The recommendations further above are based on how we test and review VPNs.
We test every VPN in several key categories, and use this data to calculate an overall rating.
In every top VPN service, we look for:
- A no-logs or similar privacy-focused logging policy.
- Fast download speeds, upload speeds, and low latency around the world.
- AES-256 encryption, OpenVPN and WireGuard protocols, and extra security settings.
- Unblocking (streaming) capabilities and torrenting support.
- How easy the app is to set up and use on a range of devices.
- The quality of the customer support and online help guides.
In our VPN provider reviews, you will also notice ratings awarded in two other areas: ‘Price & Value’ and ‘Bypassing Web Censorship’.
We don’t specifically factor in ‘Price & Value’ in this guide. We consider overall quality regardless of price. You can decide for yourself if the price of a VPN is one you’re happy to pay.
‘Bypassing Web Censorship’ makes up a small portion of the ‘Security, Encryption & Technical Features’ category.
VPN Test Devices
We test VPN software on a wide range of devices, including:
- Lenovo T480 & T480s (Windows 10 & Ubuntu Linux 20.04)
- Apple iMac & MacBook Pro (macOS Monterey)
- Apple iPhone 11 (iOS 16) & iPad Pro
- Samsung Galaxy S9 & Samsung Galaxy A8 (Android 12)
- Amazon Fire TV Stick (3rd Generation) & Apple TV 4K
- Google Chromecast with Google TV & Sony KD65XE
- Sony PlayStation 4, Xbox One & Nintendo Switch
Below is a more detailed breakdown of the VPN criteria we test, and how much of the overall rating each category accounts for:
1. Privacy & Logging Policy: 30%
Minimum Requirement: Doesn’t retain any identifying web data, with servers regularly wiped.
We Recommend: No logs retained whatsoever. Truly zero-logs.
You should not use a VPN that logs data that could identify you or tie you to your internet activity.
We take a very harsh stance against VPNs that admit to logging your IP address, DNS requests, or connection metadata.
Anonymous or aggregated usage data is acceptable. This can include the total data used in a month, your total number of monthly logins, or the number of users concurrently connected to a server.
We are more lenient towards VPN services that delete the data collected either at the end of your session or within 24 hours.
Moreover, we look at a VPN’s history and company ownership to determine whether or not you should trust it.
2. Speed: 25%
Minimum Requirement: Fast enough for HD streaming on local connections.
We Recommend: Less than 20% speed loss on local connections or 40% on distant ones.
We use two different types of speed test to work out how fast a VPN is: manual and automatic.
Our manual speed tests involve running the VPN on a controlled, dedicated testing network. We connect to several servers around the world and record how much they reduce our connection speed.
Our automated tests are based on our in-house speed test tool, which runs on 11 of our own servers located around the world.
Each day, our automated speed test tool tests 16 of the most popular VPNs, updating speed data every six hours.
While our automated results are perhaps less relatable than our manual ones, they’re more consistent due to their frequency and scale.
We look at the download speeds, upload speeds, and ping from both sets of tests before we apply our formula and award a speed rating.
3. Security, Encryption & Technical Features: 20%
Minimum Requirement: AES-128 encryption, 100 servers, and an internet kill switch.
We Recommend: AES-256, OpenVPN, WireGuard or similar, and obfuscation tools.
Almost every VPN we test uses some form of AES encryption cipher. AES-128 is perfectly secure, but we look for AES-256 for maximum security.
VPN Protocols is another key security feature we factor in. Most VPNs offer OpenVPN as a default protocol choice, as it best balances speed with security.
More VPNs are now offering WireGuard, or their own bespoke protocol, both of which we rate highly. Don’t worry, we never recommend a proprietary protocol without inspecting and testing it first.
An effective kill switch is equally important, since it prevents IP address leaks during sudden VPN connection interruptions.
We rate very favorably VPN services that include a kill switch in all their main applications, and where the tool is enabled by default.
The number of servers a VPN service provides is also important. However, it’s hard to say exactly how many VPN servers is the right number.
We make sure a VPN has a wide and global spread of servers, before recommending it.
Equally, we verify there are enough VPN servers in the most popular locations to avoid lag and traffic congestion even under high load.
The very best VPNs also provide some form of obfuscation. This is essential technology to bypass internet censorship, whether it’s from your government, your employer, or your school blocking access to certain websites.
We rent a VPN server located in China, which we use to test each VPN’s ability to beat the strictest of web censorship.
4. Streaming: 10%
Minimum Requirement: Unblocks the American Netflix library.
We Recommend: Unblocks multiple streaming libraries around the world.
We have active subscriptions to 12 of the most popular streaming services, including Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, HBO Max, Disney+, and BBC iPlayer.
We spend hours each week testing every VPN by connecting to a VPN server, and seeing whether we can stream the geo-restricted content we want.
At the very least, every premium VPN should be able to access the US Netflix library.
Other streaming services we regularly test for include Hulu, Channel 4, ITV and Hotstar.
5. Torrenting: 5%
Minimum Requirement: Allows private torrenting on many VPN servers.
We Recommend: Allows high-speed torrenting on all servers, with no data logging.
A paid-for VPN should never restrict torrenting too harshly. You should also be free to torrent on almost any server you choose.
We also test and record P2P bitrates for torrent VPNs, to see which VPN services have optimized for increased file-sharing speeds.
5. Ease of Use: 5%
Minimum Requirement: Easy installation and intuitive apps across major platforms.
We Recommend: All of the above, plus clear in-app labels and apps for less-popular platforms.
Unless a VPN is mobile-only, we make sure every VPN we test has native applications for Microsoft Windows, Apple macOS and iOS, and Google Android at the very least.
These apps should be clearly labeled for beginners. It should never take more than a few taps or clicks to connect to a server, and the server list should be well-organized and easy to navigate.
We highly rate VPNs that have developed a user-friendly app for Amazon Fire TV, a GUI for Linux, and an effective Smart DNS service for streaming devices and games consoles.
In our evaluations, we also consider a service’s online installation manuals for more niche platforms.
6. Customer Support: 5%
Minimum Requirement: A support email address and online troubleshooting guides.
We Recommend: All of the above, plus 24/7 live chat support and in-depth FAQs.
After years testing VPNs, we’ve come to appreciate one thing: the very best VPNs separate themselves with the quality of their customer support.
The highest-rated VPNs offer 24/7 live chat support and in-depth how-to guides to make troubleshooting a much less painful experience.
At the very least, you should accept no less than a prompt and helpful email support service, plus some basic online FAQs.