A VPN, or a virtual private network, is a little tool that masks your internet identity inside a virtual tunnel, hiding your IP address from your internet service provider, websites and any prying eyes. When you use one, an encrypted connection is established between your device and a server somewhere in the world, tricking everyone into thinking you’re browsing from a different location.
The use of VPNs has been growing astronomically since the pandemic first began, especially among organisations. “Businesses use VPNs to grant access to networks remotely, as well as to protect their data traversing across multiple networks and boundaries across the internet,” explains Rick McElroy, principal cybersecurity specialist at cloud computing company VMware. “For people who are concerned about governments around the world infringing on their privacy and security, VPNs create a great way to prevent this behaviour.”
But the adoption rate is also growing because people have more time on their hands. After finishing every season of RuPaul’s Drag Race – twice – people sought out content that they couldn’t get on their streaming service of choice, and turned to international versions. It’s one of the most common reasons why people use VPNs today – although do keep in mind that accessing streaming services in this way normally violates content provider’s terms.
The world of VPNs can be a confusing, messy place. There are hundreds of free and paid-for VPNs out there, and they’re not all created equal. Lots of free VPNs are ad-supported, while others claim to protect your privacy while selling off any data gleaned from your browsing history.
Thankfully, there are indeed some stand-out, trustworthy VPN providers out there. Most of the best VPNs charge for their services, but they also have free trials. To help you sort through the glut of virtual private networks, we’ve rounded up all the best VPNs for Android, iPhone, PC and more.
We tested these VPNs on an iPhone 12 Pro, a Samsung Galaxy S20 FE and a MacBook pro laptop. In each case, we trialled how speedy each VPN was when pitted against their competitors, looked at their level of security and whether they kept logs of our browsing data, and we investigated what features they each had, such as support for split tunnelling or the inclusion of a kill switch. To see how well these VPNs performed when it came to bypassing geographic blocks, we took them for a ride through Netflix’s US library as well as Amazon Prime Video in the US on our Android, iOS and Mac devices.
You can trust our independent reviews. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections, which are formed from real-world and expert advice. This revenue helps us to fund journalism across The Independent.
The best VPNs in the UK for 2021 are:
- Best overall VPN for PC, Mac and Fire Stick devices – ExpressVPN: From £6.20 per month, Expressvpn.com
- Best VPN for security – NordVPN: From £2.74 per month, Nordvpn.com
- Best free VPN – ProtonVPN: Free, Protonvpn.com
- Best VPN for large households – IPVanish: From £4.89 per month, Ipvanish.com
- Best VPN for Android and iPhone – Surfshark: From £1.79 per month, Surfshark.com
- Best VPN for Netflix and streaming – CyberGhost: From £1.99 per month, Cyberghostvpn.com
- Best VPN for server hunters – Private Internet Access: From £2.19 per month, Privateinternetaccess.com
Best: Overall VPN for PC, Mac and Fire Stick devices
How many servers? 3,000
Server locations: 160 in 94 countries
Devices supported: Up to five
ExpressVPN is the best all-round VPN for any consumer user. It’s flaming fast, is simple to use and runs on a laundry list of operating systems and devices – whether that be Mac, Windows PC, Linux, Android, iOS, Kindle Fire stick or even your PlayStation console or home router.
All the main requirements of a good VPN are checked off. It’s speedy thanks to its “lightway” protocol, masks your IP address and has a nifty kill switch (preventing network data from leaking out if the VPN fails). It also has features like split tunnelling, which lets you route a portion of your traffic through the VPN while other devices use the internet directly from your service provider.
ExpressVPN encrypts your data using AES-256, the military-grade encryption standard for complete protection, but also supports “perfect forward secrecy”, automatically assigning you a new secret key every 60 minutes. Plus, if you’re ever confused about anything, ExpressVPN has a 24-hour live support team.
It’s also one of the best VPNs in terms of security and privacy. ExpressVPN doesn’t keep logs of any of your internet activity, your IP address, how long you’ve connected to the server or even what time you’ve connected. They are marvellous claims that have actually been proven true – a Turkish server was seized in 2017 and no logs of any user activity were found.
In terms of streaming, ExpressVPN passes the US Netflix test, giving us access to the streamer’s broad catalogue, as well as Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, HBO Max and Disney+. The only downside is that ExpressVPN is pricier than much of its competition, probably because of how feature packed it is, and that it makes all of its revenue from subscriptions. There is a 30-day money-back guarantee if you are unhappy, however.
