VPNs are one of the best ways to secure your online activities. They allow you to encrypt your traffic and hide your IP address. The best VPNs of 2018 offer robust security features, server networks, and device compatibility. These are the most important things that set them apart. But you can often expect above-average encryption, app usability, and customer service as well. Take a look at the top VPN rankings table below for our editorial picks, then read on for our tutorial on how to choose the best virtual private network provider.
You can’t just choose a VPN based on price. It’s important to select a VPN that matches your needs—especially since the best deals come with long-term agreements. If you’re new to VPNs, all the built-in options can be confusing. And depending on your experience, you may not even know what to look for.
We’re here to make that choice easier.
Along the way, we’ll answer all of your questions, like:
- How do VPNs keep my online activity safe?
- What level of VPN encryption do I need?
- Can I trust a VPN company with my data?
- Which VPNs will help me watch Netflix?
- Will a VPN protect all of my devices?
- Do I need to be tech savvy to use a VPN?
- How much should I pay for a VPN?
- But before we get to the difficult topics, let’s address the most fundamental questions first.
Safest and Most Secure VPNs
What is a VPN?
A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is a way to secure online activity. VPN services create encrypted tunnels between their servers and your devices. Your Internet traffic is routed to their servers and on to the Web. This protects your data by encrypting your activity and masking your IP address.
VPNs can be used to:
- Trick geolocation and beat geoblocks
- Browse the Internet without prying eyes
- Unblock censored websites
- Protect your devices on public wifi
- Transfer sensitive information securely
As you can see, this includes both personal and enterprise use cases. Most individuals use VPNs to access the Internet. On the other hand, organizations use VPNs to secure data transfer from one location to another. This includes business and government entities.
Still, the question remains:
How Do I Choose the Best VPN?
To a certain degree, you should choose a VPN based on need.
However, the commercial VPN space has several clear leaders. Between these, it is hard to go wrong. But they all have their unique selling points. Depending on why you need a VPN, any of them may be the best choice for you.
We recommend these criteria:
- Security – This is most important for most users. Strong encryption and security features are a must. Look for a “no logs policy,” OpenVPN, a kill switch, run on startup, and other protections. The company should also prioritize privacy, have strong values, and reside in a favorable jurisdiction.
- Connectivity – Most people connect to the Internet on multiple devices every single day. The best VPNs support all the major devices. On the other side of the connection, your VPN needs to a strong server selection. This is important for fast speeds, beating geoblocks, and P2P file sharing.
- Usability – VPN technology is complicated. But unless you need advanced configurations, VPNs are generally easy to use. There may be a learning curve with some of the more customizable clients. However, most of the top VPNs are “family friendly”—easy enough for kids and seniors.
- Service & Support – The VPN industry is not known for excellent customer service. Actually, it’s quite the opposite. Many rely on tutorials and FAQs but don’t keep them fully updated. Several of the best companies are working to improve this area. Still, the industry needs to improve this here as a whole.
- Pricing – VPN pricing ranges from free to enterprise. However, most legitimate consumer VPNs cost $10-11 month-to-month. Considering what they offer, this is relatively inexpensive. Still, there are a variety of plan options. Currently, the best deal is $2.75/month for a 3-year plan, offered by NordVPN and CyberGhost.
The VPN industry has a lot of variety. Some providers are built around niche audiences. While some of these platforms do have advantages for certain types of users, the leaders are quick to add features that users request. There is little protection against this for the small guys. Therefore, larger budgets tend to win. That’s why it’s most important to set standards and choose a VPN that fits within those.
No standards are more important in the VPN industry than those of security.
VPN Security & Encryption
Encrypting your online activity is one of the primary functions of a VPN.
By doing so, VPNs protect your traffic from prying eyes. The right encryption setup protects (1) your connection to the VPN servers and (2) the data that passes through that connection. There are several potential points of failure. Ideally, you want a solution that is hack-proof (or as close to it as possible).
