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There's a joke from the early days of online computing: On the internet, nobody knows you're a dog. In other words, you're effectively invisible; no one can see who (or what) you are. Unfortunately, that's just wishful thinking: Hackers may be able to tell exactly who you are — and steal crucial personal information as well.
So how can we protect our identities and activities? You might think anti-virus software is the key to safety, or that internet service providers (ISPs) have measures in place to keep your connection secure.
Wrong on both counts. Although there's no such thing as absolute internet privacy and security, there's one tool you should think about adding to your arsenal: a virtual private network, or VPN.
What a VPN does and why you should use one
This is one of those things that sounds complicated but really isn't. Imagine you're tooling down the highway in your car, you and hundreds of other drivers. A hacker is flying overhead in a helicopter; he can easily pinpoint your location and follow you everywhere you go. You're totally unprotected.
Now imagine you're driving in a tunnel instead, one that's just for your car. The hacker can't see you, doesn't even know you're there. There's that "invisibility" we talked about.
When you connect to an open Wi-Fi network at, say, a coffee shop or on an airplane, you're driving that unprotected highway. But when you use a VPN — a combination of software and service — you're in a tunnel. It's virtually impossible for a hacker to detect you, monitor you or steal anything from you.
VPN pros and cons
Let me pause to make something clear: A VPN will not protect you from viruses, nor from things like phishing threats or ransomware. Its sole function is to hide your internet activities from observers who might wish to track them for identity theft or other purposes.
Here's the good news: If you work primarily at home, you probably don't need a VPN. That's because you're connecting to your own private Wi-Fi network; as long as it's reasonably secure (starting with password-protection), a VPN would be overkill. It's the open, public networks out in the world that pose the biggest threat. (That said, if you live in an apartment and you're, um, borrowing Wi-Fi from a neighbor, you're definitely vulnerable — because if that network is open enough for you to hop on, it's open to anyone.)
There are a few other caveats to using a VPN. First, because your internet connection will be routing through a secure server (the aforementioned "tunnel"), there's a performance hit. You might find that sites load a little slower or that video streaming isn't quite as reliable. Public Wi-Fi networks tend to be on the slow side to begin with; this added layer of protection can make them even slower.
Second, the VPN service itself may collect non-personal data about your browsing activities and may even sell that data to third parties. (I know, quite the irony.) Note that your ISP probably does this as well, so you'll have to decide whether this is important or not. If it is, choose a VPN that doesn't log user activity or share data with third parties.
Finally, there's cost: Most VPNs require a monthly or annual subscription fee. There are a couple decent free ones out there, but they do have limitations — and they're much more likely to log/sell your data.
Choosing the right VPN for you
Below I've rounded up what I consider to be the top five VPN services. I've made these choices based on a number of factors, including price, personal experience, customer ratings and aggregated reviews found elsewhere.
Unfortunately, very few of these offer free trials, meaning you can't easily "kick the tires." However, most come with a money-back guarantee, so although you'll need to choose a plan and provide a credit card for billing, you can cancel within that window and get a full refund.
Best VPN for global travelers: CyberGhost
One way to judge a VPN's efficacy is by the number and location of its servers. The more it has, and the more spread out they are, the easier it'll be to find one close by — regardless of where you're traveling. Closer servers typically mean faster performance.
CyberGhost has nearly 7,000 of them in over 90 countries; few other VPNs can match those numbers. And the service is headquartered in Romania, which has no mandatory data-collection laws. Consequently, CyberGhost is able to offer a no-logs policy.
You can try CyberGhost for free (it's the only VPN here to offer that option), but only for 24 hours. After that, you'll have to choose a plan, though each one comes with a generous 45-day money-back guarantee. Those plans start at $12.99 per month, with considerable discounts if you prepay for longer periods. At this writing, the rate drops to $4.29 if you prepay for one year (so, $51.48 total), or you can pay just $78 for two years (that breaks down to $3.25 per month), but the best deal is the three-year plan for $89.31 plus three months free three years ($2.29 per month).
Best independently audited VPN: TunnelBear
Sure, any VPN can claim it shields you from prying eyes, protects your personal data, yada-yada-yada. But few put their money where their, er, tunnel is. TunnelBear (which also has the cutest mascot this side of CyberGhost) publishes regular, independent security audits of its own service.
That's great, but here's what I like even better: TunnelBear offers a totally free version, which at a minimum lets you try all the features without committing to a plan. The catch: You're limited to 500MB of data per month. That's fine for a few sessions of e-mail, web browsing and the like, but if you dip into video even a little, you'll burn through that limit pretty quick.
From there, you can pay $9.99 monthly, $59.88 for one year or $120 for three years. TunnelBear is also one of the more novice-friendly services out there, something to consider if you're new to all this.
Best overall VPN: NordVPN
I've been a technology journalist for years, and during that time I've seen NordVPN at or near the top of just about every "best VPN" list. Indeed, it ticks nearly all the important boxes — decent speeds, no-logs privacy, robust server/country count and easy interface — and affords the comfort of a solid reputation: The company wouldn't be a top-rated service for so long if it didn't offer a superior product.
NordVPN allows for up to six simultaneous connections and offers over 5,200 servers in 60 countries. If anything, it might be overkill for some users, and perhaps a little intimidating to novices. While features like Onion Over VPN and multi-hop connections have value, they also require a bit of study to fully understand. That's true with any VPN, but I came away from the NordVPN website feeling like I'd be in over my head.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, NordVPN is on the pricier side of the spectrum: It costs $11.95 per month, or $59 if you prepay for one year. The best deal is the two-year option for $99, which is about $3 per month. Take note, however, that these are introductory rates; renewal prices may be higher. NordVPN offers a 30-day money-back guarantee on all plans.
Best VPN for serious privacy freaks: iVPN
There's anonymous and then there's anonymous. If you're serious about online privacy, take a look at iVPN. Although its Standard plan limits you to just two devices, it includes some pretty amazing safeguards.
For example, the built-in AntiTracker tool promises protection against ads, web trackers and malware. You can sign up for the service without even providing an e-mail address and pay via Bitcoin for further anonymity. And iVPN promises a no-log policy and audited operation.
Speaking of payment, iVPN is also quite affordable, especially if you're looking for a month-to-month option: The aforementioned Standard plan costs $6, and there's a 30-day money-back guarantee if you decide it's not a good fit.
Need coverage for more devices? The Pro plan lets you use seven of them, for a still-reasonable $10 per month.
Best budget VPN: Mullvad
As you've probably noticed, most VPNs charge around $10-$12 if you choose a month-to-month plan. That's pretty steep. Yes, there are discounts when you prepay for a year or more, but what if you're not ready for that kind of commitment?
Enter Mullvad, a Sweden-based VPN that charges a flat monthly rate regardless of how long you subscribe. That rate is 5 euro, which currently works out to $5.91 US. Like iVPN, you can pay with Bitcoin or even actual cash if that's your jam. But there are no discounts for longer subscriptions.
Fortunately, the budget price doesn't come at the cost of privacy or security: Like the best VPNs, this one keeps no logs and submits to external, independent audits. It doesn't have any affiliate partnerships, either, meaning you can rest assured no one is getting paid to review or write about the product. Mullvad supports up to five simultaneous connections and has servers in 36 countries — but fewer than 800 of them total.
Have you found a VPN you like better than those listed here? Hit the comments section below and tell me which one, and why.
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