Article updated on June 18, 2024 at 6:00 AM PDT

Best VPN Service 2024: VPNs Tested by Our Experts

The best VPNs for private streaming, gaming and torrenting, as rated by our expert staff.

Our Experts

Written by 
Attila Tomaschek,
Moe Long
Rae Hodge
Our expert, award-winning staff selects the products we cover and rigorously researches and tests our top picks. If you buy through our links, we may get a commission. Reviews ethics statement
Attila Tomaschek
Attila is a Staff Writer for CNET, covering software, apps and services with a focus on virtual private networks. He is an advocate for digital privacy and has been quoted in online publications like Computer Weekly, The Guardian, BBC News, HuffPost, Wired and TechRepublic. When not tapping away on his laptop, Attila enjoys spending time with his family, reading and collecting guitars.
Expertise Attila has nearly a decade's worth of experience with VPNs and has been covering them for CNET since 2021. As CNET's VPN expert, Attila rigorously tests VPNs and offers readers advice on how they can use the technology to protect their privacy online.
Moe Long Senior Editor
Moe enjoys making technical content digestible and fun. As a writer and editor for over a decade, he has bylines at MakeUseOf, WhistleOut, TechBeacon, DZone, Tech Up Your Life, and Electromaker. When he's not hammering away at the keyboard, Moe enjoys spending time with his partner and dog, listening to vinyl, and watching film.
Expertise Apps | Operating systems | Software
Rae Hodge Former senior editor
Rae Hodge was a senior editor at CNET. She led CNET's coverage of privacy and cybersecurity tools from July 2019 to January 2023. As a data-driven investigative journalist on the software and services team, she reviewed VPNs, password managers, antivirus software, anti-surveillance methods and ethics in tech. Prior to joining CNET in 2019, Rae spent nearly a decade covering politics and protests for the AP, NPR, the BBC and other local and international outlets.
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VPNs Tested

We intensively test each VPN, making sure it meets our standards for privacy, speed and usability.

Editors' choice
See Price at ExpressVPN

Best Overall VPN

ExpressVPN

Savings 49% off with 12-mo plan (+3 free months)
Pros
  • Strong commitment to privacy and transparency
  • Forward-thinking security enhancements
  • Excellent for streaming
  • Streamlined, easy-to-use app across platforms
  • Privacy-friendly jurisdiction (British Virgin Islands)
Cons
  • DNS leaks detected (but immediately addressed)
  • Expensive
  • Only eight simultaneous connections
  • Apple TV app needs work
Latest Tests DNS leaks detected, 25% speed loss in 2024 tests
Network 3,000 plus servers in 105 countries
Jurisdiction British Virgin Islands

ExpressVPN is currently CNET’s pick for the best VPN overall, scoring an 8.8/10 on our VPN rating scale. It’s a veteran VPN provider that consistently demonstrates a strong commitment to privacy and transparency. It’s also excellent for streaming and the easiest VPN app to use on any platform. But for the best, you’ll need to pay a premium. ExpressVPN is one of the most expensive VPN providers currently on the market, charing $13 a month, $60 for six months or $100 a year.

Although fast enough for almost any online activity, ExpressVPN’s speeds aren't quite as fast as some of its competitors', based on our latest speed tests. In 2024, we measured a 24.8% average speed loss with ExpressVPN. This is still fast, considering many VPNs can slash your internet speeds by 50% or more. We saw better speeds from NordVPN (11% speed loss) and Surfshark (17% speed loss). Still, ExpressVPN’s speeds were largely consistent and aligned with our expectations across protocols and server locations.

ExpressVPN’s privacy protections are top-notch and forward-thinking. The provider recently upgraded its proprietary open-source Lightway VPN protocol with Quantum Protection to help guard against future threats from quantum computers, along with encryption enhancements to better protect against threats like eavesdropping and man-in-the-middle attacks. ExpressVPN’s TrustedServer technology elevates the protections of the traditional RAM-only server architecture by reinstalling the entire software stack with every reboot.  If you want the best for streaming, ExpressVPN is a good bet because it effortlessly unblocks all sorts of streaming content, including Netflix, Disney Plus, Hulu and Amazon Prime Video. The provider also recently bumped its simultaneous connection allowance up to eight. If you’re not satisfied with the service, you can request your money back within 30 days of your purchase.

See Price at Surfshark

Best Cheap VPN

Surfshark

Extensive features at a great price

Savings $2.19/mo + 3 months free, 86% off (2 year plan)
Pros
  • Lots of unique security features
  • Unlimited simultaneous connections
  • RAM-only server network
Cons
  • Inconsistent speed performance
  • 14 Eyes jurisdiction (Netherlands)
  • No transparency reports
Price $11 per month, $48 for the first year (or $59.54 for 2yrs)
Latest Tests No leaks detected, 17% speed loss in 2023 tests
Network 3,200-plus servers in 100 countries
Jurisdiction Netherlands

Surfshark (8.6/10) boasts an impressive suite of privacy and security features, unlimited simultaneous connections, an easy-to-use interface and an expansive global network of more than 3,200 servers in 100 countries. Surfshark's impressive 17% average internet speed loss is among the fastest VPNs on the market, like ExpressVPN and NordVPN. Surfshark offers cheaper introductory prices ($42 for a year or $60 for two years) that jump after the first billing cycle. But even after those promotions jump to standard prices, Surfshark manages to keep its prices lower than most other VPNs.

Along with standard VPN features such as a kill switch and DNS leak protection, some of the more notable Surfshark features include camouflage mode (which hides the fact that you're using a VPN), split-tunneling, NoBorders mode (which lets you use Surfshark in regions where VPNs are restricted) and multihop VPN connections. You'll also get access to Surfshark's CleanWeb technology, which blocks ads and malware and helps you avoid phishing attacks. In our tests, Surfshark had no problems unblocking streaming content, but we did run into a fair bit of trouble accessing Disney Plus.

