The best VPN services – short for 'virtual private network' – are pieces of software that hide your location and keep your online activity anonymous. However, as they've shot into the mainstream, millions worldwide are realizing that they can do so much more than just keep you private.

Available on PCs, mobile devices, routers, smart TVs and even games consoles, the most inexperienced internet user can now connect to a VPN in a single click to access blocked sites and geo-restricted streaming services, all while keeping their activity absolutely private. 

However, doing your research and picking the best VPN is incredibly important, as not all are created equal – and, surprisingly, only a select few can do everything you might need.

The best VPN can anonymize you by routing your connection through encrypted servers all over the world. This hides your activity from your ISP, meaning that it can't tell you're accessing restricted sites and subsequently can't block them. What you're doing will be totally hidden from governments, hackers, and even the VPN itself.

For example, if Facebook or YouTube is banned at your school, you'll be able to access them through your VPN. If you're traveling to the UAE or China, you can use a VPN to access restricted sites and apps you use daily, like Gmail and WhatsApp. And, if you're on holiday anywhere outside your home country, you can use a VPN to access the Netflix you know and love, as different countries are served different content.

What's the best VPN service?

The competition to be crowned best VPN gets tougher every day, but there's still a clear winner that's head and shoulders above the rest – ExpressVPN.

One of ExpressVPN's main assets is that it's incredibly easy to use on any platform – be it your phone, PC or even PlayStation. It also aced all of our streaming tests, easily getting around the geo-restrictions of Netflix, BBC iPlayer, Hulu and Amazon Prime Video – and, because it provides such swift connections, you'll be able to watch in HD just like usual.

To top it off, you'll also be covered by a 30-day money-back guarantee which means you can effectively test-drive the service and its 3,000+ servers for a whole month before you buy.

1. ExpressVPN – hands-down the best VPN available
While competition is stiff, ExpressVPN impresses on every front, delivering the full package of speed, security, configurable privacy features and, most importantly, great reliability. Its 30-day no-quibble money-back guarantee lets you trial the service, and now you can even get three months free.View Deal

2.NordVPN – the biggest name is super secure
As the biggest name in the VPN industry, it's quite likely you'll have heard of NordVPN. The TV ads and sports team sponsorships aren't just bluster either – it really is one of the best VPNs available. It's not quite up there with Express, but for $3.71/mo it's an excellent service at a great price.View Deal

3. Surfshark – the best-value VPN on the market
If you're after a premium service for as little money as possible, Surfshark might be right up your street. With unlimited connections, intuitive apps, really swift connections and most of the features of its rivals, at just $2.49/mo it's the cheapest way to get a world-class VPN.View Deal

The best VPN services today

ExpressVPN - best VPN

1. ExpressVPN

The best VPN for streaming, privacy and speed

Number of servers: 3,000+ | Speeds: Unlimited | VPN locations: 160 in 94 countries | Maximum devices supported: 5 | 24/7 live chat: Yes | 30 day money back guarantee: Yes

Among the fastest VPNs out there

Wide device support

30-day free trial

Ace 24/7 support service

Only 5 simultaneous connections

ExpressVPN is simply the best VPN available (our full ExpressVPN review is here) thanks to its fantastic apps, ease of use, superb speeds, excellent 24/7 customer-service support and wide compatibility across devices. You can use the service on Mac, Windows, iOS, Android and even Linux or BlackBerry, and you can also install it on your Android TV, games console, or your home router.

With a kill switch, split tunneling, DNS leak protection and military-grade encryption as standard, your data will stay secure, plus its no-logging policy assures your anonymity in any situation. And, Express's stellar 24/7 live chat support will help if anything goes awry.

Perfect for newbies as well as veterans, ExpressVPN offers that rare combination of simplicity and in-depth functionality. The apps retain the same clean, one-click-and-you're-connected interface across all devices, but if you want to open the hood you'll be able to configure it exactly how you want it.

Fancy watching US Netflix when you're abroad? Express can sort you out with that –plus any other regional library you might be interested it. It'll also get you stuck into BBC iPlayer, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, HBO Go, Sky Go, Disney Plus... Basically, if you want to watch more, ExpressVPN can keep you stuck to your sofa for as long as you want.

