In the expat world, the use of VPN is pretty common in some countries, but many expatriates might find other reasons to use one. Either this is simply to access your favourite content from anywhere in the world and avoid the annoying message: "This content is not available in your location", or because you are concerned with the privacy of your Internet browsing, or both because you live in a country that is blocking a large part of the Internet content (think about China or the UAE for example), a VPN is the service you may need.
And with the coronavirus pandemic, and the changing conditions imposed to the population (either a full lockdown, ord self isolation measures), many more expatriates may consider to be a good idea the possibility to access some online educational content for their kids, or some streaming content to watch while in confinement. While many contents are provided for free (see our article on home-schooling) others are restricted to specific countries (for example the website Lumni for French kids, that provides content from French TV, most of it only available when located in France)
VPN is short for Virtual Private Network. You could see it as a secure tunnel from which you access the Internet. A VPN is a server (or actually a series of servers) which offers an encrypted path through which your Internet traffic is routed. In other words, it accepts your Internet traffic from your device, routes it on your behalf and passes it back the response from the website you are trying to access.
There are two major benefits: With a VPN, you can appear to be virtually from anywhere and easily mask your real location. Think about going to China for example where access to a lot of websites is blocked. Or you want to watch another country's streaming content. You can trick the destination website, the streaming services, the hotel or flight booking sites, and this is without doubt the reason why VPN services have become so popular recently.
In addition, probably the most sensitive but also less important to a lot of VPN users, your traffic is encrypted in both direction and the IP address (which is your identity on the Internet) is shielded from the site you are visiting, so your identity is safe. Beside a security-focus mind, there may be very good reason to hide the websites your browsing experience, for instance because your country might allow Internet Service Providers (ISP) to sell the data they are collecting, or because you are a student at a fundamentalist Christian college and you don't want university administrators knowing that you are questioning your faith or sexuality, or maybe your government is planning to introduce block on some content and you want to work around it. Last but not least, most of the VPNs have a no log policy, which means that nobody can request the list of websites you visited in the past (however, you might want to be careful here as there are cases of a few companies, claiming no-log policy, but which passed logs to the US authorities in the past: PureVPN, IPVanish, HideMyAss).
Another reason might be to avoid ISP throttling. Not all of them do it but some ISPs will limit your connection speed based on what program or service you're using at the time. It is also well known that most Internet service provider tracks your browsing traffic in order to market you directly or, worse, to sell your data to others for profit.
As such a VPN is an essential security and privacy tool, especially when you are working from home, want to access some content that may not be available in your current country and potentially with an insecure access point.
They offer a great interface for user experience and they have approximatively 2000 servers accross more than 90 countries. Their app/software is available on most of the devices, including Windows, Mac, Android, Linux, Chrome, Firefox, Smart TVs, Chromecast, Game consoles...etc. According to user's reviews this is a fast VPN service (comparable to the fastest existing) and servers are always available.
They are located in the British Virgin Islands they do not have strict rules related to logging and data retention; however they are subject to law enforcement in the UK and USA, which means they could be pressed to comply with investigations. They have passed an audit by a cybersecurity firm Cure 53 at the end of 2018 and an audit by PwC in 2019. ExpressVPN are publishing the source code of the browser extension under an open-source license.
You can run Express VPN on the router itself, which makes it even safer as the data will be filtered at the router level, and you don't have to worry about installing to any device using the router. They offer industry standard HMAC authentification and run on RAM only, which means that all the data is temporary processed by the server rather than being stored on the hard drive of the server. It means that even they are requested to provide logs, they can't because it does not exist and has disappeared with the end of the traffic on the server.
The downside is the price, especially considering a long term plan. It costs from $13/month on a month-to-month basis to $8/months for a 1 years plan (for an easier comparison, and because most of the VPNs display their rates primarily in USD, we have kept the same currency in the article). In addition, they limit you to 5 connections if you don't use the router's app.
Some say that this is a spinoff from ExpressVPN. Surfshark offers a great user experience (also called UX for web experts!) and apps, it's available on Android and Apple platforms for mobile use or via browser extensions such as for Chrome or Firefox on your desktop. Currently, Surfshark has over 1700 servers in 63+ countries and it gives you a great variety of options when connecting through their app. Most importantly, it is a fast VPN (which is very important as you don't want to loose all the speed you are paying for with your current network) and users claim that it keeps up to 90% of their normal Internet speed.
In term of security, Surfshark is also one of the few VPN service to have passed a third party security audit (link), however this analysis is limited in scope (for example, they tested only browser extensions on Chrome and Firefox). Based in the British Virgin Islands, the same caveat as for ExpressVPN applies here: although they do not have rules to logging your data, they could be subject to the UK and USA law enforcement. According to reviews, they are not the best for P2P use cases or for really old hardware devices. And for what it matters, it is not open source.
