VPN – Best VPN of 2021 – Test: What is a VPN?

You might have heard of VPNs before, but what does that actually mean and why do people use a VPN?

Understanding VPN software can be difficult enough, without knowing what to look for in the best providers. VPN stands for a Virtual Private Network. By using a VPN you can give yourself more privacy online.

VPNs help to secure your internet traffic and data but are also useful if you want to virtually appear as though you’re in some other part of the world. It may be a way to overcome restrictions, limitations, or gain access to censored content or services. In some cases, it can be a way to overcome the censorship of authorities too. You essentially relocate, digitally speaking, and by doing so you circumvent regional restrictions and limitations.

It’s also important to keep in mind that VPNs keep your online surfing secure over any and all networks and give you the freedom to do as you please without leaving a trace. It’s pretty much a safety blanket for your online browsing.

As well as compiling a short guide on what VPNs are, we’ve devised a list of the best VPNs for this year. Read on to learn more about some popular VPNs, see the features they offer and find the best provider for your needs.

Table of content

What is a VPN?

A VPN is an essential piece of software that encrypts your web traffic data and gives you extra privacy online. Unbeknownst to many people, your Internet Service Provider (ISP), work, or school can see everything you get up to online. Whenever you connect to a network, the owner of said network has access to your browsing history, online movements, and a whole lot of personal information.

Using a VPN can also help stop third parties like those listed above from seeing your traffic since it tunnels your traffic through an encrypted connection. A VPN also stops third parties from seeing your real IP address, physical location, the web browser you use, your app usage, your device ID, and more.

However, a VPN is not a replacement for antivirus software. While many providers include built-in malware protection in their products, antivirus is the best way to protect your operating system from trojans, spyware, and other malware.

What Do I Need a VPN?

As mentioned above, a VPN is important since it protects your data from being viewed by third parties like your ISP, and websites. VPNs can also stop online trackers, that follow your internet footprint and build a profile on your internet habits.

Moreover, government surveillance is becoming more and more prominent, especially in the United States and the United Kingdom. Governments have access to our data and this is worrisome for some people. A VPN gives you more privacy and anonymity online, allowing you to carry out your online activities in peace.

A VPN isn’t just a great security and privacy solution. VPNs can change your digital location, giving you a new IP address from a different, city, state, or even country. If you want to access restricted content in Asia, or watch Netflix in Europe, you can do so with a VPN.

Since a VPN changes your IP address, it also means that any online activity cannot be linked back to you. This is great for torrenting, as you’ll torrent on a shared VPN IP address, and download activity won’t be easily linked back to you.

Looking for a VPN for your smartphone

How Does a VPN Work?

So, how does a VPN provide users with effective security and privacy? When you switch on a VPN, you’ll connect to a  VPN server. All data sent and received from your device will travel through an encrypted VPN tunnel, where it is hidden from any prying eyes. Your data will then be decrypted upon arrival at the VPN server before it is then sent back to you under the layer of encryption.

When you connect to a VPN, you’ll do so via a tunneling protocol. There are many protocol options but the most popular are OpenVPN, IKEv2, WireGuard, L2TP/IPSec, SSTP, and PPTP. Depending on the protocol you choose, your connection may be faster or slower, or even more or less secure. PPTP for example has many issues but is fast. On the flip side, OpenVPN is more secure but slower.

You’ll find that different providers offer different encryption levels and protocols. Depending on the device you use, your default protocol may be one that you would prefer not to use. In this case, it is important to check before buying a VPN that it offers the protocols you want.

Depending on which server you connect to, your IP address will also change. This means that any activity carried out while connected to said server will be linked to the VPN IP address, not your real one. This is ideal for users who want anonymity online.

The Best VPN Providers

Depending on your internet access needs and the devices you use to access the internet, there will be a specific VPN that is best suited to you.

We’ve compiled a list of the best VPN providers, all of which are reliable and reputable companies. While our list features paid VPNs, there are some free VPN services available. Some free VPNs are offered by the same companies that offer premium or paid services like Hotspot Shield and ProtonVPN. Experimenting with a free VPN before purchasing a paid VPN could be a good way for you to choose a VPN provider that best suits your needs.

What’s the best VPN? There are certain criteria that VPNs need to meet in order to be considered good. This criterion includes:

Below are our top picks, all of which have been judged against the above criteria.

1. ExpressVPN

ExpressVPN offers a lot of interesting features and calls itself “the best VPN in the world.” Indeed, it is a popular provider with a large base of international subscribers.

