How to Choose a VPN: 9 Things to Look At When Buying One
- Quick Guide: How to Get a VPN in 3 Easy Steps
- How to Choose the Right VPN — The Ultimate Guide
- Best VPNs — Full Analysis (Updated 2024)
- ExpressVPN — The Fastest VPN We Tested With Exclusive Lightway Protocol
- CyberGhost — Easy-to-Use VPN With Dedicated Servers for Streaming and Torrenting
- Private Internet Access — Customizable Security Gives You Plenty of Flexibility
- FAQs on How to Choose the Right VPN
- Choose the Best VPN in Minutes
Most VPNs have different qualities than others. Some are just poor services in general, with weak security, unreliable servers, or restrictive speeds. Worse, some VPNs have been caught logging and sharing user data — compromising your privacy and negating the whole point of VPNs.
To help you decide, I've compiled a checklist of key factors to consider when you’re looking for a VPN. These include security and privacy features, a reliable server network, fast speeds, and more.
Of the 200+ VPNs the team and I regularly test, ExpressVPN is our #1 choice. It’s the best service for speed, streaming, reliability, security, and privacy. Most VPNs only shine in 1 or 2 such categories, yet ExpressVPN excels in all of them. Plus, it’s backed by a 30-day money-back guarantee, so you can try it risk-free. If you’re not satisfied, you can easily get a refund.
Quick Guide: How to Get a VPN in 3 Easy Steps
- Choose a VPN. In short, I recommend ExpressVPN since it offers the fastest speeds and the best security out of all the VPNs I’ve tested.
- Download the app and connect to a server. Purchasing the VPN and setting it up should take under 5 minutes. The VPNs I shortlisted are pre-configured to work immediately, so all you need to do is click a button to connect.
- Start browsing. The VPN will now protect all your online activities from prying eyes.
How to Choose the Right VPN — The Ultimate Guide
1. Figure Out Why You Need the VPN
VPNs have different strengths and weaknesses, so figuring out what you want it for is pivotal. If you’re new to the technology, then understanding what a VPN can do is your first objective.
Fast speeds are vital if you want a VPN for streaming, torrenting, or gaming. If security is a concern, choose a provider with a verified no-logs policy and a kill switch. A VPN with an allowance of multiple simultaneous connections makes good sense for large households with many devices. For beating tough firewalls, like those at school or work, obfuscation can help you bypass public network blocks.
Once you know what you will be using your VPN for, write down a list of the features that are important to you and those you don’t need. Personally, I also use a “nice to have” list for things that you like the sound of (like built-in ad blockers) but aren’t completely necessary. This will help you weigh the pros and cons of each VPN on your list.
2. Ensure Your VPN Has Strong Security and Privacy Features
- AES 256-bit military-grade encryption. It’s the strongest encryption algorithm available, and it’s the one banks and the military use to keep sensitive information confidential.
- Data leak protection and an automatic kill switch. These both prevent your real IP address and browsing data from being exposed. The kill switch blocks your internet connection should your VPN accidentally disconnect for any reason to prevent data leaks.
- Good selection of security protocols. Protocols handle your data in transit, so your VPN should support modern, secure, and fast protocols. ExpressVPN’s proprietary Lightway offers a great balance between security and speed, but WireGuard and OpenVPN are both good alternatives. Multiple options allow you to customize your connections for different activities.
- Strict no-logs policy. A VPN should guarantee that it will not log your personal identifiable data. An independent audit should verify this claim to ensure trust, and your provider should also regularly wipe its servers of all data. Look for VPNs that offer RAM-only servers, as these won’t be able to write any data to long-term memory.
- Headquarters in a privacy-friendly jurisdiction. Some governments can demand that VPNs hand over all user data. The risk is higher for VPNs that are based in the 5/9/14 Eyes Alliances, a multi-nation surveillance network. However, as long as the VPN has a verified no-logs policy, it won’t be an issue because it won’t be able to provide any identifiable user data.
- Extra security and privacy features. Some VPNs offer additional privacy protection. That includes obfuscation, which hides the fact you’re using a VPN to bypass network blocks. Another example is multi-hop (double encryption), which routes traffic through two servers for extra security.
Your choice of protocol is critical. Each can differ in overall security, speed, and reliability. Refer to the table below to identify which protocol is best for your needs and choose your VPN accordingly:
3. Look for a VPN With Reliable Speeds
You don’t want constant lag and slowdowns interrupting your online activities, so look for a VPN with reliable and consistent speeds. A VPN will affect your speed somewhat because it takes time to encrypt your traffic and route it through a server. However, with the best VPNs, you’ll barely notice the delay. To ensure fast speeds, look for the following:
- Fast VPN protocols. As the table above shows, some protocols are significantly faster than others. Lightway and WireGuard offer excellent performance without compromising security.
