VPN Review Methodology

See how we tested and rated each VPN

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Part of our mission here at Lifewire is to provide you with thorough and unbiased reviews of products and software like virtual private networks (VPNs). To accomplish this task, we research and test dozens of VPNs and score each of them on 22 key features and data points that are most likely to impact your experience as a user.

In the process of assigning final star ratings, we score each feature on a scale of 1 to 5. These individual category scores are then weighted based on the overall importance of each category and used to generate the star ratings you see on our VPN reviews. We have further broken down our 22 items of interest into the following six general categories to further explain our methodology.

NordVPN
NordVPN. NordVPN 

Privacy and Security

People use VPNs for a lot of reasons, but the basic purpose of a VPN is to provide extra privacy and security while using the internet. Whatever other features a VPN has, and however well it performs, it’s essentially useless if it provides poor data security or the company behind the VPN has a poor privacy policy or a history of questionable practices. We generally weight items in this category more heavily than others.

Data Encryption and VPN Protocols

When you use a VPN, your internet traffic is routed through a securely encrypted tunnel, which protects both your anonymity and the contents of whatever data you transfer. The way the tunnel works, and how secure it is, depends on the VPN protocol, and exactly how difficult it is for someone to decipher the contents of your data depends on the type of data encryption.

The most secure VPNs use OpenVPN and IKEv2/IPsec protocols, while others use older, less effective protocols like SSTP, L2TP, and PPTP. Some VPNs use their own proprietary protocols that are supposedly as good as OpenVPN, but we prefer OpenVPN due to the fact that independent experts aren’t able to dig into proprietary protocols to verify how well they work or how secure they are.

In terms of encryption, the most secure VPNs offer military-grade AES-256 bit encryption with perfect forward secrecy. This is the highest level of encryption you can get from a VPN, so VPNs that offer it receive the highest marks. VPNs that provide extra security features, like a double VPN, also receive extra consideration.

Zenmate VPN
 Zenmate

Data Logging and Security Practices

The next areas we look at in this category are a VPN’s data logging and security practices. We like to see solid “no log” policies, VPN-friendly jurisdictions, and a history of excellent security practices.

The most secure VPNs have strict “no log” policies, which means that they don’t log your activity while connected to the service, and they don’t retain any personally identifying information. What we want to see in a privacy policy is that there is a “no log” policy and specifies that the VPN doesn’t hold onto information like your originating IP address, connection timestamps, and other similar information.

The most secure VPNs have strict “no log” policies, which means that they don’t log your activity while connected to the service.

Some VPNs claim to have “no log” policies, but research reveals that they actually log things like your IP address and connection timestamps. Some VPNs have even turned that type of data over to authorities despite claiming to have a strict “no log” policy. Our reviews, and our star ratings, take factors like those into account.

We also look for VPNs to be located in VPN-friendly jurisdictions. Being located in a country or jurisdiction known for excellent data protections earns top marks, and we also look for VPNs to be located outside the reach of the 14-Eyes Alliance. VPNs located within Five Eyes Alliance countries are dinged in this area.

Ad Blockers

This may not seem like a security concern at all, and it isn’t weighted as heavily as the others, but the inclusion of an ad blocker in your VPN can have a real impact on your overall security. The key takeaway here is that some VPNs include a DNS-level ad blocker that can prevent overzealous ad trackers from gleaning information about your system or connection, and also block malware and other threats.

VPNs that include a DNS-level ad blocker that you can configure across all devices through a central interface receive top marks in this category, while VPNs that include per-device DNS-level ad blockers are less preferred. Since we’re looking for a DNS-level ad blocker here, VPNs that use traffic manipulation to block ads also miss the cut.

Performance

Connection Speeds

We tested each VPN using the same gigabit internet connection and the same hardware so as to get a good performance baseline. Your personal needs will vary if you have a slower connection, but it’s important to remember that using a VPN will almost always result in a speed reduction regardless of how fast or slow your connection is to begin with.

Using our gigabit connection, we assigned top marks to VPNs that were able to provide connection speeds in excess of 200 Mbps, and the fastest VPNs actually tested out at over 300 Mbps. The next level in our 1 to 5 grading system was 150 to 200 Mbps, and so on, with the poorest rating going to VPNs that couldn’t even manage download speeds of 50 Mbps.

Testing Server Latency

Server latency is a bit hard to quantify when judging a VPN since it depends largely on your own location, the location of the VPN server you connect through, and the location of the server you’re trying to connect to. For the purposes of our testing, we used an internet connection on the east coast of the United States, connected through a VPN server on the West Coast, and finally checked the latency to a popular game server on the west coast.

Without a VPN, we registered a latency of 87 ms to the cross-country game server, so we used that as a baseline. The few VPNs that were actually able to reduce latency to less than 80 ms received top marks, VPNs that came in between 80 and 100 ms were assigned to the next category in our 1 to 5 system, and so on.

Jitter and Packet Loss

We wanted to test the reliability of each VPN in some quantifiable way other than anecdotal evidence that they worked well, or didn’t work well, while we were using them. The test we landed on was to check packet loss and jitter when connected to the VPN.

