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Are VPNs Really Worth It?

Callum Tennent's profile image

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

Fact-checked by Simon Migliano

Our Verdict

It’s worth investing in a VPN if you want to stream geo-restricted content, evade surveillance and censorship, or hide your identity while browsing the internet. VPNs work to encrypt your web traffic and hide your IP address, but they don’t achieve complete privacy. For most people, a trustworthy VPN service is worthwhile as part of a wider suite of security software.

are VPNs worth it

There’s lots of misinformation circulating online regarding what VPN services can and can’t do. Lots of companies would like you to believe that VPNs are magic, all-purpose tools that can achieve bulletproof privacy and security.

That’s simply not true. Depending on what you plan to use it for, it might not always be worth it to get a VPN.

While VPN software is useful (and can even be essential) in lots of different circumstances, a VPN won’t protect you from everything.

A VPN can’t prevent data breaches or most forms of malware, and it will slow your connection more often than it will speed it up. You can use it to stop ISP surveillance, but it won’t stop Facebook or Google tracking you with cookies or browser fingerprinting.

To help you figure out if a VPN is really worth getting, this guide will give you an up-to-date, honest take on when a VPN is worthwhile and when it’s not.

If you need a VPN, we’ll point you to some helpful resources to help you choose the right VPN, too.

Are VPNs Worth It?

It’s worth using a VPN to:

  • Improve your security on public WiFi networks
  • Hide your internet activity from your ISP
  • Access geo-restricted streaming content
  • Bypass IP bans and unblock restricted or censored websites
  • Torrent files safely and privately

It’s not worth using a VPN if:

  • You expect to achieve total privacy, security, and anonymity online
  • You want to speed up your internet connection
  • Blocking malware and phishing attacks is a priority
  • You’re signed into social media accounts
  • You use a poor-quality VPN that leaks your IP address or logs your activity

Here’s a quick overview of the pros and cons of personal VPN services:

Pros of a VPN Cons of a VPN
Gives you peace of mind on public WiFi Doesn’t stop in-browser tracking methods, like cookies and fingerprinting
Hides your internet activity from your ISP Doesn’t stop malware, phishing, or data breaches
Stops ISP throttling Your VPN service can technically see your web traffic
Unblocks geographically restricted conte Slower than a non-VPN connection
Unblocks censored websites Some VPNs are insecure or dangerous
Bypasses IP bans in gaming
Hides your IP address from the websites you visit

EXPERT TIP: VPN services are only worthwhile if you’re using a high-quality service. Most free VPNs are severely limited, and there are hundreds of premium VPNs that fall short, too. If you’re considering investing in a good VPN for privacy, security, or streaming, we recommend ExpressVPN.

Summary: Is It Really Worth Getting a VPN?

VPN software is not a complete cure-all: it won’t stop malware and phishing attacks, and your behavior can still be tracked online using browser fingerprinting. However, it’s worth investing in a VPN as part of a wider suite of security software including antivirus and firewall solutions. Using a VPN is the easiest step towards protecting your privacy and security online, and it also enables you to access blocked websites and geo-restricted streaming services on almost any device.

When Are VPN Services Actually Worth It?

Generally speaking, VPNs can hide your identity and activity from certain third parties on the internet. They’re worth using for unblocking restricted content, preventing ISP surveillance, and maintaining strong security on open WiFi networks.

Here’s a more detailed overview of exactly when VPN services are worth using:

Improving Your Security on Public WiFi Networks

Using public WiFi is less risky than it used to be, especially if the hotspot you’re using requires a password.

Even if your public WiFi connection isn’t password protected, more than 90% of the top 100,000 websites now use Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure (HTTPS) encryption, which protects your sensitive data from any potential prying eyes.

