What is a VPN service?
A VPN (virtual private network) is a useful online tool. At its simplest, it’s a series of computers networked together across the internet. It creates a virtual tunnel between your computer and a server operated by the VPN company. This tunnel is encrypted so external internet traffic can’t see your data.
Why use a VPN?
A VPN hides your identity as well as your data, which can be beneficial if you’re in a strange place and you’re not sure you trust the wifi connection in an internet café. Professional users may want to know their business-critical information stays private, too.
What would I use it for?
Because it helps make you anonymous online, you can, for example, look at the US version of a shopping website rather the UK site your computer browser would default to. This is handy if you want to check the dollar price of something or check out the winter clothes a southern-hemisphere store is selling in the British summer. All useful information if you’re planning an overseas trip or wanting to buy something from overseas.
Since a VPN disguises what country you’re in, it means you can watch BBC iPlayer while you’re abroad, for instance or watch US Netflix from the UK. However, please note that watching iPlayer outside the UK breaks the rights agreement between rights holder and broadcaster. Also the Beeb is wise to VPNs and many can’t display iPlayer – you’re better off, technically and morally, downloading shows to your PC or tablet before you travel). The access to Netflix is sometimes easier but again, you can’t bank on any VPN having access to it flawlessly or for ever. Many VPNs have set-up instructions so you can use your Amazon or Apple TV box as though you were overseas – handy if you’re an ex-pat wanting to catch up with your favourite soap.
How would I use it when I’m abroad?
A VPN means you can access blocked websites. So, if you’re in a country where internet access is heavily censored, like China, for instance, you’ll be able to access Facebook using a VPN. If this is what you’re planning to use a VPN for, it’s important to download it before you travel to the less internet-friendly nation.
How much do VPNs cost?
Some VPNs have a free tier or free trial period. Many users report using a VPN can slow your connection noticeably, so it’s not always worth using. Free services usually involve ads. A free tier of, say, 500MB a month can be used up faster than you might think, so always turn it off when you don’t need to be using it.
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ExpressVPN: From £6.96 a month, Express VPN
How many servers? 3,000
Server locations: 160
Devices supported: Up to five
ExpressVPN is solid, effective and simple to use. It’s available in 94 countries and has specific apps for use on more platforms than most. In other words, not only is an app available for PC and Mac, iPhone and Android, but also for games consoles, Apple TV box, Amazon Fire TV stick and more.
You can use it simultaneously on up to five devices, which isn’t as many as some VPNs offer, but speeds are fast, and the apps are slick and easy to use. That’s partly down to solid website with good support guides and live onscreen chat support at all times.
The price for one month is £10.84 a month, though pay for six months at a time and it drops to £8.36 a month. There’s also a 30-day money-back guarantee if you don’t like it.
Hotspot Shield: From £6.99 a month, Hotspot Shield
How many servers? 3,200
Server locations: 130
Devices supported: Up to five
There is a free tier of access on Hotspot Shield. It is excellent but it only has a maximum 2Mbps (megabit per second) speed which is slow. Things get much better when you pay, thanks to much faster speeds than many others can match, greater bandwidth and support for more devices, for instance. Plus, you lose the ads.
If you want to connect more than the maximum five devices, one solution is to set Hotspot Shield up on your router as all the phones, tablets and computers in your household can connect to it through the router. There’s also a useful auto-connect feature so that when you launch specified apps, the VPN jumps into action. Sign up for one month and the cost is £10.99, but a year’s commitment drops this to £6.99 a month.
NordVPN: From £2.69 a month, NordVPN
How many servers? 5,500
Server locations: 80
Devices supported: Up to six
NordVPN is one of the best-known VPNs and has a lot to offer. It has very strong encryption, excellent performance speeds and good reliability. Though you could have some quibbles with the interface which isn’t quite as smooth as ExpressVPN, for instance, the overall experience is very positive. NordVPN says it doesn’t log your activity while you’re online and no data is collected or sold. Although NordVPN was hacked in 2018, security measures have been significantly improved since then. A one-month contract costs £9.20, a year’s commitment drops this to £5.38 per month and if you choose a three-year plan, the cost is £2.69 a month.
Surfshark: From £1.99 a month, Surfshark
How many servers? 1,700
Server locations: 100
Devices supported: No limit
Surfshark stands out because of features like the unlimited number of devices you can connect at time, making it great for a large family with multiple computers, tablets and phones. The interface is especially simple, so it’s also suited to those with limited technical expertise. Like several services here, Surfshark has a kill switch in place so your data and online identity remain hidden even if the connection drops. If you sign up for one month, the price is £10.49. A year’s contract reduces this to £3.69 a month, while a two-year plan currently works out at £1.99 a month. There are free trial options for iPhone, Android and Mac so you can see if you like it before you commit.
TunnelBear: From free, TunnelBear
How many servers? 1,000
Server locations: 20
Devices supported: Up to five
If you are a very light VPN user, then the free tier on Tunnelbear may be enough. You get 500MB of data traffic each month, which isn’t much at all, but it’s a start. Additionally, it’s very user-friendly and has a straightforward design. It’s more fun to use than most. The features are also a little more basic, but some premium tiers include the excellent “remembear password manager”, which is a neat extra. Buy one month’s access for £8.10, but the price drops by half to £4.05 a month for a year’s plan or £2.70 a month with a three-year plan.
IPVanish: From £5.26 a month, IPVanish
How many servers? 1,400
Server locations: 75
Devices supported: Up to 10
You can set up and use a lot more devices with IPVanish than many services: 10 simultaneous devices should probably be enough for most households, especially since as they don’t have to be the account holder, so can work for other family members.
IPVanish is a solid set up, with a network of servers that are designed to increase the likelihood of one in a nearby location, which makes for faster speeds. There are good tutorials for when you get started, though the ones on ExpressVPN are better. The monthly price includes online storage (250GB from SugarSync) which may be useful. One-month costs £8.12, dropping to £5.26 per month for a year’s subscription.
StrongVPN: From £4.73 a month, StrongVPN
How many servers? 950
Server locations: 60
Devices supported: Up to 12
StrongVPN doesn’t have as many servers as some here, but it’s known for its consistently fast connection speeds that are among the best you’ll find. As with others here, along with apps for Windows, Mac, iOS and Android, there are set up guides to make the VPN work with your router, Amazon Fire TV and more.
The facility to connect up to 12 devices at the same time is more than others, though unless you have a lot of tech, it may be overkill. Pricing is £8.12 for one month, or £4.73 a month when you sign up for a year. Like IPVanish, the subscription price includes 250GB of cloud storage with SugarSync.
CyberGhost: From £4.59 a month, CyberGhost
How many servers? 6,300
Server locations: 110
Devices supported: Up to seven
This is a good VPN for beginners because of its neat, user friendly interface, especially on mobiles. It even has dedicated servers for streaming videos. You can choose a service you want to see, such as Netflix, iPlayer and others and CyberGhost automatically chooses the best server for you. You can opt for data compression, which is helpful if you’re connecting on your phone. Speeds can be variable, especially with long distance connections, though European and American speeds are strong. The facility to connect to seven devices at once is more than the usual five. Pricing is £11.99 a month, dropping to £4.59 a month with a one-year subscription or £3.09 for a three-year plan. The money-back guarantee is longer than most at 45 days.
The verdict: VPN services
If you plan to use a VPN when in a country with controlled internet like China, then ExpressVPN is hard to beat. It’s a solid, easy-to-use experience that just works. NordVPN is a well-established, excellent choice, while CyberGhost is easy to use and comprehensive. For a free option TunnelBear and Hotspot Shield are good, though limited data or speeds will constrain you.