The Best VPN Services of 2021
We’ve all thoughtlessly joined a public Wi-Fi network before, whether it’s standing in line for coffee and checking our emails, hopping onto the subway’s public network to see if it was still raining or logging into the library’s Wi-Fi to catch up on some work. But browsing the web on public Wi-Fi networks is not the safest practice when it comes to digital security. It actually makes it much easier for hackers to access your device, which could lead to some of your sensitive information being stolen, like usernames, passwords, bank account information, and so on. Fortunately, VPNs encrypt your web traffic in a tunnel and replace your IP address, making it safe to join public Wi-Fi networks. We’ve tested out dozens of VPNs for their speed and security, and here are our top recommendations.
Fortunately, VPNs encrypt your web traffic in a tunnel and replace your IP address, making it safe to join public Wi-Fi networks. We’ve tested out dozens of VPNs for their speed and security, and here are our top recommendations.
1. Express VPN
- Number of IP addresses: 30,000
- Number of servers: 3,000-plus in 160 locations
- Number of simultaneous connections: 5
- Country/jurisdiction: British Virgin Islands
- 94-plus countries
- 3 months free with 1-year plan, plus a free year of Backblaze cloud backup (limited time offer)
ExpressVPN tells us its network is powered by TrustedServer technology, which ExpressVPN built to ensure that there are never any logs of users’ online activities. In the privacy world, ExpressVPN has a strong track record, having experienced a server seizure by authorities which proved their zero-log policy true at the time. We also like the quality of the VPN’s setup guides, and the detailed information in its FAQ.
While its speeds consistently compete with heavy-hitting competitors, our 2020 speed tests saw ExpressVPN produce a 52% overall loss of our normal internet speeds, representing a significant slowdown compared to its 2019 score of 2% speed loss.
Like the rest of the top five VPN services we’ve reviewed, ExpressVPN offers a useful kill switch feature, which prevents network data from leaking outside of its secure VPN tunnel in the event the VPN connection fails. Unlike the others, though, ExpressVPN gained points from us for its support of bitcoin as a payment method — something not all of our favorites offer, but which adds an additional layer of privacy during checkout.
The company has been in business since 2009, and ExpressVPN has a substantial network of fast VPN servers spread across 94 countries. Its best plan is priced at less than $7 a month for an annual package, which includes three months free.
The biggest name in VPNs is a very close second
- Works on: Windows, Mac, Android, iOS, Linux
- Streaming sites unblocked: Netflix, iPlayer, YouTube, Amazon, Hulu
- Trial period: 30 days
- Number of servers: 5,400+
- Server locations: 80+
- Countries: 59
NordVPN‘s current product matches or beats virtually all of the competition in just about every area. When it comes to our overall title for the best VPN, ExpressVPN should watch its back!
For starters, the levels of security NordVPN has to offer have been impressing us for some time now. While it too offers AES-256 as standard, you also have the option to turn on its Double VPN system where all your internet traffic is encrypted not once, but twice. Handy to know where your internet anonymity is paramount like when you’re on public Wi-Fi or, perhaps, torrenting.
It actually bests ExpressVPN on pure server count, cranking things up to an eye-watering 5,000 (in roughly 60 countries) and it allows for one more simultaneous connection at six.
Like its main competitor above, other features include strong DNS leak protection, kill switches (application-specific and system wide), proxy extensions for Chrome and Firefox browsers, and payment options that include Bitcoin, PayPal and credit cards. And it is also strong on unblocking Netflix and other services – although Brits abroad do have to resort to a workaround to access iPlayer.
The steps to take are all explained out in one of NordVPN’s myriad troubleshooting articles. Not only are they plentiful, these guides are also really useful. And there’s always chatbot and excellent live customer support on hand 24/7 if you’re still struggling.
We also have a lot of love for Nord’s dedication to putting the tarnishing news of historic data breaches behind it. It now brings in PricewaterhouseCoopers to carry out a thorough audit of its no-logging policy every year.
Last year’s introduction of the provider’s custom NordLynx protocol was certainly eye-catching. It has helped to make Nord’s connection speeds even faster and more reliable, even from servers that are further afield. That said, this is one category where Express pips it to the post.
If we have one other quibble, it would be with the user experience that NordVPN supplies. Just little things like the destination cities not being listed in alphabetical order or searching through menus for specialist task functions left us wishing for tweaks. That’s especially the case when it comes to its otherwise effective mobile apps. But, these are pretty minor minus points and, as with any reviews you’ll find on the internet, we understand that this ultimately comes down to personal preference.
NordVPN has a few options available included monthly subscriptions and an excellent value two-year special offer. If you want to give the service a whirl before you commit, NordVPN provides a 30-day money back guarantee.
