If you're concerned about online privacy, a virtual private network (VPN) will help keep snoopers at bay. Here, we round up the best VPN services for hiding your location online and allowing you to access blocked content and blocked sites.
Why you need a VPN
Over the past few years public awareness of VPNs has grown, but for many they are still a mystery. Traditionally, they were used by businesses to enable their employees to access a company’s internal network securely. Nowadays people use them for two main things: watching TV and privacy.
How does a VPN work?
A Virtual Private Network creates a private tunnel over the internet to a server. This can be located in the same country as you or located somewhere else. This means that, in theory, you can watch your favourite US show because that’s where it thinks you are. Crucially, all data traffic sent over the VPN is encrypted, so it cannot be intercepted.
To get started you’ll need to install some software on your PC, Mac or mobile device. Once you’ve logged in, choose a server in the location where you’d like to ‘virtually’ appear. You then just carry on as normal, safe in the knowledge that your activities are protected.
Doing it this way - installing the software on one laptop, tablet or phone - means that only that device is using the VPN connection. If you want your media streamer (say an Amazon Fire TV Stick) to use the VPN connection, you'll either need to try and install a VPN app on it, or look for VPN settings where you can enter your account details (the Fire TV Stick doesn't have this option).
The alternative to this is to use a router that supports VPNs, and enter your VPN provider's details (or your VPN account details) so that every device that gets its internet connection via the router benefits from the security (and/or change in location) of the VPN.
Both methods have their pros and cons. You may not want all your web traffic to go via your VPN account, perhaps because of a data cap or the fact that the connection is slower than when connected normally via your ISP. In this case, it's probably best to install VPN software only on the PCs and other devices which need it.
Are free VPNs good?
You don’t have to pay for a service either as some are freely available, though these can have their drawbacks. They may, for example, be slow, unreliable or collect information about your web browsing habits. Furthermore, Netflix is now actively clamping down on VPNs both free and paid, so there’s no guarantee that they will work.
While you can try out a free service, we’d recommend going for a reasonably priced, paid-for VPN. These should perform better, be properly supported and your privacy will be protected thanks to the added security of an encrypted connection.
How a VPN can protect your privacy
The story of activists such as Edward Snowden and Apple’s battle with the US government to unlock an iPhone have raised the profile of the need for privacy. Your ISP will have records of all the websites you visit and if so ordered by the government could be compelled to hand over that information. If you don’t like the sound of that using a VPN all the time makes sense.
Even if you are not too concerned about this, when you’re using a laptop or mobile device on a public Wi-Fi, you are exposing your browsing habits to anyone that is so inclined to snoop. And if you have ever conducted online banking over a public Wi-Fi network, you are really asking for trouble if you’re not going through a VPN.
Another use for VPNs is to bypass ISP restrictions such as line throttling when using peer-to-peer (P2P). By going via a VPN your ISP can’t tell what you’re doing and the throttling won’t kick in.
How to choose which VPN is best for you
If you’re concerned about privacy, it’s important to know where your VPN is based. In recent years some countries have got together to agree to exchange information freely, nominally in a bid to enhance everyone’s security. However, many groups are critical of this behaviour believing that mass surveillance impinges on our freedoms.
The countries that have agreed to exchange information are known as the Five Eyes: USA, UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. (Read more about the alliance here) The concern from privacy groups is that a government could compel a VPN provider to supply information on its users through a court order. To avoid this you should choose a VPN provider that is based outside of one of these countries.
What information do VPNs keep logs of?
Additionally, many VPN providers have different levels of logging. Some choose to log connection time stamps, IP address and bandwidth used, while others choose to log nothing at all. Needless to say you have to trust the VPN provider that it isn’t monitoring your traffic, otherwise you are heading right into a privacy breach, instead of protecting yourself from one.
Some will also store basic payment information, such as your name and address. However, those looking for complete anonymity can seek a provider that accepts payment in the form of gift cards or Bitcoin, which makes it near-impossible to trace back to an individual.
What features should I look for in a VPN?
Most VPNs support all the major platforms but some offer more unusual platforms such as Kindle or Google Chrome. Also look out for restrictions on usage – some ban P2P, while others are fine with it. Free- and trial versions normally have speed restrictions, while paid-for versions should have none. Note that encryption can slow down connections. OpenVPN provides more protection, while PPTP is faster but less secure. You should be able to switch between them depending on need.
