If you live or work in the United States, you are fortunate because there aren’t many government imposed Internet restrictions. However, while the US may not have the extreme amount of control that a country like China does, the US government can monitor people’s Internet activity. In fact, the USA PATRIOT Act allows the FBI to force ISP’s to surrender records about customers. You will also run into content barriers on a more local level. Access to websites can – and often is – banned by schools, workplaces, and other institutions. If you don’t feel like dealing with these content barriers, or simply want to hide from the prying eyes of government agencies and your ISP, using a VPN is a must.
Thanks to the likes of Edward Snowden, we are more aware of the extent to which the US government spies on its citizens. We are also more aware of how necessary a VPN is to ensure our privacy. AND if the FCC decides to roll back net neutrality protections, a VPN could be necessary to prevent bandwidth throttling.
How to Choose a Good VPN
It’s no secret that the market is flooded with VPN providers. Some are good. Some are bad. And some are downright awful. Here are a few things you’ll probably want to keep in mind as you’re evaluating your options:
Performance and Speed: How does using a VPN impact your performance and speed? A slow connection might be OK if you’re just casually checking your but it could end up being pretty problematic if you’re downloading large files, streaming video or playing games.
Privacy and Security: How well does the VPN protect your anonymity? What sort of data do they collect? If there’s a security breach, do they have a plan in place to protect your identity?
Features and Services: Some VPNs offer options like port selection, kill-switches and automatic server switching. Do you need all these features? Figure out what you do and don’t need. This will make your decision a lot easier in the long run.
Duration: How long will you need the VPN for? Is it something you’ll be using at home indefinitely? Or is it just something you’re going to use for a certain period of time, like when you’re traveling?
Ease of Use: How easy is the VPN to install, set-up and manage? Is customer support helpful and responsive?
Price: How much are you willing to pay for privacy and anonymity?
Sure, there are other things that you may want to consider, like the privacy laws that govern a VPN’s corporate headquarters, but this checklist should serve as a pretty good foundation for evaluation purposes. In fact, it’s actually the same checklist I used to evaluate the 7 VPN’s listed below.
Regardless of whether you are concerned about your privacy or simply trying to prevent bandwidth throttling from your ISP, a good VPN is an indispensable tool. All of the below VPNs have their own ups and downs. Think about what you want the most out of your VPN, compare the alternatives, and then decide which one is right for you. You can’t go wrong with any of the options I’ve outlined here.
ExpressVPN provides dedicated desktop and mobile apps along with over 1,000 servers in over 94 countries, which means plenty of options for you to spoof your location. There’s also a DNS option to geo-spoof your location and proxy servers to dodge overreaching government surveillance, as well as a kill switch that’ll prevent applications from connecting to the Internet if your service cuts out. They couple this with an easy-to-use interface and customer support that includes both 24/7 email contact and live chat options.
ExpressVPN offers monthly plans at $12.95 per month. Annual subscriptions drop to $8.33 per month and 15-month plans are $6.33 per month. ExpressVPN provides a 30-day money back guarantee to all users. No free trials are available, and all plans are sadly restricted to three simultaneous connections.
The service itself performs well during tests. US servers clocked in at download speeds of 20 to 25 Mbps, and more remote servers in places like Pakistan come in around 18 Mbps. While there are a few slow servers here and there, overall performance is good.
Since the company is based out of the British Virgin Islands, they aren’t governed by US laws, which is great if you’re someone who values your privacy above all else, and their Terms of Service state that they will never log traffic data or browsing activity. Some details like your server choice, total amount of data exchanged, and connection dates are collected, but they don't log connection times or IP addresses.
- Dedicated desktop and mobile apps
- Geo-spoofing and proxy servers
- Easy to use and install
- No free trials or free plans
- Only supports 3 simultaneous connections
Hungarian-based Buffered VPN delivers fast connection speeds and a variety of security features like 256-bit Blowfish encryption and support for OpenVPN. They maintain over 500 servers in 37 countries, with a significant number of them supporting P2P, and all plans support connecting up to 5 devices simultaneously.
Buffered advertises itself as the best VPN to use in the US to avoid bandwidth throttling and data collection, but the service is pretty basic, so if you're like me and want customization options, you may find yourself a little disappointed.
30-day subscriptions will set you back $12.99, 6-months of service will cost you $59.94 and annual subscriptions are $99. While they don't accept untraceable currencies like Bitcoin, all subscriptions guarantee a refund for up to 10gb of capacity.
There’s a slight dip in download speed performance when using this service. Download speeds dropped to an average of 75% of normal, but upload speeds remain relatively unchanged. Latencies vary.
Buffered’s TOS state that they don’t log identifying data, and that no data will ever be shared unless Hungarian law requires it. The only data collected is the length of your sessions and how much data is used.
