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Best VPN Service of 2022: Top Picks by Our VPN Experts

The most highly rated VPNs for private streaming, gaming and torrenting.

The title of "best VPN" is something we here at CNET take very seriously. To earn that particular accolade, a VPN must meet exceptionally high standards of privacy, speed and utility, while being completely transparent about its operations. And to retain that crown, it must maintain those high standards. As of this most recent update, the current rankings on this list remain accurate and up-to-date. ExpressVPN is currently our Editors' Choice for best VPN. However, the industry has been rapidly evolving and consolidating. In light of those changes, we've recently updated our ExpressVPN and NordVPN reviews, and we're working on a fully updated Surfshark review that's coming soon.  


If you want to keep your browsing habits under wraps and stay private online, a VPN is essential. Here's how it works: A VPN, short for "virtual private network," encrypts the connection between your device and the internet, safeguarding not just your browsing traffic but all the data that comes from your device and goes to the internet. This encrypted connection will stop your internet service provider from seeing which sites you're browsing, and prevent the sites you're visiting -- unless you're logged into them -- from knowing where you are located.

A VPN will give you an extra layer of security on public Wi-Fi networks as well, which is especially critical if you ever send or receive sensitive information over the internet. The best VPN helps you evade ISP throttling and boosts your personal safety by making it harder for private and public entities to see your search and browsing history. And with football season now underway, it's a good time to note that VPNs can also be used to circumvent league blackouts and geographic restrictions. A VPN service lets you bypass content blocks, thereby opening up your streaming options. 

What's the best VPN in 2022?

  • ExpressVPN received a CNET Editors' Choice Award for best overall VPN. We evaluate VPNs based on their overall performance in three main categories: speed, security and price. Express isn't the cheapest, but it's among the fastest and, so far, is the most secure. 
  • Surfshark, with its lower price, is a close second among our picks, thanks to its impressive performance and unlimited devices.
  • NordVPN, our third choice, is a die-hard heavy hitter. It costs more than Surfshark but less than Express, has an enormous network that's constantly getting faster and more secure and is easily the most reliable service we've tested.

Over the past several years, a flood of VPN providers has entered the marketplace, and that comes with both benefits and drawbacks. On one hand, the array of affordable VPN options now available means that -- no matter how critical or casual your privacy needs -- there's a VPN service suited to your purpose. But it also means consumers have to wade through even more VPN advertising hype.

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'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 geoblocked 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. 

The best VPN in 2022

Let's look at each of our VPN vendors below in more depth. Keep in mind that this list is constantly being updated. We're actively working on more VPN testing and research, so expect this guide to change throughout the year as we put each VPN through its paces.

The list below presents our favorites overall in 2022 so far. We'll call out when specific traits make for a better choice in a more narrow evaluation.

ExpressVPN

 ExpressVPN is currently the fastest VPN we've tested in 2022, causing us to lose less than 2% of our total internet speeds. Its apps for iOS and Android are designed with a streamlined approach aimed at connecting fast without a fuss. A single button on its landing screen directs you to connect quickly, with the only accompanying option a drop-down server location selector with your fastest nearby city selected by default. 

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 an 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 94 countries. ExpressVPN's best plan offers five 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.

Read our ExpressVPN review.

 

ExpressVPN
  • Competitive speeds
  • Solid security suite
  • Company is based in privacy-friendly jurisdiction
49% off with 12-mo plan (+3 free months)
Surfshark

While Surfshark's network is smaller than some, the VPN service makes up for that on features and speed. Surfshark and NordVPN announced a merger in February, continuing a trend of consolidation in the VPN industry. And although they're now sister companies, each VPN runs a separate network.

Let's start off with the biggest feature it offers: unlimited device support. If you want to run your entire home or office on Surfshark's VPN, you don't have to worry about how many devices you have on or connected. It also offers anti-malware, ad-blocking and tracker-blocking as part of its software.

And it's fast. With more than 3,200 servers in 65 countries, we lost less than 17% of average internet speed during our most recent speed tests. That's faster than the 27% speed loss we saw in previous tests, and pushes it ahead of ExpressVPN to be the current front-runner in our speed comparisons.

100% of those servers are optimized for torrenting. And while it's not the best VPN for torrenting (port forwarding is limited), Surfshark's obfuscation and automatic killswitch still make it competitive for peer-to-peer sharing.

Surfshark received generally high marks when its Chrome and Firefox extensions were audited for privacy by German security firm Cure 53 (PDF link of full report), though that audit was commissioned by Surfshark.

