Overview of the Best VPNs in 2021

Our analysis and overview of the best virtual private network providers in 2021

Written by
  • Tyler Cooper
Jan 4, 2021

Over the years, we’ve received hundreds of questions from consumers about how to make their internet service better, including questions about VPNs, or Virtual Private Networks. These services are essential for millions of internet users, and we created this page to help you decide if you need a VPN, how to choose one, what to look for, and how to use a VPN effectively. We’ve also provided a description of “power-user” features, and the pros and cons of the top products so you can choose the best VPN for your specific needs. These include ExpressVPN, NordVPN, CyberGhost, Surfshark, Hotspot Shield, Windscribe, Ecrypt.me, Tunnelbear, IPVanish.

About the Author:
My name is Tyler Cooper, and I’m the editor-in-chief at BroadbandNow. I’ve been writing about, configuring, and generally obsessing over networking hardware and software solutions for over a decade. As a former system designer for a large custom integrations company in Dallas, Texas, my aim with this guide is to provide you with an actionable, easy to understand resource to refer to when choosing a VPN.

 

Table of Contents

Introduction to VPNs

Overview of the most popular/best VPNs

Methodology, Resources & Sources

 

What is a VPN?

First thing’s first; VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. Essentially, it is a service that disguises or “masks” your internet service, making it appear as though it is originating from elsewhere.

When you visit a website from your home internet connection, you are providing that website with an IP Address, which is a bit like providing your street address. When you visit a website through a VPN, you are providing the VPNs “street” address to the website instead. This can be useful for a number of reasons.

What is a VPN

Why do I need a VPN?

You might want to use a VPN if you are trying to do any of the following:

  • Access websites blocked in your region
  • Securely browse sensitive personal data
  • Download torrents and other media
  • Access cheaper prices for certain goods
  • Access remote work platforms
  • Increase your security and sense of privacy online in general

 

Most important VPN features

All VPN products offer the basic functionality of masking your home connection, but there are a number of features that are more specific, yet equally important.

Simultaneous connections

Today, consumers have an average of 11 connected devices in their home. Having a VPN that allows you to use multiple of them at the same time under your virtual network is critical. Thankfully, most quality VPN services offer this feature as of 2021, but some do not have as many as others, so it’s important to pay close attention to this before signing up.

Transparent logging

VPNs handle the “logging” of your online activities in different ways. Some of them can store certain elements of your browsing history for a period of time, sometimes for several months or more.

Ideally, you want to seek out a service that offers a “no log” policy, as these will be the most private. However, it is crucial to read the terms carefully, as some providers will claim that they do not log while still collecting certain scraps of data, such as session logs which might reveal your activities.

Large number of servers

When you connect to a virtual private network, your personal connection is communicating with a server in a secondary location. In an ideal situation, this server will be as close as possible to your home, so that your network performance doesn’t suffer too drastically.

Cross-platform functionality

Our recommendation for most users is to choose a VPN that not only has dedicated PC and Mac applications, but also Android and iOS versions as well. This way, you can ensure that you are getting the most bang for your buck when it comes to committing to one service.

Integrated network kill switch

No matter how solid your VPN is, no service is perfect. There will be times when your virtual connection fails, which can lead to your actual network (and associated IP address) being “leaked out”. This is especially common when your preferred service is under heavy load.

For this reason, it’s crucial to ensure that your VPN has what is referred to as an integrated kill switch. This is an emergency function that will automatically “kill” the connection, preventing data from being transferred.

SmartDNS support

SmartDNS functionality allows you to access one of the most useful features of a VPN – the ability to bypass “geoblocked” content restrictions – without sacrificing speed due to connecting to a virtual network.

Additionally, some devices, like Apple TV for instance, do not allow a VPN to be directly installed. If your VPN supports SmartDNS, you can still use it in conjunction with your regular network to bypass content restrictions in this case.


 

VPN Privacy Considerations

When shopping around for a VPN, there are a few key privacy considerations to keep front-of-mind.

What is encryption?

Put simply, encryption is the process of taking sensitive data and making it indiscernible to anyone outside of a secure environment. Data is commonly converted into ciphertext – random strings of characters that are meaningless on their own – before being sent across the internet at large. When they arrive at their destination, a unique “key” is used to translate the ciphertext back into something intelligible.