- Allows P2P
- Reliable and speedy performance
- Refunds for up to 10 GB of data
- No free or trial versions are available
- Lack of customization options and advanced features
HideMyAss is the brainchild of AVG Technologies, the company that developed the popular AVG antivirus program. They have 900 servers in almost 200 countries, so the world is your oyster with this VPN. HMA is extremely user-friendly, with options clearly labeled. In fact, it’s so easy to use that there’s even an option for them to automatically fill in all the options for you so you can instantly connect. This is perfect if you’re using a VPN for the first time and are a little wet behind the ears. For more advanced users, you have the option of connecting to a server located in the nearest country with laws protecting free speech, or an individual server from a list of all servers.
A one-month subscription will set you back $11.02,,a six-month plan costs $8.33 per month, and an annual subscription costs $6.55 per month. They accept payments by credit card, PayPal, and bank wire transfers, but not Bitcoin.
In terms of performance, HideMyAss stumbles a bit. Tests usually resulted in a faster ping time, but download speeds dropped by an average of 15%. In some testing I did, it was cut in half.
HMA’s privacy data collection policies are a little worrying, because the company does maintain logs regarding user activity. IP addresses are tracked, as is time of connection and the IP address of the VPN server used. And since the company is based in the UK, which is a Five Eyes country, I’m a little wary about how this information is used.
- Huge network of servers in almost every country
- Easy and intuitive to use
- Connect five devices simultaneously
- Can only connect 2 devices at a time
- Slow download speeds
- Worrying privacy policies
IPVanish is a Phoenix-based company that maintains an impressive 700+ servers in over 60 countries. A kill-switch and DNS leak protection are coupled with an intuitive user interface and OpenVPN in a reliable and affordable VPN that’ll allow you to connect up to 5 devices at a time. IP switching, 256-bit AES encryption, unlimited bandwidth, and SOCKS5 web proxy round out their impressive list of features.
IPVanish has a $10 month-to-month plan, a three-month plan that’ll set you back $8.99 per month, and an annual subscription that costs $6.49 per month. They accept payments by credit card and Paypal, and are one of a handful of VPN’s that’ll also accept payments via Bitcoin as well. They don’t offer a free trial, but there is a seven-day money back guarantee.
Performance wise, the IPVanish is rather unpredictable. Some tests were impressive, with an improvement in speed of about 15%. But in other testing, download speeds were slashed in half. Upload rates tended to be steadier. Results were inconsistent, but always manageable.
IPVanish does not maintain logs of IP addresses or connection times, but the company is headquartered in the United States, and must comply with any and all requests from the FBI and NSA.
- Accepts anonymous payment form like Bitcoin
- No data logging policy
- Supports OpenVPN
- Connect five devices at a time
- No free trial
- Inconsistent download speeds
NordVPN sells itself on its powerful feature set, which includes multi-platform support, DNS blocking, a kill switch, P2P support, and a “smart-play” tool for accessing streaming services. They maintain over 1000 servers in 59 different countries, and allow you to connect up to six devices at a time. Despite being chock-full of features, the user interface is straightforward, with all customization options clearly labeled. The website is a bit difficult to navigate, however, and finding user support options can be a chore.
As far as pricing is concerned, a monthly subscription comes in at $11.95, a six-month plan is $7.00 per month, and an annual subscription comes out to $5.75 a month. There’s also a two-year plan for $3.29 a month. All plans come with a 30-day money back guarantee, and credit cards, Paypal and Bitcoin are all acceptable forms of payment.
NordVPN delivers consistent performance across the board. Some servers, like those in Costa Rica and Italy, had considerable drops in ping, but download and upload speeds remained consistent and usable, with a 25-35% reduction overall.
When it comes to privacy, NordVPN has a no log policy. They don’t monitor or record time stamps, traffic logs, IP addresses or bandwidth. And since the company is based in Panama, they don’t fall under the jurisdiction of US and European data collection agencies.
- Connect 6 devices simultaneously
- Simple user interface
- Lots of great security features and options like DNS leak blocking, streaming tools, and kill-switch
- Support for multiple platforms
- Slightly slow connection speeds
- Website is difficult to navigate
Hong-Kong based PureVPN boasts an impressive feature set, which includes a unique split-tunneling option that allows you to choose which traffic goes through the VPN and which goes through your regular ISP. They also have a browser that provides users with a 20Mbps boost in their speed, regardless of their Internet connection’s speed. The user interface isn’t the greatest and certain options are hard to find, but with over 500 servers in 141 countries, and dedicated apps for Windows, Linux, and Android, PureVPN is definitely worth your consideration if you’re looking for a well-rounded VPN at a great price point.
A 30-day plan clocks in at $9.99, a six-month subscription is $7.99 per month, and a 2-year plan is $59.99. Acceptable payment methods are via credit card, Paypal and Bitcoin. No free trials are available.
PureVPN does extremely well in performance tests. It occasionally even improves regular download speeds, and averages 80% of normal download speeds. Latency tends to be around 5% higher than normal in most cases. Upload speeds are fairly consistent with regular speeds.
While they do log the amount of time you are connected to a server and total bandwidth used, they do not log which websites you visit or files you download.
- Split-tunneling option
- Stealth VPN browser
- High-speed consistent performance
- No free plan or trial
- Poor user interface