Best: VPN for security
Number of servers: More than 5,400
Server locations: More than 80 in 59 countries
Devices supported: Up to six
NordVPN is the service provider you’re most likely to have heard of. It’s one of the most reliable VPNs on the market and works especially well on desktop. NordVPN wroks with six devices at a time.
It uses a map-based interface, which we found a little bit cumbersome to navigate. making it easy to navigate, but thankfully, there’s also a server list on the left side of the screen. Like with most VPNs, Nord offers a kill switch feature, your choice of protocol and that same military-grade encryption, keeping your internet data safe and secure. NordVPN’s killer feature, however, is its offer of a dedicated IP address, just for you. It costs $70 (£50), but if you need one, it’s well worth the money.
NordVPN has a great reputation for its focus on security and, strangely enough, that’s because it was the victim of a data breach in 2018. One of the company’s servers was accessed without permission, leading to the company launching an independent audit, reinforcing server security and creating a bug bounty programme. Like ExpressVPN, no user logs had been stolen – simply because NordVPN doesn’t keep any.
On top of the beefed-up security, NordVPN is also pretty darn fast. It has an Android and an iOS app that use the same map-based interface, and its servers allow you to stream American Netflix and Amazon Prime Video.
Check out our full NordVPN review for a detailed breakdown of its features, server speed and more.
Best: Free VPN
Number of servers: More than 800
Server locations: More than 50 in 50 countries
Devices supported: Up to five
As mentioned above, free VPN service providers can always be a bit hit and miss, especially in terms of your privacy and security. Not ProtonVPN, however, which you might recognise from the secure email client Proton Mail.
ProtonVPN comes with uncapped data usage, meaning the VPN won’t stop working when you hit a limit. There aren’t any ads involved and you still get that same AES-256 military-grade encryption. Sounds great, right? Well, as with most free products, there’s a catch – but the catch isn’t your data being sold.
With the free version of ProtonVPN, you only get access to three servers, despite Proton having 800. These are in the US, Japan and the Netherlands. That means speeds aren’t the fastest. And although you get access to US servers, you can’t actually use ProtonVPN free to access streaming services. That feature is reserved for the paid-for version, and if that’s your main goal, we’d opt for a different VPN over Proton.
So what’s it good for? Essentially what a VPN was intended for in the first place – browsing on the web securely and privately, especially when using public networks. It’s not packed full of features, but it gets the job done and the iOS and Android apps work really well.
Best: VPN for large households
Number of servers: 1,600
Server locations: More than 75 in 50 countries
Devices supported: Unlimited
If you have a large family or you live in a big house share, and you’re all wanting to hop onto one single VPN at the same time, then IPVanish is a solid choice. The US-based service used to give its users a great deal on its generous 10 device plan, but a year ago the company got rid of their device cap altogether.
A big draw of IPVanish’s uncapped device limit is its extensive range of apps. You can download it on Kody, iOS, Android, Windows, Mac, a Fire TV Stick and Linux, meaning you’ll always be able to make use of its limitless access.
On top of that, it delivers everything you expect from a virtual private network, making it a solid VPN in its own right. Your speeds aren’t throttled, it has AES-256 encryption, you get a 24/7 live chat support service and it doesn’t store any traffic logs. It works especially well for American Netflix, but less well on further international Netflixes and other streaming services.
Best: VPN for Android and iPhone
Number of servers: More than 3,200
Server locations: More than 100 in 65 countries
Devices supported: Unlimited
Surfshark has one of the simplest and most easy to understand Android and iOS app interfaces, mainly because it looks just like it does on the desktop version. You can access the kill switch, split tunnelling and the integrated malware blocker straight from your phone.
Like IPVanish, it also supports an unlimited amount of devices, with the added bonus of the app being a lot cleaner and more user-friendly than the former. One stand-out feature of Surfshark is its integrated GPS spoofing feature on Android, which will trick any apps into thinking that your current coordinates are at the IP’s location, which is great for anyone wanting to spoof location-based games like Pokémon Go.
We also enjoy how you can access the live chat directly from the app, when other VPNs force you to hop onto your browser and access support through there. The big bonus is that Surfshark also happens to be one of the cheapest VPN options.
