This guide analyzes the best VPN services for 2021 based on the latest test results.
A VPN (virtual private network) is becoming the go-to solution for people all around the world. Whether you want more privacy and security or a safe and effective way to unblock websites and stream media, a good VPN is the solution. But there’s just one problem.
With so many different VPNs on the market, how can you find the best VPN service for your unique needs?
Sorting through the noise is increasingly difficult with all the new VPNs coming online and dozens of overnight experts making dubious recommendations.
In testing and researching 100+ VPN services over the past five years, I’ve found that most VPNs fail when put to the test. Here are three common problems:
- VPNs that leak IP addresses and/or DNS requests. IPv6 leaks and DNS leaks affect many popular VPNs and this can expose your identity, location, and/or browsing history to third parties.
- VPNs with broken features. While most VPNs offer a kill switch or some form of leak protection, I’ve found that these features often fail under certain conditions. For example, when switching network interfaces or reconnecting with the VPN server, your IP address may be exposed.
- VPNs that share data with third parties. This is mostly a problem with free VPN services that collect and sell user data. However, even some high-profile paid VPNs have been busted for logging their users, including IPVanish and also PureVPN.
While this may sound alarming, there are still some excellent VPNs that we have identified in our testing and research.
Best VPN services for 2021
- NordVPN – Best all-around VPN service
- Surfshark – Top VPN with a low price
- ExpressVPN – Secure and reliable VPN service
- VPN.ac – User-friendly and secure VPN from Romania
- Perfect Privacy – Best VPN for advanced privacy features
- OVPN – Secure, fast, privacy-focused VPN in Sweden
- Trust.Zone – Basic VPN with solid performance
- VPNArea – Affordable and fast VPN in Bulgaria
- ProtonVPN – Simple, private VPN in Switzerland
How to choose the best VPN service
The easiest way to choose the best VPN service is to make a list of important factors, and then match up the service that best meets your needs. For some people, streaming Netflix and unblocking websites is the top priority, while others may want advanced privacy features.
Here at Restore Privacy, we take all these different factors into consideration when ranking the best VPN services. Here are the basic factors that we consider to be important when choosing the best VPN for your needs:
- Passed all tests with no data leaks found (no IP address leaks or DNS leaks)
- Good performance throughout the server network (speed and reliability)
- High-quality VPN apps with all features working correctly
- Supports secure VPN protocols with strong encryption standards
- Offers a money-back guarantee
- Trustworthy and well-established VPN provider with a good track record
- Located in a safe privacy jurisdiction (outside of Five Eyes countries, such as the US and UK) to keep your data safe
If a VPN does not fulfill all the criteria listed above, it is not featured in this report. And when you apply this standard to all the VPNs on the market, there are very few that make the cut. So let’s cut to the chase. Here are the best VPNs for 2021:
1. NordVPN – Best all-around VPN service
|Logs||No logs (audited)|
|Support||24/7 Live chat|
In the past year, NordVPN has raced ahead of the competition to deliver the latest in VPN technology to their users. They were one of the first VPNs to offer a secure and privacy-focused implementation of the WireGuard VPN protocol via NordLynx. This gives NordVPN (and its users) a huge performance advantage over other leading services — and it’s also the fastest VPN we have tested.
NordVPN continues to beat the competition when it comes to performance, as we noted in the ExpressVPN vs NordVPN comparison. Below you can see a recent speed test where we hit 445 Mbps with a NordVPN server in Seattle (USA).
In addition to the WireGuard VPN protocol, NordVPN has many other privacy and security features you may want:
- CyberSec feature to block ads, trackers, malware, and phishing domains on your entire operating system through the VPN
- Double VPN servers to encrypt traffic over two locations (while still delivering excellent speeds)
- Tor-over-VPN servers that add an extra layer of encryption via the Tor network
- A very secure server network with all servers running in RAM-disk mode (no logs)
- Built-in leak protection for all VPN apps to ensure all traffic remains encrypted
NordVPN has also passed independent audits for both security and compliance with no-logs policies. It introduced a public bug bounty program and also has an ongoing partnership with Versprite for security audits and penetration testing. NordVPN uses very strong encryption with an AES-256-GCM cipher and DHE-4096 key exchange in implementing Perfect Forward Secrecy. The upgraded WireGuard protocol with NordLynx uses a ChaCha20 cipher.