However, it’s still worth using a VPN on public WiFi, especially if you’re working with sensitive personal information like account details or banking information. Here’s why:

  • If your WiFi connection is not encrypted (or it uses an insecure encryption protocol) a hacker could intercept your data and insert malicious code designed to steal your information. Technically speaking, anyone could set up a receiver to access your unencrypted internet traffic as it travels between your device and the router.
  • The WiFi hotspot itself could be set up by a malicious actor to collect user data or insert malicious content as your data passes through.

In both cases, a VPN will protect you. VPN software routes your traffic through an encrypted tunnel, which means even if your data is intercepted, it will be completely unintelligible. Similarly, third parties cannot insert malicious code into content you’re downloading.

Although the risks are much smaller than they used to be – and less scary than other sources may claim – it’s still worth using a VPN for complete peace of mind when using public WiFi.

Hiding Your Internet Activity From Your ISP

Even if you use HTTPS websites, your ISP can still see which websites you visit – although it cannot see exactly which specific pages you browse.

In most countries, ISPs are required by the government to record and store this data for up to two years. In the US, your browsing history data may even be sold and used to target you with advertising.

In some cases, ISPs throttle (or slow down) your connection if you are engaged in bandwidth-hungry activities, such as torrenting or gaming.

If you’re concerned about this type of surveillance, it’s worth using a VPN to stop your ISP seeing what you’re doing online. It’s the easiest way to prevent ISPs from storing your browsing data or throttling your connection.

Accessing Geo-Restricted Streaming Content

For the price of a VPN subscription, you can unblock thousands of movies and TV shows from geo-restricted streaming services, free movie streaming websites, and regional libraries.

If you’re an avid streamer or Netflix user, using a good VPN service is absolutely worthwhile.

By changing your IP address, a VPN can make it appear as if you’re located in a different country, giving you access to huge amounts of content that’s typically unavailable in your location. For example, if you’re located in the UK, you can use a VPN to change your Netflix region and watch US TV shows.

Unblocking HBO Max using ExpressVPN

ExpressVPN unblocks HBO Max.

In most cases, you’ll still need a valid subscription to the streaming service you plan to watch. However, using a VPN is still the easiest way to watch restricted content on almost every device.

Not all VPNs are good at this, though. Streaming websites like Netflix and BBC iPlayer work hard to block traffic from VPN servers, but the best services can evade them.

Unblocking Websites in Highly Censored Countries

If you live in a country that blocks popular websites or limits your freedom of speech online, the right VPN can be an invaluable tool for accessing the global internet and unblocking restricted websites.

If the software is good enough, a VPN can bypass state firewalls and provide access to sites that are usually blocked. Crucially, it will also encrypt your web traffic and use its own DNS servers to hide your activity from government surveillance.

Private Internet Access unblocks censored websites in China.

Of course, countries that restrict content also tend to ban VPNs precisely because they’re so effective. In many countries, only state-approved VPNs can be used legally. These services are likely to monitor your activities, so we strongly advise against using them.

Instead, choose a VPN with obfuscation technology that disguises your VPN traffic as “ordinary” web traffic. It’s also wise to choose a service that has a reliable history of evading the censors in your country. You can see our recommended VPNs for China and top VPNs for Russia for more information.

Bypass IP Bans & Local Firewalls While Gaming

Unless your internet connection is being throttled, using a VPN while gaming won’t help to reduce the lag you experience, prevent DDoS attacks, or purchase games for a discounted price.

However, it can still be worthwhile to use a VPN for gaming. By spoofing your IP address on Xbox, Playstation, or whichever console you use, you can avoid several frustrating issues that gamers face all the time.

Using NordVPN on CSGO

NordVPN has a large server network which makes it an excellent VPN for gaming.

For example, you can bypass IP bans, change your NAT type, avoid ISP throttling, and even find easier lobbies in different regions.

Some gaming services ban VPNs, and not all VPNs are compatible with games consoles. For this reason we recommend using a VPN that’s been tested for gaming and comes with a money-back guarantee.

Protecting Your Privacy When Torrenting

It’s not only worth using a VPN for torrenting, it’s arguably essential.

