Best VPN 2021: NordVPN, ExpressVPN, IPVanish, and More
Online security is more important today than ever before. One common method for protecting yourself online is the use of a Virtual Private Network -- or VPN for short. It allows you to safely send information when using public networks via a group of networked computers and faraway servers.
Not all VPNs are the same, however, so we took some time to find the best VPN services.
We'd like to note at the start that signing up for free VPN services -- especially those dedicated to mobile apps -- can be a risky business. Know that all "free" services are making money off of you somehow, whether it be from advertisements or something less innocuous, such as selling user activity data. The best VPNs typically promise no activity or user logs, but do have fees.
We've narrowed down the very best subscription options below, but thanks to frequent deals and discounts, you may find the actual prices lower than what we list.
Best VPN 2021
- Private Internet Access
1. NordVPNMark Coppock/Digital Trends Mark Coppock/Digital Trends
With three different VPN protocols (IKEv2/IPsec, OpenVPN, and NordLynx), it's easy to see that NordVPN values your privacy.
But the company has also worked hard to build up its server network to include more than 5,400 servers in 59 countries around the world. The service also comes with split tunneling, a kill switch feature for when you lose your connection, and you can use up to six devices simultaneously. If you're not familiar, split tunneling is the ability to whitelist some activities to bypass the VPN for better performance.
From protected DNS queries to automatic kill switches, NordVPN wants you to know that your information won't fall into the wrong hands. It's also one of the most open VPNs about exactly what servers it offers in what countries, and provides 24/7 live chat support for questions. The company has recently improved its platform support, adding in iOS and Android and thus overcoming its one weakness.
The NordVPN client provided one of the most attractive interfaces, and connecting to a VPN server was straightforward and very quick. We found performance to be somewhat spotty, however, with our fastest connection running at 53 Mb/s down and 26 Mb/s up, compared to 125 Mb/s down and 20 Mb/s with the VPN connection turned off. We did have an issue connecting to Netflix, but Amazon Prime Video ran without issue.
Our other internet tests went without a hitch.
- Cost: £12 per month; £59 for the first year; £89 for the first two years of service
- Number of servers: 5,255+
- Number of server locations: 59 countries
- Clients supported: Windows, MacOS, Linux, iOS, Android (including Android TV), a few browser extensions, and a whole host of other devices
- Number of simultaneous connections: Up to six
2. ExpressVPNMark Coppock/Digital Trends Mark Coppock/Digital Trends
ExpressVPN's "#1 Trusted Leader in VPN" claim may be a bit difficult to prove, but the service offers a compelling list of features nonetheless. It also constantly tries to make consistent improvements in speed and simultaneous streaming capabilities, and with support for all major platforms (Windows, MacOS, Android, etc.), you won't need to worry about compatibility.
ExpressVPN shows up on a number of best VPN lists, and so its relatively high prices seem justified. The more than 3,000 servers are all well placed throughout common travel destinations and urban centers. Any package will land you high-speed unlimited bandwidth and 24-hour customer service.
With so many features, including bypassing ISP throttling and split tunneling, it's no wonder this vendor is considered among the best -- although you should note that ExpressVPN only supports up to five simultaneous connections with a single subscription, which is the lowest number of the services on our list. But they also provide a workaround of sorts for that: If you install ExpressVPN on your router, your router can protect all of your devices and the router only counts as one device towards your subscription, regardless of how many other devices are connected to that router. This way, you can have more than five devices protected at once.
Setting up ExpressVPN and connecting to a VPN server was easy enough. Performance, when connected to the VPN server, was average, at 49 Mb/s down and 16 Mb/s up, compared to our usual speeds of 125 Mb/s down and 20 Mb/s up. Netflix complained about a proxy being in use when we used the automatic configuration option, but it worked fine when we manually selected a local U.S. server.
Amazon Prime Video played just fine, and our other internet tests completed without issue.