One innovation we particularly like is Surfshark's Nexus network, which connects the VPN's entire network of servers together and allows you to choose multiple servers to route your connection through. With its Dynamic MultiHop, IP Randomizer and IP Rotator functions, the Nexus network can give you a few extra layers of protection while you use the VPN -- which can be particularly beneficial to people with critical privacy needs. We also appreciate Surfshark's Linux graphical user interface app, making Surfshark one of the best Linux VPNs -- for both beginners and seasoned users alike. If you're not satisfied with the service for any reason, Surfshark offers a 30-day money-back guarantee.

See Price at NordVPN

Best VPN for Speed

NordVPN

Perfect for power users

Pros
  • Blazing-fast internet speeds
  • Strong privacy and transparency
  • Great for streaming service unblocking
  • User-friendly apps
Cons
  • Inconsistent pricing structure
  • Not as transparent as other VPN rivals
Price $13 for one month of access, $69 for the first year with an extra 3 months or $100 for the first two years with an extra 3 months (one- and two-year plans renew at $90 per year)
Latest tests No leaks detected, 11% speed loss in 2024 tests
Network 6,300-plus servers in 111 countries
Jurisdiction Panama

NordVPN (8.6/10) offers excellent service thanks to its best-in-class connection speeds, privacy-focused features and consistent geo-unblocking for streaming services. In our 2024 speed tests, NordVPN solidified itself as the fastest VPN, edging out both Surfshark and ExpressVPN with an average speed loss of just 11.1%. With apps for Windows, MacOS, Linux, Android/Android TV, iOS/iPadOS, browsers and even Apple TV, Nord runs on almost any platform you can think of. As with ExpressVPN, Nord’s array of features will cost you more than most other VPNs, starting at $69 for a year or $100 for two years, but jumping to $100 a year after that.

We appreciate NordVPN's commitment to privacy and security, offering features like Onion over VPN (Tor) and a Double VPN, which deliver additional encryption. Folks with serious privacy needs can even buy a Nord subscription with cryptocurrencies for pseudo-anonymity. On the entertainment side, we had no issues streaming US and UK Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Disney Plus libraries on most devices.

Its blisteringly fast internet speed throughput and large server network make Nord a terrific choice for competitive gamers or entertainment enthusiasts needing the fastest possible speeds. Additionally, its robust suite of advanced tools, including a Double VPN and Tor Over VPN make Nord a great option for users with critical privacy needs, like political activists or investigative journalists. While some of Nord’s amenities such as Meshnet are admittedly overkill for the average person simply seeking additional privacy when browsing the web or a VPN for streaming, they’re nice-to-haves nonetheless. Overall, NordVPN sports advanced privacy features in an intuitive service. 

See Price at ProtonVPN

Best Open-Source VPN

ProtonVPN

The only free plan we recommend

Savings 55% off with 24-mo plan
Pros
  • Highly transparent
  • Open-source
  • Unlimited free plan
Cons
  • No 24/7 live chat support
  • Split tunnelling only available on Android and Windows
Latest tests No leaks detected, 21% speed loss in 2024 tests
Network 4,800-plus servers in 91 countries
Jurisdiction Switzerland
Price $10 a month, $60 for a year, or $108 for two years

Proton VPN (8.4/10) is a solid choice for VPN power users and anyone with critical security needs, but it's also excellent for casual VPN users who are simply looking to give their online privacy a boost or access geographically restricted content. It's fast, easy to use across all platforms and can unblock streaming services like Netflix, Disney Plus, Max (formerly HBO Max) and Amazon Prime Video. A Linux graphical user interface app makes Proton a worthy choice for a Linux VPN.

Proton VPN is the only provider in our top five to have its software's source code publicly available for anyone to scrutinize. Proton has all the standard security features you'd expect from any VPN provider worth its salt, including a kill switch, DNS leak protection and AES 256-bit encryption on the OpenVPN protocol or ChaCha20 with WireGuard. The provider also offers additional security protections like an ad/malware blocker, Tor over VPN and a stealth protocol to help cloak your VPN connection and bypass firewalls. If you need multi-hop functionality, Proton's Secure Core servers are wholly owned by the company, equipped with hard disk encryption and housed in secure data centers in a defunct military base in Iceland and underground bunkers in Switzerland and Sweden.

If you're looking for a free VPN, look no further than Proton VPN, because its unlimited free tier is truly impressive, and it's really the only free VPN we've encountered that's worth using. It lacks support for torrenting and doesn't include all the bells and whistles as the paid tiers, but Proton VPN's free tier is secure and doesn't put limits on speed, data or usage time like most other free VPNs do. Free users get access to servers in five countries (Japan, the Netherlands, the US, Poland and Romania) and can connect one device at a time. Paid plans also include a 30-day, money-back guarantee.

See Price at PIA

Best Cheap Alternative

PIA

Budget-friendly and transparent

Savings $40 per year or $12 per month (3-year plans available at $79 every three years)
Pros
  • Extremely cheap prices
  • Open-source apps
  • Linux GUI app
  • Solid privacy and transparency
  • Unlimited simultaneous connections
  • Great for streaming service unblocking
Cons
  • US jurisdiction
  • Middling connection speeds
  • Lacks more advanced features found in rival VPNs
Latest Tests No leaks detected, 49% speed loss in 2024 tests
Network 35,000 servers in 91 countries
Jurisdiction United States
Price $40 per year or $12 per month (3-year plans available at $79 every three years)

Private Internet Access (7.6/10), or PIA, is one of the best cheap VPNs on the market. Its wallet-friendly pricing sets you back just $12 monthly, $40 annually or $79 for three years. By comparison, most VPNs like NordVPN and ExpressVPN typically charge $100 per year. While the value-packed Surfshark charges $42 for your first year, its price jumps to $60 after its initial sweet introductory pricing, whereas PIA foregoes price hikes for attractively transparent pricing. 

