internet service provider) probably does this as well, so you'll have to decide whether this is important or not. If it is, choose a VPN that doesn't log user activity or share data with third parties.
Finally, there's cost: Most VPNs require a monthly or yearly plan and subscription fee. There are a couple decent free VPN providers out there, but they do have limitations — and they're much more likely to log/sell your data.
Choosing the right VPN for you
Below I've rounded up what I consider to be the top picks for the five best VPNs. I've made these choices based on a number of factors, including price, personal experience, customer ratings, VPN speed and aggregated reviews found elsewhere.
Unfortunately, very few of these offer free trials, meaning you can't easily "kick the tires." However, most come with a money-back guarantee, so although you'll need to choose a plan and provide a credit card for billing, you can cancel within that window and get a full refund.
I've been a technology journalist for years, and during that time I've seen NordVPN at or near the top of just about every VPN review list. Indeed, it ticks nearly all the important boxes — decent speeds, no-logs privacy, robust server/country count and easy interface — and affords the comfort of a solid reputation: The company wouldn't be a top-rated service for so long if it didn't offer a superior product.
NordVPN allows for up to six simultaneous connection options and offers over 5,200 server locations in 60 countries. If anything, it might be overkill for some users, and perhaps a little intimidating to novices. While features like Onion Over VPN and multi-hop connections have value, they also require a bit of study to fully understand. That's true with any VPN, but I came away from the NordVPN website feeling like I'd be in over my head.
The pricing is a bit complex as well, as there are three tiers of service — Standard, Plus and Complete — starting at $13 per month. There are discounts if you prepay for one or two years; $83.76 buys you two years of Standard service, for example. NordVPN offers a 30-day money-back guarantee on all plans.
Bottom line: Though a bit more expensive than other VPNs, NordVPN is widely regarded as one of the best you can get, period.
You know what's streaming around these parts, but what about the stuff that's streaming over there? With the right VPN, you can access geo-restricted streaming content (meaning in other countries), which is especially useful for folks who like to watch overseas sports — looking at you, World Cup Soccer. On the flipside, if you're traveling internationally and want to stream your services back at home, a VPN can help there as well.
ExpressVPN caters to this kind of thing in part by being based in the British Virgin Islands, which has no data-retention or data-sharing laws. Just bear in mind that many streaming services consider it a terms-of-service violation to use a VPN in this way. Although you're not likely to run into any usability trouble, you're probably breaking a rule or two.
Assuming you're okay with that, this VPN will almost certainly satisfy all your needs. One ExpressVPN review found it not only extremely fast, but also very well-suited to streaming: In testing, it successfully accessed US Netflix, US Prime Video, Disney+ and Hulu. It's a bit on the pricey side, though, with monthly rates starting at $12.95 and only a slight price break if you prepay for six or 12 months.
Bottom line: If you're hoping to stream just about anything from just about anywhere, ExpressVPN is a top choice.
Sure, any VPN can claim it shields you from prying eyes, protects your personal data, yada-yada-yada. But few put their money where their, er, tunnel is. TunnelBear (which also has the cutest mascot this side of CyberGhost) publishes regular, independent security audits of its own service.
That's great, but here's what I like even better: TunnelBear offers a totally free plan, which at a minimum lets you try all the VPN features without committing to a plan. Although you're limited to 2GB of data with the free version, that should be enough to spend some time really kicking the tires.
From there, you can pay $9.99 monthly, $59.88 for one year or $120 for three years. TunnelBear is also one of the more user-friendly services out there, something to consider if you're a new VPN user.
Bottom line: If you want a VPN that self-audits, look no further than TunnelBear. The service promises to never monitor, log or sell your browsing activities. And there's a free tier so you can give it a proper test-drive.
One way to judge a VPN's efficacy is by its server locations. The more it has, and the more spread out they are, the easier it'll be to find one close by — regardless of where you're traveling. Closer server networks typically mean faster performance.
CyberGhost has nearly 7,000 of them in over 90 countries; few other VPNs can match that number of servers. And the service is headquartered in Romania, which has no mandatory data-collection laws. Consequently, CyberGhost is able to offer a no-logs policy.
Unfortunately, there's no trial option here; you'll have to choose a plan right from the get-go, though each one comes with a generous 45-day money-back guarantee. Those plans start at $12.99 per month, with considerable discounts if you prepay for longer periods. At this writing, for example, you can pay just $57 for two years (that breaks down to only $2.37 per month), then $57 per year after that.
Bottom line: Don't be scared: In this scenario, you're the ghost. This VPN offers thousands of global servers and promises to safeguard your digital footprint both at home and abroad.
There's anonymous and then there's anonymous. If you're serious about online privacy, take a look at iVPN. Although its Standard plan limits you to just two devices, it includes some pretty amazing safeguards and security features.
For example, the built-in AntiTracker tool promises protection against ads, web trackers and malware. You can sign up for the service without even providing an e-mail address and pay via Bitcoin for further anonymity. And iVPN promises a no-log policy and audited operation.
Speaking of payment, iVPN is also quite affordable, especially if you're looking for a month-to-month option: The aforementioned Standard plan costs $6, and there's a 30-day money-back guarantee if you decide it's not a good fit.
Need coverage for a number of devices? The Pro plan lets you use seven of them, for a still-reasonable $10 per month.
Bottom line: If you're an off-the-grid anti-Big-Brother conspiracy-theorist type of user, iVPN is probably exactly the VPN you want. It's open-source, totally transparent and user log-free.
As you've probably noticed, most VPNs charge around $10-$12 if you choose a month-to-month plan. That's pretty steep. Yes, there are discounts when you prepay for a year or more, but what if you're not ready for that kind of commitment?
Enter Mullvad, a Sweden-based VPN that charges a flat monthly rate regardless of how long you subscribe. That rate is 5 euro, which currently works out to just over $5 US today. Like iVPN, you can pay with Bitcoin or even actual cash if that's your jam. But there are no discounts for longer subscriptions.
Fortunately, the budget price doesn't come at the cost of privacy or cybersecurity: Like the top VPNs, this one keeps no logs and submits to external, independent audits. It doesn't have any affiliate partnerships, either, meaning you can rest assured no one is getting paid to review or write about the product. Mullvad supports up to five simultaneous connections and has servers in 36 countries — but fewer than 800 of them total.
Bottom line: Another VPN that touts external audits and absolutely no logging, Mullvad VPN doesn't even need your email address. And if you want to go month-to-month, it's among the cheaper options out there.
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