Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) are great for protecting your internet privacy, but they're not perfect. Some VPNs don't take care of your "private" information. Mobile VPNs face all these issues and more.
VPNs use encryption technologies to create a virtual encrypted "tunnel" between your computer and a VPN server. While your traffic is in this tunnel, no one can see where you're going or what you're doing. You're invisible.
At least, to a point.
No service can guarantee full, 100% anonymity. While many VPNs are reputable, you must avoid fake VPNs that eavesdrop on your traffic, while others fail to encrypt your traffic properly. Furthermore, others log your activities or use your own domain name servers (DNS) so your ISP can still see where you're going. That defeats the entire purpose of a VPN.
Also: How to set up a VPN on your iPhone
Regarding smartphones and tablets, you should always opt for a VPN with a dedicated Android or iOS app. That's because conventional VPNs aren't optimized for mobile communication problems such as coverage gaps, inter-network roaming, bandwidth, battery life, limited memory, and processing power.
It can be a tall order to find a mobile VPN that will protect you and disguise your IP address.
ZDNET's top pick is NordVPNa great mobile option that consistently performs well in relation to speed and stability. Furthermore, combined with a user-friendly mobile app and expansive server network, you can't go wrong.
The VPNs below are ZDNET's recommendations for the best mobile VPNs in 2023.
The best mobile VPNs of September 2023
- Dedicated IP
- Offers a kill switch
- Easy to use
- Limited features for iOS (no split tunneling)
- Can be expensive for businesses
NordVPN features: Simultaneous connections: 6 | Kill switch: Yes | Mobile platforms Android, iOS, Chrome, and Firefox | Logging: None, except billing data | Countries: 60 | Servers: 5000 | Trial/MBG: 30 days | Google Play rating: 4.5 | App Store rating: 4.7
NordVPN is a fast and reliable VPN that runs well, regardless of what you run it on. Once you've learned NordVPN, you have no additional learning curve for using it on other devices. When you first open it, you'll see a landing screen map. From here, you can pick a country to VPN to or head to the fastest local server automatically. If your screen's too small for that to be handy, you're only a swipe away from a VPN server list. No fuss.
NordVPN also offers a dedicated IP option. With this, you will get the same IP address if you connect to the same VPN server. This can be very handy for business users. For businesses, NordVPN Teams gives the home office centralized management and billing.
Also: How does NordVPN work? Plus, how to set it up and use it
It also offers a kill switch. This automatically disconnects your phone or tablet from the internet if your VPN connection is interrupted, a key element to maintaining your privacy when using cellular networks.
With NordVPN's current promotion, you can save up to 65% on annual plans. Two-year subscriptions begin at $3.79 per month, rising to $4.59/month for one-year plans and $12.99 if you want to use the service every month. Three months of free access are on offer for subscribers to two-year plans.
- Blocks ads and ad trackers
- Open source
- Excellent speed and security
- Slow connection speeds on some servers
Features: Simultaneous connections: Unlimited | Kill switch: Yes | Platforms: Android, iOS, and Chrome | Logging: None, except billing data | Countries: 84 | Trial/MBG: 7 days | Google Play rating: 4.5 | App Store rating: 4.7
Private Internet Access (PIA) offers impressive speed and security.
PIA has adopted open-source software for almost all of its components, which gives it a standout level of transparency surrounding its technology, making it open to examination by third parties. This helps with software vulnerabilities, too, as they may be more likely to be detected early and patched. Furthermore, the VPN is easy to configure and includes split-tunneling and ad-blocking features.
Read the review: Private Internet Access Review
While the VPN provider is based in the US -- and this may turn some potential users away if they are concerned about privacy and data laws in the nation -- when it comes to features, PIA offers you unlimited simultaneous connections, as well as an intuitive mobile app, dedicated IP address, ad and malware blocking, and a strict no-logs policy.
PIA has a current promotion for new customers and will give you 82% off a two-year plan, coming in at only $2.19/month with two months of free access.
- Easy to use
- Ample connection options
- Transparent data collection
- Limited advanced features
Express VPN features: Simultaneous connections: 8 | Kill switch: Yes | Platforms: Amazon Fire, Android, and iOS | Logging: No browsing logs, some connection logs | Countries: 94 | Locations: 160 | Trial/MBG: 30 days | Google Play rating: 4.4 | App Store rating: 4.7
If we have one problem with NordVPN, it's that it is not always the fastest. VPN speeds vary wildly depending on where you are, the server you're trying to connect to, and country distance. But when it comes to speed in terms of connections and streaming, ExpressVPN often takes first place.
You just hit a button and connect to the fastest and closest ExpressVPN server. Of course, you can be selective with your servers if you like, but it's hard to beat if you get to work without any trouble or worries.
