A cheap VPN could be the only thing standing between you and internet freedom
Signing up for a VPN (virtual private network) is important if you want to be able to browse the internet privately, as well as access streaming media services form around the world, but there’s a lot to consider.
When evaluating which service to sign up for, you need to consider how many VPN server locations it offers. For instance, does it have servers located in the UK and USA so you can watch Netflix services in either location? You also need to consider security protocols, speed restrictions, and whether the service allows torrenting or P2P file sharing.
If a cheap VPN is what you’re after, services like Nord, PIA, and IPVanish are going to be your best bets. But before we dig into why, let’s first break down what a VPN is — and why cheap is better than free.
Why pay for a VPN service?
It’s tempting to try out free VPN services, especially when you’re still trying to figure out if a VPN is for you or not, but it’s not worth the risk.
VPNs involve passing encrypted traffic between your computer and the server you’re connecting to — through the VPN. It’s not cheap for the VPN service provider, which means that with free services, there’s the risk they’re selling your data for nefarious purposes in order to profit from the service they provide. At best, you’ll also receive many more ads than simply using a paid for service. It’s the perfect example of “you get what you pay for.”
That doesn’t mean that a good VPN service has to cost a lot each month though. (And many of them offer free trials to test things out first.)
We’ve taken a look at the best cheap VPNs out there, judging them on speed, ease of use, and flexibility. Here they are:
NordVPN: Best all-around VPN service
What it offers: NordVPN is a well established VPN service that you’ve probably seen advertised on various websites over the years. It offers more than 3,400 VPN servers located around the globe, and provides specially optimized servers. Locations are reasonably diverse so it should cater for your every need. The company also promises to not keep any logs of user activity at any time.
Nord allows for six simultaneous connections which is more than most VPN services provide, and is compatible with Android, Windows, Mac iOS, Chrome, Firefox, and more. It also happily works with torrent and P2P file sharing and has unlimited bandwidth. It also allows for country changes on Netflix, although keep in mind that this is a breach of Netflix’s terms and conditions.
Extensive setup instructions are provided so it’s easy enough to either use the app, browser plug-in, or opt to change settings on your router. It’s flexible enough that all options work just as effectively.
For the technically minded, it’s worth noting that NordVPN supports OpenVPN as well as IKEv2/IPSec, as well as older and less secure PPTP and L2TP protocols. The real boon here is OpenVPN as that ensures excellent download speeds and quick reestablishing of a connection if it suddenly drops. Rest assured — this is the good combination of VPN protocols.
Additional features: NordVPN will block ads and malware, as well as prevents DDoS activity at the network level, so it works well as a form of security software too. It won’t replace your dedicated security software but it’s still useful to have.
The price: A three day free trial is available, although it requires signing up and cancelling afterwards. Otherwise, the best plan is the NordVPN 2-year plan which works out at $3.29 per month with the 1-year plan priced at $5.75 per month. Paying on a monthly rolling basis is an eye watering $11.95 per month.
Image: Private Internet Access
What it offers: Private Internet Access allows you to browse anonymously, offering access to more than 3,000 servers spread out over 44 locations in 28 countries. It’s not quite as large a number as NordVPN but it’s not far off. Servers are scattered liberally so there’s extensive geographic diversity as well as the option to pick elsewhere within a large country. There are only two options in all of Central and South America, and none in Africa, but that’s not unusual for any VPN service.
Much like NordVPN, Private Internet Access doesn’t collect any data or logs on its users, nor does it insert advertising. It also uses OpenVPN as well as the older protocols (L2TP and IPSec.)
Where Private Internet Access differs from its competition is its interface. It’s very minimalistic, which will suit those accustomed to what they’re doing, but may dissuade VPN newbies. A 24-hour live chat support helps to some extent, and it is reasonably straight forward enough to use.
It works across pretty much all mobile devices you throw at it and you can even buy a VPN router that comes with it pre-installed for added convenience.
Don’t expect to be able to browse Netflix with the service however, as the streaming giant detects Private Internet Access’s attempts. It does, however, work well with torrenting and other P2P file sharing services.
Additional features: Besides VPN services, Private Internet Access also includes an ad and tracker blocking tool called MACE. Its aim is to block any method to track your movement around the internet, by running DNS requests through a black list. A great firewall facility is also included with the ability to auto-disconnect when the VPN goes offline.
The price: Private Internet Access has multiple payment options. Its monthly plan costs $6.95 per month but the best value comes from the two year plan which works out as $2.91 per month, or the yearly plan which is $3.33 per month. It’s possible to pay through a variety of different means meaning methods that are impossible to trace are an option.
IPVanish: Best for the newbie VPN user
What it offers: IPVanish is one of the few VPN service providers that owns and operates 100% of its hardware, software, and networking facilities. That’s a big advantage in a privacy conscious industry. However, while it promises not to log any of its customers’ data, it is based in the US, which makes them open to PATRIOT Act investigations and could be a mild concern to some.
Skipping past that detail, IPVanish does cover everything else you could want. It has over 1,000 VPN servers spread across an impressive 60 countries. That includes some located in Asia (including China), Central, and South America, which is something few other companies can boast. There’s the essential OpenVPN protocol support, as well as older methods. Torrent users will be fine here, with the option to reduce encryption to hide your IP address without having to sacrifice speeds.
The only key omission is that there’s no support for changing Netflix regions. Other than that, it’s a very easy to use tool that’s perfect for newbies to VPNs. It takes seconds to figure out thanks to a very intuitive interface that still offers plenty of advanced settings if you so wish.
Additional features: In addition to typical features, IPVanish also offers a Kill Switch feature that blocks access if the connection drops, but that’s about it. There’s no support for ad blocking or malware protection, or even a firewall. For those with security software running, however, this won’t be a concern.
