Streaming makes the world go round. It’s almost frightening, actually, when we think about how many hours we spend streaming. Whether it’s for Zoom meetings, Netflix or YouTube breaks, our computer’s ability to stream video is as essential as our body’s ability to breathe. Still, we aren’t about to stream in public on unprotected WiFi networks. So, it makes sense that we wanted to track down the absolute best VPNs for streaming. And, of course, we’re here to share that wisdom with you.
A look into our Google Calendar: Aliza and Gabe have watched an episode of Grey’s Anatomy together every Wednesday night for the past three years (only 15 years left before we’re caught up!). But Gabe has better patience than Aliza after watching the first part of a two-parter episode, and he’s always suspected that she goes ahead and watches part two without him. But he’ll never catch her since Aliza often utilizes NordVPN, which doesn’t log any web traffic by users. Plus, the company is based in Panama, a non-member to Five Eyes, Nine Eyes, and 14 Eyes, which means that legally, they couldn’t even be forced to help investigate—not even by Gabe.
What we like
Multiple pricing options
What we don’t like
No split tunneling
Static IP address
Kill switch doesn’t shut off all applications with iOS app
Slow applications on iOS and Android
One of the things we liked most about NordVPN is its use of double-VPN, meaning that our web traffic was encrypted not once but twice through multiple servers. This should be reassuring for anyone super-concerned about privacy. NordVPN’s encryption protocols also do a great job of improving on Zoom’s setbacks, if you’re in a lot of virtual meetings these days. It has up-to-the-minute encryption that compensates for Zoom’s end-to-end encryption. With that, our Internet activities are hidden from ISPs, hackers, and the government. So, you know, every one that keeps us up at night.
It’s always a treat to be able to watch Netflix from other countries, and NordVPN’s international servers make this a possibility. With NordVPN, we watched Netflix on Linux, Mac, and Windows computers. And if you’re a busy bee always running around like Gabe is, you can watch on the go in Lyfts and Ubers on Android or iOS devices; it also works on smart TVs and TV devices if you tend to stay in like Aliza. But keep in mind that Netflix only works on NordVPN’s servers from the United States, Japan, the United Kingdom, or the Netherlands, so it may not work for all users.
NordVPN has a strict logging policy, which means that they only track the most basic information about our accounts. NordVPN commits not to track, store, or pass to a third party its users’ location, browsing history, the content of uploads, downloads, or any other data. We go into all the details about this in our breakdown of NordVPN subscriptions and pricing.
Remember the worst day in history? No, not the one you’re thinking of—January 1, 2020, the day Friends was taken off Netflix in the U.S. But if you’re like us, you know that international limits are no barrier to a good VPN. While any VPN connection will be a little slower the farther away you are from the server, when we tried a server in the UK, we still made our evening appointment with our BFFs Monica, Rachel, Ross, Joey, Phoebe, and Chandler. Surfshark also didn’t log any of our usage or connection data, which we love to see.
What we like
Automatic kill switch
Compatible with all major operating systems
Unlimited devices per subscription
What we don’t like
Static IP address
No support over the phone
Manual kill switch for Windows
Only 1,000 servers total
Torrenting is the most popular file-sharing protocol based on peer-to-peer (P2P) technology. It essentially allows vast numbers of users to connect and share content without having to rely on a single source for downloads. Even if you’re torrenting files that don’t fall under certain copyright restrictions, you might be connected to a university’s WiFi or an otherwise restrictive network. In these cases, it’s critical to have a VPN to protect your privacy, and Surfshark makes it easy to torrent without worrying about retribution from overseers.
British Virgin Islands Location
You might think that the Virgin Islands fall under the jurisdiction of Five Eyes, Nine Eyes, and 14 Eyes since it is a territory of the United Kingdom, but thankfully, you’d be wrong. Even though they’re a territory, the British Virgin Islands are still self-governed and have their own laws. And it turns out, they have no data retention laws of their own, and surveillance isn’t legal, even when it’s being done by the government. If it sounds too good to be true, don’t worry. We read the fine print, and it’s for real.
One of our favorite things about Surfshark is that it allows an unlimited number of devices on each subscription, which for us meant that there needed to be apps for many different types of devices. Luckily, Surfshark’s apps are pretty easy to navigate across the board, with feature-rich options for Windows, macOS, Android, iOS, Linux, Chrome, and Firefox. There are also apps for some smart TVs, including FireTV and Apple TV, ideal for streaming your favorite content.
