The Best VPNs to Protect Yourself Online – A VIRTUAL PRIVATE network (VPN) is like a protective tunnel you can use to pass through a public network, protecting your data from outside eyes. Whether you’re worried about hiding your browsing activity from your internet service provider so it doesn’t sell your data to advertisers, or you want to stay safe on a public Wi-Fi hot spot to keep nearby digital snoops from capturing your passwords, a VPN can help protect you.
However, while a VPN will keep you safe at your local coffee shop, it comes with a cost. Using a VPN means your VPN provider will know everything about your browsing habits. This makes VPN providers a target for hackers. Be sure you even need one before you read on.
Picking the right VPN service is serious business. Most VPN providers say they keep no logs of their users’ activity, but this is rarely verified. You’re stuck taking companies at their word. For this reason, we’ve limited our testing to VPN providers that have been independently audited by security firms and have published the results.
To help you sort out when and why you might want a VPN, as well as why you might not, be sure to read through our complete guide to VPNs below. If you’re sure you want to use a VPN, here are our top picks among commercial VPN providers.
Best for Most People
Surfshark wouldn’t be my top pick if my life depended on my VPN, but for most of us that’s not the case. If you just want a way to get around some geographical restrictions on content (aka access Netflix) and protect your traffic while using an open Wi-Fi hot spot, Surfshark is a good choice. It’s secure, and it provides a great value for the money if you pay for two years up front.
In my testing over the years, Surfshark has consistently had some of the best speeds of any VPN I’ve used. Yes, it is slower than not using a VPN, but I have never had any problem streaming HD content through Surfshark. It’s fast enough that in most cases you won’t notice any speed degradation at all.
Surfshark is based in the British Virgin Islands, which, although technically a territory of Great Britain, is generally considered a safe haven and has no data-retention laws. What I don’t like is that Surfshark is legally untested. The company has a zero-log policy, and you can (and should) opt out of the diagnostic crash reports in the app. The company’s browser extensions have undergone an independent security audit that didn’t turn up any significant problems, and in January 2023, the auditing firm Deloitte verified Surfshark’s no-logs statement.
Surfshark recently merged with NordVPN. So far we have not noticed any changes for its customers, but we will be keeping an eye on it going forward.
Best for Advanced Users
Mullvad is based in Sweden and first came to my attention because of its early support for WireGuard, a faster protocol for tunneling VPN traffic.
Another thing I like is Mullvad’s system for accepting cash payments. If you prefer to remain totally anonymous, you can generate a random account number, write that number down on a slip of paper, and mail it, along with cash, to Sweden. In theory, no one will be able to connect you to that account. (The truly paranoid will don a tinfoil hat, wear gloves, print from a public printer, and mail from a remote mailbox.) I have not tested the cash option, but I did recently extend my Mullvad subscription using bitcoin and it worked without a hitch.
Part of what I like about Mullvad is its down-to-earth approach that doesn’t overhype with its marketing and helps users take additional steps to protect their privacy. For example, the company has an entire page showing you how to disable WebRTC in your web browser. As long as WebRTC is enabled (and it is by default in most browsers), websites can view your actual IP address even when you use a VPN.
Mullvad offers apps for every major platform, as well as routers. The applications are all open source, and you can check the code yourself on GitHub. The service has been independently audited as well. Advanced users can download configuration files and use them directly with OpenVPN or Wireguard.
In my testing, speeds were very good. I never encountered a situation where I couldn’t get a fast connection. Over the years Mullvad has become the VPN I rely on day-to-day.
Best for VPN Newcomers
In my testing, speeds with TunnelBear were competitive with the other options listed here. One of my favorite parts of TunnelBear is the free trial option, which makes it easy to test-drive it and see what your speeds are like without committing. TunnelBear has fewer geographic server locations than some of our other options, but unless you’re traveling abroad or need to get around a specific geo-restriction, that shouldn’t matter for most users.
Best for Circumventing Geographic Restrictions
NordVPN is based out of Panama, which is not part of the Five Eyes, Nine Eyes, or 14 Eyes jurisdictions. That doesn’t mean your government can’t spy on you, but it does at least mean it will have to put in some extra legwork to do it (yes, that’s about where we are these days). NordVPN has been audited a number of times, most recently by Deloitte (like Surfshark) which found nothing amiss. As noted above, NordVPN and Surfshark recently announced a merger. Both will continue to operate as separate entities, but they are now a single company.
NordVPN also recently added a new service dubbed Threat Protection, which will block web-based trackers, phishing attempts, some ads, and malicious websites. I have not tested it extensively, and I personally rely on browser-based plug-ins to block threats like this. But if you’re looking for an all-in-one solution, this might work. It may block some things, so if you’re having trouble connecting, disable it.
I’ve never had an issue with speed using NordVPN, and the user interface of its apps is dead simple. Just click the country you want to use and the app will take care of connecting and configuring everything for you. If you want manual control, you can connect by using NordVPN’s configuration files.
Best for High-Risk Use Cases
If you’re in a situation where personal security is of the utmost importance, do not rely on a VPN. Use Tor (ideally through Tails) instead.
Using the Tor network accomplishes some of the same things as a VPN, but it’s a little bit different. Tor provides anonymity, meaning no one can figure out who you are, but not necessarily privacy. People still might be able to see what you’re doing, they just won’t know it’s you doing it. (VPNs provide privacy because no one can see what you’re doing while you’re going out of a VPN tunnel, but you don’t have anonymity because the VPN provider knows who you are.)