As consumers, we expect computer hardware and software manufacturers to keep us safe. The problem is, we often use our computers in risky ways. Connecting to public Wi-Fi networks, for example, is a commonplace practice, but these are also excellent avenues for attackers to seize your personal information. Enter virtual private networks, or VPNs. These services use simple software to secure your Internet connection and give you greater control of how you appear online. You can even use them to stream Netflix from other countries. While you might have never heard of VPN services before, they are valuable tools that everyone should have at their disposal.
What Is a VPN?
If you’ve ever had to connect to a corporate network while working remotely, you may already be familiar with VPN technology. In the simplest terms, it creates a secure, encrypted connection, which can be thought of as a tunnel, between your computer and a server operated by the VPN service. In a professional setting, this tunnel makes you part of the company’s network as if you were physically sitting in the office, hence the name. While connected to the VPN, all your network traffic passes through this protected tunnel, and no one in between can see what you are up to. A consumer VPN service does the same thing, but for the purposes of protecting data and identity.
Think about it this way: If your car pulls out of your driveway, someone can follow you and see where you are going, how long you are at your destination, and when you are coming back. They might even be able to peek inside your car and learn more about you. With a VPN service, you are essentially driving into a closed parking garage, switching to a different car, and driving out, so that no one who was originally following you knows where you went.
Of course, it would be misleading to claim that any security product is a magic bullet. VPN services, while tremendously helpful, are not foolproof. A determined adversary can almost always breach your defenses in one way or another. Using a VPN can’t help if you unwisely download ransomware on a visit to the Dark Web. What a VPN can do is to protect you against mass data collection and the casual criminal vacuuming up user data for later use.
Who Needs a VPN?
The protection provided by a VPN offers many advantages. First and foremost, it prevents anyone on the same Wi-Fi hotspot (or anywhere else) from intercepting your Web traffic in a man-in-the-middle attack. This is especially handy for travelers and for those using public Wi-Fi networks, such as those at hotels, airports, and coffee shops. VPNs also cloak your computer’s actual IP address, making it harder for advertisers (or spies, or hackers) to track you online.
This is just good security, but there are people for whom a VPN is essential. Journalists and activists rely on VPN services to circumvent government censorship so they can safely communicate with the outside world. Of course, doing so may be against the law, depending on the country in which they’re located.
Some services, such as TorGuard and NordVPN, allow peer-to-peer file sharing and the use of BitTorrent sharing. Others will cancel your subscription if you use their servers for file sharing. Be smart: Don’t ignore the company’s terms of service. That way you can’t complain if you get caught.
How to Choose a VPN Service
The VPN services market has exploded over the past three years. Many providers are capitalizing on the general population’s growing concerns about surveillance and cybercrime, which means it’s getting hard to tell when a company is actually providing a secure service and when it’s throwing out a lot of fancy words while selling snake oil. It’s important to keep a few things in mind when evaluating which VPN service is right for you: reputation, performance, type of encryption used, transparency, ease of use, support, and extra features. Don’t just focus on price, though that is an important factor.
That said, not all VPN services require that you pay. Several of the services we’ve listed here also supply free VPN services. You tend to get what you pay for, as far as features and server locations go, but if your needs are basic, a free service can still keep you safe. TunnelBear, for example, offers a limited but serviceable free VPN.
Some VPN services provide a free trial, so take advantage of it. Make sure you are happy with what you sign up for, and take advantage of money-back guarantees if you’re not. This is actually why I also recommend starting out with a short-term subscription—a week or a month—to really make sure you are happy. KeepSolid VPN Unlimited offers a one-week Vacation subscription, for example. Yes, you may get a discount by signing up for a year, but that’s more money to lose if you realize the service doesn’t meet your performance needs.
If you’re using a service to route all your Internet traffic through its servers, you have to be able to trust the provider. Established security companies, such as F-Secure, may have only recently come to the VPN market. It’s easier to trust companies that have been around a little longer, simply because their reputation is likely to be known. But companies and products can change quickly. Today’s slow VPN service that won’t let you cancel your subscription could be tomorrow’s poster child for excellence.
I’m not a cryptography expert, so I can’t verify all of the encryption claims providers make. I focus, instead, on the features provided. Bonus features like ad-blocking, firewalls, and kill switches that disconnect you from the Web if your VPN connection drops go a long way toward keeping you safe. I also prefer providers that use OpenVPN, since it’s a standard that’s superior to the older PPTP standard. It’s also, as the name implies, open source, so issues with the protocol can be quickly found and addressed.
Most users want a full graphic user interface for managing their VPN connection and settings, though a few would rather download a configuration file and import it into the OpenVPN client. Most VPN companies I’ve reviewed support all levels of technological savvy, and the best have robust customer support for when things go sideways.
While a VPN can protect you online, you still might want to take the additional step of avoiding credit cards for moral or security reasons. Several VPN services now accept PayPal, Bitcoin, and other alternate payment methods. In a few cases, VPN services may even accept retailer gift cards. That Starbucks gift card may be better spent on secure Web browsing than a mediocre-at-best latte.
