Update

Best VPN services of 2018: Reviews and buying advice

By using a VPN you can keep your identity and data secure online.

IDG/Rob Schultz

Choosing the right virtual private network (VPN) service is no simple task. A VPN should keep your internet usage private and secure, but not every service handles your data in the same way. Just look at the critiques of notable computer security experts and online pundits to understand the challenge.

(Want to know more about VPNs and what they can and can’t do? Skip down to our “What is a VPN?” section below.)

Since it takes research to find out if a VPN service has a history of good or bad behavior, we’ve done the legwork to find the best VPN out there. In order to win our seal of approval, the service has to protect online privacy; allow you to keep anonymity; offer a good variety of locations from which to direct your traffic; offer fast, reliable performance; and provide an easy-to-use interface.

If you’d like to have more flexibility and choose for yourself, we also offer our tips on what to look for in a VPN. Just keep reading past our Best VPN and Best VPN for U.S. Netflix recommendations. (And if you live in the United Kingdom and are looking for a VPN, check out VPN recommendations from our sister site, TechAdvisor.)

Links to full reviews of all the VPN services we tested can be found at the very bottom of the page. 

Updated 2/6/18 to add a brand-new category to our list: Best VPN for torrents. Many of the top VPNs are up to this task, but see why we’ve deemed Private Internet Access exceptionally proficient.

Best VPN overall

In truth, it’s hard to select the best overall VPN. Some services are weaker on privacy, but are significantly easier to use, while others could stand an interface redesign.

Nevertheless, the point of a VPN is to remain private and to have your internet activity kept as private as possible. For that reason, we’re choosing Mullvad as the best overall VPN (see our full review of Mullvad). The interface needs a lot of work, but the company does a great job at privacy. Mullvad doesn’t ask for your email address, and you can mail your payment in cash if you want to. Like many other VPNs, Mullvad has a no-logging policy and doesn’t even collect any identifying metadata from your usage.

Mullvad is also fast, even if it’s not the fastest VPN we’ve tested. Add a more user-friendly interface and Mullvad would be nearly unbeatable.

Runner-up

CyberGhost gives Mullvad some stiff competition in the speed department, especially for locations in North America and Europe. It does a good job protecting user anonymity, too—requiring no identifying information and using a third-party service for payment processing—albeit not to the same degree as Mullvad. Add to that CyberGhost’s unique, easy-to-use interface, good price, and streaming unblocking (although not for Netflix), and this VPN is a solid choice. (See our full review of CyberGhost.)

Best VPN for U.S. Netflix

If you live outside the U.S. (or are a U.S. resident and traveling abroad), a VPN is the only way to access Netflix’s US library. But ever since Netflix began blocking VPNs, few services even bother to do battle with the streaming behemoth.

Fortunately, there are some brave companies that are still trying to stay one step ahead of Netflix’s VPN catchers. Currently, Windscribe Pro is our top choice. The service delivers good speeds on its U.S. servers, and has a very simple approach to Netflix: Just select the “Windflix” connection from the desktop app or browser extension and you’re good to go. Windflix is still technically in beta, but it works well and there’s even a Windflix U.K. option if you’d like to experience Netflix from the other side of the pond.

Of course, Netflix could block access at any time, but right now Windscribe is one step ahead of the streaming giant’s crackdown. (For more about Windscribe Pro see our full review.)

Fastest VPN

HotSpot Shield has some of the best speeds we’ve seen yet, and it’s not even close. In our tests, HotSpot Shield dipped around 35 percent below the base speed. That’s substantially less impact 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 review).

Best VPN for U.S. speeds

IVPN has by far the best speeds we’ve seen on U.S. (and UK) connections. Your individual results may vary, but with a free, three-day trial, anyone looking for good speeds from the U.S. or UK should give IVPN a try. IVPN’s Windows program is very easy to understand and manage; however, it is a pricey service at $100 per year
and there’s no guarantee it will work with Netflix. (Read our full review.)

Best VPN for torrents

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.

If you’re going to use torrents, however, life is easier if you use a VPN—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 Private Internet Access. This no-frills VPN has an absolute ton of servers, good speeds, and a nice amount of country locations to remain relatively anonymous. (Read our full review.) The price is right at less than $40 a year, and its privacy policies have been tested in court. Plus, advanced users can adjust their level of encryption for data encryption, data authentication, and handshake.