It might not surprise you that our best overall VPN, ExpressVPN, is also the best for streaming. ExpressVPN is always a solid choice when it comes to finding a decent VPN, and it’s no exception when you’re as interested in streaming as we are. ExpressVPN offers split tunneling, which allows us to access both public and private networks at the same time, and speed, without logging our web activities. Like the millennial Brooklynites we are, sometimes we’re watching Tik Tok videos on our phone only to look up and forget that we’re also re-watching Succession for the third time on the laptop. We were able to stream in full HD no problem, which is good because we’re probably going blind from all this screen time.
What we like
30-day money-back guarantee
Easy to use app
What we don’t like
No multi-hop option
Only five simultaneous connections per subscription
Slower speeds for Macs
No customer support over the phone
Obviously having access to Netflix is critical in a list of the best VPNs for streaming. Sure, there are lots of apps and services we use to stream all sorts of video, but we all know that Netflix is the most important. We love that ExpressVPN recommends special servers specifically for accessing Netflix USA.
History Lesson: It was only in 2016 that Netflix announced1 they would block VPNs from accessing their content. The backlash against Netflix was swift, though, and many VPNs continue to have success in providing consumers with access to their favorite TV streaming site.
Data Retention Laws
ExpressVPN is based in the British Virgin Islands, which means it’s not under the jurisdiction of the international surveillance alliances Five Eyes, Nine Eyes and 14 Eyes. You’ll see us talk about those a lot—basically, certain countries like the United States are part of these alliances, and in those countries, the government can force a VPN company to turn over customer data. But let us repeat, this is not something you have to worry about with ExpressVPN.
OpenVPN is the gold standard for encryption. It’s a crowdsourced option that’s being constantly updated to avoid surveillance and tampering. ExpressVPN defaults to OpenVPN, which required us to download third-party software, but it was totally worth it.
After a long workday, sometimes we’re just not in the mood to watch an hour-long or even half-hour-long television show. And when that happens, there’s only one place we turn to: TikTok. TikTok’s short videos are perfect to watch on Hotspot Shield’s free VPN option since it has a daily data cap of 500 MB. It might not sound like much, but the fast speeds on Windows and Macs will keep you swiping through dozens of videos in minutes. If you’re looking for a free, easy option for a VPN, then Hotspot Shield is one to consider.
What we like
Regular transparency reports
What we don’t like
Based in the U.S.
Ads with the free version
500 MB daily limit on the free version
Five simultaneous connections
Hotspot Shield was by far one of the fastest VPNs we found during speed tests on our Windows and Mac computers. Upload speeds decreased by 26 percent and less than one percent, while download speeds decreased by 18 percent and 30 percent on Windows and Mac, respectively. Although the latency was a bit more than we would’ve liked, Hotspot Shield is a great option for torrenting files or watching videos.
Free VPN Option
What can we say? We’re suckers for a free lunch. If you’re wondering what the catch is, it’s pretty simple: the free version of Hotspot Shield has a daily bandwidth limit of 500 MB. This is certainly not ideal for watching hours of Netflix or torrenting large files, but you get what you pay for. If you’re looking for a starter VPN that can keep you safe for quick Internet users searches and a few TikTok videos, this option will work just fine. We should also note that there are ads with the free version, but we haven’t found them to be too obtrusive.
Transparency Around Privacy
Remember those international surveillance alliances we’ve mentioned a few times? Well, Hotspot Shield is based in the United States, which is a member of all the alliances. Normally we wouldn’t even consider a VPN under these jurisdictions, but the company actually publishes annual transparency reports to prove that they don’t hand over customer data, even when asked. This is comforting, but it’s also good to keep in mind exactly what data they’re collecting that’s at risk: HotSpot Shield logs each user’s real IP address (this is deleted at the end of each session), email address, username, unique mobile ID, hardware model, operating system version, language, and a vague category of “Network information.”
Did You Know: In 2018, Hotspot Shield was asked to hand over users’ data 56 different times, refusing every time.2 And all but one of those requests came from government agencies.
