Best VPN Service 2024: VPNs Tested by Our Experts

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

Updated Feb. 19, 2024 5:30 a.m. PT

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Written by  Attila Tomaschek 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
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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 and
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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. How we test VPNs

Editors' choice 2024
See Price at ExpressVPN

Best Overall VPN

ExpressVPN

Privacy protection and transparency

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
Price $13 a month, $60 for six months or $100 for a year
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 one of the fastest VPNs we've tested, registering an 18% speed loss in our latest tests in February and March of 2023. Its apps for iOS and Android are designed with a streamlined approach aimed at connecting fast without fuss. A single button on its landing screen directs you to connect quickly, with the only accompanying option being a drop-down server location selector with your fastest nearby city selected by default. Alongside its Windows, MacOS, Linux, Android/Android TV and iOS/iPadOS apps, ExpressVPN launched an Apple TV app for simple geo-restricted content unblocking.

ExpressVPN's other options -- its security and privacy tools, account and settings options, and support page -- are all kept neatly tucked away under a garden-variety three-bar icon in the screen's top left corner. And they're worth checking into. ExpressVPN has included an on-board IP address checker, along with two leak testers and a password generator.

In the past year, ExpressVPN increased its independent third-party audit count, published details about its TrustedServer deployment process, joined the i2Coalition to call for improved VPN industry ethics and released the open-source Lightway encryption protocol.

All of our top-rated VPNs have wide compatibility across platforms and operating systems, but ExpressVPN's collection of setup guides, detailed FAQs and troubleshooting articles give it a clear advantage for users. So does its 24/7 customer support, and its no-questions-asked, 30-day money-back guarantee. 

The company has been in business since 2009, and ExpressVPN has a substantial network of more than 3,000 RAM-only servers spread across 160 locations in 105 countries. ExpressVPN's best plan offers eight simultaneous connections for $100 a year (which includes three extra months, for a limited-time deal totaling 15 months of service). You can also opt for a $13 per month plan, or pay $60 for six months.

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See Price at Surfshark

Best Cheap VPN

Surfshark

Extensive features at a great price

Savings $2.69/mo with 24-mo plan (+4 free months)
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 $14 per month, $48 for the first year (then $60 annually)
Latest Tests No leaks detected, 17% speed loss in 2023 tests
Network 3,200-plus servers in 100 countries
Jurisdiction Netherlands

Surfshark 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. It's still significantly cheaper than most of its competitors.

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 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. 

One innovation we appreciated was 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. The functionality is somewhat similar to Tor, but Surfshark says it's faster. 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 users with critical privacy needs

Surfshark says it doesn't log any user activity. Although no-logging claims are virtually impossible to prove with 100% certainty, German cybersecurity firm Cure53 declared Surfshark's security to be "solid" in its 2021 security audit of the VPN. Surfshark passed its first independent no-logs audit in January 2023. 

Since February 2022, Surfshark and NordVPN have had the same corporate parent, but Surfshark said it is legally bound not to share any information between the entities that would go against its privacy policy or terms of service. We didn't find any language in either document that would indicate Surfshark has any obligation to share user data with its parent company or any sibling companies, which include NordVPN. 

Surfshark's impressive 17% average internet speed loss that we clocked in our late 2023 benchmarking is right up there with the fastest VPNs on the market, like ExpressVPN and NordVPN. In our tests, Surfshark had no problems unblocking Netflix, Disney Plus and Amazon Prime Video content, but we did run into a fair bit of trouble accessing Disney Plus.

Surfshark offers cheaper introductory prices that jump after the first billing cycle. Even so, Surfshark manages to keep its prices lower than most other VPNs -- helping it earn CNET's Editors' Choice for Best Value. The yearly plan starts out at $48 for the first year, then jumps to $60 for any additional years of service. If you opt for the two-year plan, you'll pay $56 upfront for the initial two years combined, plus two free months, then $60 per year for any additional years. Surfshark's monthly plan stays constant at $13 a month. If you're not satisfied with the service for any reason, Surfshark offers a 30-day money-back guarantee.