Despite its relatively low cost, PIA doesn’t cut corners. You’ll get a solid privacy suite, including 256-bit encryption, a kill switch that stops your internet if your VPN gets disconnected and split tunneling for using a VPN for some apps but not others. There’s multi-hop, which routes your connection through another server for additional privacy and obfuscated servers, making it tougher for apps or ISPs to identify when you’re using a VPN. PIA also boasts unlimited simultaneous connections -- the pricier ExpressVPN limits you to eight.

Unfortunately, PIA delivered middling internet speeds in our testing with an average speed loss of 49%. All VPNs slow down your connection somewhat, with the fastest VPNs offering an average internet speed loss of 20% or less. Folks with faster internet connections like fiber shouldn’t notice a difference even with a higher speed loss, but PIA isn’t ideal for people with slower speeds like satellite internet users. Even a 50% speed loss with a 50Mbps connection is still enough for some bandwidth-intensive activities like 4K video streaming (Netflix recommends a minimum of 15Mbps). With its decent features, pricing transparency and subscriptions that significantly undercut the competition, PIA remains a solid VPN that’s gentle on the pocketbook. Its relative affordability compared to VPN rivals makes PIA’s speed issues easy to overlook.

What is the best VPN in 2024?

ExpressVPN holds CNET Editors' Choice Award for best overall VPN. It's a tight race between our top three choices, but ExpressVPN's service excels when it comes to privacy and usability, making it the best of the best with an 8.8/10 rating. It offers unmatched transparency with a clear, user-focused privacy policy, and its Trusted Server technology goes a step beyond traditional RAM-only principles, resulting in maximum peace of mind when it comes to your browsing data.

Its Lightway protocol offers consistently fast speeds alongside post-quantum protection, cleanly blending performance and security. Using ExpressVPN's service is a breeze, reliably unblocking streaming content and offering useful security features with its Advanced Protection suite.

expressvpn-on-windows.png
Screenshot by CNET

Surfshark is a great choice for folks seeking practical privacy features on a budget. It offers connection speeds and features comparable to ExpressVPN and NordVPN but at an annual rate that's considerably cheaper ($42 for the first year or $60 total for the first two years, then $60 a year after the promotional period, versus $100 regular prices for ExpressVPN and NordVPN). Surfshark also offers support on unlimited devices, which makes it a great option for people with large families or just a lot of connected devices. There's even an Apple TV app for easy streaming in the living room. It doesn't quite match ExpressVPN's commitment to privacy, which makes it less suited for people with critical privacy needs.

surfshark-vpn-on-windows.png
Screenshot by CNET

NordVPN is an excellent feature-packed VPN. NordVPN's connection speeds were the very fastest we tested, with CNET Labs clocking a best-in-class 11.1% average internet download speed loss. It offers double VPN, as well as Onion Over VPN for extra encryption and Meshnet for secure file sharing, alongside more standard features like split tunneling to let you decide which online activities need VPN protection. Most people won't need all of those options, but they're nice inclusions for power users. Overall, NordVPN offers a high-performing service with excellent features for people who want advanced privacy protection.

nordvpn-on-windows.png
Screenshot by CNET

Each VPN service we recommend has excellent value for a specific use case, and we point out the ideal user for each one. The array of options available means there's a VPN service suited to your needs, whether your privacy needs are casual or critical. Also, consider jumping on one of these VPN deals, which many of our top picks are offering.

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Factors to consider in a VPN

Internet speed loss

VPNs somewhat lower your internet speed because you're routing your traffic through an encrypted server before communicating with apps, websites and other internet services rather than a direct connection. The fastest VPNs feature an average download speed loss of 25% or less. Generally, even folks with slower connections -- like satellite internet -- won't notice a marginal 25% or under dip. For bandwidth-intensive applications like gaming, 4K video streaming or uploading large files, you'll want a VPN with minimal speed loss. Casual users with faster internet speeds should be fine with more than 25% speed loss, but we look for VPNs that keep speed loss below 50%.

CNET speed test data

This table shows the speeds we experienced in our testing. Your speeds will vary depending on factors like your internet service plan and connection type. The percentage of speed lost is intended as a general indicator of how much the VPN slows down your connection; lower numbers represent a faster overall connection.

Provider Avg. VPN speed (Mbps)Avg. non-VPN speed (Mbps)Speed loss
ExpressVPN 17323125%
Surfshark 15319317%
NordVPN 20623011%
Proton VPN 15718021%
IPVanish 20536744%
PIA 9821149%

Privacy

VPNs bolster your privacy by masking your IP address, which, like your physical address, indicates identifying information about your geographical location. At a minimum, we recommend a VPN with 256-bit encryption (for OpenVPN and IKEv2 VPN protocols) or ChaCha20 (with WireGuard), a strict no-logging policy and DNS leak protection. Because logging is tough to verify, look for regular third-party audits. (You can and should be skeptical of your VPN provider's zero-log claims).

Additionally, transparency reports offer peace of mind. We also suggest sticking with a VPN that includes a kill switch. More privacy-concerned users like investigative journalists or political activists will appreciate advanced features such as obfuscation (which makes it harder for ISPs to determine that you're using a VPN), Tor over VPN (for additional encryption using the Tor network) and a double VPN (which relies on a second VPN server connection to enhance encryption). Folks with critical privacy needs should consider a VPN provider with jurisdiction outside of the Five, Nine or Fourteen Eyes intelligence-sharing communities for even stronger peace of mind. 

Server network

When considering VPN server networks, look at the overall number of servers, as well as the individual country locations. For instance, one virtual private network company may have twice the total number of servers as a competitor but half the different country locations, meaning you've got fewer international choices. At the high end, the most comprehensive VPNs for travel offer 90-plus individual countries, but anywhere over 60 countries will work for many folks. 

Outside of country locations, some VPNs allow file sharing across all servers, whereas others feature dedicated P2P (peer-to-peer) options. For purposes like torrenting, check whether your desired provider permits file sharing on all servers or select ones.

