If you're concerned about online privacy, a virtual private network (VPN) will help keep snoopers at bay. Here, we round up the best VPN services for hiding your location online and allowing you to access blocked content and blocked sites.
Why you need a VPN
Over the past few years public awareness of VPNs has grown, but for many they are still a mystery. Traditionally, they were used by businesses to enable their employees to access a company’s internal network securely. Nowadays people use them for two main things: watching TV and privacy.
How does a VPN work?
A Virtual Private Network creates a private tunnel over the internet to a server. This can be located in the same country as you or located somewhere else. This means that, in theory, you can watch your favourite US show because that’s where it thinks you are. Crucially, all data traffic sent over the VPN is encrypted, so it cannot be intercepted.
To get started you’ll need to install some software on your PC, Mac or mobile device. Once you’ve logged in, choose a server in the location where you’d like to ‘virtually’ appear. You then just carry on as normal, safe in the knowledge that your activities are protected.
Doing it this way - installing the software on one laptop, tablet or phone - means that only that device is using the VPN connection. If you want your media streamer (say an Amazon Fire TV Stick) to use the VPN connection, you'll either need to try and install a VPN app on it, or look for VPN settings where you can enter your account details (the Fire TV Stick doesn't have this option).
The alternative to this is to use a router that supports VPNs, and enter your VPN provider's details (or your VPN account details) so that every device that gets its internet connection via the router benefits from the security (and/or change in location) of the VPN.
Both methods have their pros and cons. You may not want all your web traffic to go via your VPN account, perhaps because of a data cap or the fact that the connection is slower than when connected normally via your ISP. In this case, it's probably best to install VPN software only on the PCs and other devices which need it.
Are free VPNs good?
You don’t have to pay for a service either as some are freely available, though these can have their drawbacks. They may, for example, be slow, unreliable or collect information about your web browsing habits. Furthermore, Netflix is now actively clamping down on VPNs both free and paid, so there’s no guarantee that they will work.
While you can try out a free service, we’d recommend going for a reasonably priced, paid-for VPN. These should perform better, be properly supported and your privacy will be protected thanks to the added security of an encrypted connection.
How a VPN can protect your privacy
The story of activists such as Edward Snowden and Apple’s battle with the US government to unlock an iPhone have raised the profile of the need for privacy. Your ISP will have records of all the websites you visit and if so ordered by the government could be compelled to hand over that information. If you don’t like the sound of that using a VPN all the time makes sense.
Even if you are not too concerned about this, when you’re using a laptop or mobile device on a public Wi-Fi, you are exposing your browsing habits to anyone that is so inclined to snoop. And if you have ever conducted online banking over a public Wi-Fi network, you are really asking for trouble if you’re not going through a VPN.
Another use for VPNs is to bypass ISP restrictions such as line throttling when using peer-to-peer (P2P). By going via a VPN your ISP can’t tell what you’re doing and the throttling won’t kick in.
How to choose which VPN is best for you
If you’re concerned about privacy, it’s important to know where your VPN is based. In recent years some countries have got together to agree to exchange information freely, nominally in a bid to enhance everyone’s security. However, many groups are critical of this behaviour believing that mass surveillance impinges on our freedoms.
The countries that have agreed to exchange information are known as the Five Eyes: USA, UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. (Read more about the alliance here) The concern from privacy groups is that a government could compel a VPN provider to supply information on its users through a court order. To avoid this you should choose a VPN provider that is based outside of one of these countries.
What information do VPNs keep logs of?
Additionally, many VPN providers have different levels of logging. Some choose to log connection time stamps, IP address and bandwidth used, while others choose to log nothing at all. Needless to say you have to trust the VPN provider that it isn’t monitoring your traffic, otherwise you are heading right into a privacy breach, instead of protecting yourself from one.
Some will also store basic payment information, such as your name and address. However, those looking for complete anonymity can seek a provider that accepts payment in the form of gift cards or Bitcoin, which makes it near-impossible to trace back to an individual.
What features should I look for in a VPN?
Most VPNs support all the major platforms but some offer more unusual platforms such as Kindle or Google Chrome. Also look out for restrictions on usage – some ban P2P, while others are fine with it. Free- and trial versions normally have speed restrictions, while paid-for versions should have none. Note that encryption can slow down connections. OpenVPN provides more protection, while PPTP is faster but less secure. You should be able to switch between them depending on need.
Also if you’re connecting to a server that’s geographically far away, you are less likely to get the full speed that your ISP provides. Look out for server speed claims and make sure that you conduct tests to check whether you are happy early on, so you can get a refund within the time limit if you’re not.
