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The best mobile VPNs: Ensure your privacy anywhere
What's the best mobile VPN? Our number one pick is NordVPN. We analyzed privacy features, reliability, mobile platforms, and speed to determine the best mobile VPN, whether you are using an iOS-powered iPhone or Android smartphone.
Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) are great for protecting your internet privacy, but they're not perfect. Some VPNs don't take good care of your "private" information. Mobile VPNs face all these issues and more.
VPNs use encryption technologies, such as IP security (IPSec), Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol (L2TP)/ IPSec, Secure Sockets Layer (SSL), Transport Layer Security (TLS), and WireGuard 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.
Well, your traffic should be invisible. But you can't trust all VPN providers. Some fake VPNs snoop on your traffic, while others don't always encrypt your traffic. Still, others log your activities or use your own domain name servers (DNS). When a VPN uses your DNS, then your ISP can still see where you're going. That defeats the entire purpose of a VPN. In particular, if you find a "free" VPN, run -- don't walk -- away from it. They're almost always scams.
The best VPN services, such as ExpressVPN, NordVPN, and SurfShark, are trustworthy. But if you or your company really want to lock down your traffic, you must run your VPN server. These include open-source OpenVPN, SoftEther VPN, and WireGuard. You can also use commercial programs like Check Point Remote Secure Access and LogMeIn Hamachi.
When it comes to smartphones and tablets, you need an Android or iOS. That's because conventional VPNs aren't optimized for mobile communication problems such as coverage gaps, inter-network roaming, bandwidth, battery life, and limited memory and processing power.
In the real world, this means if you move from Wi-Fi to 4G or back again, or just from one 4G network to another, you can lose your VPN connection. Some VPN programs get caught in endless loops of trying and failing to re-secure the connection. Your only choice may end up being having to turn off your VPN, or even your network connection, and turn it back on again. If this happens a lot, it's time to get another VPN program and/ or provider.
The VPNs below, however, shouldn't give you trouble. They deliver the right mix of privacy, reliability, and security you need.
One reason I like it is that once you've learned how to use NordVPN, you have no learning curve on using it on any other device. When you first open it, you'll see a blue-scale landing screen map. From here, you can either pick a country to VPN to or just 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, no muss.
NordVPN also offers a dedicated IP option. With this, if you're always connecting to the same VPN server, you will always get the same IP address. This can be very handy for business users. For businesses, NordVPN Teams gives the home office centralized management and billing.
If there's one problem I have with NordVPN, it's not always the fastest. For the speed king, in my experience, ExpressVPN takes the crown. Now VPN speeds vary wildly depending on where you are, what particular server you're looking into, distance, and -- I swear! -- the phase of the moon. But, somehow, ExpressVPN usually comes on top.
It's also fast to use. You just hit the single button, and you're connected to the fastest and closest ExpressVPN server. Of course, you can get fancy with it if you like, but if you get to work without any trouble or worries, it's hard to beat.
On the other hand, I am a little concerned that while ExpressVPN doesn't log your browsing history or traffic destinations, it does log dates connected to the VPN service, how much data you transferred, and VPN server location. I will give the company points, though, for making it clear what data it collects. Other companies should follow their lead and be more forthcoming.
The company is over a decade old, and its fast VPN servers are located around the world.
Surfshark is a solid VPN with extra security features. Before diving into the security, though, SurfShark is another program that you'll be able to use on any device once you learn how to use any version of it. It's that simple.
To help make sure no one can track you, SurfShark includes one feature I've never seen on any other VPN app. It enables you to spoof your GPS location. If someone tries to track down where you are, it will report that you're at your VPN servers' coordinates.
Surfshark will also send your connection running through multiple countries to better hide your tracks. Although this gets tricky, you can also legally use Camouflage Mode so your ISP can't tell you're using a VPN. Or, if, say you're behind China's Great Firewall or in another country that wants to keep its eye on you, Surfshark's NoBorders Mode promises that you can "successfully use Surfshark in restrictive regions." I'm not sure I'd bet my life on that last one.
Private Internet Access (aka PIA) didn't use to be a contender. But, after KAPE, now known as Private Internet (which also owns CyberGhost VPN and ZenMate) picked it up, it's gotten a considerable hardware upgrade. What that means for you is faster performance all around.
PIA's speed and security both impressed me. Besides the new hardware at the backend, PIA's also adopted open-source software for almost all of its components.
What I like the most about PIA is its extras. While many VPNs can block ads and ad trackers and keep you out of malicious sites, if you get a two-year plan with PIA, it comes bundled with BoxCryptor. This very useful service encrypts your cloud files from pretty much any cloud storage provider. This includes, among many others, OneDrive, Dropbox, and Google Drive. There is a basic free-for-personal-use version, but this deal gives you the superior Personal plan. This supports unlimited devices and cloud providers. If you care about security -- and since you're using a VPN clearly, you do -- this is a nice additional program.
You can download a free version of Hotspot Shield. Don't bother with it. You'll be limited to 500MB per day, and you can only connect to one server. The paid version? Now that's another story entirely.
Again, once you learn how to use Hotspot Shield on one platform, you're good to go on any other device. It just works, and it works well.
It's also darn fast. How fast? In my latest test runs, I sometimes saw download speeds using the VPN that was faster than connecting without the VPN. Now that, my friend, is impressive. I have seen faster at times, usually from ExpressVPN, but Hotspot Shield's throughput and latency are impressive.
Much of its speed comes from its proprietary Catapult Hydra protocol. Now, I'm no fan of proprietary anything, but I've got to give Hotspot Shield credit; it delivers real speed.
On the other hand, because it's proprietary also means security researchers can't tell what's really going on under the hood. If privacy is your top concern, keep looking.
Simultaneous Connections: 5
Kill Switch: No.
Platforms: Android, iOS, Firefox, and Chrome.
Logging: There are questions about how much information HotSpot Sheild actually keeps on its users.
Suppose you're at your desk and you want to access a website like ZDNet. 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 they are transferred to the public internet through a router.
Once on the public internet, those packets travel through a bunch of 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 then sends the request again through many computers on the public internet. Eventually, it reaches the ZDNet infrastructure, which also routes those packets, grabs a webpage (which is a bunch of separate elements), and sends all that back to you.
Each internet request usually results in a whole series of communication events between multiple points. The way a VPN works is by encrypting 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.
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.
What does OpenVPN, SSTP, L2TP/IPSec, WireGuard mean?
They're all security communication protocols. Ordinary users don't need to worry about them. Seriously. Only the people who build VPN programs and network administrators need to worry about VPN plumbing terminology.
What's the best free VPN service?
There is none. Period. End of statement. Yes, some good VPN services offer free introductory tiers, but they're very restricted. The free ones that sound good will end up taking you, your data, and your security for a ride. Avoid them.
Can you use a VPN to watch Netflix and other streaming services?
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 keep in mind that you may get into trouble.
Can you use a VPN to download or stream movies from BitTorrent?
Yes, with some VPNs. But you also can get in a world of trouble with copyright owners. As with "legal" streaming, the media copyright owners have gotten more aggressive about going after people sharing videos and music. Users beware.
What are simultaneous connections and why should you care?
It's the maximum number of VPNs 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.
Does a VPN slow down your internet connection?
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.
How did we choose these mobile VPNs?
I tested VPNs the same way you use them: I -- and some friends in the US and the UK -- tried them. We checked for speed and security during our daily use. Two months later, the best of the best are listed above.