Below is a screenshot of the NordVPN Windows application that we tested. Here we were testing the double VPN servers.
With premium speeds and strong security, NordVPN is our top-rated VPN for torrenting. It also works very well for all major streaming services, including Netflix, Hulu, BBC iPlayer, Disney Plus, and more. While most VPNs struggle to ensure access to streaming sites, NordVPN continues to deliver. You can also use the NordVPN app if you need a VPN for Firestick, TV boxes, Smart TVs, or even gaming systems.
As of right now, NordVPN has about 5,400 servers in 59 countries. It does not use any virtual server locations and all servers run on dedicated hardware in RAM-disk mode without hard drives. This improves security and also makes storing logs on the VPN server impossible. Another huge development is that NordVPN has announced they are rolling out high-speed colocated servers (self-owned hardware) for their entire network. These servers will have 10 Gbps bandwidth channels and will replace all rental servers from third parties.
In addition to the specialty servers we discussed above, NordVPN also offers obfuscated servers, which conceal VPN traffic as regular HTTPS encryption. This is a useful feature to get around VPN blocks, such as when using a VPN for China. It is also a great feature to break through work or school networks that block VPNs.
NordVPN continues to evolve and improve while remaining one of the top leaders in the VPN industry. Check out the two-year plan with the coupon below for maximum savings.
- Big discounts are only available with two-year plans.
Refund policy: All NordVPN subscription plans come with a full 30 day money-back guarantee.
See our NordVPN review for more test results and analysis.
2. Surfshark – Top VPN with a low price
|Based in||British Virgin Islands|
|Support||24/7 Live chat|
Officially launching in 2018, Surfshark is taking the VPN world by storm. Despite being a relative newcomer, Surfshark comes loaded with features, great leak protection settings, access to numerous streaming services, and excellent performance. And there’s one big benefit with Surfshark that you don’t find with most other VPNs: Surfshark gives you an unlimited number of connections.
Surfshark maintains strong privacy protection policies and is a no-logs VPN based in the British Virgin Islands. The Surfshark apps incorporate good leak protection settings (kill switch) to ensure data remains encrypted and secure without any leaks. There is also a CleanWeb feature to block ads, trackers, and malware domains through the VPN.
Surfshark utilizes strong encryption with an AES-256-GCM cipher. It supports both the OpenVPN and IKEv2 VPN protocols, as well as WireGuard. Similar to our other top recommendations, Surfshark is now running all servers in RAM-disk mode for added security. It offers 14 double-hop VPN server configurations, allowing you to encrypt traffic over two servers at the same time.
Similar to NordVPN, Surfshark offers a privacy-focused version of the WireGuard VPN protocol, which you can select right in the app settings. In our tests for the Surfshark review, the WireGuard protocol with Surfshark servers gave us speeds up to 397 Mbps, as you can see below.
If you want to stream media and unblock websites, Surfshark does well in this category. It currently supports 14+ global Netflix regions, as well as most other streaming services, including BBC iPlayer, Hulu, and Disney Plus. It is a great VPN for Android and iOS with dedicated mobile apps.
Below is the Surfshark app we tested on Windows 10. You can see it is clean, simple, and user-friendly, very similar to the ExpressVPN app, as we noted in the ExpressVPN vs Surfshark comparison.
Surfshark continues to gain traction in the VPN market. It remains a strong contender while also being one of the best cheap VPNs at only $2.49 per month with the two-year plan.
Main drawbacks of Surfshark VPN:
- Limited VPN router support
- Mediocre OpenVPN speeds (use the WireGuard protocol instead)
Refund policy: All Surfshark subscription plans come with a full 30 day money-back guarantee.
See the Surfshark review for more test results and analysis.
3. ExpressVPN – Secure and reliable VPN service
|Based in||British Virgin Islands|
|Logs||No logs (audited)|
|Support||24/7 Live chat|
ExpressVPN has long been one of the top recommendations on Restore Privacy. It delivers consistent performance with secure and reliable VPN apps. While many VPNs suffer from bugs, slow speeds, and data leaks, ExpressVPN consistently provides reliability, the highest security, and great customer support.