What is encryption

Encryption is honestly an entire ocean of a topic, and one that’s well above the scope of this guide. What you should know, for the purposes of buying the best VPN, is that it is generally accepted that AES-256 encryption is the most robust on offer currently. It is the only standard to be officially endorsed by the National Security Agency (NSA), and is virtually unbreakable by today’s standards.

What are 5 Eyes, 9 Eyes, and 14 Eyes?

What are 5 Eyes, 9 Eyes, and 14 Eyes

Starting around the time of the Cold War, an alliance today known as 5 Eyes began off the back of an intelligence pact called the UKUSA Agreement. Originally an intel-sharing agreement between the United Kingdom and the United States, the two superpowers were shortly joined by New Zealand, Canada, and Australia.

In the early 2000’s the existence of at least two more global intelligence-sharing agreements was disclosed. Commonly referred to as 9 Eyes and 14 Eyes, these include even more countries across the globe, each with varying levels of involvement and organization. Here’s a visual breakdown showcasing each member-state:

Company History & Location

It’s generally a good idea to look into the parent company behind a given VPN before hopping onboard. Where a company is located (as in, whether it is in a 5 / 9 / 14 Eyes country) is an important consideration to make when choosing a VPN. All of the options in this guide have been vetted by our team, and any information we felt relevant to each is disclosed below. That said, the world of cybersecurity is one marked by constant change, so it’s a good idea to check in every now and then and ensure everything is above board.

 

Are Free VPNs a Good Alternative?

If you do some searching, you’ll likely come across several VPN services that claim to be 100% free. Unfortunately, the vast majority of these services cannot be trusted. In a recent investigation, Metric Labs uncovered that 59% of the free VPNs they tested had tangible business links to the Chinese government, and 86% of them had questionable privacy policies, including a severe lack of logging policies and other privacy details. Some services even explicitly stated that they share data with Chinese authorities.

If you are determined to go with a free option, I can only sincerely recommend that you read through the privacy and data sections extremely carefully. If there isn’t one, consider this a massive red flag, and sign up at your own peril!

 

Overview of the Best VPN Providers

VPN Best for Company Location Network kill switch? Number of servers Number of countries Platforms Number of devices
ExpressVPN Users looking for the best overall VPN experience in 2021 British Virgin Isles Yes 160 96 Mac, Windows, Linux, iOS, Android 5
NordVPN Users who love to configure and tinker with settings Panama Yes 5400+ 59 Mac, Windows, Linux, iOS, Android 6
CyberGhost Dedicated Apple users Bucharest, Romania Yes 6700+ 90 Windows, Mac, Android, iOS 7
Surfshark Privacy minded users British Virgin Isles Yes 1700+ 63 Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS, Android Unlimited
Hotspot Shield Users  looking for speeds above all U.S. / Ukraine / Russia Yes 115+ 80 Windows, Mac, Android, iOS 5(25 with family plan)
Windscribe Users looking for a full-suite digital privacy solution Ontario, Canada Yes 110 63 Windows, Mac, Android, iOS Unlimited
Encrypt.Me Budget-minded users who need unlimited device support Los Angeles, CA Yes 70+ 40 Windows, Mac, Android, iOS Unlimited
TunnelBear Less tech-savvy users Toronto, Canada Yes 20 20 Windows, Mac, Android, iOS 6
IPVanish Android power users U.S. Yes 1500+ 50+ Windows, mac, Android, iOS Unlimited

ExpressVPN Logo

ExpressVPN

Company location: British Virgin Islands

Integrated network kill switch: Yes

Number of servers: 160 in 96 countries

Platforms: Mac, Windows, Linux, iOS and Android

Number of devices: 5

Website: https://www.expressvpn.com/

Customer support: https://www.expressvpn.com/support/

Strengths

  • 24/7 support available
  • Unblocks all major content services (tested with Netflix, Hulu, Disney Plus, Amazon Prime Video, and YouTube)
  • Streamlined, all around excellent user experience
  • 30-day money back guarantee
  • Concise no-logging policy

Weaknesses

  • Only allows for five simultaneous connections, which is lower than some others on this list
  • Not as many server locations as some options, which may or may not be an issue depending upon your goals

ExpressVPN tops many “best of” lists on the web for VPNs, and there are a few very good reasons for this. The service is truly seamless, taking the once-clumsy experience of using a VPN and making virtually every aspect as simplistic and functional as possible. It’s easy to get caught up in the service’s impressive technical specs, but ultimately, many of us want a VPN that just works, and ExpressVPN delivers.