- Speed-boosting features. These can include optimized servers for specific uses (such as streaming or torrenting), the ability to customize the level of encryption (AES 256-bit encryption isn’t essential for Netflix, for example), or split tunneling, where you can select some apps to bypass the VPN server.
- Speed test results. Online speed tests are the best way to measure your VPN’s performance. Check your download speed and ping (response time), and compare with results from your regular internet connection. All the VPNs I recommend offer a money-back guarantee, so you can test them without risk.
4. Choose a VPN With an Extensive Server Network
Make sure your VPN actively maintains an extensive server network. Having multiple reliable servers is critical for the following:
- Fast speeds. If your VPN has few servers, it will likely suffer from user overcrowding. That can lead to slow speeds and instability. ExpressVPN offers 3,000 servers across 105 countries, and I’ve never come across a congested server while I’ve been testing its network.
- Smooth streaming. Nearby servers are important to watch your favorite local streaming platforms, and they offer the fastest speeds. Some VPNs offer streaming-optimized servers, which are designed to consistently work with the licensed platforms in your country.
- Lag-free gaming. For smooth gaming, you need a VPN with reliable nearby servers and low ping, allowing you to play with minimal lag. As with streaming, some VPNs have specialty gaming servers.
In addition to the above, choose a VPN that performs routine server maintenance. That includes bug fixes, software updates, hardware upgrades, IP rotations, and server reboots. You can find these details on the VPN’s website, but if you choose a service from this list, you won’t have to — I already checked for you!
5. Supports Torrenting
In addition to strong security and a no-logs policy, your VPN should have P2P-friendly servers if you like torrenting. That enables fast, safe, and reliable torrent downloads.
If the VPN includes port forwarding, that’s a bonus. This increases download speeds by allowing you to make direct connections to download peers. But that will depend on your technical setup. Port forwarding doesn’t work for all users, and you might have to experiment to find the best setup.
6. Make Sure Your VPN Suits Your Technical Preferences
Look for a VPN that has apps for most modern devices. That way, you can easily install it on a variety of operating systems, such as Windows, Android, iOS, macOS, and Linux. If the VPN doesn’t have an app for your devices, you’ll have to configure it on your router, which can be a hassle.
Plus, your VPN should suit your technical needs. Do you want plenty of adjustable settings to configure your connections? Or a plug-and-play app that lets you connect with a few clicks? Either way, the app should be pre-configured to work right away.
7. Look for a VPN With Multiple Device Connections
Multiple simultaneous connections mean you don’t have to disconnect any devices to use another. For example, PIA allows unlimited simultaneous devices. That’s especially useful if you have a large household or many devices.
Alternatively, you can look for a VPN that’s compatible with routers to bypass the limit. That ensures your VPN protects all your home devices connected to that router, regardless of how many simultaneous connections it allows. This includes devices that can’t support VPNs natively, like gaming consoles and Internet of Things (IoT) devices like smart TVs.
8. Responsive and Knowledgeable Customer Support
Choose a VPN with responsive and helpful support, ideally via 24/7 live chat. That way, you can get quick answers to your questions. Email support, contact forms, and searchable knowledge bases may also be available (and maybe the channels you prefer).
Even the best VPNs can run into problems, so having reliable and technically proficient support can save time. I only chose services where you can talk to a live agent immediately. Some VPNs make you chat with an AI bot before connecting you to an agent, and bots rarely solve problems, in my experience.
9. Payment Methods and Money-Back Guarantees
Ensure your VPN accepts popular payment methods, like credit cards and PayPal. If privacy is a concern, look for a VPN that accepts cryptocurrencies. Then, you can sign up anonymously without sharing personal payment details. In such cases, you can also use a disposable email address to leave no trace of your subscription.
Also, a good VPN should let you try all its features risk-free. Look for a provider that offers a trustworthy money-back guarantee, like our recommended VPNs below. That means you can get your money back if you’re not happy with the service.
Best VPNs — Full Analysis (Updated 2024)
Tested February 2024 Try Risk-Free for 30 Days
|An exclusive protocol that offers the fastest speeds in our tests without compromising your security
|3,000 servers in 105 countries to avoid network congestion
|Extremely fast over all distances — you’ll have no issues with lag or buffering
|Netflix, Disney+, Hulu, Max, DAZN, ESPN, iPlayer, RTL+, RTE, and more
ExpressVPN is the fastest service we’ve ever tested. That makes it ideal for streaming, torrenting, gaming, and any other data-heavy activities. My US colleague tested its Houston and New York servers from Florida, and they only lost 5% of their base speeds — pretty impressive, given that New York is on the other side of the country to them. Ping was just 13ms, well under the 100ms recommended for smooth gaming.
