Best Mobile VPN of 2023 – CNET

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Having a VPN, or virtual private network, installed on your tablet or phone can deliver further security for your mobile devices. When using a mobile VPN, you should expect the app to encrypt your data by routing your internet connection to a different location using a secure server. The sites you visit and apps you use on your mobile device will remain hidden from your mobile carrier and internet service provider. The best mobile VPN services can grant streaming access to geographically restricted content that may not be available for viewing in your region. They do this by disguising your true IP address and switching it with the IP address of the secure server they’re connecting to. The experts at CNET have thoroughly tested the speed and privacy features of a variety of VPNs. Thanks to its excellent privacy protections, top notch streaming capabilities and ease of use, CNET’s top pick as the best mobile VPN is ExpressVPN.

A mobile VPN is particularly handy for people who travel regularly or for anyone whose online activities, work or location demand heightened privacy. Whether you’re a doctor, entertainer, journalist, politician, attorney, activist or whistleblower, for example, you’d absolutely benefit from the on-the-go privacy offered by a mobile VPN. If you’re in a region where the government engages in online surveillance or censors the internet, a mobile VPN can circumvent these censorship efforts and keep your online activity private. Not to mention, a mobile VPN is a handy tool if you’re wanting to pass the time by watching your Netflix shows while traveling abroad. The best VPN providers all offer excellent mobile apps for both Android and iOS devices. In an increasingly mobile-first world, mobile VPN app technology and usability continues to progress to help keep your online experience fun and safe.

What is the best mobile VPN right now?

ExpressVPN is currently CNET’s top pick for the best mobile VPN thanks to its reliability, responsiveness and ease of use. Surfshark is an excellent alternative if you’re on a budget but want an mobile VPN with a ton of features. CNET’s third pick is NordVPN, which is a veteran VPN provider that offers an excellent mobile app that’s a breeze to use on both Android and iOS.

Best mobile VPN of 2023

ExpressVPN

Savings 49% off with 12-mo plan (+3 free months)Latest tests No leaks detected, 2% speed loss in spring 2022 testsNetwork 3,000-plus servers in 160 locations across 94 countriesJurisdiction British Virgin Islands

ExpressVPN is the best mobile VPN, in addition to currently holding the distinction of being CNET’s Editors’ Choice for the best overall VPN. It’s the VPN for you if you want the best in privacy and streaming and you don’t mind paying a premium for it. The provider’s mobile app is easy to use on both iOS and Android devices and it has the same simple, decluttered interface as its desktop app. The Android app offers additional information on the primary connection screen including Time Protected and IP Location. In the iOS app, you can find your IP location information by using the IP Address Checker tool in the Privacy & Security Tools section from the Options menu. Built-in DNS and WebRTC leak tests are available in both apps as additional VPN privacy tools.

49% off with 12-mo plan (+3 free months)

Surfshark

Savings $2.49/mo with 24-mo plan (+2 free months)Latest tests Zero data leaks and 19% internet speed loss in fall 2022 testsNetwork 3,200-plus in 99 countriesJurisdiction Netherlands

Surfshark is another excellent mobile VPN, and CNET’s current Editors’ Choice for the best value VPN. It packs a ton of features, is great for streaming and is the perfect choice if you’re on a budget but still want the premium VPN experience. I just wish its speeds were more consistent. Surfshark’s mobile app, like ExpressVPN’s, is decluttered and simple to use. But it sometimes struggles to connect on the first attempt, which can be frustrating. Otherwise, it’s a slick app with a lot of cool features at your fingertips. You can quickly bring up your connection status by tapping on the small arrow towards the bottom of the screen. If you’re not connected, you’ll see your true IP address and actual location. Once connected, you’ll see your connection time and VPN IP address and location. You also have the option to either disconnect from the VPN server or pause your VPN connection for 5 minutes, 30 minutes or 2 hours. The Pause feature is useful for instances where you want to temporarily step off the VPN but not risk forgetting to turn the VPN back on.