The company has a solid range of app support, running on Mac, Windows, iOS, Android, Fire TV and routers. Additional devices such as game consoles can be configured for Surfshark via DNS settings. We particularly like the feature that allows you to whitelist certain apps and websites to automatically bypass the VPN. For some business uses, this can be critically important. 

Surfshark also offers three special modes designed for those who want to get around restrictions and more carefully hide their online footsteps. Camouflage Mode masks your VPN activity so your ISP doesn't know you're using a VPN. Multihop jumps your connection through multiple countries to hide your trail. Finally, NoBorders Mode "allows [you] to successfully use Surfshark in restrictive regions." Just be careful. Doing any of these three things could be illegal in your country and could result in severe penalties. During our testing, we didn't see a single IP address or DNS leak, and had no trouble accessing Netflix. 

Surfshark's cheapest introductory offer is currently $2.21 a month for its two-year plan. With that plan, you lock in for an initial term of 26 months at $60, but the subscription then renews annually at that same $60 rate. But given how rapidly things are changing in the VPN industry, we discourage people from locking in with a single provider for more than a year at a time. So if you don't want to commit to that initial 26-month term, you can get a 12-month plan for $4 a month, or about $48 for the first year. That plan also then renews at $60 for any subsequent years of service. The month-by-month plan doesn't include any discount and is priced at $13 a month. Definitely take advantage of its generous 30-day trial to decide if you like this service (and if you choose the two-year plan, maybe set a reminder in 23 months to see if you can talk Surfshark into a continued discount rate).

Read our Surfshark VPN review.

 

Surfshark VPN
  • Market-leading speeds
  • Doorbuster pricing
  • Multihop VPN
$2.30/mo + 2 months free (2 year plan)
NordVPN
  • Among the fastest VPNs, with only 13% speed loss
  • Number of servers: 5,200-plus servers in 62 countries
  • Apps: Windows, MacOS, Linux, Android, iOS, Android TV, Fire TV
  • Country/jurisdiction: Panama
  • $3.69 a month for a two-year plan

NordVPN is one of the most recognized brands in the VPN field. It offers a generous simultaneous connection count, with six simultaneous connections through its network, where nearly all other providers offer five or fewer. NordVPN also offers a dedicated IP option, for those looking for a different level of VPN connection, and the ability to VPN into Tor. More than half of Nord's 5,000-plus server fleet is optimized for peer-to-peer sharing, though Nord has blocked torrenting in 14 countries.

In our latest test rounds we noticed a few hiccups in Nord's killswitch when using its iOS app, which could be a concern for torrenters. However, Nord has a sideloaded iOS available on its website that it recommends for users. In our most recent speed tests, NordVPN's performance recovered from middling speed scores of 2021 and zoomed back into the ranks of the fastest VPNs we've tested, causing us to lose just 13% of base internet speeds. 

NordVPN doesn't accept PayPal payments, but you can purchase a subscription with any major credit or debit card, AmazonPay, Google Pay or ACH transfer. If you'd rather pay anonymously, you can pay with a variety of cryptocurrencies including Bitcoin, Ethereum, Tether and Dogecoin. NordVPN has also partnered with a handful of retail stores like Staples, BestBuy and Walmart where you can even purchase your VPN with cash.

Read our NordVPN review.

 

NordVPN
  • Reliable, competitive speeds
  • RAM-disk servers
  • Feature-rich software
62% off with 24-mo plan
ProtonVPN

When we speed-tested ProtonVPN, we saw an impressively small 9.6% speed loss compared with average speeds clocked without a VPN. This makes it one of the fastest VPNs we've ever tested. Even more impressive is Proton's ability to reach those speeds despite a relatively small fleet of 1,759 servers in 63 countries. We are in the process of refining our speed testing methodology and plan to publish new speed testing results across the board in the coming months. 

Proton is a solid choice for torrenting thanks to its peer-to-peer traffic encryption and reliable killswitch, but torrenters should take note: Proton has far fewer peer-to-peer friendly servers than other VPNs on this list, and Proton's free version doesn't support torrenting traffic to the same degree. 

Though not quite as expensive as ExpressVPN, Proton costs more than some of the other VPNs we've reviewed. Even so, ProtonVPN's high security standards and legacy of transparency may make this VPN option worth the price. The two-year plan is priced at $120 every two years. But if you understandably don't want to commit to a long-term subscription plan, you can get the yearly plan for $72 per year or the monthly plan for $10 a month, which is cheaper than most VPN providers' monthly plans. ProtonVPN also offers a decent free plan. The free plan is limited to three server locations (US, NL, JP) and just one concurrent connection -- and runs slower than its premium counterpart -- but it isn't limited in terms of monthly data caps like those imposed by other free VPNs.

