A VPN (virtual private network) is a useful online tool. At its simplest, it’s a series of computers networked together across the internet. It creates a virtual tunnel between your computer and a server operated by the VPN company. This tunnel is encrypted so external internet traffic can’t see your data.
A VPN hides your identity as well as your data, which can be beneficial if you’re in a strange place and you’re not sure you trust the Wi-Fi connection in an internet café; professional users may want to know their business-critical information stays private; and, of course, you can use it to access versions of the web unavailable in your country – such as international versions of Netflix or Amazon Prime.
Some VPNs have a free tier or free trial period. Many users report using a VPN can slow your connection noticeably, so it’s not always worth using. Free services usually involve ads. A free tier of, say, 500MB a month can be used up faster than you might think, so always turn it off when you don’t need to be using it.
Whether you’re on your phone, streaming video, or need all-round professional protection, these are the best VPNs around.
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Best free VPN
How many servers? 1,225
The best VPN you can get without spending a penny is ProtonVPN. Designed by CERN scientists with a penchant for privacy – the same team behind the ProtonMail client – its feature set is impressive and it works on multiple platforms.
Ready to install on Windows, Mac, Android, and iPhone, the free version of ProtonVPN offers connections through servers in the US, Japan, and the Netherlands.
ProtonVPN also has the benefit of not imposing data restrictions for content, meaning that if you use it for streaming you will not be limited – although the company does say that it will only offer “medium” speeds compared to the paid option.
The VPN also, importantly, offers a no-logging policy. This means that private information, including which websites you visit, the traffic or content of any communications, IP address, session lengths, or location based information is kept secure.
As with any free product – and any technology product – you should not take them at their word, especially when it comes to VPNs, a technology designed to carry sensitive data. ProtonMail, happily, makes that easier by releasing independent audits on all of its apps and has made them open source, meaning that any engineer can examine them for irregularities – ensuring that they remain more trustworthy than closed-off competitors.
For the technically-minded, ProtonVPN also works using the OpenVPN protocol with AES-256-CBS encryption, and it is possible to use split tunnelling to set apps that do not go through its tunnels as well as setting custom DNS servers and applying IPv6 leak protection.
Unfortunately, however, since there is no UK server it will not be to watch streaming services like the UK version of Netflix or BBC iPlayer while the app is connected. The US Netflix should still be available, although the company does not condone the use of its VPNs for bypassing copyright restrictions.
Best VPN for Amazon Fire devices
Best VPN for your Mac or PC
Devices supported: Up to five
For Amazon’s range of streaming services, including the Fire TV Stick, the Fire TV Stick 4K Ultra, or the Fire TV Cube, it is important to choose a VPN that already has native app support. Many popular VPNs are already available in the Amazon Appstore – the equivalent of the Apple App Store or the Google Play Store.
If you are an Amazon Prime subscriber, you will also be able to stream content from a specific country on your Amazon device by going into the settings and changing the country and region.
While there are many good VPNs that provide this, using ExpressVPN will get you a polished experience with a 30-day money-back guarantee if you are not happy with its performance.
It offers a number of beneficial features, including access to over 3,000 VPN servers in 160 locations in 94 countries, a kill switch that stops all internet traffic if the VPN cannot connect, split tunnelling support for choosing which apps use the VPN, and encryption across the OpenVPN UDP, OpenVPN TCP, IKEv2, and Lightway protocols.
As well as Amazon Prime services, Express VPN also claims it works with Netflix, Spotify, BBC iPlayer, HBO, Hulu, Disney+, and more – and with screen mirroring compatibility from the app to the Fire TV range of products, even apps not available through Amazon’s store can be viewed on a display.
When it comes to the best VPN that you’re going to use on your main production device – your computer – then we have also have to return to ExpressVPN. The interface is easy to use, with a user-friendly on-off button upon launch, making it simple to swap between locations.
For either MacOS on Apple computers or Windows on PCs, ExpressVPN works with a number of operating systems and with support on up to five devices, should cover your phone, tablet, work and home laptop, and a friend’s device just for good measure.
It stores no logs of user activity, originating IP address, the VPN IP you connect with, the session duration, nor a connection timestamp, and says that it only generates its funds from sales of VPN subscriptions – and that means there’s no risk of user data being sold in order to make up the profit margin.
Should something go awry, the company says that it has around the clock support to answer any questions on any device.
Best VPN for Android
Devices supported: No limit
For the best Android VPN to protect Samsung, Huawei, Oppo, Pixel, OnePlus, Sony, and LG phones, Surfshark is one of the top options out there.