These fast speeds are largely due to its proprietary protocol, Lightway. Most VPNs use standard open-source protocols, but ExpressVPN has built Lightway from the ground up to cater to the needs of today’s internet users. Lightway has around a quarter of the lines of code that WireGuard uses, making it lightweight and fast but highly secure.
Another drawback with WireGuard is that it doesn’t support obfuscation, so you’ll have to switch to the much slower OpenVPN with other services. But Lightway was built for obfuscation, which is automatic on all of ExpressVPN’s servers. It will scramble your connection’s metadata to avoid detection on restrictive public networks.
The only hesitation about choosing ExpressVPN is the price — it’s not the cheapest. But you can save a good amount with a long-term subscription. Plus, you can try it risk-free as it’s backed by a 30 money-back guarantee. I tried this using 24/7 live chat, and it took under a minute for the friendly agent to approve my refund. My money was returned in full 4 days later.
- Fully-optimized servers. Every one of ExpressVPN’s 3,000 servers supports everyday browsing, streaming, torrenting, and gaming. So, you can do multiple online activities without changing settings or hunting for specialty servers.
- Shortcuts. You configure settings for your favorite apps and sites for one-click access. The links appear on the app’s home screen when you’re connected to a server. Just click Options > Shortcuts > +, and enter a URL or choose an application.
- Full-featured browser extensions. Most VPN browser extensions have limited features or are just proxies. But ExpressVPN has fully loaded extensions for Chrome and Firefox. They act as a “remote control” for the full app — when you switch the extension on, your entire device is protected. You won’t miss out on any of the VPN’s features.
- Threat Manager. ExpressVPN continuously maintains a blocklist of dangerous domains and content. Once you activate it, Threat Manager will protect your device from malware and viruses and block annoying pop-up ads.
|A plug-and-play app that’s simple to use, even for VPN newcomers
|11,683 servers in 100 countries, including servers optimized for torrenting, streaming, and gaming
|Very fast over short and medium distances, average over long — great for streaming your country’s licensed TV and movies
|Netflix, Disney+, Hulu, Max, ESPN, iPlayer, RTL+, RTE, and more
CyberGhost offers an effortless user experience even for VPN beginners. I set it up on my MacBook Pro in under 2 minutes while testing. From there, I opened the app and hit connect. Within 2 seconds, I was connected to the fastest server available, protecting my whole device. You don’t even need to expand the app view unless you want to choose a specific server type or location.
The menu clearly displays the specialty servers for streaming, downloading, and gaming*, so it’s easy to navigate. The streaming servers are optimized for specific platforms like Netflix, iPlayer, and Hulu. CyberGhost continuously updates them to improve performance, too. (*gaming servers not available on macOS).
I did run into an issue where I had a 46% drop from a server in Tokyo, so speeds over distance aren’t as impressive as ExpressVPN’s. That said, nearby and mid-distance locations were rapid. In my tests from the UK, I got average speed losses of just 6% from New York, Paris, and London.
You don’t need to stress about committing to a subscription right away with CyberGhost, as you can try it for free. Its money-back guarantee on longer plans gives you 45 days to test the VPN, more generous than the standard 30 days. I tried out the guarantee using live chat, and it was just as easy as with ExpressVPN.
- Block Content. While you don’t need to dive into your settings for CyberGhost to work seamlessly, I do recommend turning on the Block Content feature. This stops malicious files at the DNS level, keeping you safe from ads, trackers, and malware.
- NoSpy servers. Many VPNs keep servers in shared facilities, posing the risk of third-party interference. But highly secure NoSpy servers are independently managed in CyberGhost’s headquarters in Romania (outside the 5/9/14 Eyes). While they’re noticeably slower than regular servers, they’re great when you need extra security.
- Smart rules. It’s easy to forget to switch on your VPN (guilty as charged!), but you can safeguard against that by configuring the Smart rules. This lets you set the app to start automatically when you use a new network, connect to a specific server whenever your device starts up, and more.
|A wealth of adjustable security settings make it a great choice for experienced VPN users
|29,650 servers in 91 countries, including servers in every US state
|Very fast over short and medium distances, average over long — still fast enough for data-intensive activities
|Netflix, Disney+, Hulu, Max, ESPN, BBC iPlayer, and more
Private Internet Access (PIA) boasts a wealth of adjustable settings. These allow you to tailor your VPN experience to your exact preferences for speed and security. During my tests with the OpenVPN protocol, I reduced my encryption to 128-bit to optimize my speeds for streaming but bumped it back to 256-bit when I logged into my online banking account.
PIA’s MACE is a tracker and malware blocker to keep you safe from dangerous content, but unlike CyberGhost’s Block Content, it’s also a powerful ad blocker. Not only do ads clutter up pages, but they also make content load more slowly because large mastheads and animated ads eat up bandwidth.
