How We Test & Review VPNs

Headshot of Site Editor Callum Tennent

Callum oversees how we test and review VPN services. He's a member of the IAPP, and his advice about VPNs has featured in Forbes and the Internet Society. Read full bio

We put every VPN on our website through an extensive and fair test program. We review VPNs based on privacy, security, speed, bypassing web geo-blocks, and more. We make sure to only recommend the very best VPN services.

A visualization of's 10-step review process

Our VPN Reviews Are Always Unbiased

Unlike many other VPN review sites, our VPN reviews are impartial and free from outside influence.

We never take compensation in exchange for positive coverage, and VPN services will never have a say in how we rate the products we review.

Our team of VPN experts runs each VPN through the same in-depth test program, ensuring that all the results you see are directly comparable, with no favoritism or bias.

We do everything in our power to make your buying decision as easy as possible, and your needs always come first. We are always honest, transparent, and open in our reviews.

To learn more about how we can afford to maintain such high editorial standards, head over to our page explaining how we make money.

Our 10-Step Review Process

Our experts use an extensive 10-step testing process to find and recommend the top VPN services.

We rate every VPN according to six main criteria. These include security, speed, streaming capabilities, bypassing censorship, customer support, and ease of use.

For a VPN to be recommended, it needs to perform well in every single one of these areas.

Every VPN we test goes through this unique methodology – no exceptions. This is what happens when we review a VPN:

1Purchasing the VPN

PayPal receipts for various VPN subscriptions

The only way to guarantee that we’re receiving an official retail version of a VPN is to buy one ourselves – so that’s exactly what we do for every VPN we test.

We don’t use press samples, freebies, or special ‘test accounts’ provided by VPN services themselves. We want to make sure we get the exact same experience as the average user at home.

We have a running subscription for every paid VPN currently listed on our website. Last year alone we spent over $5,000 in VPN subscriptions. We have constant access to the VPN software we review, which means we can update our reviews at the drop of a hat.

Purchasing and maintaining our own subscriptions means that we can keep track of which VPNs represent good value and which ones are ripping you off. Most importantly, though, it means that the VPN we test is exactly the same as the VPN you buy.

Good VPNs:

  • Make payment quick and easy
  • Accept a wide array of payment methods
  • Accept cryptocurrency or cash for totally anonymous payment
  • Have a generous free trial or no-questions-asked refund period
  • Offer various subscription options for big potential discounts

Bad VPNs:

  • Have a convoluted and confusing payment process
  • Only accept debit or credit card
  • Don’t offer a free trial and refuse to refund if you’re unsatisfied
  • Offer a fixed subscription rate with no discount for longer plans

2Installing and testing on multiple devices test equipment photo

We have dedicated Windows test laptops with virtual machines installed to run VPN tests on. We also have a test Apple MacBook Pro, Apple iPhone, Apple iPad, Samsung Galaxy Android handset, and an Amazon Fire TV Stick to carry out further device and platform-specific VPN testing. Each device is wiped clean after every test.

We highlight how widely-available each VPN is, and whether or not it has dedicated apps for a variety of popular devices. No native support for your phone, computer, or streaming device of choice means you could risk less-than-total protection.

Good VPNs:

  • Are easy to download and install
  • Have a native app for multiple popular operating systems and devices

Bad VPNs:

  • Have confusing and unclear setup instructions
  • Have impractical installers (or require manual installation)
  • Are only available for one or two different platforms

3Is the VPN service easy to use?

screenshot of the protocol settings menu on ExpressVPN's desktop app
Are the menus all clearly labelled? Does each button do what you’d expect it to do? Does it help you find a VPN server for the specific service you’re after, like Netflix or BBC iPlayer? Is there a walkthrough to installing it on your router?

We explore every menu and option in every VPN app, making sure there are no surprises when you run your new VPN for the first time.

Good VPNs:

  • Have all their features clearly labeled
  • Offer tooltips for greater explanation
  • It’s quick and easy to do what you want

Bad VPNs:

  • Are overly-technical or hard to understand
  • Are poorly designed and difficult to navigate
  • Make strange design choices that make it difficult to do what you want

4Does it have all the necessary features?

There are certain features that we consider essential to a great VPN – features like a kill switch, automatic public WiFi protection, and AES-256 encryption.

Beyond that, we also look for any useful extras that might be included, like split tunneling or browser extensions.

Some VPNs provide dedicated servers for specific streaming services, while others will give you servers optimized for unlimited torrenting and P2P traffic.

