Big Brother is watching you browse. VPNs are your shield. But how do you know it’s worth it?
Isn’t it wonderful how many things come for free on the Internet? But that’ the problem too — as they say, if you’re not paying, you’re the commodity. Many websites have been known to notoriously track, collect, and sell their users’ data.
VPNs are primarily meant to protect users from such predatory behavior, but there’s a dime-a-dozen of them nowadays. Just how do you know which ones are worth your money? How do you know which VPN providers give you the perfect balance between speed and features, all while staying true to their claims of 100% privacy?
You can take the long-hand method and try them all out yourself, sacrificing a LOT of time and money in the process. You can also rely on many other VPN review sites, whose recommendations are often influenced by which company is giving them the biggest affiliate deal.
The Best VPN Deal for September 2021
Or, you can read on in this site for full-blown, unbiased, and unflinching reviews of the best VPN services out there!
Some VPNs Are Inherently Better Than Others
Commercialism can be a great thing, because it allows companies to earn more for the services they offer, thus allowing them to improve their services. But the drive to earn is also behind some unscrupulous behavior as the selling of user data.
In the world of VPNs, the same is true. In fact, many free VPNs out there are nothing more than funnels that make it easier for the highest bidder to obtain a copy of your browsing habits. As you read on in this site, you’ll know which of these unethical VPN providers you should steer clear from.
As for the rest of the true VPNs (those who really aim to protect their users’ privacy), there are a lot of factors that can affect the quality of service they provide. Sometimes it’s even a question of laws — if a VPN service is incorporated and/or located in one of the “14 Eyes”, for example, they would be required to divulge user data upon request by the government.
At other times it’s simply a question of how many servers they have, where in the world they are located, and what types of technology they use. This site reviews and ranks the best VPNs based on a battery of tests that focus on these aspects. Here are just a few of the benchmarks we base our VPN reviews on:
- Speed and reliability
- Geographic availability
- Ease of Use
- Cross-platform and cross-device compatibility
- Streaming sites support (Netflix, Hulu, etc.)
- Privacy features
- Known security flaws
- Company policies
- Quality of support
You’ll notice that in the top tiers of VPN services, the competition can be pretty tight. Top VPN providers offer pretty much the same level of features and privacy protection, and even associated costs don’t differ that much. It’s here, however, where our tests reveal how some VPN programs inch out the rest!
And what are the top contenders? Read more and find out.
What a VPN should do
The basics of a VPN are simple: you connect to it, and it connects you to your destination website. You don’t need to learn much about how it works in order to use it well, but you need to at least learn the basics properly if you want to use it effectively.
At the very least, a VPN needs to be able to mask your IP address. That is, when you go to an IP checker website, it should not reveal your real IP and location. If a VPN can’t do this, it fails the most basic of tests.
Since a VPN serves as a bridge that connects your device to the website you want to browse, there’s bound to be some tradeoff in speed. Your data is taking a roundabout route towards a different server, instead of going directly to its destination. The top VPNs are those that can mitigate this, reducing the impact to your browsing speed as much as possible.
And since VPN services are meant to be used by people across the world, the location, number, and availability of their servers is also crucially important. A VPN company with servers in the East Coast would be good for someone in New York, since that means his data doesn’t have to travel far before it can connect. However, that would be disadvantageous for someone who is, say, in Hong Kong. VPN companies need to have strategically-placed servers with enough bandwidth to cater to the needs of all its connected users.
Check out this guide that contains the primary VPN metrics, so you can do your own VPN reviews!
Your VPN Needs May Be Different
You’ve just read about the basic features a good VPN service needs to have, and most of the services we reviewed met and exceeded all these. However, inasmuch as we are looking for the best all-around VPN company out there, user preference isn’t always the same.
There are many users who, taking their privacy seriously, want the best data security there is. They’re willing to sacrifice a little speed for top-grade encryption, security from prying government eyes, and even the physical security of the VPN servers themselve.
There are others who want their VPN services to go as fast as possible, nevermind a few privacy leaks here and there. So long as there aren't any big VPN leaks, however, you should generally be okay.
Still, there are others who put a premium on cross-platform compatibility, and the ability to connect as many devices as possible at once.
Of course, there are still more for whom any privacy improvement is better than nothing, so long as it’s not costing them much!
We recognize all these preferences, and we cater our reviews to them as well! Our reviews also cover specialized VPN providers that excel in the following fields:
- Privacy and Security
- Speed and Availability
Why should you need a VPN service, anyway?
