VPNs are specialist tools dedicated to online privacy, and the best VPN services build on this to offer features such as browser integration or use across multiple devices, and in some circumstances can actually speed up your connection to the web.
VPNs aren’t antivirus software or internet security suites, but Virtual Private Networks that simulate an internet connection from anywhere in the world - so if you’re in the USA it can make it look like you’re connecting from Switzerland, for example. This process also replaces your public IP address, making it harder for your actions online to be traced back to you. This is useful if you’re out of the country, and want to connect to a service, such as streaming video or banking, that places geographic restrictions on those who can connect to it.
These are relatively simple programs, doing little other than diverting your network traffic to a different set of servers, so are usually quick to download and simple to install. They are paid for using a subscription model, and may impose limits on how much data you can transfer through them every month.
Many of the VPNs on our list come with a free trial, giving you the chance to try them out without making a commitment. Be aware that some will log your actions online, while others state they do not, so it’s worth checking the terms and conditions thoroughly before you begin using one.
1. ExpressVPN: Best VPN service 2021
The best VPN service out there right now has to be ExpressVPN – and for many reasons. The easiest place to start is with just that, ease: the client (which comes on a host of devices, including iOS, Android, Mac, Windows, Linux and even BlackBerry) is really simple with a click-to-start option, but also offers deeper functionality if you need it. Either way, you'll be assured of excellent speeds across more than 3,000 servers in 94 countries, and superb security with enterprise-level encryption.
Other positives include DNS content unblocking and leak protection, P2P support, Bitcoin payment options, Netflix unblocking, a no logging policy, split-tunneling, a kill switch and 24 hours of live chat support every day of the week.
You can even use custom firmware to install this at the router level for some devices, meaning you'll be hidden by a VPN no matter which device connects to the Wi-Fi. You can even try all those features for free using the 30-day money back guarantee.
You can use this VPN service on five devices at any one time – some providers offer more than that. But since you can set ExpressVPN up on the router, to which any number of devices can connect. This is the best VPN out there right now. The price does reflect that level of service.
- Read our ExpressVPN review
2. IPVanish: Best for P2P
If your main use for a VPN is to get torrents and P2P content, then IPVanish is one of the best VPN services for you. It boasts over 1,300 servers across more than 75 countries, which offer more than 40,000 shared IPs, unlimited P2P traffic and superb download speeds. As if all that didn't make you feel secure enough, the company owns and manages all of its own servers for another level of security.
Plus, you get 24/7 support, ten connections at once, and a seven-day money-back guarantee. So even though there isn't a free trial, you could always opt out within that time and spend nothing. Clients work on iOS, Android, Mac, Windows and even Fire TV and offer great features and options, with unblocking for Netflix and more as standard.
- Read our IPVanish review
3. Hotspot Shield: Best free VPN
Hotspot Shield, as the name suggests, is a brilliant VPN for offering you personal protection when online. Specifically, this VPN service is excellent for browsing because it not only offers top security but also the company's own Catapult Hydra protocol. This is a superb system that makes sure you get the fastest download speeds possible and it really works, even when connected to servers that are really far from your real world location. This VPN service works on iOS, Android, Mac and Windows, but won't work on OpenVPN so you can't run it at router level unfortunately.
The service has two options, one is free to use but if you want most of the features you'll need to sign-up for full access and the best possible service.
Hotspot Shield has great features like five device connections at once, 24/7 support, over 2,500 servers in 70 countries and no ads. But you will struggle to unblock US Netflix and BBC iPlayer, which is a downer for some. That said, this VPN service does offer a free seven-day trial, so it may be worth giving it a go.
- Read our Hotspot Shield review
4. CyberGhost: An excellent all-rounder
CyberGhost is a superb VPN service for deep-level personalization, making it an ideal choice for users who know what they're doing, know what they want, and know how to tweak the client to make it right for them. Since 2020 the servers are numbered at over 5,900 spread across over 90 countries offering excellent security and anonymity, and thanks to ad and malicious site blocking, automated HTTPS redirection and optional data compression, you can stay secure and keep your data use to a minimum.
A really nice feature is the ability to select the service you're using the VPN for and it will automatically find the best servers to suit the job. So you could select the likes of Netflix, YouTube, Hulu and more, and it will make sure geo restrictions are removed, so you can enjoy the content wherever you are in the world. The complex interface can be troublesome at times but, for all the aforementioned benefits, this very good VPN service is worth learning your way around. There's a stingy 24 hour free trial but then you get a 45-day money-back guarantee to enjoy.
- Read our CyberGhost review
5. Surfshark: Best for beginners
While Surfshark is still a small fish in the VPN pond, it does offer over 800 servers across 69 locations, and supports Windows, Mac, iOS and Android as well as Chrome and Firefox. It offers URL and ad blocking, P2P support, VPN chaining, a kill switch, split tunnelling and zero-knowledge DNS servers for your privacy peace of mind. You also get 24/7 support, so even if you do have issues they can be quickly resolved.
While Surfshark isn't as cheap a VPN service as some, for most plans the two-year option does offer the best saving, and you can even pay using PayPal, cryptocurrency, Amazon Pay, Google Pay and Ali Pay, helping you remain anonymous. There's a seven day free trial and 30-day money-back guarantee.
A welcome ‘recently used servers’ tab makes regular access to the best servers for your needs nice and easy, a feature we really appreciated while we were testing Surfshark. All in all, if you're looking for speed, and put off by complicated menus and myriad options, Surfshark could be the best VPN service for you.
