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What to Look For in a VPN in 2021

A virtual private network, or VPN, is a service that allows you to connect to the internet through one of its own servers, effectively masking your IP address and adding some anonymity to your browsing. VPNs can serve all kinds of purposes. You can circumvent censorship, access another country’s Netflix library, or simply add an extra layer of security while on the internet.

The very best VPNs can do all of the above, but as with any product, some will do better at one job than others. On top of that, there are other things to consider, like usability, speed, and even the number of servers when looking to buy a VPN.

Most importantly, though, is the question of privacy and security. As new VPN providers are springing up right and left, it can be hard to figure out which ones are bonafide and which were brought into existence purely to steal your data—and there are plenty of untrustworthy VPNs out there.

We’ve gone over all our picks below, checking what they can and cannot do, as well as poring over their privacy policies with a fine-toothed comb. We’ve also done our due diligence to see if there have been any reports about breaches of trust. These are our top picks!

Best Overall VPN: ExpressVPN

expressvpn logo on grey background

Pros

  • Fast
  • Easy to use for everyone
  • Cracks Netflix's VPN blocks

Cons

  • Expensive

ExpressVPN is our best VPN overall. It offers everything you might need from a VPN and then some. It’s fast (so it only slows you down slightly) and easy to use. ExpressVPN’s interface is pretty much just one big button to switch it on and off, with one other button to access the server menu. Simple, easy, and effective.

More importantly, ExpressVPN does everything you need a VPN to actually do. It easily gets past the Netflix VPN block, as well as Amazon Prime and Hulu’s blockers. It’s also highly secure thanks to advanced encryption, meaning it’s a great option for circumventing Chinese censorship.

ExpressVPN is the go-to VPN for many of the How-To Geek team, and we’ve never had a problem with it over the years. The only real downside is that it’s one of the priciest VPNs on the market at $100 per year. It’s a steep price, but ExpressVPN is worth it, especially with the ability to connect up to five devices at the same time. It also comes with a 30-day money-back guarantee so that you can check it out at your leisure.

ExpressVPN is just awesome. It’s fast, user-friendly, secure, has a VPN kill switch, and streams everything.

Best Overall VPN

ExpressVPN

ExpressVPN is fast, easy to use, and has no problems accessing Netflix and other streaming services. It’s a little pricey, but it’s worth every penny.

Best Budget VPN: Surfshark

person using surfshark on laptop
Surfshark

Pros

  • Lower-priced compared to most VPNs
  • Okay for Netflix

Cons

  • Lowest price is only for the first two years
  • A bit slow

If $100 for our best overall pick sounds like too much, then there are plenty of options for much cheaper VPNs. NordVPN, for example, offers two years of service for $89 and Private Internet Access is even cheaper, offering one year of service for $40 per year, or $70 for two years.

But Surfshark has them both beat price-wise, costing just $60 for two years of service. However, that’s only for the first two years; after that, your billing goes to $60 per year. Still, it’s a pretty good deal, and Surfshark is a solid VPN for the price. Barring any Black Friday deals or other sales offers, it’s about the cheapest quality VPN you can get!

While Surfshark won’t be hitting high numbers in a speed test, it gets the job done. It’s decent for getting through to Netflix and comes with a nice interface. It also has some spiffy features—like NoBorders, which Surfshark claims can get you past any China-style blocks (though we recommend another VPN for that) as well as impressive server coverage in countries underserved by many other VPNs, like Nigeria and Kazakhstan.

Overall, there’s a lot to like about Surfshark, and you can’t argue with the price. At just under $60 for the first two years of service, it’s an absolute steal.

Best Budget VPN

SurfShark

SurfShark is a great option if you need a VPN but can’t swing the price of ExpressVPN. You can still get to your streaming services, it’s just not quite as fast.

Best Free VPN: Windscribe

windscribe UI on yellow background

Pros

  • Generous free plan
  • Inexpensive upgrade

Cons

  • Best features are locked until you pay

If you’d prefer not to pay any money for a VPN, there are a few decent companies that offer free plans. You need to be careful with free VPNs, though, as there are many “free” VPN companies out there that exist purely to steal your data and sell it to advertisers and data miners.

In fact, the problem is so bad that we recommend using only three VPNs with a free plan, ProtonVPN, TunnelBear, and Windscribe, with the last being the best of them.

