The Best VPNs of 2021

Virtual private networks, or VPNs, have existed since the mid-90s, but it’s only recently that internet users have begun viewing them as an absolute necessity.

With so many new VPNs flooding the market, it can be frustrating and difficult for consumers to determine which is the right VPN for them. Many important questions need to be asked:

Free vs. Paid — Is a VPN Worth Paying for?

“You get what you pay for” is as true today as when that phrase was first coined. Free products and services are often much more expensive than paying an upfront premium.

Free VPNs: Pros and Cons

PROS CONS
  • It’s free!
  • Your data may get sold
  • Some providers include data limits on free plans
  • Limited server access
  • Limited simultaneous connections

VPN providers — like all companies — have huge bills to pay. Companies cannot stay afloat if they aren’t selling anything. In the case of free VPNs, what they are selling is your data.

A study has shown that at least 38 percent of “free” android VPN apps are infected with malware. You must ask yourself what’s more expensive: paying about $100 a year for a VPN, or waking up one morning to find that your bank account, brokerage account, and crypto wallet have been emptied overnight.

With that said, there are exceptions. ProtonVPN maintains a strict no-log policy, and is completely free.

Paid VPNs: Pros and Cons

PROS CONS
  • Reliability
  • Integrated kill swtich
  • Access to a large number of servers
  • Price varies greatly
  • Data limit included with some providers

Paying for a VPN gives you more access to a large network of servers and more features. With paid subscriptions, prices typically range from $2-$12 a month, but you can save money by signing up for longer subscriptions. Most VPNs offer monthly subscriptions ranging from three to 18 months. Longer subscriptions get bigger discounts, sometimes up to 30 percent off.

What to Look for in a VPN

Integrated Kill Switch

An integrated kill switch, or network lock, is a fail-safe for when the connection to your VPN is severed. In the event your VPN connection is dropped, your IP address and ISP could be exposed. A kill switch disconnects your phone, computer, or tablet from the internet until you can reconnect to the VPN.

No-Log Policy

This simply means that a VPN provider does not log (collect or store) information about where you’ve been online, what you’ve downloaded, your search history, or physical location.

Number of Servers

The more servers a provider has, the better it is for you. If a VPN has millions of users connected, but only has a few servers, you can expect excruciatingly slow upload or download times. Think of it as a digital traffic jam. The same can be said if the provider doesn’t have a server relatively close to where you are accessing the internet from.

Number of Countries

Finding a provider with a broad network spanning many countries can be helpful if one or more of the servers is relatively close by, but can have potential drawbacks without enough servers to accommodate traffic.

Number of Countries vs. Number of Servers: Finding a Balance

It’s important to find a balance between a VPN network’s number of servers versus the number of countries it spans. One is not more important than the other. If a provider has many locations, but only a few servers, connection speed will be greatly diminished. The opposite is also true. If a provider has many servers, but they are all located 4,000 miles away from where you are, you will run into the same issues.

The 5, 9, and 14 Eyes Alliances

Although this sounds like it may have something to do with international chapters of the Illuminati, some might find the reality even creepier. The “Eyes” alliances are agreements among nations to share intelligence information with one another.

Online privacy advocates believe these alliances are a means in which to circumvent laws prohibiting countries from spying on their own citizens. The idea is that the countries act as a proxy for one another, collecting data, then turning that data over to the country that requested it.

For example: Germany may ask Spain to collect information about a German citizen. Spain spies for Germany and gives Germany the intelligence they’ve collected. Spain then asks the same from Germany. Operating in this fashion, neither country is guilty of spying on its own people, and no laws are broken.

To minimize the risk of exposure, as you’re VPN shopping, you may want to check if the companies are headquartered in an “Eyes” member country.

What are 5 Eyes, 9 Eyes, and 14 Eyes

Cross-Platform Functionality

Make certain that the VPN you choose works with the devices you use to access the internet. If you use an Android, PC, iPhone or iPad, and Mac, be sure your VPN functions across all operating systems.

How to Pay for a VPN While Optimizing Privacy

You can pay for a VPN using a debit or credit card. However, using either of these methods leaves a mammoth clue behind as to who is using the VPN.

Good news! Many of the top VPN providers accept bitcoin for payment. Some even accept gift cards. However, the downside to gift cards is that a lot of the providers accepting them aren’t the most reputable. Also, you will no longer be able to automatically renew your subscription once the card expires. NordVPN is a notable exception. In fact, NordVPN even offers their own gift card that you can purchase anonymously with cash.

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

The Best VPNs of 2021

ExpressVPN VPN

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 VPN

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 VPN

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 VPN

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 VPN

Company location: U.S. / Ukraine / Russia

Integrated network kill switch:

Number of servers: 1,800+ (80+ countries

Platforms: Windows, Android, MacOS, iOS, Linux

Number of devices: 5

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

Hotspot Shield supports five 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 consists of a five-device per family member account, up to 25 devices. 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 VPN

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 just a VPN. For some users, the additional features may be excessive, but for others, a more feature-complete software suite might be just what they need. 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 number of virtual locations to choose from. That said, the locations are spread evenly across the world; further, it offers a tightly integrated firewall function, AES-256 encryption, as well as 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 it’s a member of 5 Eyes and, as such, the company is subject to the country’s privacy laws. 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 VPN

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 VPN

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.