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Research shows 81% of people hop on public Wi-Fi with regularity. Even though many people know that public internet connections aren’t secure and are shared by hundreds of users at a time, people are willing to take the risk.
It’s not uncommon for people to check their email at a coffee shop, shop for a birthday present while waiting in an airport, or search for a new job at the local library. Just 1% of people are using public Wi-Fi with the added security of a VPN, or a virtual private network, according to One World Identity.
A VPN lets users get online through a more secure channel and masks a person’s identity and online actions.
While a VPN sounds like something only a tech person uses, that’s not the case. If you use the internet, you can (and should) use a VPN.
To learn more about a virtual private network and the security features it can provide, we’ve created this guide that also includes a list of the ten best VPNs of 2021.
What is a VPN?
A VPN is a virtual private network that provides an added layer of security while a person is online. It creates a private network by masking a person’s IP address, which makes online actions virtually untraceable. Put simply, a VPN is a secure connection that provides online privacy and anonymity to the person using it.
Why use a VPN?
A VPN has a lot of benefits, but here are some of the biggest reasons people use a VPN:
Get a secure connection at a coffee shop
For people who like to surf online or do a little online shopping at their local coffee shop, a VPN provides more security to do so. The Wi-Fi that’s in the coffee shop is public, which makes it vulnerable to hackers. However, going online with a VPN means all of the information that you send and receive is private.
Pay bills with peace of mind
Today’s consumers can pay bills with a few taps, but moving money on public Wi-Fi connections isn’t a good idea. To protect sensitive information like bank accounts and credit card numbers, it’s best to use a VPN for private internet access.
Surf safer while in airports
Airports typically offer free Wi-Fi, but they’re also a hotbed for criminal activity. Hackers can blend in with crowds, tap into the network, and steal the identity of those around them. A VPN provides an added layer of protection while traveling.
Minimize advertising trackers
Consumers are often tracked online and advertised to. For example, a person shopping for an airline ticket will see six ads from various travel sites trying to get their business. A VPN can limit this kind of tracking.
Access social media and streaming services while abroad
The streaming services and social media sites that are popular in the U.S. aren’t always available in other countries. In China, for example, Facebook and Netflix are both blocked. With a VPN, your preferred social media and streaming services are available.
What to look for in a VPN
There are dozens of VPN companies to choose from. How do you know which one to pick? To help, we’ve put together a list of features to look for. As a buyer, look through these features and take note of the ones that are most important to you.
The last thing a consumer wants is a slow internet connection. With sluggish speeds, sites won’t load and streaming becomes a buffering mess. Ideally, the VPN selected gives the user the ability to change the speed based on what he or she wants to do. For instance, if a user wants to stream a show and needs maximum speed, there should be a simple button click to accomplish this.
Number of connected devices
Most VPNs limits the number of devices that each account holder can have. Ideally, the provider offers an unlimited number of simultaneous connections, but most have a cap. Consider how many devices you want to connect. The number will change drastically for people looking to connect an entire household or an entire team of people.
In addition, know where the company is located. If a company is located in a country that will turn over customer records to authorities if legally requested, like the U.S., it’s something to consider.
Your internet service provider may not have any data caps, but a VPN might. Most data caps happen with free subscriptions. The hope is that a customer will try the service out, love it, and then upgrade to the paid tier without a data cap. Still, check the pricing structure to make sure there isn’t a data cap since it’s easy to chew through data.
Obviously, the level of encryption a VPN has is important. It’s the encryption protocol that provides security against hacking. Consumers should look for military-grade encryption, which is AES-256. This kind of encryption can send internet traffic through multiple servers, which adds to the level of protection.
Ease of use
VPNs have become very user-friendly. In other words, you don’t need a degree in cybersecurity to use one. Most VPNs have an easy-to-use interface and explain features in simple terms. To make sure a VPN is easy-to-use, take it for a test drive. Most companies offer a free trial or a free subscription to give people the opportunity to try the service before making a commitment.
As with any new service, users will likely have questions. Make sure that the VPN selected has a solid customer support system in place. Many VPNs claim to offer 24/7 support, but sometimes they fall short. Take a second to read reviews online for the VPN you’re interested in and make sure that customer support isn’t something that users complain about.
Most VPNs offer live chat as its main support channel, but a few provide a support hotline and an email.
