Your Ultimate 2021 VPN Guide

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Not long ago, popular opinion held that a VPN was something only a paranoid crank would ever use. That was before the paranoid cranks were repeatedly proven right. Your phone is listening to you? You’re being stalked using an app? Governments spying on their citizens? No, we aren’t reading a George Orwell novel, but living in a world where everyone should practice basic online security, like a secure VPN.

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Is it a cute teddy bear? Or is it watching you?

This article is our ultimate VPN guide. Whether you’re a total newcomer, or an experienced VPN user looking for recommendations, you’ll find resources here. I’ll go over how a VPN works, what it does for you, which ones you should use and more. The first step, though, is for me to  convince you that you need online security.

Yes. A VPN is the best way to protect yourself from hackers, unwanted advertisements, malware and other threats to your data security.
Read reviews of all the top VPN providers, and compare them based on what’s most important to you (other than security and privacy, which should be non-negotiable). Consider speed, streaming capability, ease of use, special features, server locations and price.
ExpressVPN, NordVPN, Surfshark and Windscribe are all top VPNs geared toward being friendly to newcomers.
Take advantage of any free trial or 30-day money-back guarantee offered by your VPN provider of choice.
Download and install the VPN app on any internet-capable devices by following the instructions on the VPN service’s website.

A VPN: Your Online Backup Parachute

Pop quiz: What’s one piece of advice that applies to both extreme sports and browsing the internet?

Answer: Use protection.

Skydiving is awesome. Skydiving without a backup chute is stupid. Taekwondo is awesome; it doesn’t become less awesome just because your dojo has safety mats.

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'The real world doesn’t have mats.' — My fifth-grade sensei, currently facing a class-action lawsuit.

What is the safety mat of the internet, the emergency chute of your online existence? It’s called a virtual private network: a VPN. Using a VPN is a common-sense solution to most threats found online.

Installing a VPN is so easy that there’s no longer any excuse not to do it. There are VPNs you don’t have to pay for. There are VPNs that run so smoothly you won’t notice them. In fact, using a VPN service is my number-one security tip at AllAnonymity. If everyone did it, hackers would swiftly become a nonexistent problem. Let’s take a quick look at what VPNs are and how they work.

What Is a VPN & How Does It Work?

The basic unit of the internet is the server. A server is any device that:

  • A) Stores information digitally.
  • B) Makes that information available to other devices on demand.

Take a critical mass of servers, then connect them to each other and to machines like the one you’re using now, which are called clients. Boom: you’ve got yourself an internet.

This server-client model is the reason the internet is so full of security risks. When you request information from a server that holds a website, that request is made in the open. If you transmit information, that’s open as well.

Anyone who knows how to look for this information can see who you are, what you’re doing online and (in some cases) even where you are. This is not a huge problem if you’re accessing Facebook (as long as you didn’t reuse your password from another website), but it’s a lot worse with online banking.

VPN Meaning & Purpose

When the concept of a “virtual private network” was invented, VPNs had a very different purpose. Organizations that wanted to exchange sensitive data between employees via secure connection — but didn’t have an on-site server — could build a virtual network that only their employees could access.

Each of these early networks was based on a VPN protocol, an essential tool for building a network. A VPN protocol is like a secret language; it lets every server and client on the network communicate securely.

Beginning in the late 1990s, people realized these protocols could be used to let members of the general public access VPN services. If a client connected first to a VPN server and then to a public internet server, the client’s activity would be concealed. They’d be like a superhero with a secret identity.

If you want more details, our article on What is a VPN? has the goods.

How Does a VPN Provide Security?

A modern VPN service provides two kinds of security: anonymity and privacy.

Without getting too deep into a subject that you can teach whole college classes about, privacy is your right to conceal sensitive personal information, while anonymity is your right to disconnect your actions from your identity.

If I read your diary, I’d be violating your privacy. If I told all your friends about your Harry Potter slash fic account, I’d be violating your anonymity.

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'Professor Flitwick,' purred McGonagall. 'I’ve heard there are many other things you can do with a wand…'

A VPN protects your anonymity by hiding your IP address. I’ll go into that more below, but for now, just think of it as a name tag for your online identity. When you connect through a VPN, your IP address appears to be that of the VPN server and can’t be traced back to your device.

At the same time, the VPN protects your privacy through encryption. Anything you send while connected to the VPN is translated into coded gibberish, to be decoded only when it reaches its intended recipient. That includes login credentials, credit card numbers, confidential information and everything in between.