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.

SaferVPN

A good VPN offers you a wide variety of locations to connect to. 

While a VPN can aid privacy and anonymity, I wouldn’t recommend fomenting the next great political revolution by relying solely on a VPN. Some security experts argue that a commercial VPN is better than a free proxy such as the TOR network for political activity, but a VPN is only part of the solution. To become an internet phantom (or as close as you can realistically get to one), it takes a lot more than a $7 monthly subscription to a VPN.

If you want a VPN for political reasons, this article cannot help. But there are other places you can turn to online such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Moving on to less serious topics, 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 Pandora.

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 are either selling your browsing data in aggregated form to researchers and marketers, or giving 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.

Private Internet Access

The settings window for Private Internet Access.

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 Hulu’s concerned your computer is 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.

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 not be the same as 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 no more than $85 US per year unless we find a valid reason for the higher cost.

Best VPN: Reviews

Have a special set of needs, or looking to investigate the other options? Below is a list of all the VPNs we’ve reviewed. We’ll keep evaluating new ones and reevaluating services we’ve already tried on a regular basis, so be sure to come back to see what else we’ve put through their paces.

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.

At a Glance

CyberGhost is an easy-to-use VPN with impressive speeds with features that will appeal to both novice and experienced users.

Pros

  • Excellent speeds
  • Easy-to-use interface

Cons

  • It's not easy for American customers to pay cash
  • Unblocking doesn't include Netflix
  • Usual price is very expensive

HotSpot Shield offers fast speeds, a beautiful and simple desktop app for windows, and 25 country locations. But it's privacy policy means your activities are recorded—though not tied to you. Still, this is not what privacy-conscious users will be looking for.

Pros

  • Very fast
  • Ideal interface for beginners

Cons

  • Browsing activity is recorded though not tied to you
  • Power users can't do any serious customization

Gibraltar-based IVPN has a small network of servers, but good speeds, and a solid privacy policy. It's pricier than most VPN servers, but for those who don't need a wide number of country choices it can be a good choice.

Pros

  • Good speeds for its U.S. and UK servers
  • Simple interface on the Windows app

Cons

  • It's expensive at $100 per year
  • Not many features for power users

Sweden-based Mullvad is like the Swiss Bank account of VPNs. Instead of attaching your account to an email address, the company auto-generates an account number for you, and that's all that's required to log in. Mullvad offers a bare-bones interface, but its speeds are good, and the company takes privacy very seriously.

Pros

  • Good privacy
  • Company owns its server network

Cons

  • Interface leaves a lot to be desired
  • Lacks passwords to protect your account

NordVPN is a popular VPN service with good speeds, the unbelievable ability to access U.S. Netflix from abroad, and an interface that suits both power users and novices. The company is fairly reluctant to say who's behind it, however, with very few people putting a public face on the company.

Pros

  • Works with Netflix
  • Respectable speeds
  • Zero-logging policy

Cons

  • Company leadership is anonymous

WiTopia has some good speeds, an easy way to choose your preferred VPN protocol, and an even easier way for novices who just want to secure their Wi-Fi to connect. It's also reasonably priced at $50 to $70 for a year, though the current iteration of the Windows desktop program needs a little work.

Pros

  • Reasonably priced
  • Fast servers in many locations around the world

Cons

  • Current Windows program is usable, but showing its age
  • Not a lot of extra or specialized features

SurfEasy is a very basic VPN with fast speeds that can get past Netflix's VPN restrictions. The company's Windows app could use a little work, and there is no easy way to pay anonymously for those who need it.

Pros

  • Very fast speeds
  • Works with U.S. Netflix

Cons

  • No easy way to pay anonymously
  • The privacy policy may give some users pause

TunnelBear is an easy-to-use VPN that doesn't overwhelm with features or too many country choices. It has consistently respectable speeds across most country locations to satisfy any casual VPN user.

