VPN Guide

Our digital security experts break down exactly what a VPN is and why you might need it if you're using public Wi-Fi networks.

By
&
Aliza VigdermanGabe TurnerChief Editor
Last Updated on Sep 24, 2020

Whether you want to hide your web activity from your Internet Service Provider, watch Netflix in another country, or bypass government restrictions, VPNs are a useful and simple tool. But many people aren’t familiar with them at all, which is why we put together this comprehensive guide all about VPNs, from what they are in the first place to how you can use them to hide your IP address and encrypt your web traffic. We’ve tested out dozens of the most popular VPNs, so we have a ton to share with you, starting…now!

NordVPN connected
NordVPN connected

What Is a VPN?

Acronym aside, VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. Essentially, VPNs are a type of software that creates an encrypted tunnel between your computer and a network, typically public. In doing so, all of the user’s web traffic along with their IP address will be hidden from their Internet Service Provider (ISP).

What Is A VPN
A Breakdown of How a VPN Works

Main Types

There are about three main types of VPNs, remote access and site-to-site.

  • Remote access: Most people will use remote access VPNs like we did, which connected us directly to an encrypted server rather than public Wi-Fi networks, where we are more likely to get hacked.
  • Site-to-site intranet: These types of VPNs connect a few users to a shared server in a specific location, typically an office.
  • Site-to-site extranet: Finally, extranet-based site-to-site VPNs include two separate intranets that access each other directly. The users will have access to the two servers as opposed to one, which uses more bandwidth.
Surfshark Connected to VPN
Surfshark Connected to VPN

Why Use A VPN?

So, why would somebody use a VPN in the first place?

Web privacy

Without a VPN, your Internet Service Provider can see everything you do online, like the websites you visited, your search queries and your private IP address. Many people don’t want to be tracked online, whether it’s to avoid giving companies their data for targeted ads or for general privacy. According to our recent VPN usage survey, nearly half of people that use VPNs did so for general security, while another 40 percent did so for general privacy.

Netflix

Did you know that Netflix looks different in different countries? With a VPN, we could access other countries’ Netflixes, which opened us up to many more movies and TV shows (as if there weren’t enough to choose from in the first place).

Torrenting

If you want to torrent more entertainment options, a VPN is a good safety measure (although we can’t recommend doing anything illegal).

Bypass government restrictions

According to our survey, nine percent of VPN users utilize VPNs to avoid government censorship. China, for example, has a “Great Firewall” that doesn’t allow its people to view websites from outside the country,1 so a VPN would be helpful to access sites like Youtube, Google and Netflix.

VPNs vs. Routers vs. Bridges vs. Dongles vs. Tor

Of course, VPN software isn’t the only way to hide your web traffic; there are other methods, all of which have their advantages and disadvantages.

Private routers

Instead of using a VPN app or browser extension on your device itself, some people opt to use a VPN directly on a router, which will then encrypt their web traffic from all devices connected to the router automatically. This is certainly easier than connecting a VPN on each individual device, but not all VPNs work with routers.

Bridges

Rather than connecting to VPN software, you can also use a bridge, a physical ethernet adapter, which contains a different IP address that connects your computer to an entire local network. Of course, this uses a lot of bandwidth, so it’s not an ideal option compared to a VPN.

Dongles

Sure, it’s a silly word, but dongles are another way to connect to VPNs, so we have to mention them here. In essence, they’re adapters that plug into a computer’s port and can contain VPNs.

Tor browser

Finally, Tor is a free browser that encrypts web traffic; however, it’s pretty slow and doesn’t let us access all websites, unlike VPNs that open up access to the entire World Wide Web.

What VPNs Do

If we haven’t already made it clear, we’ll say it again for the cheap seats in the back: VPNs hide web traffic in an encrypted tunnel and replace the user’s real IP address. This means that their Internet Service Provider won’t be able to see what the user did online or their originating IP address, which leads to greater privacy, security and access to websites.

