Article updated on March 4, 2024 at 5:15 AM PST

Best VPN Service 2024: VPNs Tested by Our Experts

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

Our Experts

Written by 
Attila Tomaschek,
Rae Hodge
Our expert, award-winning staff selects the products we cover and rigorously researches and tests our top picks. If you buy through our links, we may get a commission. Reviews ethics statement
Attila Tomaschek
Attila is a Staff Writer for CNET, covering software, apps and services with a focus on virtual private networks. He is an advocate for digital privacy and has been quoted in online publications like Computer Weekly, The Guardian, BBC News, HuffPost, Wired and TechRepublic. When not tapping away on his laptop, Attila enjoys spending time with his family, reading and collecting guitars.
Expertise Attila has nearly a decade's worth of experience with VPNs and has been covering them for CNET since 2021. As CNET's VPN expert, Attila rigorously tests VPNs and offers readers advice on how they can use the technology to protect their privacy online and
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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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 currently CNET’s pick for the best VPN overall, scoring an 8.8/10 on our VPN rating scale. It’s a veteran VPN provider that consistently demonstrates a strong commitment to privacy and transparency. It’s also excellent for streaming and the easiest VPN app to use on any platform. But for the best, you’ll need to pay a premium -- ExpressVPN is one of the most expensive VPN providers currently on the market. The service costs $13 a month, $60 every six months or $100 a year, which is considerably more expensive than the $11 a month or $60 a year that Surfshark charges. NordVPN is more in line with ExpressVPN on price at $13 a month or $100 annually (after a promotional $60 price for the first year).

Though fast enough for most any online activity, ExpressVPN’s speeds are not quite as fast as some of its competitors, based on our latest speed tests. In 2024, we measured a 24.875% average speed loss with ExpressVPN. This is still fast, considering that many VPNs can slash your internet speeds by 50% or more. However, we saw substantially better speeds from NordVPN (11% speed loss) and Surfshark (17% speed loss). Still, ExpressVPN’s speeds were largely consistent and aligned with our expectations across protocols and server locations. Overall, we registered the fastest speeds through ExpressVPN’s proprietary Lightway protocol on MacOS (7% speed loss). On the other end of the spectrum, the slowest speeds we measured were through OpenVPN on Windows, at a 48% speed loss. Overall, speeds were generally faster with relatively close server locations like New York and the UK, and slower to distant locations like Australia and Singapore. Either way, ExpressVPN’s speeds were still plenty fast enough for general browsing as well as for more data-intensive activities like streaming, gaming and videoconferencing -- especially if you use Lightway.

When we most recently evaluated ExpressVPN for privacy and security, we uncovered an alarming bug in its Windows app that sent our DNS requests to our ISP instead of to ExpressVPN’s dedicated DNS servers when we had the split tunneling feature enabled. This meant that our true IP address, general location and the websites we visited were exposed. We notified ExpressVPN, who immediately disabled split tunneling from its Windows app as a temporary solution while engineers got to work on a permanent fix. We were impressed with the transparency with which the company acknowledged the situation, promptly publishing a blog post and a comprehensive troubleshooting guide. Shortly thereafter, ExpressVPN was able to roll out a fix to its Windows app that resolved the DNS issue and reinstated the split tunneling feature. During our tests with the updated app, we detected no leaks with or without split tunneling enabled. 

The DNS leaks were concerning, but the decisive response from ExpressVPN was illustrative of the company’s commitment to transparency and user privacy. The company’s latest independent audit is slated to be published soon, building on its industry leading audit count. ExpressVPN says it collects no logs, a claim bolstered by a 2022 no-logs audit by KPMG. In addition to its transparency efforts, ExpressVPN’s privacy protections are top-notch and forward-thinking. The provider recently upgraded its proprietary open-source Lightway VPN protocol with Quantum Protection to help guard against future threats from quantum computers, along with encryption enhancements to better protect against threats like eavesdropping and man-in-the-middle attacks. And ExpressVPN’s TrustedServer technology elevates the protections of the traditional RAM-only server architecture by reinstalling the entire software stack with every reboot.   