For security, ExpressVPN utilizes strong encryption with an AES-256 cipher and a 4096-RSA key. It supports the OpenVPN protocol on all VPN apps and incorporates a Network Lock kill switch to ensure all data remains secured and encrypted (no leaks).
While many VPNs are adopting the WireGuard protocol due to performance and security benefits, ExpressVPN is taking a different route with a self-developed protocol called Lightway. Right now Lightway remains closed source and in beta, but we did find it to offer faster speeds than OpenVPN in our tests:
ExpressVPN delivers a high-security server network with 160 locations in 94 countries. And like NordVPN and Surfshark, ExpressVPN also runs all servers in RAM-disk mode for data security (see the TrustedServer feature). Additionally, it has passed an independent audit by PWC verifying compliance with its no-logs policy, similar to NordVPN.
Aside from security, ExpressVPN also excels in the area of streaming. It is one of the best VPNs for Netflix, providing 24/7 access to numerous regional libraries. ExpressVPN also does well with Disney Plus and Hulu, but has had recent problems unblocking BBC iPlayer (see these best VPNs for BBC iPlayer instead).
ExpressVPN is also a very user-friendly service. It offers clean and minimal VPN applications that are very reliable, similar to Surfshark. Below is the ExpressVPN app for Windows we tested:
And if you need any help getting the VPN working on your devices, ExpressVPN provides 24/7 live chat support. And while it may not be quite as fast as NordVPN and Surfshark, ExpressVPN provides a very reliable and consistent service, with plenty of speed for high-bandwidth activities.
- Above-average prices, but you can get 3 months free with the coupon below
- Trouble accessing some streaming services (BBC iPlayer)
- Lightway protocol remains closed source and in beta
Refund policy: All subscription plans come with a full 30 day money-back guarantee, no questions asked.
See the ExpressVPN review for more test results and analysis.
Other VPN services we like for 2021
The top three VPNs we listed above (NordVPN, Surfshark, and ExpressVPN) should be great for most users. These three VPNs really stand out from the crowd with these qualities:
- User-friendly apps for all major devices and operating systems
- Very secure with built-in leak protection settings and strong encryption
- Excellent performance (fast speeds that we regularly test)
- Great for streaming and torrenting
- 24/7 live chat customer support
- A full 30 day money-back guarantee on all subscription plans
With that being said, there are many great VPN services on the market, as well as some lemons that we do not recommend (more on this further below).
So now let’s take a look at a few other good VPN services you may want to consider, although they did not make the cut to be in the top three above.
VPN.ac – User-friendly and secure VPN from Romania
VPN.ac is a security-focused VPN that offers good performance and features with a competitive price. It is based in Romania and was started by a team of network security professionals. VPN.ac did well in testing for the review with fast speeds, strong encryption, and good privacy features.
VPN.ac currently supports the WireGuard VPN protocol. However, unlike with NordVPN and Surfshark, it takes some work to set up and use correctly because it is not supported directly in the apps. VPN.ac’s apps incorporate built-in leak protection, port selection, and offer a variety of VPN protocols and ciphers to choose from. They also have specialty servers, including double-VPN servers, P2P servers, and Obfuscated servers.
In addition to the desktop VPN app, you can also use VPN.ac’s secure proxy browser extensions, available for Chrome, Firefox, and Opera.
Main drawbacks of VPN.ac:
- The main drawback of VPN.ac is the connection logs. Basic connection logs (no activity or usage data) are kept for 24 hours for network security and optimization. These logs are erased automatically every 24 hours. This is explained more on the VPN.ac website.
- Limited support for streaming services
- No live chat support
Refund policy: All plans come with a 7 day refund window.
Discounted trial: You can get a discounted one-week trial for $2 (see the FAQ section in the menu).
The VPN.ac review has more test results and analysis.
Perfect Privacy – Best VPN for advanced privacy features
|Support||Email & forum|
If you are looking to attain the highest levels of privacy and security, Perfect Privacy may be a good choice. It is based in Switzerland with a strict no-logs policy and is run by a dedicated team of privacy enthusiasts. Although it might be overkill for some users, Perfect Privacy offers numerous advanced features to choose from:
- Multi-hop VPN servers: With Perfect Privacy, you can route your traffic across multiple VPN server hops (up to four). This offers a higher level of protection for those who want it. Additionally, the NeuroRouting feature (supported on all devices) dynamically routes traffic across multiple hops in the VPN network.
