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The fastest VPNs: Get great speeds without sacrificing security

ZDNET tested 17 different VPNs across 10 different servers to find the fastest VPN.

Most people choose to use a VPN for privacy and security reasons, with the purpose of remaining safe online. Beyond preventing their data from being intercepted, they also want to obscure their location, change their apparent country of origin, and -- sometimes -- violate terms of service by watching entertainment they're not supposed to access.

But because all that data has to go through the VPN provider's network, there's natural friction applied to data transmission rates. With a few exceptions, using a VPN slows down your network access. Most of the time, that performance hit isn't enough to reduce your quality of service, but it can have an impact on your network usage. That's why finding out which VPNs are the fastest -- in other words, what VPNs don't suck your performance away -- is important to finding the best VPN for you.

Also: Best VPNs for streaming

Pros & Cons
Pros
  • Free plan with unlimited data (one connection)
  • Top-tier security
  • Ultra fast connection times
  • Tons of features
Cons
  • No live chat support
More Details

Proton VPN features: Download speed: 22% reduction Simultaneous connections: Up to 10 | Kill switch: Yes | Platforms: Windows, MacOS, iOS, Android, Linux, routers, Android TV | Logging: No activity logs | Countries: 66 | Money-back guarantee: 30 days

Not only was Proton VPN the second fastest VPN we tested, it also had the most consistent performance and lightning fast connection times. What pushes Proton VPN to the top of our fastest VPN rankings -- over the slightly faster Tunnelbear VPN -- is its variety of options and top-tier privacy and security. It supports streaming and P2P filing sharing. You also have access to built-in tools for blocking ads, trackers and malware, and useful features such as split tunneling.

Proton VPN is a bit more expensive than some competitors, but when you consider the quality and performance of the product it's a steal. Overall it's hard to find fault with a service that is solid from top to bottom. However, it doesn't seem to have a live chat support feature, although the email support was prompt (within 24 hours) and helpful. 

Pros & Cons
Pros
  • Ultra fast
  • Simple and fun apps
  • Yearly security audit
Cons
  • Missing key features on some platforms
  • No chat support
More Details

TunnelBear VPN features: Download speed: 18% reduction Simultaneous connections: Unlimited | Kill switch: Yes | Platforms: Windows, macOS, iOS, Android, Chrome, Firefox | Logging: No activity logs | Countries: 48 | Money-back guarantee: None

Every VPN advertises itself as fast, but Tunnelbear is one of the few services that backs up that claim. It came out on top of our speed tests, only cutting download speeds by 18%. Tunnelbear's server map layout is fun and easy to use on all its apps, and the connection times were excellent in our testing. 

Tunnelbear VPN has all of the main features you'd expect to have in a good VPN service, such as split tunneling (Splitbear), a kill switch (Vigilantbear), and an obfuscated VPN connection (Ghostbear). However, these features aren't available on all platforms, the iOS client only has Splitbear while the Windows and macOS clients lack the split tunneling option.

Pros & Cons
Pros
  • Feature-rich apps
  • Reliable and fast connections
Cons
  • Limited to six connections
More Details

NordVPN features: Download speeds: 32% reduction | Simultaneous connections6 | Kill switch: Yes | Platforms: Windows, macOS, iOS, Android, Linux, Android TV, Chrome, Firefox | Logging: No activity logs | Countries: 59 | Money-back guarantee: 30 days

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

NordVPN is the third fastest VPN according to our tests, and only cut download speeds by an average of 32%. NordVPN has a sizable server network and its apps are loaded with features and the user interface makes connecting to specific types of servers (P2P, double VPN) a breeze. NordVPN is also ZDNET's best VPN for iPhone.

Read our review: NordVPN review

If you want to try out NordVPN for yourself, it offers the standard 30-day money-back guarantee. There are also a number of additional features you can add for a fee, including a secure password manager, and an encrypted cloud storage service.

