A virtual private network, or VPN, is a great tool for securing your Web traffic and shielding your privacy online. Most are very affordable (there are even some fine free VPN services) and many come with a slew of additional features intended to make Web surfing a little more secure. But even the best VPN will almost always slow down your Internet connection, too.
Don't despair. This isn't one of those zero-sum games where you have to choose between convenience and security. Included in this roundup are the fastest VPNs I have tested so far, based on speed testing of downloads and uploads with each VPN service enabled.
What Do You Mean by Fastest VPN?
There are many different ways to evaluate an Internet connection. The tools that I use provide three metrics: Latency, download speeds, and upload speeds.
Latency is a measurement of time between when your computer sends a request and when it receives a response. Lots of things can affect latency, but the distance your request physically travels through fiber has a big impact on this metric.
Download and upload speeds are measured in megabytes per second. So, a 30Mbps connection is moving 30Mb every second. Simple.
I'll go into greater explanation about these three metrics and how I collect them below. But choosing which is most important is tricky. Mostly, it depends on how you're using your Internet connection. When I wrote this list, I assumed that most people reading it would, like me, be major consumers of Internet content. Reading the news, streaming movies, or listening to music on the Web all require that your device be pulling down data more or less continuously. With that in mind, I've settled on download speeds as the most important benchmark.
So, when I say the "fastest" VPNs, I mean, first and foremost, those that have the least impact on download speeds. In case that doesn't really apply to you, I've also included the best-performing VPN in each of the three tests so you can decide which works best for you. But first, it's important to understand why VPNs slow Internet connections in the first place.
Why Do VPNs Slow Your Connection?
Using a VPN tends to slow down Internet connections simply because it adds more steps to the process of transferring data over the Web. When you browse without a VPN, your Web browser sends a request through your local network, out onto the public Internet, and to a Web server that responds with the requested information. This is what happens every time you click a link or type in a URL. It's how the Internet works.
When you activate a VPN, your Web traffic is routed through an encrypted tunnel. It travels through this secret tunnel to a server operated by the VPN company. It then exits its encrypted tunnel and enters the public Internet.
These extra steps degrade your Internet connection speeds, simply by adding more fiber, more computers, and more physical distance to the equation. But using a VPN helps protect your data and personal security.
Routing your traffic through an encrypted tunnel means that nobody on the same network as you, not even whoever manages that network, can snoop on your activities. This protects against a lot of scary scenarios, particularly man-in-the-middle attacks. That's when a bad guy intercepts and copies all the information you send and receive through the Internet, putting himself between you and the rest of the Internet.
Spies and, more frequently, advertisers can correlate your movements across the Web by capturing identifying information. There may be, for example, a tracker inside an ad on website A and another tracker from the same company on website B. The same company captures some piece of identifying information and notes that you appeared at one site and then the other.
Because your Web traffic appears to be coming from the VPN's server and not your computer or mobile device (yes, there are VPN apps for Android and iPhone), any observer will see the VPN server's IP address and not your own. That makes it much harder to correlate your movements across the Web.
You can also use a remote VPN server to spoof your location. For example, you could be sitting in Chicago and select a VPN server in Australia. Your traffic would then make a trip down under before continuing on as normal. To people trying to track you, you'd appear to be surfing from Australia. This is especially useful if you're keen to access region-locked streaming content. If you connect to a server within the UK, free BBC TV streaming is suddenly available. It's also a useful tool for when you are connecting in countries that have strict or repressive Internet regulations.
Speed Up Your VPN
There are a few ways you can offset the speed-reducing effects of using a VPN. First, choosing a service with many servers means that you're more likely to find one that isn't crowded with other people all trying to use the same bandwidth. Having many servers in different locations also means you're more likely to find one that's physically close to you, shortening the distance your data must travel.
Private Internet Access meets all these criteria: It has well over 3,000 servers across the globe. Of those, 1,600 are spread across 10 locations in the US alone. If you live in this country, you're very likely to find a nicely un-crowded server that's close by. The ubiquity of its servers also means you're likely to find a server nearby no matter where you travel.
Another approach is to offer purpose-specific servers. NordVPN, for example, has a high-speed server earmarked for video streaming. The company's collection of these special servers is a great way to offer customers a better experience, one tailored to their needs. It even offers Tor-over-VPN servers.
Also important is the protocol the VPN service uses. Connecting to a VPN service using the OpenVPN protocol generally yields a faster experience. Plus, OpenVPN is, as the name implies, open source. That means it has been picked over for flaws and exploits by thousands of volunteers. If you're concerned about speed and security, selecting a service that supports OpenVPN and makes it available by default is important.
And while it's vanishingly rare, some VPN servers can actually make your Internet connection faster. The reason for this isn't always clear, and it may just be a result of local network trouble during the no-VPN baseline testing. But in some cases, you may be connected to higher bandwidth Internet infrastructure somewhere else in the world. In my testing, I found that PureVPN actually yielded download speeds 166.6 percent faster with the VPN enabled than without.