Good VPNs:

  • Support the OpenVPN protocol
  • Have AES-256 encryption
  • Have a kill switch
  • Support torrenting
  • Have lots of servers all around the world
  • Have servers dedicated to streaming
  • Have browser extensions for easy access

Bad VPNs:

  • Use outdated protocols like L2TP
  • Use weak encryption, or don’t even divulge that information at all
  • Leave you exposed if the connection drops
  • Forbid or throttle P2P activity
  • Have a small server network in a handful of countries
  • Don’t have servers dedicated to certain tasks, like streaming
  • Don’t offer any extra features or browser extensions

5Does it protect your privacy and security?

Screenshot of our investigation into HMA's encryption ability using Wireshark.
Your privacy and security is the single most important factor we look out for. We wouldn’t be doing our job properly if we didn’t ensure that every recommended VPN keeps you safe and private online.

We carry out advanced encryption tests to verify that a VPN is properly encrypting your connection.

We also check for DNS leaks, IP leaks, and WebRTC leaks to confirm that your true location is hidden when connected to a VPN.

In order to achieve the most reliable results, we use network traffic analysis software called Wireshark, a highly-regarded, open-source tool used by security professionals the world over.

We run every VPN installer and executable file through a virus test and check exactly what permissions the VPN app demands when installed on your mobile device.

We’ve also created a custom testing environment that ensures no misleading data can pollute the packet data that we capture and analyze.

Good VPNs:

  • Are virus-free
  • Require minimal permissions
  • Use proven encryption
  • Don’t leak your IP address, WebRTC, or DNS requests

Bad VPNs:

  • Contain hidden files and commands
  • Are far too invasive and access parts of your device they don’t need to
  • Are poorly encrypted
  • Suffer data leaks, potentially exposing your true IP, location, or browsing history

6How fast is the VPN software?

Speed and connection reliability are the backbone of any good VPN, so we make sure to test them as rigorously as possible.

To do so, we developed two different testing methods:

Method #1: Manual

ExpressVPN speed testing with
This testing technique allows us to measure the speed of every single VPN service you see reviewed on our website.

To begin with, we record our internet speed without the VPN running.

We then launch the VPN, connecting to servers in the US (East Coast), UK, Australia, Central Europe (usually Germany, or France), and Singapore. If one of these locations is not available, we’ll test a nearby country or region instead.

Testing locations around the world gives a good overview of how a VPN performs over short, medium and long distances.

We test each location several times, and we compare the average speed in each location to our speeds without the VPN active. This allows us to calculate the VPN’s percentage speed loss.

For each region, the amount of speed lost is assigned a specific score. This applies to download and upload speeds lost, as well as latency gained. Below is how much each of these three factors affects the overall speed score:

  • Download speed: 70%
  • Upload speed: 20%
  • Ping: 5%

N.B. Local connection speed (for example, from London to London) is prioritized.

The majority of speed data you see is from testing using the OpenVPN protocol, in order to keep results between VPN providers comparable.

We also run tests on other VPN connection protocols (WireGuard, IKEv2, etc.) as different VPN services prioritise different protocols. If speed data relates to a speed test on a protocol other than OpenVPN, we’ll make sure it’s clearly stated.

Method #2: Automated

We have developed a global testing tool that tests VPN speeds throughout each day, in order to deliver accurate and up-to-date figures. The locations we currently test are:

  • Amsterdam, NL
  • Frankfurt, DE
  • London, UK
  • New York, US
  • Paris, FR
  • San Francisco, US
  • Singapore
  • Sydney, AU
  • Tokyo, JP
  • Toronto, CA
  • Vancouver, CA

Our testing infrastructure, made in-house by our engineering team, runs automated tests between and within every city listed above. This gives you great insights into how a VPN will perform for you all around the world.

Currently, we use our tool to automatically test the 18 popular VPNs.

Here’s a sample of what our VPN speed test tool looks like, along with live data from some of the fastest VPN providers:

VPN Speed Performance Comparison Chart

Use our VPN speed test tool to compare VPN speeds

We strongly believe that the data from our automated tool is the most reliable out there.

Not every VPN provider has configuration files compatible with our speed test tool, but we are looking to add more VPNs to it in the very near future.

Good VPNs:

  • Connect to your chosen server quickly
  • Provide super-fast download speeds on local connections
  • Suffer minimal speed loss when connecting to servers further away
  • Offer good upload speeds
  • Keep your ping low for lag-free gaming and video calls

Bad VPNs:

  • Take a long time to connect
  • Slow your internet speeds when connected locally
  • Are even slower when connecting to an international server
  • Disproportionately affect your upload speeds and ping

7Does the VPN work with popular web services?

NordVPN American Netflix
With the technical analysis complete, we then test the VPN to see how well it unblocks popular web services. Does it let you access US Netflix from any location? Can you watch BBC iPlayer from anywhere? How about torrenting – is it permitted on all servers?

