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How to pick the right VPN now that you're working from home

Your guide to online privacy at your office away from the office.

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.
Rae Hodge
6 min read
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It's nearly complete. You've transformed a corner of your house into your new coronavirus-proof home office, you've selected the perfect ergonomic rolling chair and eyestrain-preventive lighting, and now you've decided to shore up the privacy of your home internet -- effectively now your workplace internet -- with a steadfast virtual private network

Whether you're searching for a VPN that will shield sensitive work activity from nosy internet service providers, help you dodge data-snooping websites, or one that'll let you watch Netflix catalogs from different countries -- there are dozens of VPNs to choose from, often with steep price tags, all of which claim to be the best. 

Here's how to find the right VPN to fit your particular workspace and avoid getting ripped off. 

Get the guarantee 

A 30-day money back guarantee -- rather than just a seven-day free trial -- is the first thing you want to look for if you're new to VPNs. A reputable refund policy takes the sting out of spending a few hundred dollars on the wrong choice. You'll also want to properly test drive the service at different times of the week to make sure its speeds and flexibility hold up to your expectations. That's why our VPN reviews are quick to point out which services offer it.

Beware, though. Some VPNs offer refund policies upfront, only to offer limited or no customer service support when you try to get your money back. We recommend checking for 24/7 chat support and sending a couple of test emails. We've taken customer service and responsiveness into consideration for all of our VPN recommendations

To get into the weeds about how we spot a quality VPN service, you can also check out our run-down on some green flags to watch for

Read more: All the VPN terms you need to know

How many devices do you need to connect?

At the purchase page of any VPN's website, you're likely to see a number and the words "simultaneous connections." All it means is the number of devices you can have connected to the VPN simultaneously at any given time. If you and your household are each using a laptop, a tablet, and a phone -- and you want them all to use the same VPN -- you'll need to make sure the service you choose is generous with the number of devices it supports. 

Each VPN offers a different number of simultaneous connections. For instance, while competitive industry leader ExpressVPN (see plans) offers five simultaneous connections, up-and-comer Surfshark (see plans) offers unlimited connections. Each has a different suite of features, though, which are worth weighing against your own needs and wallet. 

Likewise, if you use a phone to manage any of your work, you'll want to make sure the VPN you're using has a well-functioning mobile app that's compatible with your phone. If you've never used a VPN on your phone, don't worry: It's as easy as installing nearly any other app, and we've got a 10-minute walkthrough for both iOS and Android users

If you're looking to stay secure while spending more time with your home entertainment, keep an eye out for VPNs offering gaming console support. We've also got a walkthrough available for you on how to set up a VPN on your Xbox.

Read more: Surfshark vs. ExpressVPN: VPN speed, security and price compared

Ignore the empty promises

Some VPNs deceptively position themselves as a solution against malware and viruses -- and there are a number of coronavirus-related online scams out there now, too -- but there are some things a VPN just can't protect you from. 

If you're new to this technology, it helps to think of VPNs like cars. Driving around the internet with the best VPN ever made would be like taking the American backroads in a totally unassuming 10-year-old silver Honda Accord, sporting blackout windows, plates that automatically match whatever place you're driving through, all while secretly packing a 376-cubic-inch, 6.2-liter Supercharged Hemi V-8 engine. 

You'd be unsuspicious, anonymized and fast enough to give yourself a wind-blown facelift. But it's still just a car -- it can't stop you from driving to dangerous places. VPNs likewise protect your privacy during transit from one site to the next, but when you arrive at your destination website, it's up to you to stay safe. 

Opened a phishing email? Downloaded a malware-laden attachment? Hit by a preinstalled keylogger? VPNs can't save you there.

Uploading and downloading work files can also present a point of possible vulnerability. Make sure you're using a file transfer service with solid security features to share sensitive information remotely. If you're not sure where to start, we've put together an absolute beginner's guide to five basic file transfer services

Red flags: Free VPNs and more 

There are a few easily spotted red flags to keep an eye out for while VPN shopping

The biggest red flag is a free VPN. There's no such thing as a free lunch. Maintaining the hardware and expertise needed for large VPN networks isn't cheap. As a VPN customer, you either pay for a premium service with your dollars, or you pay for free services with your usage data when it's collected by the free VPN provider and bargained away to advertisers or malicious actors.

As recently as August 2019, 90% of apps flagged as potentially unsafe in Top10VPN's investigation into free VPN ownership still posed a privacy risk to users. Free VPNs can also leave you open to quiet malware installation, pop-up ad barrages and brutally slow internet speeds.

When considering mobile VPNs, it's a good idea to keep an eye out for the number of permissions any VPN apps request. Just because a virtual private network app is shielding your mobile browsing from prying eyes, it doesn't mean it needs to slurp up your data or control your operating system. So before you trust that highly-rated VPN with a million installs on the Google Play Store, know that there's a list of shady Android VPNs that grab more permissions than they actually need, putting your privacy at risk. 

Also bear in mind there are some services out there that call themselves VPNs but are actually browser-based proxy services, a totally different animal.

Where desktop and mobile VPNs protect the anonymity of your whole device -- all internet activity in your browsers, file-sharing apps and email clients -- browser-based proxies just anonymize what happens in your browser. They're less secure and less private, but far faster. 


Need uncompromising speed and off-shore-bank-account levels of privacy? Virgin Islands-based ExpressVPN ran circles around other VPNs I speed-tested. Surfshark (also Virgin Islands-based) got closer to catching ExpressVPN than any other, normally costs less and has unlimited connections. 

Is reliability the key factor? I've taken to calling Panama-based NordVPN (see plans) "Old Faithful," as it's had the steadiest performance of any VPN I've tested so far and I've never seen it drop out during a stress test. 

Whatever your priority, you've now got four easy steps to getting it right: Make sure you can get a refund, know how many devices you need, don't let a VPN promise you the moon, and never trust a freebie.

A good place to start your search is our list of the best VPNs in 2020. I've been updating that document for the past few months and will continue to do so through the year as we test more services across the market. 

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