12 popular VPNs tested
- RRP: From US$5.75 per month
From the off Nord VPN impresses. Despite the Scandinavian-sounding name it’s actually based in Panama. It maintains Nordic ideals of freedom and trust however, so is located there to be out of the jurisdiction of the ‘fourteen eyes’. It has a strict ‘no logs’ policy so you won’t have to worry about it having any record of your internet traffic. As of writing there were more than 500 servers to choose from, from across 51 countries.
Encryption levels are higher than most. You have the option of DoubleVPN, which refers to a AES-256 CBC cipher used twice over and relayed through the Netherlands. Basically, it’s extra secure. There’s also a Kill Switch to end internet activity should the VPN drop for any reason.
On top of that is the option to uses the TOR network over VPN offering an even greater level of anonymity and access to TORs ‘onion’ sites - that is sites that are part of the deep web and not accessible via the regular internet.
No surprise then that you can pay using an anonymous method such as Bitcoin if you wish, but you can also use more conventional methods such a credit card or PayPal.
It claims to the easiest VPN to set up and it proved to be quick to setup on the Mac and is easy to use on Windows. It also supports Linux, iOS and Android and up to six devices can be connected at one time. A 24/7 live chat service for support is also available from the website. All in all, Nord VPN is a very strong option.
- RRP: Around US$6.49 per month
If you're here because you want a VPN to help you watch US Netflix, you should choose NordVPN or continue reading to find a suitable VPN below. For other VPN uses, however, IPVanish is a popular option that's well worth considering. It has a huge number of servers (more than 700), across more than 60 countries, and you can create five simultaneous connections across multiple devices using just one account and therefore one fee.
We'd pick IPVanish if you're planning to use it for torrents, because it can hide your IP address using a light encryption so as not to sacrifice download and upload speeds.
IPVanish doesn't log any traffic, and owns and operates its entire internal infrastructure (its private network, its physical points of presence and its anonymous servers) with control over all of its entry points. A kill switch adds an extra level of security, too, meaning you the network connection can be immediately terminated if the VPN connection ever drops.
You can use IPVanish across iOS, Android, Windows and Mac, and it can also be used on Android TV and Amazon Firestick. You'll get a 7-day money-back guarantee with no questions asked, and you can pay by Bitcoin should you wish to.
Prices start at just over £5 per month if you commit to a year, £7.50 for three months or £8 for just one month.
- RRP: Free version available; US$5.83 per month
CyberGhost has built a solid reputation for security and transparency over the years. The platform boasts a number of key features that make it one of the safest ways to roam the internet.
Alongside the anonymising of your online identity, CyberGhost also features military grade encryption to fend off information thieves. You don't need an additional browser or plug-in as CyberGhost works with pretty much everything and is also available as an app for Android and iOS. A built-in ad-blocker also makes surfing even quicker, although it does deprive impoverished writers of their hard earned money.
While CyberGhost does offer a free tier, it has many of the main features disabled, employs a waiting period each time you connect, and automatically disconnects after three hours, although you can reconnect immediately. It's really there to show you how the service works, and the proper version is available for £45 per year, or £3.99 per month for a single device plan, and £70 per year or £6.99 per month for five devices.
- RP: From US$2.95 per month
PureVPN is based in Hong Kong, which has the advantage of being out of view of the prying ’14-eyes’. It uses 256-bit grade encryption and boasts more than 750 servers across 141 countries. While it makes a big play of the fact that it does not monitor or record any activity that passes through its servers it does admit to keeping record of connections and bandwidth, which it says is in order to optimally manage its servers. It also offers the more secure OpenVPN protocol and maintains its own DNS servers.
Features include split tunnelling, which routes specific apps to access the internet via their local internet connection and other specific apps via their VPN connection simultaneously. There’s also a Kill Switch that ensures that your actual IP is never exposed should the VPN drop.
The interface is a little dated looking but gets the job done. You can choose a location either by city, or by activity, such as online sports streaming, and it will connect you to an optimal server.
Pricing is reasonable at $4.99 a month, and you can pay via anonymous payment methods such as cards, and there is a 7-day money back guarantee, as long as you don’t exceed 3GB. There’s also a 24/7 support available.
- RRP: From US$8.42 per month
ExpressVPN advertises itself as the fastest VPN on earth, so if outright speed is your concern it should immediately find a place on the shortlist. It also speaks proudly about not logging timestamps or your IP address describing itself as an armoured car service for the internet. This is a major plus for those who do not like the idea of privacy. A caveat though is that it does record date stamps.
It advertises itself as still working for Netflix, but this did not work initially for us. We had to contact support who told us which server to choose, and this got it working.
