What is VPN?

By Evan Stockton

VPNs are something that, even five years ago, many people hadn’t even heard of. That is something that’s changing very quickly now. We’re going to tell you all about VPNs, and then we’re going to tell you in this same article how some of the most popular VPNs stack up against each other.

At the end of this article, you will not only hopefully want to get a VPN (assuming you don’t already have one). You will probably also have a good idea of which one will be the best option for you personally.

If you have a VPN, this article will possibly serve as an eye-opener, potentially making you switch to a better fit regarding VPNs.

It’s an acronym

VPN stands for “Virtual Private Network”, which, in a way, sums up exactly what a VPN is and does.

In the most simple of terms, when you connect to a VPN, you wind up connected to a server that can be anywhere on the planet. This server then presents itself to the rest of the internet for everything you do and everywhere you go on the internet.

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How does a VPN work?

For those who are curious about how a VPN works, we will give a brief synopsis here.

A VPN disguises your IP address, which is a unique address that identifies from where you are connecting to the internet. It establishes a data connection that is encrypted both ways between your physical point of access to the internet and the company’s VPN servers. This makes your actual IP address invisible to people trying to pry. It makes your individual internet connection all but impossible to hack.

It also allows you to appear like you are connecting from literally almost anywhere else in the world. This in turn allows you to, for example, travel all around the world while maintaining access to all the streaming services from your home country. Or also, it allows you to get around internet censorship in your home country, as another example.

Why do people use VPNs?

According to security.org, there are two main categories of use for VPNs: personal and business.

Their best data say that out of the 68% of internet users on average who use a VPN at all. 29% use it for personal use exclusively, and 24% for business use exclusively. The remaining 15% use VPNs for a combination of the above two uses.

Two main benefits of VPNs:

The two things a VPN grants to its users are privacy and security. Out of people surveyed, security tended to rank just a little higher than privacy as reasons why a VPN was important to them. But, both security and privacy are very high concerns in people’s minds in today’s world, and rightly so.

A third lesser (but still important) benefit

Perhaps a bit corollary to the privacy issue, people love to use VPNs to get around geo-blocks. This means that people can use a VPN to get access to content on sites like Netflix, Hulu, Disney Plus, etc; that they wouldn’t be able to get from their current location.

In countries where internet censorship is rampant, such as Russia, China, and Indonesia (among others), VPNs are often used to get around these restrictions. However, it should be noted that VPNs themselves are also illegal in China and many other places, and the user should be careful and use VPNs at his or her own risk.

You still have to watch out for viruses, however

It’s important to remember that it’s impossible for a VPN to protect you from viruses, spyware, and other malware. Users should still run up-to-date anti-virus software at all times and be careful what they download because of this.

What types of people use VPNs?

Generation X, generally people from 40 to 60 years old, are the people most likely to use a VPN. This is not surprising, as this generation comprises the people that were the first people to use the internet en masse, and they tend to be savvy about technical issues like this.

Other breakdowns are as follows:

57% of those surveyed who used VPNs were male, showing a slight tendency for men to use VPNs over women, although not a very strong one. The more educated people are, the more likely they are to be current VPN users.

Who should be using VPNs?

We have just mentioned that 68% of people online use a VPN at one time or another. The best possible number in this scenario, to be quite honest, would be 100%.

There is no reason not to get a VPN whatsoever. They are simply too useful and too necessary in today’s world, especially for the security benefits they offer.

If you are reading this and don’t have a VPN presently, we hope that by the time you have finished reading, you will. VPNs are really all but essential devices when surfing the internet in today’s world.

Are there downsides to using VPNs?

Just like all medicine has some sort of side effect, all VPNs also have their downsides. VPNs often use IPs or IP ranges that get discovered by Netflix or other internet giants and block them, which defeats their original purpose. The good news is that most VPNs are very good at getting around those measures these days.

