Most people don't know what a VPN is, and those who do probably don't know how to choose the right one. I started using a VPN pretty recently and had to go through the time-consuming work of comparing different ones trying to find out what was important. Here's what I found.
So, what is a VPN?
VPN is an acronym for Virtual Private Network. It's software that creates an encrypted tunnel between your device (smartphone/computer/router/etc.) and services (websites/email/streaming services/etc.) you use. Everything that is sent from or to your device and a service is encrypted. This means that outsiders can't eavesdrop on what you do online by intercepting your internet traffic.
Without a VPN it is quite easy to trace traffic between computers, phones, tablets, etc. You are especially vulnerable if you connect to open wireless networks, like in coffee shops, airports and internet cafés.
An additional thing a VPN does, is make you anonymous online. Instead of your real IP address, websites you visit will see an anonymous IP address provided by the VPN service. When you use a VPN service, a spy would need access to your device to be able to "listen" to your traffic.
What makes a VPN service good?
This part is a bit tricky. The reason is that it depends on what you need. Below is a list of things that may be important to you. Some have lots of demands and some can get by with a few features.
Price: There are free VPN services, and there are those you pay for. Prices typically vary from a couple of dollars a month to 10, 20 or more.
Ease of use: Usability is subjective. Some want an on/off button, and that's it. Others need easy access to advanced settings. If you know nothing about VPN:s and don't want to learn, a service without settings may be your best choice. Tap a button to activate it and forget about it. In practice, it seldom is that easy though.
Supported platforms: If you have more than one device you may need a VPN service that supports several platforms (operating systems like iOS, Android, macOS, Windows, Unix, Linux). If you only need it for your phone, a VPN service with an iOS or Android app might be enough.
Number of installs per license: If the whole family needs VPN protection, it can be expensive to use a VPN with a license that only lets you install it on one device. Therefore many of the VPN services lets you install it on several devices. I have seen up to seven simultaneous connections on one license.
Stability: By stability, I mean that the service isn't interrupted by server failures or connection issues and that it doesn't slow down your internet speed too much. This part isn't always easy to find out without testing. Luckily most VPN:s have been tested by others. Google them.
Service provider reliability: Can you trust the service to do what they promise? To find out, you can read VPN tests. There are plenty online.
Level of privacy: A good VPN, in my opinion, should not store any user logs. The simple reason is that VPN services can be subpoenaed to hand over user logs to law enforcement. If they don't save logs, there's nothing to hand over. Also, if they store no logs, they aren't as vulnerable to hackers. This often is a selling argument, so you will find out what their policy is in the service description. The most private ones use servers without installed storage media. They can't store anything.
Streaming friendliness: Streaming services, like Netflix, don't like subscribers using VPN:s. Therefore they try to block their content from VPN users. It's a cat and mouse game. There are VPN services that put a lot of effort into providing servers for customers who want to use a VPN while streaming movies. This too, is a selling argument, so you will find it in the service description. If you don't care about privacy while streaming, you can disable the VPN when you watch video.
Number of servers: If the service is stable, you don't have to care about their server park. Often, though, number of servers and stability are connected. Most VPN:s list the number of servers on their websites. Some even tell you in what country each server is.
Geographic server representation: Since you are assumed to be some place pretty close to the server you connect to the internet with, it may be important to you where the VPN servers are. There are online services that restrict use by country. If you surf via certain countries, you may be stopped from using their services. Streaming and banking services, for instance. Having a good choice of countries to connect to your VPN through, can be handy or even crucial for your choice. Look in the VPN presentation web page. You can usually find it here.
Anonymous payment options: Most people won't care if the VPN provider can connect their payments to them. There are those who do though. For them, anonymous payment options can be important. Paying by crypto currency or cash delivery during night time is accepted by some VPN services.
Anonymous registration option: An email address can be connected to you. If you don't want to leave the VPN provider any traces leading back to you, pick one that lets you sign up anonymously.
Legal home country: If you worry that certain governments or government agencies would try to pressure VPN providers to get information about their customers, or their traffic, the location of their headquarters can make a difference. There are countries whose laws are more protective of personal integrity than others.
These are the things I have found most important for picking the right VPN. Decide which ones apply to you. Some may be nice to have while others are necessities. Make a list of your choices.
Which VPN do I use?
I read about many and tested a handful of VPN services over a couple of months to find out what my needs were, and which one fit me best. It's worth mentioning that I almost exclusively tested the iOS apps, except for TunnelBear, which I used on MacOS too.
Tunnelbear is very easy to use. There practically are no settings other than deciding what country you want to connect through. Their license permit installation on up to five devices on several platforms. A thing that makes them stand out from other VPN services, is that they do yearly external audits to make sure they do what they promise. The price is 9.99 USD per month or 49.99 USD a year. You can try it for free. TunnelBear did not support using Netflix. That was a deal-breaker for me. Otherwise I liked their service for ease of use. I thought the much praised animated app interface was ridiculous. A simple list could have done at least as good a job. They get a point for trying though. 🙂
Mullvad allows anonymous payments as well as clever anonymous sign up. They support several platforms, but have no iOS app. You can still use it on iOS though. It is a bit fiddly setting it up. You do it in the OpenVPN Connect app. One license lets you install Mullvad on as many devices as you like, but you are limited to using it on five of them at the same time. The price is 5 USD a month. During my tests I found that the setup needed more manual work than I am prepared to do. There are many things I like about Mullvad though. If they build a proper iOS app, I would like to try it again.
VPN Unlimited is the service I tested the least. Netflix wasn't working. If you don't care about streaming, VPN Unlimited is a very feature-rich VPN. The price is 4.99 USD a month, or 29.99 a year. They let you try it 7 days for free.
CyberGhost is the VPN I use now. It has special servers for streaming. When I use one of them, Netflix works. The license supports up to seven devices simultaneously. They have thousands of servers across the globe. Prices are 12.99 USD per month, 63 USD a year, or 89.90 for three years. I paid for the 12 month plan.
While Netflix works, CyberGhost isn't without it's problems. Some days I get so frustrated I think about signing up for another VPN. I can't say for sure if the issues are related to the service or something on my end. Connections are lost and the "best location" server setting doesn't mean there are no interruptions. Sometimes it says it can't connect to any of the servers, but when I run the built-in connection test it says everything is fine.
Another thing that could be improved, is the app interface. It looks very clean and nice, but isn't optimized for speed. For instance, you can pick servers that are your favorites, to get to them quickly (I assume). They then end up in a separate list. The problem is that the favorite list isn't the one that opens when you want to pick a server. You have to open the favorites tab first, which makes the idea of favorites more or less useless. I think a better choice for favorites would be to have the list at the bottom of the connection screen. Then you would save two taps when you need to change server. Also, you shouldn't have to tap the connect button after you have picked a server. How often is it that you don't want to connect to the server you just manually choose?
Another interface issue is that it may look like you are connected to CyberGhost when you are not. The connection time is counting without the VPN being connected.
Which VPN do others recommend?
Several of the tests I have read give ExpressVPN the highest rating, speed being one of the main selling points. NordVPN also frequently come out at the top in VPN ratings. Both of them have high app ratings in iOS App Store.
Which VPN is your choice?
If you use a VPN, which one do you use? What made you choose it? Are you satisfied? Would you recommend it to a friend?
If you don't have a VPN and have questions, feel free to ask. I am not an expert, but I will try to answer. There may be others here who knows if I don't.
(Photo by Mathew Schwartz at Unsplash)