Virtual Private Networks, or VPNs, have seen a huge surge in popularity recently. Once a fairly niche technology, these services are now used by millions. This rapid adoption is partially down to how versatile VPNs are; among other uses, they allow you to torrent anonymously, keep your online activities hidden from snoopers, and access your favorite streaming services while on vacation abroad.
Unfortunately, though, some users are having a better experience than others. This is because every VPN is different, not only in terms of security but also speed, unblocking ability, server distribution, and usability. To help out, we’ve run thousands of tests and delved deep into the privacy policies of over 100 different VPN providers. In other words, we’re able to identify the best VPNs of 2021 and back up our recommendations with hard data.
We’ll cover each of our top VPNs in more detail later but if you’re in a hurry, you’ll find a brief overview of their main strengths below:
Best VPNs of 2021:
- NordVPN: The best all-around VPN of 2021. Offers industry-leading security features, top-tier speeds, and the ability to unblock a huge range of streaming services. This zero-logs VPN comes with a risk-free 30-day money-back guarantee.
- Surfshark: Best budget VPN in 2021. A fast and privacy-conscious provider with no connection limit. Also boasts user-friendly apps that make it easy to use Netflix and similar services abroad.
- ExpressVPN: With a server presence in 94 countries, impressive speeds, and a solid security toolkit, this VPN rises to just about any challenge. An excellent choice for streaming.
- CyberGhost: An easy-to-use service with one-click unblocking for all your favorite streaming platforms. What’s more, its pre-configured security tools ensure you’re properly protected at all times.
- IPVanish: A true no-logs VPN boasting reliable speeds and an exceptionally strong security offering. Also lets you secure all of your devices at once and stream anywhere.
- PrivateVPN: No-logs VPN that reliably bypasses strict online restrictions. Owns its own servers for maximum privacy. Ranks highly on speed and comes packed with security tools.
- Hotspot Shield: This quick and user-friendly VPN has dedicated servers for streaming and gaming. What’s more, it’s strong on security and offers access to fast servers in 80+ countries.
Selecting the few best VPNs out of a list of hundreds isn’t something we can do lightly. After all, we have to consider all of the ways you might use these services, and make sure they’re up to the task. To even be considered for a place in our list, a VPN had to meet all of these criteria (more on these later):
- Has servers in dozens of countries
- Provides reliable, high-speed connections
- Works with a wide range of popular regionally-restricted services (e.g. Netflix)
- Includes bulletproof encryption and a strong selection of other security tools
- Does not store any logs that could identify you
- Makes it easy to get help with any problems (ideally via live chat)
- Comes with dedicated apps for all of the main operating systems
- 1 Best VPNs in 2021
- 2 How to use a VPN to browse the internet safely
- 3 Methodology: How we chose the best VPNs of the year
- 4 Can’t I just use a free VPN instead?
- 5 Frequently Asked Questions about VPNs
- 6 Are VPNs legal in my country?
- 7 What can I do with a VPN?
- 8 Will a VPN slow my internet speeds down?
- 9 Should I use a VPN instead of Tor or a proxy server?
Best VPNs in 2021
Let’s jump right into our guide to the best VPNs of 2021:
NordVPN is our first choice. It offers access to more than 5,200 servers in 60 countries worldwide, so it has plenty of potential as far as streaming goes. In fact, we’ve had no issues using services like Netflix, BBC iPlayer, and HBO Max from abroad. Further, this VPN has been a near-permanent fixture in the top three of our speed rankings, most recently averaging 115 Mbps on a 1 Gbps connection. 24/7 support is on hand to help with any issues you might have.
This provider is exceptionally well-regarded in the industry. It has taken several steps to keep users safe, including introducing a bug bounty program, assembling a panel of independent security advisors, and creating its own NordLynx protocol (which is based on WireGuard). Of course, NordVPN also has a verified no-logs policy, and its apps include 256-bit encryption, a kill switch, and protection against IPv6, WebRTC, and DNS leaks. There are even special obfuscated servers that can help you bypass extreme web censorship in places like China.
NordVPN has its own Android, iOS, Windows, MacOS, and Linux apps. You can manually install it on a wide selection of supported home routers to bypass the six-connection limit.
- Consistently high-speed connections
- Exceptional unblocking ability
- Impressive security offering
- Verified no-logs policy
- Offers 24/7 live chat
- PC apps don’t let you disconnect in one click
BEST VPN OF 2021:NordVPN is the top-ranked VPN of the year. Its high speeds, exceptional versatility, and unwavering commitment to privacy make it a fantastic choice for just about anyone. There’s even a 30-day money-back guarantee so you can try it for yourself, risk-free.
Interested? Find out more in the full NordVPN review.