In order to receive top marks, a VPN had to exhibit no packet loss and less than 30 ms jitter. VPNs received reduced credit for 1% packet loss, 2% packet loss, and 2-5% packet loss, with over 5% packet loss being rated as unacceptable.

A screenshot of Opera VPN.

Server Coverage

Server coverage is one of the things that most VPNs feature front and center in their advertising because these are usually large and impressive numbers that are easy to throw out. This is an important category because it determines the number of countries and cities you’ll be able to connect through, but we consider it a bit less important than the previous sections for one important reason.

The issue with a big, impressive number of servers is that it isn’t really indicative of server performance or customer experience. We give higher marks to VPNs with more servers, but it’s important to remember that a small VPN, with a small customer base, may be able to provide a higher level of service than a larger VPN whose servers are always clogged.

Total Number of Servers

For this section, we simply looked at how many servers each VPN had in operation. This is important to consider since having a lot of servers means you have a lot of options, with some VPNs operating thousands of servers, and other only offering a few hundred.

We assigned top marks to VPNs that feature more than 5,000 servers, with the lowest marks reserved for VPNs that offer less than 500 servers.

Number of Countries With Servers

The importance of this category will swing widely depending on why you use a VPN. If you just want to obscure your IP address, but not your country of origin, then having access to VPN servers in dozens of countries won’t seem very important. If you’re trying to access region-locked content, or you need to have an IP address from a specific country for some other reason, then having access to VPN servers in a lot of countries is a big deal.

The top VPNs in this category have servers in more than 90 countries, with the worst ones having servers in fewer than 10 countries.

Important Country Options to Look For

Having access to dozens of countries is great, but some countries are just more important than others when assessing a VPN. In order to quantify this concept in a way that we could judge fairly across the board, we identified two countries that have excellent data security and three that are important for streaming, including servers in North America, Europe, and Asia. That gives a good cross-section of the reasons people use VPNs and provides a good baseline to shoot for.

To achieve top marks in this category, we required a VPN to have servers in all five of the countries that we identified. The next step in our 1 to 5 grading system required both of the security-conscious countries and two of the streaming countries, the next step after that required the security-conscious countries and one of the streaming countries, and so on.

VPN Use Cases

In generating our testing criteria, we took into account the various reasons that people use VPNs. Some people are looking to unblock regional content, specifically from streaming sites like Netflix, so that’s an important consideration. Others want to play video games over a VPN to maintain anonymity, for protection against DDoSing, or simply because they don’t want to shut their VPN off every time they fire up a game. Others are looking to use peer-to-peer file sharing like BitTorrent without revealing their identity, which is especially important in countries where Bittorrent is forbidden.

The most important reason to use a VPN is, of course, to maintain security and privacy on the internet, but that’s such an important factor that it received its own category already.

Streaming Service Compatibility

In order to assess streaming service compatibility, we tested each VPN with Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu. We also tested each service on servers in the United States, Japan, and the U.K. Additionally, we tested to see whether or not each VPN was compatible with BBC iPlayer when connected to U.K servers.

In order to assess streaming service compatibility, we tested each VPN with Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu.

To receive top marks in this category, we required a VPN to have dedicated streaming servers, to work in multiple countries, and to work with multiple streaming services, including both Netflix and BBC iPlayer. VPNs that worked with multiple services, including Netflix, but lacked dedicated servers fell into the next category, and so on.

Gaming With a VPN

Gaming can be difficult with VPNs due to the fact that VPNs typically slow down your internet connection and introduce latency. With that in mind, we require a VPN to have recorded high speeds during our testing, to provide a large server choice, to have not introduced a lot of latency during our testing, and to not enforce a data cap. VPNs that meet all of those criteria received top marks, as they should be fine for use with gaming.

VPNs that meet four of the five criteria were slotted into the second section of our 1 to 5 grading method, and so on. Services that met none of the criteria, or that provided both slow speeds and poor server choice, received the worst marks.

Safely Torrenting Over VPN

When you use peer-to-peer file transfer like Bittorrent, you download individual pieces of a file from users and upload those pieces to other users. When the BitTorrent client establishes those connections, the other users can see your IP. If you want to avoid that, you need a VPN that supports BitTorrent.

For this category, we looked primarily at whether or not a VPN allows torrenting, and whether or not they offer a kill switch. The kill switch is important because it protects your anonymity. We also looked for VPN to provide dedicated P2P servers, high connection speeds, and unlimited data transfer.

Overall User Experience

User experience is a massive topic that can be difficult to quantify. Expert users will be more comfortable with complicated interfaces, while most others will only have a satisfying experience if the interface is simple and easy to understand. Overall, we looked at things like how easy the VPN is to install and set up, how easy it is to use, how many platforms it’s available on, and how many devices you can use at once. Finally, we also looked at customer support.

Ease of Use

In order to break this down into something that we could grade uniformly across the board, we identified five important factors that contribute to ease of use: a fast installation process, an attractive user interface that isn’t cluttered or confusing, a good selection of servers, an easy removal process, and no additional bloatware to remove.