If this is your first time digging deep into VPN subscriptions, you might want to look at the ways a VPN can make your life easier. For a full primer on how to start using a VPN, check out this in-depth guide! If you’re just looking for quick reasons to purchase your first VPN subscription, read on.
Most people use a VPN to do one of two things: to stop third parties (sites, ISPs, their company network, the government) from prying into their browsing, or to access a site that is otherwise network-restricted. The latter is thanks to a VPN’s ability to spoof locations, allowing you to access sites as if you were physically located where the server you are using is. The more locations are available for your VPN service’s servers, the more options you have.
Still, for others, using a VPN can be a life-or-death situation. Whistleblowers, journalists, and activists all use VPNs regularly to prevent hostile parties from identifying and locating them. VPNs have played a major role in many battles against undue censorship and human rights violations. This makes VPNs essential in more ways than one.
But VPNs are not silver bullets, and are not meant to solve all your privacy woes in just one go. In fact, the way most people browse today can undermine some of VPNs’ advantages! For a detailed discussion on how to improve your browsing behavior to make the most out of your VPN, check out this page!
Are There Disadvantages to Using VPNs?
The short answer is, if you know what you’re doing, then VPNs are perfectly safe.
That said, there are a few potential downsides you need to know about before jumping in headfirst into a VPN subscription.
First, VPNs (especially poor ones) can negatively impact your Internet speed. Remember that a VPN works by bouncing your web traffic to a distant server before getting to its destination. This can cause noticeable increases in loading times, especially if you already have a slow Internet connection to begin with.
Sometimes, the same safety features that make VPNs reliable can also affect your Internet connections. Many VPN services have a feature called a “kill-switch”, which disrupts your whole Internet connection when it detects the VPN server cannot be reached. The connection will go back online only after the VPN server is again available. This is good because losing the safety of your VPN connection while connected to a site will let your ISP know where you’re connected to and what you are doing. This can also be annoying, however, if it keeps your Internet dropping.
A second downside is that using a VPN on a site can get you blocked by that site. This only happens through indiscriminate use, as there are some services that have anti-VPN policies (more on this later). Using a VPN while accessing such a service can get your account banned.
Then, there’s the case of not knowing enough about the VPN service you’re using. Some people do dangerous things (like take a dip into the Dark Web) confident in the fact that they are using a VPN, without even bothering to check the level of protection the VPN really affords them.
Weaker VPN services, for example, only protect your traffic with basic encryption that any motivated hacker can crack. Not a very good thing when you’re going someplace the hackers are! Granted, it’s not really easy for the average Joe to check tech documents and look at encryption standards. In that case, you can rely on our reviews to give you an unbiased look at how protected you can be when using VPN providers.
The worst downside of using a VPN only applies when you’re using a bad VPN — these characters are worse than not having a VPN at all! Aside from collecting and selling your data, these VPNs can even potentially expose you to more online danger. At the very least, they can make advertisers easier to track and profile you. At the worst, they can expose you to the more criminal elements of the online world.
Finally, there’s the psychological aspect to using a VPN service — it can leave you feeling invulnerable, which can in fact make you even more vulnerable!! Having a VPN lull you into the false sense of belief that having a VPN will protect you from everything. Remember that a VPN cannot protect you from other online dangers such as phishing and online social engineering. It also won’t protect your device from viruses and malware. To be safe, check out this list of the things you should never do even while on a VPN connection.
VPNs vs. Proxies
Many people mistake VPNs for proxies, seeing as they essentially accomplish the same task (connect a computer with another computer, through a network). However, there’s a world of difference between the two types of services.
Proxies are servers that hide your IP address from the website you’re connecting to, by acting as a middleman of sorts in transferring your data. However, unlike VPNs, proxy servers don’t encrypt the data to and from you and the site. This means you can still be easily identified — something that won’t happen if you have a good VPN service instead.
If you rely on proxies for anything other than the casual browsing of geo-locked content, anyone can still access your data. In fact, some users are even more exposed to online attacks since some proxy servers handle your data in irresponsible ways. Proxies also hide your IP only on the application you’re using it with, not the whole device. This means that other apps you’re working on will still reflect your real IP address.