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See Price at NordVPN

Best VPN for Speed

NordVPN

Perfect for power users

Pros
  • The fastest VPN we tested
  • Tons of features
  • Diskless RAM-only server infrastructure
Cons
  • Not as transparent as VPN rivals
  • Complicated pricing structure
  • Only six simultaneous connections allowed
Price $13 monthly, $60 for the first year or $96 for the first two years (then $100 per year afterwards for the one- and two-year plans)
Latest tests No leaks detected, 11% speed loss in 2024 tests
Network 6,000-plus servers in over 60 countries
Jurisdiction Panama

NordVPN is one of the most well-known VPNs on the market, partly thanks to its widespread marketing campaigns. It’s also an excellent service, thanks to its best-in-class connection speeds, privacy-focused features and consistent geo-unblocking for streaming services. Like most VPNs, NordVPN doesn’t quite match ExpressVPN’s commitment to privacy, but it’s still a great option for anyone wanting a reliable VPN with a large suite of features. Its user-friendly design that doesn't compromise on settings makes it an outstanding choice for casual VPN newcomers and seasoned power users alike. At $13 monthly, $60 annually or $96 total for two years, NordVPN sets you back less initially than premium VPN rivals like ExpressVPN, but more than budget-oriented companies like Surfshark and PIA. However, subsequent price hikes drive the price to $100 per year, which aligns with many other VPN providers, including Express.

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%. Using its NordLynx VPN protocol, we measured an average internet speed loss of just 3.2% with Windows and 12.6% on MacOS. On OpenVPN, average internet download speed loss was a blazing-fast 10.1% with MacOS and a respectable 18.8% with Windows. 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.

We appreciate NordVPN's commitment to privacy and security. In addition to features like Onion over VPN (Tor) and a Double VPN, which deliver additional encryption, a 2023 audit by Deloitte backed up its no-log claims for improved transparency. Folks with serious privacy needs can even buy a Nord subscription with cryptocurrencies for pseudo-anonymity. While zero-logging policies are challenging to verify with absolute certainty, third-party audits provide peace of mind. On the entertainment side, we had no issues streaming US and UK Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Disney Plus libraries on most devices. 

NordVPN’s global server network comprises more than 6,000 servers spanning over 60 countries. That’s a little short of the international reach of competitors like Surfshark and ExpressVPN, but a planned expansion in Q1 of 2024 should increase Nord's server count to 100 countries. Overall, NordVPN sports advanced privacy features in an intuitive service.

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See Price at ProtonVPN

Open-Source VPN

ProtonVPN

The only free plan we recommend

Savings 50% off with 24-mo plan
Pros
  • Highly transparent
  • Open-source
  • Unlimited free plan
Cons
  • No live chat support
  • Split tunneling only available on Android and Windows
  • Occasional speed dips
Savings 50% off with 24-mo plan
Latest tests No leaks detected, 9% speed loss in 2020 tests
Network 1,700-plus servers in 91 locations across 64 countries
Jurisdiction Switzerland

Proton VPN 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. While Proton is worth paying for, it also features the best (and only) free VPN plan.

Proton VPN hasn't been around nearly as long as some of its peers like ExpressVPN and NordVPN, but in a few short years, it has earned a sturdy reputation for security and transparency. Much of that reputation was built on the back of Proton Mail's already established strength as a secure email solution, but Proton VPN has become a solid product on its own merit since it launched in 2017.

All of its apps across platforms are fully open-source, making Proton VPN the only provider in our top five to have its software's source code publicly available for anyone to scrutinize. The apps are also routinely audited by third-party cybersecurity professionals who confirmed that "no important security issues were identified" during their latest audit.

Proton VPN 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. 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.

The pièce de résistance of Proton VPN's security suite is its fleet of Secure Core servers. Essentially, these servers operate in the same way as other VPN providers' multi-hop functionality does, but 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 in underground bunkers in Switzerland and Sweden. Route your traffic through Proton's Secure Core servers first to add a robust layer of physical and technical protection before exiting through another VPN server in a different country.

