Seems like everyone these days wants a VPN — whether it’s for circumventing network restrictions, hiding your internet activities from your ISP, or whatever else you might want it for. There’s a few things we should get out of the way first, however.
First, despite what your favorite YouTuber might say, a VPN is not a magic button to protect you from all internet threats. It only reroutes your internet traffic through a server — which means you still have to trust your traffic going through said server, otherwise using a VPN will be futile. It also won’t protect you from cyberattacks or data breaches, hide your financial transactions or your geographical location, prevent social media profiling or your computer being hacked, or most other vulnerabilities. Military-grade encryption means nothing, and the contents of the sites you visit are probably already encrypted with HTTP over TLS/SSL.
Second, there is no such thing as a good free unlimited VPN. There is always a catch. Some VPN providers might offer a free trial or half a gig of data, etc, but any VPN that offers unlimited traffic without any limitations is stealing your data and selling it online… or worse. Free VPNs have been caught injecting malware (web tracking), replacing advertisements with their own, and not actually encrypting traffic, despite their claims. Proton VPN’s free plan is one of very few exceptions — it provides access to 100-ish servers in three countries, moderate bandwidth, one simultaneous conection, but no P2P/Torrent support.
One great example of this is Betternet. Betternet has 4.5 stars on the App Store, offers unlimited free traffic, and claims to keep no logs. However, they’ve been caught not only logging user data, but also selling it to data brokers. They also leak IP addresses, and aren’t at all transparent about their user encryption. Their website even claims to protect you from hackers, by securing internet connection with “military-grade encryption.” “Browse with confidence,” they say. They also offer a paid plan for faster speeds, but don’t let that trick you — their main feature is a “totally free” VPN. Betternet’s parent company (Pango Group) also owns Hotspot Shield, VPN 360, and Ultra VPN, all of which are incredibly popular on the App Store.
So, which VPN is best? There are a few different factors that you might want to consider. Your threat model (AKA your level of tinfoil-hat), price, speed, and locations are a few to start. We’re mainly going to be comparing NordVPN, ExpressVPN, Private Internet Access, Mullvad, Proton VPN, and IVPN, however you may see some other VPNs mentioned in this article.
Do you need a VPN though?
Before we jump in, perhaps decide if you need a VPN in the first place. IVPN has graciously created DoINeedAVPN.com, in order to “challenge aggressive marketing practices in the VPN industry.” This site is not for marketing, but rather part of IVPN’s transparency initiative to help you decide if you actually need a VPN. I would absolutely recommend visiting their site before continuing. Link here.
Let’s dive in, starting with your personal threat model. Are you an activist or wanted by a government agency? Are you just trying to protect yourself from copyright trolls? The VPN you choose will depend on this. If your threat levels are high, you’re going to want a VPN with a solid history of denying legal requests and proven no-log policies, that has never been compromised and that has zero connections to data brokers or malware companies. You can decide whether or not these details matter to you, and create your own threat model.
Clearing the Room: Kape Technologies
Kape Technologies (formerly Crossrider) is an Israeli company, which has drawn some suspicion for its apparent ties to malware distribution. To be correct, Kape Technologies never distributed malware themselves. They created a platform for developing browser extensions which contained monetization options, which people had used for ad injectors and other privacy-threatening advertising tools. This platform had been used for malware, adware and other online threats — they soon noticed the abuse on the platform and shut down the tool entirely, replacing many of their personnel and rebranding as a privacy/security company. Kape Technologies owns CyberGhost, Private Internet Access (PIA), ExpressVPN, and ZenMate. Kape also owns a handful of (fake) VPN review sites, vpnMentor and Wizcase among them. While the malware claims against Kape have been disproven, I wouldn’t personally recommend using their VPN services.
Tesonet, a data mining company, is also alleged to own NordVPN and SurfShark.
VPN Transparency & Log Policies
|Country||No-log Policy||Audited||Transparency Reports||Open Source||Proved in Court|
|ExpressVPN||British Virgin Islands||✅||✅||❌||Extensions 1||✅ 2|
|Private Internet Access||United States||✅||✅||❌||Android 3||✅ 4|
|Proton VPN||Switzerland||✅||✅||✅||Apps 6||✅ 7|
Note that smaller VPN providers’ policies (such as Mullvad or IVPN), while they are trusted in the community, haven’t had their policies proven in court simply because they are not used on the same scale as more popular providers like NordVPN or ExpressVPN.
