Best VPN services: The top providers
Want to find the best VPN service? Keep on reading
VPN or Virtual Private Network works by creating an encrypted connection between your computer and a VPN server from a service provider (there's dozens of them to choose from).
Anything you do online - sites you're visiting, emails you send or receive, files you download, web forms you complete - passes through that secure tunnel and can't be intercepted by anyone else (unless one of these servers – or your own computer) is compromised but that's another story.
Below are the top 10 VPN services that we selected.
1. Hotspot Shield
The best VPN tool to browse online privately
If you want the absolute best VPN service, check out AnchorFree's Hotspot Shield Elite. It is, in our view, the the one that manages to provide all the necessary features at an attractive price with the option of getting a lifetime license. It supports private browsing, virtual locations, allows "access all content", and supports up to 5 devices.
Performance results in our tests were excellent, with latency showing only a marginal increase, and both upload and download speeds a little faster once connected. We'd like more configurability and a wider range of locations, but Hotspot Shield Elite's high speeds and low price have a lot of appeal, and the 7-day trial makes it easy to test the service for yourself.
2. KeepSolid VPN Unlimited
Best for multiple devices
Some companies take a one-size-fits-all approach to VPNs, offering the bare minimum of products, but KeepSolid's VPN Unlimited is different. Very, very different. Forget the usual two or three plans. There's a 7-day free trial to get you started, and also a 7-day money-back guarantee for a little extra security.
VPN Unlimited's PC client opens with a clear overview of the service state. Your real and virtual IPs are displayed as addresses and plotted on a map and the number of days left on your current plan are visible at a glance. Its choice of servers is lower than some but for a more general purpose VPN, the service does very well.
For those looking for an ultra-secure VPN
Despite being based in a country located in Central America – hardly a tech hub - NordVPN's current products match or beat the competition in just about every area. 563 servers in 49 countries, 2048-bit encryption, 6-device support as standard, strong DNS leak protection, automatic Kill Switch, handy security extras, optional dedicated IP addresses, and payment options including Bitcoin, PayPal and credit cards.
Performance was good, too, with download speeds around 95% of our typical rate. Latency and upload speeds weren't as impressive at 197% and 40% of the regular rates, but overall our system still felt relatively snappy and responsive.
Best for those looking for maximum speed
PureVPN's PC client stands out immediately for the sheer volume of connection options and tools it makes available. Its policy on logging is unusually clear: the company records the time you connect to a server and the total bandwidth used, but otherwise there are no logs of the websites you visit, the files you download or anything else.
PureVPN did much better on our performance tests, where amazingly it managed to improve most of our download speeds. Latency was a mere 5% higher than normal, upload speeds actually increased by 4%, while downloads were a very surprising 80% up on our normal speeds.
Best for P2P traffic
While many VPN providers try to stand out with their free plans and cheap commercial products, IPVanish talks more about service quality. It's "the world's fastest VPN" says the website, boasting 40,000+ shared IPs, 500+ VPN servers in 60+ countries, unlimited P2P traffic, five simultaneous connections and more.
The price is still going to be an issue for some – it is more expensive than the average competition, but IPVanish's high speeds, choice of locations and excellent client are hard to beat. If you're after quality, take the plunge with this VPN, and if somehow you end up unhappy with the service there's always that 7-day money-back guarantee.
The next 5 to be considered are:
How to test and choose your VPN. Free vs. Paid.
Why free VPN is not always best
VPN's used to be a premium product, but you don't have to spend big money on them anymore. Some companies now offer a basic service that won't cost you anything at all.
As you'd expect, there are catches, and they typically start with a data cap. Avira Phantom VPN's free plan limits you to 500MB a month, PrivateTunnel's is 2GB, ZPN has a generous 10GB: not bad at all.
Free products also typically have usage restrictions. Most companies don't want you to soak up all their bandwidth on torrents, so ZPN is typical in blocking P2P.
Hide.me's 2GB free plan also has some common limits. There's "best effort" bandwidth, which means paying customers have speed priority and you get what's left. And the choice of locations is limited to three: Canada, Netherlands and Singapore.
Hola's free-for-personal-use plan doesn't have the same kind of restrictions, but even here there's a catch. The service routes traffic through its free users rather than dedicated servers, so signing up allow others to (securely) share a small part of your bandwidth and resources.