Additionally, you'll sometimes find specialty servers, like Tor (The Onion Router) over TPN, Double VPN or obfuscated servers. Onion over VPN and Double VPN servers provide extra privacy by bolstering your encryption even further when compared to a standard VPN connection, with Tor using the Onion network while a double VPN relies on a second VPN tunnel. On the other hand, obfuscated servers make it more difficult for apps, websites or internet service providers to determine that you're using a VPN.

Device support

Think about your devices and what you'd like to run a VPN on. Most VPN companies offer apps for Windows, MacOS, Linux, Android/Android TV, iOS/iPadOS and web browsers. Apple TV apps are increasingly common, with ExpressVPN, NordVPN and IPVanish featuring TVOS applications. A graphical user interface application may be easier for Linux users than a command line interface option. Surfshark, Proton and PIA boast Linux GUI apps, making them compelling choices for Linux VPNs. You can typically install a VPN on your router for whole-home coverage and use it on devices that don't support native VPN apps, like Xbox consoles, although this will typically void the warranty on the router.

While most VPN companies let you install an app on as many gadgets as you wish, you're sometimes limited to simultaneous devices. ExpressVPN allows eight while NordVPN and Proton give you 10. Surfshark, PIA and IPVanish are unlimited. Even with a provider like Express, Proton or Nord, you can still install a VPN on as many devices as you wish, but you'll only be able to have a handful of active sessions at once. Most folks should be fine even with eight to 10 simultaneous connections, but families or hardcore power users may feel constrained.

Streaming capabilities

While VPNs can be great for privacy, they're also helpful for unblocking region-restricted entertainment content. You can use a VPN to watch streaming services like Max or Hulu from your home country when traveling abroad. On the flip side, VPNs unlock access to foreign Netflix, Disney Plus and Amazon Prime Video libraries. 

Cost

You can sign up for a monthly, bi-annual, annual or multi-year VPN subscription. Although multi-year deals typically net you the most savings, we usually recommend sticking with an annual plan for the best savings with the lowest risk. The virtual private network you sign up for may initially be fast, private and great for geo-unblocking, but may become slower, suffer a data breach or stop allowing access to foreign Netflix libraries over a year. 

On the high end, VPNs such as Express set you back $100 per year, with value-packed providers like Surfshark and PIA offering year-long prices from $40 to $60. Some companies include price hikes: NordVPN normally charges $60 annually for your first year, then your plan renews at $100 per 12 months. Similarly, Surfshark goes for $48 a year upfront, then renews at $60 annually. Make a budget, then find a VPN provider that fits the bill while being mindful of price hikes. Notably, you can renew while avoiding raised renewal rates by taking advantage of seasonal discounts like Black Friday/Cyber Monday deals.

Additional VPN factors to consider

Don't use free VPN providers: Except for Proton, you'll find only paid VPN options on this list above because they're the only ones we can recommend.

Look for a no-logs VPN, but understand the caveats: The best VPNs keep as few logs as possible and make them as anonymous as possible, so there's little data to provide should authorities come knocking. Even "no-logs" VPNs aren't 100% anonymous.

There are limits to the privacy VPNs currently provide to iOS users: Recent independent research has surfaced suggesting iPhones and iPads running iOS 14 or later may be vulnerable to device-only VPN leaks, regardless of which VPN is used. Apple users concerned with potential leaks can take extra precautions by installing their VPN on a home router to ensure their entire Wi-Fi network is encrypted. Some iOS users may potentially reduce the likelihood of leaks while outside of a home network by enabling their VPN's kill switch and selecting OpenVPN protocols. You can also try closing all apps, activating your VPN and then enabling and disabling Airplane Mode before using your device normally. Apple advises users to activate their device's Always On VPN profile for additional protection. 

VPN transparency is important, but warrant canaries are only the beginning: Many services use "warrant canaries" to passively note to the public whether or not they've been subpoenaed by a government entity. This is because many investigations from national security agencies can't be actively disclosed by law. Like the no-logging issue, warrant canaries aren't always as straightforward as they seem. You should spend more time investigating whether your prospective VPN has cooperated with authorities in the past, and how and when it's disclosed that fact.

Think twice about using a US-based VPN: The Patriot Act is still the law of the land in the US, and that means US-based VPNs have little recourse if and when the feds show up with subpoenas or national security letters in hand demanding access to servers, VPN user accounts or other data. Yes, they may have little data to access if the service has a strong no-logs policy, but why not just choose a service that's based outside Uncle Sam's jurisdiction? (If this is a concern for you, you'll also want to avoid countries with which the US has intelligence-sharing agreements.)

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About VPNs

A VPN, or virtual private network, is an online service available as a mobile app, desktop app, browser extension or other software that encrypts your internet traffic to boost your privacy online. A VPN also prevents your internet service provider from tracking which websites or apps you're using and stops most of those websites and apps from seeing your actual geographic location, allowing you to bypass content blocks in some countries to access critical news and educational information. Additionally, VPNs are great for unblocking geo-protected content like accessing foreign Netflix libraries. We strongly recommend using a good VPN for everyday use as well as for work, particularly if your work involves handling sensitive information. 

The best VPNs deliver a strong level of privacy protection without compromising on performance, particularly internet speeds. At CNET, we rigorously test each VPN across major platforms to find the ones that provide exceptional privacy, reliability, speed and value. This list is constantly being updated as we actively test VPNs and look at the latest research, so expect this guide to change throughout the year as we put each VPN through its paces. We've recently retested Surfshark, ExpressVPN, NordVPN, Private Internet Access, Proton, IPVanish and Mullvad from the ground up.

