The Fastest VPN of 2018
Worried about security and privacy, but don’t want to go back to dial-up speeds due to a slow virtual private network, or VPN? These are the fastest VPNs in our testing.
Why You Need a VPN
Security is too often considered a zero-sum game. You either make the effort to protect yourself and lose out on performance and shiny new toys, or you choose an easier life with the understanding that you may end up making ransomware payments for the rest of your life. At VRS, we maintain that this mindset is outdated, especially in the world of virtual private networks, or VPNs. These services protect your data within an encrypted tunnel, keeping bad guys, ISPs, and snooping spies at bay. Using such a service will certainly have an impact on your internet connection, but the good news is that it needn’t be a big one.
Using a VPN tends to slow down internet connections simply because doing so adds more steps to the process of transferring data over the web. Every time you click a link in your browser, it sends a request through your local network, out onto the public internet, and to a web server that responds with the requested information. With a VPN, the path is a little more circuitous, and that’s why so many of you don’t use a VPN.
When you activate a VPN, your web traffic is routed from your computer, through an encrypted tunnel, and to a server controlled by the VPN company. From there, your data exits and enters the public internet. These extra steps generally degrade your internet connection speeds, simply by adding more fiber, more computers, and more physical distance to the equation. In exchange, using a VPN helps protect your data and personal security.
There are lots of good reasons why you need a VPN. The most obvious is that routing your traffic through an encrypted tunnel means it is much harder for people on the same network as you—say, at a coffee shop—to snoop on your activities. If the person who owns the network is a bad guy, spying on your activity and hoping to snatch a password or two, they’ll also be foiled by a VPN. This also protects against a lot of other scary scenarios, like DNS poisoning. With that kind of attack, you type in a legitimate website URL but are forwarded to a phishing site designed to steal your information.
It’s not just the bad guys who are watching your traffic. Congress, for example, has granted internet service providers the right to sell anonymized metadata about your activities online. That’s unfortunate, for a number of reasons. Fortunately, a VPN makes it much harder for even your ISP to monitor your activity and helps keep your privacy in your hands.
Additionally, moves from the FCC to remove rules regarding net neutrality have raised questions about VPNs. Without net neutrality rules, it’s possible that ISPs could charge companies extra for access to “fast lanes” that would deliver content faster. ISPs could also create cable TV-style packages where you pay for individual access to websites. A VPN might be able to restore net neutrality, somewhat, by tunneling past ISP restrictions. Unfortunately, we’ll have to see how all this plays out before we can say for certain how much a VPN might help.
Spies—and, more frequently, advertisers—can glean a lot about your movements online. By capturing your IP address, an observer can divine your approximate geographic location. With a VPN it’s a different story. Because your web traffic appears to be coming from the VPN’s server and not your computer or mobile device (yes, there are Android VPN apps and iPhone VPN apps), any observer will see the VPN server’s IP address and not yours. That makes it much harder to correlate your movements across the web.
You can also use a remote VPN server to spoof your location. For example, you could be sitting in Chicago and select a VPN server in Australia. Your traffic would then make a trip down under before continuing as normal. To people trying to track you, you’d appear to be surfing from Australia. This is especially useful if you’re keen to access region-locked streaming content. If you connect to a server within the UK, free BBC TV streaming is suddenly available to you in the United States. It’s also a useful tool for when you are connecting in countries that have strict or repressive internet regulations. Always be clear on the laws of the land and any terms of service you might be running up against by doing so, however.
That said, there are many other ways to track movements across the web. There may be, for example, a tracker inside an ad on website A and another tracker from the same company on website B. By correlating data from both of those trackers, it’s possible to assemble a picture of an individual’s browsing history. Installing a tracker blocker such as Track OFF Best Price at Amazon or Privacy Badger from the EFF is a good idea. Fortunately, many VPNs also say they block ads and trackers on the network level.
