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How do the top VPNs compare? Plus, should you try a free VPN?

We tested the best VPN services -- focusing on the number of servers, encryption, ability to unlock streaming services, and more -- to determine a No. 1 overall. The winner: ExpressVPN. But here's how it compares to other VPNs, plus whether free VPNs are worth trying.

To find the best VPN service for your personal needs, you'll need to compare brands, prices, features, and more. Fundamentally, most VPNs (virtual private networks) provide two services: They encrypt your data between two points and they hide the IP address (from which a general location can be derived) where you're located. 

For those traveling or out and about, the first function is critical because most Wi-Fi available publicly is unencrypted -- so anyone on the network can see what you were sending. But VPNs also serve to hide your IP address, replacing the address logged on servers with one in a completely different location -- even a different country. For those worrying about stalking or other threats, this feature could save lives. Most consumers, though, find streaming VPN features compelling because -- in some cases, and with dubious legality -- it allows them to spoof their region of origin to get access to streaming media and sports blacked out from their home locale.

In this article, we look at a bunch of our top VPN solutions with a focus on the number of server locations, level of encryption, and compatibility with phones, computers, and TVs. We'll cover many of the best VPN service providers, how to access the native VPNs built into your desktop machine, and even how to use your NAS as a VPN client and host. 

And with that, let's dig into what makes the best VPNs tick and answer some more of your questions at the end of this article, so read on. But first, our picks for the best VPNs of 2022.

Must read:

ExpressVPN Specifications:

  • Simultaneous Connections: 5 or unlimited with the router app
  • Kill Switch: Yes
  • Platforms: A whole lot (see the full list here)
  • Logging: No browsing logs, some connection logs
  • Countries: 94
  • Trial/MBG: 30 days

ExpressVPN is our choice for the best VPN service. It's one of the most popular VPN providers out there, offering a wide range of platforms and protocols. 

Platforms include:

  • Windows
  • MacOS
  • iOS
  • Android
  • Chromebook
  • Kindle Fire
  • Linux
  • Routers
  • Amazon Fire TV and Fire Stick
  • Android TV
  • Chromecast with Google TV

You can also manually set up ExpressVPN to work with some gaming consoles (Xbox, PlayStation, and Nintendo Switch) and TVs (Apple TV, Roku, etc.) that do not support its app.

Also:

ExpressVPN has an expansive network with servers in 94 countries. It also delivers a speedy and consistent connection, which helped ExpressVPN find its way onto our list of fastest VPNs.

The company doesn't log your browsing history, IP address, or traffic destination, but it does collect some information about how the service is used. The amount of data transferred, dates you connected to the VPN (not times), and the location of the VPN server are all logged. That said, we give credit to ExpressVPN for being upfront about this and being transparent about the information they collect.

Exclusive offer: Get 3 extra months free.

Pros:

  • Fast and reliable connection
  • Works on tons of platforms
  • Transparent privacy policy

Cons:

  • More expensive than many competitors
  • Only 5 simultaneous connections

Surfshark VPN Specifications:

  • Simultaneous Connections: Unlimited
  • Kill Switch: Yes
  • Platforms: Windows, MacOS, Linux, iOS, Android, Fire TV, Firefox, Android TV
  • Logging: None, except billing data
  • Countries: 95
  • Trial/MBG: 30 day

Surfshark has a solid VPN with a good price for the two-year plan – it costs just under $2.50 a month (paid upfront). We didn't find any leaks in our Surfshark VPN review and testing, which is exactly what you want to see. It also makes security a priority with AES-256-GCM, Perfect Forward Secrecy, and RSA-2048 encryption. And Surfshark offers a browser plugin designed specifically to stop WebRTC leaks.

Also:

Surfshark's performed better than Norton Secure VPN and NordVPN but below IPVanish and ExpressVPN. With that in mind, we appreciated its complementary and inexpensive add-on features, such as anti-tracking, a search engine that doesn't log your information, and a scanner that searches data breach lists for your email. You can also connect through two VPN servers with Surfshark's multihop option. However, not all of these features are available for Apple devices.

Pros:

  • Unlimited simultaneous connections
  • Wide range of useful features
  • Available on all major platforms

Cons:

  • Fewer features for Apple devices

NordVPN Specifications:

  • Simultaneous Connections: 6
  • Kill Switch: Yes
  • Platforms: Windows, macOS, iOS, Android, Linux, Android TV, Chrome, Firefox
  • Logging: None, except billing data
  • Countries: 59
  • Servers: 5500+
  • Trial/MBG: 30 day

Also: How does NordVPN work? Plus, how to set it up and use it

NordVPN is one of the most widely used consumer VPNs available. For most users, it checks all the boxes: Secure, good for streaming, and all the bells and whistles you're likely to need. We've found it to be one of the fastest VPNs with the most consistent speeds.

