The best VPN services (and tips to choose the right one for you)

Contents

If you want something that’s all about ease of use then AVG Secure is a good choice. First, it comes from a known and trusted security company, so there are fewer worries about data security than with one of the independent services. The key thing with AVG Secure is that the interface is easy to understand and use. It has a big “Change location” button to help you select the country you’d like to appear to be in. The app also tells you what your current IP address is and how long you’ve been connected to the VPN. That’s pretty much it. This VPN also works with streaming services and it has P2P servers. One thing it doesn’t have is a lot of extra features, which is actually perfect for anyone looking for a no-frills VPN.

The best VPN services for 2023

Don’t fall for the hyped-up, overly-marketed VPN service options.

Senior Reporter
Fri, Sep 8, 2023, 3:00 PM · 13 min read

Virtual private networks (VPNs) have been having a moment recently. The once-niche way to protect your online activity took off, in part, due to massive marketing budgets and influencer collaborations convincing consumers that a VPN’s functionality or privacy features could solve all their security woes. But deciding the best option for your browsing needs requires digging through claims of attributes that aren’t always totally accurate. That has made it harder to figure out which VPN service provider to subscribe to, or if you really need to use one at all. We tested out nine of the best VPN services available now to help you choose the right one for your needs.

Quick Overview
Best VPN overall

Proton VPN

Best free VPN

Windscribe

Best VPN for streaming services, frequent travel and gaming

ExpressVPN

Best VPN for cross-platform accessibility

CyberGhost

Best VPN for multiple devices

Surfshark

What you should know about VPNs

VPNs are not a one-size-fits-all security solution. Instead, they’re just one part of keeping your data private and secure. Roya Ensafi, assistant professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Michigan, told Engadget that VPNs don’t protect against common threats like phishing attacks, nor do they protect your data from being stolen. But they do come in handy for online privacy when you’re connecting to an untrusted network somewhere public because they tunnel and encrypt your traffic to the next hop.

In other words, secure VPNs work by masking your IP address and the identity of your computer or mobile device on the network and creating an encrypted “tunnel” that prevents your internet service provider (ISP) from accessing data about your browsing history. Even then, much of the data or information is stored with the VPN provider instead of your ISP, which means that using a poorly designed or unprotected network can still undermine your security.

That means sweeping claims that seem promising, like military-grade encryption or total digital invisibility, may not be totally accurate. Instead, Yael Grauer, program manager of Consumer Reports’ online security guide, recommends looking for security features like open-source software with reproducible builds, up-to-date support for industry-standard protocols like WireGuard, IPsec or PPTP and the ability to defend against attack vectors like brute force.

Who are VPNs really for?

Before considering a VPN, make sure your online security is up to date in other ways. That means complex passwords, multifactor authentication methods and locking down your data sharing preferences. Even then, you probably don’t need to be using a VPN all the time.

“If you’re just worried about somebody sitting there passively and looking at your data then a VPN is great,” Jed Crandall, an associate professor at Arizona State University, told Engadget.

If you use public WiFi networks a lot, like while working at a coffee shop, then VPN usage can help give you private internet access. They’re also helpful for hiding information from other people on your ISP if you don’t want members of your household to know what you’re up to online.

Geoblocking has also become a popular use case as it helps you reach services in other parts of the world. For example, you can access shows that are only available on streaming services, like Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Prime, in other countries, or play online games with people located all over the globe.

Are VPNs worth it?

Whether or not VPNs are worth it depends how often you could use it for the above use cases. If you travel a lot and rely on public WiFi or hotspots, are looking to browse outside of your home country or want to keep your traffic hidden from your ISP, then investing in a VPN will be useful. But, keep in mind that even the best VPN services often slow down your internet connection speed, so they may not be ideal all the time.

In today’s world, we recommend not relying on a VPN connection as your main cybersecurity tool. VPN use can provide a false sense of security, leaving you vulnerable to attack. Plus, if you choose just any VPN, it may not be as secure as just relying on your ISP. That’s because the VPN could be based in a country with weaker data privacy regulation, obligated to hand information over to law enforcement or linked to weak user data protection policies.

For VPN users working in professions like activism or journalism that want to really strengthen their internet security, options like the Tor browser may be a worthwhile alternative, according to Crandall. Tor is free, and while it’s less user-friendly, it’s built for anonymity and privacy.

How we tested

To test the security specs of different VPNs and name our top picks, we relied on pre-existing academic work through Consumer Reports, VPNalyzer and other sources. We referenced privacy policies, transparency reports and security audits made available to the public. We also considered past security incidents like data breaches.

We looked at price, usage limits, effects on internet speed, possible use cases, ease of use, general functionality and additional “extra” VPN features like multihop. The VPNs were tested across iOS, Android and Mac devices so we could see the state of the mobile apps across various platforms (Windows devices are also supported in most cases). We used the “quick connect” feature on the VPN apps to connect to the “fastest” provider available when testing internet speed, access to IP address data and DNS and WebRTC leaks or when a fault in the encrypted tunnel reveals requests to an ISP.

Otherwise, we conducted a test of geoblocking content by accessing Canada-exclusive Netflix releases, a streaming test by watching a news livestream on YouTube via a Hong Kong-based VPN and a gaming test by playing on servers in the United Kingdom. By performing these tests at the same time, it also allowed us to test claims about simultaneous device use.

The best VPN services (and tips to choose the right one for you)

ZDNET tested the best VPNs and ranked them based on speed, security, and features for all of your private browsing and streaming needs.

charlie-osborne

david-gewirtz

Reviewed by Nina Raemont
ExpressVPN
Best VPN overall
View now View at ExpressVPN
Best VPN for travel
View now View at NordVPN
Surfshark VPN
Best value VPN
View now View at Surfshark
IPVanish VPN
Best highly-configurable VPN
View now View at IPVanish
Proton VPN
Best open-source VPN
View now View at ProtonVPN

The best virtual private networks (VPNs) provide two services: They encrypt your data between two points, and they hide the IP address where you’re located.