- Ad/tracking blocker: The TrackStop feature blocks thousands of ads and trackers, as well as malware and phishing domains at the VPN server level. You can also activate a filter to block social media trackers, like some of our other recommended VPNs with ad blocking.
- IPv6 support: Perfect Privacy is one of the few VPNs offering full IPv6 support (you get both an IPv4 and IPv6 address).
- Port forwarding: Perfect Privacy allows you to customize your port forwarding settings, which is ideal if you need a good VPN for torrenting.
- Strong encryption: This VPN secures data using an AES-256 cipher with a 4096-bit key exchange. Users can choose between OpenVPN and IPSec/IKEv2 protocols.
Similar to Surfshark, Perfect Privacy gives users an unlimited number of connections, but at a much higher price. The server network is also smaller than other VPNs, with only 25 locations around the world. However, all of these servers are running on dedicated hardware with high-bandwidth channels to still offer good speeds.
You can use Perfect Privacy with custom apps for Windows, Mac OS, Linux, and Android, along with support for other devices (including iOS). While the apps do not feel quite as polished as some other VPNs, it does offer a lot of features if you need a VPN for Windows or other desktop operating systems.
- Expensive: $8.95 per month with the two-year plan
- Limited support for Netflix and other streaming services
- Small server network
- No live chat support
Refund policy: 7 day refund window with all subscriptions.
See the Perfect Privacy review for more test results and analysis.
OVPN – Secure, fast, privacy-focused VPN in Sweden
|Support||Email and chat|
Next up on our list is OVPN, one of the best VPNs from Sweden. It was started in 2014 with a simple goal to be the “most reliable and trustworthy VPN provider.” They go to great lengths to safeguard the data of their users with a multi-layered approach to security. OVPN’s entire network runs on self-owned dedicated bare-metal servers with ample bandwidth and strong security. All servers operate in RAM-disk without hard drives, multi-hop configurations are supported, and no logs are stored.
OVPN did surprisingly well in our tests, competing among the top VPN providers. It offers secure apps that include built-in leak protection settings, and even has a full GUI Linux client with all features available. While OVPN does offer an Android app, the iOS app remains in development. The WireGuard protocol is also supported, but not directly in the apps, like with NordVPN and Surfshark.
From the very beginning, OVPN has offered a transparent and privacy-focused service. Here are some noteworthy details:
- Transparent and public-facing leadership (can be verified on the website).
- Monthly transparency reports are published going all the way back to 2014.
- OVPN even has insurance that will cover any legal fees necessary to fight against demands for user data by third parties.
- A 2020 court case proved OVPN is true to its no-logs policy.
- Completely anonymous payments and signup methods are supported.
Even though OVPN is a privacy and security-focused service, they still offer some support for streaming services. This includes Netflix and Hulu, although they currently do not support as many streaming channels as NordVPN or Surfshark.
While OVPN does have a lot going for it, there are a few drawbacks to consider:
- Multi-hop servers are not included with monthly plans
- Fewer streaming services supported
- No VPN apps for iOS (iPhone and iPad)
Refund policy: 7 day refund window with all subscriptions.
See the OVPN review for more info.
Trust.Zone – Basic VPN with solid performance
Trust.Zone is a smaller, privacy-focused VPN service based in Seychelles, which is another good offshore privacy jurisdiction. It offers basic, user-friendly VPN apps for Windows, iOS, and Android with built-in leak protection. Additionally, Trust.Zone supports other operating systems through third-party apps, such as Tunnelblick and OpenVPN Connect.
Trust.Zone boasts a good selection of servers around the world, despite being a smaller VPN. Prices are quite reasonable at only $2.88/month with the two-year plan. When you pay with cryptocurrencies, you’ll get an automatic 10% discount. They are also offering a coupon code for Restore Privacy readers (see below).
TrustZone now supports the WireGuard protocol, but it requires custom setup and configuration. You will need to download config files from TrustZone and then import these into the WireGuard client. Therefore you cannot simply choose the WireGuard VPN protocol directly in the VPN client, like we see with NordVPN and Surfshark.