If we had any complaints, it'd be that Express only offers five simultaneous connections, but that's recently been increased from three and should be plenty for most users. Plus, if you use the dedicated router app, you can cover every device you own with four connections to spare.

We could go on for pages singing Express's praises, but all we need to say is that it's the best VPN service available for pretty much any purpose. However, if you're not sure, the 30-day money-back guarantee gives you plenty of time to test so you can make sure it's right for you. If it isn't, you'll be able to get a refund – no questions asked.

Get 49% off plus three free months of best VPN 2020
Tom's Guide readers can claim three months free on a 12 month plan with ExpressVPN – that's 15 months for the price of 12. But if you want to try before you buy, you'll still be covered by that 30-day money-back guarantee to make sure it's the right VPN for you.
View Deal

NordVPN - best VPN

2. NordVPN

The world's most famous VPN is also among the best

Number of servers: 5,200+ | Server locations: 80+ in 59 countries | Maximum devices supported: 6 | 24/7 live chat: Yes | 30 day money back guarantee: Yes

Super 2048-bit encryption

Fresh security audit in mid-2020

Six devices at once

Tons of servers

Mobile apps can be awkward

If you're on this page then you probably know about NordVPN – and yes, the security giant you've seen on TV is one of the best VPNs. While it can't quite match Express in terms of all-round excellence, Nord provides a seriously secure, privacy-focused experience.

You'll be covered by fantastically over-engineered 2048-bit double encryption, alongside the usual extra features like a kill switch and a choice of protocols to let you choose if you want extra speed or safety. You'll also have a great selection of apps for pretty much any device you want covering.

Those apps do present one of Nord's downsides though – on desktop and larger screens the map-based interface is quite useful, but on handheld devices it's much more clumsy than a server list. While you can access one with a swipe, we'd like to see one immediately.

That's a small quibble, though, because otherwise NordVPN provides a great experience. You'll be able to stream overseas Netflix, BBC iPlayer, Hulu and more, plus with its great connection speeds you won't be left buffering.

Nord was subject to a well-publicised data breach in 2018, but has taken great steps to remedy this, not least a second full independent audit in two years of its internals and no-logs policy. All this comes together to make an excellent VPN service that only misses out on the top spot due to a couple of app issues – and the fact that the competition is so strong.

Save 68% on one of the best VPNs available today
NordVPN is currently running its end-of-summer sale on its 2-year plan. At $3.71/mo it's the cheapest of the bunch – and if you're not sure, you'll also be covered by a 30-day guarantee so you can make sure you like Nord's service in the long-run. View Deal

Surfshark best VPN

3. Surfshark

Fast, affordable and super simple to use

Number of servers: 1,700+ | Server locations: 100+ in 63 countries | Maximum devices supported: Unlimited | 24/7 live chat: Yes | 30 day money back guarantee: Yes

Unlimited devices supported

Reliable and quick connections

Longer plans are great value

Apps are fairly simple

For those on a budget, Surfshark offers a genuinely powerful VPN for less than half what some competitors are charging. No, you won't have all the bells and whistles, but for those that just want reliable internet security and speeds good enough to stream with, it's got all you need.

While they're not incredibly in-depth, Surfshark's apps look great and are easy to use. All you need to do is tap the quick connect button and you're off. You'll also be able to get apps for plenty of devices including Android, iOS, WIndows, Mac and Linux.

On that note, with Surfshark you really will be able to protect every device you own, because it offers unlimited simultaneous connections with a single subscription. That means you can cover 10, 20, even 50 devices with one plan.

Surfshark's no slouch in the privacy department, with a kill switch, split tunneling and AES-256 encryption. If you want seriously powerful configuration in your VPN then it's probably not for you, but it'll keep you secure – it wouldn't be on this list if it wouldn't.

Value is what makes Surfshark really shine, though. If you sign up for 12 months you'll be paying less than $2,50 each month and get 12 months free – and you can cover everything you own with one plan. It's that simple. 