Using a VPN is critical when traveling or using the internet in a public place like a coffee shop to keep your data secure and prevent anyone else on the network from stealing your passwords or eavesdropping on your activity. VPNs are also great for streaming because they unlock access — in some cases, with dubious legality — to content and sports unavailable in a user’s location. You can also unblock content restricted in areas due to data protection laws, such as the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

To find the best VPN service for your personal needs, you’ll need to compare brands, prices, features, and more. ZDNET tested the best VPNs on this list based on speed, number of servers, security features, price, and more. ExpressVPN is our pick for the best VPN overall, thanks to its fast and reliable connection and the wide range of platforms it works on.

Read on to find the best VPN for your own devices and needs.

The best VPNs of 2023

ExpressVPN

Best VPN overall

Pros & Cons

  • Fast and reliable connection
  • Works on many platforms
  • Transparent privacy policy
  • Torrent-friendly
  • More expensive than many competitors
  • Only five simultaneous connections

More Details

ExpressVPN features: Simultaneous Connections: Five or unlimited with the router app | Kill Switch: Yes | Platforms: Windows, Mac, Linux, Chromebooks (see the full list here) | Logging: No browsing logs, some connection logs | Countries: 94 | Trial/Money-back guarantee: 30 days

ExpressVPN is our top choice for the best VPN service. It’s one of the most popular VPN providers out there, offering a wide range of platforms, and it’s a well-regarded, trusted service. Platforms include Windows, macOS, iOS, Android, Linux, and Amazon operating systems.

You can also manually set up ExpressVPN to work with some gaming consoles (Xbox, PlayStation, and Nintendo Switch) and TVs (Apple TV, Roku, etc.) that do not support its app.

ExpressVPN has an expansive network with servers in 94 countries. It also delivers a speedy and consistent connection. The company doesn’t log your browsing history, IP address, or traffic destination, but it does collect information about the amount of data transferred, the dates you connected to the VPN (not times), and the location of the VPN server.

One thing to note, however, is that you’ll need to set aside some time if after 30 days you don’t want to continue and you want to cancel. While customer service is friendly and polite, they are persistent in customer retention.

At the time of writing, subscription costs begin at $6.67 per month (and three months free) on a 12-month plan, $9.99 per month for six months, or $12.95 for a month of access.

NordVPN

Best VPN for travel

Pros & Cons

  • Stable connection speeds
  • Extensive server network
  • Only six concurrent connections
  • Expensive

More Details

NordVPN features: Simultaneous Connections: Six | Kill Switch: Yes | Platforms: Windows, MacOS, iOS, Android, Linux, Android TV, Chrome, Firefox | Logging: None, except billing data | Countries: 59 | Servers: 5000+ | Trial/MBG: 30 day

NordVPN is one of the most widely used consumer VPNs available. For most users, it checks all the boxes. It’s secure, good for streaming, and has all the features you’ll likely need. We’ve found it to be one of the fastest VPNs with the most consistent speeds and rapid connectivity.

NordVPN offers many features beyond the basics, including support for P2P sharing, and an option for a second layer of encryption through what it calls Double VPN. You can set up a dedicated IP address to run a VPN that doubles as a server.

NordVPN’s Onion over VPN unlocks Tor capabilities. NordVPN can run on all of the major platforms and a number of home-network platforms. The company also launched Meshnet in 2022, a feature for users to connect directly to other devices instead of routing their traffic through a VPN server.

It is worth noting, however, that the user interface has room for improvement, which on the MacOS platform in particular, is somewhat clunky compared to other top VPN providers. Additionally, the subscription cost is on the pricier end. You can select between Complete, Plus, and Standard on a two-year, one-year, or monthly plan, the difference being whether or not you also want access to a password manager, data breach scanner, and encrypted cloud storage service.

I find that servers also need to be switched over more often than with some competitors due to connectivity issues — but these situations are still few and far between and worth the trade-off for improved speeds over other VPNs.

Prices start from $3.19 per month on a Standard two-year plan to $14.99 per month on a Complete one-month subscription. Still, it’s a strong choice, and you can always try it for 30 days and get a full refund. At the time of writing, NordVPN is also running a promotion, and new users who subscribe to a one or two-year plan can save up to 68%.

Surfshark VPN

Best value VPN

Pros & Cons

  • Unlimited simultaneous connections
  • Wide range of useful features
  • Available on all major platforms
  • Expensive for month-by-month users

More Details

Surfshark VPN features: Simultaneous Connections: Unlimited | Kill Switch: Yes | Platforms: Windows, MacOS, Linux, iOS, Android, Fire TV, Firefox, Android TV | Logging: None, except billing data | Countries: 100 | Servers: 3,200+ | Trial/MBG: 30 day

We didn’t find any leaks in our Surfshark VPN review and testing — which is precisely what you want to see from a quality VPN. With AES-256-GCM, Perfect Forward Secrecy, and RSA-2048 encryption, Surfshark also makes security a priority.

We appreciated its complementary and inexpensive add-on features, such as anti-tracking, a search engine that doesn’t log your information, and a scanner that searches data breach lists for your email. You can also connect through two VPN servers with Surfshark’s multi-hop option.

Furthermore, Surfshark operates a live warrant canary.

At present, Surfshark’s pricing is $12.95 per month (the typical one-month subscription fee) and the two-year subscription will cost you $2.30 per month. (The two-year plan does say it is 82% off, but this price point only occasionally changes). Plus, two months of free access are thrown in on two-year deals.

Alternatively, you can sign up for one year and you will pay $3.99 per month. You are billed for the full package at the time of sign-up.