Along with its options to send your traffic through a secure bunker of private servers, we love ProtonVPN's transparency policies: It's completely open-source with routinely published audits, and includes a built-in route to VPN into Tor servers. We're also confident in recommending its mobile app since it has eliminated the use of weaker security protocols, like PPTP and L2TP, that are used by some VPNs. 

Read our ProtonVPN review.

 

ProtonVPN
  • Strong reputation of parent company
  • Multihop and split tunneling
  • Open-source
40% off with 12-mo plan
IPVanish

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. 

While IPVanish isn't the fastest VPN, the 58% speed loss we measured in our most recent speed tests is about on par with most VPN providers. However, we noticed that IPVanish's Quick Connect feature doesn't always connect you to the best available server, so you may need to optimize your speeds by connecting manually to a server showing a lighter load by selecting the Locations option in the client.

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.

Read our IPVanish review.

 

IPVanish
  • Competitive speeds
  • Interface encourages learning
  • Unlimited simultaneous connections
63% off with 12-mo plan

Other VPNs we've tested

Not every VPN can be a favorite. These are 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
HotSpot Shield

Hotspot Shield

  • 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

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 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 uses 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. And 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


tunnelbear-logo
TunnelBear

TunnelBear

TunnelBear's gotten a lot of hype in the last couple of years. But 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, though, 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.

However, 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 up front for a single year. Either way, TunnelBear accepts payment via credit card and bitcoin. Unlike other VPNs, it doesn't take PayPal. Also unlike other VPNs, 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


cg-22-1
CyberGhost

CyberGhost VPN

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 $2.29 per month for a three-year plan.

As we've bolstered our approach to VPN reviews, however, 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, however, 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


logo-norton-360-with-lifelock
Norton

Norton Secure VPN

NortonLifeLock, 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 midtier 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


Mullvad VPN logo
Mullvad

Mullvad

  • Number of servers: 840
  • Server location: 68 locations in 38 countries
  • Number of simultaneous connections: 5
  • Jurisdiction: Sweden
  • Price: $5 a month

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. Though 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.

However, 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


Other VPNs in the mix

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


purelogo
PureVPN

PureVPN

 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.


strongvpn-logo-1
StrongVPN

StrongVPN

 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 yearly price of $70 is among the lowest of our contenders.


private-internet-access-ad-300x250
Private Internet Access

Private Internet Access

  • Number of server locations: 84 countries
  • Country/jurisdiction: US
  • Simultaneous connections: 10
  • Price: $3.33 per month for the yearly plan

If you're looking for one of the least expensive VPN providers, Private Internet Access fits the bill.

The key to getting the most savings with the Private Internet Access VPN is buying a three-year plan for $79. That works out to $2.03 a month. But if you don't want to lock in for an extended period of time, you can get a one-year subscription for $40 (which comes out to $3.33 a month) or a monthly plan for $12 a month.

PIA has quite an expansive network of servers, spanning 84 countries, including servers in 18 different US cities. Though not as expansive as the fleets for ExpressVPN or CyberGhost VPN, the 84 countries gives PIA one of the largest server networks you'll find in a VPN provider.

Operating since 2010, Private Internet Access offers 10 simultaneous connections, a kill-switch feature and a 30-day refund period.


VPN FAQ 

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.

What is a VPN?

A commercial virtual private network is technology that allows you to create a private connection over a less private network by creating an encrypted tunnel between your computer and the internet. You can install a VPN just like you would any other app or program on your smartphone or computer. A VPN can let you get around censorship in your country or access georestricted media content from another country -- and prevents your internet service provider from being able to intrude on your privacy by snooping on your web browsing. VPNs do this by allowing you to appear as though you're connecting from a different location or country. 

A VPN is great for anyone using public, unprotected Wi-Fi, such as what's offered in airports, bars or coffee shops. Your VPN protects your sensitive information -- from your work projects to bank account login information -- from being seen by malicious actors who trawl public Wi-Fi networks. When you browse the internet while on a VPN, your computer will contact the website through your VPN's encrypted connection. The VPN will then forward the request for you and forward the response from the website back through its secure connection.

For more beginner-focused VPN help, we've demystified some of the jargon in our guide to all the VPN terms you need to know.