Then there's the adverts and the session limits (CyberGhost) and the general lack of service level agreement: free means that it doesn't come with any implicit warranties.
Free plans are fine for simple needs, then, maybe protecting your laptop's wireless hotspot traffic on the occasional trip, but if you're looking for anything more advanced, a commercial product is best.
The immediate benefit is that you know your personal data remains safe, even if you're on a public Wi-Fi hotspot. Local snoopers might be able to see the connection, but there's no way to find out what it is or where it's going.
VPNs also give you a new digital identity in the shape of an IP address from another country. This makes it harder for websites or anyone else to track you, allows some people to bypass government censorship, and helps the rest of us avoid those "not available in your country" messages on YouTube or other streaming sites.
Best of all, despite the low-level network technology involved, you don't need to be any kind of expert to make VPNs work. For the most part, all you have to do is choose the country where you'd like an IP address, click Connect to start, Disconnect when you're done-- and that's it.
How to choose a VPN? Here's 6 tips
There are several factors to consider when you're choosing a paid VPN.
1. Does the plan have servers in every country and region you need? Having more than one server in a country can help spread the load, but doesn't guarantee improved performance, so don't assume a plan with 500 servers will automatically beat another with 100.
2. Check the number of simultaneous connections supported. Typically, this is 3-5, which allows you to have a PC, mobile and tablet connected at the same time. But beware, many companies say this is for a single user only, and they all have fair usage policies to prevent people hogging resources. If you let the entire family download and stream videos separately then you'll run into trouble.
3. Some providers list the connection protocols they use. OpenVPN and IKeV2 are good choices, fast and secure. You might see SSTP and the older PPTP, as well as protocol options (TCP or UDP for OpenVPN). You don't need to understand the low-level details, but having the extra choice can help the service make faster and/ or more reliable connections.
5. It's important to consider the client, the software which handles your connections. These all have a list of servers and a Connect/ Disconnect button, but could you use more? Some clients display server load and ping time in the interface, helping you choose the right one. Regular users might appreciate a "Favourites" system to save and recall specific servers. If you know what you're doing, having access to low-level network settings will help you tune the whole system.
6. Finally, there's the price. Beware of apparently cheap deals: these may have restricted features, exclude taxes, be discounted for the first billing period only, and renew automatically, so that apparent one-off £3.99 might become almost £10 next month. Look for a "Pricing" link, read the small print, and if possible use something like PayPal where it's easy to check and cancel a subscription yourself.
Once you've found what looks like a good VPN candidate, be sure to take it for a trial before you spend any big money. Companies will often provide short trials of just a day or two, maybe offer a refund, but don't pay too much attention to those. Choose what looks like the best service for you, pay for a month, run as many tests as you can, then upgrade to a better value plan (usually yearly) if you're happy.
How to test a VPN?
Our comparisons started by looking at each provider's range of plans. We were looking for features, value, and clear and honest pricing. Free ways to learn more about a service - free plans, trial periods, refund periods - were important, and we also looked for companies which maintained your privacy when you signed up (no email address required, trials available without credit cards, Bitcoin available as a payment option).
VPN performance is difficult to measure as there are so many variables, but we used multiple techniques to try and get a feel for each service's abilities. We first used speedtest.net to measure the latency, upload and download speeds for a distant connection (typically UK to California), repeated the test immediately with the VPN turned off, and looked at any changes.
We followed this up with a much shorter connection (typically UK to Netherlands) to see a more typical peak performance, ran a second benchmark to confirm our results, and ran some general browsing tests - including streaming HD video - to look for other problems.
VPNs will always give you a new IP address, but some services may have DNS or other leaks which give clues about your identity. We visited IPLeak.net and other privacy sites to look for problems.
Running these tests gave us a chance to examine each provider's client. We were looking for good server selection tools (by country, region, server, speed, with filters, a Favourites system, perhaps with server load or ping time displayed), with plenty of configuration options, but also a client which stayed out of your way until you needed it.
Finally, we weighed up these individual factors, came up with an overall score, and narrowed these down to the 10 best VPNs around. All the ones in the top five scored 70 points or more, out of 100.
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