IPVanish VPN

Best highly-configurable VPN

Pros & Cons

  • Unlimited connections
  • User-friendly
  • Flexible product with a wide range of protocols
  • No free trial
  • A high jump in pricing after sign-up deals end

More Details

IPVanish VPN features: Simultaneous Connections: Unlimited | Kill Switch: Yes | Platforms: Windows, MacOS, iOS, Android, Linux, Fire TV, Android TV, and Kodi | Logging: None, except billing data | Servers: 2,200+ | Locations: 75 | Trial/MBG: 30 days

At a glance, IPVanish may seem like a relatively generic VPN, but there’s more to the story.

IPVanish is presented as a plug-and-play solution, but it’s a capable and very flexible product. IPVanish’s user interface has excellent performance graphics and an extensive selection of servers to choose from with useful status information. As far as protocols go, there is a wide range of options. Its app also has an extensive array of configuration options.

If you commit for two years, IPVanish offers a discounted plan for $2.99 per month. This increases to $3.33 per month for a yearly plan and $11.99 for one month, plus tax. It’s worth noting that the prices of two and one-year plans change relatively often, so if you want the low $2.99 price, act fast.

Proton VPN

Best open-source VPN

Pros & Cons

  • Free VPN plan (for a single connection)
  • Many add-ons available
  • Modern, clean interface
  • Only 2-year or monthly paid plan available

More Details

Proton VPN features: Simultaneous Connections: Up to 10, depending on the plan | Kill Switch: Yes | Platforms: Windows, MacOS, iOS, Android, Linux, routers, Android TV | Logging: None, except billing data | Countries: 68 | Servers: 2,600+ | Trial/MBG: 30 day or free plan

Proton is a Swiss company created by engineers and scientists focused on creating encrypted email and VPN communications to protect the communication of activists and journalists.

In terms of product, Proton VPN has a belt-and-suspenders approach to security, layering strong protocols on top of perfect forward secrecy on top of strong encryption. Not only does Proton VPN have a kill switch, but it also has an always-on VPN, which attempts to restore VPN service if it’s dropped mid-communication. All apps are open source, and the company reports that they are independently audited.

The company offers a generous free VPN service, allowing one machine to connect at medium speed and without bandwidth limits, providing access to over 100 servers across three countries.

Proton VPN is $4.99 per month on a two-year plan — rising to $11.49 for a monthly subscription, or you can also try out the software for one year at $5.99 per month.

What is the best VPN?

The best VPN is ExpressVPN, thanks to its wide platform availability, great performance, reliability, and server locations in 94 countries.

However, there are many VPN options on the market that are worth your time — and, potentially, your dollar, should you choose to subscribe to them. When you consider which VPN to choose, keep in mind that the longer subscription you choose, the cheaper the VPN will be.

Best VPN service Price Kill switch Countries Simultaneous connections
ExpressVPN $6.67 per month with 1-year plan Yes 94 Five
NordVPN $3.19 per month with 2-year plan Yes 59 Six
Surfshark VPN $2.30 per month with 2-year plan Yes 100 Unlimited
IPVanish $2.99 per month with 2-year plan Yes 75 Unlimited
Proton VPN $4.99 per month with 2-year plan Yes 68 1-10, varies by plan

How did we test the best VPNs?

We ran a series of tests in August 2023 on each VPN’s paid service to see how they compared.

The tests were performed with a broadband connection in the UK with an average starting speed, without a VPN, of 52.74Mbps download and 15.3Mbps upload. (Yes, they are terrible, but they are best UK currently has to offer where I live.)

The following speeds are in Mbps. I also tested for the presence of DNS leaks.

Please keep in mind that results may be different for you and vary from country to country, so the below should be considered a snapshot. They may also be impacted by your ISP provider and broadband subscription. For example, the starting speed is a snail’s pace compared to some US offerings.

The below results are not the exact speeds you should expect. You can instead use these results for a general idea of how your speeds could change with a VPN enabled. You should also remember that the further away the VPN server, the more your speed may be impacted. Speeds will typically be quicker when you connect to a local server, compared to selecting Australia, for example.

Best VPN

Quick connect

UK

US

Germany

VPN DNS leak detected?
ExpressVPN X
NordVPN X
Surfshark X
IPVanish X
ProtonVPN X

Which is the right VPN for you?

We have written about how VPNs work and how to find the best VPN service for you.

Choose this top VPN service. If you want.
ExpressVPN Versatility. ExpressVPN is a service I have used for years and I find it invaluable when I travel. You can expect multi-platform support and relatively minor speed downgrades when you are streaming, for example, and few connection errors.
NordVPN Consistent speeds. NordVPN doesn’t have a great user interface, in my opinion, but it remains one of the most consistently fast and stable connection providers. The price point might put you off, though.
Surfshark VPN The least expensive top VPN. Surfshark is a consistent player in our top VPN lists, and for good reason. It might not always be the fastest, but for the price point, you can’t argue against its value for money.
IPVanish Unlimited simultaneous connections. IPVanish is a great choice if you want to tailor and customize your VPN experience and you want access to an excellent server network.
Proton VPN A variety of add-on features. Proton VPN also offers a free plan and is one of the most privacy-focused VPN services out there.

How to choose a VPN service

Here are four tips to help you evaluate a VPN service for yourself.

1. Pay attention to trial period times and use them: Every VPN performs differently, and every user experience is going to be different. Your ISP will offer different speeds than ours. Your favorite coffee shop has a different network connection than our local haunts. You’re even likely to be connecting to different countries and definitely different sites. Before committing to a VPN provider, test candidates thoroughly in your real-world environment. That’s what money-back guarantees are for, and most VPN providers will give you up to 30 days to try out their software.

2. Avoid free VPN providers: Running a VPN is expensive, and if the VPN provider doesn’t make money from your service fees, they’re going to make money from your data — sometimes even by selling your personal information. Stick with the trusted commercial vendors we’ve tested. There are also cases where ‘free’ VPNs undermine what the software is meant to stand for — data protection and security. You may instead be downloading a product that will compromise your privacy. The only exception, at present, that we recommend is Proton VPN.