$2.49/mo with 24-mo plan (+2 free months)

NordVPN

Savings 59% off with 24-mo plan (+ 3 extra months)Latest tests No leaks detected, 13% speed loss in summer 2022 testsNetwork 5,600-plus servers in 84 locations across 59 countriesJurisdiction Panama

NordVPN is a highly popular and well-established VPN provider based in the privacy-friendly jurisdiction of Panama. If you’re looking for a mobile VPN that’s fast and reliable, then NordVPN could be a good fit for you. Android VPN users could also benefit from a few extras tucked away in NordVPN’s Android app. NordVPN is currently the fastest VPN based on my latest tests earlier this year, shaving just 10% off of my base internet speeds. I also found NordVPN’s speeds to be the most consistently reliable across devices, locations and protocols. This means that you should be able to count on NordVPN to deliver a reliable connection regardless of where or how you choose to connect.

Private Internet Access

Private Internet Access (or PIA, for short) is an excellent budget VPN that offers a highly customizable mobile VPN app. PIA’s mobile apps for iOS and Android feature a prominent Connect button above a list of recently used servers you can easily connect to. Quick Settings options to toggle the kill switch on or off, enable Network Management settings (auto connect on specific networks) and access PIA’s secure browser (a separate app called InBrowser) are all available right from the home screen.

IPVanish

Savings 66% off with 12-mo planLatest tests DNS leaks detected, 58% speed loss in spring 2022 testsNetwork 2,000-plus servers in 75 locations across 52 countriesJurisdiction United States

If you’re new to VPNs, just want an easy-to-use app and don’t care about all the extra bells and whistles, IPVanish is a solid choice. You’ll get a capable VPN that’s slightly easier on the pocketbook than ExpressVPN and NordVPN, and customer support is easily accessible directly through the app whenever you need help. IPVanish is fast enough for most anything you’d want to do on your mobile device, including streaming and video calls. But while IPVanish’s Quick Connect feature is by far the easiest way to connect to a server in the app, in my experience it doesn’t always connect to the fastest possible server. So if you’re looking to achieve the fastest possible speeds through the app, you can navigate to the Locations section and tap on a specific city to access a list of individual servers with the current server load displayed beside them. If you choose a server with a lighter load, you can generally expect to achieve faster speeds. Though if you’re just looking to get up and running quickly with one tap, then your speeds should be just fine for most anything when using the Quick Connect feature. But overloaded servers can potentially slow your speeds down enough to negatively affect activities like streaming and video calling.

66% off with 12-mo plan

Other VPNs we tested

Proton VPN

Proton VPN is the highly secure open-source VPN solution from the Swiss-based privacy company Proton. Proton VPN holds the distinction as the only free VPN that CNET recommends and is the mobile VPN for you if you’re looking for a top quality service without having to pay a dime for it. With Proton VPN’s free plan, you get access to just three server locations (US, Japan and the Netherlands), but unlike most free VPNs, Proton VPN doesn’t throttle speeds on its free servers or limit your usage in any way. Most free VPNs are basically useless for anything other than the most basic online activities, but I had no issues streaming Netflix on Android and iOS using Proton VPN’s free servers. If you want to pay for Proton and get access to all its servers and features, it’s relatively inexpensive compared to the competition at $10 a month or $72 a year. 

Proton VPN’s iOS and Android apps are nearly identical, but with a few minor differences in appearance and features available. The Quick Connect button on the iOS app’s home screen is unassuming and tucked away at the bottom of the servers list. The Android app’s Quick Connect function can also be accessed directly from the home screen, but it isn’t labeled and looks like a chat button rather than a connection button. The servers can be selected from a map as well, but it’s sometimes difficult to do so in regions like Europe where the countries are close together and the map’s zoom function is limited. Both apps also include a kill switch and give you the option of using Proton VPN’s NetShield feature to block malware, tracking and ads. Both apps allow for protocol selection as well, but only the Android app includes a split tunneling feature.

How we tested mobile VPNs

To determine the best mobile VPN, I tested the mobile apps of each of the VPNs highlighted below on both iOS and Android for speed, DNS leaks, streaming, features and usability. Each of the VPNs here is worthy of its designation as one of the best mobile VPNs available, but one may be a better fit for you over another, depending on your budget or individual circumstances.