Using U.S. government-level AES-256 encryption with multiple protocols to choose from, the service is incredibly secure, and what’s more, the refreshingly clear no-logging policy employed by ExpressVPN is best-in-class. The VPN keeps only the most basic data behind your activity, including the version you use, the date and time it was used, the server location, and the amount of data that was exchanged. Nothing else stays.

Installing and configuring the software was also a breeze. The file is very small, and the user interface on Mac and Windows is about as utilitarian as they come. When you log in, the VPN’s “Smart Location” function will automatically select the best server location for you, so all you need to do is enable the protection and it’s off to the races.

Bringing it all together, ExpressVPN is the most complete package we’ve ever tested. Additional features like an integrated network kill switch, bitcoin and P2P support, and SmartDNS functionality across a wide range of streaming devices makes for a service that truly sets the gold standard.

ExpressVPN Speed Tests

Download Speed Reduction Upload Speed Reduction Latency Increase
55% 21% 0%

Every VPN is going to degrade network performance to an extent, and ExpressVPN is no exception. Tested on a Mac over WiFi, we found that speeds decreased by about half for download, though upload wasn’t as dramatic. Interestingly, no change in latency was recorded when using the VPN from the local server it suggested.

expressvpn-speed-tests

NordVPN

Company location: Panama

Integrated network kill switch: Yes

Number of servers: 5400+ in 59 countries

Platforms: Windows, MacOS, iOS, Android, Linux

Number of devices: 6

Website: https://nordvpn.com/

Customer support: https://support.nordvpn.com/

Strengths

  • Large amount of server options
  • Support for 6 devices simultaneously
  • Some of the fastest speeds of any VPN we tested
  • 30-day money back guarantee
  • Based in Panama, non-member of 4 Eyes, 9 Eyes, 14 Eyes

Weaknesses

  • Has precedent for being compromised in 2018
  • User experience is not as streamlined as other options (but the tradeoff here is far more customization)

NordVPN is one of the most established names in the business, and for good reason. The company has long offered a robust, affordable option for those looking to secure their connections, and the company’s offering in 2021 is no exception. NordVPN offers support for iOS and Android mobile devices, as well as Windows, Linux, and Mac support, and it has more server options than most services on this list.

NordVPN operates out of Panama, and as such isn’t subject to cooperation with 5 Eyes, 9 Eyes, or 14 Eyes. The company also includes a transparent no-logging policy that is one of the best in the industry. No IP, data transfer, or history information is logged whatsoever.

The service has a SmartDNS functionality called SmartPlay that works beautifully for blocking Netflix, Youtube, Hulu, and other streaming content that may not be available in your region. We found this easy and intuitive to use on both desktop and mobile devices.

NordVPN Speed tests

Download Speed Reduction Upload Speed Reduction Latency Increase
None (19% increase) None (65% increase) 33%

NordVPN’s servers held up exceedingly well in our speed tests. So well, in fact, that upload and download speeds actually received a noticeable increase over my unprotected network on a Macbook Pro. Download speeds increased by 19%, while upload speeds saw a whopping 65% increase. The company’s servers are robust, generating similar speeds across many different cities, only starting to slow in the most distant locations.

NordVPN Speed tests

CyberGhost

Company location: Bucharest, Romania

Integrated network kill switch: Yes

Number of servers: 6700+ across 90 countries

Platforms: MacOS, Windows,  iOS, Android, Linux

Number of devices: 7

Website: https://www.cyberghostvpn.com/en_US/

Customer support: https://www.cyberghostvpn.com/en_US/contact

Strengths

  • Huge amount of servers to choose from
  • 24/7 live support via email or live chat
  • Highly optimized for MacOS and iOS ecosystems
  • Generous 45-day money back guarantee

Weaknesses

  • Costs extra to get the best security features like NoSpy servers

CyberGhost may be slightly lesser known than some other software, but it’s also one of my favorites from our testing list. Being primarily a Mac/Apple user in general, the user experience with this VPN feels so tightly integrated to these ecosystems that if it wasn’t for the color scheme on display in the UI, you might mistake this for a first party Apple solution. The minimalist setup will be welcomed by folks looking to keep it simple, while the expanding set of options include plenty to keep other users happy as well.

