How We Review And Test VPN Services

Our in-house team of technology experts have rigorously tested the top 20 VPN services, three times a day, every day, to provide an in-depth analysis of their overall performance.

In our testing, we examine the most important security features, including VPN protocols, encryption, split tunneling, kill switches and speed. We then review the company itself, checking the provider claims and ensuring that your data is in safe hands at all times.

We do not perform these tests in perfect “lab conditions,” – which are misleading as they create optimum conditions for a VPN to perform at its best. Rather, we test in the real world against the backdrop of ever-changing real-world variables, like connection speed or user experience at play.

VPN Services We Have Tested

Day to day, some of the data we gather can vary, so we make sure that we triple-test all the providers against the exact same criteria, in the same locations, under the same conditions. We test VPN speed at 9 a.m. (start of the work day), 1 p.m. (lunch), and 6 p.m. (end of the work day) to get a wide range of results and ensure that the information we publish is unbiased and the most accurate on the market.

Our testing is split into two parts: Research and Evaluation and Testing. We start by researching the VPN provider to get an accurate overview of the service it offers and the organization behind it. In our Research and Evaluation stage, we consider over 25 different elements. We then put ourselves in the shoes of our readers and perform carefully curated criteria of tests, where we explore ease of use, functionality, and speed retention by comparing our connection speed with the original broadband speed.

We also test to ensure that no IP leaks are detected, the app is easy to use, and the connection is seamless.

Research and Evaluation

We start our product analysis by researching and evaluating what features the provider has to offer and how well they perform. We focus on four different areas:

  • Security and features,
  • Reputation and credibility,
  • Price and value for money

Security and Features

VPNs use many different tools and features to guarantee users’ online security. We assess what encryption and protocols the provider offers, the included features, data-logging policies, and where the company is based.

  • VPN Protocols and Encryption – We examine the protocols and the encryption the provider offers. Are there numerous protocol options with the ability to change between them freely? Can the user find a WireGuard or an alternative fast protocol to use? Does the provider use highly secure AES-256 encryption?
  • Security features – Apart from encryption and protocols, we also analyze other security features like Kill Switch and Split Tunneling. If the VPN provider offers both features, we test how well they work by tempering the connection and excluding specific links or apps from being encrypted by the VPN.
  • No-log policy – A no-log policy indicates that the VPN provider is not collecting and storing its users’ personal data. Many companies state that they have a strict no-log policy; however, we ensure that an independently performed audit confirms such a claim.
  • Base country – The VPN service’s base location impacts overall security. Some countries have very strict data security laws, while others do not. If a VPN provider is based in a country that collects sensitive data, if requested by the government, it will have to provide a log of online activities to the legal authorities.

We interrogate all these elements when scoring the most secure VPN providers, as each is crucial in guaranteeing online security.

Reputation and Credibility

It is very important to get familiar with the company itself and what it stands for. We make sure that no sketchy, never-heard-of VPNs make our lists by analyzing the company and its values. This is done to ensure that you’re entrusting our personal data to safe and reliable hands.

Here, we focus on three key aspects – longevity, transparency, and feedback.

  • Years in business – How long has the company been around? A VPN company that has been in business for 8-10 years has likely dealt with more challenges and has stronger values and company culture than the one that just came to be. The former also had more time to perfect their product, get user feedback, and resolve recurring issues. Such companies give a stronger sense of reliability.
  • Scandals or data leaks – We investigate whether the VPN provider has recently experienced any scandals or data leaks and how well they dealt with the situation. We inspect how the company communicated with its users in such cases and whether they were transparent and honest. In the best-case scenario, the company was not involved in any scandals at all.
  • Real user feedback – We examine user feedback to better understand how real users experience the service. We are aware that, in this digital age, online comments cannot always be trusted. However, if the majority of reviews note that the VPN is leaking their IP address or the support is simply rude, we will take that into consideration.

Price and Value for Money

Price is another critical element we inspect in our product analysis. And pricier doesn’t always mean better. There is simply no need to break the bank for a VPN that doesn’t protect your online identity. Therefore, we look at the price itself and whether it is adequate for the package you’ll be getting.

  • The price – An average VPN price per month currently sits at 3-5 US dollars. This is true when subscribing to the longest billing term. And it’s a long-term commitment. So, when ranking the VPNs, we consider the subscription length, the monthly rate, and the price after the initial discount period has ended.
  • The package – If the rate is high even with the longest subscription term, we study the offering within the VPN package. Are there any add-ons that are typically paid for included in the package? If the monthly rate is premium, but the package includes a password manager, threat protection, antivirus, and/or more, we consider that a good deal.

If we genuinely don’t think the product delivers good value for money, we will not recommend it to our readers just so they can spend their hard-earned money for nothing.

Testing

All our reviews are backed up by real security specialists performing hands-on testing. We measure the provider’s ease of use, compatibility with different devices, performance, geo-block bypassing capabilities, and customer service.