Get one of the best VPNs on the market for less than $2/mo
Surfshark is a great option for those who want a simple VPN to set and forget. Sign up for the 12 + 12-month plan and you'll pay less than $2.50 a month, plus you'll be able to cover all your devices. If it's not for you, you're also covered by a 30-day money-back guarantee.View Deal

CyberGhost - best VPN
(Image credit: CyberGhost)

4. CyberGhost

Loads of features and servers

Number of servers: 6,100+ | Server locations: 111 in 90 countries | Maximum devices supported: 7 | 24/7 live chat: Yes | 45 day money back guarantee: Yes

Wide server spread

Lots of features

45-day money-back guarantee

Spotty performance

Interface could be better

CyberGhost has a feature-loaded, user-friendly interface, with convenient buttons in the Windows client software for streaming media, torrenting files, protecting your Wi-Fi transmissions and evading censorship.

Those streaming and torrenting features are really useful, as it takes out the trial-and-error of testing individual servers to see if they work with Netflix and the like. While ExpressVPN's just always seems to work, individual servers of many other providers can drop Netflix support as they get detected, so CyberGhost makes it super easy to get streaming.

On that note, there are about 6,100 CyberGhost connection points (and rising) in around 90 countries worldwide, so there's always a great selection. You don't need to provide your real name, just a working email address, and you can pay in Bitcoin to remain nearly anonymous. 

As with most fully-fledged VPN services, you can connect directly from your operating system's network settings or use third-party OpenVPN software to do so. You'll also have a choice of VPN protocols, and you can set up a home Wi-Fi router to use CyberGhost all the time.

CyberGhost is transparent about its company structure, posting photos and bios on its website of everyone from the CEO to the cleaning person, and privacy fanatics will like that the company is based in Romania rather than in the US But CyberGhost's full-service subscription price is among the most expensive month-by-month – it's far better to just pay for a year at a time.

While performance isn't quite up there with the best, and the apps are a little fickle at times, CyberGhost is still a top-tier VPN that we can strongly recommend.

Sign up now on the the CyberGhost website

IPVanish - Best VPN
(Image credit: IPVanish)

5. IPVanish

Unlimited simultaneous connections from US-based service

Number of servers: 1,500+ | Server locations: 75+ in 52 countries | Maximum devices supported: Unlimited | 24 live chat: Yes | 30 day money back guarantee: Yes

Very reliable

Live-chat support

Unlimited connections

Based in the US

Fifth in our current rankings list comes IPVanish – a fantastic VPN service that boasts over 1,500 servers in more than 75 locations and 24/7 customer service, However, a brand-new selling point is that IPVanish has recently adjusted its policy to allow unlimited simultaneous connections – along with Surfshark, it's one of the only VPNs on this list to offer that.

Those connections could come in handy, too, as IPVanish works on lots of devices, including Mac, Windows, Android and iOS. The desktop apps offer plenty of options that will keep the pros happy, while the just-work simplicity is also there for everyone else. That it all functions with far above average speeds is a nice bonus.

The aesthetic of the apps is similar across all devices – read: very techy – and while some might appreciate rolling graphs and an interface full of data, for those less interested in all that it could seem a little intimidating. It need not, though, because, as we mentioned, it's all very simple to use.

The lack of a kill switch on the mobile version of the app may be a downside – but if we're digging that deep for a problem, it's a pretty good sign that IPVanish is a good service. 

Sign up now on the IPVanish website

Private Internet Access - best VPN
(Image credit: Private Internet Access)

6. Private Internet Access (PIA)

Basic cover at a reasonable cost

Number of servers: 2,600+ | Server locations: 68 in 47 countries | Maximum devices supported: 10 | 24/7 live chat: No | 30 day money back guarantee: Yes

Competitive pricing

Usable on 10 devices at once

Strong apps

Support access could be better

Private Internet Access (PIA) has been around for some time, and it's built a dedicated following of users that appreciate its reliability and dedication to privacy.

