Want more help deciding which is best for you? Read our buying advice for the VPN

1. NordVPN

2. ExpressVPN

ExpressVPN

3. PureVPN

PureVPN

4. Goose VPN

Goose VPN

  • Reviewed on: 5 February 2018

5. CyberGhost

CyberGhost

6. VyprVPN

VyprVPN

  • Reviewed on: 5 February 2018

7. Private Internet Access

Private Internet Access

8. IPVanish

IPVanish

9. Hidden24

Hidden24

10. SpyOFF VPN

SpyOFF VPN

  • Reviewed on: 5 February 2018

What is a VPN and why do I need one?

Public awareness of VPNs is growing, but for many they’re 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: privacy and watching TV.

If you’re looking for a VPN for Mac visit: Best VPN for Mac.

Online privacy & anonymous browsing

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 of 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’re not too concerned about this, when you’re using a laptop or mobile device on a public WiFi, 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 WiFi network, you are really asking for trouble if you’re not going through a VPN.

In the US, this has become even more of a reason to use a VPN after the Senate voted to remove broadband privacy rules that prevented ISPs (Internet Service Providers) from selling or sharing web browsing data without permission.

Yes, you read that correctly: this vote means US ISPs can sell your web browsing data to advertisers without asking you first. NordVPN has more information on its website.

Streaming

Additionally, if you enjoy watching catch-up TV or subscribe to streaming services, you may have found that they are limited depending on your location. For example, BBC iPlayer and Sky Go are only meant to be viewed in the UK, and while Netflix is accessible around the globe, the content available varies across countries due to licensing restrictions.

A VPN can help (although it’s important to note that in many cases doing so is breaking terms and conditions – you can find out more about that here).

P2P

Another use for a VPN 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 does a VPN work?

VPNs create a private tunnel over the internet to a server. This can be located in the same country as you or located somewhere else in the world. 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, you’ll 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, look for VPN settings where you can enter your account details (the Fire TV Stick doesn’t have this option), or install an app for your router that’ll cover all devices connected to it. Find out more in our article: How to use a VPN with a Fire TV Stick.

How to choose which VPN is best for you

If you’re most concerned about privacy, it’s important to know where your VPN is based. In recent years some countries have got together 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.

What is the ’14 Eyes’ collective?

The main group of countries that can share information freely is called the Five Eyes. They come from the UKUSA agreement that, although began back in 1941, was only made public knowledge in 2005. The agreement is between Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States, hence the name Five Eyes. Those countries have agreed to collect, analyse and share information between each other, and much of this intelligence is believed to be related to internet activity these days.

The Five Eyes has grown to include a total of 14 countries, which is why you’ll hear a lot about ’14-eyes’ when reading about VPNs. Third party countries were added over time, and now additionally include Denmark, France, Holland, Norway, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Sweden and Spain.

If your VPN provider is based within a country that is part of the 14 Eyes, it can be asked to share data of its customers and will legally have to comply. If your provider promises that it doesn’t log any information, you’re probably safe within the 14 Eyes, but it is more of a risk if privacy is your main concern and you might want to consider looking for a VPN provider that is based elsewhere.

What information does a VPN keep?

VPN providers have different levels of logging. Some choose to log connection time stamps, IP addresses and bandwidth used, while others log nothing at all. 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.

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.

VPN bans in China and Russia

2017 was a rocky year for VPNs. China has been cracking down on VPN use and as a result there are many that are no longer available from Chinese app stores. However, there are still VPN options available in China, including NordVPN for Windows. 

Russia has been following suit, with President Vladimir Putin recently signing a law that prohibits the use of VPNs in the country. The law will come into force on 1 November, making VPNs illegal from that point onwards in Russia.



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