“Military Grade” AES-256
Most of the top VPN companies advertise the use of “military grade,” 256-bit AES encryption.
This is the same level of encryption considered safe by financial and military institutions. And that’s a good industry standard. However, it is also used as a marketing ploy. Just because a VPN company uses the AES (Advanced Encryption Standard) algorithm with 256-bit keys does not mean your data is secure. Again, there are multiple potential points of failure. Authentication method, handshake encryption, and perfect forward secrecy are essential pieces to the puzzle as well.
Currently, ExpressVPN provides the most robust encryption setup on the market.
The OpenVPN protocol is a requirement for any legitimate VPN company.
All of the leaders in the VPN space use OpenVPN as the default protocol on their native Windows and Android apps. An open source project with wide adoption, OpenVPN is considered extremely secure. Apple makes developers jump through extra hoops to implement OpenVPN. Therefore, some VPN providers do not yet support it—especially on iOS. Even more than AES-256 claims, look for OpenVPN support on your devices.
If you’re an advanced user or a business, you might be more interested in alternative VPN protocols.
With stronger encryption, comes slower speeds. That’s one of the advantages of some of these other protocols; they may be faster than OpenVPN. Others come built-in to specific operating systems. Other commonly supported VPN protocols include PPTP, SSTP, L2TP/IPSec, and IKEv2/IPSec. There are also different options within the OpenVPN suite. More knowledge of protocols can often mean better performance. After all, not everyone needs military grade encryption.
Learn More About Encryption in our VPN Security Guide
VPN Privacy & Anonymity
Privacy and anonymity protections go hand-in-hand. You want a VPN that prioritizes both.
Start by examining a VPN’s record-keeping practices. The most security-centric VPNs implement strict “no logging” policies. That’s what you want. If privacy matters to you, avoid VPNs that record anything that can connect your identity and browsing history. All VPN companies require baseline statistics to maintain good user experience. However, how long they keep these records can serve as another indication of their commitment to your anonymity.
DNS and IP leaks are also threats to your security when using a VPN. When your VPN is engaged, your DNS and IP should both be hidden. Anyone looking should see the DNS and IP of your VPN instead. Geolocation on any websites or online services you visit should be fooled. Many VPN companies provide “leak protection” services. Some of these work very well. Others are only stop-gap solutions or workarounds. But it’s important to note that taking responsibility for leaks yourself is both possible and more reliable.
Aside from no logs policies and leak prevention, there are several other ways VPNs can help protect your privacy online. Some offer TOR support. Naturally, you can connect through a TOR browser. But a few VPN companies have their own browsers (ExpressVPN) or onion servers (NordVPN). Providing cryptocurrency or cash payment methods may provide even more anonymity, by making purchase private. Further still, some VPN companies offer proxy support or other privacy-boosting security features. More on some of those in a moment.
How a VPN Company’s Values Impact Privacy
More than in other industries, company values are crucial for VPNs.
First and foremost, what legal principles do they stand on? This may seem an odd question. But jurisdiction has a fundamental effect on how VPN companies operate. Different countries have different data retention laws. For example, the U.K. requires businesses to keep lots of records on users. This results in HideMyAss! having one of the more extensive logs policies of leading VPN companies. In case you didn’t know, there is a war on privacy going on. It’s being waged at the highest level—by organizations like the NSA. If avoiding government surveillance is one of your reasons for VPNs, you probably need to choose a company outside of “14 Eyes” reach.
Some VPN companies are so focused on privacy that they keep their own identities secret. Others stand on the rooftops and advocate for a fair Internet. Each approach has its positives and negatives. Some of the anonymous VPN companies use shell companies in small island nations while running from another jurisdiction. If an American or British entrepreneur wanted to build a privacy-focused VPN, they would probably do it like this. But anonymous companies should make anyone reasonably nervous. Perhaps the best scenario is one like that of CyberGhost. They operate publicly in Romania, a privacy-centric nation.