ExpressVPNSurfsharkNordVPNProtonVPNPIAIPVanish
Price $13 per month, $60 for six months or $100 for a year$15 per month, $42 the first year or $60 for the first two years (one- and two-year plans renew at $60 per year) $13 per month, $69 for a year or $100 for two years (one- and two-year plans auto-renew at $100 a year)$10 per month, $60 for a year or $108 for two years (one- and two-year plans auto-renew at $80 a year)$12 per month, $40 for a year or $79 for three years $13 per month, $42 for a year or $72 for two years
Server network 3,000-plus servers in 105 countries3,200-plus servers in 100 countries6,300-plus servers in 111 countries4,800-plus servers in 91 countries35,000-plus servers in 91 countries2,400-plus servers in 56 countries
Average internet speed loss 25%17%11%21%49%44%
Simultaneous connections 8Unlimited1010UnlimitedUnlimited
Supported platforms Windows, MacOS, Linux, Android, Android TV, iOS, iPadOS, Apple TV, Fire TV, Web browsers, RoutersWindows, MacOS, Linux, Android, Android TV, iOS, iPadOS, Apple TV, Fire TV, Web browsers, RoutersWindows, MacOS, Linux, Android, Android TV, iOS, iPadOS, Apple TV, Fire TV, Web browsers, RoutersWindows, MacOS, Linux, Android, Android TV, iOS, iPadOS, Fire TV, Web browsers, RoutersWindows, MacOS, Linux, Android, Android TV, iOS, iPadOS, Apple TV, Fire TV, Web browsers, RoutersWindows, MacOS, Linux, Android, Android TV, iOS, iPadOS, Apple TV, Fire TV, Web browsers, Routers

How we test VPNs

Our hands-on testing and review process is designed to cut through that hype. When we look at each VPN service, we're not just examining them for their technical weaknesses, but we're also scrutinizing their individual performance strengths. We want to know what each service does best. We test each VPN across over 20 factors, and we continually improve our methodology as we learn more. Our rigorous testing process involves running over 250 internet speed tests across multiple worldwide servers to determine accurate internet speed loss averages.

We test VPNs for browsing and streaming speed in multiple countries, as well as their connection stability and even the smallest potential privacy leaks. By testing across multiple devices and platforms, we're able to assess which VPNs are best for gaming versus those best for streaming, torrenting or sharing sensitive information. Most importantly, we focus on doing the deep-dive research necessary to vet each VPN's historical credibility and its ownership in a notoriously murky market

The VPNs on this list earn our recommendation for more than just boosting their digital privacy strengths -- they enable easy streaming to overcome geo-blocked media, have torrenting-friendly servers and are fast enough to support gaming globally. Based on those continued evaluations, you'll see a few bullet points on each entry in our list, highlighting each VPN's strengths and the uses we recommend it for most. Because we strive to keep on top of a fast-changing market, you'll notice that the rank of each VPN service changes as we learn more and retest. 

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How to choose the right VPN for you

Picking a VPN requires knowing two basic things to start with: What you want to use it for, and what you're willing to pay. The range of VPN offerings is vast, but those two things will help you find a VPN that has the right blend of speed, security and cost. 

Below, you'll find specific FAQ sections on picking a VPN based on the most common needs: gaming, streaming media, working from home and privacy-critical professions. In general, you'll want a VPN that provides sufficient encryption, doesn't log your activity, offers essential security features like DNS leak protection and a kill switch, has server locations where you need them and can give you fast connection speeds. Our top five VPNs have all these features, although connection speeds will vary based on your internet provider and the server you connect to.

For a deeper dive, check our detailed walk-through of how we evaluate and review VPNs. If you're looking for some quick pointers, here are universally applicable advice guides for beginners:

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Other VPNs we've tested

Not every VPN can be a favorite. These are the ones we reviewed, but they're not full-throated recommendations for one reason or another, including limited features and concerns over adequately hiding your identity.

IPVanish is a decent beginner-friendly VPN for folks seeking basic privacy. It does a good job unblocking geographically protected streaming content on multiple services, such as providing access to foreign Netflix libraries. We liked its intuitive VPN apps which, while easy to use even for novices, weren't quite as streamlined as apps from NordVPN or ExpressVPN. While you get privacy fundamentals from IPVanish, its US jurisdiction makes it unsuitable for people with critical privacy needs, like political activists, investigative journalists or asylum-seekers.

Its comparatively slow speeds -- we measured a 44% average internet speed loss -- severely lagged behind NordVPN (11%), Surfshark (17%), Proton VPN (21%) and ExpressVPN (25%). Likewise, its relatively small server network of 56 countries is head and shoulders below Nord (111 countries), ExpressVPN (105) countries, Surfshark (100 countries), Proton (91 countries) and PIA (91 countries). IPVanish sets you back $13 per month, $48 for your first year or $72 for two years combined -- but the one- and two-year plans jump to $90 annually after your introductory pricing period. For the price, you can get a VPN with faster internet speed maintenance and a much larger web of servers.

Read our IPVanish review.

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Quick Take
  • Servers: 2,400-plus in 56 countries
  • Country/jurisdiction: US
  • Platforms: Windows, MacOS, Linux (CLI), Chrome OS, Android, Android TV, iOS, iPadOS, Fire TV, Apple TV
  • Price: $13 per month, $48 for the first year (then $90 annually) or $72 for the first two years combined (then $90 annually)

Hotspot Shield VPN's TLS-based Hydra Catapult protocol, US jurisdiction, 128-bit AES encryption support and large percentage of virtual servers might strip away our trust in its ability to provide more privacy protections than its competitors. Those are all key components to its ability to achieve the blazing speeds it delivered during its most recent speed tests.

It effortlessly delivers smooth-streaming media and can dance between server connections without missing a beat, no matter how many interruptions you throw at it. A 26% speed loss puts it in second place, falling behind Surfshark (which lost just 16.9% of its speed the last time I tested it) and knocking Express down to third place with a 51.8% speed loss at the last measurement. Speed losses on UK connections were under 8%. When it comes to gaming, torrenting, browsing and streaming, these speed-dependent services won't be slowed down for Hotspot Shield users.