ExpressVPN recently bumped up its simultaneous device support from five to eight devices on paid plans, so there's another bonus.
Also: ExpressVPN review
At the time of writing, ExpressVPN can be purchased for $12.95 on a month-on-month plan, $9.99/month for six months of access, or $6.67/month on a two-year plan, with three months of free access thrown in.
The company is over a decade old and has fast VPN servers worldwide. However, canceling your subscription can be challenging -- its customer service team is friendly but persistent in customer retention.
- Compatible with many devices
- Sends your connection through multiple countries for layered protection
- Built-in GPS spoofing
- Slower download speeds
- iOS users won't have access to split tunneling
Surfshark features: Simultaneous connections: Unlimited | Kill switch: Yes | Platforms: Android, iOS, Firefox, and Chrome | Logging: None, except billing data | Countries: 100 | Servers: 3,200 | Trial/MBG: 30 days | Google Play rating: 4.3 | App Store rating: 4.8
Surfshark is a solid VPN with extra security features. Before diving into the security, though, SurfShark is another program you can use on any device once you learn how to use it. It's that simple.
To help ensure no one can track you, SurfShark includes an exciting feature. It enables you to spoof your GPS location. If someone tries to track down your location, it will report that you're at your VPN servers' coordinates.
Read the review: Surfshark VPN review
Surfshark will also send your connection running through multiple countries to hide your tracks better. The server list is impressive, and while the app could use some optimization, it's still a solid choice -- especially if you're looking for something affordable.
Surfshark's cheapest plan is for a two-year subscription at $2.30/month, with two months of free access added to the length of the term. There is also a 30-day money-back guarantee.
- Fast connection speeds
- Stylish mobile app
- Independent audits
- Few advanced privacy features or services
IPVanish features: Simultaneous connections: Unlimited | Kill switch: Yes | Platforms: Android, iOS, Windows, Mac | Logging: No-logs policy | Countries: 75+ | Servers: 2200+ | Trial/MBG: 7 days/30 days | Google Play rating: 4.4 | App Store rating: 4.5
IPVanish is another of our favorite mobile VPNs. We are particularly impressed with the user interface on the Android and iOS apps, which is quick to install and extremely easy to use. It doesn't hurt that the app's interface is stylish and modern, either.
Speeds are generally impressive and the app is quick to connect to a server, nine times out of ten. IPVanish now offers unlimited simultaneous connections, a useful feature if you have more than one mobile device to protect.
IPVanish offers a seven-day trial for mobile users. Alternatively, you can sign up for a two-year plan at $2.99/month, a yearly plan for $3.49/month, or you can opt for a monthly subscription costing $11.99.
The best mobile VPN is NordVPN. With its ability to integrate with iOS and Android phones, along with thousands of servers and very high speeds, NordVPN is at the top of our list. This table compares the best mobile VPNs based on connections, operating system capabilities, and servers available:
Best mobile VPNs
Google Play rating
App Store rating
Private Internet Access
It depends on your requirements. While NordVPN is our top choice, it might not suit everyone, especially given the price point. This table compares the best mobile VPN options based on purpose:
Choose this best mobile VPN
If you want…
The best overall VPN for mobile devices. This is a great mobile option that consistently performs well in relation to speed and stability and has an expansive server network.
The fastest mobile VPN. ExpressVPN is user-friendly and is an excellent option if speed is your top priority.
Unlimited connections. Surfshark is a highly affordable VPN that also offers infinite simultaneous connections.
Private Internet Access
The best open-sourced mobile VPN. As an open-source product, the VPN is open to public appraisal, so this is one of the most transparent solutions on the market.
A mix of value and speed combined with a stylish and user-friendly mobile app. The VPN also supports numerous streaming services.
We tested and analyzed the best mobile VPNs for 2023 using the following criteria to help you make an informed decision:
- Performance: We tested most of the VPNs on this list to ensure robust performance in terms of connection and speed. After all, there's no point in using a VPN if your connection continually drops or lags, making it intolerable, which is especially important when you're on mobile.
- Simultaneous connections: Many VPNs limit how many devices you can connect to a service simultaneously. If you have a phone, tablet, and laptop you want to connect to a VPN, you need a service that allows simultaneous connections.
- Security: There's no point using a VPN unless their security protocols and encryption levels are up to scratch. We also ensured that the development team behind each recommended VPN cares about improving security over time and patching reported bugs.
- Kill switch: A kill switch prevents you from having an unprotected connection and is an essential feature for a mobile VPN to have, as it protects you by preventing a return to a default Wi-Fi connection -- in comparison, for example, with your cellular connectivity -- should your internet connection unexpectedly drop.