Factors to consider in a mobile VPN

There are hundreds of VPNs available, and with so many of them offering mobile apps, it can be difficult to choose the right solution for your iOS or Android phone or tablet. Based our extensive research and hands-on testing of VPNs over the years, these are the factors to look out for when choosing a VPN for your mobile device:

Privacy

The primary consideration for any VPN should be privacy. If your VPN is unable to deliver a sufficient level of privacy, then your VPN is practically useless, whether you’re using its mobile or desktop app. Your VPN should offer industry standard AES 256-bit encryption along with basic privacy protections like a kill switch, DNS leak protection and a no-logs policy. If you have heightened privacy needs, you’ll need a VPN provider that is based in a privacy-friendly jurisdiction, offers obfuscation and has a RAM-only server architecture. Additional privacy features to look out for include Tor over VPN functionality, ad and tracker blockers and multi-hop connections. These features can offer increased privacy, but aren’t absolutely essential. It’s also a good idea to choose a VPN that’s trustworthy, transparent and undergoes regular third-party security audits, which can help bolster trust in the VPN’s ability to protect your privacy. 

Speed

Your mobile VPN’s connection speeds can have a major influence on the quality of your streaming, downloading, video conferencing, gaming and general web browsing activities. To keep things running as smoothly as possible, you’ll want a VPN that will have as minimal an impact on your regular internet speeds as possible, whether you’re using Wi-Fi or mobile data. 

Usability

A good mobile VPN should run smoothly and be easy to use regardless of your technical expertise. It should have all of the features you need easily accessible with a tap of your finger. Many mobile VPN apps also include a help section with easy ways to get in touch with support or access troubleshooting documentation directly from the device, which can be helpful if you need assistance on the go. The VPN should have a large network of servers around the world so you can connect easily and reliably from wherever you may be traveling, and it should be able to help you access geo-restricted content from various regions if that’s what you want to use it for.

Cost

Depending on your budget, you may want to consider the cost and overall value of your mobile VPN before making a purchase. VPN pricing can vary greatly from provider to provider, but you can typically expect to spend about $5 to $13 per month for a monthly VPN subscription plan. If you want to save some money over the long term, you can opt for an annual subscription, where prices can range from roughly $30 to $100 per year. However, you’ll want to be careful with free VPNs because you may end up risking your privacy instead of protecting it when using one. Proton VPN is currently the only free VPN that CNET recommends. That said, most premium VPNs offer a money-back guarantee that can be anywhere from a week to 45 days. You can also get a seven-day free trial with many VPNs when you sign up through Apple’s App Store or the Google Play Store. So you have options to try various mobile VPNs risk-free before you decide whether to fully invest in one.

A word of caution about VPNs on iOS

There’s been a fair amount of chatter from VPN companies and independent researchers over the past few years about iOS devices leaking data outside of the VPN tunnel unencrypted. Proton VPN outlined a potential workaround that could be universally applied to other iOS VPN apps. The trick is to connect to a VPN server, then enable and disable Airplane mode. This should kill all existing processes connected to the internet on the device and allow them to reconnect through the VPN tunnel. 

To be clear, this issue is on Apple’s side and affects all VPNs on iOS devices, so it didn’t influence my assessment of the top mobile VPNs, but is nonetheless crucial for iOS users to know. The vulnerability was reported to be present since at least iOS 13. Apple has not responded to multiple requests for comment on the issue, including whether the company plans to issue a fix ahead of the expected release of its latest mobile operating system, iOS 17, later on this fall. 

What is a mobile VPN?

A mobile VPN is a VPN app optimized for your mobile device, whether you’re using an Android or iOS device. The best mobile VPNs all have easy-to-use VPN apps that can help you protect your online privacy while you’re on the go. A mobile VPN is also an excellent tool if you’re traveling and want to evade censorship efforts or unblock geographically restricted content from across the globe.

What’s the best free mobile VPN

Proton VPN’s free tier is currently the only free mobile VPN that CNET recommends. Most other free VPNs are either useless or risky to use because many of them make money by selling user data and may even contain malware. Additionally, free VPNs usually put restrictions on speed and usage and are typically heavily restricted in terms of available servers and features.

What does my ISP/mobile carrier see when I’m connected to my mobile VPN?

Whether you’re connected to Wi-Fi or using your mobile VPN on a cellular network, the provider supplying the internet connection will only see that you’re connected to a VPN. Your ISP or mobile carrier won’t see your internet activity or the websites you visit, but will see the IP address of the VPN server you’re connected to, the amount of data you’re transmitting and the timestamps of when you were connected to the VPN. You can connect to a “stealth” or obfuscated server, if offered by your VPN, and hide from your provider that you’re connected to a VPN, if you need additional privacy.

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