Firstly, ExpressVPN offers 160 server locations to choose from. These server locations are spread across 94 countries, most of which are located in Northern America, Europe, and Asia. There are no limits to server switching which means that you can be in Germany watching Netflix one moment and connected to Japan Netflix in the next.

Speaking of Netflix, ExpressVPN is one of the best VPNs for unblocking streaming services. It has a MediaStreamer feature that can be connected to your smart TV to enjoy more streaming content, or you can stream from your cell phone or computer. Not only this but torrenting is permitted on the network, so you can download in privacy.

What about security? ExpressVPN uses AES-256 bit encryption and TrustedServer technology to ensure you stay safe online. Express utilizes RAM-only servers, which is great from a security standpoint; the data stored on these servers will be automatically wiped once they are switched off. There is also an automatic kill switch, known as the Network Lock, that is automatically enabled upon download, and ExpressVPN owns its own private DNS servers to ensure your DNS requests are safe.

When it comes to the use of your data, you don’t need to worry. ExpressVPN has a zero-logs policy that has been audited by a third party. Moreover, ExpressVPN is based in the British Virgin Islands, a jurisdiction that is well-known for its relaxed data logging laws.

In terms of tunneling protocols, ExpressVPN offers a selection but we are most impressed with its Lightway protocol. The Lightway protocol offers not only secure encryption but also fast speeds. This makes it great for gaming and streaming, which you can do as much as you want of on the network since there are no bandwidth or data limits.

You can use ExpressVPN on up to 5 devices simultaneously, and the VPN has dedicated apps for all of the most popular operating systems including Windows, macOS, iOS, Android, and Linux. There are also browser extensions for Chrome, Mozilla, Firefox. As well as this, you can configure the VPN to your router or buy a pre-configured router with ExpressVPN added to it, and enjoy a router app for easy customization. Once you have connected the VPN to your router you can subvert simultaneous connection limits and use the VPN on your gaming consoles, and other IoT (Internet of Things) objects.

There is 24-hour live chat support from ExpressVPN as well as a comprehensive support section. We also love the fact that ExpressVPN comes with a 30-day money-back guarantee, giving you time to back out of the subscription if the provider doesn’t live up to your expectations.

2. NordVPN

Another impressive player in the VPN industry is NordVPN. NordVPN offers a whole host of extra VPN features that are sure to make users’ internet experience more enjoyable.

First of all, NordVPN offers more than 5500 servers across 59 countries. Like ExpressVPN, it has private DNS on all of its servers and has made the switch to RAM-only servers which are much more secure. Within Nord’s network, there are dedicated servers for torrenting and streaming, and these are clearly highlighted for users.

NordVPN offers advanced encryption and like ExpressVPN, has its own proprietary protocol, NordLynx. NordLynx is fast, secure, and the recommended choice for Nord users. As well as this, users can employ the Double VPN option which routes your VPN connection through not one, but two servers. This gives you an extra layer of protection and makes it doubly hard to find your real IP address.

If you don’t want to use shared IP addresses, you can purchase a dedicated IP address for a small extra charge. NordVPN markets these primarily at users who need repeated access to the same websites such as online banking platforms.

Worried about data logging? NordVPN has an independently audited privacy policy and doesn’t log or store user data. The provider is based in Panama, a region with friendly privacy laws, which is a great reassurance to users.

With one NordVPN subscription, you get 6 simultaneous connections. NordVPN supports Windows, macOS, iOS, Android, and Linux platforms and also offers a scattering of browser extensions. As well as this, it can be used on your router or smart TVs. The NordVPN is very user-friendly and allows customers to add their preferred servers to a favorites list, and enables them to scroll through the server choices easily.

If you’re out and about and using the VPN on your cell phone, you can rest assured that you won’t connect to any public wi-fi network without a layer of encrypted protection. NordVPN has automatic wi-fi protection, that kicks into play whenever you connect to an unknown network. There is also an automatic kill switch that users can switch on in the settings. The kill switch ensures you never surf the web without encryption.

There is an in-built malware blocker and the use of obfuscated servers to hide your VPN use from your network provider. Obfuscation also makes it easier for users to access blocked websites such as Netflix or other popular streaming sites including Hulu and BBC iPlayer. NordVPN can also be used in China and is one of the few providers to be able to bypass the Great Firewall of China.