Overall, proxy servers provide lightweight anonymity, but not security in any appreciable form. If you’re serious about your privacy, or if you are working in an environment where any data leak can be a risk, then VPNs are the only choice. From dealing with sensitive data to banking on a public WiFi hotspot, you can’t go wrong with a VPN.
Logging Policies: Where VPNs Keep Skeletons
Most online services have a skeleton or two in their closets, and the VPN industry isn’t that different. Since everything is data, and data can be bought and sold, you should know what type of data your VPN service really collects. Just because they say “we don’t track the sites you visit” doesn’t mean they can’t turn your browsing activity into a commodity!
The VPN logging policy is the place to look, if you can stomach all the fine print and legalese. You can check out our detailed inspection of VPN company logging policies in our reviews, or read on for a quick overview.
As it stands, almost half of all the VPN services we reviewed still record some sort of browsing data which can be compiled to decipher your browsing habits. These consist mainly of timestamps, such as when you connected and disconnected to their service.These VPNs also tend to keep a log of how much data has been transferred through their servers during the time you were connected.
A little more concerning is that over a quarter of all reviewed VPN providers log your actual IP address, so they can actually trace your location even if an eavesdropping third-party can’t. This becomes dangerous if these companies are located in territories where they are obliged to share data to the government upon subpoena. Then there’s a minority (but still concerning number) of VPNs that log all of your browsing data, which pretty much defeats the core purpose of having a VPN. That is, of course, unless you just want to evade geographic restrictions in the sites you visit (hello, Netflix), but it still pays to cover your tracks while doing this!
Another important aspect of logging is the duration during which the records are kept. Some VPN servers flush their records daily, while others barely at all.
To make matters worse, there are some VPN companies that say they collect only this data or that, but in fact they collect much more.This level of dishonesty is unfortunately prevalent in the industry, in which case even the logging policies are useless.
A good part of our testing measures attempt to uncover just how much data VPN service providers really collect. We compare this to their publicly-stated logging policies, and through this we filter out the wheat from the chaff.
Global VPN Laws: Are VPNs even Legal?
Many people use VPNs for gray-area tasks, such as the aforementioned bypassing of geographical restrictions. There are also those who use VPNs for outright illegal means, as a cover for piracy, or other shady digital transactions. But the vast majority of people use VPNs as simply a way to remain private, to prevent their ISPs and other snooping eyes away from their online habits.
In most countries around the world, using VPNs are legal. The exceptions and gray areas are mapped out in this page. If your country is not listed in the exceptions, congratulations!
But just because it’s legal doesn’t mean you aren’t breaking a few things. There are a few online services that have hostile stances towards VPN connections. Netflix, for example, has a few clauses in their Terms and Conditions that state you can’t watch their international catalog through a VPN. While Netflix has not cracked down on VPN-using accounts just yet, the threat is there. Of course since what you’re doing isn’t illegal, you can just work around Netflix’s terms at your account’s risk. While Netflix actively stops most VPNs from connecting to its servers, a handful of the best VPNs can squeeze through Netflix just fine allowing you access to every single show in its vast catalog.
Of course, the legality of VPNs as they apply to you is only just half of the equation. The VPN companies themselves have to contend with a host of country regulations, depending on where their business is set up. There are two legal threats to a VPN server’s integrity — mandatory data retention laws that governments can exploit, and the lack of strong data protection legislation.
There are a number of locations, such as Panama, the British Virgin Islands, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Hong Kong where the confluence of laws and other government regulations make data privacy a breeze. On the other end of the spectrum are the prying eyes of the 5-Eyes, 9-Eyes, and the 14-Eyes countries. The European Union, despite its pro-privacy stance in most things, cooperates directly with the US and its Eyes so they are subject to suspicion (at least for the privacy conscious). The extreme case would be countries like the US, where the government can paper a company with gag orders and warrants therefore compromising even the purest of zero-logs intentions.
A good part of our reviews focus on data privacy and overall safety. We look at where the company is based, so we can assess the political and economical climates under which these VPN companies operate. This way, we can deliver recommendations free of any legal red flags — the rest of it will be up to how you use it!
Does your VPN provider have your back?
Another thing that’s tricky with VPNs is that, while some of them are simply install-and-click affairs that you can get up and running easily, there are those whose setup requires a few changes in your device settings.
And let’s face it — due to the massive differences from one device and platform to another, VPNs can be pretty tricky to set up. Add to that the fact that even across the same device types, differences in operating systems (and even operating system versions) can cause hiccups in the VPN setup process.
