How to Choose the Best VPN

What’s the best VPN? Great question—and one for which you’re probably never going to get a good answer. Virtual private networks can be a great way to add a layer of privacy to your online life. Unfortunately, VPNs are also, in many ways, black boxes: You have to trust them to do the right thing with your data.

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Namely, you have to trust that VPN companies aren’t logging your data, and you have to trust that they’ve implemented their security protocols properly. No matter which VPN provider you use, some level of trust will always be necessary. All this trust makes it difficult for anyone—us included—to recommend VPN providers at all, let alone emphatically. So while we’ve listed a few options here, you should just make this article one piece of your research and remember that you’re entrusting a company to tell you the truth and not compromise your privacy and security before going and doing something dumb on the internet that could come back to bite you.

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One thing, however, is certain: You can’t trust your internet service provider with your data. And that’s one big reason to use a VPN in the first place. ISPs are free to collect your data and make money off of it in any number of ways. Using a high-quality VPN cuts off that option by operating as a middleman between you and what you do online.

Another thing you can be sure of: Free VPNs are, generally speaking, bad news. If they’re not making their money through subscription fees, they have to be making it some other way, and collecting and profiting off your data is one of the most obvious ways they do that. That doesn’t mean all free VPNs are bad, but you should be wary. For that reason, none of the options listed below are free.

The best VPN really depends on what you plan to use it for and which features matter most. For some, it’s having the fastest speeds. For others, it’s making sure the government can’t get its mitts on your data. And there are a slew of variables in between. So some of these options below might be great for you and totally wrong for the next person. But based on a number of key factors, here are a handful of VPNs that are worth looking into.

The Best VPN for Most People: Mullvad

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You’ll find Mullvad topping a lot of “best VPN” lists—and for good reason. It’s cheap (a little over $5 a month), it has 775 servers around the world, and it has a strict no-logging policy for user data. Indeed, it doesn’t even collect your email address, instead using a random account number generator to login. Mullvad is open source and subjects itself to third-party security audits to ensure everything is buttoned up. It accepts most types of payments, so you can keep it extra-anonymous by paying in cash or cryptocurrency. And it uses both the WireGuard VPN protocol, which is said to be faster than the long-running standard, OpenVPN, which is also available and is still great.

Mullvad uses strong AES-256 encryption and 4096-bit RSA keys on its OpenVPN connections, which are considered reliable protection against hacks. One potential downside for some extra-cautious users is that Mullvad is based in Sweden, which is part of the “Fourteen Eyes,” an international intelligence-sharing alliance. That’s probably not a huge deal to many users, but if you need further assurances that your internet history is locked down, another VPN option may be a better route. Mullvad is available on all the major platforms, including Linux, Windows, macOS, iOS, and Android.

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The VPN If You Need to Connect Multiple Devices At Once: IVPN

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If you need to have multiple devices running at once, IVPN is a solid choice. It’s a bit more expensive than some other options, but it offers a variety of pricing tiers depending on what you need, ranging from just $6 a month with limited features and only two simultaneous connections, up to $100 per year for the “pro” version, which offers up to seven connections and features like port forwarding and multi-hop connections (routing your traffic through two servers instead of just one). It also offers a free three-day trial for all plans (but you’ll get charged if you don’t cancel ahead of time).

IVPN also has extra perks, like the ability to block Facebook and Google entirely, a built-in ad blocker, and the option for the service to choose the fastest available server for you. It uses the same encryption as all the others on this list, and it offers WireGuard, which can help boost speeds and security. The company has a no-logs policy, which was verified by an independent audit. It doesn’t offer as many servers in as many countries as some comparable VPNs, but it’s flexible, widely available for the major platforms, and has no huge red flags. Mullvad is still a better option, in my opinion, but IVPN is a solid choice if you’d like something different.

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For Those Wary of VPNs That Keep Logs: Private Internet Access

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Here’s the bad news: PIA is based in the U.S., which means it’s fully in the Eye of Sauron surveillance and subject to U.S. laws. The good news is that PIA is one of the few VPN companies that has actually proved it doesn’t log user data. Court documents filed in 2016 related to an FBI investigation revealed that the VPN could only confirm that a “cluster of IP addresses being used [by the suspect] was from the east coast of the United States.” Of course, that was years ago, but the company still stands by its no-logs policy (and has good reason not to change it, clearly).

Beyond that proof, you’ll also get strong AES-256 and RSA-4096 encryption on OpenVPN, support for up to 10 simultaneous connections from more than 3,000 servers, and a redesigned app. It’s pretty bare-bones, but it’s also inexpensive—about $70 for two years, $40 for a year, or $10 monthly. It’s not as good a deal as Mullvad, but proof of the no-logs thing might be enough for some people looking trust a little less. PIA is available on all the major platforms.

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For People Who Just Need Something Fast and Easy to Use: NordVPN 

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Even if you’re brand new to VPNs, you’ve probably heard of NordVPN. The company is excellent at marketing its services, and that alone is a good reason to not fully trust it. But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad option for some users, and its sheer visibility means it’s worth mentioning, just to go through the ins and outs. NordVPN is cheap, it’s pretty damn fast, and it’s easy to use. And if you’re just looking to add a layer of privacy without betting your life on the company getting everything right, it’s a user-friendly option. To get the cheapest price, you’ll have to plunk down $90 for two years of service—but it does offer a money-back guarantee if you want to bail. Monthly service is a more costly $12 per month.

No matter what you pay, you’ll get access to more than 5,400 servers in more than 60 countries, a bunch of features you may or may not want, and, because the company is based in Panama, assurances that your data—or lack of data, as the case may be—is outside of U.S. and European jurisdictions. Like every other VPN on this list, NordVPN claims to have a “strict no-logs policy,” so most of your data isn’t collected, the company says. It does still collect your email address, payment information, and the timestamp of the last time you launched the VPN. And some researchers have found that it sends your email address and Google Ad ID to a marketing company when you register through the Android app and contains some trackers. Another downside is that some of NordVPN’s servers are rented, which means another company you need to trust is in the mix. And yes, one of those servers got hacked in 2018. But the company claims to have moved entirely to RAM-based storage (meaning nothing is stored on hard drives), it reportedly increased its security standards for server providers, and the fact that the hack revealed no identifying user data helped back up its claim that it doesn’t store logs. For extra-careful users, all these caveats might be too much to handle, but if you simply want to set up your in-laws with a set-and-forget VPN option, NordVPN is a cheap, popular way to do that. NordVPN is available on all the major platforms.

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We could literally be here for weeks discussing the pros and cons of all the VPNs that are out there. There are a lot, and there is probably one not mentioned above that is better for your specific needs and budget. So I’ll just leave you with a reminder: Figure out what you want from a VPN, do a ton of research for yourself, and pick the one that’s best for you.

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Personally, I use Mullvad and find it to be easy, reliable, and inexpensive. But we might find out tomorrow that it’s been doing some nefarious shit that will make me wish I never touched it. That’s the world of VPNs for you! Browse carefully, friends. It’s a murky, black box out there.

Deputy Editor, Gizmodo

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