While the price might be last on this list, it’s certainly something to consider. The cost of a VPN service will vary. Most of the services on our list hover around $3-$15 a month. Customers get the best price by signing up for a contract of two or three years.
There are some VPNs that offer smaller packages for people who travel and want to use a VPN while they’re abroad. Those options are a little more expensive, but there’s no long-term commitment.
Best VPN services of 2021
For those ready to try a VPN, here’s a list of ten different services that are available. This doesn’t cover every option on the market, but it provides a strong comparison of safety measures, prices, and uses.
ExpressVPN offers the gold-standard AES-256 encryption, DNS leak protection, an internet kill switch function, and servers based in 94 countries around the world.
Customers rave about its effectiveness and ease-of-use on mobile devices, so for those relying solely on an iPhone or another smartphone, ExpressVPN is a good choice.
This provider is also particularly good for people who travel to countries with high censorship, or what people in the industry call geo-restrictions. Countries like China and Iran, for example, block popular sites like Google, Facebook, and YouTube, but with ExpressVPN all of these sites can be accessed securely.
Cost is probably its biggest drawback, but the company does offer a lot of value. For a 12-month contract, the cost is $8.32 a month. Customers can pay with a credit card, Bitcoin, or several other forms of payments. There is a 30-day money-back guarantee on the service as well.
Best feature: Split tunneling
Several VPNs offer split tunneling, but ExpressVPN has the feature dialed in. Split tunneling lets a user route some of their activity through secure channels while others connect directly to the internet. For example, a user may want to pay bills through the VPN’s secure connection, but at the same time, the user may want to print bank statements. The user can connect to his or her bank through a secure channel, but the connection to the printer isn’t routed through the VPN.
Essentially, split tunneling just gives people more options. It’s ideal for multi-taskers who bounce from task to task.
NordVPN is probably one of the most recognized in the industry. It’s easy to use interface and affordability are just two of the reasons for its popularity. Users simply install the software on their laptop or an app on their mobile device, sign in, and security is in place.
It works on just about every device and operating system, so compatibility isn’t a problem. The company also has 5700+ servers scattered across 80 different countries, which means the VPN is easy to use while traveling.
Worried about speed? NordVPN tests well in the speed department so users aren’t sacrificing streaming abilities for security.
Best feature: Cost
NordVPN offers a three-year contract for $3.49 a month. With AES 256-bit encryption, which is what NASA uses, kill switch features, and a strong no-logging policy, it’s one of the best values a person can get.
Surfshark gives users the chance to connect unlimited devices to one account and works with most operating systems including Windows, Linux, Fire TV Stick Apps, iOS, Android, and supports browser extensions Chrome and Firefox.
Users can try the service for free through Surfshark’s 30-day trial period. After that, the cost is $1.99 for 24 months. Users can also opt for a month-to-month contract, which starts at $11.95 per month.
Every time a person logs into Surfshark, a different IP address is used. This provides an extra layer of privacy that other VPN services don’t offer. Plus, the company is located in the Virgin Islands, which is a territory of the U.S. but is self-governed with strong anti-surveillance laws.
Best feature: Unlimited devices
When it comes to VPN services, consumers won’t find many that offer to connect an unlimited number of devices. For a low monthly cost, consumers can connect the devices of an entire household. Research shows the average house has 11 devices, all of which can be covered by this particular provider.
CyberGhost gives users the ability to protect up to seven devices, fast speeds, and military-grade encryption (AES-256). Privacy is paramount for this Romania-based country, which isn’t a member of any international surveillance network.
The company has 6300 servers across 90+ countries. With a high number of server locations, users can assume wide international coverage. Users can also access blocked content via this VPN, like Netflix or BBC iPlayer.
While using CyberGhost, users can block ads and malware. Users appreciate this feature as many are tired of being digitally tracked and advertised to.
CyberGhost is affordable as well, starting at $2.75 a month for a three-year commitment.
Best feature: Customer service
A lot of VPN services aren’t known for their customer support. While they claim to offer 24/7 support and give customers an 800 number and live chats, the response rate is usually dismal. CyberGhost is different. The company has a 24/7 live chat support that’s always staffed. Users say they’re able to get answers to questions quickly and even get tech support if needed.
IPVanish changes your IP address so it can’t be tracked and has a zero-logging policy, which means user data isn’t logged anywhere and therefore can’t ever be exposed.