Other Security Features
The leaders in VPN security provide a variety of settings and tools to further secure your data online.
You can’t just set up a VPN and have total privacy on the Internet. It’s not that simple. On top of the different protocols, VPNs have a variety of other configuration options. Many of these are essential to a secure VPN and usually come standard. Others are only offered by some providers.
If you’re setting up custom connections, you’ll have the ability to adjust some of these things yourself. However, the vast majority of users need a client. At a bare minimum, these apps do not offer the ability to adjust basic security settings. Novice users might also benefit from maximum security defaults.
The best VPNs for security in 2018 may offer a variety of other security features.
Connecting through proxies, double VPN, and IP shuffling are some examples. Of course, technical factors like the ratio of physical versus virtual servers plays a role in security as well. Depending on your needs, some of these options may be overkill. Always keep in mind that more security generally means slower speeds.
Read more about some of these additional security measures in our VPN Security Guide.
Every VPN should have a kill switch, especially for security-focused users.
A VPN kill switch disconnects your Internet connection whenever you lose connection to your VPN’s servers. Some VPNs provide an option while others built it in. Preferably, your kill switch works from the time of device startup so that you don’t accidentally access the Internet before turning the VPN on.
Run on Startup
This is another feature that should come standard on any VPN.
Run on startup features often go hand in hand with the kill switch to ensure protection all the time. At its core, you want “run on startup” to connect your VPN as soon as the operating system boots. But some VPN apps offer different options, including the ability to run on the startup of specific apps.
Split tunneling is a convenient feature for many and a requirement for others.
Split tunneling allows you to segregate your traffic. You can configure some of your online activity to run through the VPN while the rest runs through your home connection. Traffic through your home connection is faster but unencrypted. Like run on startup, some VPNs allow you to set this per application.
This crucial feature is left out by far too many VPN companies.
Public wifi is one of the most significant online security threats we face today. You are at risk every time you connect to public wifi. The best VPN clients for mobile have settings that protect you when you encounter unsecured wifi. Some automatically connect through VPN. Others provide a connection prompt.
Router support allows you to protect your Internet connection more directly.
Connecting your router through VPN servers protects all traffic from that router. This includes hard connections as well as devices connected through wifi. This is great for both families and businesses alike. It also increases adoption for employees and family members, by eliminating an extra step.
Device support is a crucial part of any software business. But it becomes an even larger point of emphasis for VPNs.
To begin with, no one is going to use a VPN that doesn’t support their favorite devices. Many VPNs offer apps for Windows, Mac, Android, and iOS. But the best VPN companies go a bit further. First, the leaders also support connections for Linux, routers, and a variety of other devices. Second, the most secure VPNs in 2018 offer OpenVPN connections across all of these platforms.
Internet security moves quickly. Choosing one of the leaders in the space usually means updates come more frequently. They have larger development teams and budgets. This can translate to better app development overall. Ideally, you want a VPN company that maintains consistent app design across all platforms. Few offer full-featured versions across all devices. And fewer still make router setup easy, with an app or pre-configured router. We expect this to improve over the next few years, as the industry begins to mature. Even since 2017, competition has dramatically raised industry standards. For example, nearly every major VPN allows 5 or more simultaneous connections (with ExpressVPN being one of the only companies still holding out, at three simultaneous connections).
Outside of security, server selection is probably the most critical factor for the majority of VPN users.
Maintaining servers should be a VPN company’s largest expense. Sometimes, the VPN company owns their own data centers—and maybe the land they are housed on. But more often, VPN companies rent space at server farms around the globe. Several VPN companies may even rent servers from the data center. Generally, VPNs are going to choose centers that help them stay competitive. But you can typically leave those details up to them; they usually leave the even smaller details to the data center admins.