There is also dedicated customer support in the form of an email service, live chat, and help center. Users can enjoy a variety of subscription plan lengths and a 30-day money-back guarantee on each one.

3. Hotspot Shield

Hotspot Shield is an interesting VPN provider because it offers both free and paid VPN plans. The Premium plan provides users with more features but the free version is a great way for new customers to test out the VPN.

Hotspot Shield uses military-grade encryption and, like Nord and Express, has rolled out its own protocol, the Catapult Hydra. The Catapult Hydra is extremely fast, making Hotspot Shield a great choice for gamers and streamers. The security provides by Catapult is also impressive, and makes Hotspot one of the most secure VPNs on the market.

There is a kill switch available and Hotspot Shield operates a strict no-logging policy, guaranteeing that no activity on the network can be linked back to you. This is good to know since Hotspot is based in the USA, a country known for its heavy data logging activities.

Hotspot Shield has a large network, of 3,200 servers in 35+ cities around the world. This enables users to access content from different continents all from the comfort of their own homes. If you’re a fan of Netflix and chill then you’re in luck since Hotspot Shield can unblock an array of Netflix libraries along with Amazon Prime Video catalogs and BBC iPlayer in the UK.

There is a 5 device protection limit and dedicated apps are available for the most popular platforms. There is also a Chrome VPN extension, which offers faster speeds and encryption just for the activity in your browser.

Users on the Premium plan get access to 24/7 customer support which cannot be said for free version users. The free VPN provides you with solid encryption, but only provides access to one US-based server. Moreover, it can only be used on one device at a time and comes with a 500Mb daily data limit.

Hotspot Shield comes with a 45-day money-back guarantee which is one of the longest available on the market.

4. Surfshark

Surfshark exploded onto the VPN scene a few years ago and has quickly become one of the most popular providers due to its cheap prices and impressive VPN service.

One of the best things about this provider is that it provides unlimited simultaneous connections. You can use it on as many devices as you want at the same time, with no strings attached. This is excellent news and means that you can share the VPN with your friends and family.

The AdBlock feature prevents you from clicking on adware and protects your device. CleanWeb also prevents phishing attempts and malware. There is AES-256 encryption to encrypt your data and an offering of secure protocols including OpenVPN.

The no-logs policy ensures that none of your internet activity is tracked or traceable, and Surfshark is based in the British Virgin Islands like ExpressVPN meaning it enjoys the same privileges afforded to the region. There is a kill switch to ensure your internet browsing is never unknowingly exposed as well.

The Whitelister feature is a great addition since it acts as split tunneling and allows you to decide which apps or websites you want to bypass the VPN connection and run through your normal network provider.

Surfshark provides you access to 15 Netflix libraries across the world and also supports P2P networking on its server network. The network consists of 3200 servers in over 90+ countries which is an impressive size. There is 24/7 customer support in the form of a live chat, help center, and email system.

A 30-day money-back guarantee gives you time to try out the VPN and still receive a full refund if you aren’t completely satisfied with the services.

5. CyberGhost

CyberGhost is based in privacy-friendly Romania which is a plus for many of its subscribers. The provider has a large server network with over 6500 servers worldwide and operates a NoSpy server network. The NoSpy network sends your web traffic and VPN connection through servers located in Romania. The network is also managed solely by CyberGhost for extra security.

There is a strict zero-logging policy, and the provider releases an annual transparency report. The transparency report discloses any network server breaches as well as whether or not the provider has had to share data with government agencies.

CyberGhost employs AES-256 bit encryption to ensure the protection of your privacy online. There is also DNS and IPv6 protection to ensure your DNS requests and IP address are always protected. As well as this, there is a kill switch that will cut off your internet connection if your VPN connection or server gets disrupted.

Speeds are fast with CyberGhost and the VPN is Netflix compatible. There is unlimited bandwidth and zero data limits, which is great for gaming and P2P file sharing. You can protect up to 7 devices simultaneously and enjoy the VPN app on your Windows, macOS, Android, and iOS devices.

Like the other providers on this list, there is 24/7 customer service available. Moreover, CyberGhost has a 45-day money-back guarantee in place, which is a lot longer than the normal refund policy that VPNs offer.

Other VPNs

Not convinced by the VPNs listed above? There are many others out there. To name only a few: IPVanish, ProtonVPN, HideMyAss! VPN, Windscribe, StrongVPN, VPN Unlimited, Private Internet Access VPN, VyperVPN, TunnelBear. We’ve compiled reviews on all of these providers, which you can check out on our website.