Pros & Cons
Pros
  • Huge server network
  • Compatible with an extensive list of devices
  • 24/7 live chat support
Cons
  • Expensive
  • Only five connections at once
More Details

ExpressVPN features: Download speed: 37% reduction Simultaneous connections: 5 | Kill switch: Yes | Platforms: Windows, macOS, iOS, Android, Linux, and a whole lot more | Logging: No browsing logs, some connection logs | Countries: 94 | Money-back guarantee: 30 days

ExpressVPN is ZDNET's 4th fastest VPN service, cutting average download speeds by 37%. This service is notable for having VPN servers in the largest number of countries and is compatible with a huge number of platforms and devices, including: Windows, MacOS, Linux, iOS, Android, Amazon Fire tablet, Chromebook, a number of routers, and a variety of streaming and gaming consoles. There are also browser extensions for Chrome and Firefox.

Read our review: ExpressVPN review

ExpressVPN works for unblocking streaming and P2P file sharing. It also owns the server infrastructure it uses and has a variety of encryption protocols to choose from. ExpressVPN also has excellent customer support with a live chat option available 24/7. 

However, if you're looking for a budget VPN, this isn't the one for you. It's one of the more expensive VPNs and you're limited to only five simultaneous connections. The company does log some information, including the dates you connected, the server location, and the amount of data transferred. It claims that none of the information can be used to connect a user to any online activity, and it does not log traffic destinations, DNS requests, browsing history or IP addresses. You can read more about its privacy policy here.

AlsoHow does ExpressVPN work? Plus, how to set it up and use it

Pros & Cons
Pros
  • Unlimited connections
  • Fantastic price
  • Independent security audit
Cons
  • Fewer server locations
  • Slower connection times
More Details

Atlas VPN specs: Download speed: 38% reduction | Simultaneous connections: Unlimited | Platforms: Windows, macOS, Android, iOS, Linux, Android TV, Amazon Fire TV |  Kill switch: Yes | Logging: No activity logs | Countries: 38 | Money-back guarantee: 30 days

Atlas VPN's premium service came in fifth place in our testing, cutting download speeds by 38%. It did have slower connection times, we even lost a connection once. That said, it still performs very well and comes with unlimited simultaneous connections, which makes it an excellent option for protecting all of your devices with a single subscription.

Right now Atlas VPN is running a Black Friday deal and you can subscribe to a two-year plan and get six additional months for free. That drops the average monthly cost down to $1.64/mo, which is a good discount considering it normally costs over $2/mo for the same plan.

Also: Best cheap VPNs 

What is the best fast VPN?

We've ranked Proton VPN as the best fast VPN even though it was a touch slower than TunnelBear VPN in this round of testing. Proton VPN has a bunch of useful features, especially for anyone concerned about privacy or security. It also has a fairly large network of servers, and its apps are straightforward and well-designed.

Best fast VPN PriceKill switchSpeed reductionSimultaneous connections
Proton$4.99/mo w/ 2-year plan + 6 free monthsYes22%Up to 10
TunnelBear$3.33/mo w/ 3-year planYes18%Unlimited
NordVPN$2.99/mo w/ 2-year plan + 3 free monthsYes32%6
ExpressVPN$8.32/mo w/ 1-year plan + 3 free monthsYes37%5
Atlas$1.64/mo w/ 2-year plan + 6 free monthsYes38%Unlimited

Which is the right fast VPN for you?

Speed is only one aspect of what makes a VPN service a good fit for you. You'll want to make sure the VPN supports all of your devices and has enough connections to secure them at the same time. 

It's also important to do a little hands-on testing yourself. You may get wildly different results than we did depending on your connection, the servers you connect to, and a variety of other factors. Most VPNs have a money-back guarantee period, free trial, or limited free service you can use to test out the product before committing.