When it comes to the most popular VPNs, we consider Ivacy VPN an underdog. With only around 1,000 servers worldwide, they’re one of the smaller options available to consumers. But they have a strict data logging privacy and are less of a target for breaches than some of the bigger fish in the VPN sea.
Split tunneling and kill switch only on Android/Windows
Shared IP address
Subpar app for Mac
Inconsistent customer support
For the best value, users can sign on for a two-year contract from Ivacy, which comes out to just $2.25 a month. But of course, if someone isn’t up for such a long-term commitment (we get it, we don’t even sign two-year leases on our apartments), then they could pay month to month for $9.95. At just under $10 per month, even this, Ivacy VPN’s most expensive option, is pretty affordable compared to industry standards.
“Kill switch” is one of those terms that just sounds absolutely critical, right? Kill switches shut down Internet browsers in the unlikely event that a VPN fails. If a kill switch isn’t in place, a users’ activity could instantly become exposed, which seems to defeat the whole point of a VPN in our mind. When we first started using Ivacy, Gabe was getting some work done at his favorite local New York pizza joint, Sbarro. The pizza? Delicious. The Wifi network? Suspicious. He was doing great using Ivacy until some sort of glitch happened, but luckily with the kill switch, all of his private Google docs and spreadsheets were immediately closed down and safe.
Flexible encryption protocols
Ivacy VPN allowed us to choose what level of encryption we wanted, and we could change it within the app at any given time, depending on what we wanted to prioritize at the time, namely security versus speed. Unfortunately, it’s normal for there to be a tradeoff between these two things, so it’s refreshing that Ivacy VPN lets us explicitly make the call.
After absorbing all that information, you might be wondering how Security.org reviews VPNs. Take a look at our methodology, which will turn you into an expert just like us when it comes to Virtual Private Networks, a.k.a VPNs.
We always start off by testing the basic offerings that every VPN should provide at a baseline. These are the essentials that we’re always checking for:
There’s no use giving readers all the specifics on the best VPNs out there if we don’t consider whether or not our readers can afford the services or not. Therefore, we always give readers the most objective information about each company’s subscription options, in addition to providing context on whether or not the price is reasonable, based on the industry standards for pricing as well as the number and quality of features offered.
VPNs can cost anywhere from as little as a dollar or less all the way up to $15 per month, but they generally tend to fall around $4 to $10 per month. We tend to prefer plans that offer monthly options as well as annual payment options, the latter of which usually end up costing less per month overall. And because there’s nothing we love more than free trials, we’re always on the lookout to identify companies with a trial period or money-back guarantee, which is fairly common for VPNs. Finally, we outline what a subscription actually entails in terms of the numbers of server switches, simultaneous connections, and devices allowed. Typically, VPNs allow for unlimited server switches and devices and anywhere from one to unlimited simultaneous connections.
Unfortunately, VPN companies are known for their subpar customer support features across the board. This can be frustrating for customers so we always give an honest assessment of our experience interacting with the support teams for each company. The decent options at least have a live chat feature in addition to an online help center. It’s a major plus if we can find one with 24/7 chat availability instead of limited hours, and even better if they actually have a phone line we can call into.
One of the primary motivators of getting a VPN is using it for streaming media like movies and television. So, we pay special attention to which VPNs have the ability to stream, especially with providers like Netflix. Netflix and other sites that technically don’t allow VPN access to their sites are a bit of a curveball; they constantly update their code to block VPNs, but we still always test our ability to access. This is one of our favorite things to test—we simply attempt to log into Netflix or Hulu or Disney+ while using a VPN and see how much of our favorite shows we can get through, and how smooth it runs. We can’t guarantee that it will always work, but we’ll always let you know.
Testing the speed of a VPN is a specific, scientific endeavor that we take seriously. Most of our tests happen at the Security.org office in Brooklyn, but we also have some trusted and beloved technicians in Poland and the Philippines. We test one device at a time, to make sure that our Internet speed with and without a VPN can be objectively measured.
As we’ve said before, we’re Mac users ourselves, but we know that there are Windows users out there, so we always make sure to test everything on both a Macbook Air and a Windows Vivobook. To test download speed, upload speed, and ping (latency), we use the website SpeedTest.net to perform tests first without a VPN, and then again with a VPN. While download and upload speed are measured in megabits per second, latency is always measured in milliseconds. After calculating these rates, we determine the difference in terms of a percentage, as the natural speeds of our specific Macbook and Windows computers differ greatly.
