The privacy of Internet users has become an extremely hot topic this year, largely thanks to the revelations of whistleblower Edward Snowden.
As a result many people have turned to VPNs in the hope of making their online browsing habits harder to track. While this appears to be a logical move, many people forget to ask themselves a crucial question.
Can VPN providers be trusted?
Roughly a years ago a new VPN provider entered the market with a rather generous offer.
The company offered free VPN connections for all, no strings attached.
As a result thousands of people flocked to the new service and installed the toolbar-supported client in order to be protected from the prying eyes of their ISP and third-party monitoring outfits.
While a free VPN does indeed sound like a good offer, it was surprising to see how easily people were prepared to hook up to the servers of a totally unknown company.
The VPN service in question, which shall remain unnamed, was operated by an unknown offshore company that appeared to come out of nowhere.
Did all these new users really trust this “unknown” company with all their traffic?
Would they even know if the VPN service began storing all kinds of sensitive information sent through the VPN?
The above example is not limited to free or new VPN providers.
Everyone who uses a VPN service puts an incredible amount of trust in the company they sign up with.
While the highest encryption standards offer protection against direct monitoring, VPN service providers can still see everything you do, if they want to.
What is a VPN and How it works
A VPN is a service that keeps your web browsing secure and private over private network and public Wi-Fi hotspots.
VPNs can also get past regional restrictions for video and music-streaming sites and help you evade government censorship restrictions.
The best way to think of a VPN is as a secure tunnel between your PC and destinations you visit on the internet.
Your PC connects to a VPN server, which can be located in the United States or a foreign country like the United Kingdom, France, Sweden, or Thailand.
Your web traffic then passes back and forth through that server.
The end result:
- As far as most websites are concerned, you’re browsing from that server’s geographical location, not your computer’s location.
Once you’re connected to the VPN and are “inside the tunnel,” it becomes very difficult for anyone else to spy on your web-browsing activity.
If you make sure to only connect to websites secured with HTTPS, your data will continue to be encrypted even after it leaves the VPN.
The only people who will know what you’re up to are you, the VPN provider.
When you’re on public Wi-Fi at an airport or café, that means hackers will have a harder time stealing your login credentials or redirecting your PC to a phony banking site.
Your Internet service provider (ISP), or anyone else trying to spy on you, will also have a near impossible time figuring out which websites you’re visiting.
On top of all that, you get the benefits of spoofing your location.
If you’re in Los Angeles, for example, and the VPN server is in the U.K., it will look to most websites that you’re browsing from there, not southern California.
This is why many regionally restricted websites and online services such as BBC’s iPlayer or Sling TV can be fooled by a VPN.
Who Needs a VPN?
First and foremost, using a VPN prevents anyone on the same network access point (or anywhere else) from intercepting your web traffic in a man-in-the-middle attack.
This is especially handy for travelers and for those using public Wi-Fi networks, such as web surfers at hotels, airports, and coffee shops.
Someone on the same network, or the person in control of the network you’re using, could conceivably intercept your information while you’re connected.
VPNs also cloak your computer’s actual IP address, hiding it behind the IP address of the VPN server you’re connected to.
IP addresses are distributed based on location, so you can estimate someone’s location simply by looking at their IP address.
And while IP addresses may change, it’s possible to track someone across the internet by watching where the same IP address appears. Using a VPN makes it harder for advertisers (or spies, or hackers) to track you online.
Many VPN services also provide their own DNS resolution system.
Think of DNS as a phone book that turns a text-based URL like “debuglies.com” into a numeric IP address that computers can understand.
Savvy snoops can monitor DNS requests and track your movements online. Greedy attackers can also use DNS poisoning to direct you to bogus phishing pages designed to steal your data.
When you use a VPN’s DNS system, it’s another layer of protection.
How to choose a VPN provider
The VPN services market has exploded in the past few years, and many providers are capitalizing on the general population’s growing concerns about surveillance and cybercrime, which means it’s getting hard to tell when a company is actually providing a secure service and when it’s throwing out a lot of fancy words while selling snake oil.
In fact, since VPN services have become so popular in the wake of Congress killing ISP privacy rules, there have even been fake VPNs popping up, so be careful.
It’s important to keep a few things in mind when evaluating which VPN service is right for you:
- type of encryption used,
- ease of use,
- and extra features.
Don’t just focus on price or speed, though those are important factors.
In fact, not all VPN services require that you pay.
Several services we’ve listed here also have free VPN offerings.
You tend to get what you pay for, as far as features and server locations go, but if your needs are basic, a free service can still keep you safe.
Some VPN services provide a free trial and you may get a discount by signing up for a year.
Most users want a full graphical user interface for managing their VPN connection and settings, though a few would rather download a configuration file and import it into the OpenVPN client.
Most VPN companies we have reviewed support all levels of technological savvy, and the best have robust customer support for when things go sideways.
What’s the best VPN service?
It’s the best all-round option for speed, privacy and unblocking websites.
A close number two is IPVanish which is another very reliable VPN that we like a lot – particularly the way it handles P2P and torrenting.
And the third best VPN in 2018 is VyprVPN – amazing for speed in particular.
Read more about these VPN services and more below!
ExpressVPN is our number one choice of VPN and it’s clear why.
