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NordVPN vs. ExpressVPN: How the two privacy titans stack up in 2021

Both popular VPNs offer competitive privacy protection. Here's how they compare side by side.

If you're getting ready to sign up for a monthly or yearly VPN subscription, you'll probably consider three key factors: security, speed and price. NordVPN and ExpressVPN are CNET's leading VPN competitors, in no small part thanks to their outstanding performance when we stress-tested their security and privacy promises.

Both NordVPN and ExpressVPN are based in countries with especially stringent privacy laws generally considered outside the reach of the US and its intelligence allies. Both are excellent for media torrenting and accessing your Netflix library when you're traveling out of the country. Both come with a kill switch security feature, which prevents data exposure in case your service cuts out. And both offer 24/7 live-chat and email customer service support. 

Since these two competitors are at the top of their field in the VPN industry this year, the best way to do a VPN comparison and pick the right one for you is to slice up their speed and price. Here's how the two privacy titans stack up in 2021.

NordVPN

This heavy-hitter stays on our list of best 2021 mobile VPNs for many reasons, including its status as the reigning champion of value. Hands-down, you aren't going to get a VPN service provider anywhere else that can do more than NordVPN does, as cheap as NordVPN does it. Despite a security breach reported in 2019, you'll be hard pressed to find another VPN company that can do what NordVPN does at all. 

Sure, NordVPN could offer a little more privacy if it boosted the number of servers it owns, but we're talking about 5,400-plus servers in 59 countries, a zero-log policy and a jurisdiction in Panama. It's an encryption powerhouse that recently switched to RAM-disk mode, and has a feature that allows you to VPN into Tor. It's available for not only iOS and Android, but also Windows Phone and even BlackBerry. 

In our most recent speed tests, NordVPN's performance was on par with many of its competitors, reducing our connection speed by 53% on average (which is slower than the 32% loss measured in a previous speed test). We found NordVPN's speeds were reliably fast. There were never any sudden dips or service interruptions, and where we expected the VPN to underperform, it proved itself up to the task. But despite having more servers, NordVPN just couldn't catch up to ExpressVPN when it came to speed. 

For all that, how much are you paying? The company's two-year subscription plan currently costs $3.67 a month ($99 billed at once). While that yearly price is lower than some other contenders, the month-to-month price of $12 is at the high end of the spectrum. The company also offers a one-year plan for $4.92 a month. And yes, NordVPN also has a full 30-day refund policy if a VPN user isn't happy with the service. 

While a two-year plan is a big commitment to make to any service provider in the privacy field, NordVPN has developed a reputation for offering fair refunds, and its two-year VPN subscription price beats ExpressVPN's best offer of about $7 a month for an annual package with three months free.

Read more: NordVPN review: Still the best value for security and speed

ExpressVPN

No matter how fast the service, a secure VPN will always slow your VPN connection speeds. Combine that with the sluggish internet speed of most public Wi-Fi (when you need your VPN the most), and speed moves to the forefront as a crucial feature for many VPN shoppers.

Enter ExpressVPN. Offering more than 3,000-plus servers in 160 locations and 94 countries, this British Virgin Islands-based VPN provider might have fewer servers than NordVPN, but they're in a greater number of countries. And they fly. In our most recent speed tests, ExpressVPN resulted in less than 52% overall loss of speed, narrowly edging ahead of NordVPN, with which we saw a 53% speed loss. 

Read moreSpecial report: A winning strategy for cybersecurity (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

ExpressVPN muscled its way ahead of the VPN pack last year and has been hard to beat ever since, offering outstanding speeds and a reputation for reliability and security. Its easy-to-navigate interface makes it an apt choice for newcomers just learning about VPNs, and its multiplatform compatibility expands its value to a wide base of consumers. These factors more than justify ExpressVPN's slightly higher-than-average prices, starting at about $7 a month (with three months free). It does offer a 30-day money-back guarantee, and you can pay with credit card, PayPal or Bitcoin.

ExpressVPN only offers five simultaneous connections compared to NordVPN's six, but it snagged a 4.5 out of 5 in our list of the best mobile VPN services for 2021 thanks in part to its wide hyper-flexible platform compatibility. Android, iOS, BlackBerry, Windows, Mac, Linux, PlayStation, Xbox -- if it's something you surf on, ExpressVPN is probably going to work with it. By contrast, NordVPN doesn't appear to have any gaming console apps. 

The best part? ExpressVPN's fast speeds don't require the kinds of privacy sacrifices you often see with other stress-tested, high-speed VPNs. While the British Virgin Islands is a UK territory, it isn't explicitly subject to UK data retention laws nor does it participate in intelligence-sharing agreements. Sure, its status as a UK territory gives us pause when considering the potential privacy exposure if political pressure is ever applied. But right now, we're feeling the island breeze.

Read moreExpressVPN review: A VPN speed leader with a secure reputation

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Originally published earlier and updated periodically.