In the past, some VPN services would offer different pricing tiers, each of which offered a different set of features. One way to separate these pricing tiers was to limit the bandwidth (how much data you can transfer). With premium services, this practice is now almost unheard of, and all of the services we have listed do not limit their users' bandwidth. Bandwidth limits live on, however, in free VPN services.
Digging a little into its history, ZenMate made its way into the marketplace back in 2014. This means it has been in the industry for a good 4 years. The provider has its main headquarters in Berlin, Germany – which is quite a safe location. Initially, the service was a FREE privacy extension for Chrome. However, later on it jumped the freemium bandwagon, creating premium plans too for leveraging better security.
Not all VPN services require that you pay. There are, in fact, many excellent free VPNs. But all of the free VPNs we've tested have some kind of limitation. Some limit you to just a few simultaneous connections or devices on an account. Others restrict you to a few hundred MBs of data per day or per month. Others limit you to just a handful of servers. Still others do all of the above.
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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.
ProtonVPN has the unique distinction of placing no data restrictions on free users. You can browse as much as you want, as long as you want. You will be limited to just one device on the service at a time and can only choose between three server locations, but the unlimited data makes up for all that. It doesn't hurt that ProtonVPN, from the same people that brought you super-secure ProtonMail email, is very concerned about security and customer privacy. For all that, ProtonVPN is our Editors' Choice for free VPN.
We tested NordVPN and found that it works well with Netflix and other streaming services that block most other VPNs. It is compatible with all devices, does not retain logs, and offers a 30-day money-back guarantee (it's real, we checked). With a price so low, it's no wonder NordVPN is the most popular VPN out there, used by technology experts all around the world.
When choosing your VPN, do your research and mind the legal aspects. Countries like Germany, France or Japan are cracking down on copyright infringement, while the members of the 14 Eyes treaty have draconian data retention laws and extensive surveillance. So, if you’re looking to maximize your privacy, you might want to avoid connecting to servers in those countries.
We conducted a thorough analysis of ExpressVPN that lasted for 48 hours. The review made it clear that the VPN is a top pick for leveraging ultimate privacy/anonymity. Based in the British Virgin Islands, ExpressVPN was even involved in a Turkish investigation that saw the assassination of Russian Ambassador Turkey. Andrei Karlov was shot, by an off-duty police official, Mevlüt Mert Altıntas.
We asked TorGuard detailed questions about the company’s internal policies and standards, just as we did with five other top-performing services. TorGuard CEO Benjamin Van Pelt answered all our questions, as he has done for other outlets multiple times since the company launched in 2012. Though TorGuard’s answers weren’t as in-depth as some other companies’ responses, Van Pelt is a public figure who has been willing to talk about TorGuard’s operations at length. In 2013, ArsTechnica got a close look at TorGuard’s engineering and network management skills as the company rebuffed repeated attacks on its servers. Even though the company’s marketing is wrought with overreaching claims about being “anonymous”—an inaccurate boast that makes some experts cringe—the technical and operational standards of the company are focused on protecting customer privacy. In one interview with Freedom Hacker, Van Pelt notes that if there were problems on a server, such as someone using it for spamming, the company couldn’t restrict a single user. “Rules would be implemented in that specific server which would limit actions for everyone connected, not just one user. Since we have an obligation to provide fast, abuse free services, our team handles abuse reports per server – not per single user.”
Usually, it's the free services that throttle your usage in these ways. Some paid services will offer a trial, where you can transmit up to a certain data cap before being asked to sign up as a paying customer. That's actually pretty cool, because it gives you a chance to try out the performance of their service before paying, but it also gives the vendor a chance to make the money necessary to operate the service.
It's easy to want to find the perfect, magical tool that will protect you from all possible threats. But the honest truth is that if someone targets you specifically and is willing to put forward the effort, they will get to you. A VPN can be defeated by malware on your device, or by analyzing traffic patterns to correlate activity on your computer to activity on the VPN server. But using security tools like a VPN ensure that you won't be an easy target, or get scooped up in mass surveillance.