- Read our Surfshark review
6. NordVPN: A much improving VPN service
NordVPN is still one of the best VPN services when it comes to security thanks to a mind-boggling 2048-bit encryption, as well as not one but two kill switches, along with strong DNS leak protection. You can even pay with Bitcoin or Paypal to help add further anonymity to your experience. That all works across a whopping 5,600 servers spread over 60 countries, which we found to offer an above average speed performance.
The addition of the company's own SmartPlay service means you have a handy assistant for getting around geo-restricted content, meaning you can enjoy Netflix or Amazon Prime Video in whatever country you happen to find yourself.
A lack of live chat support may irk some, but we had very few problems – other than the odd server connection lag – so support shouldn't be needed anyway. And at the prices Nord offers, you should find this VPN service excellent value for money.
Note: NordVPN announced that it had a security breach at one of its many servers in March 2018. It maintains such as activity logs, usernames and passwords remained secure however some parts of some of its users' search history was potentially exposed. For that reason it has been bumped down from number two to number six in our list.
- Read our NordVPN review
7. KeepSolid VPN: Great for Netflix
KeepSolid VPN Unlimited is great for unblocking the likes of Netflix or BBC iPlayer despite having just 400 servers. This is because they're well used, spread across over 80 locations worldwide. These are supported by a host of super secure protocols including OpenVPN, L2TP/IPSec, IKEv2, and PPTP but this also have the latest WireGuard too. There is torrent support but only via five locations, one being California though. Pricing is relatively low at $5 per month on a yearly subscription or $9.99 for a month at a time. Rarely, there is also a lifetime option for $199.99.
- Read our KeepSolid VPN review
8. TunnelBear: Best budget VPN service
Canada-based VPN service TunnelBear is a brilliantly easy-to-use VPN that doesn't only makes access simple, but also keeps security tight. It's one of those just-does-what-you-need type services that make life feel easier. As such, you are limited to just 1,000 servers across 20 location, and since long-distance connections did struggle in our tests, this may not be ideal for some (for example, if you’re an Aussie in the US trying to access a server Down Under). That said, connections work well, clients run across Windows, Mac, iOS and Android, plus you can set this VPN service up on a router.
- Read our TunnelBear review
9. Private Internet Access: Superb security
Private Internet Access is a solid VPN that might not be the fastest - although still above average - but what it lacks in pace it makes up for in price and security. The servers are over 3,300 in number yet P2P is supported across all servers and you even get pro-level features like port forwarding and SOCKS5 support. There are clients for Mac, Windows, Android, iOS and Linux as well as good-looking browser extensions for Chrome, Firefox and Opera.
- Read our Private Internet Access review
10. StrongVPN: Good for multiple devices
StrongVPN rounds off our list of the best VPN services. It's not quite at the level of some in our guide – but it's better than most, thanks to its simplicity to use, support for a whopping 12 devices at once, and above-average performance speeds. Those speeds are helpful for streaming fans, as they works with the VPN's ability to unblock geo-restricted Netflix and BBC iPlayer content really easily. Clients are available for iOS, Android, Mac and Windows with router support and even Fire TV and Kodi compatibility.
The 950 servers might be minimal, compared to some, but they span 46 cities in 26 countries, and are backed by security in the form of L2TP, SSTP, OpenVPN, IPSec, and IKEv2 protocols. You can also rest easy knowing you get 24/7 customer support too. Pricing could be lower, but you do get a lot for your money with this VPN service.
- Read our StrongVPN review
How we test VPN services
We start by taking all the providers' plans and working our way into the depths of each individual VPN service from there. That means looking at value, features and pricing plans, as well as also privacy. This includes digging down into the terms and conditions to see how logging works to make sure security is as good as promised.
Performance is also another area we carefully look at in terms of download speeds, reliability, stability and variation across distances of servers. We also use IPLeak.net to check there are no privacy problems with the DNS. Of course, another factor is the client interface. This is tested in depth to make sure there are no annoying idiosyncrasies after you've committed to paying for the VPN service.
We then weigh up all these factors, assigning points to form an overall score, which helps us order each VPN service from best to least capable. Our final top ten list of the best VPN services right now are all excellent options, as any bad services have been assigned a lower score.
Best VPN services: how to choose the right one
There are a number of important factors to consider when you're choosing a VPN service to buy. Here are five pro tips for picking the right one.
1. Does the VPN service have servers in the countries and region you need? Consider which areas a VPN works in. While having more than one server in a country can help improve reliability, it doesn't guarantee improved performance. Don't assume that a plan with 500 servers will automatically beat another with 100.
2. How many simultaneous connections are supported? Normally this will be around three-five, so you can connect a desktop, mobile and tablet at the same time. Watch out though: a lot of VPN service providers specify that this is for a single user only, and have a fair usage policy to stop people using all the resources. .
4. Do you need more features? Some clients display server load and ping time in the interface, helping you choose the right server. If you'll be using your VPN service a lot, you might want a "Favourites" system to save and recall specific servers. For experienced users, low-level network settings will help you customise the whole system.
5. Beware cheap deals. VPN deals can have all kinds of strings attached: restricted features; taxes excluded; the discount may only be valid for the first billing period only, automatically renewing to turn that $4.99/month into $10/month, so that apparent one-off $3.99 might become almost $10 next month. Read the small print, and ideally sign up with a service like PayPal where it's easy to cancel a subscription yourself if you need to.
6. Trial it. Found the best VPN service on paper? Give it a try before parting with a lot of cash. A short trial can only tell you a limited amount, so after that pay for a month, test the VPN as much as you can, and then upgrade to a better-value plan (a long plan, maybe yearly) if it still feels like the best VPN service for you.