If you're looking for a free VPN, look no further than Proton VPN, because its unlimited free tier is truly impressive, and 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 three countries (US, NL and JP) and can connect one device at a time.

Proton VPN's paid plans cost $72 per year or $10 per month and include access to servers in 67 countries and support for 10 simultaneous connections. Paid plans also include a 30-day, money-back guarantee. Read our Proton VPN review.

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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, 24% speed loss in 2023 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, often abbreviated as PIA, is a budget-friendly VPN that's one of the best in the business when it comes to transparency. Yes, concerns associated with its US jurisdiction may be a dealbreaker for VPN users with critical online privacy needs. The company seems to be doing everything in its power to offset those concerns and appeal to privacy-conscious users. PIA's no-logs policy was independently audited in 2022, and it releases a semiannual transparency report and has had its no-logs claims tested in the wild on more than one occasion. All of PIA's software is also fully open source, meaning that its source code is publicly available for anyone to inspect, which is still a relatively rare degree of transparency for a VPN. Proton VPN is the only other open-source VPN service among CNET's top picks. 

PIA offers industry-standard AES 256-bit encryption along with DNS leak protection and a kill switch. It also offers an advanced kill switch feature that won't let you connect to the internet at all unless you're connecting through the VPN -- a great option for critical situations where you don't want to risk going online without first connecting to the VPN. Additional privacy features include multihop connections, obfuscation and an ad tracker and malware blocker feature called MACE. PIA's RAM-only server architecture also helps ensure user privacy because data is theoretically never stored on a hard disk and is completely wiped whenever the server is turned off or rebooted. 

In terms of privacy and transparency, PIA is nearly on the same level as ExpressVPN. While ExpressVPN isn't open source and doesn't publish transparency reports in the traditional sense, it has an extensive Trust Center that thoroughly dives into all of its transparency initiatives, including each of the 12 independent security audits it completed in 2022. PIA told CNET that it's working on expanding its transparency reporting efforts, so hopefully, we'll start seeing a regular cadence with PIA's third-party audit reports in the future.   

If you're looking for a speedy VPN, PIA does fairly well. It's not the fastest VPN we've tested, but its 24% speed loss is still respectable and good for third place behind NordVPN (10% speed loss) and ExpressVPN (18% speed loss). Considering that most VPNs will cut your regular internet speeds by 50% or more, PIA's speeds trend toward the faster end of the spectrum and are fast enough for just about any online activity. 

While PIA does most things well, it struggles in a few areas, particularly related to streaming. We had trouble unblocking certain streaming services on both desktops and through its Amazon Fire TV Stick app. OpenVPN connections through the Fire TV Stick app never successfully unblocked content during our testing (although WireGuard connections were successful). PIA's split tunneling feature may conflict with certain services on your Windows machine and fail to work properly, so if you're looking to PIA to unblock all of your streaming objectives, you may be left disappointed. Other top VPNs like ExpressVPN, Surfshark and NordVPN performed far better during CNET's streaming tests, especially on Amazon's Fire TV Stick.

If you're on a strict budget but need a privacy-focused VPN that can handle most of what you'd want to accomplish online, PIA is still a solid choice. It's one of the cheapest VPNs,  available at $40 a year, $12 a month or $79 every three years. That makes it the most budget-friendly VPN in CNET's list of the best VPNs -- even cheaper than Surfshark, CNET's Editors' Choice best value VPN. While PIA doesn't quite stack up to Surfshark in terms of features and performance, it's a good alternative for people who are looking for a low-cost VPN. Each PIA subscription plan comes with a 30-day money-back guarantee, in case you decide within 30 days that the service isn't for you.       