VPNs are powerful tools, but it’s not safe to think of them as magic-bullet solutions. For example: Unless you’re exclusively browsing HTTPS-secured websites, then your data is potentially visible once it leaves the VPN server. A VPN also isn’t a total anonymization tool, nor can you use it to access the Dark Web on its own. You need Tor for that.
What a VPN does do is make it much harder for an attacker to simply hoover up your information along with hundreds or thousands of others. That alone can help protect you from many of the large attacks and mass surveillance that have defined the last few years. Digital security, after all, is often really about economics. Spies and attackers would much rather go after the low-hanging fruit than try to crack or circumvent a VPN connection. Just remember that using security tools isn’t an excuse for not also using a healthy dash of common sense.
What Do You Mean by the Fastest VPN?
When we review VPNs, we use the Ookla speed test tool. (Note that Ookla is owned by Ziff Davis, which also owns PCMag.) It’s a simple but powerful tool, one that uses three important metrics: latency, download speeds, and upload speeds. Those are the three areas we look at when comparing VPN speed performance.
Latency is a measurement of time between when your computer sends a request and when it receives a response. It’s often called ping time. Lots of things can affect latency; the distance your request physically travels through fiber has a big impact, for example. Latency is measured in milliseconds, however, so even a large increase may not be noticeable to the average user. Latency is very important when playing video games over a VPN, as lower latency means a more responsive experience with less lag.
Download and upload speeds measure how much data is moved over your internet connection. These are both measured in Megabits per second (Mbps). It just shows how much data moves through a network in a given amount of time. The more, the better. Simple.
We’ll go into greater explanation about these three metrics and how we collect them below. But choosing which is most important is tricky. Mostly, it depends on how you’re using your internet connection. We assume that most people reading are major consumers of content. Reading the news, streaming movies, using BitTorrent, or listening to music on the web all require that your device pull down data more or less continuously. With that in mind, we’ve settled on download speeds as the most important benchmark.
When we say the “fastest” VPNs, therefore, we mean, first and foremost, those that have the least impact on download speeds. In case that doesn’t really apply to you, we’ve also broken down the top performers in the other two categories.
Speed Up Your VPN
There are a few ways you can offset the speed-reducing effects of using a VPN. First, choosing a service with many servers means that you’re more likely to find one that isn’t crowded with other people all trying to use the same bandwidth.
Having many servers to choose from in different locations also means you’re more likely to find one that’s physically close to you, shortening the distance your data must travel. This means lower latency, and generally a better overall performance.
Private Internet Access, for example, has well over 3,200 servers across the globe. Of those, 1,610 are spread across 10 locations in the US alone. If you live in the US, you’re likely to find a nicely uncrowded server close by. The ubiquity of its servers also means you’re likely to find a server nearby no matter where you travel. NordVPN and TorGuard $9.99 at TorGuard notably also have more than 3,000 servers.
Another approach is to offer purpose-specific servers. NordVPN, for example, has a high-speed server earmarked for video streaming. The company’s collection of these special servers is a great way to offer customers a better experience, one tailored to their needs. It even offers Tor-over-VPN servers, for another layer of privacy. Surfshark and PureVPN also place an emphasis on streaming, offering modes designed to connect you to your favorite content.
Also important is the protocol the VPN service uses. Connecting to a VPN service using the OpenVPN protocol generally yields a faster, more reliable experience. Plus, OpenVPN is, as the name implies, open-source. That means it has been picked over for flaws and exploits by thousands of volunteers. If you’re concerned about speed and security, selecting a service that supports OpenVPN and makes it available by default is important.
Split tunneling is the generic term for software that lets you define which apps send data through the VPN tunnel and which travel outside the tunnel. This lets you route more sensitive activities, like web browsing or online banking, from more mundane but higher-bandwidth activities, like streaming music or playing video games. It’s especially useful because Netflix blocks VPN use, as do other services. You can simply route these apps outside the VPN in order to avoid this problem. Not many VPN services offer this feature, but PureVPN does. Seek out split tunneling if speed is of primary concern.