It’s also important to remember what a VPN can and cannot do. While it will hide your IP address, it’s not a true anonymization service. For that, you’ll want to access the Tor network, which will almost certainly slow down your connection. That said, some services, such as NordVPN, offer Tor access on specific servers. IVPN offers a similar feature called multi-hop VPN, which lets you route your Web traffic in tricky ways.
Using a VPN for Netflix and Other Forbidden Treasures
Borders still exist on the Web. New, major-release films and television shows are often released on Netflix outside of the US and only available for purchase via Amazon, iTunes, or on the Windows Store within the US. But if you were to select a VPN server in a country with rights to the show, your computer’s IP address would appear to be in that country, allowing you to view the content. Of course, you might find Netflix in other countries to be even more restrictive. You won’t be able to watch House of Cards in Bulgaria, for example.
The trouble is that Netflix and similar streaming services are getting wise to the scam. In my testing, I found that Netflix blocked streaming more often than not when I was using a VPN. There are a few exceptions, but I also have to assume that Netflix is actively working to protect its content deals. What works today may not work tomorrow.
You’ll note that I said “scam,” above, and that is more or less true. Just because you paid for Netflix in one place does not mean you’re entitled to the content available on the same service but in a different location. Media distribution and rights are incredibly messy and complicated. You may or may not agree with the laws and terms of service surrounding media streaming, but you should definitely be aware that they exist and understand when you’re taking the risk of breaking them.
The Performance Problem
While it’s often said that having to choose between security and convenience is a false dichotomy, it is at least somewhat true in the case of VPN services. When a VPN is active, your Web traffic is going through many more steps than normal and likely being bounced around in surprising ways. The end result is that your Internet connection will likely be more sluggish than normal.
The good news is that using a VPN probably isn’t going to remind you of the dial-up days of yore. Most services provide perfectly adequate Internet speed when in use and can even handle streaming HD video. 4K video and other data-intensive tasks like gaming are another story. Some VPN services, like NordVPN, have started to roll out specialty servers for high-bandwidth activities. And nearly every service I’ve tested includes a tool to connect you with the fastest available network. Of course, you can always limit your VPN use to when you’re not on a trusted network.
In some very rare cases, VPN services can actually improve your Internet performance. That’s the case for PureVPN, IPVanish, and ExpressVPN. This is likely because these services have access to high-bandwidth infrastructure that your traffic is routed through when the service is active.
Using a Mobile VPN
I used to advise people to do banking and other important business over their cellular connection when using a mobile device, since it is generally safer than connecting with a public Wi-Fi network. But even that isn’t always a safe bet. Researchers have demonstrated how a portable cell tower, such as a femtocell, can be used for malicious ends. The attack hinges on jamming the LTE and 3G bands, which are secured with strong encryption, and forcing devices to connect with a phony tower over the less-secure 2G band. Because the attacker controls the fake tower, he can carry out a man-in-the-middle attack.
Admittedly, this is an exotic attack, but it’s far from impossible. And Wi-Fi attacks are probably far more common than we’d like to believe. That’s why I recommend getting a VPN app for your mobile device to protect all your mobile communications. Even if you don’t use it all the time, using a mobile VPN is a smart move to protect your personal information.
Most VPN services offer apps on both Android and iOS, saving you the trouble of configuring your phone’s VPN settings yourself. VPN providers typically allow up to six devices to be connected simultaneously under a single account. Also, while there are free VPN services available, many require that mobile users sign up for a paid subscription.
Not all mobile VPN apps are created equal. In fact, most VPN providers offer different services (and sometimes, different servers) on their mobile offerings than what is available on their desktop counterparts. I was pleased to see that NordVPN and Private Internet Access provide the same excellent selection of servers regardless of platform. These apps received an Editors’ Choice nod both for desktop VPN apps and Android VPN apps.
One feature of note for Android users is that some VPN services also block online ads and trackers. While iPhone owners can use apps like 1Blocker%displayPrice% at %seller% to remove ads and trackers from Safari, ad blockers aren’t available on the Google Play store. But if you were to use Spotflux or Private Internet Access, ads would be a thing of the past.
Pick a VPN Service Already!
Computer and software providers work hard to make sure that the devices you buy are safe right out of the box. But they don’t provide everything you’ll need. Antivirus software, for example, consistently out-performs the built-in protections. In the same vein, VPN software lets you use the Web and Wi-Fi with confidence that your information will remain secure. It’s critically important, and oft-overlooked.
Even if you don’t use it every moment of every day, a VPN is a fundamental tool that everyone should have at their disposal—like a password manager or online backup service. And one that will only become more important as our devices become more connected. So get safe, and get a VPN.
Click through the review links of the best VPN services below for detailed analysis and performance results, and feel free to chime in on the comments section below them.