One of the biggest benefits the company touts is its ability to get around censorship filters that are implemented by schools, employers, and governments. The company has 1500 servers, which is a little on the low end, most users offer positive reviews of the interface and the speed.
This VPN provider allows torrenting; a peer-to-peer file-sharing system.
For those who aren’t sure if a VPN is something they want to commit to, IPVanish will let consumers try their services with a 30-day money-back guarantee.
The cost is a bit higher than the others. Users that sign up for a year of VPN connection can get it for $6.95 a month. Month-to-month options are available starting at $11.99.
Best feature: Effective kill switch
Most VPNs have what’s called a “Kill Switch.” If a VPN loses its internet connection, all activities including online searches and downloads are “killed” to protect your identity. IPVanish has an automatic kill switch, so windows close and downloads cease if a problem is detected. Other systems have a manual switch that requires the user to cut off all activity.
Unlike other VPNs, Tunnelbear offers 500MB of secure browsing for free. For those who like the service and want to do more than 500MB of browsing, the cost goes up to $3.33 a month with a three-year commitment. For that cost, users also get a password manager for free too.
This VPN uses strong AES 256-bit encryption, offers speeds that aren’t throttled, and gives users the ability to safely browse online in 23 countries.
The company is the only one in the industry to conduct independent security audits once a year, which proves their commitment to a strong no-logging policy and provides peace of mind to its many users.
Tunnelbear is a Canadian-based company and doesn’t boast about its thousands of servers across the world. In fact, the number of VPN servers isn’t available online. Still, Tunnelbear users offer positive reviews and enjoy the ability to connect up to five devices.
For those who want to stream their favorite Netflix show, a different VPN is needed. Tunnelbear doesn’t connect to Netflix.
Best feature: Pricing available for teams
Most VPNs are targeted for personal use, but Tunnelbear has a pricing structure for teams too, which is rare. For companies with remote teams, this could be a great value. For $5.75 per user per month, teams get unlimited browsing, a dedicated account manager, and a connection for up to five devices per user.
Windscribe explains its features in one simple sentence. “Windscribe encrypts your browsing activity, blocks ads, and unblocks entertainment content.” The company also provides double-hop security, which means online movements are encrypted multiple times rather than just once.
Users can sign up for a yearly plan that’s $4.08 a month. If a long-term commitment isn’t what you’re looking for, Windscribe has one of the more affordable month-to-month options at $9 a month.
The company does offer some streaming in the U.S and the U.K., but for people in other countries, no streaming is available. For international travelers looking to stream shows on Hulu or Netflix, Windscribe isn’t a good fit.
Best feature: App
While Windscribe lacks in a few areas like its access to streaming content, its app is better than most. Windscribe has an app for Androids and iOS. It’s easy to download, install, and use. With a sleek, clean interface and intuitive navigation, it’s easy to see why so many users love the app.
Hotspot Shield encourages its users to “Stream, download, and game,” with its service. Users can connect up to five devices that will access the internet with military-grade encryption.
The company offers a free option, giving users up to 500MB per day to use for one connected device. For those looking to use a VPN in limited situations, like at a coffee shop once in a while, this provider could be a solution.
To get unlimited data, customers should step up to the $7.99 a month option. This particular security package gives customers access to streaming via Netflix, Disney+, Hulu, YouTube, and more. Malware and phishing trackers also come with this package.
The company is based in the U.S., which means the company can be legally forced to hand over customer data. For those searching for strict privacy rules, this could be a dealbreaker.
Best feature: Fast speeds
Hotspot Shield is one of the fastest VPNs with great speeds. It works well on Windows and on Macs and has good download speeds and upload speeds for torrenting files. Streaming is easily done with this VPN and offers the least buffering issues compared to other services.
Private Internet Access
Private Internet Access offers a variety of safety measures that customers appreciate, including encrypted Wi-Fi, ad blockers, P2P support, no traffic logs, and unlimited bandwidth.
The company has 2300+ servers located in 47 countries, so access is easy in many places around the globe.
Unlike other VPNs, Private Internet Access gives its users the ability to customize their service. Users can pick what kind of encryption they’d like to use. There are different methods suggested based on what the user wants to do. For example, if a user wants to stream TV, the VPN will suggest an encryption method that focuses on security and speed.