3. Don’t worry about the country of jurisdiction unless: There are generally two classes of VPN users: Those who need to protect their coffee shop surfing and those counting on a VPN to protect their lives. As shown by ZDNET author David Gewirtz in his article, many countries outside of the Five Eyes alliance are Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties signatories. This means many countries will share data with the US and other countries anyway. If you’re using a VPN to provide true protection, we recommend researching this more.

4. Finally, don’t sweat warrant canaries and no log policies: Most of you are going to use a VPN to protect your data stream from being hijacked by someone sharing your network. All of these big legal and jurisdictional issues get in the way of the simple fact that you want fast transfers and an encrypted tunnel from your spot in the airport to the website you’re trying to access.

How did we choose these VPN services?

We tested and analyzed the best VPNs for 2023 using the following criteria to help you make an informed decision:

  • Performance: We tested most of the VPNs on this list to ensure robust performance in terms of connection and speed. After all, there’s no point in using a VPN if your connection continually drops or lags, making it intolerable.
  • Simultaneous connections: Many VPNs limit how many devices you can connect to a service at the same time. If you have a phone, tablet, laptop, desktop, and possibly even a smart TV you want to connect to a VPN, you’d need a service that allows at least 5 simultaneous connections.
  • Security: There’s no point using a VPN unless their security protocols and encryption levels are up to scratch. We also ensured that the development team behind each recommended VPN cares about making security improvements over time and patching reported bugs.
  • Kill switch: A kill switch prevents you from having an unprotected connection and is an important feature for a VPN to have, as it protects by preventing a return to a default Wi-Fi connection should your internet connection unexpectedly drop.
  • Geoblocks and streaming: We know that VPNs can be key to accessing local content and services while you’re away from home. We ensured that our top recommendations perform well when it comes to these factors and are unlikely to slow down your connection while you are streaming.
  • Platforms: What systems and devices can you run the VPN on? Our recommended vendors must provide easy-to-use and intuitive desktop software and mobile apps.
  • Countries & servers: In how many different countries does the VPN have servers? This can include physical and virtual servers, and whether or not there are enough — at least 50 or so — to provide variety.
  • Trial length & price: Each VPN we recommend has a solid money-back guarantee.

Most VPN providers recommended in this list have been subject to in-depth testing and reviews by members of our ZDNET team. We’ve been writing about these VPNs for years, have spoken with their management and their users, and have developed a generally favorable impression.

ZDNET tests VPN services from multiple locations, but we can’t test from all locations. Every home, every community, every local ISP, and every nation has a different infrastructure. It’s essential that once you choose, you test for all your likely usage profiles and only then make the decision to keep the service or request a money-back guaranteed refund.

These VPNs also have solid money-back guarantees, and we would not have recommended them otherwise.

Another factor to consider is whether you’re working at home or while traveling. For example, if you travel rarely, have strong bandwidth at home, and have a NAS or a server box, you might want to VPN to your home server from your machine’s native client and then out to the world. If you’re new to working from home and your company has a dedicated VPN, you’ll want to use whatever process they’ve set up for you.

Generally speaking, it doesn’t hurt to have a VPN provider already set up. Most home-based traffic won’t require VPN usage, but having a VPN provider is a good idea if you’re on any sort of shared connection. Also, having a VPN provider can be a win if you ever think you’ll need to access the Internet while out and about — like at a hospital or doctor’s office. Likewise, if you want to obscure your location a VPN provider might help.

If you experience traffic slowdowns, check not only your VPN but also your Wi-Fi connection between your device and your router or access point. Sometimes connectivity issues begin at the source, and in other cases, switching your selected VPN server may be enough to resolve speed problems or connectivity drops.

What is a VPN?

VPN is an acronym for virtual private network. These services allow users to browse the internet privately and securely connect to open or public Wi-Fi networks. VPNs give users the ability to change their virtual location by redirecting the connection through one of its servers located around the world. A VPN will also encrypt all of your traffic, so you’re hidden from hackers, your internet service provider, and governments.

However, if your online activities are being monitored at the ISP level — say, by a government — they may recognize the signature of a VPN in play, even if exactly what you are doing is hidden.

VPNs are useful in unblocking geo-restricted content and can be a vital tool for accessing information in countries with repressive governments. They are important services for anyone that wants to maintain a high level of safety and privacy online. However, because they are anonymous (or at least should be) they can also be used to hide illegal online activities such as pirating content.

How can I tell if my VPN is working or not?

A fully functional VPN should protect your privacy and mask your location and IP address. If you’re unsure if your VPN is working properly, there are tools that make checking your VPN’s performance easy.

You can find out your IP address and location using whatismyipaddress.com. Just compare the IP address and location when you’re connected with a VPN vs. without a VPN. If they are different, then your VPN is doing its job.

It’s also possible that your VPN is leaking your data and potentially exposing your online activity. To ensure your VPN doesn’t have any issues with DNS leaks or IP leaks, you can run tests on a site like DNS Leak Test. There are plenty of tools that allow you to test for leaks, but many are owned by VPN providers and it may not always be clear who developed the tool, which could be a conflict of interest. You may want to run tests with several different sites and compare the results.

Do I need a VPN if I’m traveling or using a Wi-Fi hotspot?

If you’re traveling or using the internet in a public place like a coffee shop, that data encryption is critical, since most public Wi-Fi hotspots are open and unencrypted — which means anyone on the network can see what you send and may be able to eavesdrop on your activities and steal passwords.

Native VPN support on Mac

If you’re connecting to an existing corporate virtual private network, you may not need an additional service. MacOS comes with native VPN support built right in.

Apple provides VPN support on recent OS versions. Head over to System Settings, the Network tab, and either import the configuration file you were provided or hit the plus button and add a VPN interface. Here’s a handy tip sheet from Apple that will walk you through the process.