One unavoidable downside of using VPNs is that your internet speed will be slower because of the extra steps that are in place between you and the internet. Using a good VPN, it’s often possible for this slowdown to be mitigated, however. In many instances, you won’t even know you’re using a VPN if you use the right one and the right server.

VPNs and mobile devices

According to statistics, and incredibly for some, 91% of VPN use in 2021 is from mobile devices. These break down in the following manner. 52% of all VPN users are using iOS, and 37% are on some kind of Android phone. 6% of all VPN use is on Windows and the other 3% on Mac when it comes to computers.

To be sure, VPNs are even more useful on a mobile device than they are on a desktop computer, for example. This is because people use their phones while they are “out and about” meaning that they are either connected to their phone company’s wireless network or using Wi-Fi somewhere.

Both of these cases represent an elevated security risk as opposed to using a domestic Wi-Fi connection. Connecting to the internet via an Ethernet cable is even safer, but even in those cases, VPNs are quickly becoming a must for many fasts.

Are all VPNs created equal?

Definitely, all VPNs are very far from being equal to each other. In fact, the differences are pretty striking at times!

As this article goes on, we will look at some specific differences between some of the best VPNs out there, and talk briefly about each of their strengths and weaknesses. Honestly, there are so many options out there right now that it could make your head spin. As of this writing, there are over 300 VPNs currently on the market worldwide.

The good news is that there is an easy checklist of must-have features for VPNs that can help you filter out some of the more undesirable options right away. Here are some things to look for in any good VPN.

What to look for in a good VPN

These are the features a VPN should always have, no matter what.

A very large list of servers available

This is going to be the deciding factor for probably the majority of the people who are reading this article.

Obviously, as an individual user, it’s important to list which countries you would like to be on that list, as it could vary widely per your individual needs and desires. This could include your home country if you are travelling, or any other countries whose streaming libraries you would want access to.

As a rule of thumb, a good VPN should have most of the world’s countries covered in its list of countries in which it has servers. It should also have multiple options per country, especially the bigger countries in the world should be well-represented, with locations from one end of the country to the other.

Low reductions in internet speed and ping

Even in the worst instances, like using a server that’s far away, you shouldn’t be able to notice too much the difference in speed and responsiveness of your internet connection.

Obviously, there will be some loss of speed and probably some lag, but it should never be drastic, especially not in a VPN service you are paying for. Many of the faster VPNs even allow for things like online gaming through their VPN servers; this is how far technology has come in this area recently.

“No-log” policy

When a VPN provider has a “no-log” policy, that means it keeps no record of the traffic that passes through it whatsoever, for any reason. This is important because any VPN that keeps logs of what is going on is later vulnerable to attacks from hackers. In some cases, this could even mean bad actors in the form of governments of certain countries.

If a VPN doesn’t have a strict “no-log” policy, strictly avoid it!

High standards of encryption

Some cheaper or more poorly put-together VPNs out there are using old standards of encryption. Don’t stand for this, at all. It’s important that your VPN be using something up-to-date, and it’s even better if it uses something that’s proprietary, as in the case of NordVPN, for example.

Other potential criteria when choosing a VPN

There are other factors that could influence your decision when selecting the right VPN for you as well.

Some people prefer a simple user interface, and in general, want a very easy learning curve because they are very busy, or for whatever other reason. Others want lots of options, like being able to switch on and off advanced security features or change encryption methods depending on the type of activity they will be performing online.

For other people, price is a sensitive issue, and so overly expensive options will be out for them. It’s also important at times to make sure a VPN provides for connecting from all the devices one needs to connect from. The list of devices can really add up when you take everything into account!

Also, it’s important to make sure that you won’t be running into data caps or other similar limitations. This could mean that you won’t be able to use the VPN as much or as often as you would want to. Finally, of course, let’s talk about pricing.

Price is always a factor

For instance, many people don’t feel comfortable committing to a two or even three-year plan with a VPN, for budgetary reasons. Alternatively, this is simply because they lack the confidence to make such a deep commitment. For this reason, many people look for options where the monthly price isn’t too high.