Types of VPN Security Protocols

Quick recap: a VPN protocol is the “language” that servers in a VPN use to talk to each other and to public servers. Today’s VPN users have several options for protocols. Each one has its own benefits and drawbacks.

The current gold standard is OpenVPN. It’s an open-source protocol maintained by volunteer developers. Because it was developed in the open by VPN users without a profit motive, OpenVPN offers the best balance of speed and security of any protocol in wide use — likely because developers are always on hand to step in when something could be improved.

The first VPN protocol was the Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP), invented by a Microsoft engineer in 1996. PPTP is fast but provides minimal encryption, so it’s not safe for regular end users. If a VPN offers PPTP as a protocol, ignore it. Maybe ignore that VPN provider altogether.

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If one of the menu items is 'we hit you with a shovel,' be suspicious of everything, even the chicken sandwich.

Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol (L2TP) was developed as an improvement on PPTP. Like its predecessor, it doesn’t come with encryption attached. Nearly every VPN service provider pairs it with the IPSec encryption protocol, calling it LT2P/IPSec.

The combination is relatively effective, but it doesn’t stack up to OpenVPN. For one thing, it gets caught in most firewalls, so say goodbye to Netflix (more on that in “What Are the Best VPNs?”). For another, IPSec was developed by the National Security Agency (NSA), which some experts understandably suspect to have inserted backdoors.

Internet Key Exchange Version 2 (IKEv2) is probably the fastest popular protocol, and is one of the few I’d recommend instead of OpenVPN in specific situations. Because of its speed, IKEv2 is good at reconnecting after a dropoff, which makes it ideal for mobile devices that need to stay online while constantly moving.

WireGuard is a relative newcomer to the VPN space. Like OpenVPN, it’s free and open-source, but it has the advantage of a much leaner codebase. Engineers always aim for a streamlined product — fewer lines of code mean fewer chances for anything to go wrong. Once it’s gotten a bit more real-world testing, I’m prepared to call it OpenVPN’s only true competitor.

Many leading VPN services are now building their own protocols in order to add value (read: have something new to advertise). Examples include ExpressVPN’s Lightway and NordVPN’s NordLynx. Personally, I plan to let these marinate for a few years before I’m comfortable entrusting my security to them.

Why Should I Use a VPN?

At this point, you know what a VPN does. The next question is “why?” Picking a VPN from dozens on the market, learning how to use it, potentially sacrificing speed or website access — there must be a big payoff to all that effort.

The reward for using a VPN is privacy, security and confidence. The price of not using one? Potentially compromising your most vital, secret personal information.

There’s no end to the list of people who might want to get their hands on your data. Hackers want to ransom your files back to you. Advertisers want to give you creepy, invasive product suggestions. Scammers want to sneak into your bank account. You might even have people in your own life to hide from — stalkers are getting increasingly technologically sophisticated. A VPN can protect you from all these threats and more.

VPN Benefits

You already know that a VPN provides two basic services: concealing your IP address and encrypting your data.

Imagine you have an unscrupulous internet service provider (ISP) that makes money by selling its users’ locations to Google for advertising purposes. This is a frighteningly common occurrence. Advertisers can deduce a lot from your location alone. For example, if your phone stays in the same place for eight or nine hours every night, you probably live there.

If you have a VPN on your phone, though, your internet service provider and any third-party ad peddlers won’t see the device with your IP address. They’ll just see a data center that never moves, and might not even be in the same city as you.

Your ISP would normally be able to trace your connection from any server to your device, but a VPN server prevents that. With encryption, your identity is totally secured, only visible to websites you choose to see at the moment you choose to see them.

Any private information you share is encrypted, as well. Even if you send your bank account number over a VPN, any hackers who get a hold of it will see an impenetrable cipher. Most reputable VPNs use AES-256 security, which isn’t literally uncrackable, but it’s the next best thing.

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If AES-256 had been invented at the birth of the universe, and someone had started trying to crack it immediately, the math suggests they wouldn’t be finished yet.

In summary, here are a few of the specific benefits you get from a VPN:

  • Protect your personal information online
  • Access region-locked content on streaming websites via servers located in that country
  • Bypass government censorship of the internet
  • Hide your location from all unwanted attention
  • Use public WiFi without fear
  • Keep your credentials from leaking onto the dark web
  • Avoid accidentally downloading malware or leaking information to phishing sites
  • Even more than that

Are VPNs Legal?

Almost always. But it depends on where you live.

You’re not allowed to use a VPN to do anything illegal, because illegal things are illegal. If you ram through the gates of Disney World and lay siege to Cinderella’s Castle, you’ll get arrested whether or not you used a U-Haul to help.