Native VPN support on Windows

If you’re connecting to an established corporate VPN, all you need to do is add a new Windows VPN connection. Point your mouse at the Start menu, type settings, then select Settings, Network & Internet, VPN, then Add VPN. Make sure you have the connection details provided by work and then click on Add a New VPN Connection. Fill in the form and you’re good to go. Here’s a handy tip sheet from Microsoft.

Windows also allows you to host a VPN server by creating a new incoming network connection, choosing the users who can connect, and telling Windows that the incoming connection is across the internet. You’ll also have to configure your router to allow traffic to your computer.

Native VPN support on Chromebook

Sadly, this simple solution isn’t built into the standard Chrome browser. If you’re just using the browser on a Mac or Windows machine, you’ll need a different solution.

That said, if you’re rocking a Chromebook, all you need to do is open Settings and then Network. Click Add Connection. Then all you need to do is choose between OpenVPN and L2TP over IPSec. Google has a handy cheat sheet to guide you through the process.

Linux with WireGuard

WireGuard is Linux’s baked-in VPN capability. Its code is relatively simple and small, making it far easier to maintain, test, and debug.

So what do you need to set up WireGuard? Most VPNs we spotlighted support WireGuard right out of the box. You can download it for Linux. But you can also download a package for Windows, Mac, iOS, Android, and FreeBSD. It’s like most open-source products, in that you’ll need to do some reading and thinking to make it work.

What’s the best free VPN service?

We’ve highlighted paid services in this article, although some offer a free tier or a money-back guarantee during a trial period (check out our picks for the best VPN free trials). In general, fully free VPN services aren’t recommended because they may not be secure.

Operating a good VPN service requires hundreds of servers worldwide and a ton of networking resources. If you’re not paying to support that infrastructure, who is? Probably advertisers or data miners. If you use a free service, your data or your eyeballs will probably be sold, and that’s never a good thing. After all, you’re using a VPN to ensure your data is kept secure. You wouldn’t want your data to go to some company to sift through — it completely defeats the purpose of a VPN.

Before you choose a VPN service, free or paid, it’s important to know that no one tool can guarantee your privacy. First, anything can be compromised. But more to the point, a VPN protects your data from your computer to the VPN service. It doesn’t protect what you put on servers. It doesn’t protect your data from the VPN provider’s VPN servers to whatever site or cloud-based application you use. It doesn’t offer good passwords or multi-factor authentication. Privacy and security require you to be diligent throughout your digital journey, and VPNs, while quite helpful, are not a miracle cure.

Best VPN services 2023: Top picks for speed, price, privacy, and more

vpn hub 960

A virtual private network (VPN) service can help safeguard your identity and location, and keep your activities online anonymous. There are a few things you’ll want to consider when looking for a VPN. It should be able to keep your internet usage private and secure. Speed is also important—privacy and security are crucial, but not at the expense of crippling your internet speed. If you’re concerned with anonymity, you should also look for a VPN with data collection policies that are clear and transparent. Finally, the number of available servers and country locations a VPN offers is important if you are trying to get around region locks.

Why you should trust us: We’re PCWorld. We’ve been testing computer hardware, software, and services for decades. Our reviewers apply the most stringent standards to every product to root out every strength and weakness. We’ve tested and retested all of the major VPNs on offer and a multitude of less well-known alternatives to curate a list of the very best VPNs in a variety of categories. Below our picks you’ll find information about how we test and what to look for when choosing a VPN on your own.

Granted, not everyone wants or needs a premium VPN service—although if online privacy is important to you, we think it should be a priority. You might just want a VPN for occasional use such as when you’re using public Wi-Fi, for instance. If that’s the case, check out our roundups of best free VPNs for Chrome and best free VPNs for Windows for our recommendations, and caveats about a free VPN’s limitations.

Updated 9/5/2023: Check out our latest review of TunnelBear VPN. This fun and easy-to-use VPN is well-suited for beginners and those who just need a simple, no-frills VPN service.

ExpressVPN – Best VPN overall

ExpressVPN - Best VPN overall

  • Consistently good speeds
  • Easy-to-use desktop program
  • Broad device support
  • Logs data transfer amounts
  • More expensive than many competitors

It’s hard to select the best overall VPN. Some services are weaker on privacy, but are significantly easier to use with tons of features, while others could stand an interface redesign.

For many years we chose the best VPN based purely on privacy, but that is no longer the sole concern of most people when choosing a VPN. Privacy is important, to be sure, but so are performance, extra features, a wide country selection, and ease of use. ExpressVPN has it all, making it our top choice for VPNs. ExpressVPN is one of the fastest VPNs we’ve tested, and it has a very easy-to-use app. Its servers are all diskless, running everything in RAM—a welcome practice that’s become fairly standard these days. ExpressVPN also has wide device support, as well as a smart DNS feature for set-top boxes, consoles, and more.

It’s not the cheapest VPN out there, but you do get solid value for the price, and the service is regularly bringing in third-party auditors to bolster its privacy credentials.

Read our full ExpressVPN review

NordVPN – Best VPN for features

NordVPN - Best VPN for features

  • Great feature set
  • Excellent speeds
  • No-logs policy
  • Attractive and intuitive interface

Best Prices Today: $3.49 at NordVPN

Just like our top pick, NordVPN is also an excellent choice. Nord is arguably more feature-filled than ExpressVPN even, and the service is just one part of a larger suite of privacy- and security-focused products. The desktop app is very easy to use and offers a ton of different features including access to the TOR network over VPN, multi-hop VPNs, Meshnet, and a security suite complete with ad and malware blocking.

NordVPN has also gone a long way to bolster user trust with a now thrice independently verified no-logs policy and increased company transparency in recent years. The service also carries out vendor assessments and uses diskless servers for increased security. Their speeds are also outstanding, reaching an average of 73 percent of the base internet speed in our test across all servers. The only reason we placed them second is due to the price of the service, which is more expensive than ExpressVPN for a similar feature-set. Still, you can’t go wrong if you decide to go with NordVPN as your VPN of choice.