While not all VPNs offer split tunneling, many offer browser plug-ins. These lightweight additions secure only your browser traffic, leaving the rest of your traffic unaffected but more exposed. Note, however, that because only your browser information will be sent via VPN, the rest of your information will remain unencrypted.
Some VPNs will also let you define the specific context in which the VPN functions. TunnelBear VPN, for example, lets you mark a network as trusted and will only activate when you’re not connected to one of these trusted networks. This will protect you from bad guys, but it will leave you open to tracking and surveillance by governments and your ISP when you’re on trusted networks.
What’s the Fastest VPN?
When we test VPNs, we try to get a sense for the impact a service has on internet performance by finding a percentage change between using the VPN and not using the VPN for several speed measurements. First, we run several tests without the VPN active, discard the highest and lowest results, and find the average of what remains. This is our baseline. We then do the same thing, but with the VPN active.
We then find a percent change between the speed test results with and without the VPN. The bigger the change from the baseline performance, the more impact the VPN has on your internet speeds.
To stress-test the VPN services, we do things a little differently. Instead of letting Ookla find the best (read: closest) test server, we select a specific test server in Anchorage, Alaska, for both the VPN testing and the baseline test. We then connect to a VPN server in Australia, and calculate a percent change between the two. Usually, this results in a noticeable impact on latency as well as download and upload speeds. It helps give a sense of how the VPN would perform when you’re traveling abroad or using the VPN to spoof your location.
We have tested each of these services in as repeatable a manner as possible, but it’s worth remembering that networks can be fickle. To get the clearest picture of a VPN’s performance, we would have to perform these tests many more times, at different locations and different times of day. We think of these tests as more of a snapshot of performance that establishes a replicable metric for measuring each service. Your mileage with these services will almost certainly vary somewhat from mine.
Note that some VPN companies offer free versions that limit the speeds available. ProtonVPN’s free service, for example, is greatly limited in terms of speeds and features compared to the paid service. However, other free VPNs simply limit the amount of data you use.
Cheating and Data Compression
Because we report how we test VPNs and because we do so using one of the most popular speed test tools available, there’s some obvious concern that a disreputable company might attempt to game the results. Perhaps by detecting when an Ookla test is running and returning bogus results.
I have spoken with developers at Ookla about these concerns, which they share. They’ve told me that the company works to prevent this kind of cheating, taking active measures to fool would-be cheaters.
In speaking with security experts, some have suggested that VPN companies might be compressing data in order to yield better results. In the future, I’ll be working with VPN companies to see if they engage in this practice.
Best Latency in a VPN
TorGuard has the best latency, actually reducing ping time by 6.7 percent in our testing, as mentioned above. This is an unusual result and unique so far in this round of testing.
NordVPN$3.99 at NordVPN – Limited Deal has the next best latency score, increasing latency by 15.4 percent. Most of the other results fall within 100-200 percent increase. Hide My Ass VPN and KeepSolid VPN Unlimited are notable for scores that under a 100 percent increase in latency.
Best VPN Download Speeds
Following its lead in the latency tests, we found that TorGuard had the smallest impact on download speeds in our tests. This service reduced speeds by only 3.7 percent. Fortunately, just about every other service fell within 5-6 percent. That’s great, since it means VPN companies are, as a whole, providing speedy service.
Fastest Overall VPN
Unlike previous years, we have no clear leader that wildly outperforms the competition. Instead, we have a mixed bag of results, with some services excelling where others falter. After looking at the results of these tests, and the services offered by each VPN service, we have decided that TorGuard VPN is the fastest VPN available.
TorGuard took the first spot in two of our domestic tests, including the all-important download tests. In the one round of tests it did not ace, upload speeds, it was the second-best performer.
Note that VPNs are ordered by overall score.