The VPN employs AES 256-bit encryption, backing it up with a comprehensive no-logging policy. The company explicitly states that no IP, DNS, browsing history, connection timestamp, session duration, bandwidth usage, or server location information is collected.

Like many other services, CyberGhost will automatically connect to the best server based on your location. You can also manually choose from a dizzying number of servers – more than 6600, with 90 counties to choose from. That’s the most of any in this guide, and for some users, this alone may make it their VPN of choice.

The service doesn’t include any robust DNS functions for standalone streaming media devices or routers, which also may disqualify it for some. That said, it is easily one of the most fluid, functional VPNs on the market.

CyberGhost Speed tests

Download Speed Reduction Upload Speed Reduction Latency Increase
20% 19% 0%

Our speed testing with CyberGhost showed relatively minor performance degradation in upload and download speeds, dropping them by 19% and 20%, respectively. Latency was unaffected, and we observed similar results even from more distant virtual locations.

CyberGhost Speed tests

 

Surfshark

Company location: British Virgin Isles

Integrated network kill switch: Yes

Number of servers: 1700+ servers in 63 countries

Platforms: Windows, Android, MacOS, iOS, Linux

Number of devices: Unlimited

Website: https://surfshark.com/

Customer support: https://support.surfshark.com/hc/en-us

Strengths

  • Unlimited number of devices is a significant plus
  • CleanWeb function is a seamless ad blocker / and-tracking tool
  • 30-day money back guarantee
  • Simplistic whitelist tool is great for services that you want to remain on-network
  • MultiHop tool allows for multilayered obfuscation of your location

Weaknesses

  •  A relative lack of customization and advanced settings may put some power users off

Surfshark is another full suite digital privacy tool that centers around a robust VPN service. It features a clean interface and a simplistic, functional set of mobile apps. For many users, the ability to block ads, trackers, and malware online will make this an ideal solution, especially when coupled with the fact that Surfshark can be installed and running on unlimited devices simultaneously.

Surfshark’s no-log policy states that they do not collect IP addresses, browsing history, bandwidth, session, network traffic, or connection timestamp information. The service employs industry-standard AES-256 encryption, and features an integrated killswitch to cover you if your connection to the VPN ever drops.

Surfshark also includes some novel features worth mentioning, like the Multihop mode that lets you route your connection through multiple locations at once, making it even more difficult to discern your actual location. There’s also camouflage mode, which the company claims will mask your VPN usage from your internet service provider.

Surfshark Speed tests

Download Speed Reduction Upload Speed Reduction Latency Increase
35% 3% 60%

Surfshark performed pretty well overall in our speed testing. In particular, upload speeds barely suffered at all in our testing, though download speeds dropped by 35% and latency was noticeably increased.

Surfshark Speed tests

 

Hotspot Shield

Company location: U.S. / Ukraine / Russia

Integrated network kill switch:

Number of servers: “115+ locations” (80 countries, 35 cities within them)

Platforms: Windows, Android, MacOS, iOS, Linux

Number of devices: 5/25**

Website: https://www.hotspotshield.com/

Customer support: https://support.hotspotshield.com/hc/en-us

Strengths

  • Great performance when using the company’s proprietary Hydra protocol
  • Family plan may appeal to some
  • 30-day money back guarantee

Weaknesses

  • Not as many server options to choose from as several other options
  • Generally unimpressive mobile experience on iOS

Hotspot Shield’s brand identity is based around being “the world’s fastest VPN”. During our own tests, we found that the service did indeed provide some of the fastest speeds of any on this list (more on this below).