As well as being available for Android devices, Surfshark’s paid option offers support for an unlimited number of devices, therefore making it great for families with multiple computers, tablets, and phones no matter what operating system they are using.
The app’s four-tab design is a great way to navigate its range of privacy tools and connection options, with a built-in advertising blocker too. This means that it is a great option for people who may not be familiar with VPNs or have never used one before.
One of the other benefits of using an Android device is being able to torrent directly from your phone or tablet – something which the iPhone and iPad currently do not allow – and so Surfshark also allows torrenting, although it should be said that this should not be used for downloading content that would be illegal.
Much like other VPNs, Surfshark also offers a range of privacy-focused features including a kill switch in place so your data and online identity remain hidden even if the connection drops.
If you sign up for one month, the price is £10.49. A year’s contract reduces this to £3.69 a month, while a two-year plan currently works out at £1.99 a month. There are free trial options for iPhone, Android and Mac so you can see if you like it before you commit.
Best VPN for iPhone
Devices supported: Up to six
If you have an iPhone, chances are you want the best apps to go on that device – and there are few VPN services, if any, better than NordVPN.
One of the best-known apps, a NordVPN subscription offers access to its network of over 5000 servers across 62 countries. Using a VPN on an iPhone is slightly more difficult than it is on an Android phone, as Apple requires additional checks for apps that use it. As such, NordVPN uses the IKEv2 protocol, which is better than some of the other apps for iOS which use older protocols.
Using the app is very simple, with a clear map for access to its servers and a Quick Connect button to take you to the nearest and probably fastest server with a single tap. NordVPN also offers the Kill Switch feature, which is an option seen comparatively less frequently than other VPN apps, which is a nice addition too.
NordVPN also says it doesn’t log your activity while you’re online and no data is collected or sold. Although NordVPN was hacked in 2018, security measures have been significantly improved since then.
A one-month contract costs £9.20, a year’s commitment drops this to £5.38 per month and if you choose a three-year plan, the cost is £2.69 a month.
Best VPN for Netflix
Devices supported: Up to five
One of the most irritating things about video streaming is, of course, buffering. As such, Hotspot Shield might be the answer, as one of the fastest VPNs that is currently available on the market.
Due to its Catapult Hydra protocol, which is one of the speediest out there in comparison to WireGuard or OpenVPN, Hotspot Shield manages to stay ahead when it comes to making connections. While Hotspot Shield only offers this protocol, if Netflix speeds are your main concerns, there is little better out there.
However, there is a drawback to the protocol, and that is China – where the Great Firewall monitors traffic moving through the country and internet censorship is heavy. As such, if you are planning on watching Netflix in Beijing, it is worth choosing another service.
As well as its protocols, Hotspot Shield can also be set upon your router as all the phones, tablets and computers in your household can connect to it through the router. There’s also a useful auto-connect feature so that when you launch specified apps, the VPN jumps into action.
Sign up for one month and the cost is £10.99, but a year’s commitment drops this to £6.99 a month.
Your VPN questions answered
What is a VPN service?
VPN stands for virtual private network, or a series of computers networked together across the internet. It creates a connection between your computer and a server operated by the VPN company, which is encrypted so that your data can’t be seen by external traffic.
Why use a VPN?
A VPN hides your identity as well as your data – useful if you’re in a place you’re not familiar with and don’t necessarily trust the WiFi connection. In a professional capacity, it can ensure that sensitive business information remains private too.
Because as VPN helps make you anonymous online, you can, for example, look at the US version of a shopping website rather the UK site your computer browser would default to. This is handy if you want to check the dollar price of something or check out the winter clothes a southern-hemisphere store is selling in the British summer – all useful information if you’re planning an overseas trip or wanting to buy something from overseas.
Since a VPN disguises what country you’re in, it also means you can watch BBC iPlayer while you’re abroad, for instance or watch US Netflix from the UK. However, please note that watching iPlayer outside the UK breaks the rights agreement between rights holder and broadcaster – the Beeb is wise to VPNs and many can’t display iPlayer – you’re better off, technically and morally, downloading shows to your PC or tablet before you travel. The access to Netflix is sometimes easier but again, you can’t bank on any VPN having access to it flawlessly or for ever. Many VPNs have set-up instructions so you can use your Amazon or Apple TV box as though you were overseas – ideal if you’re an ex-pat wanting to catch up with your favourite soap.
How do I use a VPN when I’m abroad?
A VPN means you can access blocked websites. So, if you’re in a country where internet access is heavily censored, like China, for instance, you’ll be able to access Facebook using a VPN. If this is what you’re planning to use a VPN for, it’s important to download it before you travel to the less internet-friendly nation.
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