How VPNs Work

VPNs connect a user’s device and a network, typically public, via an encrypted tunnel. The tunnel encrypts the user’s online activity and hides their IP address, replacing it with the IP address of the private server the user connects to. Most VPNs use AES-256 bit encryption, which is the current standard in the industry. To transmit the data itself from the device to the private server, VPNs use Internet protocols that put the data in packets and make sure it gets sent in the proper order. If the VPN fails, most come with kill switches that will shut down all windows or apps with web traffic, leaving the user protected and private online.

When Do I Use A VPN?

Want to hide all your information from your ISP? If so, use a VPN whenever you connect to the Internet. But for most people, VPNs on your home network aren’t necessary. Instead, most people use VPNs in the following networks:

Public Wi-Fi networks

You may not think much of joining Starbucks’ Wi-Fi network to browse Airbnbs for this weekend, but joining a public network makes you vulnerable to hacking,2 as your private IP address will be on the network’s router and thus, the public space’s ISP. Joining a VPN lets you encrypt your web traffic and hide your IP address while still allowing you to connect to that Wi-Fi you so desperately want.

Wired hotel networks

So you’re in a hotel’s workspace using their wired desktop computer. Is a VPN necessary? In our opinion, yes, it is necessary if you want to hide your activity and IP address from the hotel’s server; this is especially important if you’re dealing with sensitive customer or business information.

Office networks

If you’re in your office, connecting to a VPN probably isn’t necessary, but if you’re working remotely like 40 percent of Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic, a VPN can help. How? VPNs with split tunneling let you access a public and a private network at the same time, which decreases bandwidth creating faster speeds. So you can spend all day on your office network while enjoying those baguettes at your favorite cafe simultaneously. Bon appetit!

LTE networks

When Wi-Fi networks aren’t available, we revert to using data, typically through 4G LTE networks. The bottom line? VPNs are still necessary on LTE networks. Researchers have found 36 vulnerabilities on 4G LTE networks that would make devices vulnerable to hacking, so even on data, be sure to connect to your VPN.

VPN Pros and Cons

Bret Michaels says that every rose has its thorn, and the same is true of VPNs. Of course, they’re worthwhile overall, but still have their drawbacks, like anything else in the world.

Pros
  • Anonymity: The big advantage of VPNs is that they give you the privacy you’ve never had while surfing the web. Not even your ISP can see your online activity when you’re connected to a VPN.
  • Geo-shifting: By connecting to another country’s server, you can bypass government censorship and website limitations, like watching Netflix Canada instead of Netflix U.S. This really opens up the entire web for your browsing pleasure, regardless of where you are physically.
  • Split tunneling: If you need to access a private network while using public Wi-Fi, VPNs with split tunneling will let you do both simultaneously with the click of a button.
Cons
  • Slower browsing speeds: No matter the VPN and how fast they say they are, all VPNs slow down your Internet speed by some measure, as the data has to go through an encrypted tunnel rather than connecting directly to your router. Of course, we always test out our VPNs for their latency, download speed and upload speed so we can see exactly how much slowdown there really is.
  • Blocked servers: While some VPNs allow for Netflix access, Netflix is getting smarter and blocks many VPN servers, so it’s never a guarantee.
  • Cost: Although VPNs aren’t expensive, with prices starting at only a couple of dollars a month with some long-term plans, they are an additional cost, and depending on what you need them for or how long you need them, they may not be worth it.

Can I Stream with VPNs?

Even with thousands of options at hand, some people may want to stream movies and TV shows not available on their country’s server, or may not be accessible through streaming sites at all. For these instances, VPNs can help, allowing users to access streaming services in other countries as well as protection for torrenting. However, not all VPNs work with Netflix, or other streaming services like Prime Video, Hulu, and the like, so be sure to check this out before clicking purchase.

Will VPNs Slow Down My Internet?

Unfortunately, VPNs will slow down your Internet to some extent, which we’d like to be as minimal as possible. Because of VPNs’ encrypted tunnels, your web data can’t connect directly to the router, but goes through a middle man, of sorts. Think of it like avoiding main highways and instead taking backroads. While you eventually get to the same place, the journey will take longer, although it has its advantages compared to conspicuous highways.