What's the Fastest VPN?
When I test VPNs, I try to get a sense for the impact a service has on Internet performance by finding a percentage difference between using the VPN and not using the VPN for several speed measurements. First, I run several tests without the VPN active and average the result. This is my baseline. I then do the same thing but with the VPN active. To stress-test the VPN services, I connect to a far-flung server, usually in Australia, if one is available.
Usually, this results in a large, very noticeable impact in latency as well as download and upload speeds. Below, you can read the details on each test the top three services for each. I consider this to be the most important test, since download speeds directly impact how users consume content. The nearby table also shows all the test scores, and the best performers in each. I have tested each of these services in as repeatable manner as possible, but it's worth remembering that networks can be fickle things. Your mileage with these services will almost certainly vary. Even the time of day you connect may make a difference.
All of the results in the nearby VPN Performance Tests table and the discussion that follows were taken from the Speedtest.net tool, from Ookla. Note that Ookla is owned by PCMag's publisher, Ziff Davis. Note that while the VPNs are sorted by order of their overall rating in the table at the top of page, the performance tests table shows the results of their speed testing.
In my latency testing, I've found that the results are mostly clustered together. So far, the lowest latency server I've found is PureVPN. That service increased latency by only 188.8 percent. VyprVPN was the next-best, increasing latency by 220.5 percent. (VyprVPN didn't, however, have download scores that merited including it in the fastest VPN list.) Rounding out the top three was NordVPN, which increased latency by 232.9 percent. This sounds catastrophic, but it's important to remember that latency is measured in milliseconds.
For upload testing, I had a surprise winner with the VPN service built into the Opera browser. It reduced upload speeds by only 6.8 percent. The Opera browser isn't really a VPN service, but I mention it because its results in this test were so remarkable.
The next three best services for upload speeds are led by NordVPN, which slowed uploads by 31.1 percent. After that is FrootVPN, which reduced speeds by 32.6 percent. Finally, there's TunnelBear, which reduced speeds by 32.7 percent. Note that TunnelBear is not included in my list of the fastest VPNs, as its download speeds did not merit inclusion.
Probably the most important metric for the average user, however, is download speed. If you're streaming video or downloading large files, this is what you really care about. As mentioned, PureVPN leads this test, actually improving download speeds by 166.6 percent. It's an astonishing result, but it's not alone in improving download speeds. ExpressVPN boosted download speeds by a respectable 23.6 percent, and IPVanish by 9.2 percent.
Is the Fastest Always the Best?
As for an overall winner in my speed tests, it's hard to beat the results PureVPN, the download speed winner, produced. NordVPN is also noteworthy, as it made it to the top three in two separate tests.
If you're shopping for a VPN service, remember that speed is just part of the equation. Pricing and the number of devices that can be used with an account are, in my opinion, more important. I also prefer VPN services with lots of servers and a good geographic distribution of those servers. Ease of use and a well-made local client also go a long way toward getting PCMag's endorsement.
Featured Fastest VPN Reviews:
%displayPrice% at %seller% NordVPN is a powerful VPN service wrapped in a slick Windows client that can easily secure your online activities. It's an Editors' Choice winner. Read the full review
Private Internet Access VPN Review
%displayPrice% at %seller% Private Internet Access offers an incomparable number of VPN servers along with ad-blocking and other advanced features for a reasonable price. It's not the prettiest, but it's by far the most robust VPN we've tested. Read the full review
AnchorFree Hotspot Shield Elite Review
%displayPrice% at %seller% AnchorFree Hotspot Shield Elite is a fast and capable VPN that throws in antivirus protection along with other extras. But it's still expensive for what you get. Read the full review
%displayPrice% at %seller% ExpressVPN packages VPN protection and BitTorrent support into a simple interface, but it is expensive and lacks advanced features. Read the full review
IPVanish VPN Review
%displayPrice% at %seller% VPN service IPVanish secures your web traffic from prying eyes. It's not for newcomers, nor is it cheap, but it does pack some powerful features for experienced VPN users. Read the full review
%displayPrice% at %seller% PureVPN shows outstanding speed test results for the second year in a row, making it the fastest virtual private network we've tested. That earns it our Editors' Choice endorsement. Read the full review
Spotflux Premium VPN Review
%displayPrice% at %seller% Spotflux Premium VPN shows a lot of promise with a simple interface, affordable pricing, and some extra tools. But fewer servers in fewer locations, makes it less robust than the competition. Read the full review
Hide My Ass VPN Review
%displayPrice% at %seller% Hide My Ass VPN has a cheeky name, but its web-traffic protection is no joke. Its friendly, simple interface makes up for its comparatively high price. Read the full review
%displayPrice% at %seller% IVPN is a well designed Windows VPN client that offers multi-hop VPN, a rare tool, as well as other advanced features. It's on the expensive side, however. Read the full review
%displayPrice% at %seller% FrootVPN is an affordable service, but it offers few features or servers, and setting it up requires an in-depth understanding of Windows. Read the full review