Prices are depending on the term duration, from $12/month on a month-to-month basis to $2/months for a 2 years plan (and they even offer a 20% student discount on top of the very low price, which makes them a very affordable VPN for top features). There is no limitation for the number of device that you can use the VPN with, and unlimited bandwidth.
This VPN is provided by a Swiss company that became popular with their encrypted email service ProtonMail. Proton is available on Mac, iOS, Android, Windows. Proton VPN lets you choose amongst 54 countries and it has more than 1000 servers. It covers well South America and Africa, which are usually under represented in the VPN world (most of the time your will get only a few servers in Africa).
In term of security, Switzerland has got some of the most strongest regulation in term of privacy and data security in the world. Proton VPN reflects that with a strong encryption and no log policy.They have implemented a Perfect Forward Secrecy encryption, which means that your encrypted traffic cannot be captured or decrypted later even if the encryption key gets compromised for one session, as they generate a new key for each new connection. Proton VPN uses also a Secure Core Server, which means that they maximise the number of servers in secured jurisdictions such as Switzerland, Iceland or Sweden which then can pass the traffic to others, located maybe in less privacy friendly jurisdictions. Therefore even if one of the secondary server is compromised (by, let say, a US court order for instance), your data is still secured. Proton VPN's code is audited by a third party security audit and open source, therefore anyone else can also audit them.
In term of pricing, Proton VPN is definitely expensive for the full plan, but it offers multiple options, including a free one (we will talk about in the last section of this article). Paid subscription range from $4/month to $24/month depending on the features (the $8/mo plan gives you access to all the security but limited to 5 devices).
Thanks to their recent aggressive communication on the Internet (including misleading marketing such as never ending deals with fake timers...) it has become one of the biggest player. They have pretty unique features such as anti-DDOS attacks (denial of service attacks), smart DNS technology that they claim can unblock most of the streaming services, including BBC iPlayer and Netflix, a double VPN which is meant to encrypt twice through multiple server nodes and Peer-to-Peer servers for things like torrenting. They even have an onion VPN, which is meant to access the Onion Router Network without even downloading the TOR browser. It includes an ad blocker and malware blocker called CyberSec. This is a very fast VPN (according to some user's test, the fastest), and the user experience is one of the best, very easy to use for beginners.
Unfortunately they are also well known for a security issue that occurred to them in the past. NordVPN (expired) private keys were leaked in Spring 2018 (along with those of VikingVPN and TorGuard). However, their handling of the breach wasn't good, even though it wasn't a serious breach at all (from what we read, NordVPN services have not been compromised) and it seems that they initially tried to downplay the severity of the issue. It's only more than a year after, towards the end of 2019, that they took down the server and began an audit of their 5,000 servers. They have also been subject to password leaked, although this is predominently due to some users choosing easy-to-guess passwords and using them on multiple sites, but they could have prevented user to choose weak passwords. Some reviews have also raised concerns on the fact that they activate Google analytics tracker by default on their site.
Except those past incidents, their securtiy seems strong and they list the same features as most of their competitors: OpenVPM and WireGuard (for mobiles), System & Program kill switch, IPV6 blocked, AES 256-bit and RSA 4096 encryption. Based in the Panama juridiction, they have a no log policy and have also passed an audit by a security firm, but they are not open source.
NordVPN has more than 5300 servers which more than double the number of servers of any other VPN provider (and the more server the less over-loaded by users they become and therefore the more speed you get!) located in 59 countries and appears good for Netflix, HBO, BBC iPlayer, Hulu and other streaming providers.
Their month plan is $12/month but is reduce to $4 if you get the 1-year plan and even $3.50 for a 2-year plan. In addition, as we said, they have constant discounts on their page.
The pricing section seems a bit confusing, with options under each plan with other prices. VPN price is $10 per month which is in the lower range, but it costs $69/year which is then within the most expensives yearly contracts. It comes within the range of other VPN options such as PIA and TunnelBear.
Users get acceptable speed, the support is responsive and they have a clear commitment to privacy that they do not collect or log any data from its network. However they do not support streaming (which means you won't be able to watch Netflix, DisneyPlus, etc...) but they offer access to a streaming IP for $8/month and they offer a dedicated IP option.
Very similar to the TorGuard website, it costs $10/month or $78 for 1 years. But they have also the same drawback for the price break: streaming isn't supported. According to users the speed can be slow, with less than 50% of the normal Internet speed available for them. As other VPNs based in the US, they are subject to American law enforcement, which means they should comply with US investigations.
IPVanish has more than 75+ different countries to choose a server from with about 1500 servers in total.