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Surfshark is our top budget VPN. Not only that, but it’s also the fastest we’ve tested by a long shot, averaging an absolutely unparalleled 207 Mbps on a 1 Gbps connection. This service has no problems whatsoever unblocking tricky streaming platforms like BBC iPlayer and Amazon Prime Video, and to sweeten the deal even further, it lets you connect all of your devices at the same time. Need help? Just contact support staff over live chat — it’s available 24/7.
It’s equally strong where security is concerned. Surfshark apps feature 256-bit encryption, protection against DNS, IPv6, and WebRTC leaks, a kill switch, and a NoBorders mode for bypassing country-wide blocking. The company follows a strict zero-logs policy too, and recently launched its own cybersecurity suite named Surfshark One (that costs an extra $1.49 USD per month). This includes antivirus software, a private search tool, and a tool that’ll let you know if your passwords have been leaked online.
Surfshark provides apps for Linux, MacOS, Windows, iOS, and Android. Users can also follow manual setup instructions to get this service running on supported wireless routers.
- Excellent performance in our latest speed tests
- Unblocks plenty of streaming services abroad
- Great set of security features built-in
- Zero-logs provider
- Connect as many devices as you like
- Settings menu could use some tidying
BEST BUDGET VPN:Surfshark is our first choice for anyone on a budget. It excels in multiple areas including speed, security, and unblocking ability. Best of all, you’ll be able to protect every device you own simultaneously. A 30-day money-back guarantee is included.
For more information, check out our complete Surfshark review.
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ExpressVPN is a fantastic general-usage service. To begin with, it’s capable of delivering very high speeds (base connection permitting) and works well with popular streaming platforms like Netflix and Disney+. It’s also P2P-friendly, with torrenting allowed on any of its 3,000+ servers. Couple this with a network spanning 94 countries and unrestricted bandwidth, and it becomes clear that this provider has no interest in limiting what you do online. Up to five devices can be connected simultaneously.
Of course, this VPN boasts exceptional security too. It recently made its proprietary Lightway protocol open-source and had it independently audited to prove it’s safe to use. The apps contain a multitude of security features including a kill switch, DNS and IPv6 leak protection, and 256-bit encryption, plus the ability to block access to local devices on the network. ExpressVPN doesn’t keep any logs that could identify you and offers 24/7 support via live chat.
ExpressVPN apps are available for iOS, MacOS, Android, Windows, and Linux. Further, this service has its own router app, which recently saw a major overhaul leading to improved speed and reliability.
- New Lightway protocol offers greatly improved speeds
- Wide-reaching network
- Works with plenty of geo-blocked games and streaming platforms
- Strong on security and privacy
- Cheaper options elsewhere in this list
BEST DAY-TO-DAY VPN:ExpressVPN ticks all the boxes; it has speed, security, unblocking ability, and incredible versatility, plus around-the-clock support just in case you run into trouble. Plans also come with a 30-day money-back guarantee.
Read our in-depth ExpressVPN review.
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CyberGhost has a few characteristics that make it perfect for live streaming. To begin with, it offers access to 7,200+ servers in over 90 countries, so your TV options are near-limitless. Notably, some of these are even specifically labeled as streaming servers and will tell you exactly which services they can unblock. Speeds are generally decent, and users can protect up to seven of their devices simultaneously, which is a little higher than the industry average.
This VPN’s apps are extremely easy to use, but they’re chock full of pre-configured security tools. These include 256-bit encryption, leak protection, a kill switch, and the option to connect via a random port. CyberGhost isn’t content to stop there, though; it follows a no-logs policy and has recently released additional security-related software including a password manager, a software update tool, and a security suite for Windows PCs. Should you encounter any issues, you can reach the customer support team 24/7 over live chat and email.
CyberGhost users can choose from its Android, Windows, iOS, MacOS, and Linux apps. This VPN also works with plenty of network routers, though you’ll have to install it manually.
- Thousands of fast servers around the world
- Dedicated streaming servers
- Has a strong (and constantly expanding) security toolkit
- Live chat available around the clock
- Doesn’t provide much control over advanced features
BEST VPN FOR STREAMING:CyberGhost takes the guesswork out of streaming with servers designed to securely access Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and more. It also has strong security credentials, 24/7 live chat, and a 45-day money-back guarantee.
Still have questions? Why not read our full review of CyberGhost?
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IPVanish is a reputable VPN with a steadily expanding network of self-owned servers in 60+ countries around the world. Its speeds are decent, and if you like to stream, you’re in luck: this VPN works with platforms like Netflix US and Sling TV from anywhere. Unlike most other providers, IPVanish has no connection limit. This means that you secure an entire household of devices if you’d like — perfect for those of us with children or simply a fondness for technology.