In the best-case scenario, VPNs never have more than, say, a 40 percent difference in any of the speed categories. However, it’s important to keep in mind that speed can vary by numerous factors: operating system, distance to the server, device, and more. So, while of course, we are always as objective as possible when conducting our tests, we urge readers to take the speed test results with a grain of salt.
The whole point of obtaining a VPN for many people is to protect web traffic, composed of domain name servers (names of websites) and users’ respective IP addresses. We also always want to make sure that if we recommend a certain VPN, the customers’ private IP addresses are not then being leaked due to WebRTC, which allows browsers to communicate directly with each other and is the default on browsers like Chrome, Microsoft Edge, and Opera.
We test for DNS leaks using DNSLeakTest.com. By comparing our computer’s IP address with the IP addresses that come up on the website, we can tell if there was a DNS leak with the VPN or not. Next, we test for WebRTC leaks using the tool available on ExpressVPN’s website. Simply by looking at the local and Public IPv4 IP addresses, we can determine if there were any WebRTC leaks.
We really want to be thorough, so aside from testing for DNS and WebRTC leaks, we also like to look into a company’s privacy jurisdiction and data-logging policy. It’s ideal for the VPN companies to be based in countries that are non-members to the major international surveillance alliances: Five Eyes, Nine Eyes, and 14 Eyes. Members of these alliances can legally force companies to hand over customer information. It should be noted that some companies based in member-countries still refuse to turn that data over, but it’s a risk that consumers need to be aware of. As far as data-logging goes, we typically prefer companies that only keep users’ basic account information such as name, email, and payment information. We don’t think that it’s necessary for VPNs to keep any other information about when customers use their VPNs, for how long, how much data they’ve transferred, what websites they’ve visited, etc.
In our more in-depth reviews, we analyze the VPN’s encryption methods and Internet protocols to ensure that they meet industry standards, which typically include OpenVPN and AES-256, the most secure methods around. We look for private domain name servers and anonymous and dynamic IP addresses because we’ve found that they are harder to track. Finally, we make sure that each VPN has a kill switch, which will immediately shut down all Internet browsers in the event that the VPN fails.
Since many people use VPNs for media like movies and television, we always look for VPNs with Netflix and torrenting access, like we did in the above list. And while we stand by the above rankings, it is important to keep in mind that Netflix constantly updates its code to block any VPN connections, so there is no guarantee that it will always work on any given VPN.
Another feature we look for is split tunneling, which allows users to access the VPN and the public network at the same time. This allows for lower bandwidth, which can create faster speeds. We also prefer double or multi-hop VPNs, as they encrypt data multiple times through multiple servers.
This one might seem basic, but you’d be surprised how many VPNs we thought we were going to like but then found impossible to use because of a bad app interface. So we always review the app for both iPhone and Android ourselves, while also taking a look at its ratings in app stores. The bottom line is that if an app has a rating below three stars for a specific device, we simply cannot recommend the product to consumers with that device.
VPNs are worth it to purchase if you want to stream safely. VPNs are great because they let you unlock everything the Internet has to offer while keeping you safer and more secure than if you just logged onto your computer once a month to pay your bills. While some streaming services like Netflix say that they don’t allow VPN access, the best VPNs easily bypass those measures.
VPNs can improve speeds for streaming and certain services, under specific circumstances. For example, ISPs sometimes throttle—or artificially slow down—specific types of traffic. VPNs can help to get around this digital rubbernecking and speed up your streaming, but we should note that we often see slowdowns, too, since the data has to travel through an intermediate server. So while they can stop throttling, usually VPNs won’t vastly improve your speeds.
A VPN might slow down your streaming speed since whatever you’re watching has to travel through the VPN’s intermediate server. Certain VPNs and their servers are better at minimizing this slowdown than others, which we’ve detailed in the list above.
Netflix will probably not ban you for using a VPN. Netflix can detect the use of certain VPN servers, and since it’s against their terms of service to use a VPN (always read the fine print!) they could technically terminate your account. However, they’ve never done this before, and don’t seem too interested in putting it on their to-do list. Typically, the worst thing that will happen if Netflix detects your VPN is a classic “Whoops, something went wrong…” message.