The price: IPVanish isn’t the cheapest cheap VPN service out there, but there are different payment options. Month by month costs $10 per month, while a 3-month plan works out at $8.99 per month. The best value package is the yearly subscription which works out to be $6.49 per month.
PureVPN: Best for geographical variety
Image: Pure VPN
What it offers: PureVPN doesn’t offer as many different servers as other VPN providers, with a mere 750. However, those 750 servers are scattered across 140 countries in 180 different locations which makes it far more worthy of note. Those countries include numerous locations in Africa, Asia, and Central America, which makes it far more diverse than other VPN service providers.
Crucially, it has servers in 19 different African nations which is unheard of elsewhere. There is a catch though: Some of those country locations are virtual locations rather than physical servers, which can make a difference to speed as well as data privacy concerns.
Despite that, PureVPN remains highly competent. It utilizes OpenVPN and offers all the usual features one would expect from a VPN service, including P2P file sharing and BitTorrent traffic, but it also has its own features. One such feature — Split Tunneling — is particularly useful. It lets you select specific traffic to go through the VPN, enabling you to keep certain activities secure while allowing other forms of data through more open means.
Setup is a little trickier than with other VPN services, requiring a few hoops to jump through, but it’s nothing that will overwhelm the mildly tech savvy user. Once installed, the client works well, depicting useful information such as a traffic chart, and current connection status. Don’t expect it to work with Netflix geographical tracking though.
Additional features: PureVPN doesn’t offer anything in addition to its entry level VPN services. That’s somewhat understandable given its low costs. Instead, $2.99 per month gets you a DDoS protected VPN, a NAT firewall costs 99 cents per month, with malware, ad protection, and antivirus all bundled in as part of a beta testing process within the VPN subscription. You’ll also get unlimited bandwidth with PureVPN.
The price: As explained, there are plenty of additional prices and features available if you want to buy extra plug-ins. At its simplest, PureVPN is $10.95 per month on a rolling contract basis, $7.95 per month for 6 months, or $2.49 per month for two years. A long term subscription for 3 years works out at $1.44 per month proving the best value.
TunnelBear: Best user-friendly (and most adorable) option
What it offers: It’s easy to focus on the technical aspects of software, ignoring the fact that people like something a little more appealing than jargon and lines of text. TunnelBear tackles that issue head on by being as cute as its name sounds, while still offering useful features.
It has about 1,000 servers around the world, which means it’s not the biggest of VPN services, but it’s still respectable enough. Location wise, it only offers servers in 22 locations which is a little on the low side, especially as it completely ignores Africa, the Middle East, and much of South America. However, for average users, that’s fine. In all cases, TunnelBear uses dedicated servers unless there’s unexpected demand. If that’s the case, it switches temporarily to virtual servers. Sticking with dedicated servers ensures you’ll always know where your data is going.
In the past, TunnelBear didn’t offer P2P file sharing or torrenting support but those days are gone, and TunnelBear offers exactly what you need, with client software for every device imaginable (Android, Mac, iPhone, Windows, and more.)
Crucially, the client software is adorable. And how often can you say that about any piece of software? With a cute bear theme to it, it’s practical yet not afraid to be a little light hearted too, with animations of bears tunnelling away.
Additional features: The TunnelBear app does a little more than simply provide the basics. It also has Vigilant Mode which prevents data from getting through your connection during the time it takes TunnelBear to reconnect if a connection is suddenly dropped. GhostBear disguises VPN traffic in a bid to circumvent VPN blocking, which is presumably why it works with Netflix happily enough. There’s also Trusted Networks which is a whitelist of Wi-Fi networks you trust, ensuring TunnelBear automatically connects if you’re on a network it doesn’t trust, protecting your data.
Stand alone plugins such as Blocker (an ad blocker) and RememBear (a password manager) are also available.
The price: TunnelBear is available entirely for free with a data cap of 500mb each month. Alternatively, $9.99 on a rolling basis each month gets you unlimited data. The best package is TunnelBear’s Grizzly package which works out as $5 per month for a year.
CyberGhost VPN: Best for Euro-centric servers
What it offers: CyberGhost immediately makes a good impression by allowing up to seven devices to connect simultaneously, a marked improvement over the industry average of five. The service has about 1,200 servers, with 90 server locations available across approximately 60 countries. There’s a decent number of African countries available, as well as servers in Hong Kong. There’s a noticeable European presence too, making it perfect for those who need to regularly hook up to an European based server. Some virtualization is involved but CyberGhost promises the location of the virtual servers matches the actual physical servers. In no case is customer data stored either, so you’re safe on that front. Instead, military grade level of encryption is promised throughout.
The software is reasonably easy to use if a little hidden away at times. Where it stands out most is its contextual options, including options for surfing anonymously, unblock streaming, torrenting anonymously, or for taking control and choosing a server yourself. It remembers past activity too, streamlining the experience. An “unblock basic websites” button is also there for users in countries where basic sites like Twitter or Wikipedia are blocked.
A selection of different streaming services can be unblocked through CyberGhost, including Netflix, Spotify, YouTube, and Crunchyroll. It’s intuitive to go through the process too. Although, some reports with Netflix US streaming support have been reported, but that’s understandable with an ongoing battle between Netflix and most VPN providers.
Additional features: Extra features are a little light on the ground, but CyberGhost does include an ad-blocker to deal with your basic ad blocking needs.
The price: The best value package for CyberGhost works out as $2.75 per month for three years, with one lump sum of $99 taken out every three years. The rolling monthly package is a hefty $11.99 per month, with the yearly package working out at $4.99 per month, and the two yearly package coming in at $3.79 per month. The more you spend, the more you save, basically.