Also: Our review of NordVPN

We like all of the features beyond a basic VPN that Nord offers. It supports P2P sharing and has an option for a second layer of encryption through what it calls Double VPN. You can set up a dedicated IP address if you want to run a VPN that doubles as a server. Not only that, but its Onion over VPN unlocks TOR capabilities over its VPN. NordVPN can run on all of the major platforms and a number of home-network platforms. The company also provides VPN and cybersecurity services to businesses through its NordLayer product (formerly NordVPN Teams).

In testing, NordVPN performed well enough, but the ping speeds were on the slower side, and playing a twitch video game isn't something I'd want to do over this VPN. Although this isn't a challenge unique to NordVPN, the majority of VPNs have pretty miserable ping speeds. Still, it's a strong choice, and you can always try it for 30 days and get a full refund.

NordVPN fall sale: Up to 68% off 2-year plans

Right now NordVPN is running an autumn sale with 3 free months added to discounted 2-year plans. For the standard VPN service, this drops the average monthly cost down from $3.99 to $3.09 ($83.43 upfront). You can also pick up the Plus plan (VPN + password manager & data breach scanner) for $3.99/mo ($107.73 upfront) instead of the usual $4.69/mo. For the Complete plan, which includes the VPN, password manager, data breach scanner, and 1 TB of encrypted storage, this sale cuts your average monthly cost from $5.99 to $5.29 ($142.83 upfront).

This promotion started on Aug. 17th and will run for two months.

Pros:

  • Great speeds
  • Extensive server network
  • Easy-to-use apps

Cons:

  • Only six concurrent connections

IPVanish VPN Specifications:

  • Simultaneous Connections: Unlimited
  • Kill Switch: Yes
  • Platforms: Windows, MacOS, iOS, Android, Linux, Fire TV, Android TV, and Kodi
  • Logging: None, except billing data
  • Servers: 2,000+ 
  • Countries: 50
  • Trial/MBG: 30 day

IPVanish may present itself as a plug-and-play solution, but it's a capable and very flexible product. In my opinion, the company is undervaluing itself in doing this. At a glance, IPVanish may seem like a relatively generic VPN, but there's more to the story.

Also: Our review of IPVanish

IPVanish's user interface has some excellent performance graphics and an extensive selection of servers to choose from, with useful status information. As far as protocols go, there is a wide range of options. Its app also has an extensive array of configuration options.

Looking at how it performs, the connection speed was insanely fast, and the transfer performance was good. One problem with security is I wasn't able to obscure that I was connecting with a VPN. However, there was a secure data transfer. 

The bottom line is that IPVanish is a product with a good user experience and is solid overall, as long as you don't need to keep the fact that you're using a VPN hidden. Also, while many VPNs offer discounted rates for a two-year commitment, IPVanish only offers a discounted one-year plan before the price increases.

Pros:

  • Unlimited connections
  • Ultra-fast connection speed
  • Very flexible product, with a wide range of protocols as well

Cons:

  • No two-year plan, price increases after only a year
  • I couldn't keep the VPN connection hidden

ProtonVPN Specifications:

  • Simultaneous Connections: Up to 10, depending on the plan
  • Kill Switch: Yes
  • Platforms: Windows, MacOS, iOS, Android, Linux, routers, Android TV
  • Logging: None, except billing data
  • Countries: 60+
  • Servers: 1,700+
  • Trial/MBG: 30 day

We really like the ProtonVPN story. The company was created by engineers and scientists who met at CERN (the European Center for Nuclear Research -- where the Web was invented) with a focus on creating encrypted email and VPN communications with the idea of protecting the communication of activists and journalists. The company is also headquartered in Switzerland, which has very strong privacy laws.

In terms of product, ProtonVPN has a belt-and-suspenders approach to security, layering strong protocols on top of perfect forward secrecy on top of strong encryption. Not only does ProtonVPN have a kill switch, but it also has an always-on VPN, which attempts to restore VPN service if it's dropped mid-communication. Finally, we like that all apps are open source, and the company reports that they are independently audited. 

Finally, the company offers a very generous free VPN service, allowing one machine to connect at medium speed, but there doesn't appear to be any limit to the amount of data used in the free plan.

