Best VPN service of 2021
Whether you're working remotely or you just want to protect your sensitive online information, a VPN (virtual private network) is essential. A VPN creates an encrypted connection between you and the websites you visit, keeping your data secure even if you're joining a public Wi-Fi network.
But with a rapidly growing number of VPN options on the market, it can be tricky to find the best VPN service to meet your specific needs. That's where our best VPN guide comes in.
After researching and testing a multitude of services, we compiled a list of the best VPN providers that will keep your online information totally secure. When choosing the best VPN, there are a lot of things to consider. In our current testing and ranking system, we evaluated more than 20 factors, including price, security, ease of remote access, number of server locations, bandwidth caps, logging, dedicated and dynamic IP, client VPN software and customer support. Below, we've listed your best VPN options, including such popular names as ExpressVPN, Surfshark, IPVanish and NordVPN.
We're keeping a close eye on how each VPN provider stands compared with its competitors, as well as any new VPN services that may hit the market. We've cataloged our most recommended VPN services to date -- and listed some less viable VPN selections, too, based on our testing. We'll be regularly updating this VPN guide as new contenders become available.
That said, the VPN landscape can be confusing and mystifying. Here are some quick tips, each of which link to a more in-depth discussion.
Don't use free VPN services: You'll find only paid VPN options below because they're the only ones we can recommend.
Look for a no-logs VPN, but understand the caveats: The best VPNs keep as few logs as possible and make them as anonymous as possible, so there's little data to provide should authorities come knocking. But even "no-logs" VPNs aren't 100% anonymous.
VPN transparency is important, but warrant canaries are only the beginning: Many services use "warrant canaries" as a way to passively note to the public as to whether or not they've been subpoenaed by a government entity, as many investigations from national security agencies can't be actively disclosed by law. But -- like the no-logging issue -- warrant canaries aren't always as straightforward as they seem. You should spend more time investigating whether your prospective VPN has cooperated with authorities in the past -- and how and when it's disclosed that fact.
Think twice about using a US-based VPN: The Patriot Act is still the law of the land in the US, and that means that US-based VPNs have little recourse if and when the feds show up with subpoenas or national security letters in hand demanding access to servers, VPN user accounts or other data. Yes, they may have little data to access if the service has a strong no-logs policy, but why not just choose a service that's based outside Uncle Sam's jurisdiction? (If this is a concern for you, you'll want to avoid countries that the US has intelligence-sharing agreements with, too.)
The best VPN right now
Let's look at each of our VPN vendors below in more depth. Keep in mind that this is an evolving list: It's constantly being updated. We're actively working on more VPN testing and research, so expect this guide to change throughout the year as our virtual private network use continues and we put each option through its paces.
The list below presents our favorites in an overall ranking; if you want to see each top VPN judged by more specific criteria, check out the links below.
You'll mostly find the same names you see here, but we'll call out when and where specific traits make for a better choice in a more narrow evaluation.
Other VPNs we've tested
Not every VPN can be a favorite. These are ones we reviewed, but they're not full-throated recommendations for one reason or another, including limited features and concerns over adequately hiding your identity.
Hotspot Shield VPN's TLS-based Hydra Catapult protocol, US jurisdiction, 128-bit AES encryption support and large percentage of virtual servers might strip away our trust in its ability to provide more privacy protections than its competitors -- but those are all key components to its ability to achieve the blazing speeds it delivered during its most recent speed tests.
As of May 2021, it's the second-fastest VPN I've tested, effortlessly delivers smooth-streaming media and can dance between server connections without missing a beat, no matter how many interruptions you throw at it. A 26% speed loss puts it in second place, falling behind Surfshark -- which lost just 16.9% of its speed the last time I tested it -- and knocking ExpressVPN down to third place with a 51.8% speed loss at last measurement. Speed losses on UK connections were under 8%, Gaming, torrenting, browsing, streaming -- these speed-dependent services won't be slowed down for Hotspot Shield users.
We're not excited about Hotspot's privacy and security, though. Since the services uses a closed-source proprietary Catapult Hydra protocol, instead of the more transparent open-source OpenVPN protocol, we'd like to see Hotspot give the public more third-party audits -- a necessary step to bring Hotspot up to speed with routinely audited VPNs like TunnelBear. As recently as April 2021, review site vpnMentor discovered a DNS leak in Hotspot Shield's plug-in for Google Chrome. Hotspot acknowledged the issue at the time and aimed to improve the product.
While its interface is user-friendly and its speeds are thrilling, spending time with Hotspot is going to leave your wallet a little lighter than you might prefer. It's current price is higher than its nearest competitors, its speeds slightly slower and its privacy more questionable. If you're looking for a VPN purely on the grounds of speed, we still recommend passing on Hotspot until it improves.
Read more: Hotspot Shield VPN review: This speedster costs more than its faster, more private competitors
TunnelBear's gotten a lot of hype in the last couple of years. But when we looked under its hood and compared it with its VPN competitors, our excitement waned.
TunnelBear's speeds are reasonable. We lost nearly 63% of internet speed overall when we used it, which is about average for a VPN. TunnelBear's speeds have steadily improved over the years as measured by other review and testing sites, though, and the US scores we recorded saw a speed loss of only 54%.
On the plus side, TunnelBear is holding its own in the transparency competition among VPNs by publishing the results of its independent security audits and annual transparency reports. No IP address, DNS or other potentially user-identifying data leaks were detected during our testing, but in the past TunnelBear was observed to have been leaking WebRTC information. TunnelBear's VPN encryption is standard AES-256, and it supports Perfect Forward Secrecy.