Here’s where support from your VPN service provider comes really handy. Since most VPNs that we reviewed are paid services (as all the best VPN providers are) , subscribing to them means you should at least be able to expect a measure of customer support. VPN support usually comes through either email (or help ticket) or chat channels, but there are also those that offer phone support for their customers.
In our reviews, we also look at the service levels of various VPN providers, so that you know who has your back when issues arise. We also put plus points for well-provisioned help centers, because why wait for help when you can find the answers yourself? All the best VPN providers have some form of 24/7 support, so we also measure how fast these VPNs respond to your concerns. Additional credit is given to VPN providers that support multiple languages!
Are Free VPNs Any Good?
You read above that as a paying customer, you are entitled to support. But what if you have a free VPN?
Free VPN services are (naturally) looked upon with caution. As we’ve said before, if you’re not paying, you’re likely the commodity. In fact, most of the bad apples in the VPN industry are concentrated on the free providers, whose only reason for existence is to bundle up your data and sell it to unscrupulous third parties.
Still, there are a number of legitimate, free VPN providers. These VPNs come from reputable companies, offered as the lowest tiers in their range of products.
Note that free VPNs aren’t free forever, as all of them have some sort of limitation. Some providers throttle your Internet speed while on VPN, while others put a cap on the amount of data you can transfer while connected. For others, the restriction comes in the form of a time or connection limit, while others still let you connect only from a very small pool of servers. If you were looking to mask your location through a specific country not in this list, you’re out of luck!
In a way, the free tier is just a “free taste” into what a VPN could do. If you like it, then you have to buy in. A paid subscription is generally the best answer if you need to use a VPN regularly, since these tiers remove all limitations. But of course, there are those who need nothing more than the base capabilities that the free VPN services offer.
How Much Should A VPN Cost, Anyway?
So if it’s not free, how much should you shell out for a good VPN connection? The top VPN providers we reviewed mostly cost around the range of $2 to $5 per month, but there’s more to the price than just these raw numbers.
Like most online services, VPNs are offered in either monthly or yearly subscriptions. While the monthly payment plan is more flexible especially if you don’t envision using the service for long, such plans also tend to be more expensive. The annual price (the $2 to $5 mentioned above) could balloon into twice or even three times that.
Many VPN services also offer great discounts on long-term plans, with some offering more than 60% off or more (by way of introductory prices) for 2-year and even 3-year plans. Almost all VPN providers also offer a money-back guarantee for those who change their minds after a limited time period. A more prudent approach for the cash-conscious would be to sign up for a free tier first, just to test the waters.
As with most things in the market, remember that the price does not dictate the quality of the service. In fact, some of the best all-around VPN providers come at very affordable rates, much cheaper than their competitors! Because of the wealth of options, there’s always room for shopping around so that you can find the best VPN based on your budget.
The Past and Future of VPNs
VPNs have been a thing for only about a decade, but their use originated way back in the mid-90s when Microsoft made a point-to-point tunneling protocol. This is an encrypted protocol wherein the data hops from peer to peer, making data safer.
Since then, VPN has mostly been the purview of businesses, governments, non-profits, and similar institutions. With the advancement of Internet technologies (and the dangers associated with it), the industry branched off to provide services to individuals.
And VPN usage has continued to grow since. Today, VPN is a multi-billion dollar industry, with most of its users coming from Asia and Latin America. Most of the servers are found in Europe and North America, despite these regions accounting for less than 20% of global VPN usage.
VPN technology is also evolving. Not only is installing and activating a VPN easier today than it was around five years ago, more options for online privacy and safety are also already available. Add to that the fact that VPNs can be installed pretty much anywhere, from desktop to mobile, from routers to appliances! In a world where everything can be connected, everything must also be protected. Since we are looking at a future where more people tend to be privacy conscious, it’s only right to expect more improvements in compatibility, availability, speed, and cost-effectiveness of VPN services.
On This Page
- Some VPNs Are Inherently Better Than Others
- What a VPN should do
- Your VPN Needs May Be Different
- Why should you need a VPN service, anyway?
- Are There Disadvantages to Using VPNs?
- VPNs vs. Proxies
- Logging Policies: Where VPNs Keep Skeletons
- Global VPN Laws: Are VPNs even Legal?
- Does your VPN provider have your back?
- Are Free VPNs Any Good?
- How Much Should A VPN Cost, Anyway?
- The Past and Future of VPNs