Don’t be fooled by the low price point; IPVanish is one of the most security-conscious services around. Its apps offer 256-bit encryption, a kill switch, DNS and IPv6 leak protection, and OpenVPN obfuscation. Additionally, newer versions even include WireGuard support. This VPN doesn’t keep any logs, either. It even runs a 24/7 live chat-based help desk on the off chance you have any issues.
IPVanish offers its own Android, iOS, Windows, and MacOS apps. Additionally, you can manually configure this service to run on your home router or Linux PC.
- Solid speeds and unblocking ability
- Capable of competing with more expensive VPNs on security
- No logs and no connection limit
- Doesn’t have a Linux app
BEST VPN FOR FAMILIES:IPVanish takes the stress out of protecting your family’s devices. There’s no connection limit, cutting-edge security tools built-in, and around-the-clock support. Not only that, but this VPN offers a 30-day money-back guarantee on its annual plan.
Read the complete review of IPVanish for more details.
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PrivateVPN has a smaller network than others in this list, with roughly 200 servers in 63 countries. It helps make up for this, though, by providing above-average speeds (71 Mbps in our latest tests) and the ability to unblock a huge range of streaming services. Users will be able to securely access Netflix, Disney+, HBO Max, and Hulu, to name but a few. A maximum of six devices can be connected at any one time and live chat is available at most times of day.
To ensure it has complete control over who has access to your traffic, PrivateVPN recently became its own server host and ISP. This is already a level of privacy that few other services can provide, but when you consider the strict no-logs policy, it becomes even harder to beat. The apps themselves include 256-bit encryption, a customizable kill switch, DNS and IPv6 leak protection, and a stealth mode for getting around particularly tricky online blocking.
PrivateVPN has apps for iOS, Linux, Android, Windows, and MacOS devices. Select routers are also supported, and the website’s help section has detailed setup instructions for hesitant users.
- Boasts impressive speeds
- Works with a wide range of streaming services
- Among the best on security and privacy
- Fairly small network
- Help desk goes offline for a few hours each day
BEST VPN FOR PRIVACY:PrivateVPN goes above and beyond to keep your online activities hidden from snoopers. However, it does so without neglecting speed, unblocking ability, or usability, which is a particularly impressive feat. Plans include a 30-day money-back guarantee.
Take a look at our comprehensive PrivateVPN review.
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Hotspot Shield is the perfect choice for anyone hoping to try out a VPN and see what all the fuss is about. Its speeds are solid, its connections reliable, and with more than 1,800 servers to choose from in 80+ countries, you shouldn’t have any issues finding one that meets your needs. On that note, there are some that are optimized for streaming and gaming, so if you’re looking to use Netflix, BBC iPlayer, or Peacock while traveling, you’re in good hands.
The apps include a wide range of security and privacy tools too. For a start, there’s a kill switch, DNS and IPv6 leak protection, and 256-bit encryption, plus an automatic protection mode that connects to the VPN any time you use an unsecured wireless network. Hotspot Shield recently added support for IPsec connections too, having previously supported only its own Catapult Hydra protocol. This service deletes all personally identifiable data once your session ends, so there’s no need to worry about your activities leading back to you. 24/7 live chat and email support are available should you need them.
Hotspot Shield has apps for Android, iOS, MacOS, Linux, and Windows. Additionally, it can be manually installed on supported routers to protect every device on your home network.
- Steady speeds and unlimited bandwidth
- Specific servers for gaming and streaming
- Versatile VPN with lots of advanced security tools
- Limited set of configuration options
- Doesn’t support any anonymous payment options
BEST VPN FOR NOVICES:Hotspot Shield is a no-fuss VPN that just works. It’s an extremely versatile service with steady speeds, a fantastic privacy toolkit, and great streaming potential. Further, it has a generous 45-day money-back guarantee.
Read the full Hotspot Shield review.
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How to use a VPN to browse the internet safely
Though choosing a VPN can be tricky, actually using these services is quite simple. Below, we’ll cover everything you need to know in order to protect yourself online with a VPN.
Here’s how to set up and use a VPN:
- First, sign up for one of the VPNs above (we recommend NordVPN).
- Download and install the app onto any device you use regularly. Usually, you’ll be allowed to connect five or so devices at a time, but this varies between providers.
- Next, log in and choose a server. If you’re just looking for privacy, any will do. However, if you’re trying to access a geo-blocked service, you’ll need a server in the relevant country. For example, you’d use an American server to unblock HBO Max or a British server to unblock BBC iPlayer.
- Your data should now be encrypted and unreadable to anyone monitoring the network. If you’re having difficulty using region-locked services, we’d recommend clearing your cookies and trying again, or failing that, asking your VPN’s support team for help.