Speed tests for the Trust.Zone review were good, with most servers around my full baseline speed. Trust.Zone supports streaming US Netflix and Hulu, and also does not restrict torrenting on their network. It is one of the best VPNs with a free trial, allowing you to test the service without entering any payment info.
There are main drawbacks I found:
- Limited on features compared to other leading VPNs
- No custom VPN clients for Mac OS (see these other VPNs for Mac)
- Limited support for streaming
- Convoluted WireGuard setup
If you want to give Trust.Zone a test run, you can do so completely free for 3 GB of bandwidth or 3 days, whichever comes first.
Exclusive Coupon Code: For an additional 10% off your order, use this coupon code:
See also the Trust.Zone review for more details.
VPNArea – Affordable and fast VPN in Bulgaria
|Support||24/7 Live chat|
VPNArea is a low-profile VPN service that doesn’t get too much attention, but it does well in the areas of privacy, security, and streaming. With the new discount pricing, it also offers a good value for your money at only $3.21 per month.
VPNArea offers a nice selection of features that we tested out for the VPNArea review. These features include:
- Ad-blocking DNS servers are available in the VPNArea apps.
- Dedicated IP addresses in different regions
- Netflix support for the US and UK regions
- Built-in leak protection with all apps
- 24/7 live chat support
VPNArea offers a nice selection of apps for Windows, Mac OS, Linux, iOS, and Android, while also supporting other operating systems and devices. Speeds were also excellent with all of the VPNArea servers we tested. Although they do not currently support WireGuard, VPNArea does support the OpenVPN and IKEv2 protocols.
- Limited number of Netflix servers available
- Desktop apps feel a bit clunky, but still work well
Refund policy: There is a 30 day refund policy with one year and three year plans, and a 14 day refund window for one month plans.
See the VPNArea review for more test results and analysis.
ProtonVPN – Simple, private VPN in Switzerland
ProtonVPN is a privacy-focused VPN that was created by the team behind ProtonMail in Switzerland. Since its debut in 2017, ProtonVPN has made some good improvements. Similar to a few of our other recommendations, ProtonVPN also offers double-VPN servers through a “Secure Core” configuration.
While ProtonVPN is largely a privacy-focused service, it also supports some streaming services. It currently works with American Netflix, Amazon Prime, and is also a good VPN for Disney Plus. But that’s not all. ProtonVPN works if you need a VPN for Hulu and a few other services. Torrenting is allowed on most servers, although speeds were not as good as our top recommendations.
If you want to combine a VPN service with a secure email, you can pick up the Visionary plan that includes both ProtonVPN and ProtonMail – but it’s not cheap. ProtonVPN also offers cheaper subscriptions, including a “Basic” plan at only $3.29 per month.
Main drawbacks of ProtonVPN:
- Below-average speeds
- Expensive prices for access to all servers and features
- Limited support for streaming
- No live chat support
See the ProtonVPN review for more test results and info.
What is the best VPN for privacy?
Any of the recommended VPNs in this guide would be good choices for privacy and data security. They have all been tested and found to be secure (no leaks), reliable, and operate in safe privacy jurisdictions (outside of Five Eyes countries).
With the exception of VPN.ac, all of the recommended VPNs are no-logs services. Additionally, these two have passed third-party audits verifying their no-logs policies:
- NordVPN has passed two separate no-logs audits performed by PWC in Zurich, Switzerland. It also has an ongoing partnership with Versprite to conduct infrastructure audits and carry out penetration testing to identify and fix any vulnerabilities. NordVPN has successfully converted its server network to only run in RAM-disk mode.
- ExpressVPN passed a no-logs audit performed by PWC and a security audit conducted by Cure53. Additionally, ExpressVPN passed a real-world test when the Turkish government demanded logs and then seized an ExpressVPN server, but failed to obtain any data.
These VPNs offer multi-hop servers (the ability to encrypt your traffic across 2+ VPN servers). This offers a higher level of privacy and security beyond single-hop VPN servers:
- NordVPN: Double-VPN servers and Tor-over-VPN servers
- Surfshark: Double-VPN servers with 13 different configurations around the world.