This is very important because many VPNs are very cheap if you prepay for two or three years, but are much more expensive on a monthly basis. This is actually very common in the industry, but each company’s pricing plans vary quite a bit compared to the others.

Some people may simply want to find what the best free VPN is and make do with that, at least for a time. This is a perfectly respectable option, and using some of the best free VPNs out there is a much better idea than avoiding VPNs altogether!

Are free VPNs worth it?

This is a very important question for us to answer. The truth is, for the majority of people reading this, the answer is going to be simply no.

Free VPNs are only a good idea in certain circumstances. They are primarily good for seeing how a VPN performs in certain areas before committing to a paid plan with that particular provider.

You can use free versions of major VPNs indefinitely, but you will usually either have a data cap placed on you, or bandwidth will be highly cut. As such, you will be very limited as to the servers you can use with the VPN. For some people, these limitations are perfectly fine, and for those people, this is the best way to go, obviously.

We definitely recommend the ProtonVPN and Windscribe VPN for people looking to use a free version of a VPN for an indefinite period of time. These are generally considered to be the providers which have the overall best free VPNs.

Some of your best options for VPNs

The following options for VPNs will be talked about and explained in some detail below.

It should be made clear that this list is in no particular order, and we are not particularly recommending any of these options. Really, all of them have their specific strengths. It’s better to think of this list as giving you general information out of your options. Honestly, for everybody reading, there are one or more options here below that are going to be great fits.

Also, keep in mind that all the VPNs listed here do meet the minimum criteria spelled out above, so none of them will be terrible options for anybody. The only possible exception to this might be Hola VPN, which works a bit differently than the others. It’s also important to mention that all the options below are available on macOS Windows, iOS, and Android.

NordVPN

  • 5560+ servers, 59 countries
  • 6 devices
  • $3.71/mo
  • no free version

NordVPN is great for people who want top-notch security with their VPNs. It also scores major points for being among the easiest to use options for VPNs out there. Just as an example of how elegantly NordVPN works, you can simply turn on its “CyberSec” feature to automatically use NordVPN whenever connecting to a Wi-Fi network.

NordVPN also allows for many varied connection protocols, including their own proprietary NordLynx (which is their version of the popular WireGuard protocol).

Their CyberSec feature is also brilliant, as it filters out the vast majority of dangerous and malicious websites and popups, etc. While, as we have said previously, you must still be cautious of suspicious websites, etc. when using a VPN, NordVPN does take a good deal of the hassle off your hands when the CyberSec feature is turned on.

ExpressVPN

  • 3000+ servers, 94 countries
  • 3 devices
  • $8.32/mo
  • no free version

ExpressVPN isn’t just only every bit as fast as its name would imply, it’s also consistently fast. This is perhaps more important when using a VPN. In fact, ExpressVPN’s average loss of bandwidth is an impressively low 8%.

Possibly even more amazing is the fact that ExpressVPN maintains these standards of zippy performance almost no matter how far away the server is that you are connecting to. This is great for world travellers, and also for people who like to stream libraries from countries far away, that would otherwise be blocked to you from your home country.

ExpressVPN prides itself also on being the best VPN for use with the very popular Netflix streaming service worldwide. In fact, if it’s truly not the best, it’s surely close! Indeed, ExpressVPN caters to streamers and also has a bunch of special features for torrenting, which allows you to safely and quickly download whatever, whenever from torrent servers.

It’s one of the more expensive options out there, but its adherents claim that it’s more than worth the price you pay to have such a top-tier VPN at your disposal.

CyberGhost VPN

  • 6800+ servers, 90 countries
  • 7 devices
  • $2.25
  • 1-day free trial

Perhaps even more tailored for torrents and generally for people who like lots of options with their VPN is CyberGhost.

CyberGhost also gets points for having worked hard in the past several months on its user interface, improving it significantly. This means that users will have an easier time than ever accessing and using CyberGhost’s deep set of features.

