Best VPN Services of 2021: What’s the Best VPN in the UK?
There are many and varied hazards online, most of which can be avoided if you use a virtual private network (VPN). If you’re a regular user of wireless hotspots, especially open ones in places such as coffee shops, you may well be surprised by just how vulnerable much of your data is.
Think of the numerous passwords you’ve typed, the credit card details you’ve entered and the innumerable usernames you have thrown out into the ether – all of this is susceptible to criminals looking for an unencrypted way into your personal life.
READ NEXT: What is a VPN?
VPNs are also an essential tool for those living in countries with severe online restrictions, such as the People’s Republic of China. For those of us with less online fencing to deal with, VPNs serve as a way to access content from other nations without region blocking, with many paid-for VPNs overtly stating just how well they can access American Netflix in the UK. If you’re a British license fee payer, you can also access BBC services like News Online without ads.
VPNs are also incredibly easy to install. We’ve got a simple guide for you here.
If your company or ISP blocks certain applications – Skype, for instance, or certain types of websites – you can use a VPN to circumvent those blocks. But what is the best VPN? Well, not all VPNs are created equal…
The Best VPNs in 2021
VPNs open a secure “tunnel” between your laptop, phone or tablet and the VPN provider. The data in this tunnel is encrypted end-to-end, and therefore unreadable to anyone who happens upon that data who might want to snoop on it.
That includes your ISP, the government, and hackers who might want to steal your credit card or bank login details. That’s not to say a VPN isn’t crackable, just that it’s a lot more difficult to do.
There are also various types of VPN. You can create your VPN using your home router. This creates a private network for you and your family to connect to. You can install VPN software, or download VPN apps to your smartphone. Alternatively, if you have Kodi, or an Amazon Fire TV Stick, it’s possible to install a VPN app directly onto these devices which will allow you to access content from outside of your region. These tend to be VPNs that are available more widely, but work specifically with the devices.
An alternative to VPNs are proxies. Whereas VPNs routes all traffic through the VPN server, including programs and applications you’re using on laptop or phone, proxies act like filters for the web only.
A proxy applies only to your internet browser, regardless of the browser used. The added security, speed, and location information only apply to web pages. A proxy will ignore all other applications being used.
The trouble is, with so many of these tools plying their wares across iOS, Android, Windows, and others, how on earth do you choose between them? Is it okay to use a free VPN, or should you pay? This is where our guide to the best VPNs of 2021 comes in.
Best VPN Services: What should you look for?
There are hundreds of VPNs out there, and the landscape is ever-changing, so it’s useful to know how to evaluate those you come across. I’ve listed below some key factors to consider if you find another that’s cheaper and seems to offer more for your money.
- The most important question is, since the VPN provider is the only party that knows both who you are and what you’re doing online, do you trust them? How do you know if they’re not going to sell your information to the highest bidder? How can you tell if their security is up to scratch? How do you know that they won’t be compelled to give up your data if the Government comes calling?
- First, is the company big enough? Does it have a community of happy and satisfied users? Does it respond to support requests promptly? You can find this out by having a dig around in online forums.
- Next, look for VPNs that don’t hold logs of your internet usage. If a VPN firm doesn’t keep a record of what you’ve been doing, then that data can’t be compromised or surrendered in the event of an official request. You’ll find this information on a VPN company’s “About us” page or buried in the terms and conditions.
- Another important consideration is location. If a VPN company is based in a country that considers spying on its citizens (whether directly or indirectly) an acceptable thing to do, then it may be a service you want to avoid.
- Can you pay anonymously? Any VPN worth its salt will offer a variety of anonymous payment methods.
Best VPN Services: Performance and Features
- Another important consideration when it comes to choosing a VPN is its performance. A VPN provider may have many thousands of customers, all of which will be accessing the internet through the same selection of servers. Those connections will often be data-heavy – video streams, large downloads and so on – and the VPN provider also needs to encrypt those data streams, so you may see your internet connection speed take a hit.
- Performance varies hugely depending on the time of day, how many people are using the VPN service at the time (contention) – even the weather outside, so it’s difficult to test reliably. All you can do is to use the service yourself for a while to see if it’s up to the mark.
- You’ll also want the most fully featured VPN you can afford. One of the main considerations will be cross-platform support. In other words, does your selected service support all the major device and OS types – Windows, OS X, iOS, Android, and Linux? Most of us own multiple devices and you don’t want to be paying extra just to use a VPN on your phone and laptop.
- The location and the number of servers a VPN operates are another chief concern, after all, if you’re interested in spoofing your location, you need servers located in the country you want to look like where you’re browsing from.