- VPN.ac: Offers 22 double-VPN servers
- ProtonVPN: The “secure core” feature consists of double-VPN server configurations.
- Perfect Privacy: You can create multi-hop servers with every server in their network, with up to four servers. The NeuroRouting feature also routes traffic across multiple servers in the network.
If you are really concerned about achieving the highest level of online anonymity, you can also chain VPN services (using more than one VPN at the same time). This is discussed further below.
What is the best VPN for streaming?
Our top recommendation for streaming right now is NordVPN. Here’s why:
- Full access to all streaming services. NordVPN provides the best access to all major streaming services: Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Disney Plus, BBC iPlayer, ESPN, HBO, SkyGo, and many more.
- Fastest VPN speeds to stream media without any pauses, interruptions, or buffering.
- Apps for all streaming devices, including Smart TVs, TV boxes, tablets, computers, phones, gaming systems, and more.
Below I’m using NordVPN to stream American Netflix. NordVPN currently supports the following Netflix regions: US, UK, Canada, France, Germany, Netherlands, Spain, Japan, Australia, Italy, India, and more.
Aside from unblocking content around the world, VPNs are also crucial for protecting yourself against ISP snooping and potential copyright issues when streaming from third party sites or when torrenting. (This is discussed more in our VPN for Kodi guide.)
What is the top VPN for Android and iOS mobile devices?
We recently tested out numerous VPNs for Android and found the best one to be NordVPN.
NordVPN tops the list as the best VPN for Android and iOS mobile devices for three main reasons:
- WireGuard VPN protocol – This protocol performs the best on mobile devices that may go in and out of connectivity. Connections are quick to establish, very stable, and fast.
- Fast speeds – With the WireGuard VPN protocol and an upgraded network of dedicated servers, NordVPN is faster than ever before. It outperforms other VPNs and will give mobile users excellent performance.
- Great mobile apps – I really like NordVPN’s mobile apps (both Android and iOS) for two reasons. First, they are very secure with reliable leak protection features and strong encryption. Second, they include all of the main features of the desktop client, including CyberSec, WireGuard support, and all specialty servers.
- Better battery life – With NordVPN’s WireGuard implementation, you will find your mobile battery life is better than with the OpenVPN protocol used by most other VPNs.
Surfshark, ExpressVPN, and VPN.ac also offer great Android VPN clients.
How to get the best speeds and VPN performance
How can you achieve the best speed and performance with your VPN?
If you are using a top-rated VPN service, you shouldn’t notice a huge reduction in speed. Of course, the extra work that goes into encrypting your traffic across VPN servers will affect speed, but usually it’s not noticeable for regular browsing, especially if you’re using a nearby server.
Here are some tips for getting the best VPN speeds and reliability:
- Use the closest server possible to your physical location. This generally reduces latency and improves performance.
- Choose the least crowded server or “recommended” server. Some VPNs help you select the best VPN server by showing server bandwidth loads or having “recommended” servers based on distance and loading.
- Experiment with different VPN protocols. OpenVPN UDP offers the best mix of security and speed. WireGuard is the fastest VPN protocol we’ve tested. Trying different VPN protocols and encryption options may help to find the best fit for your network.
- Consider antivirus and WiFi interference. Sometimes antivirus software or other WiFi networks may interfere with VPN speeds.
- Use a wired (ethernet) connection rather than WiFi. Wired connections (with high-quality ethernet cables) generally provide faster and more consistent speeds than WiFi, and are also more secure than WiFi.
- Consider processing power. Processing power on your device may also be limiting speeds, especially if you are using a VPN router.
- Consider your operating system. I’ve found VPN speeds on Linux and Mac OS to generally be better than Windows. When using a VPN on Windows, sometimes the TAP adapter will interfere with speeds, as well as background processes/updates that take up bandwidth and processing power.
- Upgrade your internet connection. Your VPN will not be able to exceed the baseline connection speed of your internet provider.
As you can see, there are many different factors affecting speed. Experimenting with these different variables will help you achieve the best VPN speeds possible.
Are VPNs safe and legal?
First we will address the issue of safety.
If you are using a good, reputable VPN service that effectively secures your traffic (no leaks), then yes, a VPN is safe to use. But therein lies the catch because there are many unsafe VPNs on the market, especially when it comes to free VPN services, which we will explain further below.