If you’re interested in a long-term, ultra-low-cost plan:
Server selection leaves vital clues. How a VPN company invests in its server network says a lot. It’s already their most important business expense. Do they try to cut corners or double down? If you pay monthly, it doesn’t matter as much. If one company’s server selection doesn’t suit, switching is easy. But take advantage of $2.75/month pricing, and that is no longer an option. In two years, you’ll still want to beat geoblocks, avoid censorship, transfer files anonymously, or whatever it is you bought the VPN for. Try to be sure it will be up to the challenge.
Luckily, there are three easy things to look for.
Number of Servers
The size of a VPN company’s network has a direct impact on performance.
Crowded servers mean slower connection speeds. The fewer people you have to share a server with, the better your experience will be. The more popular a VPN service is, the more servers they will need to maintain a good ratio. Currently, most of the leaders offer 1,000+ servers around the world. At the very top, NordVPN comes in at over 4,400. You should always expect server switches to be smooth and unlimited.
Server locations have a major impact on experience for individual users.
After all, you can only spoof your location to places that your VPN has servers. This can affect your ability to stream live sports, get the best e-commerce deals, and more. The distance between you and the physical server also makes a significant speed difference. So having more dedicated servers in cities near you is an essential factor as well. Most of the industry leaders offer 60+ countries. But at the top, HideMyAss! VPN provides 280+ locations in 190+ countries.
Offering specially configured servers is becoming both more popular and more important.
Companies like Netflix and BBC fight against VPNs to protect media licensing rights. Governments like China, Russia, and Syria fight against VPNs to restrict access to information. And of course, the VPN companies fight back. All the top VPN companies optimize servers based on use case. There is some overlap, but you can find streaming, P2P, double VPN, and a variety of other server types. There is no clear winner in this area yet. But we expect plenty of developments here in the years to come.
Connection speed is essential to everyone. Unfortunately, it is the hardest criteria to review accurately.
There are entirely too many variables at play to name definitive winners in this category. That’s why you should take the speed tests you see on most VPN reviews with a grain of salt. Your base internet speed, time of day, the server you choose, VPN settings, and a variety of other factors affect your connection.
Instead of speed tests, take a look at server selection, recent user feedback, and speed-focused features.
We just went over server selection. So you should see how VPN networks help dictate speeds. But we’d also like to note that free trials and 30-day money back guarantees allow you to test speeds risk-free. There is no guarantee that your favorite servers stay fast—or even active. But they still give you an opportunity to test encrypted browsing speeds for yourself.
Beyond the hands-on approach, community feedback may be the best way to gauge what you can expect. Preferably, you want recent feedback from users near you. But historical feedback can also help you anticipate how a VPN company might perform over time. Throughout 2018, NordVPN has been a consistent winner with users. They’ve made a massive investment into their server network since 2017.
While not as crucial as servers or user feedback, speed-related features show priorities. Most of these features as just great ways to find the fastest server. But there are others that reduce loading times, like CyberGhost’s “data compression” feature. You might also include the ability to change to less-secure protocols are a speed feature.
If speed is your number one priority, you might choose a smaller VPN company. By sharing servers with only a few other users, you might achieve higher connection speeds. Just be aware that your traffic will be less anonymous and perhaps even more likely to be targeted by attackers.
Peer to peer file sharing is a crucial VPN use case.
Speed is very important for BitTorrent users because they are downloading files. As mentioned, many different VPN companies cater their tech for torrentors. In addition to specialized servers, unlimited bandwidth and split tunneling are important for torrenting over VPN.
But it goes a little bit farther than the tech. The average torrentor does not care about copyright abuse. Depending on the jurisdiction of your VPN company, they may be required to defend media licenses. For example, HideMyAss!’s users report account suspensions and DMCA notices for their torrenting activity. CyberGhost, on the other hand, chooses P2P server locations strategically.
Ease of Use
For some VPN users, ease of use may be a make-or-break factor.
Just the phrase “virtual private network” intimidates some people. This can be a significant barrier to adoption—especially for those who do not see the value of protecting their online activity. And that presents an obstacle for employers or heads of household trying to secure activity on their networks. Poor functionality can also lead to unsecured activity from users who do not understand their configurations.