- Other important features include support for torrent downloads and kill switch functionality. The former should be obvious: not all VPN providers allow torrent downloads, so if that’s what you want one for, check first; the latter is a safety-net that monitors your internet connection for VPN dropouts (they do happen), shutting it down to prevent your own IP address from being exposed. This is called IP leaking.
Whatever you do, however, make sure that you try before you buy. Most VPN companies offer a free trial period so you can give the service a dry run before subscribing. You might find that, even though the features stack up, the performance isn’t good enough, or that the service keeps switching itself on and off without you knowing about it.
And do bear in mind that there’s no substitution for a paid VPN. Free VPNs are ten a penny, but usually involve some compromise: that can be a feature restriction, a performance cap or a traffic limitation. Either way, if you care about your privacy, it’s worth paying for it.
Best VPN Services 2021
So, onto business. What’s the best VPN for protecting your privacy? We’ve picked out a list of the five most popular to see how they stack up.
Price: From $99.95/yr | Score: 5/5
ExpressVPN is one of the most popular VPN services around, selling itself mainly on its speed and performance, and for good reason.
It’s important that your VPN has as little impact as possible on your internet connection speed, especially if you plan to use it for streaming and large file downloads. Even though this is a difficult claim to test thoroughly, purely because there are so many variables and factors involved, their speed tests live up to the hype. Given that it’s hard to gauge for yourself (something I always recommend you do) if you can’t give it a whirl over a limited period. Thankfully, the firm does have a 30-day money back guarantee.
Even before you get going, though, it’s worth noting that prices for ExpressVPN are high considering the level of service offered. You’re only able to establish two connections concurrently (one on a computer, one on a mobile device), yet the monthly price starts at a $8.32 (£5.77) if you pay for a whole year, and rises to $12.95 per month if you opt for a rolling contract.
ExpressVPN Review: Performance and Features
In testing, I saw connection speed that took a hit of around two-thirds when connecting via servers in the US. That’s similar to what I saw while testing other VPN services, give or take. Your mileage may vary, however, depending on your ISP, the location of the server you wish to connect to and the time of day you plan on using the service.
Performance isn’t the only factor you should consider when comparing VPNs with each other, however. One of those factors should be the country the service is based in, and the attitude that country has towards online privacy and the sharing of data. Another would be a commitment to keeping no logs of your internet activity and connections.
From a UI perspective, ExpressVPN is a doddle to use
On this front, ExpressVPN is patchy. It’s based in the British Virgin Islands, which although isn’t part of the UK, is an administrative arm of it. This is significant since the UK is part of the infamous “Five Eyes” group of countries that have agreements in place to share intelligence with each other, thus potentially sidestepping domestic restrictions governing spying on its own citizens.
However, ExpressVPN doesn’t keep logs (records of your internet activities), it accepts anonymous payments, either via email or BitCoin, plus it has kill-switch capability, so if you lose connection, your internet connection will shut down before your IP address leaks out.
ExpressVPN Review: User Interface
And, from a UI perspective, ExpressVPN is a doddle to use. You fire it up, pick from the list of locations and off you go. There’s a speed test utility so you can get a view on how quick any given server is likely to be before you click on it, which is crucial if you plan to use it to stream HD video. Although it takes a few minutes to run, once completed, you can sort servers by download speed, latency, and location, depending on your requirements.
The only irritating thing is that you have to disconnect to change server location and settings, something you won’t want to do very often since it takes a while to establish a connection each time. And the only setting of significance you can change aside from location is the protocol used. However, when it comes to user interface, ExpressVPN is one of my favourites: it’s simple, yet effective.
In all, ExpressVPN is a solid all-round offering, especially with that handy speed test tool, but isn’t without its weaknesses. The biggest of all these problems is the cost – for just three concurrent connections – it is on the pricey side compared with NordVPN, which at $48 per year is a whole lot cheaper.
Cheapest price: $48/yr | Score: 5/5
Located in Panama, NordVPN ticks many of the essential VPN boxes. It has a no logs policy, is located far from the prying eyes of privacy-shy governments and offers interesting features not available elsewhere such as double encryption and a choice over whether you connect via “superfast servers” or extra secure.
You also get kill switch support, the ability to use the service on up to six devices simultaneously and support across most of the major platform. There’s no Android app available just yet, but you can still use NordVPN’s service by adding the DNS addresses in your phone or tablet’s settings.
It’s also pretty cheap to run, especially if you opt to pay annually, which works out at a very reasonable $4 per month. The only major problem I have is that the free trial isn’t the easiest thing to set up. You have to email support to set it up, then jump through a couple of extra hoops to get set up. A three-day free trial isn’t the most generous offering either.
However, once it’s all set up, NordVPN is a doddle to use: just pick the country you want to browse from and off you go. I particularly like the Smart Play facility, which automatically relocates your VPN endpoint server depending on the streaming video service you want to use. If, for example, you’ve chosen to browse from the US, and want to watch BBC iPlayer, there’s no need to reset your location – the NordVPN app will do it all for you.