The next question: Are VPNs legal?
In general, the answer is yes, it is perfectly legal (and normal!) to use VPNs, even if you are in places like China where VPNs are restricted. VPNs are used every day by businesses and individuals throughout the world for basic privacy and security purposes. Businesses rely on VPN technology and encryption for security reasons and it would not make sense for this to ever become illegal.
That being said, China currently has a “ban” on non-approved VPN services that do not go along with state censorship requirements, as explained in the China VPN guide. The United Arab Emirates and a few other Gulf State countries have laws against people using VPNs to evade state censorship. Fortunately, this is not an issue in Western countries, where VPNs remain a safe, legal, and popular tool. (But of course, none of this is legal advice!)
VPN jurisdiction and trust
If you are serious about privacy and data security, you need to consider where the VPN is based (jurisdiction). We have seen many examples of privacy-focused services being compromised by governments in the countries where they operate. This is often the case with the United States and United Kingdom, which are both members of the Five Eyes surveillance alliance.
Let’s examine the United States, for example, and how VPNs based in the US could be affected.
- The United States has extensive (and powerful) surveillance programs allowing authorities to tap internet infrastructure for bulk data collection. These laws give the different agencies tremendous power to snoop on and record your digital activities.
- The US government has a long history of working with (and forcing) private tech companies to facilitate mass surveillance and bulk data collection efforts – see the PRISM program.
- US VPN services could be served National Security Letters or other lawful data collection demands, while also being prohibited from disclosing anything to their customers through gag orders.
These laws and capabilities essentially give some governments the authority to compel a legitimate privacy-focused company to become a data collection tool for state agencies. If a VPN were to be compromised, it would likely happen behind closed doors, without a word (or warning) to the users.
Just take a look at the case with Lavabit. Rather than comply with the lawful requests for user data and encryption keys, the founder was basically forced to shut down the business.
The same circumstances unfolded with Riseup, a Seattle-based service that offers a VPN and secure email:
After exhausting our legal options, Riseup recently chose to comply with two sealed warrants from the FBI, rather than facing contempt of court (which would have resulted in jail time for Riseup birds and/or termination of the Riseup organization).
There was a “gag order” that prevented us from disclosing even the existence of these warrants until now. This was also the reason why we could not update our “Canary” [warrant canary that warns users about these events].
Ignoring jurisdiction (where the service is based) when selecting privacy tools could put your privacy and security at risk.
What is the best free VPN service?
We generally do not recommend free VPN services because they are not safe.
“When something is free, you are the product.”
This famous quote certainly holds true for “free” VPNs because you are likely paying for the service with your private data, which is sold to third parties.
Free VPN services will offer a free product that collects your data for profit. Here a few well-documented reasons showing why free VPN services are risky:
- Malware – Malware is often hidden in free VPN services to collect your data. One study found malware in 38% of free VPN apps for Android devices.
- Tracking – Tracking libraries hidden in free VPNs are also used for data collection. The popular Betternet free VPN app was found to contain 14 different tracking libraries.
- Third party access to your data – Everything you do through a free VPN could be provided to third parties – and many VPNs explicitly state this in their privacy policies. Hotspot Shield was publicly called out for doing this by the Center for Democracy and Technology.
- Browser hijacking – Some free VPNs have been found to hijack and redirect browsers to e-commerce sites, such as Alibaba and eBay, through partner networks.
- Traffic leaks – This is perhaps the greatest risk for people using a free VPN because it exposes your identity. One study found that 84% of free Android VPN apps leaked user data, thereby rendering the VPN useless.
Safer alternatives include free trial VPN services. ProtonVPN also has a plan for one device and unlimited bandwidth.
Can I just use a third-party DNS provider rather than a VPN?
A lot of people recommend using a third-party DNS provider rather than a good VPN – but this isn’t a good idea, for a few reasons.
First, a third-party DNS provider is only handling DNS requests, not providing you with any privacy or encrypting traffic. Your real IP address remains exposed with everything you do online, even if your DNS requests are encrypted.
Second, your internet provider (ISP) can still see every website you visit (the IP addresses), while these websites are also able to see your real IP address.