Pros:

  • Free VPN plan (for a single connection)
  • Lots of extra add-ons are available

Cons:

  • Only the most expensive plan unlocks streaming, P2P, and Tor over VPN

What is the best VPN?

We found the best VPN is ExpressVPN. It offers a wide range of platforms, great performance, and has server locations in an exceptionally high number of countries. 

Best VPN servicePriceKill SwitchCountriesSimultaneous connections
ExpressVPN$6.67/mo w/1-year plan & 3-free-monthsYes945
Surfshark VPN$2.49/mo w/2-year planYes95unlimited
NordVPN$3.09/mo w/2-year plan & 3 free monthsYes596
IPVanish$3.33/mo w/1-year planYes50Unlimited
ProtonVPN$4.99/mo w/2-year planYes60+1-10, varies by plan

Which is the right VPN for you?

We have written about how VPNs work and how to find the best VPN service for you. Here are four tips to help you evaluate a VPN service for yourself.

1. Pay attention to trial period times and use them: Every VPN performs differently, and every user experience is going to be different still. Your ISP will offer different speeds than mine. Your favorite coffee shop has a different network connection than mine. You're even likely to be connecting to different countries and definitely different sites. Before committing to a VPN provider, test candidates thoroughly in your real-world environment. That's what the trial times and money-back guarantees are for.

2. Avoid free VPN providers: Running a VPN is expensive, and if the VPN provider doesn't make money from your service fees, they're going to make money from your data -- sometimes even stealing your personal information and selling it. Stick with the proven commercial vendors we've tested.

3. Don't worry about the country of jurisdiction unless: There are generally two classes of VPN users, those who need to protect their coffee shop surfing and those counting on a VPN to protect their lives. VPN often provides a level of security theatre where folks get bent out of shape if a country has any form of data jurisdiction. But as I showed in this article, many countries outside of the so-called Five Eyes are Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties signatories and will share data with the US and other countries anyway. If you're using a VPN to protect your life, research this a lot more than reading a review article.

4. Finally, don't sweat warrant canaries and no log policies: Most of you are going to use a VPN to protect your data stream from being hijacked by someone sharing your network. All of these big legal and jurisdictional issues get in the way of the simple fact that you want fast transfers and an encrypted tunnel from your spot in the airport to the website you're trying to access.

Choose this top VPN service…

If you want…

Surfshark VPN

The least expensive top VPN

ExpressVPN

Server locations in the most countries

NordVPN

Consistent speeds

Proton VPN

Lots of add-on features

IPVanish or Surfshark

Unlimited simultaneous connections

Must read:

How did we choose these VPN services?

This list did not involve as much original research and testing as some of my other recommendation lists. That's because I've been writing VPN articles every month or so since early 2017. I have looked at a lot of VPN providers.

Also: Fastest VPN: How we rated the top services

Many of the providers recommended in this list have been subject to in-depth testing and reviews, written either by CNET's product evaluation team or by me. For those, we have tangible testing numbers. Other VPNs have been ones we've been talking about for years, spoken with their management and their users, and have developed a generally positive impression.

But here's the thing: All these vendors have solid money-back guarantees, and we would not have recommended them otherwise. We do test VPN services from multiple locations, but we can't test 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 refund.

One thing to consider is whether you're looking for a solution for working at home vs. traveling. For example, if you travel rarely (even before COVID-19), have strong bandwidth at home, and have a NAS or a server box, you might want to VPN to your home server from your machine's native client and then out to the world. If you're new to working from home and your company has a dedicated VPN, you'll want to use whatever process they've set out for you.

Also:

 
But, generally speaking, it doesn't hurt to have a VPN provider already set up and in your kit bag. Most home-based traffic won't require VPN usage, but having a VPN provider is a good idea if you're on any sort of shared connection. Also, having a VPN provider can be a win if you ever think you'll need to access the Internet from out and about -- like a hospital or doctor's office. Likewise, if you want to obscure where you're connecting from (this might be more important now that we're always in the same place all day), a VPN provider might help.

Finally, don't expect miracles. Your home-based pandemic broadband pipes are likely to be more clogged than ever before. Everyone is at home, many people are streaming movies to stay sane, and there are only so many bits that can fit at any given time. If you experience traffic slowdowns, be sure to check not only your VPN but your Wi-Fi connection between your device and your router, your connection to your broadband provider, and even their connection to upstream providers.

How can I tell if my VPN is working or not?

A fully functioning VPN should protect your privacy and mask your location and IP address. If you're not sure if your VPN is working properly, there are a handful of tools that make checking your VPN's performance easy.