Read our full NordVPN review

Mullvad – Best VPN for privacy

Mullvad - Best VPN for privacy

  • Good speeds
  • Higher level of anonymity possible than with most VPN services
  • Windows desktop is easy to use
  • Not guaranteed to work with Netflix
  • Lacks the extra services that some VPNs offer
  • No password protection for your account

Best Prices Today: £5 at Amagicom AB

As Hotspot Shield is to speeds, so Mullvad is to privacy and anonymity. We’ve never seen another VPN that actively resists knowing who you are the way Mullvad does. Mullvad doesn’t ask for your email address, name, or anything else. Instead it assigns a random account number that acts as your identifier and login. Mullvad accepts payments using standard methods such as credit cards and PayPal, but you can also mail your payment in cash to remain as private as possible. Mullvad has a no-logging policy and doesn’t collect any identifying metadata from your usage.

Mullvad is also fast, ranking within our top five for speeds. Though oddly we did find that on Windows, Mullvad’s OpenVPN configuration was actually faster than its Wireguard implementation.

Read our full Mullvad review

IVPN – Best VPN for privacy runner-up

IVPN - Best VPN for privacy runner-up

  • Excellent speeds for its U.S., UK and European servers
  • Interface is easy to understand
  • Default WireGuard protocol connects quickly
  • It’s on the expensive side at $100 per year
  • Server network is under 100 servers

Best Prices Today: $6.00 at IVPN

Coming in behind Mullvad is IVPN. This Gibraltar-based VPN recently moved to dumping email-based identifiers and going with randomly assigned account numbers instead. Similar to Mullvad, it accepts a variety of payment options for privacy including cash, as well as the standard credit cards, PayPal, and other options like Bitcoin and Monero. IVPN doesn’t rank as one of our fastest VPNs, but it does have acceptable speeds for most casual uses.

Another option is OVPN. This VPN doesn’t go to the levels that Mullvad and IVPN do, but it does only require a username and password to create an account. OVPN doesn’t require an email address, though you can add one as a backstop for account recovery should you forget your password. OVPN doesn’t rank in our top 10 for speeds, but it’s just outside the top performers at number 12.

Read our full IVPN review

Hotspot Shield – Fastest VPN

  • Very fast
  • Large country selection and plenty of servers
  • Domain visits are recorded, though not tied to you
  • Expensive

While our pick for best overall VPN, ExpressVPN, boasts above-average speeds, Hotspot Shield is on another level. No other service comes close to hitting the speeds we’ve seen with this service. This isn’t just a one-off occurrence either; Hotspot Shield has consistently been at the top with speeds that are 12 to 15 percentage points above the competition. In our tests, Hotspot Shield maintained around 67 percent of the base speed. That’s substantially faster than you’ll see with most VPN services—though your experience may vary.

On the downside, Hotspot Shield doesn’t allow for a way to pay anonymously and its privacy policy may not sit well with some.

Still, Hotspot Shield has excellent speeds, it’s desktop application is very nice, and as a bonus it works with U.S. Netflix.

Read our full Hotspot Shield review

Private Internet Access – Best VPN for split-tunneling

Private Internet Access - Best VPN for split-tunneling

  • Independently verified no-logs policy
  • Unlimited simultaneous device connections
  • Incredible number of servers
  • Great extra features such as multi-hop and split tunneling
  • App panel awkwardly located on the lower-right corner of screen by default
  • Speeds are just okay

Best Prices Today: $11.95 at Private Internet Access

Private Internet Access (PIA) has been around for awhile and has demonstrated that it can continue to innovate and improve with each passing year. The latest version of PIA is no different. By updating their service to include unlimited simultaneous device connections it has improved upon a already solid VPN. But the real feature that stands out with PIA is its split-tunneling feature. While this is a common feature in most of the services on this list, PIA goes above and beyond. Not only does it allow users to pick and choose which apps they wish to run through the VPN, but it also allows them to designate IP addresses and DNS requests as well. It even comes with the option for an app-based kill switch, which will block traffic only on specific apps should the VPN connection break.

There are a few awkward interface issues and PIA isn’t the fastest service we’ve ever tested. But neither of these issues makes the service any less viable. Power users especially will love all of the tweaking that this app allows you to do with its extra features.

Read our full Private Internet Access review

AirVPN – Best VPN for torrents

AirVPN - Best VPN for torrents

  • Excellent speeds
  • Detailed real-time information about the network
  • Good pricing with many subscription options
  • Team is largely anonymous

Torrents get a bad rap, and if we’re honest, that’s for good reason. Using torrents is the number one way to download pirated material including movies, TV shows, music, and games. But that’s not all there is to torrenting. It’s a very efficient way to download legitimate software such as Linux distributions and authorized content from sites such as BitTorrent Now.

Whatever your reasons, when it comes to torrenting, a VPN makes it easier—especially if the network you’re on blocks torrenting. There are many VPNs among our top picks that could be used for downloading torrents, but our preferred choice is AirVPN. This no-frills VPN has a reasonable number of servers and country locations, really good speeds, excellent network transparency, and a focus on user protection. The price is also right at about $58 a year.

Read our full AirVPN review

CyberGhost VPN – Best VPN for server locations

CyberGhost VPN - Best VPN for server locations

  • Easy-to-use interface
  • Independently verified no-log policy
  • Seriously impressive server spread
  • Lacks some common features such as multi-hop and double VPN
  • Server speeds are hit-or-miss, especially in Asia

Best Prices Today: $12.99 at CyberGhost

If you want variety and options in the server locations from your VPN, then there are none better than CyberGhost VPN. It offers a staggering 9,000+ servers for users to connect to, which is more than twice as many as ExpressVPN. Unlike some competitors, these servers aren’t all concentrated in the U.S. or Europe, either. Their server spread totals 110 countries all across the world. The service even recommends optimized servers to users for various needs such as gaming, streaming, and torrenting. In our testing we found that some of the servers were faster than others, with servers located in Europe having excellent speeds and servers in Asia not fairing as well. But overall, the speeds are good enough to do most of what you want to do with a VPN—web browsing, streaming, etc.