It provides speedy connections on the majority of its servers, and while it doesn't have the widest selection of location, it works well in most situations. We also like that PIA's 'Detect Best Server' function takes the guesswork out of things for you, by suggesting which of its 60+ locations you should adopt at any given time.

As you'd expect from any decent VPN, it has dedicated apps for Windows, Mac, Android and iOS, and even Linux is among its line up. The mobile apps also don't disappoint, providing great cover whether you're at home or out and about. However, while PIA can get you access to Netflix abroad, it struggles with BBC iPlayer. That might not be a big loss, but for Brits abroad it may well influence your decision.

PIA offers 10 simultaneous connections, which should be plenty to cover your household's devices on one plan. And, if you go for the longer subscription, PIA offers great value, too.

While its support and unblocking capabilities aren't up there with the best, if you're looking for a simple VPN to get you going with a minimum of fuss, PIA is certainly a good shout.

Sign up now on the PIA website

Hotspot Shield - Best VPN
(Image credit: Hotspot Shield)

7. Hotspot Shield

Incredible speeds – with a few drawbacks

Number of servers: 3,200+ | Server locations: 130+ in 80+ countries | Maximum devices supported: 5 | 24/7 live chat: Yes | 45 day money back guarantee: Yes (Plus limited free version)

Decent free version

Excellent performance

Servers in China and Russia

Concerns over logging policy

Poor support

While it's probably best-known for its free VPN, Hotspot Shield does offer a fully-featured paid-for VPN that's surprisingly impressive. It offers possibly the fastest VPN speeds available for a fair price, and it's pretty easy to use as well.

However, to max out your connection speeds, you'll have to make some sacrifices. Hotspot Shield only offers one protocol, the proprietary Catapult Hydra, and offers little in the way of configuration in its apps. That'll be fine for many, but the lack of support of OpenVPN also means installation beyond computers and mobile devices is limited.

A big issue is its logging policy. While it claims not to collect any identifying information about the user, hidden in the policy is the fact that it collects your bandwidth used, your time connected, your imprecise location and more. For those looking to stream overseas content this won't be a huge issue, but for those seeking absolute online privacy, we'd highly recommend one of the providers further up this list.

While it delivers excellent speeds and a useful UI, those logging concerns plus limited device support means Hotspot Shield sits fairly low on this list. We're happy to recommend it, but it won't be for everyone.

Sign up now on the Hotspot Shield website

Windscribe - Best VPN
(Image credit: Windscribe)

8. Windscribe

Unlimited connections plus useful free version

Number of servers: 400 | Server locations: 110 in 63 countries | Maximum devices supported: Unlimited | 24/7 live chat: No | 30 day money back guarantee: No


Unlimited connections

Excellent browser extensions

Not the fastest 

No live chat support

Windscribe VPN's probably best know for its excellent free service that gives users 10GB of data a month, but it also offers a fairly-priced paid service that delivers unlimited data and lets you connect as many devices at once as you like. Most other VPN services permit only five to 10 at a time.

Windscribe is compatible with many platforms – including routers and Amazon Fire and Kodi TV set-top boxes. The service offers a great variety of connection options, has a wide geographic reach with hundreds of servers, and presents an appealing, if minimal, user interface. It's also good for watching overseas Netflix, and has dedicated 'Windflix servers' to enable this.

The service's Chrome VPN extension is a standout feature. As one of the best on the market, it offers tons of features and can be used without installing the desktop client – great for work computers of other devices you can't install software on. However, Windscribe's network performance wasn’t quite as impressive, and in our testing it delivered slower connection times than its competitors.

You can pay for a Windscribe subscription with Bitcoin, you don't even have to provide an email address, and the service is based in Canada, which may appeal to users wary of US authorities. The only feature lacking is a kill switch to stop all internet activity if the VPN connection is lost while in use. But Windscribe argues that its built-in firewall prevents data leakage.

Overall, for those looking to test out a VPN with a free service and then sign up once you know it works, Windscribe is an excellent option.