VPN Features to Look Out for

Here are the most important things to look out for when you are researching VPNs.

Is it Illegal to Have a VPN?

A VPN is completely legal, depending on where you live. Some countries, like North Korea, ban the use of VPNs. However, in most parts of the world VPNs are completely acceptable.

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room here: in some cases, VPN use can be associated with illegal activities. But it doesn’t make the VPN itself illegal, unless your country of residence has deemed it so. Using a VPN service in no way means you’re doing anything shady.

In essence, you use a VPN to protect your online privacy and ensure an extra layer of security for your devices. It’s perfectly within your rights to try to make sure that you’ve got secure protection for your data, information, and browsing history. VPNs are a service you make use of. The ill intent doesn’t come from the VPN service, but from the user, if there’s any ill intent at play.

What’s illegal to do without a VPN is just as illegal to do with a VPN. Just as your internet service provider is going to have to comply with authorities investigating illegal use of your internet connection, the company offering you VPN services is going to have to comply with authorities as well.

In some cases, using VPNs may be immoral or illegal under some circumstances or in certain regions. If you’re sharing files through P2P networking and those files are protected by copyright, for instance, then the nature of sharing those files goes against intellectual property rights.

Breach of terms of service when using a VPN

If you’re in breach of terms of use of the VPN service you’ve purchased, then you’re most likely going to have your VPN services terminated even if there was nothing illegal about the situation.

Keep in mind that VPN services are offered to you based on a set of rules and regulations upheld by your VPN providers. Breaching that contract when using a VPN will mean the termination of services, which is a perfectly legal thing to happen as per the terms and conditions or contract you agreed to or signed.

Banned or restricted from using a VPN

It’s also important to keep in mind that while VPN services aren’t illegal, they are banned or restricted in some countries. Using a VPN isn’t technically illegal then either, but you won’t be able to use a VPN in those countries or regions as per their national policies. When in Rome, do like the Romans do.

You should also keep in mind that some services restrict you from using VPNs, like some streaming services which have particular policies regarding their content and server locations.

VPN best practices

Some free VPNs might use some questionable methods or have some ulterior motive to offer their services. Be very mindful when choosing to use a VPN service and choose a VPN only after you’ve looked into the fine print and details of that VPN services. If it looks or sounds too good to be true, it generally is too good to be true – online more so than offline, perhaps.

You want to use VPNs that focus on keeping your data – like IP address, details of your device or devices, server locations, network security, internet connection details, and any other details – secure an encrypted VPN connection.

How Do I Set Up a VPN?

It’s only a matter of installing, activating, and enjoying it.

Install

If you’ve decided you want to get a VPN, then you already know what you’ll be using it for, what your needs and wants are when it comes to making your choice. You know what device you’ll be using with your VPN.

At this point, the next step is to get the software or app that is suited for your device’s operating system and install it onto your device.

Activate

Depending on the options your VPN offers, you can now activate any and all features you want or deem necessary or helpful, from the most basic to the most complex ones. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and look into those options, because the right settings are going to work wonders for you.

Get your browser extensions going too, if your VPN offers them.

In Short

A VPN ensures the privacy and security of your internet traffic. It puts a sort of cloak of invisibility over the steps you take while you’re surfing the net by covering your real data with a layer of encryption. You can anonymize yourself and get access to any content around the world.

Whether you’re using software, apps, and/or browser extensions, VPNs adapt to any operating system you might be using – Windows, macOS, iOS, Android, Linux, and to various device formats like phones, tablets, computers, smart TVs, even routers.

There are plenty of options when it comes VPNs providers, from the free to the paid, and from the limited to the full coverage.

It’s perfectly legal to have VPN, though it can be used in immoral or even illegal ways. In that sense, the use is illegal, but the VPN is not. Your use can be in breach of the terms of use of the VPNs if you carry out illicit activities online. In some countries or regions, VPNs use is banned so be aware of this if you’re traveling.

When it comes to VPN best practices, it’s important to make sure you’re not using the services of someone who’s using or selling your information instead of simply cloaking it.

Author Cliff Durward

Hi, I'm Cliff. You can find me in Cleveland, Ohio with my wife and kids. I love cybersecurity! I've been writing about it for a decade now and have always loved the space. My favorite articles to write are how-to guides that...
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PrivacySharks » VPN – Best VPN of 2021 – Test: What is a VPN?
Last updated: June 9, 2021