We're not excited about Hotspot's privacy and security. Since the services use a closed-source proprietary Catapult Hydra protocol, instead of the more transparent open-source OpenVPN protocol, we'd like to see Hotspot give the public more third-party audits, which is a necessary step to bring Hotspot up to speed with routinely audited VPNs like TunnelBear. As recently as April 2021, review site VPNMentor discovered a DNS leak in Hotspot Shield's plug-in for Google Chrome. Hotspot acknowledged the issue at the time and aimed to improve the product.

We're also not thrilled about the amount of user data Hotspot collects and its privacy policy. With its premium product, it gathers and retains much more information about users than most other VPNs. If you're using the free version of its product, it shares that information -- along with even more finite data, including your MAC address and specific phone identifier -- with advertising companies.

While its interface is user-friendly and its speeds are thrilling, spending time with Hotspot is going to leave your wallet a little lighter than you might prefer. Its current price is higher than its nearest competitors, its speeds slightly slower and its privacy more questionable. If you're looking for a VPN purely on the grounds of speed, we still recommend passing on Hotspot until it improves.

Read more: Hotspot Shield VPN review: This speedster costs more than its faster, more private competitors

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Quick Take
  • Servers: 1,800-plus in 80-plus locations
  • Country/Jurisdiction: US (Five Eyes member)
  • Platforms: Windows, Android, MacOS, iOS, Linux, Amazon Fire TV
  • Price: $8 per month or $95.88 billed annually. Month-to-month plan at $13

TunnelBear has gotten a lot of hype in the last couple of years. When we looked under its hood and compared it with its VPN competitors, our excitement waned.

TunnelBear's speeds are reasonable. We lost nearly 63% of internet speed overall when we used it, which is about average for a VPN. TunnelBear's speeds have steadily improved over the years as measured by other review and testing sites, and the US scores we recorded saw a speed loss of only 54%.

On the plus side, TunnelBear is holding its own in the transparency competition among VPNs by publishing the results of its independent security audits and annual transparency reports. No IP address, DNS or other potentially user-identifying data leaks were detected during our testing, but in the past TunnelBear was observed to have been leaking WebRTC information. TunnelBear's VPN encryption is standard AES-256 and it supports Perfect Forward Secrecy.

It's also a Canadian business owned by US-based McAfee, so if you're looking for subpoena-proof international online privacy, you're playing with fire. It holds a paltry 23 server locations from which you can't manually choose your VPN server or even a city. It doesn't offer Tor-over-VPN, it offers split tunneling only on Android and it can't even unblock Netflix.

On a per-month breakdown, the least expensive TunnelBear plan is its $120, three-year plan. You can also go month to month for $10, or pay $60 upfront for a single year. Either way, TunnelBear accepts payment via credit card and Bitcoin. Unlike other VPNs, it doesn't take PayPal, plus it doesn't support Amazon Fire Stick or Android TV.

Read more: TunnelBear VPN Review: The Overpriced Ursine Has Trouble Living Up to the Hype

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Quick Take

In CNET's previous coverage of virtual private networks, we've praised CyberGhost for its roster of competitive features. Our in-depth review of CyberGhost in 2019 included speed testing, security verification and an analysis of its full suite of privacy tools. Since then, the VPN company has increased its number of servers and is prepared to roll out new privacy tools, all while remaining one of the cheapest VPNs we've reviewed, at just $2.03 per month for a two-year plan.

As we've bolstered our approach to VPN reviews, CyberGhost has raised some red flags. Its parent company's history warrants skepticism, our previous tests have shown it to expose your VPN use to your ISP, its website and app trackers are more numerous than warranted and its ad blocker uses an untrustworthy method of traffic manipulation no VPN should even think about. Its low price previously made it worth considering if you needed to change the appearance of your location online, but not if you wanted best-in-class security.

While CyberGhost's connection speed and security features appear to be improving, we don't currently recommend using the VPN service provider if you're in a country where VPNs are illegal. We also recommend that anyone in the US review CyberGhost's parent company before deciding whether to pay for a subscription.

On the plus side, CyberGhost was still faster than Norton Secure VPN and less taxing on the processing power of our devices. It also offers split tunneling in its Windows client and has its servers neatly organized into categories: NoSpy servers, servers geared for torrenting, servers best for streaming and servers best for use with a static IP address. CyberGhost imposes no data caps, allows unlimited server switching and offers a 45-day money-back guarantee on subscription plans of a year or more.

Read more: CyberGhost VPN review: Competitive Features, but Its Parent Company Concerns Me

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Norton LifeLock, long known for excellence in security products, has a relatively limited offering in its VPN product. Norton Secure VPN does not support P2P or BitTorrent, Linux, routers or set-top boxes. It's Netflix and streaming compatibility is somewhat limited. Even worse, during testing, we experienced privacy-compromising data leaks.

During CNET's testing, Norton Secure VPN speeds were comparable to other mid-tier VPNs but not particularly competitive. Although its VPN is only available on four platforms -- Mac, iOS, Windows and Android -- Norton gets points for its 24/7 live customer service phone support and 60-day money-back guarantee.

Norton Secure VPN's pricing structure is a bit different than what you typically find in the industry. Pricing is tiered based on how many simultaneous connections you want with your account. For a single device, you'll pay $30 for the first year and $50 for any subsequent years, or $4.99 a month for the monthly. For five simultaneous connections, the price jumps to $40 for the first year and $80 for subsequent years, or $8 a month for the monthly plan. If you want up to 10 simultaneous connections, the price is $60 for the first year and $100 for subsequent years, or $10 a month for the monthly plan.

Read more: Norton Secure VPN Review: Why We Don't Recommend It

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Mullvad is an independently owned and open-source VPN provider focused on building trust through transparency with its commitment to protecting the privacy and security of its users. Although some other VPNs are considerably more well known in the industry, Mullvad's offering is just as polished and easy to use as what's offered by many of the market's bigger players.

