We Tested 11 VPNs To Find The Best Ones To Really Keep You Safe And Secure Online

We Tested 11 VPNs To Find The Best Ones To Really Keep You Safe And Secure Online

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A VPN, or virtual private network, encrypts all of your web traffic and routes it through a remote server, making it harder for anyone to intercept and monitor your communications. It’s a great tool when you’re on public Wi-Fi, using a personal computer or mobile device at the office or otherwise using an untrusted network.

We evaluated 11 different VPN providers, assessing their ease of use, performance, privacy policies and device support, and found two services that are affordable, serious about their security and your privacy and packed with convenient-enough connectivity features and device support that you’ll actually use them to protect yourself online.

The best VPN overall

If you’re looking for privacy — and that’s the most important thing to think about when you’re looking for a VPN in the first place — Mullvad goes the extra mile, even letting you pay anonymously. They don’t have the most servers of the VPNs we tested, but the service is accessible, fast, convenient and affordable.

A runner-up VPN

IVPN offers a VPN service with serious privacy, subscriber anonymity, fast performance and flexibility, with multiple subscription options.

David Strom/CNN Underscored

If you’re looking for privacy — and that’s the most important thing to think about when you’re looking for a VPN in the first place — Mullvad goes the extra mile. The company has an interesting method of ensuring your privacy: They don’t ask you for your email address when you subscribe to their service. Instead, you obtain a random code that you use to identify yourself. That means no password is required once you have entered your code, it is unlikely that anyone can guess this code or find it on the dark web (unless you reuse it, which you shouldn’t) and there is little chance anyone could connect it back to you even if they did manage to get a hold of the code in a breach.

Their pricing is a simple 5€ per month (payable via a dizzying array of options, from cash to credit cards to cryptocurrencies) that is automatically renewed, with a 30-day cancellation policy. You can connect up to five concurrent devices per subscriber, and software is available for Windows, MacOS, Linux, iOS, Android, an extension for the Firefox browser, and for network routers too.

Mullvad has a dirt-simple user interface. There are toggle switches to block malware, ads and tracking. You specify which country you want to connect to, and it finds the closest server quickly and automatically. It also has an automatic kill switch: If it crashes, it will disconnect you from the internet entirely so you don’t end up communicating over an insecure connection without noticing it. And it has automatic software updates and also doesn’t gather third-party data.

Sweden-based Mullvad gets high marks for transparency: the company has released their code to open source, and uses open-source development tools as well. Mullvad had their code audited by Cure53 back in 2020, and while they are due for another look, we liked how transparent they were with their audit, addressing the issues found and how they were resolved. They take your privacy seriously enough that they don’t even know your encryption keys — you generate them yourself when you initially bring up the software.

Mullvad is well-regarded enough that Mozilla nowadays runs their pricier MozillaVPN service on Mullvad’s servers.

Mullvad’s major downside is that they don’t have servers in as many countries as their competitors. Their biggest advantage is performance; there was little degradation of the connection, with almost no loss of latency and download speed.

David Strom/CNN Underscored

Like Mullvad, IVPN uses a random code assignment scheme for login, so it keeps no record of a password and an attacker would have no way to tie your email address — and thus your personal data — to their systems in the event of a breach. They have a very impressive ethical guidelines page that other vendors should emulate. IPVN offers apps for the five major OSs as well as routers and network storage units. IVPN is a little more expensive than Mullvad, though their higher-tier service offers a bit more flexibility than Mullvad’s. IVPN offers support for two concurrent devices for $6/month, or seven for $10/month., with annual discounts available. IVPN doesn’t automatically renew your subscription unless you explicitly tell it to do so, which is a nice touch.

In our testing, we saw great performance from IVPN, getting 88% or more of the speeds we saw without any VPN on our test systems. IVPN’s configuration controls are all grouped together to make it easy to adjust things, such as to switch between the OpenVPN and WireGuard protocols, and whether to invoke additional protections to prevent tracking and what it calls “hardcore mode,” which blocks all Google and Facebook domain interactions, the ability to use a custom DNS server and to enable usage of LAN-connected devices (such as printers and file shares).

Another feature we liked is that IVPN offers a kill switch in the form of an always-on firewall option. IVPN (and TunnelBear) are the two VPNs to have regular publicly available audits each year without any misses. It also doesn’t gather third-party data, or have any significant DNS leakage.