- Cost: £6.67/month when billed annually (plus three months free); £10/month when billed every six months; £13/month when billed monthly
- Number of servers: 3,000+
- Number of server locations: 160 locations across 94 countries
- Clients supported: Windows, MacOS, Linux, iOS, Android, Consoles, Wi-Fi routers, smart TVs, browser extensions
- Number of simultaneous connections: Up to five (but you can have more if you install ExpressVPN on your router)
IPVanish offers all the key features you could need from a VPN and at a great price, too. With regular sales part of the IPVanish experience, you can commit for a year at a very low price, enjoying the protection that comes from a choice of more than 1,600 VPN servers across more than 75 different locations.
Besides offering extensive protection whether you're browsing from home or using a public Wi-Fi hotspot, IPVanish also makes it simpler to avoid Deep Packet Inspection -- a method used by ISPs to limit your internet speed at times. The VPN offers unmetered data transfer caps and there's no limit on how many devices you can use it with so it's incredibly flexible for high-volume users. No logs are kept plus there's a choice of multiple connection protocols which is useful if you want to get more involved in your VPN settings.
24/7 customer support means the VPN is always on hand to help you out, too. Not that you should need it too often thanks to simple-to-use apps for all major platforms. If you want even more from IPVanish, you can also opt to sign up to its VPN+Storage plan offering all of the above plus 500GB of secure storage including multi-folder syncing and ransomware protection.
Combined, it's a great service and it'll even help you avoid geo-restrictions on many of your favorite streaming services too.
- Cost: £10 on a monthly basis, £90 for an annual subscription (£7.50 monthly)
- Number of servers: 1,600+
- Number of server locations: 75 cities worldwide
- Clients supported: Windows, MacOS, iOS, Android, Amazon
- Number of simultaneous connections: Unlimited
4. Private Internet Access
Private Internet Access does everything you could want from a good VPN. It hides your IP address, protects your information, and scrambles your browsing activity using a variety of encryption methods.
We tested Private Internet Access using its Windows installer, which configures the VPN protocols and provides a simple utility in the taskbar to turn the VPN connection on and off. While the interface was spartan, the performance was excellent. Our test system consistently maintained over 110 Mb/s download and 19 Mb/s upload speeds with the VPN connection turned on, very close to our usual 125 Mb/s download and 20 Mb/s upload speeds.
On the downside, Netflix complained about a proxy and Amazon Prime Video wouldn't play due to a geographical restriction. These errors occurred whether we used the automatic setting or selected a local U.S.-based server. However, Private Internet Access claims that users can get "unrestricted access to all the content you want" since their VPN service supports Netflix and "all other major streaming services."
- Cost: £9.95 on a monthly basis, £40 for an annual subscription (£3 monthly), £69 for three years (£2 monthly)
- Number of servers: 35,000+
- Number of server locations: 101 locations among 78 countries
- Clients supported: Windows, MacOS, Linux, iOS, Android -- several browser extensions
- Number of simultaneous connections: Up to 10
With a name like TorGuard, the software better offer strong protection. The software's hallmarks lie in its ability to connect to a melange of services for different activities, with four different packages available based on various needs. The VPN service will run you £10 each month, which includes port forwarding, OpenVPN obfuscation, malware blocking, and no activity logs.
Like most VPN services, the program will prevent websites from viewing your personal IP address, thus preventing others from identifying you or your geographic location. The TorGuard Windows client was easy to install and made quick work of connecting to a VPN server, including the ability to choose a server location before connecting. The internet speed on our test system dropped from our usual 125 Mb/s download to 53 Mb/s, and our upload ran at 17 Mb/s compared to our usual 20 Mb/s.
That's not the best performance in our testing, but all internet services that we tested worked without a hitch, including Netflix and Amazon Prime Video.
- Cost: £10/month for Anonymous VPN (£60 for the annual package); Anonymous Email service plans start at £9 per month; Business VPN plans usually start at £32 per month (when not on sale); Streaming Bundle plans are £22 per month (£121 annually)
- Number of servers: 3,000+
- Number of server locations: 50+ countries
- Clients supported: Windows, MacOS, Linux, iOS, Android
- Number of simultaneous connections: Up to eight for Anonymous VPN (non-business) users
6. ProtonVPNMark Coppock/Digital Trends
ProtonVPN is one of the newest VPN services, and it boasts some star-studded founding members. The company was founded at CERN, the birthplace of the internet, and grew out of the ProtonMail service that's been protecting the email of activists and journalists for years.