When you torrent without a VPN, your IP address is visible to other peers in the swarm, and the files you download are visible to your ISP.

If you accidentally download copyrighted material, this puts you at risk of legal penalties pursued by copyright trolls, licensing companies, or your ISP itself.

By using a VPN, you can prevent your torrenting activities from being traced back to you.

You must ensure that you’re using a trustworthy VPN that does not store logs about you. That way, even if there is a legal request for information about you, they won’t have a record of your activities.

When Are VPN Services Not Worth It?

Despite what many websites would like you to believe, VPNs have disadvantages too. If you need bulletproof anonymity, unfettered speeds, or a solid anti-malware solution, a VPN might not be worth purchasing for you.

Achieving Total Privacy & Anonymity Online

VPN services are a valuable tool for privacy-conscious users. They’re worth using as part of a wider suite of software, but VPN software alone will not make you fully anonymous online.

Tracking methods that work within your browser are not stopped by a VPN. For example, a VPN doesn’t block cookies or fingerprinting based on your screen size, browser type, browser extensions, and how your graphics card works.

If you’re signed in to any social media accounts, your VPN will also become mostly worthless from a privacy point of view.

Cover Your Track fingerprinting tool

VPNs do not protect against browser fingerprinting.

Turning off JavaScript and blocking third-party cookies can prevent some of this information from leaking, but it’s inconvenient and doesn’t always work. We recommend reading our full explanation of what VPNs hide for more information.

It’s also worth considering if a VPN is really necessary in your circumstances. We believe privacy is a fundamental right, but if you’re not concerned about your browsing activity being recorded, you might not need any additional software.

You’re Only As Secure as the VPN You Choose

If you’re deciding whether a VPN is worth it for privacy and security reasons, you need to make sure the VPN itself does not increase your risk. All of your traffic passes through the VPN’s network, so it’s vital that the VPN service itself is trustworthy.

A good VPN service will have its own DNS servers, a minimal logging policy, strong encryption, and a trustworthy history that’s been proven in real-life cases.

Put simply, if you choose the wrong VPN then it’s not worth using for privacy or security reasons. In this case, you’re simply shifting your privacy risk from the ISP to the VPN. However, a reliable VPN provider can make all the difference.

Speeding Up Your Internet Connection

VPNs can stop your ISP from slowing down your connection based on your browsing activity. This is called internet throttling.

However, if no throttling is taking place, a VPN will make your connection slower. Even the fastest VPNs will slow your connection down by between 4% and 6%. Your data is encrypted and has to make an additional hop to the VPN server, which means some speed loss is inevitable.

Comparison between connection speeds when using a VPN and not using a VPN

PIA had a download speed loss of 21% when connecting to a US server.

If you’ve been told that it’s worth using a VPN to speed up your connection, this is not true in the vast majority of cases.

Avoiding Malware And Phishing Attacks

Some VPN services include ad-blockers and malware blockers, but they’re not as effective as dedicated antivirus or anti-malware software.

If your primary goal is to protect your device and its sensitive data from digital attacks, then it’s worth investing in a different type of security software.

Most attacks use some form of social engineering. They convince someone to install something they shouldn’t, or to visit a website that has been weaponized to find and attack vulnerabilities in the user’s device.

A VPN doesn’t do anything to stop users doing this. Nor will a VPN scan any incoming emails or files to check whether they’re safe.

While a VPN’s encryption can prevent attackers from inserting malware into your web traffic (man-in-the-middle attacks), it can’t stop you downloading malware through the tunnel if that’s what you choose to do.

If the VPN Leaks Your Location, or Fails to Encrypt Your Data

VPN services are not made equally. Regardless of what you plan to use it for, a VPN that leaks your true IP address or fails to encrypt your data is not worth using.

X-VPN's leak test results on Chrome.

Leak test tools can be used to detect VPN leaks.

If you’ve already subscribed to a service, use our VPN leak test to check for vulnerabilities. If you’re still considering getting a VPN, you can use our comparison of the very best VPNs to help you decide which service is worth buying.