We do not perform these tests in perfect “lab conditions,” – which are misleading as they create optimum conditions for a VPN to perform at its best. Rather, we test in the real world against the backdrop of ever-changing real-world variables, like connection speed or user experience at play. In essence, we use the VPN in the same way a customer would for the most accurate view of the user experience possible.

  • Functionality and compatibility,
  • Performance,
  • Geo-unblocking,
  • Customer experience.

Functionality and Compatibility

A good VPN service should be intuitive and easy to use. It doesn’t matter whether you’re using the app for the first or the hundredth time; you should be able to quickly and easily navigate all features and server choices. Therefore, we explore the user interface and the app’s compatibility with different devices.

User interface – Each provider will have different user interfaces and app designs, meaning users will have different experiences with each. Regardless, navigating and connecting to a desired server, activating a kill switch, or switching to a new location should be easy and fast. If the app lags or the server connection circle is on its 50th spin, it will knock down points in our user experience.

Screenshot of NordVPN's user interface
NordVPN Windows app interface

Compatibility – Often, a single VPN subscription will be used on multiple devices with different operating systems. Therefore, the application for each operating system must remain just as functional.

We look at how many simultaneous connections are available on one subscription and then test the provider on different devices like laptops, phones, tablets, and more. We give extra points to those providers that enable VPN connection on devices that typically are not compatible with the regular VPN app (routers, gaming, consoles, smart TVs, etc.).

Screenshot of Surfshark's compatible platforms
Surfshark compatibility list

Performance

No matter what, all VPN providers will reduce your internet speed. VPNs add an additional step in the data transmission process by encrypting and decrypting your data. This naturally slows down your internet connection. Ideally, VPN providers tamper with your broadband speed so little that it’s nearly unnoticeable. However, some might make your online experience unbearable.

The reduction in your connection speed depends on many different factors. However, the main factor often is the server location you choose. While data is intangible and travels at the speed of light, it still takes time. And it takes less time to reach a data center 200km away than one 5,000km away.

To get real-life results, our team of researchers test each VPN speed three times a day from different locations worldwide. We run these tests at 9:00 AM, 1:00 PM, and 6 PM to capture the busiest times of the day. The main aim of the test is to measure upload and download speeds, as well as latency.

The test starts with assessing the base internet speed. Then, we connect to a VPN server located in our home country and run the test again. The same process is repeated by connecting to servers in Spain (Madrid), the US (New York), and Japan (Tokyo) as we explore how speed increases and decreases when changing the distance between our actual location and the offshore server.

Once we have all our results in, we calculate average speed retention by comparing the speeds from different server locations to our base broadband speed.

Geo-Unblocking

Alongside security, accessing geo-restricted content is one of the most popular VPN use cases. A VPN can help you access geo-specific websites or different libraries on the most popular streaming platforms. Oftentimes, different content or shows are only available in a very few specific locations. This is due to different countries and platforms having exclusive content licensing agreements.

By connecting to a server in a foreign country, you acquire the IP address of the said location. In simple terms, a VPN makes it seem like your internet activities are being conducted from the server country rather than your actual location.

To see how well the VPN can unblock content, we try to access content on the most popular streaming platforms, such as:

  • Netflix,
  • Paramount+,
  • Amazon Prime Video,
  • Hulu,
  • Disney+

And we test it in the most popular locations, like the US, the UK, Australia, and Japan. A VPN is considered good at bypassing geo-restrictions if we successfully manage to stream content from our chosen countries.

Screenshot of Privado VPN connected to Tokyo with Netflix in the background
Unblocking Netflix Japan library

Additionally, it also lets us know whether the VPN is leaking your IP address. If that’s the case, such a VPN will be unable to unblock geo-restricted content and will seriously threaten your online safety.

Customer Experience

Using a VPN should be smooth sailing. However, sometimes things malfunction. In those situations, we would expect customer support to help us out as quickly and efficiently as possible.

First, we take note of all the available customer support channels. Can you get help via live chat, phone, email, or, better yet, all? More support channels mean quicker responses and potential help.

We frequently contact their live chat with simple questions to check how quick and knowledgeable each VPN service customer support is. Throughout the process, we examine three main elements:

  • The initial connection time – how long did it take to get connected with a real human?
  • Agent helpfulness – was the support agent knowledgeable and able to answer the question on the spot? Were they able to solve the problem at hand?
  • Overall time – From start to finish, how long did it take to get the issue resolved?
Screenshot of CyberGhost VPN's support
CyberGhost live chat support

It is important to note that the experience may vary. If the agent is unable to help, we turn to the provider’s knowledge base and investigate whether it is up-to-date and contains useful information like frequently asked questions, guides, and more.

Screenshot of CyberGhost VPN's available guides
CyberGhost knowledge base
Michael Simon

Michael is a Tech Content Editor at Techopedia, who is passionate about delivering high-quality tech content online and ensuring the accuracy of our guides. With over a decade of experience in editorial and marketing, he has worked with leading publishers and a range of SaaS firms, gaining expertise in the tech sector. Outside of work, Michael's interests include current affairs and behavioral economics.

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