If the answer to all of these questions is ‘no’ then you’re looking at a very limited VPN that may not be right for you.

Good VPNs:

  • Work with your own country’s Netflix
  • Unblock not just US Netflix, but other popular libraries from around the world
  • Provide access to trickier streaming services, like BBC iPlayer and Disney+
  • Unblocks torrenting and doesn’t restrict your speeds

Bad VPNs:

  • Actually prevent you from watching Netflix as you normally would
  • Can’t even unblock the super-popular US Netflix, let alone any other country or service
  • Don’t allow torrenting, even if your ISP does

8Can it bypass censorship?

Screenshot of the Astrill app
VPNs are vital tools in combatting government online censorship. Whether you live under a digitally-oppressive government or are just passing through, a VPN is crucial to regain access to a free and open internet.

We thoroughly check to see if every VPN we test can be relied upon to beat geo-restrictions in heavily-censored countries like China and the UAE.

Good VPNs:

  • Can beat complex national censorship setups, like those seen in Iran, Russia, or the Great Firewall of China
  • Unblock not just US Netflix, but other popular libraries from around the world
  • Can unblock websites banned by your school, college, workplace, or ISP

Bad VPNs:

  • Lack the sufficient resources and technologies to go undetected

9Does it have a privacy-friendly logging policy?

If a VPN isn’t protecting your privacy then you may as well not be using one at all – but we’ve found some privacy and logging policies that left us speechless.

The very best VPN services enforce no-logs or minimal-logs policies which, if implemented correctly, will not store any identifiable data on the user. However, there have been cases when a no-logs provider has been caught lying, so make sure you do your research.

While it can be very hard to know for sure if a provider is logging or not, we go over every privacy and logging policy with a magnifying glass. We also grill every VPN provider to find out exactly how private each VPN really is.

And it doesn’t stop there. We do our due diligence and carry out thorough research into who owns and operates each VPN company. We look into where they’re headquartered and based, which can be a serious issue if a the VPN’s logging practices aren’t watertight.

Last but not least, we stay on top of the latest news and developments in the VPN industry, so that we’re always fully informed and well-equipped to give valuable advice to our readers.

You can learn more about VPN logs, jurisdictions, and more in our introductory guide to VPNs.

Good VPNs:

  • Don’t log your IP address, even temporarily
  • Don’t log your DNS requests
  • Don’t collect timestamps of when you visit sites or use the service
  • Don’t log what servers you use
  • Are based in a safe legal jurisdiction that doesn’t spy on its citizens
  • Delete any data that is recorded, no matter how small, as soon as your VPN session ends
  • Anonymize any data that they do collect, ensuring that it could not be traced back to your account

Bad VPNs:

  • Log personal data, like your IP address
  • Collect DNS requests, which means seeing what sites you’ve visited
  • Keep track of what servers you connect to, when, and for how long
  • Are based in territories that are a part of the Five, Nine, or Fourteen Eyes data alliances, or the EU
  • Store any collected data for a long period of time (perhaps even forever)
  • Account-bind their stored data, meaning it can be traced back directly to you

10How good is the customer support?

Screenshot of NordVPN Live Chat Screen
Now that we’ve seen everything the VPN has to offer, we get in touch with its customer support team to see if it can help us fill in the blanks.

We test the quality of a VPN provider’s customer support on live chat (if available) and email.

We ask a mixture of simple and technical queries to see how well its support agents really know their product – and whether or not they’ll be able to help you in the event of a problem.

Good VPNs:

  • Have live chat support available 24 hours a day, seven days a week
  • Have support agents who are friendly, knowledgeable, and quick to respond
  • Offer an email support service for more complex requests
  • Have a vast online help database full of queries and answers
  • Have a forum where users and moderators help each other out

Bad VPNs:

  • Don’t offer live chat support
  • Those that do have agents who are rarely available or are of no real help
  • Rarely check their support inbox and take too long to reply to your issue
  • Have no FAQs, help archives, or forum

How We Score VPN Services

After going through the 10 steps above, we’re ready to rate the VPN. All the factors we’ve tested are condensed into six main criteria.

Those criteria are then assigned a certain percentage of the overall score, based on how important we feel they are for a VPN. Ordered from most to least important, these criteria are:

  • Privacy & Logging Policy
  • Speed & Reliability
  • Features
  • Streaming
  • Ease of Use
  • Support

For a VPN to score highly it needs to perform in every single category.

Now that you know our testing process, you can find the highest-scoring VPN services in our top VPN recommendations of 2021.

About the Author

  • Headshot of Site Editor Callum Tennent

    Callum Tennent

    Callum oversees how we test and review VPN services. He's a member of the IAPP, and his advice about VPNs has featured in Forbes and the Internet Society. Read full bio