The best VPN to use to protect your privacy

It’s best practice to use a virtual private network (VPN) to hide your internet activity from snoops. A VPN establishes an encrypted connection between your device of choice and a private server, which can be ideal if you value security. But VPNs are also a dime a dozen in app stores. Worse, it’s often hard to tell them apart. Many VPNs are simply named “VPN” with a generic image of a lock to make you feel secure. We’ve gone over how to set up a VPN. But which VPN should you use?

The problem is that there are too many VPNs out there, and it can take a long time to figure out which ones work the best. At first glance, they all function the same way: you download one, allow it to access a bunch of rights, and press connect to a server (usually the one nearest to you). Googling “best VPN” doesn’t always get the answers, either. One website will say a VPN is incredibly fast, while another will say the same VPN is average speed. Because any VPN worth its salt costs money (something you should definitely keep in mind), you will probably want to take advantage of a free trial. But then there’s a chance that you might forget to cancel, even if you feel it’s an undesirable VPN subscription.
I decided to see for myself which VPNs work the best. I considered a lot of criteria, from which ones have the fastest download speeds to which ones let you run on the most devices simultaneously.

The best VPNs work in multiple countries so that, no matter where you travel, there is a server nearby securely providing fast internet. (It’s a plus if the VPN manages to work in China, one of the few places in the world where a firewall blocks Google and Reddit.) If you’re really security-conscious, you’ll want the VPN’s company headquarters to be located outside of the US and Europe because both require companies to retain your personal data and hand it over to authorities when necessary.
It’s also important that the VPN you choose doesn’t log your personal data and web activity, ensuring your privacy. You’ll also want your VPN to have an automatic kill switch that will cut off your internet connection in the event the VPN is disconnected so that your IP address isn’t exposed.
Having the largest possible number of servers in the largest number of countries is also essential. If the VPN doesn’t connect within your region, your internet speeds will be significantly slowed. I also took into consideration customer service, user interface, and, of course, pricing.
While I tested these VPNs largely on iOS and Android, all of the ones I chose also support macOS and Windows, and many support Chrome OS and Linux.

The best VPN: ExpressVPN

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge
ExpressVPN makes it to the top of most VPN rankings, and it is really hard to beat. It makes sure you’re covered on every aspect of what you’ll need from a VPN. The company says it’s AES 256-bit encrypted and accepts the major VPN security protocols.
I found the ExpressVPN interface to be clear and simple to use. You basically need no knowledge of VPNs to set up ExpressVPN. There’s a large connect button, and you’re able to switch locations even while connected. Once you’re connected, ExpressVPN reliably stays connected. (There’s an automatic kill switch in case ExpressVPN does disconnect.) I found browsing the web and even downloading files to be quick, whether I was on Wi-Fi or walking in remote areas. Out of all the VPNs I tested, ExpressVPN consistently gave me the lowest ping.

Reputation is everything for a VPN, and, thankfully, ExpressVPN’s name hasn’t come up in any data breaches so far. Since it’s based in the British Virgin Islands, it’s also out of the jurisdiction of US and European governments, so it hasn’t come up in the news for handing users’ data over to the police when requested.
ExpressVPN still works in China for now, even though VPNs are technically banned within the country. On my trip to China last October, I relied heavily on ExpressVPN to use Google Maps to check what town I was in, read up on the latest Hong Kong politics, and check Twitch streams. All three activities were blocked every time I disconnected from the VPN to use Chinese services.
ExpressVPN has over 3,000 servers in 94 countries for a total of 160 locations, according to the latest numbers from its site. That’s well above most of its competition, and it means that wherever you reside and whatever countries you travel to, you should be covered for the most part.
The only downside to ExpressVPN is its price. While its month-to-month fee of $12.95 is only slightly higher than many of its competitors’ prices, its annual fee of $99.95 (which works out to $8.32 per month) is even steeper. But the company offers refunds within 30 days if it doesn’t live up to expectations, so you don’t have to take my word for it.

A less expensive option: NordVPN

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge
If you didn’t plan on dropping a ton of money on VPNs, NordVPN is a less expensive alternative with just as many features as ExpressVPN. It costs a low $107.55 for the three-year plan (which comes out to $2.99 a month) and $11.95 if you’re only paying for a single month. It offers AES 256-bit encryption and supports the major VPN protocols. There’s also an automatic kill switch.
NordVPN boasts 5,437 servers in 62 countries, which means it has more servers than ExpressVPN but in fewer countries. That’s great for most of us, but it’s bad if you’re in one of the countries that’s excluded from the list. Just to name a few examples: Kenya, Algeria, Egypt, and Guatemala are all missing from NordVPN, but they are available on ExpressVPN.
Still, there’s a lot to like about NordVPN. It’s based in Panama, which is another country that has no mandatory data retention policies. It can support six devices at a time, which is something to be considered if you’re planning to give your whole family (and perhaps some friends) access to your VPN subscription. A three-year $2.99-per-month plan for the whole family is, indeed, a bargain.
NordVPN also offers fast speeds in the US. When I tested servers in Taiwan and Germany, it performed worse than ExpressVPN on speed tests. (Since speed test results are based on so many variable factors, such as your internet connection, what provider is hosting the test, and the traffic at the moment, they’re not the best mark of performance.)

Other options

It’s always good to have options. Whether it’s to support the underdog or to have a back-up plan in case ExpressVPN or NordVPN ever vanishes, here are a few alternatives. Some of these are worthy contenders, while others sounded promising but turned out to have security issues. In addition, some VPNs initially dazzle with the number of servers and countries they’re in, but then they have other shortcomings that make them less appealing.

For one reason or another, these VPNs didn’t come out on top, but they may work for some users, depending on your needs. As I said, beyond this list, there are perhaps thousands of options in the app stores. But if you venture into the wilderness, you’re on your own.

GOOD STUFF

  • Some of the lowest prices at $2.91 to $6.95
  • Offers 3,335 servers
  • Can support up to five devices at once
  • Lists each server’s ping so you can optimize for speed
  • You can toggle between AES 128-bit or 256-bit, with the former being faster

BAD STUFF

  • Only in 33 countries, which leaves many parts of the world unserviced
  • Based in the US, so some users may remain wary despite the company’s assurances
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