However, it's also a Canadian business owned by US-based McAfee, so if you're looking for subpoena-proof international online privacy, you're playing with fire. It holds a paltry 23 server locations from which you can't manually choose your VPN server or even a city. It doesn't offer Tor-over-VPN, it offers split tunneling only on Android and it can't even unblock Netflix.
On a per-month breakdown, the least expensive TunnelBear plan is its $120, three-year plan. You can also go month to month for $10, or pay $60 upfront for a single year. Either way, TunnelBear accepts payment via credit card and Bitcoin. Unlike other VPNs, it doesn't take PayPal. Also unlike other VPNs, it doesn't support Amazon Fire Stick or Android TV.
Read more: TunnelBear VPN review: The overpriced ursine has trouble living up to the hype
In CNET's previous coverage of virtual private networks, we've praised CyberGhost for its roster of competitive features. Our in-depth review of CyberGhost last year included speed testing, security verification and an analysis of its full suite of privacy tools. Since then, the VPN company has increased its number of servers and is prepared to roll out new privacy tools, all while remaining one of the cheapest VPNs we've reviewed -- at $2.25 per month for a three-year plan.
As we've bolstered our approach to VPN reviews in recent months, however, CyberGhost has raised some red flags. Its parent company's history warrants skepticism; our previous tests have shown it to expose your VPN use to your ISP; its website and app trackers are more numerous than warranted; and its ad blocker uses an untrustworthy method of traffic manipulation no VPN should even think about. Its low price previously made it worth considering if you needed to change the appearance of your location online, but not if you wanted best-in-class security.
While CyberGhost's connection speed and security appear to be improving, I don't currently recommend using the VPN service provider if you're in a country where VPNs are illegal. I also recommend that anyone in the US review CyberGhost's parent company before deciding whether to pay for a subscription.
On the plus side, however, CyberGhost is still faster than Norton Secure VPN and was less taxing on my device's processing power during testing. It also offers split tunneling in its Windows client and has its servers neatly organized into user-friendly categories: NoSpy servers, servers geared for torrenting, servers best for streaming and servers best for use with a static IP address. CyberGhost imposes no data caps and allows unlimited server switching.
Read more: CyberGhost VPN review: Promising improvements but its parent company concerns me
Norton Secure VPN
NortonLifeLock, long known for excellence in security products, has a relatively limited offering in its VPN product. Norton Secure VPN does not support P2P or BitTorrent, and it does not support Linux, routers or set-top boxes. Its Netflix and streaming compatibility is somewhat limited. Even worse, during testing, we experienced privacy-compromising data leaks.
During CNET's testing, Norton Secure VPN speeds were comparable to other midtier VPNs but not particularly competitive. Although its VPN is only available on four platforms -- Mac, iOS, Windows and Android -- Norton gets points for its 24/7 live customer phone support and 60-day money back guarantee.
Read more: Norton Secure VPN review: More work is needed for this privacy product to shine
Other VPNs in the mix
Below you'll find some additional VPNs. We're in the process of re-evaluating them in the coming months.
PureVPN does not log connection information. The company joined the "no log" movement in 2018, which was recently verified via a third-party audit by Althius IT (albeit one commissioned and paid for by PureVPN).
We like that PureVPN offers a 31-day refund policy and supports Bitcoin payments, to further extend anonymous browsing. We also like that PureVPN has both Kodi and Chromebook solutions available. In addition, PureVPN was the first VPN service we noted to fully implement the GDPR.
StrongVPN blasts onto our favorites list with excellent infrastructure and decent price performance. As with our other favorites, StrongVPN has a strong no-logging policy. Since VPN is all about protecting your privacy, that's a place the savvy VPN providers can pick up points.
Strong also picks up kudos for its large base of IP addresses, which also helps protect your anonymity. It has a solid collection of servers and worldwide locations. For those of you who need a dedicated IP, you can get one from the company, but you'll need to contact support to get help setting it up.
One of StrongVPN's strengths is the company's network. It owns and operates its entire network infrastructure, which means it has no externally dictated limits on bandwidth or the type of internet traffic allowed on the network. This gives you the confidence that you'll be able to power through your work.
StrongVPN's regular monthly price of $10 is in the middle of the pack, but its yearly price of $70 is among the lowest of our contenders.
Private Internet Access
Speaking of price, if you want one of the less expensive providers, Private Internet Access is the place to go.
The key to getting the most savings with this vendor is buying its two-year plan for $69.95. That works out to $2.69 a month. It also offers a one-year plan for $39.95 (which comes out to $3.33 a month) or a monthly plan for $9.95 a month.
The company does not release information on the number of IP addresses available, though it does offer a dedicated IP option. The company claims to have an extraordinarily high number of servers -- more than 31,000. But PIA appears to have arrived at that number by counting both encrypted VPN servers and proxy servers. It is crucial to note: Proxy servers are not VPNs.
Operating since 2010, PIA now offers 110 simultaneous connections, a kill-switch feature and a 30-day refund period.
Since we're living in a connected world, security and privacy are critical to ensure our personal safety from nefarious hacks. From online banking to communicating with co-workers on a daily basis, we're now frequently transferring data on our computers and smartphones. It's extremely important to find ways of securing our digital life and for this reason, VPNs have become increasingly common.