Mullvad's primary focus is on security. Like most other top VPN providers, Mullvad employs industry-standard AES 256-bit encryption, using the OpenVPN protocol or ChaCha20 on WireGuard, to secure users' connections. Mullvad's kill switch feature and DNS leak protection are enabled by default and can't be disabled. During our testing, the kill switch worked as expected and we detected no leaks of any kind. The company says it doesn't keep any logs of its users' activity, and for the most part it's pretty transparent about how it operates and what it does to protect user privacy. Mullvad is unique in that it doesn't require any personal information at sign-up. While most VPN providers ask users to provide an email address and enter a username, Mullvad generates a random 16-digit account number to activate each new user account. You don't even need to provide any payment information since Mullvad accepts cash sent via mail.

Mullvad's source code being entirely open source is a testament to the company's transparency, but we'd still like to see Mullvad issue an annual transparency report to give the public a view of how many legal requests the company gets and where they're coming from. But you don't just have to take Mullvad's word for it: Radically Open Security confirmed Mullvad's no-logs assertions in a 2023 independent audit.

With 684 servers across 44 countries, Mullvad's VPN server network is comparatively small. Even so, the network covers the most in-demand locations and is pretty well spread out across the globe. What its network may lack in size, it makes up for in speed. In our latest round of speed testing, we measured just a 13.5% drop in average internet speeds (VPNs will slow you down 50% or more), easily making it one of the fastest VPNs we've tested. Although Mullvad's speeds are fantastic, it's not the best for streaming geographically restricted content. We were able to access Netflix and Disney Plus without any issues but were denied access to stream Amazon Prime Video when connected to Mullvad's servers -- it recognized that we were using a VPN.

Mullvad's straightforward approach to pricing is a breath of fresh air, especially with so many other VPN providers concocting ever-more convoluted pricing structures. Mullvad costs about $5 a month, whether you want to use it for a month, a year or a decade, and you're never locked into a long-term subscription plan. If you're not satisfied with the service, you can get a refund within 30 days of purchase.

Read more: Mullvad Review: Solid Security and Privacy, but Swedish Jurisdiction Is Concerning

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Quick Take
  • Number of servers: 684
  • Server location: 44 countries
  • Number of simultaneous connections: 5
  • Jurisdiction: Sweden
  • Price: $5 a month

Other VPNs our experts are reviewing

Below you'll find some additional VPNs. We're in the process of re-evaluating them in the coming months.

PureVPN says it doesn't log connection information. The company joined the "no log" movement in 2018 and underwent a third-party audit by Althius IT (albeit one commissioned and paid for by PureVPN). 

We like that PureVPN offers a 31-day refund policy and supports Bitcoin payments. We also like that PureVPN has both Kodi and Chromebook apps available. In addition, PureVPN was the first VPN service we noted to fully implement GDPR compliance.

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Quick Take

StrongVPN blasts onto our list with excellent infrastructure and a decent price. StrongVPN has a strong no-logging policy and picks up kudos for its large base of IP addresses. It has a solid collection of servers and worldwide locations. For those of you who need a dedicated IP, you can get one from the company but you'll need to contact customer support to get help setting it up.

One of StrongVPN's strengths is the company's network. It owns and operates its entire network infrastructure, which means it has no externally dictated limits on bandwidth or the type of internet traffic allowed on the network.

StrongVPN's regular monthly price of $10.99 is in the middle of the pack, but its regular yearly price of $80 is among the lowest of our contenders.

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Quick Take

VPN FAQs

In today's hyper-connected world, online privacy and security are increasingly critical. From online banking to communicating remotely with colleagues, we're transferring more data on our computers and smartphones than ever before. Much of that data is confidential information that we need to keep safe from hackers and snoops, so VPN use is on the rise as people take steps to secure their digital lives.

Do I need a VPN?

Anyone who accesses the internet from a computer, tablet or smartphone can benefit from using a VPN. You don't have to be an activist, government dissident or journalist to need a VPN; the rise of third-party data brokers, cross-site advertising trackers, IP address collection and mobile geo-targeting have all combined to create an online browsing environment that poses significant threats to everyday users' basic privacy. Because a VPN encrypts your connection, your browsing data is protected from your internet service provider (and any government entities who request your ISP data), and your network administrator in most cases. A VPN can also shield your private information -- like passwords, usernames and bank or shopping details -- from anyone snooping on your network.

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What is the best free VPN?

Proton VPN's free tier is the only free VPN we've come across so far that's worth using. It costs a lot of money to operate a VPN, and free VPN services usually make up for the lack of subscription revenue by selling user data. In addition to being limited in usability and light on security, many free VPNs are fronts for malware distribution, which is why it's generally best to avoid them. Proton VPN's unlimited free tier is fast and secure and can be used for most online activities, including streaming Netflix. If you're on a budget and want access to a premium VPN solution, you can also take a look at our picks for the best cheap VPNs.

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What is a mobile VPN?

A mobile VPN is simply a VPN you can use on your mobile device like your iPhone or Android phone. All of the providers we recommend have mobile versions of their desktop clients. You can use a mobile-focused VPN app to ensure greater data privacy designed for your whole device. Mobile VPNs also generally have a smaller memory footprint and require less processing power than desktop VPNs, so they tend to yield faster connection speeds and don't eat up your battery as quickly. Keep in mind that most mobile VPN clients will use a lighter form of encryption than a desktop client to achieve those smartphone speeds. Be sure to check your VPN apps' settings to ensure you're using the apps' strongest encryption if your privacy needs are heightened. Our top three VPN picks all have excellent, easy-to-use mobile VPN app options for their services. Some VPNs will only work with one type of mobile platform -- like iOS or Android -- and some are universally compatible. To find the right mobile VPN for you, check out our mobile-specific VPN guides below. We routinely update them with our retesting information, so check back often. 