When I was testing it, I saw download speeds take a 58% hit (from 12.3Mbits/sec to 5.2Mbits/sec), but it was still fast enough on my connection to watch a Netflix stream.
All in all, though, NordVPN is a solid VPN service with plenty of features, reasonably priced and my top choice right now.
Cheapest price: Free; Unrestricted, $47.88/yr; Mobile only, $29.88/yr | Score: 4/5
Owned by Opera, the web browser developer, SurfEasy is based in Canada, which is the first sign you should be cautious when considering this VPN – if you care about privacy, that is. Canada is part of the notorious Five Eyes group of countries that are known to have intelligence sharing agreements with each other (the others are the UK, the US, New Zealand and Australia).
SurfEasy does at least operate a no logs policy, however, so if your data ever does end up in the wrong hands, it won’t be your Internet usage data.
Still, if all you need a VPN for is for Wi-Fi hotspot protection, there’s are some things here to recommend the service. Like NordVPN, it’s well priced, with subscriptions starting at $4 per month if you pay annually. Unlike NordVPN, it’s easy to trial, either by using the bandwidth-restricted free service, which caps usage at 500MB per month or by taking advantage of the seven-day money back guarantee.
There’s also coverage of all the platforms you could need, and even a cheaper mobile-only service if you only want protection for one Android or iOS tablet or smartphone. That works out at $3/mth if you pay annually.
In other areas, though, SurfEasy is found wanting. Its server locations aren’t as widespread as others – in only 13 countries – although all the major locations are covered. The full service lets you up to five devices simultaneously, one short of NordVPN, doesn’t come with a kill switch to help out in emergencies, and has no support for anonymous payments.
It is easy to use, and mobile integration is elegant – I especially like the way it’s integrated with the Today menu in iOS, allowing you to enable and disable the service and switch locations from anywhere. However, there’s not enough here to edge it in front of our favourites.
CyberGhost 5 Review
Lowest price: Free; Premium, £44.88/yr; Premium Plus, £69.96/yr | Score: 4/5
CyberGhost has been at the VPN game ever since the beginning of the internet – at least that’s how it seems to me. It’s pretty popular as a result of that, but it isn’t the cheapest on the block, costing between £3.74 and £3.99 per month for a service that provides a connection for only one device.
Only the Premium Plus service, which is a pricey £70/yr, gives you that, and even then you don’t get as many simultaneous devices as NordVPN.
That money does buy you a good selection of services, though, and CyberGhost’s long experience means its country coverage and number of available servers is impressive. At the time of writing, the company claimed to have 636 live servers running in 30 countries worldwide.
CyberGhost has made sure that all the major tick boxes are ticked. You get platform coverage across Windows, OS X, Android, iOS and Linux, as well as a Chrome extension. The software has an integrated kill switch, which shuts down your internet connection in the event of a service outage, preventing IP leakage. The firm also has a no logs policy, and since it’s based in Romania, there’s less chance that any data the firm does hold on you will be shared with others countries without your knowledge.
And, as if to justify the high cost, there’s a whole bunch of extras thrown in, from anti-malware protection to ad tracker blocking and data compression for faster browsing. I’m not sure, however, that any number of bonus features makes up for what is, fundamentally, a service that hugely overpriced.
If all you need is protection for your wireless hotspot surfing activities, CyberGhost’s free facility means it’s worth considering. You can’t set your location manually, and when you first connect, you have to wait for a few minutes in a “queue”, but there’s no data cap as with SurfEasy and I found speed when I was testing to be as quick locally as my non-VPN protected connection.
However, as an all-round offering, CyberGhost just isn’t quite up there with the best around, and that’s mainly due to its cost.
Opera browser VPN Review
Price: Free | Score: 3/5
The browser company from Norway already owns its VPN service in SurfEasy, but that hasn’t stopped it from building a VPN facility into its web browser. This is only available via the developer version of the browser for now, and only within a private browsing tab, but it’s remarkably restriction free for a service that costs nothing.
There’s no data cap at all, and you can even choose your location, although the list of countries available is somewhat limited compared with more premium services. You can only choose from the UK, Germany, Canada, Netherlands and US right now.
To use it, you have to open up a Private Window, then click the VPN button that’s located on the left-hand side of the address box at the top. This opens up a drop-down menu where you can switch on the service and choose where you want your connection to end. It also shows your current IP address and how much data you’ve used on the service in the current month. If you’re unsure you need a paid-for, unlimited VPN service, it might be worth giving this a try just to see how much data you actually use.