Luckily, VPN users have been vocal about UI/UX for some years now. So that means all the best VPN in 2018 are relatively easy to use. Most client apps emphasize simplicity of design. The goal is often to make connection and server selection as seamless as possible. Quick connect options and choosing favorite servers are almost standard. Some VPNs provide built-in speed tests. Some provide malware and ad blockers. And most of them can be minimized and operated from the system tray. VPN routers also remove a step for network users.
Still, there are a few common problems you might see from any provider. One of the most common is a lack of app consistency. Very often, app design differs from device to device. With the design, features also differ. This presents a problem for multi-device households looking for a truly “family friendly VPN.”
Under the Hood
On the other side of the spectrum, some VPN subscribers need maximum customizability.
The best VPN clients offer tons of built-in options. However, none of them offer all of them at once. If you really want full control, you’ll need to go with manual setup. Different companies also offer different levels of support.
- ExpressVPN is the only client that offers four built-in protocol options.
- CyberGhost’s Windows client has by far the most options on the market.
- NordVPN has the best support for custom connections and dedicated IPs.
Over the next few years, this may be where the competition amongst VPN providers heats up the most. Most platforms have their own unique spin. Still, they are quick to copy features from each other. Whoever marries ease of use and customizability the best going forward is likely to be an industry leader for years to come.
Service & Support
The top VPNs respect consumer demands for better customer service.
And while the VPN companies are still maturing, support is improving industry-wide. Over the last few years, 24/7 live support has become more common, and e-mail replies don’t take as long. Still, VPNs are plagued by common customer complaints.
Some of these include:
- Outsourced support staffs with little real knowledge
- Trouble receiving “hassle-free” refunds
- Unanswered support tickets for technical issues
- Difficulty gaining access to advertised “free trials”
NordVPN and ExpressVPN offer the best support right now. Both have strong knowledge bases, full of tutorials and FAQ explanations. You can also find official video tutorials on YouTube. Chat support is usually fast. And each of their staffs can deliver technical answers—though you may have to work up your way up their support chain to find them. Phone support is not yet a common thing, and may never be.
VPNs are relatively inexpensive, compared to other online services.
Considering what they do, they seem somewhat undervalued. It would not surprise us to see average monthly costs rise by 25% or more over the next two or three years. The current VPN pricing structure seems to indicate this anyway.
We’ll explain with some rounded averages:
- Monthly – $12/month
- 6 Months – $50 ($8.33/month)
- Yearly – $70 ($5.83/month)
- Bi-Yearly – $85 ($3.54/month)=
- Tri-Yearly – $99 ($2.75/month)
To us, this pricing structure is indicative of a VPN arms race.
First, the most visible VPN brands on the planet offer a 50% discount for yearly pricing. Then, they are willing to offer you an additional two years for only about $30 more. Mostly, they will give you six months of service free for six months of revenue up front. Or, they will give you over two years service for free for about nine months of revenue up front. In another industry, that looks like someone is going out of business. However, we think this is something else.
VPNs are becoming increasingly more popular. Offering discounts for long-term plans is a great way to grab market share in an industry “going viral.” You entice people to stay with you. After even a few months of a positive experience, users become bias toward apps and the features they know. After three years, you’re unlikely to even want to try something else. This is the time when the leaders of the next 5-10 years are decided. Customer loyalty plays a huge role in that.
Increasing short-term cash flow also allows companies to make infrastructure investments. If marketing is the first battlefield VPN companies need to win, server expansion is the second. $2.75/month may or may not be sustainable for NordVPN, who already has over 4,000 servers in their network. But if it allows them to continue their rapid expansion and become the undisputed “best VPN,” then users are likely to pay more for their brand name down the road.
After all, if you’re going to lock yourself into a long-term deal:
You don’t just want the “best VPN of 2018.” You want the best VPN, period.