You can find out your IP address and location using whatismyipaddress.com. Just compare the IP address and location when you're connected with a VPN vs. without a VPN. 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 doesn't have any 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. So you may want to run tests with several different sites and compare the results.

Is there native VPN support already on your desktop?

If you're connecting to a corporate VPN, you may not need to purchase a VPN service. All the major desktop operating systems include VPN capabilities. Here's how to get started using those.

Native VPN support on Mac

Connect to a corporate VPN with Apple

If you're connecting to an existing corporate virtual private network, you may not need an additional service. MacOS comes with native VPN support built right in.

Apple provides VPN support for High Sierra, Mojave, Catalina, and now Big Sur. Just pop open System Preferences, head over to the Network tab, and either import the configuration file you were provided or hit the plus button and add a VPN interface. Here's a handy tip sheet from Apple that will walk you through the process.

Native VPN support on Windows

If you're connecting to an established corporate VPN, all you need to do is add a new Windows VPN connection. Point your mouse at the Start menu, type settings, then select Settings, Network & Internet, VPN, then Add VPN. Make sure you have the connection details provided by work and then click on Add a New VPN Connection. Fill in the form and you're good to go. Here's a handy tip sheet from Microsoft.

Windows also allows you to host a VPN server by creating a new incoming network connection, choosing the users who can connect, and telling Windows that the incoming connection is across the internet. You'll also have to configure your router to allow traffic to your computer. 

Native VPN support on Chromebook

Connect your laptop with Google

Sadly, this simple solution isn't built into the standard Chrome browser. If you're just using the browser on a Mac or Windows machine, you'll need a different solution. 

That said, if you're rocking a Chromebook, all you need to do is open Settings and then Network. Click Add Connection. Then all you need to do is choose between OpenVPN and L2TP over IPSec. Google has a handy cheat sheet right here to guide you through the process. 

Linux with WireGuard

Another reason to love open source

WireGuard is Linux's new baked-in VPN capability. Its code is relatively simple and small, making it far easier to maintain, test, and debug. Linus Torvalds, Mr. Linux himself, calls WireGuard "a work of art."

Also: Linux's WireGuard VPN is here and ready to protect you

So what do you need to set up WireGuard? More and more of the VPNs we spotlighted support WireGuard right out of the box. You can download it for Linux. But you can also download a package for Windows, Mac, iOS, Android, and FreeBSD. It's like most open source products, in that you'll need to do some reading and thinking to make it work. But it's free, solid, safe, and, as Linus says, "Can I just once again state my love for it." 

Is there a VPN for your whole home network?

Many of the commercial VPN services discussed above offer router-based VPN solutions. Even though I have a pretty powerful router, I prefer to run my VPN on my NAS. Here are two NAS-based VPN solutions that will get you connected securely.

Synology NAS VPN support

Built-in VPN app on the NAS

If you have a NAS like the top-reviewed Synology, you may already have a NAS app you can set up and protect your whole home network. The Synology server has a very capable little VPN built-in, and it's available free to anyone with the NAS.

If you want to go a step further and use some Synology-exclusive VPN services like Synology SSL VPN, clientless WebVPN, and remote desktop, as well as a site-to-site VPN service, you can do so using the Synology router I reviewed last year

QNAP NAS VPN support

Solid client and server options

QNAP, one of our other top-reviewed NAS vendors, offers a wide range of on-NAS applications, including VPN. The company allows you to configure their NAS as either a server or a client (or both). Here's a handy guide on setting up the VPN service. And here's how to set up the NAS as a VPN client for your whole network.

What's the best free VPN service?

We're spotlighting paid services in this article, although some of them offer a free tier. I generally don't recommend free VPN services because I don't consider them secure. Think about this: Running a good VPN service requires hundreds of servers across the world and a ton of networking resources. It was boo-coo expensive. 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 your eyeballs will probably be sold, and that's never a good thing. After all, you're using a VPN, so your data remains secure. You wouldn't want to then have all that data go to some company to sift through -- it completely defeats the purpose.

Now, before you choose a VPN service, free or paid, I want to make it clear that no one tool can guarantee your privacy. First, anything can be hacked. But more to the point, a VPN protects your data from your computer to the VPN service. It doesn't protect what you put on servers. It doesn't protect your data from the VPN provider's VPN servers to whatever site or cloud-based application you're using. It doesn't give you good passwords or multifactor authentication. Privacy and security require you to be diligent throughout your digital journey, and VPNs, while quite helpful, are not a miracle cure.