Of course, that doesn’t mean we want our Internet connection to be like molasses, which is why we test out all of our VPNs to see how they affect our download speeds, upload speeds, and ping, otherwise known as latency. But we’ll talk more about that in our methodology section, which goes over exactly how we test out VPNs.

Are VPNs Legal?

In the United States, VPNs are legal, but that doesn’t mean that everything a user does on them is legal. For example, torrenting copyrighted material is still illegal, even if you use a VPN (that would be like saying that burglary is legal if you just wear a mask). So while VPNs are legal in the United States, don’t think of them as a free-for-all. Also keep in mind that different countries have different laws when it comes to VPNs; Russia, for example, has banned popular VPNs that we’ve tested out like NordVPN, ExpressVPN, HideMyAss and IPVanish.3 In su? If you’re traveling, be sure to familiarize yourself with a country’s laws before connecting to your good old VPN.

Finding the Best VPN

Are VPNs Hackable?

Can you hack something that’s meant to prevent hacking in the first place? The meta nature of this question makes our heads hurt but ultimately yes, even VPNs can be hacked. That’s because nothing that uses the Internet is 100 percent protected from hacking, including the best VPNs and the best identity theft protection services. However, there are some practices you can take to protect your VPN from being hacked, like using a strong password that you haven’t used on any other online account, or setting up two or multi-factor authentication. To sign in, we recommend requiring a passcode or your fingerprint or face ID, dramatically reducing unauthorized access to your VPN account.

VPN Limitations

While VPNs can be extremely useful in terms of protecting your data online, they have their limitations, depending on the specific brand as well as the subscription level you choose. Some things to look out for:

  • Security breaches: If you’ve read any of our individual VPN reviews, you might notice how much time we spend on companies’ logging policies, typically buried on their websites’ privacy policies. That’s because we want to make sure that if a company has a security breach, they haven’t saved or logged any of our web traffic, just the basic information needed to uphold our accounts. Just last October, NordVPN had a third party breach4 which remained on their server for over a month before the company discovered it. Much to our dismay, security breaches are possible whenever a company stores customer data online, even with encrypted cloud storage and limited logging policies, so don’t think your VPN is invincible.
  • Reliability: Not all VPNs are reliable, so some may have spotty service. We’ve definitely had technical difficulties while trying to connect to our nearest servers, only to try again the next day and find that it connected fine.
  • Availability: Not every VPN will work for everyone in the world. Rather, it’s dependent on the locations of their servers, so make sure to find out if your area is covered before you choose one service over another.
  • Data usage: Some VPNs put limits on data usage depending on which subscription you choose. TunnelBear, for example, has a 500 MB limit on its free subscription, but most paid VPN subscriptions allow for unlimited data use.
  • Server switches: Similarly, some subscriptions only allow for a limited number of server switches, although most are unlimited.
  • Number of total devices: It’s more common for VPN subscriptions to differ based on how many devices you can connect to the VPN overall. If you want your entire family protected by a VPN, look for a company that allows for an unlimited number of devices.
  • Number of simultaneous connections: We often find ourselves using multiple devices at once, watching TV on our Chromecast, texting our friends on our iPhones and looking for cute bedding on our Macbook. Sure, it sounds ridiculous, but when we want multiple devices to be connected to a VPN at once, we make sure that our subscription allows for that. While some VPNs allow an unlimited number of devices to be connected at the same time, some only allow one, five or 10.

VPN Buying Guide

Now that you’re a bonafide VPN expert like us, it’s time to actually pick out the VPN you want to use. But before you get too excited, here are some considerations you should make when making your purchase decision.