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No, YOUR examples are concerningly specific.

Now, if your crime is entirely online, you’re less likely to get caught if you use a VPN. However, AllAnonymity in no way condones using a VPN for distributing copyrighted material, cyberbullying, selling controlled substances, hacking or any other online crimes.

VPNs exist to protect people. Don’t become one of the people we need protection from.

Some countries go further and restrict all VPN activity, legal or otherwise, or regulate VPN use in some way. Members of this club include North Korea, Russia, China, Belarus, Turkey and Turkmenistan — not exactly gold-standard luminaries of freedom and democracy.

In almost every other nation, including the United States, using a VPN is completely legal. For the full details, check out our article Are VPNs Legal?

How to Hide Your IP Address: VPNs vs Proxy Servers

I’ve mentioned your IP address a few times now, so it’s probably time to explain what that means.

Recall that the World Wide Web is just a huge network of servers, which regular computers can talk to if they have a modem and a router handy. Your computer asks the servers to see a website, and the servers deliver.

Your IP address is how these servers know what device to show the website content to. It’s the exact same concept as a mailing address, just higher tech. IP stands for “internet protocol,” referring to the standard set of rules that servers and clients use to communicate. Just like a VPN protocol, it’s a common language.

But as convenient as an IP address is for browsing the internet, it also comes with risks. Your IP address marks out your device as an individual. It means activity can be associated with your identity, violating your right to anonymity online. That’s why hiding your IP address is one of the most important functions of a VPN.

Wait, What Is My IP Address?

If you don’t know your own IP address, you’re not alone. Few people do. Moreover, it probably changes frequently.

There are two kinds of IP address: static and dynamic. A static IP is associated with one device for good, never changing. Generally, this only happens on private hardware networks within an organization.

It’s far more likely that you have a dynamic IP address. In that situation, your ISP assigns you an IP address every time your modem connects to the internet. If you’re using a VPN, the IP address will be assigned to the VPN server, keeping your device safely hidden.

Now, why is this important?

Since hiding your IP is one of the most important jobs of your VPN service, checking your IP address is a great way to see if you’re actually secure. Follow these steps:

  1. Disconnect from your VPN
  2. Google “what is my ip address”
  3. Connect to your VPN
  4. Google the same term

If you get a different result in Step 4 than you did in Step 2, congratulations! Your VPN provider is doing at least half of its job.

If you get the same result, move onto Step 5: cancel that VPN service immediately. There’s also an optional Step 6, where you get a job reviewing VPNs out of sheer spite over having been sold a bill of goods.

For more, see What Is My IP Address?

Should I Use a Proxy Server?

Before we go on, there’s another bit of air I’ve got to clear: don’t ever use a proxy server to hide your identity online.

A proxy server is like a VPN, in much the same way a baseball cap is like a motorcycle helmet. They both do something similar, but only one of them will protect you.

Proxy servers provide half the functionality of a VPN by rerouting all your internet requests through a third-party server. The problem is that proxies don’t include any sort of encryption. Without that, anybody can trace your requests back one step and find you.

The dark secret of proxy servers is that they’re actually designed for the bad guys. Using proxies, a corporation can pretend to be hundreds of regular people to conduct some good old-fashioned industrial espionage.

Seriously, there are good free VPNs in the world. Never use a proxy server.

For more details, check out What Is a Proxy Server and “Best” Proxy Sites articles.

What Are the Best VPNs?

Now that I’ve hopefully convinced you to get a VPN, the next question is “which one?”

I’ve got my favorites — and the one that I personally choose — but before I spill those details, I’d like to talk about what makes a good VPN. Armed with this knowledge, you’ll be able to choose the VPN that’s best for you, not the best one for me.

What to Look for in a VPN Provider

Before paying for a VPN, evaluate it based on the questions listed below. I’ve arranged the seven categories in no particular order, though security is at the top since it’s far and away the most important.

Security & Privacy

A good VPN should protect you from leaks. It should promise not to keep or sell logs of your activities. Its encryption should be bank-grade AES-256 and it should offer the best protocols available.

Ask & Evaluate:

  • Does the VPN hide your IP address?
  • Does it pass DNS and WebRTC leak tests?
  • What kind of encryption does it use?
    • If it’s anything but AES-256, does it have an extremely good reason not to use the best security available?
  • What VPN protocols does it offer?
    • Does it have OpenVPN?
    • Does it have any outdated, unsecured protocols like PPTP?
  • Does the VPN’s privacy policy clearly state that it won’t save logs of user data?
    • Are there any news stories about times when the VPN broke that promise?
  • Has the VPN ever suffered a major hack or security breach?