CyberGhost also has a well-designed Windows app that is intuitive and easy to use, even when tweaking your settings. It lacks some of the power-user features that other VPNs on this list provide, but that shouldn’t be a deal breaker for the average user. Ultimately, CyberGhost is a straightforward and easy-to-use VPN service with an incredible number of server locations. For those who travel a lot or just need access to a diverse and vast server spread, CyberGhost is definitely worth consideration.

Read our full CyberGhost review

Surfshark VPN – Best VPN for multi-hop

Surfshark VPN - Best VPN for multi-hop

  • Unlimited simultaneous device connections
  • Works well with Netflix
  • Built-in extras such as ad tracker and malware blocking
  • Low price on long-term plans
  • Indicators for ping or server load are not readily available
  • Based in the Netherlands and subject to government data sharing requests

Power users and those concerned with optimizing anonymity will love Surfshark VPN’s unique multi-hop functionality. For those who might not be familiar with multi-hop, it allows you to route your traffic through more than one external server (i.e. connect to a server in Japan, but multi-hop through Singapore). This makes it more difficult to track your online activities and further obfuscates your actual location.

While many VPNs now offer multi-hop as a feature, Surfshark stands out by allowing users to either choose a predetermined route or create their own multi-hop route. Furthermore, Surfshark is working to implement its Nexus VPN network which will use a Dynamic Multi-Hop feature to automatically connect you to the fastest available entry and exit servers at any desired location. This should further optimize connection speeds across the board. So not only does Surfshark already have one of the best multi-hop features, but it is also set to improve by leaps and bounds in the near future.

Read our full Surfshark review

AVG Secure – Best VPN for novices

AVG Secure - Best VPN for novices

  • Good speeds
  • Allows an excellent 10 simultaneous connections
  • Does log some data
  • No real customizability for power users

If you want something that’s all about ease of use then AVG Secure is a good choice. First, it comes from a known and trusted security company, so there are fewer worries about data security than with one of the independent services. The key thing with AVG Secure is that the interface is easy to understand and use. It has a big “Change location” button to help you select the country you’d like to appear to be in. The app also tells you what your current IP address is and how long you’ve been connected to the VPN. That’s pretty much it. This VPN also works with streaming services and it has P2P servers. One thing it doesn’t have is a lot of extra features, which is actually perfect for anyone looking for a no-frills VPN.

Read our full AVG Secure review

Windscribe Pro – Best budget VPN

Windscribe Pro - Best budget VPN

  • Simple setup
  • Good performance
  • Great free plan
  • Tricky security track record with 2021 server incident
  • Slow loading of browser extension

Choosing the best VPN for you can often come down to price. Windscribe Pro is one of the cheapest premium services around at about $5 per month (when billed annually). It is also really easy to use and offers great security, with both a Windows client and browser extension that work in tandem to keep your browsing private and pop-up free. Windscribe also allows you to pick and choose the features that you want via a build-a-plan system allowing for great versatility to meet each user’s needs. Windscribe’s free option is itself fine to use, and is a good test run before deciding on a paid tier.

Read our full Windscribe Pro review

PersonalVPN – Best U.S.-based VPN

PersonalVPN - Best U.S.-based VPN

  • Reasonably priced
  • Fast servers in many locations around the world
  • Good for power users and novices
  • Not a lot of extra or specialized features
  • Tiered pricing has odd choices for premium features

Best Prices Today: $50 at WiTopia

If you want a VPN based in the good ol’ USA, we recommend WiTopia’s PersonalVPN. The speeds are good, the price is right, and the app is very easy to use. It’s true that a lot of VPN review sites stress the importance of having a VPN that’s outside of the so-called Five Eyes countries, which includes the U.S.—some will even say to avoid the Fourteen Eyes. The idea being that if you use a U.S.-based VPN your activities may end up being secretly monitored by Western authorities. Snowden revealed such truths back in 2013. But if you’re using a VPN to access your accounts for Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or any other U.S.-based service, then staying outside the Fourteen Eyes is more or less pointless. Sure, that VPN with an exotic locale may be able to easily ignore U.S. subpoenas for data, but the American online services you use are another story. Besides if an American VPN does you wrong, it’ll be a lot easier to hold it to account than one based in Singapore, or even Sweden.

Read our full PersonalVPN review

What is a VPN?

VPNs create a secure tunnel between your PC and the internet. You connect to a VPN server, which can be located in the United States or a foreign country—say, France or Japan. Your web traffic then goes through that server to make it appear as though you’re browsing from that server’s location, and not from your actual location.

When you’re using a VPN, it’s difficult for others to snoop on your web-browsing activity. Only you, the VPN service, and the website you’re visiting will know what you’re up to.

A VPN can be a great response to a variety of concerns, such as online privacy, anonymity, greater security on public Wi-Fi, and, of course, spoofing locations.

While a VPN can aid privacy and anonymity, I wouldn’t recommend fomenting the next great political revolution by relying solely on a VPN. To become an internet phantom (or as close as you can realistically get to one), it takes a lot more than a $5 monthly subscription to a VPN.

Beyond that, a VPN is an excellent choice for staying secure while using Wi-Fi at the airport or your local café. Hackers sitting on public Wi-Fi can try to hack your PC, but a VPN makes that task much harder.

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.

There are VPNs that can fool Netflix, but they are rare and there are no guarantees these services will outsmart Netflix forever.

Beyond Netflix, a VPN can help to download an Android app that is only available on a foreign version of Google Play, or stream content from regionally restricted services such as the UK-bound BBC iPlayer or Disney Plus.

One final note of caution: Do not rely on your VPN to protect banking information on an open Wi-Fi connection. Whenever possible, leave online financial dealings for home over a hard-wired connection.