There are lots of reasons to use a VPN — encrypting your internet activity and private data while you are using public Wi-Fi or other untrusted networks, streaming videos that are blocked because you are in a foreign country, segregating your work-from-home traffic from your family’s personal traffic or just getting internet access from within a country (or a place of business) that censors content. (In Russia, VPN app downloads and demand for VPN services have reportedly climbed since the Russian government limited internet access after their war on Ukraine began earlier this year.) Under certain circumstances (let’s say your ISP throttles some types of traffic) a VPN can even improve your internet access speeds,

But a VPN isn’t a cure-all — it isn’t meant to be a complete security solution. If someone is determined to obtain your data, there is always a way. A government could obtain a court order, or a criminal could use malware to infect your computer or phone and then copy your data outside of a VPN’s operation, or your computer may accidentally leak data because of a software misconfiguration. Or someone could slowly gather bits of data about you and your equipment (in the process is called “digital fingerprinting”), eventually getting the ability to track your movements across cyberspace — basically the way advertising companies make use of social media data to serve you those ads that always pop up under creepy circumstances.

VPN vendors, however, obscure things in their marketing materials by using language in their materials such as “military-grade encryption” and “total or 100% anonymous access.” While there are a variety of encryption standards that are better at protecting data streams than others, there is no generally accepted “military” standard, and there’s no way to guarantee anonymity. Some VPN vendors also make claims about “multi-hop” methods or double-encrypting your traffic; we don’t think this is much of a benefit because it can slow down your performance and doesn’t really buy much in terms of privacy.

Yes, using a VPN can make you more anonymous, but you can still leave some digital tracks. IVPN, to its credit, explicitly says it doesn’t promise either anonymity or military encryption and has clearer language with information on its marketing practices and commitments..

VPN vendors often make claims that they protect your identity by virtue of where their headquarters are located. While getting a court order to obtain your data from a Swiss- or Panama-based vendor (such as ProtonVPN or NordVPN, respectively) may be more effort than a US-based one, it isn’t impossible. Many countries’ courts under very limited circumstances can compel vendors to give up account information, and share that information through mutual legal assistance treaties. Given these caveats, we have provided their HQ location for your reference in each review, but we don’t think you need to give it much consideration.

Take vendor transparency claims with a grain of salt, and look for open-source software. Some VPNs (such as Mullvad, MozillaVPN, IVPN, ProtonVPN and PIA) have published their entire software code openly for anyone to review. We prefer this because open-source projects are subject to public scrutiny, and thus tend to fix vulnerabilities and issue patches more regularly, protecting you better. Others (such as Surfshark and ExpressVPN) have taken a more limited approach and support the OpenVPN protocol standard or just publish a specific piece of their software. Other vendors who have products not built on open-source code will claim that their products have been audited by third parties (Surfshark, for example, has had audits in 2018 and 2021); these audits may not be easily accessible or not happen frequently enough, or only make their audits available to customers (NordVPN). RestorePrivacy goes into details about the audit specifics for a few vendors. Also, not every part of a product’s code base is necessarily subject to an audit (this was at the root of the problem described in this 2017 report on Android VPN apps containing malware).

Finally, as you’re doing more research, be aware of the specialist VPN review sites themselves. Many are owned by the VPN vendors themselves (for example, VPN-Mentors.com is owned by Kape, which sells a variety of VPNs including ExpressVPN and PIA), so you’ll want to look for independent sources of information as well.

We tested 11 popular VPNs, looking at those that were best-reviewed, provided the most servers and speed and had a documented history of providing good privacy. With each VPN, we downloaded installers and set up accounts. We then ran each VPN and tested it under various conditions, including running speed and DNS leak tests for more objective measurements.

Finally, we read through each VPN’s privacy policy and looked into any privacy conflicts it may be involved in. We also noted whether the companies were taking extra steps to ensure a more secure service, such as whether they’ve undergone an independent audit by any cybersecurity firms.

• Ease of setup/installation: For every program, there’s a setup. As we installed each VPN and created our accounts, we noted the duration and ease of each setup process, as well as how easy it is to switch from one server to another.

• Ease of use: There are many factors that make one VPN easier to use than another. We looked not just at how friendly software interfaces were, but how simple vendors made security features. Some VPNs (CyberGhost, ExpressVPN, Surfshark) do not support any multi-factor authentication whatsoever, some offer all sorts of privacy controls but make them difficult to use or configure, some have kill switches (which can terminate your connections immediately if the VPN softwa

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