Since the service is operated by the self-same VPN company that Opera also operates, the Opera VPN has many of the same core features and limitations. There’s no kill switch capability, for instance, so if the service drops out, you’re going to be left exposed. But assuming that it operates under the same set of policies as SurfEasy, it won’t keep any logs of your online activity. Which is nice.
The Opera VPN isn’t the last word in privacy or security, then, but it’s ultra convenient and completely free. And when I tried it it didn’t impinge too heavily on download speed either. Given that it’s currently in development and not a final product, it’s tough to recommend it wholeheartedly just yet. Here’s hoping it comes out of beta very soon.
Hotspot Shield Review
Price: £71.88/yr | Score: 4/5
You’ll always lose a certain amount of bandwidth when you run a VPN, but not every VPN is equal. Some are faster than others, which is great if you’re a BitTorrent user who wants to protect their identity. Hotspot Shield is among the fastest VPN services we’ve come across, and even when connecting across the Atlantic via the US, we saw download speeds hit 78% that they were when we ran an unprotected connection.
However, there are some negatives. When we tested it, we found that US Netflix was blocked, and since the company’s headquarters are in the US, its privacy credentials aren’t the greatest.
However, it remains a good choice if you’re not planning on leaking top-secret government secrets, and the company states that it doesn’t keep information on what you get up to online.
If you don’t want to spend big on your VPN, the good news is that Hotspot Shield offers a free version of the service that allows unlimited browsing, with the catch that you can’t designate the country you want to browse from. That means the free version isn’t much use if you want to watch US Netflix, or BBC iPlayer from abroad, but it is a good way of trying out the service to see if you like it.
Price: £48/yr | Score: 5/5
Most VPN services negatively affect the speed of your internet connection. We usually see a 30% reduction in download speeds when connected to servers based in the US, which for most purposes is an acceptable compromise.
If your VPN activities require the fastest, most reliable connection possible, though, there’s no better option than Pure VPN. In our tests, we saw speeds that fell only 11% via the services New York server compared with an unprotected connection to our regular ISP, which means you’ll almost certainly be able to watch streaming video without it continually buffering.
That’s good news, but what about the rest of the features? Well, it turns out that PureVPN is pretty well endowed. We liked the interface, particularly the Stream mode, which offers a simple list of on-demand video services you might want to use. There are eighteen services listed, including HBO Now, Hulu, BBC iPlayer and US Netflix.
The latter worked perfectly, although do bear in mind that with Netflix actively working to block VPNs such as PureVPN, this unfettered access may not work in the future.
Elsewhere, there’s more good news. PureVPN is based in Hong Kong, which has no data retention rules, so your internet activities should be safe from prying eyes, and you can also pay for the service with a variety of gift cards and cryptocurrencies.
The only slight hitch is that PureVPN isn’t cheap and there’s no free trial available. Prices start at around £8 per month ($10) while a year’s subscription costs around £48 ($60). If your need for performance outweighs everything else, however, that price is worth paying.
|NordVPN||SurfEasy||HideMyAss||CyberGhost||Opera browser VPN||ExpressVPN|
|Location||Panama||Canada||UK||Romania||Norway||British Virgin Islands|
|Servers||100+, in 47 countries||13 countries||920+, in 120+ countries||636, in 30 countries||5 countries||100+, in 94 countries|
|No logs policy?||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Platform support||Windows, OS X, iOS, Linux, Android||iOS, Android, Amazon, OS X, Windows, Chrome, Opera||Windows, OS X, Android, iOS,||Windows, OS X, Linux Android, iOS, Chrome||Opera for Windows and OS X (developer version)||Windows, OS X, Linux, iOS, Android|
|Free trial/service? (restrictions)||3 days (on request)||No free trial, 7 day money back window, restricted free service (500MB/mth bandwidth cap)||No free trial, 30-day money back window||No free trial, 30-day money back guarantee, free service (speed and location restricted)||Free||1 day free trial (mobile only), 30-day money back guarantee|
|Number of simultaneous devices||6||5||2||1 (5 with Premium Plus service)||N/A||5|
|Torrents allowed?||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes (Premium service only)||N/A||Yes|
|Anonymous payment options||Bitcoin, Paymentwall, Braintree||No||No||Email, Bitcoin, cash (only in some countries)||N/A||Email, Bitcoin|
|Extras||Tor over VPN, Smart Play||Ad tracker blocking||Secure IP binding, server speed test, random IP address change||Anonymous proxy browser, anti-malware, force https, ad tracker blocking, data compression||None||Server speed test|
VPNs in the UK
Given the rise in VPN popularity, it can be a daunting task to decide on the best one to use. Hopefully our suggestions helped. Remember, a VPN is only as a good as its practices and implementation, if they log activity and sell your data, they’re no better than an ISP that does the same.
What VPN do you use? Let the community know in the comments below.