We do like however the fact that it offers its own first-party DNS servers, has support for the OpenVPN protocol and gives access to the Tor network.
Residing the British Virgin Islands it is technically based outside the 14-eyes countries, but as a British overseas territory, if push came to shove it could be considered something of a grey area, which may be too close for comfort for some. While Richard Branson owns two islands in the region after all we don’t believe there’s a Virgin Media branded VPN at the moment and we wouldn’t rush to sign up if there was.
Express VPN service costs $8.32, and payment can be accepted in regular credit cards and Bitcoin if you prefer. We found ExpressVPN quick and easy, and simple to use but it’s not the cheapest option.
- RRP: US$8.25 per month
If long-term anonymity is a priority, then Hungary-based Buffered is an attractive option as it’s not part of the confidential data swapping '14-eyes' collective. However, in terms of ultimate privacy it’s something of a mixed-bag. It does keep a record of timestamps and IP address that use it, and it doesn’t offer an anonymous payment method, which some would view as counting against it.
However, it does run its own DNS servers and supports OpenVPN. A big plus is that it claims to offer unfettered VPN access to Netflix, which is becoming increasingly rare since the streaming video company’s crackdown of earlier this year.
It currently offers more than 30 countries in which you can virtually reside and there are no limitations to the speed or bandwidth to worry about.
Plans include a yearly option of $8.25 per month, a bi-annual option (billed every six months) for $9.99 per month, or the regular monthly plan at $12.99 per month.
Its monthly cost in on the high side, but it does boast fast servers and a 24/7 customer support. There is a 30-day money back guarantee but beware, as according to the T&Cs this is only if your usage does not exceed 100 sessions, 10 GB of bandwidth or 10 hours of sessions.
Overall, unless Netflix is a priority, there are cheaper and more privacy-minded options to look at.
- RRP: Free version available; US$4.99 per month
Not every VPN offers a free trial, so ZenMate gets off to a good start by offering one. It can be used for free though with restrictions – an unrestricted annual Premium plan is $59.99, equating to $4.99 a month.
ZenMate started out as a plug-in for Chrome, but is now also available as an extension for Firefox and Opera, as a Windows or MacOS desktop app and for Android and iOS. However, only one connection at once is supported.
The Chrome plug-in works seamlessly with Chrome with a browser extension providing a slick dashboard. It’s easy to use and controls are stripped down but this is partially because ZenMate is light on features. It doesn’t support OpenVPN and it doesn’t support a Kill Switch.
You can choose from 28 countries (US is in there twice for East and West coast) and in Premium you can set it to switch location automatically depending on the webpage you’re visiting. (We tested with Netflix and unlike many VPNs it did enable us to view US content). However, it doesn’t reveal how many servers it actually runs.
We like Zenmate for its simplicity but hardcore privacy advocates will look elsewhere especially as it’s based in Germany, part of the 14-eyes group.
- RRP: US$5.83 per month
StrongVPN is a US based VPN so immediately that will turn you off if you aren’t keen on being vulnerable to local internet privacy laws.
The site says it does not log any information regarding its users, but it wasn’t clear if that referred to IP addresses and connection timestamps or just activity. It supports a good selection of protocols, including the more secure OpenVPN. However, on MacOS this will require the download and installation of the free third-party Tunnelblick software.
At time of writing StrongVPN offers 43 servers in 20 countries, and immediately stood out by letting us access US Netflix, a rarity these days. What’s more you can get routers with StrongVPN built-in, useful for watching US Netflix on your TV. StrongVPN also advertises itself as being ideal for use with torrents and suitably has no restrictions on bandwidth.
It also has a reputation for being good for accessing the internet from China, though we weren’t able to test that. Finally, the interface was simple if unspectacular, but usable. The price is also reasonable.
- RRP: Free version available; £5.99 per month, Approximately US$6 per month
If you want your VPN to be easy to use as well as secure then you would do well to look at Total VPN. If your use is only occasional then the fact that it has a free plan might well appeal. This only offers three server locations and limited usage however, with speeds capped at 2Mb/s. By contrast the £5.98 plan offers unrestricted browsing from over 61 servers in over 30 countries with no speed restrictions.
However, 47 of these are located in the US and Europe so if your aim is to avoid the prying ’14-eyes’ then your server choice is more limited, which could impact availability. It’s also based in the UK, so again, potentially at risk from the ‘snoopers charter’. It also doesn’t offer totally anonymous payment, should that be a concern for you – major credit cards and PayPal are accepted.