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Are VPNs legal?

VPNs are perfectly legal to use in most countries. There's nothing wrong with taking steps to protect your privacy online, and you shouldn't have to worry that using a VPN as part of that process will get you in any kind of legal trouble. 

There are countries where VPNs are either banned or outright illegal. If you're using a VPN in a country like China, Iran, Oman, Russia, Turkmenistan, UAE or Belarus, you may find yourself in legal trouble. The irony here is that these are the countries where internet censorship and surveillance are most common. In those countries, you'll need to make sure you use a VPN that provides strong obfuscation so your VPN traffic is disguised as ordinary HTTPS traffic, meaning government entities won't even know you're using a VPN in the first place. 

You won't run into any trouble with the law for using a VPN across most of the world. One important reminder: VPNs are legal in most places, but engaging in illegal activity online is still illegal regardless of whether you're using a VPN.

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How do I use a VPN for Netflix?

If you live in a country that censors its media or are traveling to one, geo-restricted content is a pain. You can use a VPN to circumvent censorship or access your home country's normal media content for an online streaming service like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video or Disney Plus. Pick a VPN that lets you manually select which country you want to connect through and has something called obfuscation. (Our top three picks offer this.) You don't always need to use the obfuscation feature to unblock Netflix, but since streaming services actively try to block VPN connections, obfuscation can help because it disguises your VPN traffic as regular internet traffic. 

If you're looking to try out other VPNs, choose one with a large number of IP addresses, preferably 10,000 or more. This is because one of the ways Netflix and others block VPNs is by blacklisting known VPN IPs, and if your VPN has tens of thousands of IPs, there's a better chance that you'll be able to connect to an IP address that Netflix hasn't flagged. 

Once you have your VPN installed, connect to the country whose content you wish to view, restart your browser and go to the streaming site. If your VPN is working, the site should treat you as a resident of your selected country and serve you content assigned to that audience. If you're still having trouble, you can try using incognito mode on your browser or try clearing your cookies and cache.

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How do I know if my VPN is working?

Your first and most apparent indication that your VPN is working is that your IP address will change and your location will be registered as that of the VPN server you're connecting through. You can check this on a site like whatismyipaddress.com.

You'll also want to make sure your VPN is protecting your privacy and not leaking any of your data outside of the VPN tunnel, thus exposing it to your ISP and other entities that may be monitoring your online activity. You can check for leaks by going to a site like dnsleaktest.com or ipleak.net. If your location is registered as the VPN server location and your leak tests turn up negative, then you know your VPN is working to protect your privacy.

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What is a remote-access VPN?

A remote-access VPN uses public infrastructure like the internet to provide remote users secure access to their network. This is particularly important for organizations and their corporate networks. It's crucial when employees connect to a public hotspot and use the internet for sending work-related emails. A VPN client on the user's computer or mobile device connects to a VPN gateway on the company's network. This gateway will typically require the device to authenticate its identity. It will then create a network link back to the device that allows it to reach internal network resources such as file servers, printers and intranets as if it were on the same local network.

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What is a site-to-site VPN?

This is when the VPN technology uses a gateway device to connect the entire network in one location to a network in another location. The majority of site-to-site VPNs that connect over the internet use IPsec. IPsec-based encryption protocols are often considered by VPN specialists to be less secure against modern surveillance. Rather than using the public internet, it is also normal to use multiprotocol label-switching clouds as the main transport for site-to-site VPNs.

VPNs are often defined between specific computers, and in most cases, they are servers in separate data centers. New hybrid-access situations have now transformed the VPN gateway in the cloud, typically with a secure link from the cloud service provider into the internal network.

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What's the best VPN?

The best VPN for you depends on your needs when using a VPN.

VPNs for crucial privacy and security
If you're a journalist, a lawyer or a professional in any other privacy-sensitive field, forget about speed and price when choosing a VPN. Focus, instead, entirely on security. Your VPN may be somewhat slower but, for both VPNs and presidential motorcades, speed is always the trade-off for privacy. Avoid free VPNs and browser-based VPNs. If you're concerned with government monitoring in your current country, choose a VPN headquartered outside of the country you're currently in, and avoid choosing a VPN with a jurisdiction in an allied country. For example, US journalists should avoid VPNs with a jurisdiction in the US or other Five Eyes countries. Keep an eye on encryption: Your VPN should offer a protocol called OpenVPN TCP (for its mobile apps, IKEv2 is fine). Right now, the VPN we recommend most for critical privacy is ExpressVPN.

VPNs for working from home
If you're working from home, you may be sharing your internet connection with multiple devices and family members or roommates. That's a lot of simultaneous connections to a VPN and a lot of drag on a network. Pick a VPN that lets you use one subscription on as many devices as possible and has excellent speeds so your Wi-Fi isn't bogged down. If your job involves handling sensitive information like financial or medical records, your priority VPN criteria is security. Our top three VPN picks are the most secure we've found, and each has a different number of connections they'll allow for a base-level subscription. Depending on your budget and home office requirements, ExpressVPN, Surfshark and NordVPN are all great options for working from home. There are a few other factors worth considering for a home office VPN, so check out our guide to picking the right VPN for working at home.

VPNs for gaming
Most VPNs are chosen based on having a good balance of speed, security and cost. If you want a VPN specifically to connect to game servers in another country, speed is everything. Free VPNs won't be fast enough; fortunately, high-end security won't be a cost driver, which gives you more options at modest prices. Since all VPNs reduce speed -- many by half or more -- that means picking one from the set that performed best in our speed tests. In our latest tests, NordVPN took the lead as the fastest VPN, though you can get excellent speeds through Surfshark via the WireGuard protocol and with ExpressVPN. If you're focused on VPNs for game consoles, look at our best VPNs for Xbox and our primer on installing them. Before choosing the one right for your needs, visit the VPN's official website to see whether they offer servers specifically aimed at gaming in the countries where you most want to connect to other players. 

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