This VPN takes a slightly different approach to other VPNs, where they have specific servers dedicated to specific tasks. That is to say, one server will be dedicated to Netflix, another server will be optimized for Hulu, another one for p2p or torrents, and so on.

CyberGhost is one of the cheaper options out there, but only as long as you are willing to commit. A monthly plan is actually among the most expensive, at $12.99 per month. One positive point, however, is that you can pay with PayPal or BTC if you so desire.

Surfshark VPN

  • 3200+ servers, 63+ countries
  • unlimited devices
  • $2.49/mo
  • No free version

Surfshark may be an option that people turn away from initially if they don’t investigate carefully. This is because of the total number of servers, which is a bit low when compared to some of its chief competitors.

This, however, might be a big mistake, as Surfshark is an excellent fit for many potential VPN users out there.

Surfshark’s servers are very stable and fast compared to other servers, so you get much more “bang” per server that you may get with some competition. They are also very capable, and good for a wide variety of uses. In fact, one thing that’s particularly impressive about Surfshark is its very low ping times. This means that Surfshark is an excellent choice for people who want to play games with their VPN.

It also performed as well as or better than almost all of its competition in unblocking geo-blocked content. It actually did better in this regard than some other VPN providers who are significantly more expensive than Surfshark.

ProtonVPN

  • 1080+ servers, 31 countries
  • 10 devices (with Plus plan)
  • $4.00/mo
  • Free version w/ limited speed.

ProtonVPN has hands down the best options for a free VPN out of all the options listed in this article. Ironically, the paid versions are some of the more expensive out there. Also, the free version isn’t for everybody, as it does have some limitations as to how many devices it can use, etc. The free version of Proton is also much slower than the paid versions, of which there are two levels, Basic and Plus.

One nice feature of Proton is its ability to “split-tunnel”. What is meant by this is that you can choose some apps and/or sites to be protected with a VPN, while others bypass the VPN. This helps make things faster overall, as some things are in more need of privacy and security than others.

ProtonVPN works amazingly well with streaming services, allowing for access to libraries all over the world. However, in order to access them properly, you will need to purchase the “Plus” version of the service.

Whichever level of service you may choose from ProtonVPN, you will be able to count on rock-solid security. Third parties, in fact, have done extensive testing on ProtonVPN’s security and couldn’t get it to show even the smallest flaw.

TunnelBear

  • 22 servers, 22 countries
  • 5 devices
  • $3.33/mo
  • Free version 500 MB/mo.

TunnelBear may be the perfect option for non-advanced users who just want something cheap that gets the job done properly. It also doesn’t have a steep learning curve at all.

It’s not very full of advanced features, but anybody can be up and running in no time with TunnelBear. For people who like to play around with settings, this may not be the best option. However, if you are a busy person and want the easiest learning curve possible, this is an excellent option for you.

It is among the cheapest options out there as well. However, it’s important to keep in mind that things like streaming and gaming aren’t going to work as well on TunnelBear when compared to other VPN providers.

Le VPN

  • 800 servers, 114 countries
  • 5 devices
  • $4.95/mo
  • No free version

Le VPN gets major points for having access to lots of different protocols for use. Alongside that, it has more than 800 server options located in more than half the world’s countries.

It also has what they call a “Smart DNS” service, which is specifically used for getting around geo-blocks and allowing for unfettered and fast access to streaming services. It also has great and very affordable pricing plans, the one-month and six-month options coming in at some of the cheapest options out there.

The one caveat to using Le VPN right now is that it is based out of Hong Kong, where the government has recently enacted new security laws. These could directly affect users’ privacy when using the service.

StrongVPN

  • 650 servers, 20 countries
  • 12 devices
  • $5.83/mo
  • No free version

StrongVPN has the distinction of being one of the first commercially available VPNs available. It has had a long time competing successfully in a very crowded market, which seems to be getting more and more competitive by the moment.