VPN Servers & Locations

The more servers a VPN has in its network, the more likely you are to find one close to you, which means a faster connection with lower latency.

Be aware that many VPNs expand their networks using virtual servers — servers that appear to be in one physical location, but whose hardware is located in another. These normally work just as well, but can be less reliable.

Ask & Evaluate:

  • What’s the total number of servers available?
  • Does the VPN have servers near your location? How many?
  • Are the servers near you real or virtual?
  • Does the VPN have any servers dedicated to specific functions, such as streaming, gaming or torrenting?
    • Are these servers actually better at the task, or is it just a marketing gimmick?
  • Does it have double-hop servers that pass your connection through two nodes, trading some speed for added security?

Speed

Because your connection takes extra steps, using a VPN will slow down your internet browsing experience. They all do this. The question is which VPNs do it as little as possible.

Ask & Evaluate:

  • How much does the VPN increase your latency (length of a server ping in milliseconds)?
    • Anything below 4x on your home server is very good; 5x or below is acceptable.
  • How much does the VPN decrease your download and upload speeds?
    • The best providers maintain more than 75 percent on both scores.
  • How quickly do the answers to the first two questions change as you get farther away?
    • I always test several servers, starting with my home server and ending on the other side of the world. With the best VPNs, there’s a sharp speed drop the first time I get overseas, but speeds after the fact stay relatively consistent — from Oregon, I should get about the same numbers in the UK and New Zealand.

Supported & Multiple Devices

A good VPN service works on many kinds of devices, and lets you connect several of them at once.

Ask & Evaluate:

  • Does the VPN work on your desktop OS (Windows, macOS, Linux)?
  • Does it work on your mobile OS (Android, iOS)?
  • Does it work on any other internet-capable devices you own (Kindle Fire, smart TV)?
  • Can it be installed directly onto your router, protecting any device that connects through your home Wi-Fi?
    • Note that this is the only way to protect internet-capable game consoles.
  • How many devices are you allowed to install the VPN on from a single subscription?
  • How many devices can be connected to the VPN at once?
    • Be careful not to confuse this with the number of installations permitted. Many VPNs let you install the app on as many devices as you want, but only connect with a certain number at a time.
    • A router only counts as one connection, no matter how many devices access the internet through it.

Streaming & Torrenting

You might have wondered why Netflix and other streaming services work so hard to block users from connecting through VPNs. It comes down to copyright.

There’s no international treaty on copyright law. If Netflix wants to stream a show in Croatia, it has to get the intellectual property rights to that show under Croatian law. If it doesn’t get the rights, and somebody in Croatia streams that show anyway, Netflix could get in trouble with the local authorities. That’s why Netflix’s library is so different between countries.

Since a VPN lets you pretend to be in another country so you can stream its content, Netflix and other streaming platforms block them. But some VPNs have figured out ways around the ban.

Ask & Evaluate:

  • While connected to the VPN service, can you watch videos on…
    • …Netflix?
    • …Hulu?
    • …Amazon Prime Video?
    • …HBO Max?
    • …Disney+?
    • …BBC iPlayer?
    • …another streaming service you prefer?
  • Is the VPN fast enough that you can stream video at a high quality?
    • Is it still fast enough when spoofing a faraway country (e.g. pretending to be in the UK to watch BBC content)?

Value for the Money

A simple one here. Good VPNs are expensive, but not insanely so. Almost all services offer steep discounts if you commit to a year or more of membership, and you can almost always find coupons or special offers.

Ask & Evaluate:

  • How much does the VPN service cost per month?
  • What longer-term plans are offered?
    • How much money do these plans save you per month?
  • What coupons or special deals are offered?
  • Is there a free plan?
    • Does the free plan limit bandwidth or server locations?
  • Is there a free trial for paid plans?
  • Is there a money-back guarantee?
    • Are there any requirements or strings attached?
  • Do the subscription tiers differ in any way other than their duration?

Additional Features

In addition to the VPN itself, many apps offer additional features. Here are a few to look for:

  • Kill switch: a feature that cuts off your internet connection if the VPN connection drops for any reason, protecting you from accidentally transmitting unsecured info.
  • Split tunneling: the ability to run some internet traffic through the VPN, while leaving innocuous activity unsecured so it runs faster.
  • Obfuscated servers: servers that hide the fact that they’re part of a VPN, getting around blanket bans on all VPN activity
  • Cryptocurrency payment options: for added security and privacy

The Best Premium VPNs

Based on the criteria above, here are a few of the VPNs I’ve judged to be the best. Remember, what works for me won’t necessarily work for you, so shop around.