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See Price at IPVanish

Best Beginner VPN

IPVanish

Simple, newbie-friendly interface

Savings 66% off with 12-mo plan
Pros
  • Unlimited simultaneous connections
  • Simple, user-friendly interface
  • 24/7 customer support with live chat and phone support
Cons
  • IPVanish identified during DNS leak tests
  • US jurisdiction
  • Buggy features with platform limitations
Price $12 a month or $54 for the first year (then $90 annually)
Latest tests No leaks detected, 26% speed loss in 2023 tests
Network 2,000-plus servers in 75-plus locations across 52 countries
Jurisdiction United States

A big win for IPVanish is its fun, configurable interface, which makes it an ideal client for those who are interested in learning how to understand what a VPN does under the hood. 

If you're looking for the ability to do some precision tuning to your VPN connection, IPVanish is a solid bet. With a bevy of switches controlling things like the kill switch, split tunneling, VPN protocol and LAN connection allowance, IPVanish is an app for the methodical tech tweaker who enjoys having exact control over their mobile internet traffic. 

IPVanish has long been geared toward peer-to-peer traffic and is a solid choice for torrenters who are looking for a VPN that comes with a SOCKS5 proxy. 

With its newly redesigned apps for Windows and Android, IPVanish manages to pack the same extensive suite of digital knobs and dials into a refreshingly clean mobile interface to impressive effect. 

Its multiplatform flexibility is also ideal for people focused on finding a Netflix-friendly VPN. 

The 26% speed loss we measured through IPVanish in our most recent speed tests is a significant improvement over the 58% speed loss we measured in 2022. We noticed that IPVanish's Quick Connect feature still doesn't always connect you to the best available server, so if you want to optimize your speeds, you may need to connect manually to a server showing a lighter load by selecting the Locations option in the app.

Charging $11 for its monthly plan, IPVanish is trying to move you toward its yearly program, which costs $48 for the first year, but then jumps to $90 for subsequent years of service. The provider offers a 30-day money-back guarantee, but only if you purchase the yearly plan -- which could be a disappointment to anyone who purchased a monthly subscription and decided they didn't like it.

That said, the company gets kudos for allowing unlimited simultaneous connections. We also liked its connection kill-switch feature, a must for anyone serious about protecting their privacy while surfing.

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What is the best VPN in 2024?

ExpressVPN holds CNET Editors' Choice Award for best overall VPN. It’s a tight race among our top three choices, but ExpressVPN’s service sets the bar when it comes to privacy and usability, making it the best of the best with an 8.9/10 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. 

Surfshark is a close second among our picks and is a great choice for people looking for good features on a budget. Surfshark scored an 8.7/10 rating in our hands-on testing. It offers connection speeds and features that are comparable to ExpressVPN and NordVPN at an annual rate that is considerably cheaper ($60 per year after the promotional period vs. $100 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. That said, it doesn’t quite match ExpressVPN’s commitment to privacy, which makes it less suited for users with critical privacy needs.

NordVPN is an excellent VPN provider overflowing with features. 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 and which don’t. Most people won’t need all of those features, but they’re a nice inclusion for power users. Overall, NordVPN offers a high-performing service with excellent features for power users, but it trails ExpressVPN on privacy and Surfshark on value.

Each VPN service in the list below 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.

What is a VPN?

A VPN, or virtual private network, is an online service that provides a mobile app, desktop app, browser extension or other software that encrypts your internet traffic to help boost your privacy online. A VPN also prevents your internet service provider (ISP) from tracking which websites or apps you're using. Accordingly, VPNs may circumvent throttling restrictions, thereby boosting an internet connection being slowed down by your ISP. Likewise, VPNs allow you to bypass regional content blocks in some countries to access critical news and educational information, while also opening up your streaming entertainment option. For instance, you can use different VPN servers to watch foreign Netflix or Disney Plus libraries. The best VPN delivers a strong level of privacy protection without compromising on performance. We strongly recommend using a good VPN for everyday use as well as for work, particularly if your job involves handling sensitive information. 

At CNET, we rigorously test each virtual private network across major platforms to find the ones that provide exceptional privacy, reliability, speed and value. Our hands-on assessments include hundreds of internet speed tests, comprehensive app usage, poring over privacy policies and streaming from popular services such as Netflix. 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 from the ground up, and we're continuing that process with ExpressVPN, NordVPN and Private Internet Access next.