Keep in mind that the claimed policies may not always be accurate. Some VPN providers have been caught lying about their policies, as is the case with PureVPN, IPVanish and HideMyAss. All of them claimed that they didn’t keep any logs, and yet logs were released in court.
Many VPN companies will show “$X per month,” when they are referring to a two or three year plan divided into 24/36 months, so keep that in mind. NordVPN does this often with their $3.50/mo banners, when the month-by-month pricing is $11.99. In this section, we’ll be comparing the month-by-month pricing for convenience of purchase, but if you’re able to buy years at a time, you may be able to get a discount.
- As stated earlier, NordVPN offers only one tier, which is $11.99 per month.
- ExpressVPN offers one tier as well, coming in at $12.95 per month.
- Private Internet Access offers one tier, which is $9.95 per month.
- Mullvad offers one tier, coming in at $5.60/mo. (5 euros, converted at the time of writing.) Mullvad only offers month-by-month pricing, never has discounts, and has had the same price since its inception — so you’re getting the most dependable pricing model here.
- Proton VPN offers two VPN tiers: free and plus. The free tier offers 100+ servers in 3 countries, 1 VPN connection, and medium speeds. The plus tier offers 1700+ servers in 60+ countries, 10 VPN connections, and the highest speed (up to 10Gbps). The plus plan is also required if you wish to torrent or stream, and includes Secure Core servers and tracker-blocker NetShield.
- IVPN offers two tiers: standard and pro. The standard tier offers 2 connections, and costs $6/mo (or $2/wk). The pro tier offers 7 connections, includes port forwarding and multi-hop, and comes in at $10/mo (or $4/wk). IVPN also offers special pricing for companies (20+ seats) and nonprofits (5+ seats).
With NordVPN, there was a 28% download loss and a 24% upload loss. (via PCMag)
With ExpressVPN, there was a 60% download loss and a 74% upload loss. (via PCMag)
With PIA, there was an 11% download loss and a 19% upload loss. (via PCMag)
With Mullvad, there was a 19% download loss and a 47% upload loss. (via PCMag)
With Proton VPN, there was a 15% download loss and a 1% upload loss (via PCMag), and in my own testing, I had a 0% overall speed loss.
With IVPN, there was a 23% download loss and a 27% upload loss (via PCMag), and in my own testing, I had a 0% overall speed loss.
My testing was done using Rate My VPN on my home computer, with an unmetered 400mbps connection.
NordVPN has 5342 servers in 60 countries.
ExpressVPN has 3000+ servers and 160 server locations in 94 countries.
Private Internet Access has servers in 84 countries.
Mullvad has 780 servers and 68 server locations in 38 countries.
Proton VPN has 1758 servers in 63 countries.
IVPN has 79 total servers (64 openvpn, 79 wireguard) and 45 server locations in 32 countries on 18 different server providers.
I reached out to each of these companies individually if information was unavailable. This is all the location information I was able to gather.
The VPN you choose will most likely depend on what’s important to you. I would recommend IVPN, Mullvad or Proton VPN. IVPN and Mullvad only use account IDs and no identifiable information (emails, etc). IVPN is more feature-rich than Mullvad though. Proton VPN is also a good alternative for a (limited) free VPN, but keep in mind that the free tier doesn’t allow torrenting. Proton VPN also requires an email address for registration.
I use IVPN as my daily driver, due to support for a custom DNS and their extreme transparency. That being said, if you require more servers, you might choose Mullvad or Proton VPN instead.
Disclaimer: I reached out to IVPN for a press demo, and was provided with a 3-month code, which has since expired (but I still use their service). This does not affect my review in any way, and I am not receiving any benefits from them for writing this review.
05/31/2022: updated Proton VPN’s pricing/locations/name and added IVPN.
09/18/2022: corrected information on Kape Technology, overhauled entire post.