In addition to offering excellent privacy protections, ExpressVPN delivers the most consistent and streamlined VPN app experiences across platforms. Its minimalist interface is simple to use, whether you’re an advanced VPN user or if you’ve never used one before. The app settings are easy to navigate and finding a server location is straightforward. We like how the app always connects in a snap, which isn’t always the case with other VPNs -- like Surfshark -- which often struggle to connect immediately on the first attempt. If you want the best for streaming, ExpressVPN is a good bet because it effortlessly unblocks all sorts of streaming content, including Netflix, Disney Plus, Hulu and Amazon Prime Video. The provider also recently bumped its simultaneous connection allowance up to eight, which is slightly more generous than NordVPN’s six simultaneous connections, but considerably less than the unlimited simultaneous connections allowed by others like Surfshark, PIA and IPVanish. If you’re not satisfied with the service, you can request your money back within 30 days of your purchase.

See Price at Surfshark

Best Cheap VPN

Surfshark

Extensive features at a great price

Savings $2.69/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. That's what helped Surfshark earn an 8.6 rating in CNET's evaluation.

Along with standard VPN features such as a kill switch and DNS leak protection, some of the more notable Surfshark features include camouflage mode (which hides the fact that you're using a VPN), split-tunneling, NoBorders mode (which lets you use Surfshark in regions where VPNs are restricted) and multihop VPN connections. You'll also get access to Surfshark's CleanWeb technology, which blocks ads and malware and helps you avoid phishing attacks. 

One innovation we like is Surfshark's Nexus network, which connects the VPN's entire network of servers together and allows you to choose multiple servers to route your connection through. 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. We also appreciate Surfshark's Linux graphical user interface (GUI) app, making Surfshark one of the best Linux VPNs -- for both beginners and seasoned users alike.

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. 

Since February 2022, Surfshark and NordVPN have had the same corporate parent, but Surfshark said it's 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.

See Price at NordVPN

Best VPN for speed

NordVPN

Pros
  • Reliable, competitive speeds
  • RAM-disk servers
  • Feature-rich software
Cons
  • Visual server map could use additional functions
  • Discounts steeper for longer contracts
  • Only six simultaneous connections allowed
Price 67% off + 3- month VPN coupon with every 2-year plan bought
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, scoring an 8.6/10, thanks to its best-in-class connection speeds, privacy-focused features and consistent geo-unblocking for streaming services. In our 2024 speed tests, NordVPN solidified itself as the fastest VPN, edging out both Surfshark and ExpressVPN with an average speed loss of just 11.1%. 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.

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 combination of 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 a year, which aligns with many other VPN providers, including Express.

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. Assuming you live in or travel to countries where Nord has a presence, it should work fine. Whereas other VPN providers including ExpressVPN and PIA allow file sharing across their entire server fleet, Nord limits you to select peer-to-peer servers. 

Its blisteringly fast internet speed throughput and large server network makes Nord a terrific choice for competitive gamers or entertainment enthusiasts needing the fastest possible speeds. Additionally, its robust suite of advanced tools including a Double VPN and Tor Over VPN make Nord a great option for users with critical privacy needs, like political activists or investigative journalists. We’d like more simultaneous connections -- six seems underwhelming as the lowest among the VPNs we’ve reviewed. Likewise, we’d appreciate more global server locations than its current 61 countries, which falls short of much of the competition. While some of Nord’s amenities such as Meshnet are admittedly overkill for the average person simply seeking additional privacy when browsing the web or a VPN for streaming, they’re nice-to-haves nonetheless. Overall, NordVPN sports advanced privacy features in an intuitive service. 

See Price at ProtonVPN

Open-Source VPN

ProtonVPN

The only free plan we recommend

Savings 64% off with 30-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. A Linux graphical user interface (GUI) app makes Proton a worthy choice for a Linux VPN.

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 it's really the only free VPN we've encountered that's worth using. It lacks support for torrenting and doesn't include all the bells and whistles as the paid tiers, but Proton VPN's free tier is secure and doesn't put limits on speed, data or usage time like most other free VPNs do. Free users get access to servers in five countries (Japan, the Netherlands, the US, Poland and Romania) and can connect one device at a time.

Proton VPN's paid plans cost $10 monthly, $72 per year or $120 every two years, and include access to servers in over 70 countries with support for 10 simultaneous connections. Paid plans also include a 30-day, money-back guarantee. Read our Proton VPN review.