Factors to consider in a VPN

Internet speed

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. The fastest VPNs feature an average download speed loss of 20% or less. Generally, even folks with slower connections -- like satellite internet -- won’t notice a marginal 20% dip. For bandwidth-intensive applications like gaming, 4K video streaming or uploading large files, you’ll want a virtual private network with minimal speed loss. Casual users with faster internet speeds should be fine with more than 20% speed loss, but we look for VPNs that keep speed loss below 50%.

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, a strict no-logging policy and DNS leak protection. Because logging is tough to verify -- you can and should be skeptical of your VPN provider’s zero-log claims -- look for regular third-party audits. 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 14 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 works 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.

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 (GUI) application may be easier for Linux users than a command line interface (CLI) option. Surfshark, Proton and PIA boast Linux GUI apps. 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. NordVPN is restrictive at six, ExpressVPN follows with eight, and Proton gives you 10. Surfshark, PIA and IPVanish are unlimited. Even with a provider like Nord, Express or Proton, you can still install a VPN on as many devices as you wish, but you’ll be able to have only a handful of active sessions at once. Most folks should be fine even with six 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 the course of 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. However, 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 often can renew while avoiding raised renewal rates by taking advantage of seasonal discounts like Black Friday/Cyber Monday deals. 

How we test VPNs

To assess the top VPNs on the market, we performed comprehensive hands-on testing of dozens of virtual private networks and rated them according to their performance on speed, features, privacy, value and usability. For each service, we ran more than 250 internet speed tests across multiple VPN protocols, then calculated the average internet speed loss to determine connection reliability. Our VPN experts tried apps across a bevy of platforms including Windows, MacOS, Linux, Android/Android TV, iOS/iPadOS, Apple TV and web browsers to assess features as well as general usability. We streamed hours of videos from services including Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Disney Plus to discover geo-restricted content unblocking capabilities. During our testing process, we analyzed pricing information to uncover the short- and long-term value of VPNs. We also pored over privacy policies, checked for DNS leaks and used various features like kill switches to ensure correct functionality.

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.

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 -- but those are all key components to its ability to achieve the blazing speeds it delivered during its most recent speed tests.

It's the second-fastest VPN I've tested, 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 ExpressVPN down to third place with a 51.8% speed loss at the last measurement. Speed losses on UK connections were under 8%. Gaming, torrenting, browsing, streaming -- these speed-dependent services won't be slowed down for Hotspot Shield users.

We're not excited about Hotspot's privacy and security, though. 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 -- 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 Faster, More Private Competitors

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

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 $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 is still faster than Norton Secure VPN and was 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

Quick Take

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. Its 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

Quick Take

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

Mullvad's primary focus is on security. Like most other top VPN providers, Mullvad employs industry-standard AES 256-bit encryption to secure users' connections. Mullvad's kill switch feature and DNS leak protection are enabled by default and cannot 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 is, for the most part, 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 signup. 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. Although Mullvad tells us a new security audit is forthcoming, the company's 2020 security audit (conducted by German cybersecurity firm Cure53) concluded at the time that the VPN "does a great job protecting the end user from common PII leaks and privacy-related risks."

With servers in 68 locations across 38 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. And what its network may lack in size, it makes up for in speed. In our latest round of speed testing, we measured just a 23% drop in average speeds (most VPNs will slow you down 50% or more), easily making it one of the fastest VPNs we've tested. Though Mullvad's speeds are fantastic, it's not the best for geographically restricted content. We were able to access Netflix without any issues but were denied access to stream Disney-plus when connected to Mullvad's US servers.

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

Quick Take
  • Number of servers: 840
  • Server location: 68 locations in 38 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.

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.

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're continually improving our methodology as we learn more.

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. And 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. 

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.

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:

Don't use free VPN services: With the exception of 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.)

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.

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, 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.

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. 

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, though: VPNs are legal in most places, but engaging in illegal activity online is still illegal regardless of whether you're using a VPN.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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, however, 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.