Pros

  • Easy-to-use interface
  • Good speeds
  • Good Wi-Fi security detection

Cons

  • Logging of generic data

VPN Unlimited doesn't have the greatest Windows app in the world, but it offers flexible pricing, works with Netflix, and has some serviceable speeds. Privacy conscious users will want to read the privacy policy closely, however.

Pros

  • Flexible pricing options
  • Pretty good speeds
  • Works with Netflix

Cons

  • Informational map doesn't serve much purpose
  • Privacy policy is okay, but could be better

VyprVPN is a solid choice for a VPN service. It's simple to use, has enough servers and country options, and some servers work with U.S. Netflix. Anyone who's looking for the most possible anonymity, however, would do better to look elsewhere.

Pros

  • Great Windows app
  • Good connection speeds

Cons

  • Retains generic information about your VPN sessions for thirty days
  • Lower pricing tier offers just three simultaneous connections

Windscribe won't win any speed showdowns compared to other VPNs we've looked at, but it's still got some great servers in Europe and North America. The service also has added extras like a link shortener with warnings about ad trackers on the destination page, and it currently works with U.S. Netflix.

Pros

  • Secure.link Generator is a helpful link-shortening service
  • Works with Netflix

Cons

  • There is some logging, but it's limited and mostly time sensitive
  • Speeds are good in some locations, but could be better in others

Buffered VPN doesn't offer any standout features, but it nevertheless provides dependable VPN service with a straightforward interface.

Pros

  • Simple, no-nonsense interface
  • Helpful built-in speed and firewall tools

Cons

  • Not ideal for anonymity
  • Retains some generic data on usage activity

ExpressVPN provides a solid service with good speeds, and an easy-to-use Windows desktop app. But the people behind the company are doing their best to remain anonymous, which is a problem when it comes to trust.

Pros

  • Consistently good speeds in the U.S., UK, and Europe
  • Easy-to-use desktop program
  • Broad device support

Cons

  • ExpressVPN's team is largely anonymous
  • Expensive

Ivacy VPN has a nice Windows app and it offers a nice, low price. The service's country offerings aren't as big as others we've seen, but it has most of the key countries you're looking for. Ivacy's privacy policy has all the right promises too, but it's based in Shanghai and it's not clear who's behind the company.

Pros

  • Great price
  • Very nicely designed Windows apps

Cons

  • Not upfront about senior leadership
  • Uses virtual server locations

Private Internet Access has an excellent price and recently backed up its privacy-policy claims in dealings with the FBI. It also has good number of country locations and a ton of servers.

Pros

  • Excellent price
  • Recently proved its privacy-policy claims

Cons

  • Doesn't have much in the way of power-user controls
  • Minimalist interface may put off VPN newbies

PureVPN has some good speeds, its privacy policy says it doesn't keep activity logs, but it does use virtual server locations which some users may not like.

Pros

  • Good speeds
  • Easy-to-use interface
  • Doesn't log browsing activity

Cons

  • Uses virtual server locations
  • Not clear where its day-to-day operations are managed

SaferVPN has good performance with more than 400 servers in 29 countries; however, it may not appeal to the more privacy or budget conscious.

Pros

  • Approachable interface
  • Lots of servers

Cons

  • One of the more expensive VPN options
  • Logging policy may dissuade privacy-conscious users

Speedify is a unique, mobile-focused VPN that aims to take advantage of multiple internet connections. It also has a nifty "failover" feature that keeps your downloads or streaming going over one connection, when another disappear.

Pros

  • Upload speeds were significantly improved over channel bonding
  • Unique failover feature automatically continues downloads over cellular when Wi-Fi lost

Cons

  • Channel bonding reduced download speeds in our tests
  • Windows user interface built for mobile, not desktop

IPVanish is a U.S.-based VPN with a good app, secure connections, serviceable speeds, and enough features to please power users.

Pros

  • Power users can choose individual servers
  • Company runs its own network of servers

Cons

  • Drilling down to individual servers isn't as intuitive as it could be
  • Speeds are serviceable but not oustanding

HideIPVPN is a very easy-to-use VPN, but it lacks a variety of server and country choices, and overall speeds aren't that great.

Pros

  • Easy-to-use interface
  • Very good speeds in Germany

Cons

  • Speeds aren't great in most country locations
  • Not entirely clear who's running the service