  • Server locations: The distance from a server can affect the speed of your VPN, so check out the VPN’s list of server locations to make sure you’ll go full speed ahead.
  • Speed: Speaking of speed, you should take all speed tests with a grain of salt, even the ones we perform. Why? Because speed is dependent on so many factors other than just a VPN, like the make of our computer or phone, the year it’s from, what operating system we’re using, and more. So even though you should consider factors like download speed, upload speed and ping, you may want to get the VPN and test it out for yourself; look for VPNs with free trial periods or subscriptions or money-back guarantees. More info on how to test out the speed of your VPN below!
ExpressVPN DNS Leak Test
ExpressVPN DNS Leak Test
  • DNS/ WebRTC Tests: Basically, a VPN only does what it says it does if it hides our Domain Name Server or DNS, basically the websites we go to, as well as our private IP addresses, which are exposed when our browsers default to WebRTC. Fortunately, there are simple tools available online to test this out, which we write about in each VPN’s individual review; however, if you want to do the test yourself, skip to the next section.
  • Encryption: Another essential feature of a VPN is encryption. We want all of our web traffic and our private IP addresses to be encrypted so that even if someone hacks into our VPN, they won’t actually be able to see any of our data. We look for VPNs with either OpenVPN or AES-256 encryption, the most secure methods available.
  • Privacy policy: You know the lines upon lines of small text that you typically agree to without even skimming? We actually read those to find out if the VPN company keeps our data, and if so, exactly what data they keep. While we understand the company keeping information necessary to uphold our accounts, like our names and payment information, it’s not acceptable for a company to keep any of our web traffic or originating IP address, in our opinion.
  • Headquarters: We also care about where a company is based. Why? Because if a company’s headquarters are based in a country that’s a member of Five Eyes, Nine Eyes or 14 Eyes, it could mean that they could be forced to hand over customer data to the government. Countries like the United States and the United Kingdom are members, so we prefer VPNs based in non-member countries like Panama or Romania. This is especially important if privacy is a major concern for you!
  • Device compatibility: Don’t forget to make sure that the VPN will work on the devices you want to use it on; normally, this shouldn’t be a problem for popular devices like iOS, MacOS, Android or Windows, but if you have a device from a less popular manufacturer, you’ll want to double check for compatibility.
  • Kill switch: If we’re using a VPN and it fails, does that mean our Internet Service Provider can access which websites we’re on? The answer is yes, unless of course the VPN has a kill switch that automatically shuts down all web browsers in case it fails. Needless to say, we prefer this option, which is why we always look for kill switches, also called network lock features.
Perfect Privacy Kill Switch
Perfect Privacy Kill Switch
  • Netflix: Whether you want to bypass a country’s restrictions or even check out the offerings Netflix has in another country, make sure that Netflix hasn’t blocked the VPN’s IP addresses if that’s something you’re interested in.
  • Torrenting: The same goes for torrenting; if you want to torrent files, make sure your VPN allows for it, as not all of them do.
  • IP addresses: We prefer VPNs with dynamic IP addresses, meaning that they give us a new IP address every time we connect, or sometimes even more often. This is better than a static IP address that stays the same every time, much easier to trace. However, if the IP address is static, that’s okay as long as it’s shared by multiple users.
  • Internet protocols: Internet protocols determine exactly how a VPN transmits our data from our device onto their private network. Our individual reviews go into each protocol and how it works, but typically we prefer protocols like TCP, Transmission Control Protocol, or UDP, User Datagram Protocol, both commonly used with VPNs.
  • Subscriptions: Money is always a factor with any VPN service. While there are some VPNs that offer free options, they are typically limited, either by the amount of data we could use while on the VPN or by the number of days we had to connect. Most likely, you’ll need to shell out a bit of money for a VPN, so it’s important that you don’t overpay.