Hotspot Shield has a serviceable UI, and I’ve actually used it for several years, but that is long enough to develop a few frustrations with it, though minor. In terms of customization, you won’t find the same level of granularity here as some of the other services in this guide, but there’s enough for most users who are looking for a focused VPN experience.

Hotspot Shield supports 5 simultaneous devices, and this includes advanced router support, as well as several different smart TV brands. The company also offers a “Premium Family” plan that supports up to 25 devices, 5 per family member account. Both plans have SmartVPN support, allowing you to whitelist certain domains or platforms.

Hotspot Shield Speed tests

Download Speed Reduction Upload Speed Reduction Latency Increase
19% 34% 20%

Does Hotspot Shield live up to its speedy claims? The service utilizes a proprietary “Catapult Hydra” protocol, which it claims delivers best-in-class speeds. Our testing found that while there were still noticeable degradations in performance, it was less apparent than several other VPNs we tested. Download and upload speeds dropped by 19% and 34% respectively, while network latency increased by 20% from 5ms to 6ms.

Hotspot Shield Speed tests

 

Windscribe

Company location: Ontario, Canada

Integrated network kill switch: Yes

Number of servers: 110 locations in 63 countries

Platforms: Windows, Android, MacOS, iOS, Linux

Number of devices: Unlimited

Website: https://windscribe.com

Customer support: https://windscribe.com/support

Strengths

  • Another service that offers unlimited devices, a huge plus
  • Integrated ad blocker functionality works well
  • Unblocks Youtube, Netflix, Hulu, and others
  • The ability to build out a custom plan for only the features you want is a novel approach
  • 30-day money back guarantee

Weaknesses

  • Slightly slower speeds than other options on our shortlist
  • Based in Canada, member of 5 Eyes
  • No live chat support

Windscribe is another robust network privacy option that amounts to more than a VPN. For some users, the additional features may just be bloat, but for others, a more feature-complete software suite might be just what is needed. The Chrome extension, for instance, has seamless ad-blocking and tracker-blocking functions, as well as a secure link generator, which could prove useful for journalists, political figures and others who need to secure files and transfers on a regular basis.

Windscribe is another VPN with a slightly smaller amount of virtual locations to choose from. That said, the locations are spread evenly across the world, and it also offers a tightly integrated firewall function, AES-256 encryption and the company’s own “R.O.B.E.R.T” assistant, which offers highly customizable server-side domain and IP-blocking functionality.

Windscribe’s Canada base of operations means that the company is subject to the country’s privacy laws, as well as its membership in 5 Eyes. For many users, this won’t be an issue, but for those looking for a truly private service, it is important to bear in mind.

Windscribe Speed tests

Download Speed Reduction Upload Speed Reduction Latency Increase
44% 9% 33%

Windscribe network performance was decent, though we did observe a level of degradation that may put more speed-sensitive users off. This was felt far more in download speeds than uploads, which suffered by 44%. Latency also increased by 33%.

Windscribe Speed tests

 

Encrypt.me

Company location: Los Angeles, CA

Integrated network kill switch:

Number of servers: 70+ in 40 countries

Platforms: Windows, Mac, iOS, Android

Number of devices: Unlimited

Website: https://encrypt.me/

Customer support: https://help.encrypt.me/hc/en-us

Strengths

  • Unlimited number of devices is yet again a noteworthy strength
  • Wide variety of plan options is nice, including several inexpensive “mini-plans”
  • Streamlined and robust mobile app for iOS
  • 30-day money back guarantee

Weaknesses

  • Based in the U.S., a 5 Eyes member
  • Slower network speeds than other options
  • Not truly zero-log

Encrypt.me is another lightweight VPN solution that isn’t trying to be all things, all the time. The website makes this clear – annoying so – by not including a ton of information about what the service offers as far as protection goes.

The VPN offers 70 server locations to choose from, which while not topping the list in this department is certainly more than enough for many looking for this sort of basic VPN functionality to begin with.

Unfortunately, it appears that Encrypt.me is not truly devoid of logging, either. The website states that the service keeps some records, including incoming IP addresses, virtual IP info, the amount of data sent and received, the duration you’re connected, and the source port of each individual connection, with timestamps, for 16 days. For many users, this won’t matter in the context of simply staying secure online or unblocking content, but for others, it’ll be a dealbreaker, especially considering its U.S location.