StrongVPN has always had a minimalist approach to its user interface, which makes it a great option for non-techie users. Its “connect and go” features work just as you would expect it to work, for example, displaying a map for easy connections.

Many users feel StrongVPN strikes a great balance between features and ease of use. You can easily use it in the most simple way without worrying about all that power under the hood. Alternatively, you can tinker around with settings to your heart’s content if you like.

StrongVPN offers a good 650 or more servers at any given moment, representing all the more popular countries out there and more. Speeds when connecting were found to not be mind-blowing, but they were acceptable.

Mozilla VPN

  • 280 servers, 30 countries
  • 5 devices
  • $4.99/mo
  • No free version

Mozilla VPN is a great option for Firefox users, either on computers or on mobile devices. It integrates with its own browser in a way that no other competitor possibly could.

This is a relatively new product, but it has been making no small inroads in the global VPN market as of late, probably because of what is mentioned in the above paragraph. Mozilla VPN has struck a deal with Mullvad VPN to use their servers, so everything we mention right here below can also apply to Mozilla VPN.

One potential caveat to having your browser so deeply integrated with your VPN is that, by its very nature, it can possibly leave more of your personal data exposed. This is much more so than any of the more “traditional” VPN options out there.

There is even a free version that has all the features of a paid version, with one big exception: you will only have ten servers to work with.

Mullvad VPN

  • 661 servers, 31+ countries
  • 5 devices
  • $6.08/mo
  • Free trial for 3 hours.

Mullvad VPN, as well as having its server network in common with Mozilla VPN, is also a relative newcomer to the VPN market.

Its server list has a good solid 500 or so servers, although we would like to see more variety of countries represented here, considering what its competitors have on offer.

A big advantage to using Mullvad VPN is that it is the cheapest option by far for monthly users, charging 5 Euros per month, which is still under $6 USD. You can also get a 10% discount if you pay with BTC.

We found speeds in general with Mullvad, like many other VPNs at lower price points, to be not spectacular by any standards, but certainly acceptable for many non-advanced users.

Avira VPN

  • 38 servers, 27 countries
  • Unlimited devices
  • $10/mo
  • Free version 500 MB/mo

Avira VPN, also known as Phantom VPN has been recently released by anti-virus giant Avira.

This is another service where all the essential features are there for your privacy and security, but where it is lacking is in the area of the number of servers. With only 50 servers available, we feel that this is something Avira will have to work on.

However, it is included in this list because the servers are fast and reliable and appear to do everything they intend to do. This includes difficult tasks like streaming reliably and getting around geo-blocks. Also, the security is as solid as any of its competitors.

The user interface of Avira VPN can be described in a word as “unique”. Users tend to either love or hate it.

VPN Unlimited

  • 400+ servers, 55 countries
  • 5-10 devices (depending on the plan)
  • $2.78/mo
  • No free version.

VPN Unlimited is an excellent option for people who like to stream series and movies from all over the world. This particular VPN excels at this particular task. VPN Unlimited is actually considered by many to be the best VPN for getting around geo-blocks.

Another nice option about VPN Unlimited is that it has dedicated servers for torrenting, which makes it a good option for this task. Also, static IPs are on offer for people who can make use of them, which is a feature not often seen on commercial VPNs these days. This feature can be incredibly helpful when dealing with financial institutions such as banks, etc.

One thing to watch out for

One slight caveat about VPN Unlimited is that is US-based as a company, which raises concerns about possible breaches of privacy. This is due to the nature of the security laws of that country. However, they do claim to be a no-log provider and, to date, have not had any breaches of sensitive information ever.

One other positive point about VPN Unlimited is that they offer not just two or three but six different pricing plans. This allows you to be flexible with how much you spend and how much you get in terms of services from them.

Windscribe VPN

  • 500+ servers, 60 countries
  • Unlimited devices
  • $4.00/mo
  • Free version (10 GB/mo).