  • Pricing: The below chart has all of the most recent payment information from each VPN that we’ve reviewed. As you can see, you can get a VPN for only a few dollars a month, although prices go all the way up to $15 a month. But that depends largely on the contract length, which brings us to our next point…
VPN ReviewsVPN Pricing PagesCost of Monthly PlanMonthly Cost with Three Month PlanMonthly Cost with Six Month PlanMonthly Cost with Annual PlanMonthly Cost with 18 Month PlanMonthly Cost with Two Year PlanMonthly Cost with Three Year Plan
Avast SecureLine VPN ReviewAvast SecureLine VPN PricingXXX3.99 for one device, $4.99 for five devicesXXX
BlackVPN ReviewBlackVPN PricingXXX$5.35 for Privacy VPN locations, $8.33 for all VPN locations, $8.19 for USA and UK VPN locationsXXX
CyberGhost ReviewCyberGhost Pricing$12.99X$7.99X$2.75XX
Encrypt.me ReviewEncrypt.me Pricing$9.99XX$99.99XXX
ExpressVPN ReviewExpressVPN Pricing$12.95X$9.99$8.32XXX
FastestVPN ReviewFastestVPN Pricing$10XX$2.49XX$1.11
HideMyAss ReviewHideMyAss PricingXXX$4.99XX$3.99
Hotspot Shield ReviewHotspot Shield Pricing$12.99XX$7.99XXX
ibVPN ReviewibVPN Pricing4.95 for 1 connection torrent VPN or DNS VPN, $10.95 for 5 simultaneous connectionsXX3.08 for 1 connection, torrent VPN or DNS VPN, $4.83 for 5 simultaneous connectionsXXX
IPVanish ReviewIPVanish Pricing$11.99$8.99X$6.49XXX
Ivacy VPN ReviewIvacy VPN Pricing$9.95XXXX$2.25X
IVPN ReviewIVPN Pricing$6 for 2 devices, $10 for 7 devicesXX$5 for 2 devices, $8.33 for 7 devicesXXX
Mozilla VPN ReviewMozilla VPN Pricing$4.99 for 5 devicesXXXXXX
NordVPN ReviewNordVPN Pricing$11.95XX$6.99X$4.99$3.49
Norton Secure VPN ReviewNorton Secure VPN Pricing$5.99 for 1 device, $7.99 for 5 devices, $9.99 for 10 devicesXX$3.33 for 1 or 5 devices, $5 for 10 devicesXXX
Perfect Privacy ReviewPerfect Privacy Pricing$12.99XX$9.99X$8.95X
Private Internet Access ReviewPrivate Internet Access PricingX$9.95X$3.33X$2.69X
ProtonVPN ReviewProtonVPN Pricing$0 for 1 device, $5 for 2 devices, $10 for 5 devices, $30 for 10 devicesXX$0 for 1 device, $4 for 2 devices, $8 for 5 devices, $24 for 10 devicesX$0 for 1 device, $3.29 for 2 devices, $6.63 for 5 devices, $19.96 for 10 devicesX
PureVPN ReviewPureVPN Pricing$10.95X$8.33XXXX
StrongVPN ReviewStrongVPN Pricing$10XX$5.83XXX
Surfshark ReviewSurfshark Pricing$11.95XX$5.99X$1.99X
Trust.Zone ReviewTrust.Zone VPN Pricing$8.88XX$3.33X$2.33X
TunnelBear ReviewTunnelBear Pricing$0 for 500 MB, $3.33 for unlimited dataXXXXXX
Windscribe ReviewWindscribe Pricing$9.99XX$4.08XXX
  • Contract Length: To get the most savings, sign up for the longest term-length; the longest we’ve seen is three years. However, if you aren’t sure about the VPN or only need it for a little, sign up for a month-to-month option; it’ll cost more, but you won’t be locked in.
  • Simultaneous connections: How many devices can be connected to the VPN at the same time? If you are a device-head or are getting a VPN for multiple people to use, make sure the subscription allows for enough simultaneous connections. Some even allow for unlimited connections at the same time, although this might slow down your Internet connection significantly.
  • Server switches: Some VPNs have limits on the number of servers you can connect to, so if you’re a big traveller, make sure the one you choose allows for sufficient server switches.
  • Total number of devices: The same goes for the total number of devices you can connect to the VPN, whether simultaneously or not. Many VPN subscriptions only apply to a limited number of devices, so that’s something to keep in mind, as well.
  • Discounts: Our ears perk up whenever we hear or think about savings. Any VPNs offer discounts, whether they’re seasonal or for students, so make sure to take advantage of these lower prices.
  • Free VPNs: Again, some VPNs have free options, but these are typically limited by the amount of data transferred or the time period you can use them in. Unless you only need a VPN for a specific task or time period, it probably makes sense to cough up a few dollars a month for a paid subscription.
  • Customer Support: Unfortunately, customer support isn’t an area where most VPNs shine, as the majority lack phone lines. However, we appreciate VPNs with a bunch of different ways to contact customer support, be it through email, live chat, or phone, as well as a robust online help center to answer any questions we may have.
PureVPN Customer Support
PureVPN Customer Support
  • App: Finally, take a look at the VPN app ratings on either the Apple or Google Play store; some VPN apps are super buggy, to the point where we couldn’t even connect, so this is definitely a major area of concern.
FastestVPN Desktop App
FastestVPN Desktop App