The main issue of free legitimate VPNs is bandwidth, or the amount of data that can be passed through the VPN. TunnelBear offers only 500MB of free bandwidth per month, upgradeable to 1GB by tweeting about the service.

Windscribe, on the other hand, offers twenty times as much, 10GB per month and another 5GB by tweeting. Referring friends gets you another 1GB per referral, too. Though 15GB isn’t enough to sustain a hardcore torrenting habit, it should be more than enough for most people.

ProtonVPN doesn’t have bandwidth caps like Windscribe, but instead limits you to just a handful of servers and also caps your speeds. This makes it a good pick for people that want to secure their browsing but nothing else. However, we feel Windscribe’s superior speeds give it an edge here.

The only reason to use TunnelBear over Windscribe is that the former has servers in a lot more countries available for free users; Windscribe only has 10. We’d take 20 times the bandwidth over country choice any day, so Windscribe gets our recommendation here. Upgrading Windscribe into a paid version costs only $49 per year and works great with Netflix, so that’s another upside.

Of the three free VPNs we mentioned, Windscribe offers 10GB of bandwidth, about twenty times more than TunnelBear. This gives Windscribe an almost automatic win.

Best Free VPN

Windscribe

If you can’t afford a VPN but would like privacy, you need to be careful of scams. Windscribe is not a scam, offering effective VPN services, and the basic plan doesn’t cost a dime.

Best VPN for iPhone: ProtonVPN

ProtonVPN logo on green background
ProtonVPN

Pros

  • Company with a good reputation
  • Bundle with secure mail

Cons

  • Expensive by itself
  • ProtonMail bundles are even more expensive

Protecting your privacy while on mobile devices is just as important as protecting desktop computers and laptops due to the increasing number of attacks aimed at smartphones. Most of the VPNs on this list have mobile apps that do a fine job of protecting any and all your devices, but if you’re predominantly an iPhone user, you may want to give ProtonVPN a shot.

Famous for offering secure email service ProtonMail, there’s a lot to like about ProtonVPN. This VPN app is fast, secure, and has made a clear commitment to users’ privacy. It also offers a decent pricing scheme and offers a discount if you bundle ProtonVPN with ProtonMail.

That said, the bundle does raise the price from $96 for the VPN alone to $288, so it’s not exactly cheap. A tip for readers in eurozone countries, though: Change the pricing display to U.S. dollars. For some reason, ProtonVPN maintains the same numbers for the different currencies, meaning you’ll pay a fair amount extra if you’re looking at prices in your local currency.

The main reason we like ProtonVPN for iPhone is due to its interface. In essence, the app is just a map, and you click the flag of the country you want to connect to. Other buttons let you manipulate the options; it’s all just laid out intuitively.

ProtonVPN has a good UI that fits well into the screen, without too many extraneous buttons. It’s very secure and you can bundle it with ProtonMail, making it a great overall service for the iPhone.

Best VPN for iPhone

ProtonVPN

ProtonVPN is a service from the makers of ProtonMail, so you know they have your privacy in mind. It’s easy to use on your iPhone, and you can bundle it with their mail service.

Best VPN for Android: Hide.me

hide.me logo on blue background

Pros

  • Good interface
  • Affordable

Cons

  • Can be a bit slow
  • Not as good on desktop

Most VPNs will do a fine job for Android devices, but we especially like ExpressVPN thanks to its one-button approach. The Android app is pretty much just one button to switch on and one below it to change locations. It’s simple and foolproof.

However, ExpressVPN comes with a pretty hefty price tag, so for a more cost-effective solution, we recommend Hide.me. It approaches the Android app with the same simple philosophy, with just a single button dominating the VPN app. Set the server, connect to it, and then forget about it. We appreciate it a lot when designers keep it simple.

Besides ease of use, Hide.me has a few other things going for it. It has a large server network spread out all over the globe, which is great for frequent travelers. The biggest downside is that it’s not as reliable for streaming as some competitors, but that may be less of a concern if you’re only using it on mobile. As a bonus, Hide.me is also pretty cheap, with a $45 per year plan.

If you need a VPN for Android, then give Hide.me a shot. This VPN is fast, secure, and, most importantly, has one of the simplest interfaces we’ve ever seen on a smartphone.