It offers unbeatable performance and reliability while maintaining your privacy with industry-leading security.
ExpressVPN truly stands out when it comes to streaming, reliably unblocking all the major services including Netflix, Hulu, BBC iPlayer, and Amazon Prime Video.
That means you can always connect and stream HD content without any issues.
ExpressVPN offers the best all-round performance of any VPN we’ve tested, with an unbeatable combination of speed, reliability, privacy and customer service while unblocking all major streaming services.
With over 148 locations in 94 countries, it offers fast, reliable connections from wherever you’re based.
In our tests, ExpressVPN is one of the few providers that reliably bypasses censorship in countries like China and the UAE.
- Unblocks Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, iPlayer and other streaming services
- 24/7 live customer service
- 148 locations in 94 countries
- Total privacy – keeps no logs
Based in the British Virgin Islands, ExpressVPN ensures a totally private browsing experience.
They keep no logs of your activity and are outside the jurisdiction of major nations.
With a full suite of security features including military-grade encryption, perfect forward secrecy, a kill switch, and leak protection, you can be sure that nobody can see what you do online.
Torrenting is allowed on all servers, and with unlimited bandwidth, it’s a great choice for P2P filesharing.
What really sets ExpressVPN apart is the quality of its service.
Offering true 24/7 customer support, with typical live chat response times of less than 15 seconds, there’s always someone there if you need them.
Advanced users might want greater configuration options, but the quality, security and speed of the connection should satisfy even the most skeptical user.
Apps are available for all major operating systems, including mobile phones and the Amazon Fire Stick.
Even streaming devices like Apple TV and game consoles that don’t support VPNs can connect through the ExpressVPN router or configure the standalone MediaStreamer smart DNS service included in every subscription.
In an extremely competitive market, ExpressVPN stands out as a premium quality choice.
The best way to know if a VPN is right for you is to try it out.
With a no-quibbles 30-day money-back guarantee, you can do that with no risk.
Cheaper options are available, but ExpressVPN’s true value comes from the quality of the service and support, making it our #1 choice with a score of 9.9/10.
By default, ExpressVPN will automatically choose the most favorable protocol on your behalf.
Usually this is OpenVPN over UDP. Users may also manually choose to connect with OpenVPN over TDP, L2TP/IPSec, PPTP, and SSTP.
To make ExpressVPN as accessible and unintimidating as possible for novice users, it has cut out a few tweaks and features available on some more configurable rivals.
Encryption levels are non-negotiable, for example; you can’t speed up the connection by sacrificing security.
The latest update to the ExpressVPN app added a “network lock” feature that halts all internet traffic when the connection to the VPN drops.
This prevents DNS leaks and effectively functions as a kill switch.
Additionally, ExpressVPN forces all DNS requests over the IPv4 protocol instead of the less secure IPv6.
The ExpressVPN app includes a built-in speed tester tool to check which servers offer the fastest download times.
The tool gives latency and download speeds for every server location on ExpressVPN’s network.
This sounds great in theory, but it can take several minutes to finish, and the results could change from one hour to the next.
Split tunneling was recently added to the Mac version, which allows you to pick and choose which apps and services get tunneled through the VPN tunnel and which are sent over the default ISP network.
Aside from the desktop and mobile apps, ExpressVPN also makes firmware that can be used by certain popular models of wifi routers.
You can either buy a router pre-configured with ExpressVPN, or install the router app for free if your existing router is compatible.
With the VPN set up on a router, all the devices connected to your home wifi will have their internet traffic routed through a VPN.
The router only counts as one device, so an unlimited number of devices can use the VPN on a normal subscription, bandwidth pending.
In 2017, ExpressVPN added a browser extension for Chrome and Firefox to its repertoire.
After adding the plug-in to your browser, you’ll be able to control the VPN connection and location from a simplified version of the native app.
Note that you still need to have the native app for either MacOS or Windows installed for it to work.
This is not a standalone extension like the HTTPS proxy extensions offered by some other VPN providers.
Sorry, Chromebook users.
Instead, the extensions are simply another way to control the native app.
ExpressVPN does track dates (not times) that you connect to the service, which server you use, and the amount of data transferred.
It does not log your IP address, however, and this information is only associated with your account.
If you signed up anonymously using bitcoin and a burner email account, for example, none of this activity can be traced back to you or your devices.
Users get a shared static IP address. Because multiple users–sometimes hundreds or even thousands–use the same IP address, shared IPs add a significant level of anonymity. ExpressVPN does not offer dedicated/private IP addresses.
We’ve put together this graphic to show how ExpressVPN’s encryption works and how long it would take to break it.
Because ExpressVPN is so easy to use, the demand for customer service should be quite low.
Despite that, the company offers 24/7 live chat support with representatives that are fast, professional, and knowledgeable.
You don’t even have to be a customer.
Support staff are available if you just want to ask a few questions before making a purchase decision.
The average customer service response time is 15 seconds.
Numerous tutorials, FAQs, and troubleshooting guides are at the user’s disposal, for everything from how to watch live sports to descriptions of different types of VPN protocols.
ExpressVPN added a .onion version of its website that’s accessible to anonymous Tor users.
This, combined with the fact that ExpressVPN accepts Bitcoin, allows customers to buy subscriptions without leaving any trace to their real identity or location.