How We Test VPNs

Aside from looking for the above features, we put each of our VPNs through three tests on two different types of devices, typically a Macbook and a Windows computer. We perform these tests on our home and office Wi-Fi networks, making sure we’re the only ones using them, with and without the VPN as a baseline. Typically, we do these tests from our office in Brooklyn, but in travelling, we’ve also done them from Poland and even the Philippines, in some cases. Here’s exactly how we do each speed and security test:

WebRTC Leak Test With Surfshark
WebRTC Leak Test With Surfshark
  • WebRTC leak test: To make sure our private IP addresses are being hidden with the VPN on, we use the WebRTC leak test5 on ExpressVPN’s website, making sure that it shows a different IP address with our VPN connected and not connected.
  • DNS leak test: The same goes for our Domain Name Servers, or website URLs. To check for DNS leaks, we use the tool on DNSLeakTest.com,6 again, noting a change in IP address with the VPN connected.
  • Speed test: Finally, to test for a difference in ping (latency), download speed and upload speed, we use the speed test from Ookla,7 which measures the speed in ms for ping and mbps for download and upload speeds. Then, we do some math to figure out how much these speeds changed with and without the VPN; you could do this by hand, but we prefer using an online percentage calculator.8 Hey, we’ve got places to be and VPNs to test out and math is not our thing, unlike technology.

VPNs and Net Neutrality

Net neutrality means that web pages aren’t throttled or slowed down based on how new they are, how popular they are, and how many paid ads they have. That means that smaller or newer websites won’t be punished with slower speeds, upheld in the U.S by the FCC in 20169 and confirmed by the Restoring Internet Freedom Order which took effect in 2018.10

But while the U.S protects net neutrality, this isn’t the case in all countries, and VPNs can help. By hiding your web activity, your ISP won’t be able to see what websites you go on, which means that they can’t enforce throttling. Just another way that VPNs lead to more accessibility, as all websites will run as fast as they’re able.

Recap

Finally, we’ve reached the end of our VPN guide, but if you’d like to learn more about how to stay safe and private online, read our digital privacy guide, our page of 2020 data security statistics, or our piece on the Internet and data privacy. While there’s no way to completely prevent security breaches, hacking, phishing and the like, the more you learn, the better you can protect yourself.

Citations
  1. EFF. (2019). China’s Global Reach: Surveillance and Censorship Beyond the Great Firewall.
    eff.org/deeplinks/2019/10/chinas-global-reach-surveillance-and-censorship-beyond-great-firewall

  2. Syssec. (2019). Touching the Untouchables: Dynamic Security Analysis of the LTE Control Plane.
    syssec.kaist.ac.kr/pub/2019/kim_sp_2019.pdf

  3. Fortune. (2019). Russia’s Latest Internet Crackdown Targets Tools for Avoiding Online Censorship.
    fortune.com/2019/06/07/russia-vpn-crackdown/

  4. NordVPN. (2019). Why the NordVPN network is safe after a third-party provider breach.
    nordvpn.com/blog/official-response-datacenter-breach/

  5. ExpressVPN. (2020). WebRTC Leak Test.
    expressvpn.com/webrtc-leak-test

  6. DNS Leak Test. (2020). Leak Test.
    dnsleaktest.com/

  7. Speed Test by Ookla. (2020). Speed Test.
    speedtest.net/

  8. Percentage Calculator. (2020). Calculator.
    percentagecalculator.net/

  9. The White House. (2016). Net Neutrality.
    obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/net-neutrality

  10. FCC. (2020). Restoring Internet Freedom.
    fcc.gov/restoring-internet-freedom