Mullvad is a pay-as-you-go VPN base in Sweden. It cost €5/month (~$5.5 for comparison) and that's it: no yearly discount and you can renew your account whenver you want: monthly, quarterly, yearly. The commitment for privacy is very strong: you don't have a username and password with Mullvad, and you never enter your email address. Instead you have a randomly generated account number given to you when you get started and this is what you will use to log in. They have a large range of payment options and they even encourage you to pay with Bitcoin by giving a 10% discount. If you do so, you will be fully anonymous and the only data Mullvad will have on you is your IP address.
The speed is very good (users say they experience 90% of their normal speed), however the upload speed might be limited. The biggest downsid however is that streaming is not supported and that there is no app for either iOS or Android, but you can use solutions such as WireGuard or OpenVPN to use it on your mobile.
We group them together as they have recently been bought by Kape and therefore major changes might happen (both in term of user experience and security).
PIA is known for its user friendly apps. They provide more than 1500 servers in 46 different countries.
It has a proprietary chameleon protocol that can bypass any geo-restriction or VPN block (and therefore works well in China apparently). It offers unlimited bandwidth and good speed.
It offers unlimited bandwidth and fast connection.
All the free VPNs include the possibility to upgrade for a paid version (except the free VPN provided by default in the Opera browser) giving more data, range of server locations and streaming capability. With free VPNs, you will be limited in term of server locations, and the speed can be very slow in comparison to the paid version of the offers.
The free web browser Opera comes with a free built-in VPN that masks your IP address as you browse the web. It doesn't require extra software or even an account, it delivers unlimited data and bandwidth and also comes with a built in Malware protection. There is nothing to load or install, it is simple to use (a switch to activate or deactivate in your address bar) and it works well for streaming Netflix from overseas. You just need to use Opera at the end of the day and nothing else!
In term of security, the Opera "VPN" is technically a secure proxy service. It encrypts only the Opera browser's traffic and routes it through a server operated by Canadian VPN provider SurfEasy. It will protect only traffic using Opera free browser, and only on desktop, as they have announced that the Android and iOS apps shut down in 30 April 2020 (although the button for VPN activation might see work, it will no longer hide your IP address on mobiles).
The downside is that it offers 3 locations vaguely labelled as Americas, Asia and Europe: sometime the server for Europe could be in Ukraine or in Sweden for instance. The network performance is very slow (even Proton free version is faster).
We have discussed ProtonVPN above, in the top 3 choices and highlighted all the features about strong security and easy to use interface.
It has multiple options, including a free one (supported by those on a pay option actually) with 3 countries (Japan, Netherlands and the US) for 1 device only and streaming is not supported on the free version. In addition it can have inconsistent speed, sometime great, sometime slow.
While the speed is limited, it does not limit your number of data, while most of the free VPNs cap your data to 500Mb or 1GB/day on their free plan.
Windscribe gives you 2Gb of data free but you can upgrade to 10Gb of data free by confirming your email address and 15Gb of data by tweeting just once about Windscribe. It's not massive, but still much more than many in the list below, and Windscribe is best suited for those who need a simple VPN for a quick thing, and don't need a VPN for full-time use. It is also quite slow as users have recorded download and upload speed of about 7-8 Mps. It includes an adware and malware blocker within the free version.
You can get more than 10 server locations, including: Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Norway, Romania, the UK, the US, Switzerland (if you upgrade to the paid version you get access to 63 countries).
This is limited in term of speed but Windscribe also offer a pro-version for $49/year (with a 40% student discount), which gives you unlimited data and access to more locations. Streaming is only supported if you pay an additional $8/month.
You get 500 Mb of data every 24 hours on up to 5 devices! The paid version is very fast (they claim to be the fastest VPN) but their free version is even slower than the free version of ProtonVPN. In addition their privacy disclaimer states that "Pango does not record your VPN browsing activity in any way that can be associated back to you". That is very different from saying that they do not record your activity, period. It is also ad supported and provides no dedicated support.
The downside is that all servers are located in the US, therefore you loose completely the possibility to access contents from other country locations.
You get 500 Mb of data per month, which is...very very small! You can however add to the data limit by tweeting @theTunnelBear and get up to 1.5 Gb free data and unlimited data for any 5 device by upgrading to $10/month or $60/year plans. It has a very easy to use mobile app and nice desktop interface.
You can get more than 20 different countries available: Australia, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Romania, Singapore, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland.
There are many other VPN services that we have not listed in this article. It does not mean they are bad, but we we haven't researched them for this article and we tried to list the most well known only. See for example: Cryptostorm, GooseVPN, HIDE.me, SaferVPN, VirtualShield...etc.
In any case, the best VPN is the one you're able to afford and the one you use consistently. Don't forget that there is no 100% guarantee that your VPN IP might not get temporarily blocked for some streaming services or some countries, however it gives you a good and affordable solution for privacy and access to most content.
So now tell us if you are already using a VPN or if you think about it (and why). Has the Covid-19 crisis changed your perception? Share your experience and comments on our forum HERE.