Methodology: How we chose the best VPNs of the year
Plenty of providers claim to be the best at one particular task. However, when choosing the best VPNs overall, we have to consider a wide range of different factors. After all, a VPN’s speeds don’t matter if it fails to adequately secure your traffic, or if it can’t unblock the streaming service you’d like to access. To ensure we only recommend the best of the best, we identified a few key areas in which each VPN had to excel, and you can read more about these below:
- Network size: The more servers you can choose from, the easier it is to find one that isn’t overloaded. Additionally, a VPN that covers a larger number of countries has the potential to unblock a far greater range of platforms.
- Speed: Slow speeds lead to lag, stuttering, and random disconnections. However, we regularly test dozens of VPNs to see how fast they are, and only recommend services that perform well.
- Unblocking ability: Most VPNs can unblock a website or two, but we believe you should be able to access a much wider range of content. That’s why, as part of our testing, we attempt to find VPNs capable of accessing popular platforms like Hulu, ITV Hub, and Disney+.
- P2P-friendliness: Some providers forbid torrenting, or only permit users to do so on specific servers. In contrast, the VPNs above not only allow unrestricted torrenting, but some even offer specially-optimized (but optional) servers to give you the best possible experience.
- Security and privacy: The most important thing a VPN can do is keep your activities private. That’s why we look for services that offer, as a baseline, 256-bit encryption, a kill switch, a no-logging policy, and protection against DNS and IPv6 leaks. Naturally, we prioritize VPNs that go above and beyond, or those that demonstrate a commitment to improving their privacy protections.
- Ease of use: To ensure that digital security is available to all, we only recommend VPNs that are simple enough for complete beginners to use. If a provider has other features that make their service even easier to use (such as 24/7 live chat), so much the better.
- Price: A provider could meet all of the criteria above, but if it’s too expensive (compared to rivals with similar functionality), it simply won’t make the cut. Part of our research involves looking into the availability of any long-term discounts, money-back guarantees, and the frequency of limited-time deals to make sure you always get the lowest price.
Interested in learning more about how we put VPNs through their paces? Why not read our guide to Comparitech’s VPN testing methodology?
Can’t I just use a free VPN instead?
Free VPNs might seem like an easy solution to your problem, but they rarely work as well as they claim. A large part of the reason for this is that their networks are usually very small. As you might expect, having all of your users share a small pool of servers can lead to very slow speeds, which is why most free providers limit you to a small amount of free bandwidth each month. There’s another disadvantage here, too; it’s extremely simple for streaming services to identify and blacklist free VPN servers since there’s so much traffic coming from a handful of IP addresses.
Frequently Asked Questions about VPNs
Are VPNs legal in my country?
Most countries don’t actually have laws against using VPNs. After all, workers all over the world rely on this technology to securely access company resources while out of the office. Notably, if you’re in a country like China or Russia, you might find that you’re limited to government-approved providers. There is, unfortunately, no telling how secure these services actually are, though, so it might be prudent to assume your activities are being monitored.
Of course, every country’s rules are different and they can change at any time. For this reason, we encourage you to research the relevant local laws if you’re in any doubt about the legality of VPN services.
What can I do with a VPN?
One of the best things about VPNs is their versatility. Because they allow users to route their traffic through a server in another part of the world, VPNs make it possible to access your usual services from places where they aren’t usually available (for instance, watching TV from back home while on vacation). In fact, this same functionality lets users access the web freely in countries with extreme online censorship.
The other major advantage is that these services encrypt your data and change your IP address. This means you’ll be able to use P2P networks anonymously, prevent people from finding your true location, and protect yourself from snoopers while using a public wireless hotspot.
Will a VPN slow my internet speeds down?
VPNs work by sending your internet traffic a different route than usual. While this provides several advantages, these extra steps do unfortunately lead to some speed loss. However, this is something that major providers have been working to minimize. A good rule of thumb is to expect a 30% speed reduction. Considering that live streaming HD video only requires download speeds of around 5 Mbps, you should be fine as long as your base connection is 10 Mbps or higher.
Should I use a VPN instead of Tor or a proxy server?
VPNs have a couple of advantages that the Tor Browser and proxy servers don’t. Firstly, they encrypt traffic from all of your apps, not just your web browser. Secondly, they’re much more difficult to block, and larger services are constantly working to make this even harder.
Tor is also extremely slow, and is primarily used to access the dark web. A user regularly browsing using this software might be viewed with suspicion by law enforcement. Proxy servers, meanwhile, allow whoever is running the software to see your traffic. What’s more, while these used to be a fairly reliable way of unblocking geo-restricted platforms abroad, they’re quickly becoming less effective as larger streaming services find new ways to get their users’ location.