In contrast, a good VPN will not only conceal your IP address and location, it will also encrypt and translate all of your DNS requests, which remain encrypted within the VPN tunnel. This secures your activities (browsing) from third parties, including your ISP, while also protecting your identity.
Can you use two or more VPNs at the same time?
Some people seek to achieve very high levels of security and online anonymity. In addition to using a secure browser, blocking trackers, and taking proper precautions with your activities, using two or more VPNs is also a good idea. Why would you want to do this?
Here’s why you may want to use two or more VPNs at the same time:
- You are effectively distributing trust between two or more entities, which can be beneficial depending on your threat model.
- Neither VPN will have both your browsing activity and your identity (IP address). One VPN can see your source IP address and the other VPN can see the websites you visit, but neither VPN could have both your IP address and browsing data.
- This will add more encryption to your traffic and also allow you to utilize more data centers at the same time (further distributing trust). Additionally, you can distribute trust by choosing data centers in different jurisdictions around the world.
- To de-anonymize you, your adversary would have to be working together with the two (or more) VPNs — and this is highly unlikely, especially with VPNs located around the world.
- Traffic correlation attacks become extremely difficult for adversaries when you are chaining VPNs.
Here’s an example of a savvy VPN user in Brazil utilizing a VPN server in California, then routing traffic through a second VPN server in Canada, both from different VPN services, to access a website in Europe.
Now let’s examine two easy ways to do this.
One way is to run one VPN service on your computer and a different VPN service on your router. This way, your internet connection passes through two separate VPN services. The connection looks like this:
VPN1 on your computer > VPN2 on your router
The method above is simple and easy to do. A fast and fully-featured VPN router we have reviewed is the Vilfo router.
Another way to do this is with virtual machines, which you can run for free using Virtualbox. To do this, just set up a virtual desktop computer running on your host computer. Then, you run one VPN service on your host computer and a different VPN service on the virtual machine.
When working on the virtual machine, your internet connection passes through both VPN services, like this:
VPN1 on your host computer > VPN2 within your virtual machine
Note: Running Linux virtual machines offers other benefits in terms of security, compartmentalization, and also browser fingerprinting. But it can be tricky and time-consuming.
For the truly paranoid and those seeking the highest levels of anonymity, chaining two or more VPNs is the way to go. You can chain as many VPNs as you like, but be aware that you’ll take a performance hit. Nonetheless, I can routinely get around 70 Mbps chaining two different VPNs on a 100 Mbps connection with different locations around the country.
What devices can you use with a VPN?
A VPN can work with nearly any device that connects to the internet:
- Computers – Whether you’re running Windows, Mac OS, Linux, or even a Chromebook, you will be able to use a VPN on your computer. Installation and setup options will depend on the VPN service you go with.
- Phones and tablets – VPNs are also very popular on phones and tablets. Whether you are running Android or iOS, you will be able to use your VPN on any smart phone or tablet. Ubuntu Touch should also work with a VPN.
- Routers – When you install the VPN on your router, all the devices that connect to your router will be using the encrypted VPN tunnel – without the need to install VPN software on each device. The router will only count as one VPN connection under your subscription, even if there are numerous devices using the router’s encrypted VPN connection. There are some important considerations before you do this – see my VPN router guide for setup tips.
- TV boxes – Most TV boxes are built on the Android operating system. This means that you can install a VPN on your TV box using your VPN service’s Android app. Check with your VPN provider for instructions.
- Smart TVs – Whether or not you can use a VPN on your smart TV will depend on the type of smart TV you have and whether your VPN supports it. Android-based smart TVs can use an Android VPN app. Samsung smart TVs can be used with the ExpressVPN MediaStreamer feature.
- Fire Stick and Fire TV – VPNs can also be used on Fire Stick and Fire TV. For more information, see the best VPN for Firestick and Fire TV guide.
Comparison Table: Best VPNs for 2021
This concludes the best VPN report with the latest test results.
The table below highlights the top-rated VPNs that met all of our criteria. These services passed all tests with no data leaks, offer good speeds, reliable VPN apps, and strong encryption standards. Additionally, they are located in safe privacy jurisdictions and have an established track record and good reputation.
Stay safe, secure, and private in 2021 and beyond!