Encrypt.me Speed tests

Download Speed Reduction Upload Speed Reduction Latency Increase
75% 46% 17%

Encrypt.me’s speed performance left something to be desired, lowering download speeds by 75%. To be fair, there wasn’t a server available in the same state as our testing location. During our testing, we found that though download speeds suffered more than upload, the latter was still reduced by 46%. Ping was increased by 17%.

Encrypt.me Speed tests

 

Tunnelbear

Company location: Toronto, Canada

Integrated network kill switch: Yes

Number of servers: 20 servers in as many countries

Platforms: Windows, Mac, iOS, Android

Number of devices: 5

Website: https://www.tunnelbear.com

Customer support: https://www.tunnelbear.com/support/

Strengths

  • Built with simplicity in mind, which can be great for more basic users
  • Transparent and robust no-logging policy
  • 30-day money back guarantee

Weaknesses

  • Only 20 location options will surely leave something to be desired for many
  • Based in Canada, member of 5 Eyes

Tunnelbear seems built for a very specific type of user. The service takes a sleek, minimalist approach to digital privacy, and as such, it may appeal to users simply looking for the most streamlined, plug-and-play experience. I could also see this being a fantastic low-touch digital privacy tool for non-technologically inclined folks, like older relatives and children. The adorable UX and single click setup could make for far less of a headache for all the tech-savvy family tech gurus out there.

The point is further solidified with a bevy of features clearly design for those who don’t want to get lost in settings-land; an always-on, launch at startup feature, a very clear server selection process, and an adorable bear-themed interface all make this a delightfully lightweight and unobtrusive VPN solution.

In addition, Tunnelbear has an excellent no logging policy. Like many other services on this list, it collects no IP addresses, DNS queries, identifying information, or website history while the service is being used. In addition, the company regularly performs independent audits of its services for both security and privacy.

Tunnelbear Speed tests

Download Speed Reduction Upload Speed Reduction Latency Increase
61% 32% 700%

Tunnelbear’s network performance was very middle-of-the-road. It can’t hold up to the other, more speed-centric services in this guide, but it wasn’t exactly a slouch, either. Download speeds were more affected than upload at 61%. Unfortunately, ping inexplicably increased by 700%.

Tunnelbear Speed tests

 

IPVanish

Company location: U.S.

Integrated network kill switch: Yes

Number of servers: 1500+ in 50+ countries

Platforms: Windows, Mac, iOS, Android

Number of devices: Unlimited

Website: https://www.ipvanish.com

Customer support: https://support.ipvanish.com/hc/en-us

Strengths

  • Fantastic tutorial is great for users who are new to VPN’s and networking in general
  • Unlimited devices in an inexpensive plan
  • Offers a generous student discount
  • 30-day money back guarantee

Weaknesses

  • Slower download speeds than expected overall
  • Lack of kill switch in the iOS application (not tested on Android)
  • Based in the U.S. (and as such, subject to its privacy laws)

IPVanish may be lesser known than some of the other VPN solutions in this guide, but it’s another option that I genuinely admire for its streamlined layout and functionality. In particular, the iOS mobile goes far beyond the standard fare, offering a ton of depth and flexibility in terms of settings for those looking for something more robust on their mobile device. Support was able to be accessed directly from the app, which is a small but much appreciated touch.

Having the ability to host unlimited devices simultaneously is another strong point with IPVanish, and for multimedia fans, the VPN’s tightly integrated Kodi support might make it the perfect solution.

IPVanish Speed tests

Download Speed Reduction Upload Speed Reduction Latency Increase
65% 44% 0%

IPVanish suffered more on the download speed front than I would’ve liked to see, at a 65% reduction. Upload speeds were lowered by 44% as well. That said, the service introduced no additional latency, which was a welcome change of pace from several other services we tested.

IPVanish Speed tests

Speed Test Methodology

We measured network upload, download, and latency performance both before and after enabling each individual VPN for this guide. For each service, we either chose the “auto” connect option, or the server closest to our testing location. We then took the delta between the speeds and organized each section accordingly. Each service was tested over WiFi in otherwise ideal conditions, with no other applications using significant bandwidth on the network.