Choose this Fast VPNIf you want...
Proton The best privacy and security
NordVPNFeature-laden apps
ExpressVPNA massive server network
Proton or TunnelBearThe best download speeds
Atlas or TunnelBearUnlimited connections

How did we choose these fast VPNs?

There is such a large number of variables that can affect your VPN speeds that choosing the fastest VPNs isn't an exact science. Your location, internet infrastructure, server location, encryption protocol, and what you're trying to download or access all matter. Even if we were able to set up a testing system that controlled for every possible variable it might not produce meaningful results because that's not how you will be using the VPN service.

To come up with our list of the fastest VPNs, we tested 17 VPN services. Each VPN's download speed was tested over two days and 10 different server locations. The VPN protocol was set to automatic, which allows the VPN to choose the best protocol for that server. Before each test, we did a full factory reset on the testing device. Whenever possible, we connected to servers in the following countries, or the closest server if the specific country wasn't available:

  • Brazil
  • Germany
  • Japan
  • Mexico
  • Netherlands
  • Singapore
  • Turkey
  • UK
  • US

Before each test, we measured a baseline download speed so we could calculate how much the speed was reduced. If we ran these tests every month it's likely we'd have a different order for the top 5 or 10 VPNs each time. But my guess is that the slowest VPNs would always be near the bottom and the fastest ones would consistently be near the top with this method. We've listed the bottom half of the top 10 fastest VPNs from our testing below since it's possible that next time around they could find their way into the top 5.

Do I need a VPN?

A VPN is an important tool for maintaining privacy and security online. While it won't protect you from malware or phishing attempts, it does keep prying eyes from tracking your browsing habits. If you don't want your internet service provider or favorite (or least favorite) social media app from logging your every move, then you'll want to use a VPN regularly.

However, there are other security measures you can take that protect you just as much or more than a VPN. Using a secure password manager, setting up multi-factor authentication, and using a good ad and tracker blocker (some VPNs have this built-in) are just as important as using a VPN.

How can I increase my VPN speed?

Outside of improving the speed of your general internet connection by upgrading your internet service, or making sure you have the right Wi-Fi router, there are steps you can take to maximize your VPNs performance.

The encryption protocol you use for your VPN connection can have a big impact on your speed. Depending on the VPN, you'll usually have anywhere from three to six protocols to choose from. Test out each protocol to see which performs the best. You may find different protocols perform better or worse for specific tasks or situations, although WireGuard is likely to be the fastest protocol if you have it as an option.

If you don't need to connect to a specific server location, then choosing the closer server to your physical location should help improve your speed. Some VPN apps will show the server load, which is helpful because busy servers will dramatically decrease your speed.

There are also certain VPN features that can impact your speed. Avoid double VPN connections if you want to maximize speed because connecting through two servers slows things down. And if your VPN has a split tunneling feature you can use it to route the traffic from specific apps or websites through or around your VPN connection. This allows you to increase the speed of certain tasks by keeping that connection unencumbered by the VPN.

What is the fastest free VPN?

We haven't tested any free VPNs for speed but when it comes to free VPN services, speed is only one potential limitation. There are a number of reputable VPNs that offer limited versions of their service for free. These VPNs are typically only useful for testing out the service before upgrading because you often won't have access to the full suite of features, and the data and speed limitations can be severe.

The only free VPN that has the potential for everyday use is Proton VPN's free service. It has no data limits and comes with the same level of security as the paid version.

Outside of freemium VPN services, you should avoid any VPN that advertises itself as completely free. These companies will make money one way or another. You could be drowned in ads, or have your data sold. If you value your privacy, it's best to stick with a paid VPN, and there are plenty of cheap VPNs worth trying out.

Are there alternative fast VPNs worth considering?

Here are the next three fastest VPNs we tested:

  • VyprVPN -- reduced download speeds by 41%
  • Hide.me VPN -- reduced download speeds by 42%
  • CyberGhost VPN -- reduced download speeds by 44%
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