Best VPN for Android

Hide.me

Hide.me is effective on Android, with a simple interface and a large servers network that makes it great for travelers.

Best VPN for Streaming: ExpressVPN

ExpressVPN logo

Pros

  • Beats Netflix block
  • Gets into Hulu and Amazon as well

Cons

  • Pricey for just streaming

Streaming geo-restricted content is probably the most common reason why people get a VPN. With one single purchase, you can unlock the libraries of Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and more from wherever you are in the world, provided you have subscriptions to these services.

However, as much as different VPNs loudly proclaim that they’re the one service that can unlock all these streaming sites, in our estimation, there’s only one real winner: ExpressVPN, making it the best VPN for Netflix. In our years of using it, we’ve never encountered any serious issues trying to access Netflix libraries in other countries or faking a U.S. IP address so we could access Hulu.

Some other services, like NordVPN, Windscribe, and CyberGhost get close, but ExpressVPN beats them in the end. The few times you are locked out of Netflix, all you need to do is switch to a different server in the same country, and you should be fine.

The other reason binge-watchers should consider ExpressVPN is its superior speeds. Streaming requires some fast connection speeds, and ExpressVPN will get you buffering the least thanks to the service’s great speeds.

When it comes to streaming, we’d go with ExpressVPN every time. It unblocks most country’s Netflix libraries with ease, and it’s fast as greased lightning.

Best VPN for Streaming

ExpressVPN

ExpressVPN is hands down the best for streaming. The service has no problem cracking Netflix blocks, and also has an easy time with Hulu, Amazon Prime, and other streaming services.

Best VPN for Gaming: Private Internet Access

PIA mockup on pink and orange background

Pros

  • Inexpensive
  • Fast, so your ping stays low
  • Best VPN for Linux as well

Cons

  • Not great for streaming Netflix or other services

If you need a VPN to support your gaming habit—either because you just like extra privacy when pwning online or because you want to access servers in different regions—then latency is the name of the game. If your ping is too high, then you can kiss a high KDR goodbye as you’ll still be aiming while the opposing team has already blown you off the map.

However, most VPNs will raise your ping considerably, and there’s not much you can do about it. While you can avoid some of the damage using some basic tactics to speed up your VPN, in the end, it’s the distance between you and the VPN’s server that matters most. The best a VPN can do is offer high-quality servers.

This is where Private Internet Access (or PIA) comes in. Not only is it one of the most secure VPNs around, but it’s also one of the fastest, with only ExpressVPN beating it consistently. NordVPN beats PIA from time to time, but it’s not consistent. Add to that a price tag of $40 per year, and you have a great VPN for all your gaming needs.

Gamers need low ping, and Private Internet Access offers exactly that. It’s also pretty affordable at less than $40 per year and comes with a bunch of interesting security options.

Best VPN for Gaming

Private Internet Access

Private Internet Access, or PIA, does something few VPNs do. PIA gives you privacy while preserving your ping, allowing you to game without worrying about security.

Best VPN for Torrenting: NordVPN

person using nordvpn outside
NordVPN

Pros

  • Special torrenting servers
  • Good pricing

Cons

  • Speed depends a lot on the server
  • Interface can be a bit annoying

Besides breaking through to region-locked streaming sites and basic internet browsing, the other common reason you might use a VPN is for torrenting, which is the main method by which people get their hands on copyrighted material without paying for it. As this is frowned upon in most of the world, the only way to avoid getting hit with fines is by using a VPN.

There are a few good torrenting VPNs out there—ExpressVPN and Windscribe spring to mind—but our favorite is NordVPN. This is because we really like its dedicated torrenting servers. These so-called P2P servers stand out mostly because they’re designed to take a larger load than NordVPN’s other servers.

This means that you should see far better speeds while torrenting. As the server has more bandwidth to accommodate you, slowdown should become a thing of the past. As a bonus, you can also use NordVPN’s double VPN function, which sends your connection through two servers rather than just one. Though it may seem like overkill, it’s a great way to ensure you’re off your local copyright watchdog’s radar.

NordVPN is just $99 for two years—effectively half of what ExpressVPN costs—so that also makes it a good option. If torrenting is the name of your game, then give NordVPN a whirl.