Accordingly, VPNs had to meet all five of those criteria in order to qualify for top marks. VPNs that only hit four qualified for the second level of our five-level rating system, VPNs that achieved three received the third level, and so on.

Ease of Installation and Setup

Ease of installation is part of ease of use, but it’s also a little more complicated of a subject. In order to grade this category, we identified four important factors: a fast installation process, automatic configuration, no requests to install additional software, and no requests to share data or any other invasive sort of requests.

VPNs had to meet all four of those criteria to qualify for top marks. The second level in our five-level grading system required a fast install, automatic configuration, and no additional software, and so on. The lowest-scored VPNs caused frustration with slow installs and complicated manual configuration processes.

App Availability

If a VPN isn’t available on all of your devices, you need a different VPN. With that in mind, we assigned top marks to VPNs that provide native apps for Windows, Android, macOS, iOS and Linux, and any other additional platforms like Fire TV. Supporting four of the five key platforms was enough to qualify for the second level in our five-level grading system, and so on.

Simultaneous Devices

VPNs all put limits on the number of devices you can have connected at any one time. Some allow you to install their app on as many devices as you want, but it will only work on a limited number of them at once. Looking at the offerings out there, we decided to assign top marks to VPNs that allow more than 10 device connections at a time, and the lowest score to VPNs that only allow a single connection.

Customer Service and Support

Customer support is difficult to judge and quantify during the process of a review because you won’t always have an actual problem that needs to be solved. With that in mind, we looked at the types of service available from each VPN, and whether or not the VPN actually had agents on staff as claimed, to score this category.

To receive top marks in customer service and support, we required a VPN to have 24/7 phone or web chat and some type of email support system, with a ticket-based system being optional. The next level required both phone and web chat, with email being optional. VPNs that did not have agents on-call when we tried at different types were scored at this level even if they claimed 24/7 support.

To receive top marks in customer service and support, we required a VPN to have 24/7 phone or web chat and some type of email support system, with a ticket-based system being optional.

The third level required either phone or web support, the fourth required at least a ticket system, and we gave the lowest score to the handful of VPNs that made it difficult to locate any kind of support at all.

Price

Price is always a concern when you purchase a service, but this is a case where we consider it to be somewhat lower down on the list. If a VPN isn’t secure, or if it doesn’t support the features you want like streaming and torrenting, then why would you care how much it costs? We did look at both monthly and extended period subscription prices, and whether or not each VPN makes free or trial version available, but these were weighted slightly less than other categories.

Monthly Plan Pricing

Monthly pricing usually isn’t worth it, unless you need a VPN for a very specific purpose and don’t expect to need it again. To qualify for top marks in this category, a VPN had to offer a month-to-month subscription price of less than $5 with no commitments. VPNs that are priced at more than $15 per month received the lowest marks.

Extended Subscription Discounts

VPNs tend to be significantly less expensive if you buy a one-, two-, or three-year subscription, and most VPN services offer some type of deep discounts for extended subscription periods. Since the subscription periods differ so much from one service to the next, we just looked at the lowest price for a subscription period of one year or longer.

To qualify for top marks here, a VPN had to offer a monthly subscription price of less than $2 per month when paying for an extended subscription period all at once. The worst-rated VPNs we tested were priced at $8 per month when paying for an extended subscription period.

Free Versions

The last thing we looked at was whether or not a VPN provides a free or trial version. This is an important category if you’re looking for a free VPN, but we really recommend buying a premium VPN if you’re concerned about security and privacy. We have reviewed a number of free VPNs that have decent security and privacy policies, but they’re all limited in one way or another.

To receive top marks in this category, a VPN had to offer a totally free version with high data speeds and no data caps, which is a pretty high bar. The next level in our five-level grading system required a free version with a data cap of more than 500 MB, while the third level required a free version with a cap lower than 500 MB.

VPNs that offer some type of free trial version, or a good money-back guarantee, were assigned to the next level, and VPNs with no free version, no trial, and no money-back guarantee were rated the lowest.

The Bottom Line

The preceding methodology outlines our approach toward ranking VPN services, but you very well may have different priorities. If you value security and privacy over everything else, you may want a service that accepts cryptocurrency or even cash, in which case most of our top-rated VPNs won’t make the cut. Or if you absolutely need a free VPN, then you may be willing to look past the lack of servers or questionable privacy practices that result in some free VPN services scoring poorly.

If you have one overwhelming concern in mind when shopping for a VPN, then you may want to take a look at our VPN round-ups. Our round-ups rely on the methodology that are customized with a very specific purpose in mind. Some of our round-ups even include services that didn’t make the cut for our general reviews because they do just one thing so well.

While our round-ups weight various criteria differently, they all stick to the same basic philosophy that guides all of our VPN reviews. The best VPNs provide high level of security and privacy, enable you to perform specific tasks like region unblocking and torrenting, have a minimal impact on your connection speed and latency, and provide a good user experience. We regularly monitor these services for changes to make sure that you always have the information you need to choose the best VPN.