A “kill switch” goes by many names, but the term describes VPN software that shuts off all network traffic in and out of your computer if the encrypted connection fails. A hiccup in your Wi-Fi or even with your ISP can cause a VPN to disconnect, and if you then maintain an unsecure connection—especially if the VPN software doesn’t alert you that it’s no longer protecting your traffic—that wipes out all the benefits of your VPN. We considered kill switches to be mandatory. And although we looked for apps that made it easy to add rules about when to activate kill switches, we considered special config files or manual firewall tweaks to be too complex. (iOS doesn’t support any kill-switch features; we address a few iOS-specific problems that apply to all VPN services in a separate section.)
Even though Tor is free, we don’t think it’s the best option for most people. If you aren’t familiar with Tor, this handy interactive graphic shows how it protects an Internet connection, and this series goes into more detail about how Tor works. Runa Sandvik, a former researcher with The Tor Project who is now part of the information security team at The New York Times (parent company of Wirecutter), described it as “a tool that allows users to remain anonymous and uncensored.” When we asked expert Alec Muffett about whether he personally used a VPN, he told us he actually spent most of his work time using Tor. But Tor has a reputation for slow connections, can be blocked by some websites, and isn’t suitable for some peer-to-peer applications like BitTorrent.
ExpressVPN is based in the Birtish Virgin Islands, and has expanded to a global company, that boasts with fasts speed and that is still one of the most secure VPN services out there. That might be true considering that the DNS Leak Protection is tested and it does cover IPv4, IPv6 and WebRTC protocols. The encryption protocols it uses are top notch and the service is available on almost all modern and well-known platforms:
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.
Of course, there are more than just phones and computers in a home. Game systems, tablets, and smart home devices such as light bulbs and fridges all need to connect to the internet. Many of these things can't run VPN software on their own, nor can they be configured to connect to a VPN through their individual settings. In these cases, you may be better off configuring your router to connect with the VPN of your choice. By adding VPN protection to your router, you secure the traffic of every gadget connected to that router. And the router—and everything protected by it—uses just one of your licenses. Nearly all of the companies we have reviewed offer software for most consumer routers and even routers with preinstalled VPN software, making it even easier to add this level of protection.
A P device operates inside the provider's core network and does not directly interface to any customer endpoint. It might, for example, provide routing for many provider-operated tunnels that belong to different customers' PPVPNs. While the P device is a key part of implementing PPVPNs, it is not itself VPN-aware and does not maintain VPN state. Its principal role is allowing the service provider to scale its PPVPN offerings, for example, by acting as an aggregation point for multiple PEs. P-to-P connections, in such a role, often are high-capacity optical links between major locations of providers.
Yet Mullvad is worth a look because it's extremely private. It asks nothing about you when you sign up. Instead, it assigns you a random number that will be your combined username and password. You don't have to provide an email address, and you can pay by mailing cash to the company's headquarters in Sweden. (Mullvad also takes credit cards, PayPal, bitcoin and wire transfers, and offers 30-day money-back guarantees for those.) Unexpectedly, it was pretty versatile at streaming Netflix from overseas — it didn't always get through, but in no country we tried was it always blocked.
There are other considerations, too. Novice users can easily connect to a VPN, but setting up a VPN server is a more complex process. SSH tunnels are more daunting to novice users, but setting up an SSH server is simpler – in fact, many people will already have an SSH server that they access remotely. If you already have access to an SSH server, it’s much easier to use it as an SSH tunnel than it is to set up a VPN server. For this reason, SSH tunnels have been dubbed a “poor man’s VPN.”
TunnelBear is designed for a very specific group of people: people who want a VPN service but don’t want to mess around with configuration or become IT experts to make their connections more secure. And it caters brilliantly for that market, with a very straightforward interface and jargon-free writing. In truth, all of the VPN services these days do this but TunnelBear tries very hard to stand out. It’s not for power users - there isn’t much you can change - but with up to five simultaneous connections, servers across 20 countries and decent performance on US and Canadian websites. Longer connections can be slower, though: it’s when the relatively small number of server locations makes itself obvious. There’s a free version that limits you to 500MB of monthly traffic, and if you pay annually the price of the full version drops from $9.99 to $4.99 per month.
Most VPN services allow you to connect up to five devices with a single account. Any service that offers fewer connections is outside the mainstream. Keep in mind that you'll need to connect every device in your home individually to the VPN service, so just two or three licenses won't be enough for the average nested pair. Note that many VPN services offer native apps for both Android and iOS, but that such devices count toward your total number of connections.
Over the course of four months, we scoured articles, white papers, customer reviews, and forums to compile the pros and cons of VPN services and different VPN protocols and encryption technologies. That One Privacy Site and privacytools.io stood out as two of the most thorough and unbiased sources of information. We interviewed Electronic Frontier Foundation analyst Amul Kalia about government surveillance and VPN efficacy. We also got answers from Joseph Jerome, policy counsel for the Center for Democracy & Technology’s privacy and data project, about how accountable VPN providers are for their policies and terms of service, and how that relates to trustworthiness. Alec Muffett, a security expert and software engineer, also shared his views on the usefulness of VPNs to protect against various threats.
Mullvad is not that easy to use, with a bare-bones desktop interface and, unlike every other VPN service we've reviewed, no mobile client apps. (You do get instructions on how to manually set up OpenVPN apps.) This service's network speeds were far from great in our tests, and it's fairly expensive, with no discount for paying yearly instead of monthly.
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.
Hotspot Shield depends on a custom VPN protocol that's not been publicly analyzed by independent experts. We don't know how private or secure it really is. The company has been accused of spying on users (it denies the allegations), and complaints abound online about Hotspot Shield software installing on PCs without users' permission. All this, and the company's U.S. location, may scare away customers who want to protect their privacy.
Early data networks allowed VPN-style connections to remote sites through dial-up modem or through leased line connections utilizing Frame Relay and Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM) virtual circuits, provided through networks owned and operated by telecommunication carriers. These networks are not considered true VPNs because they passively secure the data being transmitted by the creation of logical data streams. They have been replaced by VPNs based on IP and IP/Multi-protocol Label Switching (MPLS) Networks, due to significant cost-reductions and increased bandwidth provided by new technologies such as digital subscriber line (DSL) and fiber-optic networks.
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.
Nokia, Cisco, Nortel, Lucent, and others offer dedicated VPN boxes, although standalone VPN concentrators are becoming less common. Most firewalls, routers, and network appliances—such as those by WatchGuard Technologies, SonicWALL, and NetScreen—provide some VPN functionality. For a good list of IPSec-certified VPN devices, go to http://www.icsalabs.com/html/communities/ipsec/certification/certified_products/index.shtml.
With regards to pricing, Surfshark tends to be incredibly cost-effective and wallet-friendly. The monthly plan starts off with incredibly high pricing at $11.95 and its a bit of a bummer. But the plans with longer subscription durations are priced much more reasonably. For instance, the 6-months plan, gives you a 65% discount, reducing the pricing to $8.99 per month. If you go for the yearly plan, you only pay $5.99 per month, which totals to $71.88 every 12-months. The best part of all: you have a 30-day refund guarantee available.
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.