Sign up now on the the Windscribe website

TunnelBear - Best VPN
(Image credit: TunnelBear)

9. TunnelBear

A great option for total VPN newbies and technophobes

Number of servers: 1,000 | Server locations: 23 | Maximum devices supported: 5 | 24/7 live chat: No | 30 day money back guarantee: No (but limited free version)

Extremely user-friendly

Excellent security guarantees

Very secure


Little in the way of features

For those who've never used a VPN before – and perhaps are a little intimidated by the prospect – TunnelBear could be the perfect choice. You can start off with a limited free plan (which admittedly only gives you 500MB of data a month), or upgrade to the full service which gives access to over 1,000 servers in around 20 countries.

Network performance is acceptable and prices are par for the course. However, the biggest draw is its comprehensive privacy policy and regular audits, which will appeal to you if you're looking for a VPN to genuinely keep your information safe.

TunnelBear's simplicity, though, is also its downfall. While it's easy to use, so are ExpressVPN and most of the other top-rated providers, but once you get used to using them, you'll have the choice to explore in-depth options if you want to. No such luck with TunnelBear, though, as there's a dearth of configuration.

You've also got no choice but to run TunnelBear's client software – unless you use Linux – which may concern some privacy-minded users, and there's no option to set up TunnelBear connections on routers or other devices. Finally, this tiny Canadian firm is now owned by US antivirus giant McAfee, which may mean TunnelBear is subject to US search warrants.

But, if you're after a VPN to set and forget, TunnelBear's not a bad option.

Sign up now on the TunnelBear website

ProtonVPN - best VPN
(Image credit: ProtonVPN)

10. ProtonVPN

Security and streaming prowess make ProtonVPN a contender

Number of servers: 800+ | Server locations: 50+ in 50 countries | Maximum devices supported: 5 | 24/7 live support: No | 30 day money back guarantee: Yes

Unblocks streaming services

Audited, high quality apps

Free option worth trying


No live chat

ProtonVPN has come more and more to the forefront of our attention of late. It's a good VPN provider with some real pros that make it a tempting option.

One of the standouts is how effective it is at unblocking the catalogues of TV streaming services when abroad. Netflix? No problem. Amazon Prime Video? Easy. BBC iPlayer? A doddle. So, if your main reason for being here is to find a good streaming VPN, then Proton is a decent fit.

However, streaming support is only available on the Plus plan which, to be honest, is a little expensive. On its longest-term contract (two years) you'll be paying about the same as you would be for ExpressVPN, except you won't get live chat support and you'll miss out on over 2,000 servers worldwide.

If you're somebody who's likely to need an iPhone VPN or Android VPN, then ProtonVPN's apps are really a joy to use. They're basically as feature-filled and easy to use as its desktop clients.

We must say that we expected faster speeds when we tested Proton's servers around the world, and if this was improved it'd move the service up a little in our estimations. But, we really love the provider's commitment to privacy, and features like Secure Core and its rock-solid privacy policy are great.

If you just want to give it a go before buying, we'd thoroughly recommend its free version. If you like that, there's not a huge amount of reasons not to upgrade.

Sign up now on the ProtonVPN website

(Image credit: VyprVPN)

11. VyprVPN

Great VPN for China, plus no logs

Number of servers: 700+ | Server locations: 63 countries | Maximum devices supported: 5 | 24/7 live support: Yes | 30 day money back guarantee: Yes

Excellent privacy policy

Apps for everything

Reportedly works in China

Below average speeds

Support articles need work

VyprVPN is a useful service that has a lot going for it. Firstly, we'd like to draw attention to its watertight no-logging policy, which has also been publicly audited. This is a great start if you're after a VPN to keep your info private.

You'll also get wide device support, as Vypr offers a a plethora of apps for pretty much any device you could ask for, including QNAP, TVs and BlackPhone, with additional guides for Blackberry phones, OpenWRT, Boxee and others. However, with only 5 simultaneous connections, you might have to pick and choose.

If you're after a blazing fast VPN, though, VyprVPN might disappoint a little. In our tests it performed well in the UK, but in the US it didn't come close to making the most of our ultra-fast line. Still, it does provide usable speeds, and if you don't have top tier internet you're unlikely to notice the difference

With prices starting from as low as $2.50 a month, VyprVPN looks like a good-value service – but it still can't quite match Surfshark's $1.99 a month. However, for privacy nuts, Vypr is a good option.