What is the best VPN for Chrome?

IPVanish is the best VPN for Chrome. We did an in-depth analysis of servers, performance, Chromebook compatibility and locations and IPVanish topped ExpressVPN and NordVPN.

What is the best VPN for iPhone?

NordVPN is the best VPN for iPhone. We analyzed the number of simultaneous connections, servers, and countries in addition to kill switch ability, logging, speed, ability to unlock streaming services and price and NordVPN came out on top.

Should you use a VPN on your phone or tablet?

If it's your data and you want it to be secure, yes. The same choices are valid regardless of what kind of device you use to transmit and receive data over the Internet.

Is it legal to use a VPN?

Yes, in most countries. Some countries (and you should read my guide for more in-depth info) have made VPN use illegal. And even in countries where it's legal, it's likely to be illegal to use a VPN to spoof a streaming service into giving you content that otherwise wouldn't be accessible. Plus...

Do VPN providers limit usage?

Some do. Check when you sign up. For non-free plans, none of the providers we recommended limit the amount of data you can use. But almost all limit how many devices you can use at once.

What does logging really mean?

Logging is the recording of data about your usage, and it occurs everywhere. Every website, at minimum, records an IP address, time, and data accessed so they can track traffic. All VPN providers have to check credentials against recorded personal data to make sure you paid, but a few let you sign up with Bitcoin, allowing you to completely hide your identity. When we say a VPN doesn't log data, we mean they don't track what sites you visit and for how long, but they may track how much of their own infrastructure you use.

Can you use a VPN to get free Netflix or watch a blacked-out sports event?

Sometimes, but it's likely illegal and probably fattening. There's an ongoing arms race where the media vendors are getting better at identifying and blocking VPN connections, so each case is different. And that's all we can say about it, because... illegal.

If you use a VPN to link to your office, do you need a separate VPN?

A VPN for your office only securely links to your office. If you want to securely link to anywhere else, you'll need another VPN service.

What's this kill switch thing?

So let's say you're surfing along, and all of a sudden, your VPN connection fails. Your phone or computer is likely to immediately try to reconnect and do so directly without going through a VPN. All of a sudden, your data is unprotected. A kill switch is a feature in your device's VPN app that detects that connection fails and immediately shuts down network access. Like with everything, it's not a 100% perfect solution, but these days, I wouldn't recommend using a VPN that doesn't offer a kill switch.

What do simultaneous connections mean and why should you care?

I'll give you a personal example. When I travel, I often take my laptop and my tablet. I use the laptop to write, and I use the tablet as a second screen to look stuff up. I have two connections I'm using at once and I want my VPN to protect both. If my wife is also doing the same thing, that's four connections. Add our phones, and you have six connections. If we're using all those devices at once, that's simultaneous connections. The more, the better.

Does a VPN slow down your connection?

Let's be clear: Using a VPN does add a bit of a load on your computer and can often slow down your connection. That's because your data is encrypted, decrypted, and sent through intermediate servers. Game responsiveness might suffer. You might have enough lag to lose the shot if you're a first-person shooter player. That said, both computers and VPNs have gotten much faster. When I first used a VPN, every... thing...slowed... down... to... an... unbearable... c-r-a-w-l. But now, the negative impact is almost unnoticeable.

Also, most (but not all!) of the VPN providers we spotlight limit the number of devices you can connect to simultaneously, so you may have to pick and choose which home devices to connect to.

What about all those weird protocol words?

If you've been shopping for a VPN service, you've undoubtedly come across a bunch of names like SSL, OpenVPN, SSTP, L2TP/IPSec, PPP, PPTP, IKEv2/IPSec, SOCKS5, and more. These are all communication protocols. They are, essentially, the name of the method by which your communication is encrypted and packaged for tunneling to the VPN provider. To be honest, while VPN geeks can argue over protocols for hours, you're probably good enough if you just use the default setup by your provider.

Are there alternative VPN services worth considering?

If the products that made it into our top five don't suit your needs, there are a number of alternative VPN providers you may want to consider. 

Here are three worthwhile options:

CyberGhost VPN has excellent pricing on the three-year plan ($2.29/mo) and a 45-day money-back guarantee, but the performance was just adequate. 

VyprVPN is owned by the Swiss-based company Golden Frog, one big advantage to this service is Golden Frog owns and manages its own infrastructure. So they don't have to worry about issues with third-party providers, like what happened with NordVPN back in 2018.

Private Internet Access VPN has excellent coverage for the US, with servers (physical & virtual) located in all 50 states.

Editorial standards

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