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, or PIA, is one of the best cheap VPNs on the market. Its wallet-friendly pricing sets you back just $12 monthly, $40 annually or $79 for three years. By comparison, most VPNs like NordVPN and ExpressVPN typically charge $100 per year. While the value-packed Surfshark charges $48 for your first year, its price jumps to $60 after its initial sweet introductory pricing, whereas PIA foregoes price hikes for attractively transparent pricing. 

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

Its extensive network of 35,000 servers spread throughout 91 countries makes Private Internet Access great for travel. PIA offers nearly as many individual country locations as rivals like ExpressVPN (105) and Surfshark (100) while trouncing competitors Proton VPN (69), NordVPN (60), and IPVanish (52). We found that PIA unblocked Disney Plus, Netflix and Amazon Prime Video on both US and UK servers, making it a good VPN for streaming

Unfortunately, PIA delivered middling internet speeds in our testing with an average speed loss of 49%. All VPNs slow down your connection somewhat, with the fastest VPNs offering an average internet speed loss 20% or less. For instance, NordVPN -- the quickest VPN we benchmarked -- provided a best-in-class 11% reduction, while Surfshark clocked a solid 17%. Folks with faster internet connections like fiber shouldn’t notice a difference even with a higher speed loss, but PIA isn’t ideal for people with slower speeds like satellite internet users. Even a 50% speed loss with a 50Mbps connection is still enough for some bandwidth-intensive activities like 4K video streaming (Netflix recommends a minimum of 15Mbps). But with its decent features, pricing transparency and subscriptions that significantly undercut the competition, PIA remains a solid VPN that’s gentle on the pocketbook. Its relative affordability compared to VPN rivals makes PIA’s speed issues easy to overlook.

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 2023 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.

What is the best VPN in 2024?

ExpressVPN holds CNET Editors' Choice Award for best overall VPN. It’s a tight race between our top three choices, but ExpressVPN’s service excels when it comes to privacy and usability, making it the best of the best with an 8.8/10 rating. It offers unmatched transparency with a clear, user-focused privacy policy, and its Trusted Server technology goes a step beyond traditional RAM-only principles -- resulting in maximum peace of mind when it comes to your browsing data. Its Lightway protocol offers consistently fast speeds alongside post-quantum protection, cleanly blending together performance and security. And using ExpressVPN’s service is a breeze, reliably unblock 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 8.6/10 rating in CNET's evaluation. It offers connection speeds and features that are comparable to ExpressVPN and NordVPN at an annual rate that's considerably cheaper ($60 a year after 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 people with critical privacy needs.

NordVPN is an excellent VPN provider overflowing with features, scoring an 8.6/10. 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 we recommend has excellent value for a specific use case, and we point out the ideal user for each one. The array of options available means there's a VPN service suited to your needs, whether your privacy needs are casual or critical. Also, consider jumping on one of these VPN deals, which many of our top picks are offering.

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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 from tracking which websites or apps you're using and stops most of those websites and apps from seeing your actual geographic location, allowing you to bypass content blocks in some countries to access critical news and educational information, while also opening up your streaming entertainment options. 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 work 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. 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 SurfsharkExpressVPN, NordVPN and Private Internet Access from the ground up and we're continuing that process with Proton and IPVanish next.

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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 only be able to have 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

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. 

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CNET speed test data

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

Provider Avg. VPN speed (Mbps) Avg. non-VPN speed (Mbps) Speed loss

ExpressVPN

173

231

25%

Surfshark

153

193

17%

NordVPN

206

230

11%

Proton VPN

175.54

273.57

36%

IPVanish

250

342.25

26%

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How to choose the right VPN for you

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

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

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

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Additional VPN factors to consider

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.)

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Other VPNs we've tested

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Quick Take

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

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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

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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

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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.

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Quick Take

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

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

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

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Quick Take

VPN FAQs

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

Do I need a VPN?

What is the best free VPN?

What is a mobile VPN?

Are VPNs legal?

How do I use a VPN for Netflix?

How do I know if my VPN is working?

What is a remote-access VPN?

What is a site-to-site VPN?

What's the best VPN?