- Number of servers: 3,200-plus
- Number of server locations: 65
- Jurisdiction: British Virgin Islands
- $2.49 a month (81% discount) for a two-year plan
While Surfshark’s network is smaller than some, the VPN service makes it up on features and speed. Let’s start off with the biggest win 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 antimalware, 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 speeds 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.
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.
Unlike many of the other VPN providers, Surfshark doesn’t offer a one-year plan. Its best offer is $2.49 a month, for its two-year plan (you pay about $60 up front). A six-month plan is $6.49 a month (about $39 up front), and month-by-month plans are $12.95 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 it into a continued discount rate).
4. Hotspot Shield
Massively improved VPN service that has some of the fastest speeds
- Servers: 3,200-plus in 82 locations
- Country/Jurisdiction: US (Five Eyes member)
- Platforms: Windows, Android, MacOS, iOS, Linux, Amazon Fire TV ($40 at Amazon)
- Price: $8 per month or $95.88 billed annually. Month-to-month plan at $13
Hotspot Shield is a premium package gives you full access to 1,800+ servers in more than 80 countries, support for connecting up to five devices, 24/7 customer support and, of course, absolutely no ads at all. It’s yet more evidence that taking the plunge and paying just a few dollars a month gets you a far superior VPN experience – especially when you read more below about its exclusive pricing just for TechRadar readers.
Yes, some of those specs on paper are fairly unspectacular in the context of what some other providers give. But it’s what our in-depth testing revealed that really stands out – and that’s pure speed. If your main consideration when picking a VPN is speed (perhaps you’re a gamer, streamer or torrenter) then Hotspot should be towards the very top of your shortlist.
Performance was a big highlight in our tests, with Hotspot Shield’s proprietary Catapult Hydra protocol helping to deliver some of the fastest and most consistent download speeds we’ve seen and an average of 360-380Mb when using US or UK servers. Speeds remain high to some of the most distant locations, too.
As well as being able to run the service on devices where you can use its native Windows, Mac, Android or iOS apps, Hotspot has added functionality to support use on routers, Linux and TV streamers, too. A SmartVPN feature – that let’s you select websites on which the VPN will be bypassed – is another welcome addition, especially if you only really wanted to keep your VPN on when shopping, banking, streaming, etc.
Really just want a VPN to help you stream more and varied content? Then this is another area that Hotspot really impresses. In our testing, we found that this service is pretty much on a par with Express and Nord when it comes to unblocking geo-restricted apps and services. So from watching foreign Netflix catalogs, to accessing HBO Max from outside the US, to using social media apps that your school or office might block, Hotspot Shield is a reliable tool.
If Hotspot uses 2021 to bring in some independent auditors to verify its logging practices, we’d be happier still. Especially as the provider does admit to logging VPN sessions, bandwidth, domains accessed and IP addresses. All of these are reasoned out on Hotspot’s website, but we’d welcome an auditor’s view on things. There’s also room for improvement on its iOS app, which just doesn’t quite match the high quality desktop or Android experience.
Subscribe for more than just a month at a time, and Hotspot Shield becomes one of the best priced premium VPNs on the market. And if you try it and still aren’t impressed, then there’s a generous 45-day money back guarantee that will let you get your money back without issue.
5. Proton VPN
- Number of servers: 1,259
- 55 countries
- Country/jurisdiction: Switzerland
- 30-day money back guarantee
- Plus Package: $8 per month ($96 charged yearly)
When we speed-tested ProtonVPN, we saw an impressively small 9.6% speed loss compared to average speeds clocked without a VPN. ProtonVPN’s base speeds sent it blazing past most of our roster of tested services and into second place behind ExpressVPN. Even more impressive is Proton’s ability to reach those speeds despite a relatively small fleet of 1,259 servers in 55 countries. Like ExpressVPN, Proton also costs more than most of the VPNs we’ve reviewed. Even so, ProtonVPN’s high security standards and legacy of transparency may make this VPN option worth the price.
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 recommending its mobile app since it has eliminated the use of some weaker security protocols, like PPTP and L2TP, which are still used by some other VPNs.
On price, we’d like to see ProtonVPN come down a bit. ProtonVPN’s standard package, called Plus, runs $8 per month ($96 charged yearly). That price is higher than our Editors’ Choice VPN, ExpressVPN, whose best plan is priced at $6.67 a month for an annual package. ProtonVPN also gets beat on price by NordVPN’s two-year plan at $3.75 per month ($45 a year), and Surfshark’s two-year plan at $2.95 monthly ($30 a year). While ProtonVPN offers a $4 per month package, that package doesn’t come with enough valuable features to make it competitive against NordVPN.