Best VPN for Torrenting

NordVPN

NordVPN stands out with its double VPN function, which saves a lot of headaches with your local torrenting watchdogs and keeps you secure while downloading packages.

Best VPN for Windows: CyberGhost

cyberghost logo on blue and purple background

Pros

  • Great desktop interface
  • Great multi-year plans

Cons

  • Can be a bit slow
  • Netflix access is hit and miss

If you like a simple interface that reminds you a little of Windows (well, Windows 10 and earlier, at least), then you may want to give CyberGhost a shot. While it can do a little of everything well enough—it gets through to Netflix usually, and has okay speeds—where it really shines is its interface, which is clearly laid out and easy to use.

While we generally prefer the one-button approach of ExpressVPN, there is something to be said for the scrolling menus of CyberGhost. Its greatest strength, however, is how it preselects servers for your purposes. For example, it has lined up the best possible locations to connect to Netflix U.S. or crack BBC’s iPlayer.

While CyberGhost doesn’t do anything better than anybody else does, we have a feeling many users will appreciate the user experience that CyberGhost provides. Its pricing is quite friendly, too, at just under $85 for two years of use.

If user-friendliness and Windows compatibility are your top priorities, definitely check out CyberGhost and its cost-friendly plans.

Best VPN for Windows

CyberGhost

CyberGhost is a great VPN for the Windows desktop. This VPN auto-selects servers based on what you want to do, making it easy to optimize for your needs.

Best VPN for China: VyprVPN

person using internet outdoors
VyprVPN

Pros

  • Chameleon protocol is tried and tested in China
  • Good deals on pricing

Cons

  • It's a bit slow
  • Not great for Netflix

Beating Chinese censorship is no mean feat: the blocks put up by the government that keeps people from browsing foreign internet sites, collectively known as the Great Firewall, are formidable. Getting caught tunneling under the Firewall can land you in hot water with the police, who may want to have a quiet chat with you about your browser history.

The Chinese authorities control the flow of internet traffic through several access points throughout the country. From there, it can check connections made to see if they’re going to flagged sites and block them, or, it’s speculated, even check whether a connection has the tell-tale signs of a VPN and block that as well.

VyprVPN is one of our favorite VPNs to get from the Chinese internet into the regular internet thanks to its specially developed Chameleon protocol, which escapes detection by posing as a regular connection—hence the name. Few other providers have anything similar, and very few have the track record of VyprVPN, in pulling it off.

Best VPN for China

VyprVPN

It can be difficult to find a VPN that works well in China. VyprVPN has the Chameleon Protocol, which masks your connection as a normal connection, allowing you to access the internet without worry.

Best Private VPN: Mullvad

mullvad logo on green background

Pros

  • Completely anonymous
  • One of the very few services that accepts cash

Cons

  • Not the cheapest
  • Email address necessary for account recovery

As great a tool as VPNs are, they have some weaknesses. Services are only as good as their no-log policies, and your account information is, technically at least, known to the service you sign up with. For one, they have your email address and often also your payment information. The exception is if you paid with cryptocurrency, though it’s not always the case.

RELATED: Does a VPN Really Make Your Online Activity Private?

Mullvad avoids these issues by not requiring an email address for account creation, opting instead for a randomized key that serves as your user ID. On top of that, you can send the service an envelope with cash to cover the VPN’s operating costs—euros are preferred, but U.S. dollars are fine, too–leaving no paper trail.

If you want to really maximize your anonymity, then Mullvad may be the best VPN out there. Your own personal organization abilities need to be top-notch, as there’s no password recovery without an email address, but it does mean that you can sleep soundly at night, secure in the knowledge that nobody can trace your IP address.

As a VPN that requires no email address and accepts both cryptocurrency and cash, Mullvad is the most private VPN service out there. If you don’t want to be tracked in any way, accept no substitute.

Best VPN for Privacy

Mullvad VPN

You want complete privacy? You can send Mullvad an envelope with cash and your payment token to pay for your account, so they’ll never have your personal information.

Profile Photo for Fergus O'Sullivan Fergus O'Sullivan
Fergus is a freelance writer for How-To Geek. He has seven years of tech reporting and reviewing under his belt for a number of publications, including GameCrate and Cloudwards. He's written more articles and reviews about cybersecurity and cloud-based software than he can keep track of---and knows his way around Linux and hardware, too.
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