Also if you’re connecting to a server that’s geographically far away, you are less likely to get the full speed that your ISP provides. Look out for server speed claims and make sure that you conduct tests to check whether you are happy early on, so you can get a refund within the time limit if you’re not.
12 popular VPNs tested
- RRP: From $5.75 per month
From the off Nord VPN impresses. Despite the Scandinavian-sounding name it’s actually based in Panama. It maintains Nordic ideals of freedom and trust however, so is located there to be out of the jurisdiction of the ‘fourteen eyes’. It has a strict ‘no logs’ policy so you won’t have to worry about it having any record of your internet traffic. As of writing there were more than 500 servers to choose from, from across 51 countries.
Encryption levels are higher than most. You have the option of DoubleVPN, which refers to a AES-256 CBC cipher used twice over and relayed through the Netherlands. Basically, it’s extra secure. There’s also a Kill Switch to end internet activity should the VPN drop for any reason.
On top of that is the option to uses the TOR network over VPN offering an even greater level of anonymity and access to TORs ‘onion’ sites - that is sites that are part of the deep web and not accessible via the regular internet.
No surprise then that you can pay using an anonymous method such as Bitcoin if you wish, but you can also use more conventional methods such a credit card or PayPal.
It claims to the easiest VPN to set up and it proved to be quick to setup on the Mac and is easy to use on Windows. It also supports Linux, iOS and Android and up to six devices can be connected at one time. A 24/7 live chat service for support is also available from the website. All in all, Nord VPN is a very strong option.
- RRP: Around $6.49 per month
If you're here because you want a VPN to help you watch US Netflix, you should choose NordVPN or continue reading to find a suitable VPN below. For other VPN uses, however, IPVanish is a popular option that's well worth considering. It has a huge number of servers (more than 700), across more than 60 countries, and you can create five simultaneous connections across multiple devices using just one account and therefore one fee.
We'd pick IPVanish if you're planning to use it for torrents, because it can hide your IP address using a light encryption so as not to sacrifice download and upload speeds.
IPVanish doesn't log any traffic, and owns and operates its entire internal infrastructure (its private network, its physical points of presence and its anonymous servers) with control over all of its entry points. A kill switch adds an extra level of security, too, meaning you the network connection can be immediately terminated if the VPN connection ever drops.
You can use IPVanish across iOS, Android, Windows and Mac, and it can also be used on Android TV and Amazon Firestick. You'll get a 7-day money-back guarantee with no questions asked, and you can pay by Bitcoin should you wish to.
- RRP: Free version available; $5.83 per month
CyberGhost has built a solid reputation for security and transparency over the years. The platform boasts a number of key features that make it one of the safest ways to roam the internet.
Alongside the anonymising of your online identity, CyberGhost also features military grade encryption to fend off information thieves. You don't need an additional browser or plug-in as CyberGhost works with pretty much everything and is also available as an app for Android and iOS. A built-in ad-blocker also makes surfing even quicker, although it does deprive impoverished writers of their hard earned money.
While CyberGhost does offer a free tier, it has many of the main features disabled, employs a waiting period each time you connect, and automatically disconnects after three hours, although you can reconnect immediately. It's really there to show you how the service works, and the proper version is available for £45 per year, or £3.99 per month for a single device plan, and £70 per year or £6.99 per month for five devices.
- RP: From $2.95 per month
PureVPN is based in Hong Kong, which has the advantage of being out of view of the prying ’14-eyes’. It uses 256-bit grade encryption and boasts more than 750 servers across 141 countries. While it makes a big play of the fact that it does not monitor or record any activity that passes through its servers it does admit to keeping record of connections and bandwidth, which it says is in order to optimally manage its servers. It also offers the more secure OpenVPN protocol and maintains its own DNS servers.
Features include split tunnelling, which routes specific apps to access the internet via their local internet connection and other specific apps via their VPN connection simultaneously. There’s also a Kill Switch that ensures that your actual IP is never exposed should the VPN drop.
The interface is a little dated looking but gets the job done. You can choose a location either by city, or by activity, such as online sports streaming, and it will connect you to an optimal server.
Pricing is reasonable at $4.99 a month, and you can pay via anonymous payment methods such as cards, and there is a 7-day money back guarantee, as long as you don’t exceed 3GB. There’s also a 24/7 support available.
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