What to look for in a VPN

Before anything else, understand that if you want to use a VPN you should be paying for it. Free VPNs typicall sell your browsing data in aggregated form to researchers and marketers, or give you a paltry amount of data transfer every month. Either way, a basic rule of thumb is that a free VPN will not protect your privacy in any meaningful way.

The next thing to consider is a VPN’s logging policies. In other words, what kind of data is a service collecting about you and your VPN activity, and how long is that data saved?

Privacy is the basic principle of a VPN, and what good is it to avoid passive government surveillance only to have a VPN provider record all your website visits?

Ideally, a VPN will say it only keeps logs for the briefest of periods. Some providers, for example, only log activity in RAM during a session or automatically send all records to oblivion once they’re created. Other providers may keep records for a few hours, days, weeks, or even months.

VPN policies also vary when it comes to personal information. Some VPNs want to know very little about you, preferring users sign on with a pseudonym and pay with Bitcoin. That’s a little exotic for most people, which is why many services also accept PayPal.

Paying this way isn’t ideal for privacy, but it means the VPN doesn’t have your payment information on record—though it would be available from PayPal.

After the logging policies, you want to know how many servers the VPN offers and how many country connections it has. The number of servers provides an idea of how much load a VPN can take before slowing to a crawl due to overwhelming traffic.

The country connections, meanwhile, matter most to those who want to spoof their location; however, non-spoofers should also make sure there are connections in their home country. If you live in Los Angeles, for example, and want access to American content, then you’ll need a VPN that provides U.S. connections. It won’t work to try and watch Amazon Prime Video over a Dutch VPN connection, because as far as Amazon’s concerned your computer would be in the Netherlands.

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.

Finally, how many devices does a VPN support from a single account? In this age of smartphones, tablets, laptops, and PCs, a VPN’s cost should include licensing for at least five devices. Also, a provider should have Android and iOS apps to make it easy to connect a smartphone or tablet to the service.

How we tested

We judge VPNs on a variety of criteria including overall connection speeds, privacy protection, usability of the interface, country choices, server count, and cost.

Speed tests are kept as simple as possible. We connect to five different global locations for a given VPN—typically North America, Europe, the United Kingdom, Australia, and a wild card somewhere in Asia–on three different days at different times of the day running the test at each location multiple times.

Before the test begins we check the speed of our base Wi-Fi connection using an online speed test. Then we connect to the VPN’s servers around the world and run the speed test again. We then show each result, average them out, and calculate the average as a percentage of the base speed.

Remember that internet speeds can vary wildly based on location, routers, PCs, time of day, connection type, the load on the VPN and speed test servers, and numerous other factors. In other words, our test results will likely differ from yours. For that reason, consider our speed results only as a rough guide for how each VPN performs.

Judging server choices by country is also kept simple. We expect a VPN to offer a variety of country connections with a minimum of at least 20.

Privacy and anonymity is judged on the guarantees the companies make, as well as its reputation from any news items we’re aware of that may impact the trustworthiness of these claims. We also take a look at the data encryption, authentication, and handshake protocols used.

Finally, for pricing we expect to pay $60 per year, and anything over that needs to justify its cost with extra features or unique selling points of some kind.

Other notable VPNs

We’ll keep evaluating new ones and reevaluating services we’ve already tested on a regular basis, so be sure to come back to see what else we’ve put through their paces.

FAQ

Is it legal to use a VPN?

Yes! It is perfectly legal in most countries, including the United States, to use a VPN. While using a VPN, you might find some websites that try to block your connection, but this is an individual website’s use policy and has nothing to do with the legality of the VPN itself. One thing to note though, while it’s legal to use a VPN, some of the activities done while using a VPN might be illegal. Such things as downloading pirated copyrighted content or accessing dark web markets are illegal whether you use a VPN or not.

Do VPNs protect against malware and computer viruses?

No, a VPN connection itself does not protect you from malware and computer viruses. It does however encrypt your internet traffic and keep prying eyes from accessing your browsing history.

Some VPN services, such as Nord VPN, do however provide additional security features such as ad and malware blockers. Additionally, many antivirus suites now offer VPN services along with their security features. Although VPNs and antivirus software are used for different purposes, there is still a degree of overlap that makes using both tools together beneficial.

Will a VPN affect my internet speeds?

Most likely you will see a moderate speed decrease to your internet while using a VPN. This is mainly due to the process of your internet traffic being rerouted and encrypted through a VPN server before heading on to its destination. The amount of latency you will experience through this process is down to what country’s server you choose to proxy your traffic through. If you choose a server located on the other side of the world, then you will notice a much greater hit than if you were to connect to a server nearby in your same country.

Thankfully, most modern VPNs should have the infrastructure to maintain high-speed, secure data transfer rates. So it’s likely you can still browse and stream with no noticeable impact while using a reputable VPN like those listed above.

Will a VPN make me anonymous online?

Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as just turning on your VPN and disappearing off grid. While VPNs certainly offer better privacy and security, they don’t make you completely anonymous. There are a mindbogglingly number of ways that companies track you across the internet and a VPN isn’t capable of blocking all of them. For example, when you sign into a website, your identity is revealed to that website. Or when you log into your Gmail account while using a VPN, Google can now collect cookies based on your browsing.

How many servers should my VPN have?

There is no set number of servers that make one VPN better than another. However, most major VPN providers offer between 3,000 to 5,000 servers. Also, we recommend avoiding any paid services whose providers have under 1,000 servers as this may be an indication that the company is not yet well established, meaning that there is a higher chance for reliability issues.

It is common for VPN providers to advertise the number of servers they have, but this is largely a marketing gimmick and doesn’t generally equate to the quality of the VPN provider itself. Things such as the spread of server locations and server quality are as important, if not more so, than the number of available servers.

Editor’s note: Because online services are often iterative, gaining new features and performance improvements over time, our reviews are subject to change in order to accurately reflect the current state of the services.