Sign up now on VyprVPN's website

StrongVPN - best VPN
(Image credit: Future)

12. StrongVPN

Strong on streaming and support

Number of servers: 950+ | Server locations: 60+ in 36 countries | Maximum devices supported: 12 | 24/7 live support: Yes | 30 day money back guarantee: Yes

Works on 12 devices at once

Bypasses region locks for Netflix

Has own DNS service

Windows app is bare bones

Limited features

StrongVPN is a solidly performing VPN, perfect for bypassing region locks. However, beyond the basics, it offers some unique extra benefits while missing out on some more obvious others.

A really attractive feature is that you can have up to 12 devices running StrongVPN at once, which is more than enough to cover all of your devices and still have some left over. But this is balanced out by a lack of detail in the client, which doesn't include information in the server browser or DNS settings, and the fact you have to pay a relatively high price for even an annual subscription in comparison to rival VPNs. 

However, making a up a little for that high price is the free 250GB of SugarSync storage (yes, exactly the same deal as IPVanish, but StrongVPN is cheaper), and as the storage provider is usually pretty expensive, this is a good deal. However, StrongVPN have missed a trick here, as if you visit the homepage you simply won't see anything about this partnership. 

You'll get 24/7 customer support, including a phone line with more limited opening times, plus decent speeds in almost every server location, which makes it pretty usable. For those looking for secure storage plus a simple, easy VPN, StrongVPN isn't a bad option.

Sign up now on the StrongVPN website

Summary of the best VPN services:
1. ExpressVPN The best VPN money can buy bar none
2. NordVPN The biggest name in VPN and a great service
3. Surfshark VPN Super fast, easy to use and cheap
4. CyberGhost Trusted brand and a solid service
5. IPVanish An ever-reliable service and office favorite

^ Back to the top


How do I choose the best VPN service?

If you've scrolled through the above list and still aren't quite sure which one to go for, then it's worth focusing in on what you intend to use your VPN for. Once you've nailed that, you can pick which one suits you best.

We've got tons of guides outlining the best cheap VPN, the best Netflix VPN, the best torrenting VPN, and even the best China VPN, so whatever you need to do, there's a great option out there.

You should also pick one that's well-suited to your device – our Mac VPN or Linux VPN guides can help you here.

The main thing, though, is to make sure you get a VPN that's secure and keeps you private. We consider all the VPNs recommended here and elsewhere on the site safe to use, so picking from our guides should guarantee your safety.

How do you test VPNs?

When testing VPNs, we check every aspect that might be of concern. To begin with, we look at what personal details a service needs, and any essential features like encryption. Then we consider pricing, and whether money-back guarantees are on offer.

During the physical testing, we test speeds over a number of servers, check for DNS leaks, test kill switch functionality plus any and all other additional features, and measure connection time and if the apps crash.

Finally, we review how easy the apps are to use, and test the services on desktop and mobile devices. 

Is it illegal to have a VPN?

Short answer – no.

Using a VPN is not illegal, and it's perfectly legitimate to want to protect your data and activity. Having one on your computer and using it regularly in pursuit of watertight web security and location spoofing is in no way unlawful.

However, using a VPN to hide illegal activity doesn't make you above the law, so downloading copyrighted material is still illegal even with a VPN. Similarly, using a VPN goes slap bang against Netflix's Ts&Cs, and the provider has the right to terminate your subscription if they catch you – although that's never actually happened.

Countries like China and the UAE have made laws against VPN use, but due to their use in business it's impossible to outlaw VPNs outright. However, in those cases it's well worth reading up on what you may or may not be permitted to use a VPN for, and consider if the very small risk is worth taking.

What are the VPN dos and don'ts?

The best VPN can make it look like you're located somewhere you're not. It's a well-worn practice to evade online censorship, as is done in some countries, or to tap into US streaming services while in Europe or Asia. We've used VPNs to read the New York morning paper in Beijing, and watch US TV in London.

