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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. To demonstrate, security researchers with the NCC Group found 24 issues with the Google VPN One apps.
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, 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.
Also: How to set up a VPN on your iPhone
Features: Simultaneous connections: 6 | Kill switch: Yes | Mobile platforms Android, iOS, Chrome, and Firefox | Logging: None, except billing data | Countries: 59 | Servers: 5,428 | Trial/MBG: 30 days
I always come back to NordVPN. It's fast and reliable, and regardless of what you run it on, it runs well.
Once you've learned how to use NordVPN, you have no learning curve for 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.
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.
Features: Simultaneous connections: 5 | Kill switch: Yes | Platforms: Amazon Fire, Android, and iOS | Logging: No browsing logs, some connection logs | Countries: 94 | Locations: 160 | Trial/MBG: 30 days
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.
Read the review: ExpressVPN review
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 the 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.
Features: Simultaneous connections: Unlimited | Kill switch: Yes | Platforms: Android, iOS, Firefox, and Chrome | Logging: None, except billing data | Countries: 65 | Servers: 3,200 | Trial/MBG: 30 days
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.
Read the review: Surfshark VPN review
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.
Features: Simultaneous connections: 10 | Kill switch: Yes | Platforms: Android, iOS, and Chrome | Logging: None, except billing data | Countries: 78 | Servers: 29,650 | Trial/MBG: 7 days
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.
Read the review: Private Internet Access Review
What I like the most about PIA are 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.
Features: 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. | Countries: 80 | Servers: 1,800 | Trial/MBG: 7 days/45 days
You could download a free version of Hotspot Shield, but 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.
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 it faster at times, usually from ExpressVPN, but Hotspot Shield's throughput and latency are impressive.
Also: The 5 fastest VPNs
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.
Read the review: Hotspot Shield review
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.
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
Android, Chrome, iOS, and Firefox
Amazon Fire, Android, iOS
Android, Chrome, iOS, and Firefox
Private Internet Access
Android, iOS, and Chrome
Android, Chrome, iOS, and Firefox
It depends on your requirements. If you're searching for a good mix of value and performance, then Hotspot Shield might be the best choice. Meanwhile, if you want fast, secure connections, ExpressVPN is a better fit. This table compares the best mobile VPN options based on purpose:
Choose this best mobile VPN
If you want or are…
Best overall VPN for mobile devices
Fastest mobile VPN
Android, Chrome, iOS, and Firefox
Best budget choice
Private Internet Access
Best open-sourced mobile VPN
A mix of value and speed
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.
Suppose you're at your desk and you 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 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.
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.
There is none. Period. End of statement. Yes, some good VPN services offer free introductory tiers, but they're very restricted. Free VPNs exist, but my colleagues Jason Stauffer and David Gerwitz agree: You get what you pay for.
The free ones that sound good will end up taking you, your data, and your security for a ride. Avoid them.
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.
Also: Best VPN for streaming
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.
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.
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.
These five mobile VPNs are the benchmark in quality and performance. However, if these don't meet your needs, here are worthy alternatives: