The coffee shop’s free Wi-Fi seemed safe and the double-espresso hit the spot. Unbeknownst to you and your fellow caffeinistas, however, the hipster in the corner hiding behind his notebook had hacked into the Wi-Fi data stream, collecting credit card numbers, email passwords and who knows what else. Damn.
With cybercriminals hiding behind every server, the safest way to surf is to use a Virtual Private Network (VPN). Instead of your most precious secrets traveling over the open Internet, a VPN scrambles the data traffic through encryption so that only you and the server at the other end can read it.
What Is a VPN?
As its name implies, a VPN is a virtual private network. It's Virtual because it exists only in cyberspace; it’s Private because everything that enters and leaves your computer is encrypted, making it a secure Network. It can keep your communications secret in places like China and Russia, where digital eavesdropping is close to a national pastime.
Got secrets? Check into the company’s location and logging policy because if the VPN provider logs usage and is US-based, the National Security Agency and others can snoop. Using the right VPN can not only secure your communications but can provide peace of mind that your data and identity are out of the reach of prying eyes.
Using a VPN can also let you appear to be anywhere in the world that has a VPN server to connect with, allowing the streaming of content in unapproved places. While traveling in China, Azerbaijan and other places, I’ve logged onto a US-based VPN server to watch Hulu and Netflix programs rather than the hotel’s lame pay-per-view movies. To the servers, I appeared to be in the U.S. and able to stream content.
Considering subscribing to a VPN service? The good news is that there are hundreds of them available. That’s also the bad news because they all do the basics. Look for those with client software for your computer, phone and tablet, VPN servers in a wide variety of places and a price you can afford.
What to Look for
Number of simultaneous connections: This is the number of devices that can be signed in to the same VPN subscription at the same time. The more simultaneous connections a VPN provides, the more devices can use it (and yes, this means you can share your VPN with friends and family).
Number of servers: The number of servers a VPN has is important because it spreads out the bandwidth of the devices using it. The more servers a VPN has, the more reliable the VPN generally is because less devices are dependent on one server and, thus, you can expect faster speeds. The downside is that the more servers a VPN has, the more expensive it typically is.
Number of server locations: You want a VPN with a lot of server locations as this gives you more options when choosing where your device appears to be connected from. The more locations, the less likely any of those servers is likely to be crowded (and therefore slow). Also, the more spread out the locations are, the better chance your VPN will work for the location you're in; if you're a frequent traveler, you want a VPN with servers in more countries and near the locations where you're traveling.
Get a VPN for your needs: There are a lot of VPNs to choose from, and they are all better or worse at doing specific things. Some specially suited for streaming or torrenting, while others promise extra security for those sending and receiving more sensitive information.
Price: The total cost of the VPN, either monthly or annually, depends mostly on the speed, security, reliability and availability of the service. The more devices that can be simultaneously under one subscription as well the how widespread that network is — i.e. its number of servers and server locations. Most services offer monthly and annual plans, as well as offering free trials or packages where the first few months are free.
The Best VPN Services
ExpressVPN is one of the biggest and most widespread VPN services you can find; it has over 30,ooo servers spread out over 160 locations and in nearly 100 countries. But ExpressVPN excels in a number of other areas. It delivers one of the most intuitive apps experiences and works with pretty much every platform (including iOS, Mac, Android, Windows and various routers). It's fast and secure, with a ton of privacy-focused built-in (like kill switches). And it's exceptionally good for want a VPN for streaming as it works with most streaming services like Netflix, Disney and Amazon Prime Video. At $7 a month, ExpressVPN is also reasonably affordable. The one major downside is that it only allows you five simultaneous connections, which is lower than most.
Price: $7/month ($100/year)
The name Hide My Ass (HMA) speaks for itself and can protect your data, identity and ultimately your derriere in a variety of far-flung places. Owned by security software company Avast, the HMA Pro VPN service has an extraordinary geographic scope with 900 servers in 190 countries, including Russia and Albania. The VPN service can obscure your location, protect data traffic and shuffle its IP addresses for greater anonymity. It lacks a firewall or ad blocker, though. There’s software for PCs (Vista, 7, 8, 10) and Macs (OSX 10.5), iOS and Android systems as well as some open-source routers. An HMA account supports up to five simultaneous users. Its blue and white interface is small and lets you choose among Instant Mode (one-click connect), Location Mode (pick your server) or Freedom Mode (the closest free-speech friendly country). Unlike PIA, you select a user name. At $12 a month, it’s more expensive than PIA but a full year costs $5 a month. Its UK headquarters means that HMA’s logs should be beyond the reach of American spy agencies.
- Price: $5/month ($60/year)
By using a map of the world to show VPN servers, NordVPN is among the easiest security apps to use: just pick a spot and click to connect. With more than 5,200 connection points, NordVPN has servers in 62 countries, in places like Egypt, Russia and Turkey. You can use NordVPN with Windows 7, 8 and 10, Mac OSX (10.10 or newer), Android, iOS, Chrome and Linux systems as well as some routers and smart TVs. While PIA and HMA go small, NordVPN’s app can run full screen with its connection map on the right and a server list on the left. You can pick a specific server or the area’s fastest. In addition to NordVPN’s Double VPN option that encrypts data twice, Cybersec can block annoying ads as well as prevent going to malicious and phishing sites. Unlike PIA, NordVPN lets you choose your user name. With headquarters in Panama, NordVPN is beyond the reach of American spy agencies and the company doesn’t keep a log to worry about. At $12 per month, NordVPN's monthly plan is pretty expensive, but its annual plan ($60 per year) is actually really reasonable.
- Price: $12/month ($60/year)
Private Internet Access
Private Internet Access’s global network of VPN servers lets you to hide in plain sight for less. With more than 3,200 servers in 33 countries, Private Internet Access (PIA) connects in places like Germany, Turkey and Singapore but lacks VPN servers in hot spots like Russia. It pales in comparison to the 190 countries that Hide My Ass operates in. The service encrypts your traffic, can obscure your location, block ads and malware as well as including a capable firewall. There’s software for Windows (7, 8 and 10), Mac OSX (10.13), Linux, iOS and Android. It also works with Chrome, Firefox, Opera browsers and some open-source routers. The small Windows interface lets you pick a dark or light color scheme, set the encryption level and use small data packets for greater reliability. There’s a mini world map but you must use PIA’s assigned log-in name. While PIA doesn’t keep connection logs, its Denver headquarters means that American spy agencies can potentially snoop on your Web journeys. At $40 for a year, PIA's annual plan is a pretty good bargain (although its month-by-month plan is significantly more expensive).
- Price: $12/month ($40/year)