- Geoblocks and streaming: We know that VPNs can be vital in accessing local content and services while you're away from home and relying on mobile devices. We ensured that our top recommendations perform well regarding these factors and are unlikely to slow down your connection while streaming.
- Countries & servers: In how many different countries does the VPN have servers? This can include physical and virtual servers and whether or not there are enough -- at least 50 or so -- to provide variety.
- Trial length & price: Each VPN we recommend has a solid money-back guarantee.
Most VPN providers recommended in this list have been subject to in-depth testing and reviews by members of our ZDNET team. We've been writing about these VPNs for years, spoken with their management and users, and developed a generally favorable impression.
ZDNET tests VPN services from multiple locations, but we can't try from all locations. Every home, every community, every local ISP, and every nation has a different infrastructure. It's essential that once you choose, you test for all your likely usage profiles and only then make the decision to keep the service or request a money-back guaranteed refund.
These VPNs also have solid money-back guarantees; we would not have recommended them otherwise.
Suppose you're at your desk and want to access a website like this one. To do this, your computer initiates a request by sending some packets. If you're in an office, those packets often travel through switches and routers on your LAN before transferring them to the public internet through a router.
Once on the public internet, those packets travel through many computers. A separate request is made to a series of name servers to translate the DNS name ZDNET.com to an IP address. That information is sent back to your browser, which sends the request again through many computers on the public internet. Eventually, it reaches the ZDNET infrastructure, routes those packets, grabs a webpage (a bunch of separate elements), and sends all that back to you.
Each internet request usually involves a series of communication events between multiple points. A VPN encrypts those packets at the originating point, often hiding the data and the information about your originating IP address. The VPN software on your end then sends those packets to the VPN server at some destination point, decrypting that information.
Also: What is a VPN, and why do you need one?
They're all security communication protocols. Ordinary users don't need to worry about them. Seriously. Only those who build VPN programs and network administrators need to worry about VPN plumbing terminology.
There is rarely an exception to a simple answer: none. The free ones that sound good will take you, your data, and your security for a ride. Avoid them.
A good VPN service requires hundreds of servers worldwide and many networking resources. If you're not paying to support that infrastructure, who is? Probably advertisers or data miners. If you use a free service, your data or information will probably be sold, and that's never good. After all, you're using a VPN to keep your data secure. You wouldn't want your data to go to some company to sift through -- it completely defeats the purpose of a VPN.
However, there is one we do recommend, and that is offered by ProtonVPN, a security and privacy-focused company that is trustworthy. The trade-off is that the free option is extremely limited.
If you're traveling or using the internet in a public place like a coffee shop, that data encryption is critical, since most public Wi-Fi hotspots are open and unencrypted -- which means anyone on the network can see what you send and may be able to eavesdrop on your activities and steal passwords. If you can, stick to cellular networks.
Sometimes. Of late though, the war between VPNs and streaming services has heated up. This is a gray area of the law. If you try it, just remember that you may get into trouble.
Also: Best VPN for streaming
It's the maximum number of VPN connections you can have at any one time. For example, if you're using your smartphone, laptop, and tablet over a VPN at the same time (I've done it on business trips), and back home, your partner is using their smartphone, PC, and tablet over the VPN, and you have five simultaneous connections... Whoops!
One of your connections won't be private any longer. Having access to more simultaneous connections is a good thing.
A fully functional VPN should protect your privacy and mask your location and IP address. If you're unsure if your VPN is working properly, some tools make checking your VPN's performance easy.
You can find out your IP address and location using whatismyipaddress.com. Compare the IP address and location when connected with a VPN vs. without one. If they are different, then your VPN is doing its job.
It's also possible that your VPN is leaking your data and potentially exposing your online activity. To ensure your VPN has no issues with DNS leaks or IP leaks, you can run tests on a site like DNS Leak Test. There are plenty of tools that allow you to test for leaks, but many are owned by VPN providers, and it may not always be clear who developed the tool, which could be a conflict of interest. You may want to run tests with several different sites and compare the results.
Yes. Now, there are some circumstances when it doesn't, but those tend to be rare. Generally speaking, you'll get from 50% to 80% of your real-world speed through a VPN connection.
Faster is better. But you probably already knew that.
The mobile VPNs listed above are the benchmark in quality and performance and are our top recommendations. However, if these don't meet your needs, here are worthy alternatives:
Best alternative for mobile streaming
Hotspot Shield VPN
Hotspot Shield VPN is a great alternative if you want to access streaming services through your mobile phone.
Best free alternative
We don't typically recommend free VPN options, but while limited, Proton VPN's free account is an exception to the rule.
Best affordable alternative
The CyberGhost VPN is an affordable alternative with reasonable speeds.