To get the best price, customers should sign up for two years to get monthly rates of $2.69.
Customers also have a variety of payment methods available that provide anonymity, like using gift cards from major retailers including Walmart or Starbucks.
Best feature: Changing IP addresses
Some VPNs give a user the same IP address every time he or she signs on. While that IP address is masked and secure, using the same IP over and over again does create vulnerabilities. Private Internet Access gives each user a different IP address every time he or she logs in, which provides additional security.
Encrypt.me is another VPN option on the market. Unlike most of its competitors, Encrypt.me doesn’t brag about a bunch of servers or the number of locations it can be used from. Instead, it focuses on the basic premise of providing a secure online connection to its users.
The service works on Windows, macOS, Android, and iOS, so compatibility isn’t a problem.
Encrypt.me isn’t for anyone looking to stream TV shows as the company doesn’t offer any streaming capability. As a result, this service is best for a person or family looking to securely browse online.
Customers can get an annual subscription for $99 with unlimited data. Additional packages are available as well.
Best feature: Weekly passes
Encrypt.me offers weekly passes for people who want to try the service out or just want to use it for a limited period of time. These passes are great for travelers who are spending time out of the country for a week or a month. This is the only VPN company on our list that offers weekly passes. A one week pass is $3.99.
Frequently asked questions about VPNs
While this guide has covered a lot of information, as a consumer, you might still have questions. To help, here’s a list of frequently asked questions – and answers – regarding virtual private networks.
Does everyone need a VPN?
Internet security is becoming a bigger concern for citizens, which is why the use of VPNs will likely grow in the future. The ease of use and affordability make them accessible for anyone who wants more online security.
Where can I get a VPN?
A VPN is a service that consumers can find online. It’s not a tangible product, it’s downloadable software or an app.
Are VPNs 100% secure?
A VPN provides an additional layer of protection for all of your internet traffic, but it’s not 100% fool-proof. For most people, adding a VPN provides enough security to do simple tasks online, but for people looking for unmatched security, additional measures should be taken.
Will a VPN work on a Mac?
Yes. Most VPNs do work on Macs. They’re compatible with iOS and macOS.
Should I really pay for a VPN or use a free option?
If you plan to use a VPN regularly, plan to pay a monthly fee. The free options that exist usually have data caps, slow speeds, and low-level security. Customers can find a VPN for a few bucks a month.
What’s the pay structure of a VPN?
Most VPNs charge a monthly fee. The best deals are often associated with multi-year contracts, but there are month-to-month options too. Many VPNs allow customers to pay using a credit card, bitcoin, or other forms of digital payment.
If I install a VPN, do I have to use it all the time?
No. With a VPN installed, the user has the option to turn it on and off. Maybe the user wants to pay bills or make a purchase online, for these experiences, the VPN should be used since sensitive information is being transferred digitally. The same user might decide to turn the VPN off when streaming a show on Netflix. The flexibility to use a VPN when the user wants to is one of its many perks.
Can I get into trouble for using a VPN?
Unless a consumer uses a VPN in a country that expressly forbids it, using a VPN is legal and safe.
How does a VPN work, in simple terms?
When a user connects to a VPN service, he or she is assigned a new IP address. All internet activity is encrypted and tunneled through VPN servers. Once there, it’s decrypted and sent to its destination. This masks your identity and won’t allow anyone to monitor, log, restrict, or control your internet experience.
Can I use the same VPN for my laptop and smartphone?
Yes. There are VPNs that offer both software for laptops and an app for smartphones. For mobile-dependent users, be sure to research VPNs with highly-rated apps. Some apps aren’t as user-friendly as others.
How hard is it to set up a VPN?
Setting a VPN is as easy as installing an app. Basically, a user selects a VPN provider, downloads the software or app on devices, and follows the prompts to set it up. Most are set up with default settings to make installation and use simple, but consumers can go into the settings to make adjustments.
Will a VPN slow down my connection?
It can. With additional security comes slower speeds, at least sometimes. However, technology is constantly improving and many of today’s VPNs have minimal slowdowns.
What’s a kill switch?
If the VPN loses its connection, all internet activity is “killed.” In other words, if the VPN isn’t able to provide a secure experience, it will close all internet windows and stop all downloads. Most VPNs have an automatic kill switch, but consumers can turn this feature off.