Free vs. Paid VPN Services: Is It Worth Paying for a VPN?

If you don’t plan to use a VPN very often, it might not be worth investing in a premium service. With a safe free VPN like Windscribe Free, you can hide your browsing activity and protect yourself on public WiFi networks with a generous data limit of 10GB per month.

However, if you plan on using your VPN for streaming, torrenting, or handling sensitive data, it’s absolutely worth paying for a premium VPN subscription.

Premium VPNs are almost always faster, more secure, and have far more servers than their free equivalents. They unblock more streaming services, in more regions, with greater reliability. You can also expect unlimited data with a paid subscription, so you can watch as many movies as you like or download large files without worrying about a data limit.

Out of all the free VPNs we’ve tested, only Windscribe Free could consistently stream multiple Netflix libraries, BBC iPlayer, Hulu, and HBO Max. While this is impressive for a free app, the paid version offers more than ten times as many servers and unblocks 32 Netflix regions, including the US.

Free VPNs are less effective than paid alternatives, and they’re typically less trustworthy, too. We tested more than 150 free VPNs and found that 77% had privacy and security risks:

the dangers of free VPNs

Some free VPN services can be dangerous to use.

Put simply: while there are some good free VPNs, most of them are unsafe or limited at the very least. For any serious or regular activity, it’s worth paying for a high-quality premium service.

Using a VPN On Different Devices & Platforms

How useful a VPN is will depend on the device you’re installing it on and the apps you want to use it with. In this section, we’ll explain whether it’s worth using a VPN with popular devices, platforms, and use-cases including mobile devices, Tor, and Amazon Fire Stick.

Is It Worth Using a VPN With Tor?

VPNs and the Tor Browser can work independently of each other. That means you can protect your privacy or anonymity with just one service, and it’s not always worth using both at the same time.

However, using Tor can invite unwanted attention from your ISP and other authorities. In this case, there are some scenarios where it’s worth using a VPN with Tor:

  • If you connect to a VPN before running Tor, your ISP will be unable to see that you’re using the Tor browser. Your VPN service will know you’re using Tor, but it will be unable to see what you’re doing.

    In this scenario, exit nodes in the Tor network can still monitor your web traffic, but the first node in the Tor network can’t see your real IP address. That means your activity is not private, but it is anonymous.

    This is known as onion over VPN, and it’s worth using if you’re concerned about de-anonymization via traffic analysis attacks.

  • If you connect to Tor and then use a VPN, all of your VPN traffic will also go through the Tor network. Tor exit nodes will be unable to see the contents of your traffic, but the first node in the Tor network will be able to see your real IP address.

    In this scenario, your VPN will be able to see your activity. Additionally, your ISP will be able to see that you’re using Tor – although it won’t be able to see what you’re doing. This is known as VPN over Tor, and it’s worth using if you’re concerned about malicious exit nodes in the Tor network.

As you can see, the benefits of using a VPN with Tor depend on how you’re using it. It can be worthwhile if you want to hide the fact you’re using Tor from your ISP, prevent Tor exit nodes from seeing your activity, or if you want to benefit from additional VPN security features like a built-in kill switch.

However, in many cases using the two together is overkill. You’ll experience seriously slow connection speeds, and the added layer of encryption doesn’t offer any additional protection.

We recommend using Tor or Onion over VPN if you need complete anonymity in extreme circumstances. For general internet privacy, use a VPN by itself.

Are VPNs Worth Using With Kodi & Firestick?

Though it can be more complicated to set up, using a good VPN with Kodi or Firestick is just as worthwhile as it would be on desktop or mobile devices.

By spoofing your IP address, you can watch geo-restricted movies and TV shows on your TV without needing to connect to your computer.

Using Windscribe with Kodi

Windscribe Free can unblock BBC iPlayer’s Kodi add-on.

