Using these criteria, I narrowed down the field to the most popular and reputable VPN providers and started testing them on various networks (4G, cable, FiOS, and a lot of painfully slow coffee shop chains) over the past nine months. I checked the network speed and ease of use (how you connect), as well as the payment methods available, the frequency of connection drops, and any slowdowns I encountered.
Why You Might Not Need a VPN
It is important to understand not only what a VPN can do, but also what it cannot do. As noted above, VPNs act as a security tunnel. A VPN protects you from people trying to track your traffic as it travels between your computer and the website you are browsing or the service you are using.
Public networks that anyone can join, even if the connection requires a password, are an easy hunting ground for attackers who want to see your network data. If your data is sent unencrypted—for example, if the website you’re connecting to doesn’t use secure HTTPS—the amount of information an attacker can collect from you can be catastrophic. Web browsers make it easy to determine if your connection is secure. Just look for the green padlock icon at the top of the screen next to the web address. Most websites connect using HTTPS these days, so you’re probably fine. But if that green padlock icon isn’t there, as is sometimes the case on websites for schools, libraries, and small businesses, anyone can view whatever data you submit. Unless you’re using a VPN that hides all your activity even on unencrypted websites.
Simply connecting to a VPN is not enough. Be sure to check out our VPN guide to make sure everything is set up correctly.
A VPN also changes your IP address, which adds an extra layer of protection. By giving you a different IP address, a VPN can give the appearance that you are in a different physical location. This way, even if you’re in California, the website you’re accessing will think you’re in Canada, Hungary, Uruguay, or Thailand. Unfortunately, this method of hiding your location is not airtight. A technology built into web browsers known as WebRTC can leak your true IP address, even if you’re using a VPN. If this bothers you, disable WebRTC in your browser before connecting to the VPN. Mullvad has instructions on how to disable WebRTC in most browsers.
It’s debatable how much masking your IP address really helps protect your privacy. Your IP address is just one of many pieces of data that websites collect about you. If you are concerned about privacy, you are better off using web browsers (and extensions) that offer additional tools to protect your privacy. Mozilla Firefox has several such tools. Or, if you want to take it seriously, use ultra-private Tor browser as mentioned above.
To add to the confusion around VPNs, providers — even the ones I’ve recommended here, unfortunately — often engage in misleading marketing. Almost every VPN service website I visited had some sort of red banner stating that I was “not secure” even when I was using a VPN at the time. The problem is that I didn’t use their VPN. More honest VPN providers like Mullvad tell you what’s really going on: “You’re not protected Mullwad“. Kudos to Mullwad for not using fear to sell subscriptions.
In any case, it is important to remember that using a VPN does not make you anonymous. While VPNs may not be able to do much to protect your privacy, they are an essential tool when it comes to protecting you from snoops trying to collect your unencrypted data sent over insecure networks.