However, NAT can interfere with some VPN implementations because it changes information in a packet's IP header to route the packet to the correct internal IP address. VPN protocols often check the integrity of the packet header and terminate the connection if they detect any changes that were made after the packet was encrypted. Vendors have devised a workaround for this problem: A technique called UDP Traversal encapsulates the IP Security (IPSec) packet in a UDP packet so that the IPSec header can arrive intact. Most vendors, including Microsoft, Nortel Networks, SSH Communications Security, NetScreen Technologies, SonicWALL, and Cisco Systems—in IOS Software 12.2(8) and later—support UDP Traversal. However, some low-end VPN appliances and software implementations might not. Alternatively, if you use IPSec, your router or firewall might support IPSec pass-through, which recognizes the IPSec protocol and lets IPSec packets pass through unaltered, eliminating the need for NAT traversal. You might also be able to work around NAT by turning off IPSec's Authentication Header (AH) element (which verifies the header information), if your VPN allows this level of detail in configuration. Be sure to check with your VPN vendor about NAT if you plan to support remote users through a network that uses NAT.
To prevent middle-man access and to ensure that the data is sent via a secure tunnel, certain criteria should be met. The criteria include a DNS Leak Protection (over IPv4, IPv6 and WebRTC), encrypted traffic via a Private tunnel, and hopefully no logs of the data saved anywhere. However, if the government wants to see which websites and web locations a user visits, the ISP provider can demand and get that information. Thus, no real anonymity is achieved, but the specific data will be encrypted, secure and free from middle-man attacks.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Australia is a market ripe for VPN providers. A VPN, or virtual private network, encrypts a device’s internet traffic and routes it through an intermediary server in a location of the user’s choosing. This can allow Australians to access content that’s geolocked in their own country. It can also provide a private tunnel through which to use P2P filesharing applications.
One of the most common types of VPNs used by businesses is called a virtual private dial-up network (VPDN). A VPDN is a user-to-LAN connection, where remote users need to connect to the company LAN. Another type of VPN is commonly called a site-to-site VPN. Here the company would invest in dedicated hardware to connect multiple sites to their LAN though a public network, usually the Internet.
Companies deploying VPNs internationally might face some restrictions on key length. Although the government has lifted most restrictions on exporting strong cryptography, you might still need to obtain approval. Check with the US Department of Commerce Bureau of Industry and Security's Commercial Encryption Export Controls (http://www.bxa.doc.gov/encryption) for specific restrictions that might exist for your deployment.
Hotspot Shield VPN works in most countries, but that doesn’t mean it’s always legal to use a VPN in a specific country. If you have any doubts about the legality of using a VPN in a certain country, always consult a qualified lawyer because laws can change quickly. If you’re still unsure, then it’s best to play it safe and abide by the most conservative guidelines of a country.
Selecting servers close to you—preferably in the same country—will improve your connection speed, but that may not provide the full privacy or unrestricted access you’re looking for. If you want to access country-specific content, use a server located in that country. This will be easier if you have more server options available to you through your VPN.
The number and distribution of those servers is also important. The more places a VPN has to offer, the more options you have to spoof your location! More importantly, having numerous servers in diverse locales means that no matter where you go on Earth you'll be able to find a nearby VPN server. The closer the VPN server, the better the speed and reliability of the connection it can offer you. Remember, you don't need to connect to a far-flung VPN server in order to gain security benefits. For most purposes, a server down the street is as safe as one across the globe.
Max Eddy is a Software Analyst, taking a critical eye to Android apps and security services. He's also PCMag's foremost authority on weather stations and digital scrapbooking software. When not polishing his tinfoil hat or plumbing the depths of the Dark Web, he can be found working to discern the 100 Best Android Apps. Prior to PCMag, Max wrote... See Full Bio
NordVPN does not have any limitations imposed on its users in terms of traffic. A constant speed is used, but you should be aware that VPN services tend to be a bit slower than regular Internet speeds. The company has set up UDP (OpenVPN) which automatically chooses the closest available server for you. However, some users report that the speed is slower than that of some competitors.