How do I choose the right VPN for me?

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. But 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.

Should I be worried about consolidation in the VPN industry?

The recent trend of consolidation in the VPN industry isn't showing signs of slowing down. We saw the latest example of this trend in February when NordVPN and Surfshark announced they were merging. As of right now, just three companies control many of the biggest VPN providers, including some of CNET's top picks listed in this guide. 

There are several legitimate concerns about VPN consolidation. First, the general lack of transparency in VPN ownership structures is typically bad for users. In the VPN industry, where privacy and security are so critical, ownership transparency is equally imperative. When you sign on with a VPN and trust it with protecting your privacy online, you'll want to know exactly what corporate entity is in control of the service, if and how your data is shared and secured within the larger organization and in what jurisdiction your data is stored. Too often, the picture isn't as clear as it should be. Consolidation also dilutes competition in an industry, ultimately leading to higher costs for the customer and less incentive for companies to improve services.

The VPN services involved in these mergers and acquisitions insist they will all operate independently and will not share user data between entities. However, Surfshark's communications head told CNET the company has no plans of sharing information "without notifying our customers in advance," suggesting the door may indeed still be open for future data sharing. It's too early to tell yet what the long-term implications will be here, but we're keeping a close eye on the developing situation in the industry and will update our reviews accordingly. 

Our top picks remain safe to use in the meantime, but it's still a good idea to do research on what other products or other services are under the same parent company umbrella. The more you know, the more you stay in control of your digital privacy.

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's the best free VPN?

None of them. Seriously. While there are plenty of excellent free security and privacy apps online -- and while CNET is always hunting for the best freebies -- VPNs sadly aren't among them. Because they require major physical infrastructure and hardware, safe and reliable VPNs cost companies a lot of money to operate and secure. As a result, free VPNs are almost always malware-laden data snoops. The exceptions are those VPNs, like ProtonVPN, which offer free (often speed-limited) service tiers beside their premium tiers. The other option we recommend for people who can't afford a VPN but need online privacy is to temporarily test-drive our secure recommendations and take advantage of their cancellation periods and money-back guarantees. But there's good news: The burgeoning VPN market is hypercompetitive right now, so prices for even the best VPNs regularly drop to less than $15 a month, with some offering annual deals around $40. Check out our quick list of budget-savvy VPNs to find one in your price range.

Does everything I use need a VPN?

If your goal is to protect your personal data from prying eyes, you want a VPN on whatever you are using. That means having a VPN to protect your laptop, your MacBook, your phone, your Xbox and your smart TV

If your goal is to use a VPN to gain access to streaming services which have been made unavailable in your country for whatever reason, you want a VPN on whatever device you are using to access those streaming services. This could be as simple as a VPN for your Chrome browser or setting up a VPN for your Amazon Fire TV Stick

Whatever your reason for wanting a VPN, it's usually a good idea to have it set up and ready to go on as many of your web-connected devices as possible.

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, however, that most mobile VPN clients will use a lighter form of encryption than a desktop client to achieve those smartphone speeds. So 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. 

However, 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. 

But 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.

What's the best VPN 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. There are a few other factors worth considering for a home office VPN, though, so check out our guide to picking the right VPN for working at home.

What's the best VPN for gaming?

Most VPNs are chosen based on having a good balance of speed, security and cost. But if you want a VPN specifically to connect to game servers in another country, speed is everything. Free VPNs won't be fast enough, but, fortunately, high-end security won't be a cost driver, which gives you more options at modest prices. Since all VPNs reduce speed -- most by half or more -- that means picking one from the set that performed best in our speed tests. In tests, Surfshark managed to win our speed race while still being one of the least expensive VPNs we've seen. If you're focused on VPNs for game consoles, have a 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. 

What's the most secure VPN for privacy?

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). You may find our primer on VPN evaluations useful. Although speed does play a factor in our rankings, our top three VPNs were all selected by veteran journalists, scrutinized and reviewed with complete editorial independence, with the most privacy-sensitive professions in mind.

How do I use a VPN for Netflix?

If you live in a country that censors its media or are traveling to one, georestricted 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 being 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. However, 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.

Additional tips for VPN consideration

Don't use free VPN services: 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. But 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 precaution 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" as a way to passively note to the public as to whether or not they've been subpoenaed by a government entity, as many investigations from national security agencies can't be actively disclosed by law. But -- 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 want to avoid countries that the US has intelligence-sharing agreements with, too.)

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