The main purpose of signing up with a VPN provider is to leverage complete anonymity online. Your VPN connection must look legit with zero errors. No information should leak to cybercriminals, government agencies, and local ISPs. Since WebRTC API conflicts can result in the revealing of your true location, it is essential to go for a secure option. Buffered VPN manages to meet all expectations. The test below shows no leakage of local IP address or IPv6 address!
VPN stands for “virtual private network,” – as its name indicates, it’s used for connecting to private networks over public networks, such as the Internet. In a common VPN use case, a business may have a private network with file shares, networked printers, and other important things on it. Some of the business’s employees may travel and frequently need to access these resources from the road. However, the business doesn’t want to expose their important resources to the public Internet. Instead, the business can set up a VPN server and employees on the road can connect to the company’s VPN. Once an employee is connected, their computer appears to be part of the business’s private network – they can access file shares and other network resources as if they were actually on the physical network.
We're not cryptography experts, so we can't verify all of the encryption claims providers make. Instead, we focus on the features provided. Bonus features like ad blocking, firewalls, and kill switches that disconnect you from the web if your VPN connection drops, go a long way toward keeping you safe. We also prefer providers that support OpenVPN, since it's a standard that's known for its speed and reliability. It's also, as the name implies, open source, meaning it benefits from many developers' eyes looking for potential problems.
For mobile devices, the situation is a little thornier. Most companies offer VPN apps for Android and iOS, which is great because we use these devices to connect to Wi-Fi all the time. However, VPNs don't always play nice with cellular connections. That said, it takes some serious effort to intercept cellphone data, although law enforcement or intelligence agencies may have an easier time gaining access to this data, or metadata, through connections with mobile carriers or by using specialized equipment.
When we initially researched and tested VPNs for this guide in early 2018, technical and legal reasons prevented app developers from using the OpenVPN protocol in apps released through Apple’s iOS app store. During 2018, both the technical and licensing hurdles were removed, and VPN providers started adding OpenVPN connections to their iOS apps. We’ve already noted that our top pick, IVPN, has added it, as have ExpressVPN and PIA. In a future update, we’ll specifically test these upgraded iOS apps, but in the meantime the updated IVPN app has worked as promised for several Wirecutter staffers who use it regularly. Because this OpenVPN support makes it much easier for anyone with Apple devices to create a reliably secure VPN connection, we wouldn’t recommend a service without it to anyone with an iPhone or iPad.
Mobile VPNs are designed and optimized to ensure a seamless user experience when devices are switching networks or moving out of coverage. It generally has a smaller memory footprint, and because of that, it also requires less processing power than a traditional VPN. Therefore, it enables your applications to run faster while the battery pack is able to last longer.
The more locations a VPN provider houses servers, the more flexible it is when you want to choose a server in a less-congested part of the world or geoshift your location. And the more servers it has at each location, the less likely they are to be slow when lots of people are using the service at the same time. Of course, limited bandwidth in and out of an area may still cause connections to lag at peak times even on the most robust networks.
A recent FTC complaint alleges Hotspot Shield has been hijacking HTTP requests for e-commerce sites and directing users to affiliate sites instead. If true, that would be an unforgivable abuse of users’ trust. Hotspot Shield is already known for the shady practice of inserting tracking cookies and advertisements into users browsers whenever they use the service, which clearly defeats the purpose of using a VPN. Hotspot Shield is primarily a free service but also has a premium tier. We suggesting keeping your distance from both.
IVPN also performed well in our speed tests. Though it wasn’t always the fastest in the 54 measurements we took on each service, it ranked near the top on many servers at different times of the week—especially compared with the most trustworthy services. Private Internet Access, one of the most visible, privacy-focused VPNs, had slower speeds when connecting to most servers and less reliable connections than IVPN. For US servers (which we expected to be the fastest locations since we tested from California), IVPN ranked behind only OVPN and TorGuard. We liked OVPN—especially its speed results—but we thought that company’s small team and small selection of servers and locations were too limiting for some people. (Read more in the Competition section.) Though TorGuard edged out IVPN in this test, the difference wasn’t big enough to affect our everyday browsing. And because we tested each application at its default settings, TorGuard’s faster speeds were partially thanks to its default 128-bit encryption; IVPN offers only more secure, but often slower, 256-bit encryption.
IPVanish slows down Internet speed, but only by a very little margin. It claims to be the World’s fastest VPN, but that is arguable. It offers unlimited bandwidth. However, if you are looking for a quick support, note that IPVanish does not provide such. On the support page there is a note that states that a backlog of up to a day and a half might occur. If you are a business that relies heavily on Internet, that is a downside to be considered.
While it hides your IP address, a VPN is not a true anonymization service. For that, you'll want to access the Tor network, which will almost certainly slow down your connection. While a VPN tunnels your web traffic to a VPN server, Tor bounces around your traffic through several volunteer nodes making it much, much harder to track. Using Tor also grants access to hidden Dark Web sites, which a VPN simply cannot do. That said, some services, such as NordVPN, offer Tor access on specific servers.
Obfuscation – Obfuscation is a key feature if you are using a VPN in China, schools, work networks, or anywhere that VPNs may be blocked. However, if you are not in a restricted network situation, obfuscation is generally not necessary and may impact performance. (See the best VPN for China guide for a great selection of VPNs with built-in obfuscation features.)
If your VPN will primarily support remote users such as telecommuters and traveling employees and these users will access internal LAN resources that use a Network Address Translation (NAT) address rather than a routable IP address, you might have problems with some vendors' VPN products. NAT lets multiple internal network hosts use nonroutable IP addresses to access the Internet through one IP address on a firewall or router. This arrangement provides an additional level of security and lets a company be much more flexible with its address assignments than if it used real IP addresses for all its hosts.
The best all-around VPN for streaming is ExpressVPN because it works with a wide range of streaming services, has excellent performance, and offers the best lineup of apps for all types of streaming devices – from Android TV boxes to tablets, computers, and phones. With ExpressVPN’s 24/7 live chat support, they can help you get everything setup correctly.
As part of our research, we also make sure to find out where the company is based and under what legal framework it operates. Some countries don't have data-retention laws, making it easier to keep a promise of "We don't keep any logs." It's also useful to know under what circumstances a VPN company will hand over information to law enforcement and what information it would have to provide if that should happen.
There are several different VPN protocols, not all of which are used by all of the VPN services we reviewed. Most operating systems have built-in support for at least one of these protocols, which means you can use that protocol — and a willing VPN service — without client software. The full-fledged VPN services have online instructions for how to do this, as well as how to set up routers to connect directly to the services.
VPNs also cloak your computer's actual IP address, hiding it behind the IP address of the VPN server you're connected to. IP addresses are distributed based on location, so you can estimate someone's location simply by looking at their IP address. And while IP addresses may change, it's possible to track someone across the internet by watching where the same IP address appears. Using a VPN makes it harder for advertisers (or spies, or hackers) to track you online.
It does not matter if a VPN offers strict no logging policies. If it exists outside every major surveillance alliance, or offers lightening speeds. The minute it leaks your IP, everything goes to the garbage, as your private identity comes forward. Buffered VPN, despite being new, follows through on all its promises. The DNS leak test did not reveal our true location.
It usually relies on either Internet Protocol Security (IPsec) or Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) to secure the connection. However, SSL VPNs can also be used to supply secure access to a single application, rather than an entire internal network. Some VPNs also provide Layer 2 access to the target network; these will require a tunneling protocol like PPTP (Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol) or L2TP (Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol) running across the base IPsec connection.