Using a VPN with Kodi also prevents your ISP from monitoring what you’re watching, which can be useful if you’re not sure about the types of content your Kodi add-ons include.

Is It Worth Using a VPN On Your Phone?

Whether you’re connected to a WiFi network or using mobile data, it’s still worth using a VPN to protect your privacy and security on mobile devices.

VPN encryption will protect you from eavesdroppers on open WiFi networks, and it’ll prevent your ISP from tracking your browsing history on mobile data connections.

Just like on desktop devices, you can use a VPN to unblock geographically-restricted content on iPhone, Android, and other mobile devices. However, smartphones have Global Positioning System (GPS) sensors built in, and some websites or streaming services can use this information to double-check your location.

To reliably unblock content on your phone, use a VPN that can spoof your GPS location as well as change your IP address. According to our tests, only IVPN, Windscribe, and Surfshark can do this.

Is It Worth Using a VPN at Home?

Using a VPN at home is worthwhile, but it’s not always necessary. If you’re connected to your own password-protected home WiFi network, your web traffic should be protected from most eavesdroppers and attackers – though you’re still vulnerable to malware and phishing attacks.

Although you might not need it for security purposes, it’s still preferable to use a VPN at home for privacy purposes. It’ll prevent your ISP from monitoring and recording the browsing activity on your home computer, and allow you to unblock streaming content on lots of different devices.

By connecting to a remote VPN server, you should expect your home internet speeds to slow down by a small percentage, though.

How Do You Know When a VPN Is Worth It?

We’ve reviewed more than 56 VPNs, and not all of them are worth subscribing to. Here’s a brief checklist to help you understand exactly when a VPN is worth using:

  • Privacy and logging policy: VPNs should not store any information about your browsing activity or identity. Some anonymous connection logs are normal, as they allow the service to manage their network. However, there should be no data that allows third parties to connect your activity to your identity.
  • Strong encryption: The Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) with 256-bit keys is the strongest encryption you can get, and it’s the industry standard for top VPN services.
  • Large server network: VPNs with lots of servers are less likely to suffer congestion and are more likely to survive blocking attempts by streaming services. Look for servers close to you for optimal speed, and international servers for unblocking geographically restricted content.
  • Speed: The additional server hop and encryption when you’re using a VPN slows down your connection, but the amount will depend on the VPN you choose. Fast VPNs will typically slow nearby connections by approximately 4%, and international connections by roughly 10-15%.
  • Reputation: All of your web traffic goes through your VPN, so it’s crucial that you choose a service with a trustworthy history of protecting its users anonymity and activity.
  • Streaming and torrenting support: Some VPNs are better at particular activities than others, even amongst the very best VPNs on the market. For example, the best Netflix VPNs aren’t always the best for using in China. Once you know what you’d like to use a VPN for, do some research to find out which services excel in that area.

FAQs

Do I Need A VPN Now That Websites Use HTTPS?

HTTPS encryption stops third parties from seeing the web pages you visit, but your ISP can still see the domains you visit and use that to profile you. Not every website uses HTTPS, either. In this case, anyone in the middle of your communications (including your ISP) can see all your web traffic.

A VPN’s encryption and first-party DNS servers prevents your ISP seeing which domains you visit on both HTTP and HTTPS connections. The VPN encrypts all of your web traffic, too – not just the traffic from your browser window.

Can A VPN Cause Problems?

A VPN causes a small reduction in your connection speeds, so if you’re already on a slow connection, that might cause problems. Some services might also block access if they detect you’re using a VPN, but you can often fix that by connecting to a different VPN server, or using a different VPN service. Generally speaking, most people find that a VPN is easy to use and doesn’t cause any difficulties.

Will A VPN Help Me Avoid A Data Breach?

A data breach happens when a company that has information about you is hacked. A VPN can’t stop this happening, and the data leaked is usually customer data that people have given to the company when trading with them. However, a VPN can reduce the amount of
data that is collected about you by your ISP. This would reduce the damage if your ISP were to be hacked.