TorGuard’s signup and payment process is also fine but not stellar. Compared with that of IVPN, the checkout process is clunky, and using a credit or debit card requires entering more personal information than with our top pick. The easiest option for anonymous payments is a prepaid debit card bought locally. Otherwise, like most providers, TorGuard accepts a variety of cryptocurrencies, PayPal, and foreign payments through Paymentwall. That last service also allows you to submit payment through gift cards from other major retailers. We don’t think this method is worth the hassle for most people, but if you have some money on a fast-food gift card you don’t want, turning it into a VPN service is a nice option.
Mullvad has a no-nonsense approach to pricing. Its service costs $5.60 per month and you can buy as much of it as you want at one time. There are no multi-year discounts or extras to add to your plan. The price is what it is. That makes Mullvad unusual among VPN providers and software companies in general, but what really sets it apart is its payment options.
When you're away from home or the office and you connect to the internet, you'll most often be doing so via Wi-Fi provided by your hotel or the restaurant, library, or coffee shop you're working out of in that moment. Sometimes, the Wi-Fi has a password. Other times, it will be completely open. In either case, you have no idea who else is accessing that network, and therefore, you have no idea who might be snooping on your traffic.
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Using Wi-Fi on the Windows laptops, we timed how long it took to connect to websites, measured latency times (how long it took a server to respond), and recorded upload and download speeds with Ookla's Speedtest meter, both with and without the VPN activated. We also timed how long it took to download a large video file, both with and without VPN activation.
If you need a more affordable VPN than our top pick and don’t have an Apple device—or if you need ChromeOS support—we recommend TorGuard. Its apps aren’t as simple or user-friendly, but TorGuard is a good option for more tech-savvy people or those willing to spend a little more time fiddling with an app. TorGuard’s CEO has built trust by talking with media outlets (including us) and detailing the company’s commitment to a service built around a lack of activity logs. Though the apps aren’t as easy to use as our top pick, the connections were the fastest of any we tested and the company has more than twice as many server locations.
DNS servers are a bit like the phone books of the Internet: You can type in “thewirecutter.com,” for instance, and one of the many DNS servers behind the scenes can point you to the IP address of a server hosting the site. Most of the time, your DNS requests automatically route through your ISP, giving the ISP an easy way to monitor your traffic. Some VPN services rely on third-party DNS servers, but the best ones keep DNS servers in-house to prevent your browsing history, or your IP address, from getting out.
"ISPs are in a position to see a lot of what you do online. They kind of have to be, since they have to carry all of your traffic," explains Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) senior staff technologist Jeremy Gillula. "Unfortunately, this means that preventing ISP tracking online is a lot harder than preventing other third-party tracking—you can't just install [the EFF's privacy-minded browser add-on] Privacy Badger or browse in incognito or private mode."
With their “No Logging” policy, they want to advertise proudly that they do not keep track of any information. In practice, when you check out their Terms of Service, there are some elements they collect, but they do not seem to use the collected information for anything. And while many VPN companies do log the data of the user, CyberGhost VPN do seem to have more paranoid measures to secure themselves against any tracking requests.
Some users will also want to research a VPN provider’s peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing policies. There are VPNs that block torrents. Others turn a blind eye to them, but will sell you out in a heartbeat should you be up to no good. P2P is not our main focus here, but we will note in each review whether a particular provider allows file sharing or not.
A VPN allows a user to securely access private networks with complete peace of mind. Whether you want a VPN in a country like South Africa for example, or in any other country, in the modern age, everything is possible. It has similarities to a firewall, except that a VPN disguises your IP address, so you are untraceable. By changing your IP address a top VPN like IPVanish ensures that if anyone is spying on you, they will not see your correct geographic location. VPNs use a combination of encryption protocols and dedicated connections; therefore, even if a hacker tries to access some of your data, they would be unable to read due to it being encrypted. With this level of encryption and security, you can always be sure that you are browsing anonymously with your VPN.
Secure Shell (SSH) is a secure version of Telnet that you can use to log on and open a command line on a remote machine. You can also use SSH to establish an encrypted tunnel between two machines, effectively creating a VPN. Different versions of SSH use RSA or Digital Signature Algorithm (DSA) for secure key exchange and 3DES or Blowfish for data encryption. You can use a free program such as Stunnel (http://www.stunnel.org) along with a free version of SSH such as OpenSSH (http://www.openssh.org) to tunnel protocols such as Web and mail protocols through an encrypted SSH tunnel. All you need is a machine at either end running both these programs. SSH and Stunnel are an inexpensive way to implement a VPN, although setting up such a VPN requires a lot of configuration and might not scale to handle a large number of machines. An SSH VPN can, however, make a nice solution for connecting two servers that need to communicate securely, such as a Web server and a back-end database server.