The service acts as a Swiss company and is thus free from the laws of the U.S. and the European Union. It's also not a member of the "fourteen eyes surveillance network," so user traffic isn't logged and passes through privacy-friendly countries, so you needn't worry about your true IP address being revealed. Rather than the standard inexpensive-to-operate PPTP and L2TP/IPSec protocols, ProtonVPN only uses OpenVPN and IKEv2/IPSec protocols.
You can use the service for free, but you'll have to settle for a limit of three countries, one device, and medium speeds. Naturally, there are more robust paid plans available as well. The recent introduction of Linux, iOS, and MacOS clients has significantly enhanced the service, making it compatible with the full suite of popular operating systems and platforms.
Installing and configuring ProtonVPN's Windows client is simple enough to do, and it provides some of the best in-use statistics. At 39 Mb/s down and 18 Mb/s up (compared to the usual 125 Mb/s down and 18 Mb/s up), its performance was at the lower end of our comparison group. Amazon Prime Video and most of our other test services (except for Netflix) connected without a hitch.
Cost: Free for a limited plan, you pay £4/month when billed annually for the Basic plan (two devices and high speeds, 43 countries).
Next, you can pay £8/month when billed annually for the Plus plan (10 devices and the highest speeds, 55 countries). Lastly is the Visionary Plan, coming in at £24/month when billed annually (10 devices, mail account, all other Plus features)
- Number of servers: Depends on plan (up to 1,240)
- Number of server locations: Depends on plan (up to 55 countries)
- Clients supported: Windows, MacOS, iOS, Android, Linux
- Number of simultaneous connections: Up to 10 (only one with the free plan)
Research and buying FAQ
Which is the safest VPN?
The VPNs on our list have high ratings for security, but there are a few specific things you can look for if you are very concerned. We suggest paying attention to:
No-log policies: This is the VPN promising that they don't log locations or activities for any user. Certain VPNs offer third-party verified systems (like NordVPN) while others provide detailed information on their code so users can see for themselves. Location: A variety of countries have specific regulations requiring data retention so they can investigate illegal activities, etc.
Certain VPNs claim they avoid these restrictions by having their headquarters in places like the Bahamas or Panama. This is a somewhat murky subject, but worth watching for. Kill switches: When a VPN service suddenly drops or has an outage, a kill switch will automatically keep you from connecting to the internet, ensuring that your location or data are not accidentally exposed.
Double encryption: NordVPN, for example, offers a Double VPN mode that will encrypt data twice instead of just once. It may not be necessary, but if you are truly worried about hacking attempts it could be useful. A choice of security protocols: For those who really want to dig into privacy options, the ability to switch between security protocols like OpenVPN and IKEv2 can be useful.
Do VPN services really work?
VPNs are effective at what they do, within reason.
For general data encryption and protection when online, they are an excellent choice. They can help prevent data throttling by hiding you from your ISP (internet service provider). They can get around regional restrictions or price changes by allowing users to switch servers at will.
Additional features can restrict web access, help detect malicious sites, and other services. On the other hand, VPNs have limitations. They can be detected and banned by governments, for example, and low-quality versions can log and even sell your data.
Services can also block access to content when a VPN is used, which is why trying to get around something like Netflix's regional restrictions can be hit or miss.
How do I choose a VPN?
Get ready for some research! While the core of VPN services is simple, it's often surrounded by a wide range of features, statistics, and modes that require some study to fully understand. To help narrow down your choices, we suggest starting with a few questions.
First, where do you want a VPN? Do you just want it on your phone for public areas? Do you want it directly on a router or a specific browser (Opera, for example, comes with its own built-in VPN, as do others)?
Do you want a whole-house VPN for all your computers and smart devices? Then take a look at important features like the number of simultaneous devices supported (if you have a lot of devices online at once, some VPNs may be automatically disqualified here). If you want to beat geolocking, look for VPNs that have a lot of different server locations.
If you want a business VPN, look for advanced security features and broad compatibility with different platforms.
Features like split tunneling to help speed up specific services may also be very important for gamers or high-definition movie streaming.