Split Tunnel lets you select which apps go through the VPN and which don't. It's an excellent tool for balancing speed and security based on your activity. However, be mindful that this plethora of options can be a tad overwhelming if you’re a VPN beginner, but techies will relish the chance to fine-tune connections.
PIA offers one of the cheapest premium long-term plans out there. Plus, it offers a 30-day money-back guarantee. If you’re not happy, getting a refund is easy.
- Multi-Hop. This routes your traffic through multiple servers, making it even harder for potential eavesdroppers to trace your activities. Multi-Hop routes your data through a VPN server and a SOCKS5 or a Shadowsocks proxy. This did slow my connection slightly during my tests, but not as much as if I was using two VPN servers (as is the case with other VPN multi-hops).
- Customizable kill switch. If your VPN connection drops unexpectedly, this feature immediately cuts off your internet connection to ensure your real IP is never exposed. Or, you can choose the advanced version, which doesn’t let you go online at all unless you’re connected to a PIA server.
- Expanded view. PIA’s app has a detailed yet intuitive interface. The expanded view provides one-click settings and comprehensive activity data, informing you about your connections and allowing quick access to settings.
FAQs on How to Choose the Right VPN
What is the best VPN for Netflix?
The best VPN for Netflix is one that offers reliable connections to the platform while providing consistent speeds. Look for a VPN with a proven track record of working with Netflix.
However, Netflix constantly adjusts its technology, so a VPN may suddenly stop working. That’s why the VPNs on my list all regularly update their servers to ensure they work with Netflix and other platforms within their licensed countries. So, if you’re having issues, inform customer service. They may already have a workaround or can take action to resolve the issue.
Are VPNs safe?
Yes, a VPN is generally safe if you choose a reputable service. All of the VPNs I’ve recommended above have been rigorously tested by my team and me to ensure they’re secure. Doing your research is essential because some low-quality VPNs can compromise your security, as is the case with most free services. Reading reviews and ensuring the VPN has a no-log policy can help assure safety.
Can I use a VPN with my smart TV or game console?
Yes, many VPNs support smart TVs and game consoles directly or via a router. Some VPNs also offer apps specifically for smart TVs. If yours doesn’t, check the service’s website for instructions on how to install the VPN to your router. The VPNs on my list all support multiple popular routers.
Are VPNs legal?
Yes, using a VPN is legal in the vast majority of countries. However, certain nations ban or restrict VPN usage due to government data monitoring and other privacy regulations. Similarly, some services (like streaming and gaming platforms) restrict the use of VPNs, as they can theoretically be used to access content that's not licensed for a certain region.
Always check local laws before using a VPN, especially if you're traveling or residing in countries with strict internet censorship. You should also make sure any content you watch, play, or download is licensed in your country or is within the public domain. My colleagues and I don’t condone breaking the law.
How do I choose the best server location?
Are there any activities where I shouldn’t use a VPN?
Yes — you shouldn't use them for illegal activities or to breach terms of service agreements. While VPNs keep your online activities private, downloading copyrighted material or accessing content that’s illegal in your region can have consequences.
Also, there are some activities for which some users may prefer not to use their VPN or use split tunneling to bypass it. That may include gaming, streaming, or using cloud software suites like Microsoft 365 or Adobe Creative Cloud. Or, you may want to search for businesses or events near your actual location.
Should I use a free VPN?
It depends — I recommend caution when considering a free VPN. Free VPNs often have limits such as data caps, slow speeds, and fewer server options. Some free VPNs are fine for limited regular browsing, but they don’t usually offer robust features to keep you safe in the long term. Always prioritize your online safety and consider investing in a reputable low-cost premium VPN service instead.
More concerning, some free VPNs can jeopardize your privacy by logging and selling your data or exposing you to ads and malware.
Choose the Best VPN in Minutes
Choosing a VPN can seem daunting, with so many services claiming to be the best. But, if you identify which features you need for the online activities you want to do, the picture should become much clearer.
After extensive testing, my team and I recommend ExpressVPN. It’s the fastest, most secure service we tested, and its servers support multiple activities, so it’s a great all-rounder. You can try ExpressVPN risk-free as it’s backed by a 30-day money-back guarantee. If you’re not satisfied, you can easily get a refund.
To summarize, these are the best VPNs we tested...
Your data is exposed to the websites you visit!
Your IP Address:
Your Internet Provider:
The information above can be used to track you, target you for ads, and monitor what you do online.
VPNs can help you hide this information from websites so that you are protected at all times. We recommend ExpressVPN — the #1 VPN out of over 350 providers we've tested. It has military-grade encryption and privacy features that will ensure your digital security, plus — it's currently offering 49% off.