Best: VPN for Netflix and streaming
Number of servers: More than 7,000
Server locations: 105 in 89 countries
Devices supported: Up to seven
If you’re just looking for a VPN to access international Netflix, we’d recommend CyberGhost. The service claims that it can unblock over 35 streaming services. We weren’t able to test them all, but for the major ones like Netflix and Disney+, it did a splendid job at giving us access to content restricted to the US.
What we really like about CyberGhost compared to other VPNs is that it makes it incredibly easy to find the right VPN server for a particular streaming service. For a lot of the VPNs above you still have to click around and try out different servers before you land on one that works with your service of choice. But in the CyberGhost app, you’ll find a ‘For streaming’ tab, which has a list of up-to-date servers tested to work with specific streaming services. Underneath each server, there will be a little description of what streaming service and country it is optimised for.
CyberGhost also has optimised servers for gaming, P2P torrenting and security. It’s pretty secure overall, using RAM-based servers that aren’t able to store any data if those servers are disconnected from power, and there’s a kill switch plus split tunnelling. Best of all, it’s super cheap.
Best: VPN for server hunters
Number of servers: More than 32,000
Server locations: More than 98 in 78 countries
Devices supported: Up to 10
Private Internet Access has been around for a long old time. If you frequented internet message boards in the late 2000s, you’ll have heard the term PIA being banded around a lot when it came to talk of VPNs. Since 2009, Private Internet Access has been superseded by services like NordVPN and ExpressVPN, but that doesn’t mean it’s no longer good.
In fact, PIA has an enormous number of servers for you to choose from. There are a mammoth 32,000 in its arsenal – that’s the most of any commercial VPN we’ve seen. A large majority of them are in the US, but still.
As its name suggests, PIA puts a huge emphasis on privacy. The Windows application has the kill switch turned on by default, so your internet traffic will be automatically blocked if you are disconnected. It also supports split tunnelling, and the Android app is able to route specific apps through PIA.
The company doesn’t keep logs of your activity – something evidenced in several court cases when authorities have demanded them. PIA isn’t great when it comes to accessing region-locked streaming services – we had limited success – but for security and the sheer number of servers it has, it’s a worthy choice.
Virtual private network (VPN) FAQs
What is a VPN service?
In simple terms, a virtual private network is a bit of software that masks your identity, hiding your data in a virtual tunnel. A secure, encrypted connection is formed between your device and a server somewhere in the world. Doing this hides your public IP address and tricks websites into thinking that you’re actually browsing from a different location.
It works a bit like a filter, converting all your internet traffic and browsing data into nonsense. Third-party websites and even your internet service provider won’t be able to see what websites you’re visiting because everything is rerouted through a remote server that’s run by the VPN provider.
Why use a VPN?
When you connect to the internet, your internet service provider (ISP) will be able to monitor everything you do via your IP address. Although it might seem unlikely, your ISP could sell your data on to advertisers or share it with the authorities.
The other main reason for using a VPN is to access streaming services that you can’t view from your current location, like US Netflix. This is the main reason why consumers use VPNs – although do keep in mind that using a VPN to access foreign content normally violates the content provider’s terms of service.
How do I use a VPN when I’m abroad?
A VPN means you can access blocked websites. So, if you’re in a country where internet access is heavily censored, like China, for instance, you’ll be able to access Facebook using a VPN. If this is what you’re planning to use the service for, it’s important to download it before you travel to the less internet-friendly nation.
The verdict: Best VPNs
ExpressVPN is our all-around favourite service provider, delivering reliable speeds, good apps and solid security. The only downside is that it’s on the expensive side. If you want a similar VPN in terms of performance that costs a little less, go for NordVPN.
If you want to watch content from streaming services in other geographic locations, we’d recommend CyberGhost – it makes the process of finding a good streaming server easy peasy, and also happens to be really affordable for what it offers.
For the latest discounts on NordVPN and other tech offers, try the links below:
For more, why not check out our round-up of the best VPN deals?
This article was amended on 24 May 2021 to correct the inaccurate statement that PIA does not support “split tunnelling”
IndyBest product reviews are unbiased, independent advice you can trust. On some occasions, we earn revenue if you click the links and buy the products, but we never allow this to bias our coverage. The reviews are compiled through a mix of expert opinion and real-world testing.
Source: The Independent