ExpressVPN is my favorite VPN provider. It’s fast, easy to use and has an unblemished security and privacy record. But it’s expensive. Read our full ExpressVPN review.

NordVPN is a close second, boasting a wide server network and excellent speeds. It does have a blemished history with being hacked, though. Read our full NordVPN review.

Surfshark is a fast-growing VPN that’s quickly become a contender for the top spot, though it’s still a bit inconsistent.

CyberGhost is the computer geek’s VPN, loaded with options for controlling and customizing your experience, but it’s inconsistent in accessing big streaming services.

Windscribe has the best free VPN plan I’ve ever seen, with 10GB of bandwidth at no cost. Its paid plans are also phenomenal, and it offers a cheap build-a-plan option where you can add a server location for $1 per month.

The Best Free VPN

You read that right: some VPNs are completely free. Usually, a free VPN won’t offer you unlimited bandwidth, data or server locations. But if you’re not a heavy internet user, you can get top-tier VPN coverage for no cost at all.

As you read above, Windscribe is my favorite free VPN. It’s short on a few features, but makes up for that by being one of the few VPNs to let you build your own service. If you never intend to connect outside the U.S., for example, you can pay $1 per month to access all U.S. servers, though you only get 10GB for use with each location.

Other free VPNs I trust include Hide.me, TunnelBear, ProtonVPN and Hotspot Shield.

The Dangers of a Free VPN

If you decide to use a free VPN I didn’t name above, be extremely careful. Many free VPNs make money off their users in another way: by logging their browsing data and selling it to advertising brokers. You read that right — they engage in the very behavior you’re using a VPN to protect against.

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'Hi, I’m here about the opening for a henhouse guard?'

Never use a free VPN without doing extensive research into its background. Sometimes, just downloading the client can be enough to expose you.

The Limitations of Good Free VPNs

Even the best free VPNs are limited by necessity. A company with a VPN as its main product has to make money somehow.

As good as a free VPN is, it will always lack certain features in order to convince you to move to a paid plan. Bandwidth limits, restricted server access and advertisements on the VPN app are common inducements.

Workaround: Get a VPN for Free With Trials & Money-Back Guarantees

It’s not a permanent solution, but you can get the best VPNs for free, often for 30 days at a time. Just sign up, use it for a month, then get your money back before 30 days are up.

There are drawbacks to this, of course. If you find one you really like, you can’t keep using it without paying — or creating a new email account. You’ll be on dozens of mailing lists before long. And you won’t be supporting the people who help you use the internet safely, which gives the hackers a leg up.

Best VPN for Streaming Services

In the “streaming & torrenting” section above, I covered why so many VPNs have trouble getting into Netflix. If you’re looking for a VPN for streaming, we’ve gathered a list of the best VPNs for Netflix.

You might wonder why the rest of this section focuses so much on Netflix. The answer is that, as our Netflix Statistics article shows, Netflix is still king despite the streaming wars.

Cracking the Netflix Nut: Bypass Geoblocks With a VPN

How to Watch Netflix From Anywhere

It’s simple. Say you’re in another country for work, and want to watch some Netflix. Ordinarily, you wouldn’t be able to access your account from outside your home nation, but you can get around the geoblocks by following these steps:

  1. Find a VPN you know can access Netflix.
  2. Connect to a server in your home country.
  3. Navigate to Netflix in your browser.
  4. Netflix will believe you’re still at home, letting you kick back with all the content you crave.

Netflix-VPN Troubleshooting

In case you run into trouble with the steps above, check out one of our articles on troubleshooting VPN-enabled Netflix:

  • How to Unblock Netflix at School or Work
  • ExpressVPN Not Working With Netflix
  • NordVPN Not Working With Netflix

Conclusion

Using a VPN can be overwhelming at first, but once you know what you’re doing, the fear melts away. It’s no different than a seat belt or a helmet — a piece of safety gear that you won’t even notice after the first few times.

Nor does becoming a VPN user mean you’re accepting that the internet is a terrible, frightening place. It’s no scarier than the interstate: you can’t trust everybody on sight, but as long as you take common-sense measures, you can travel to rewarding, inspiring places.

I hope this article helps you take the first steps toward securing your internet with a VPN. Good luck, and if there’s anything you think I forgot to mention, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

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