But there are some caveats. A VPN will give you more privacy, but not more security. If you end up on a website harboring malware, the VPN can't prevent you from being infected. 

If you just want to evade geographical restrictions on streaming content such as BBC iPlayer or Hulu, you don't necessarily need a VPN to do so. You just need a proxy service that will make it look like you're in the right country. There are many free proxy services available, but do your homework before choosing one – some are a bit dodgy.

Finally, Netflix and the BBC are cracking down on VPNs and proxy services. There are no guarantees that a particular service will evade geographical restrictions on a particular day.

What makes a great VPN?

The most basic qualities you should look for are speed, privacy and ease of use. These might seem like basic attributes, but in reality few providers have found a happy medium.

Connection speed relies on having a wide range of well-maintained servers. This allows the VPN to provide excellent speed and bandwidth to everyone using its servers. 

Having excellent security is a fairly basic requirement, but hard to get right. If you're concerned about that, make sure your VPN has an airtight privacy policy, and a no-logging policy is even better. Some services like ExpressVPN and NordVPN have also been independently audited to prove their claims.

Finally, although many users might be au fait with tech, more and more newbies are looking to start using VPNs. If that's you, it's definitely worth making sure that your provider has well-designed apps on all the devices you expect to use with the service. 

Are no-fee VPNs any good?

Naturally, free services are very popular products because everyone likes to save their money. And, they can be handy bits of software if you're not somebody that's likely to keep their VPN turned on all the time and just want it for occasional use for staying safe on public Wi-Fi. Oh, and if you don't mind ads...

For most people, though, free services provide a false economy. They tend to have limited servers in just a handful of locations, often restrict you to a single device and almost always have a limit on the amount data you can use per day or month.

Those data limits rule out using your VPN for streaming or torrenting, and if you want to keep your VPN running 24/7 for a permanent privacy layer, a no-fee VPN just isn't going to work.

What VPN protocols are there?

There are several different VPN protocols, not all of which are used by all of the VPN services we reviewed. Most operating systems have built-in support for at least one of these protocols, which means you can use that protocol – and a willing VPN service – without client software. The full-fledged VPN services have online instructions for how to do this, as well as how to set up routers to connect directly to the services.

OpenVPN: OpenVPN is very secure, open-source and widely used. Most VPN services support it, but except for Chrome OS and Linux, few operating systems do. This protocol can be used in either TCP (web) or UDP (streaming) mode; the latter is sloppier but faster. You'll need either the VPN service's client software or one of the many free alternatives. Either way, you'll still need to pay for the VPN service.

L2TP/IPsec (Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol with Internet Protocol Security): L2TP is not secure itself, so it's generally paired with the IPsec secure-networking standard. The combination of the two was once thought to be very secure when properly implemented, but some VPN services suggest that you use OpenVPN instead. L2TP/IPsec has native support in Windows, OS X/macOS, Android, Chrome OS and iOS. Most VPN services support it.

IKEv2 (Internet Key Exchange version 2, generally with IPsec): This is a new-ish standard that is very secure when properly implemented. It has native support in Windows, iOS and recent versions of OS X/macOS.

SSTP (Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol): SSTP is a Microsoft protocol with native support on Windows Vista and later versions. It's thought to be quite secure, but only Microsoft knows for sure.

PPTP (Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol): This standard is largely obsolete, with many known security flaws, but it's fast. It has native support built into Windows, Android and older versions of Mac OS X and iOS; Apple dropped support with macOS Sierra and iOS 10. Use PPTP only for streaming content, as it won't protect your data.

WireGuard: The newest of these protocols, WireGuard combines reportedly excellent security with great speeds. Developed from the ground up, it uses far less code than its predecessors, meaning a better, simpler user experience. However, it's not yet supported by many VPN services, although as it gains traction more and more are beginning to implement it. Some, like Mozilla VPN, solely use WireGuard.

Read more:

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  • Bag a bargain with today's best VPN deals
  • Cut to the chase – how to watch Netflix using ExpressVPN