ExpressVPN is based in the British Virgin Islands which, although a British Overseas Territory, isn’t beholden to the strict data retention laws of the UK’s Investigatory Powers Act. If you’re after anonymous payment options, you can buy your subscription with bitcoin if you wish – and if you don’t want to, then ExpressVPN has a clearly stated no-logging policy. This has been put to the test by the Turkish authorities, who seized endpoint servers last December, and found no logs.
Finally, you may want a VPN to spoof your location to download content you shouldn’t have access to, but this too has limits. A VPN used to be the go-to solution to watch U.S. Netflix overseas. That changed in 2016 when Netflix opened up to almost every country on Earth. Since then, the company has invested a lot in detecting and blocking VPN users. Even people using a VPN inside their own country will be blocked by Netflix if detected.
Identity theft occurs when thieves steal your personal information and use it to commit crimes in your name — like taking over or opening new accounts, filing tax returns in your name, or renting or buying property. A VPN can help protect against identity theft by helping protect your data. It creates an encrypted tunnel for the data you send and receive that’s out of reach of cyberthieves.
Installing and configuring ProtonVPN’s Windows client was simple enough and it provided some of the best in-use statistics. Performance was at the lower end of our comparison group at 39 Mb/s down and 18 Mb/s up, compared to our usual 125 Mb/s down and 18 Mb/s up. Netflix was blocked, but Amazon Prime Video and our other test services connected without a hitch.
Wi-Fi attacks, on the other hand, are probably far more common than we'd like to believe. While attending the Black Hat convention, researchers saw thousands of devices connecting to a rogue access point. It had been configured to mimic networks that victim's devices had previously connected to, since many devices will automatically reconnect to a known network without checking with the user. That's why we recommend getting a VPN app for your mobile device to protect all your mobile communications. Even if you don't have it on all the time, using a mobile VPN is a smart way to protect your personal information.
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In very simple terms, a VPN connects your PC, smartphone, or tablet to another computer (called a server) somewhere on the internet, and allows you to browse the internet using that computer’s internet connection. So if that server is in a different country, it will appear as if you are coming from that country, and you can potentially access things that you couldn’t normally.
To narrow the hundreds of VPN providers down to a manageable list, we first looked at reviews from dedicated sites like vpnMentor and TorrentFreak, research and recommendations from noncommercial sources such as That One Privacy Site and privacytools.io, and user experiences and tips on various subreddits and technology-focused websites like Lifehacker and Ars Technica. We settled on 32 VPNs that were repeatedly recommended. From there, we dug into the details of how each one handled issues from technology to subscriptions:
VPN services, while tremendously helpful, are not foolproof. There's no magic bullet (or magic armor) when it comes to security. A determined adversary can almost always breach your defenses in one way or another. Using a VPN can't help if you unwisely download ransomware on a visit to the Dark Web, or if you are tricked into giving up your data to a phishing attack.
Hotspot Shield VPN does not log your browsing activity. Almost all Internet Service Providers (ISPs) track your browsing history. So when you use a VPN like Hotspot Shield, there is no record of the websites you have visited and which apps you use. This prevents hackers from exploiting vulnerabilities in these websites/apps to get to your personal information.
Trust and transparency issues are the foremost concerns in choosing a great VPN, and if a service doesn’t have enough locations to be useful to you, all the security features won’t make a difference. But after those concerns have been satisfied, we recommend that most people use connections based on the OpenVPN protocol, because of security flaws and disadvantages in the PPTP and L2TP/IPsec protocols. (Experienced users may consider IKEv2, but because it has its own debated pros and cons, we ruled it out.) Though AES 128-bit encryption is fine for most purposes, we prefer services that default to the more-secure 256-bit encryption and still offer good performance.
It’s likely that your data is already stored in multiple databases by multiple companies. Be that as it may, a VPN can help you stem the bleeding. By using one, you’re hiding your IP address and the metadata that’s sent with each web request. As we said, VPNs act like middlemen between you and a web server, assigning you an new IP address and, as such, a new location.
While you're connected to a VPN, all your network traffic passes through this protected tunnel, and no one—not even your ISP—can see your traffic until it exits the tunnel from the VPN server and enters the public internet. If you make sure to only connect to websites secured with HTTPS, your data will continue to be encrypted even after it leaves the VPN.