Annoyingly however, the sign up process proved overly secure – it wouldn’t recognise our test email address, and we assumed it was due to it containing a hyphen. Indeed, retrying it with a hyphen free alternative worked fine.
Total VPN supports, Windows, MacOS, iOS, Android – and Chromebook is looking as ‘coming soon’. Linux support is not available
Total VPN scores well for ease of use. When it first fires up it provides some useful tips, such as using a server in your own country when banking online to avoid the bank thinking its fraudulent activity.
Overall, if ease of use is the main priority, then Total VPN is a good choice but it’s not the cheapest.
Hide My Ass! Pro VPN
- RRP: £3.99 per month or £6.99 per month for an annual plan
Hide My Ass! Pro VPN is a versatile VPN service with a large number of servers listed all over the world – over 940 at time of writing and has attentive technical support staff to help with setup issues,
Despite a name that draws on the US spelling of our nickname for a person’s posterior, the company is actually based in the UK. This is a disadvantage if your hope is to guarantee privacy as Hide My Ass! abides by our special data-retention laws that deny anonymity to VPN users. While HMA does not keep a record of your Internet traffic it does log connection timestamps and IP addresses.
It has already demonstrated that it's ready to inform on its users when asked, so if that’s an issue, stay away. Additionally, it does not maintain its own DNS servers but rather uses OpenDNS, effectively outsourcing any concerns over DNS leaks.
For local network security and placing yourself virtually anywhere for shopping or entertainment purposes, Hide My Ass! Pro works as advertised, but even though its competitively priced, the cost is high in terms of principle.
Private Internet Access
- RRP: US$2.55
If it’s a wide choice of servers you’re looking for, then you won’t be disappointed by Private Internet Access. It boasts a massive 3,340, more than any of the VPNs we’ve looked at.
At a monthly cost of just $3.33 (£2.55) for an annual subscription it’s also one of the cheaper options available. For that you get five licences so it can be run at the same time on Windows, MacOS, iOS and Android.
Additionally, it scores points by stating that it doesn’t track IP address or even connection timestamps. It runs its own DNS servers and supports the slower but more secure OpenVPN protocol. A Kill Switch feature means it will shut down all connections should the VPN be disconnected. Furthermore, you can pay anonymously should you wish. However, for those who are truly concerned about privacy, all this good work is undone by the fact that it’s based in the USA – the heart of the ‘5-eyes’ data swapping collective.
Private Internet Access is easy to use and is considered one of the fastest VPNs available and is well featured. As long as you’re not overly concerned about the fact that it’s based in the US this is a contender.
- RRP: US$0.99 per month
If there was an award for probably most awkwardly named VPN, then HideIPVPN would win. And if there was an award for cheapest paid-for VPN, then HideIPVPN would win that too – currently on offer for just $0.99 a month. This includes a SmartDNS and the capability to add up to five connections at once.
However, be warned that if you’re interested in using it for Torrents is has quite harsh rules. If you use P2P on US, UK or Canadian servers you’ll get a warning from them to cease, and if the offence is repeated you’ll get your account terminated without a refund.
While the SmartDNS features is a bonus, we found that it still did not let us access US Netflix. We were at least impressed by the honestly and upfrontness of its webpage where it admits as much, with no sense it was trying to pull the wool over our eyes.
HideIPVPN is also based in the US, which isn’t a country which has your privacy interests at heart. We could also not find any information regarding the number of countries of servers it offered.
We found HideIPVPN easy to use so if you just want something cheap to keep your activity private in certain situations then it will do the job, but it’s not one for those looking for real privacy or for a way to bypass Netflix restrictions.
- RRP: US$5 per month
Despite what its name suggests, TorGuard is not in any way related to the Tor browser project. The Tor in the name refers to ‘torrents’. This makes it a great choice for those looking to avoid ISP P2P throttling. It offers a choice of over 1600 servers in 50 countries, and says it does no logging whatsoever. Furthermore than are no restrictions on speeds and it offers its own DNS severs. It runs OpenVPN and will do so on Windows, MacOS, Linux, Android and iOS. In the US, it’s even possible to buy routers with TorVPN preflashed onto the firmware. If you buy an annual fee the monthly price of $5.00 seems reasonable though it’s not that the most affordable in our selecton.
A potential issue with TorGuard is that it’s based in the US, which means it’s off the table for anyone that doesn’t want to use a VPN in a ‘Five eyes’ country. It also will not let you access US Netflix from the UK.
TorGuards interface appeared somewhat dated to us If your mainly interested in protecting BitTorrent traffic it’s worth considering but as there trial version, so it might be worth trying to for one month, before signing up for the whole year.