Windscribe VPN has an amazing “stealth” mode which is what makes it stand out among the other options listed here. The “stealth” mode is perfect for use within countries like China, where you really need top privacy and security above anything else.

Its dedicated servers work exactly the way they were intended to, including servers dedicated to unblocking specific platforms such as the always-in-demand Netflix, Hulu, Disney Plus, etc.

Some users have reported problems, however, with non-US Netflix libraries. It’s recommended that you try out the free version first to see exactly how Windscribe works for you before buying in, especially if you are a streaming maven.

Ease of use gets a huge boost with Windscribe VPN’s “Best Location” feature, which works fabulously no matter where you are on Earth. You can also switch VPN protocols depending on the task at hand with ease with Windscribe. Generally, people will use this feature when they want to change protocols for certain security-intensive tasks.

Great free version

This VPN also has a free version, which is great for many people, especially mobile users. It has a 10 GB per month data cap, but that’s often below many mobile users’ typical monthly usage anyway, so this may be a great free option for many reading this.

Finally, Windscribe’s pricing is more than fair for everything that it offers. You can get it for as low as $2.22 a month if you are willing to commit to Windscribe as your go-to VPN for a long enough period of time.

Hola VPN

  • Special case for servers, but all countries
  • 10 devices
  • $7.50/mo
  • The free version only works for 1 hour at a time.

Hola is unique in that it’s the only option we list here that doesn’t use the same strong encryption as the other options in this article. We are including it as a kind of an outlier in this list, though, for a couple of very good reasons.

It had an incredible free version until very recently, where it disconnected you for an hour after an hour’s use. Generally, this unusable for most people, but is useful to test out its functions and “try before you buy”.

Hola VPN also has a convenient way to integrate with the most popular browsers out there and allows you to use a server from any country you so choose for each website. Alternatively, you can also choose to run no VPN at all, as the case may be. These settings are stored in memory for the next time you browse, which is convenient, to say the least.

The lack of encryption is a concern for some, but it does really make it a lot faster for most purposes. There is always that trade-off with VPNs between security and speed. It should be noted, however, that you can’t use torrents on Hola, which, considering that the service is not strongly encrypted, is probably for the best in any case.

Hola has been included in this list because it’s a great option for those who simply are looking to get around geo-blocks or for similar tasks. For these types of tasks, security isn’t as much of an issue.

Using OpenVPN on your own

Few people are ever going to take advantage of this option because of the technical know-how required. Also, the time and risks involved, but this option has been included for completeness’s sake.

It’s also possible if you have enough technical knowledge to use OpenVPN on your own with a third-party server and set up your own VPN. This is an extremely geeky option and is definitely not for your average user.

To pull it off, you’ll have to do everything manually and make sure you know what you’re doing, and which servers you are dealing with. Doing this incorrectly could cause major problems, of course, and defeat any of the security advantages of having a VPN in the first place.

If you can accomplish this (no easy task!), however, you will have your own custom VPN service at possibly even zero cost, indefinitely.

Conclusions

The world of VPNs is fascinating and always growing. In fact, it’s growing almost by the minute these days. VPNs are not only here to stay, but they also are here to grow, and it looks like they will be growing indefinitely since they have so many important applications and uses.

VPNs, like ice cream, come in more and more flavours every day. As the above list of services shows clearly, these days, there is a VPN out there tailor-made for just about every type of user out there.

We hope that the article you have just finished reading will help you to pull the trigger on a good VPN sometime soon. As we mentioned above, everybody who uses the internet is going to need to use a VPN at some time or other, for so many of the reasons mentioned above.

Whether it’s a free version, or a paid version, or a DIY approach, sooner or later everybody is going to have to get on the VPN bandwagon. The reasons for using a VPN are also growing almost by the minute.

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This article was written by: Team Securifer

We are the proud publishers and founders of Securifer.com. We consist of expert cybersecurity researchers and other privacy realists.