NB – Product links in this article are affiliate links. We may receive a commission on any referrals made at no extra cost to you.
VPNs or Virtual Private Networks are just pieces of software that route internet traffic on a device through a secure, encrypted tunnel, meaning the IP address, location and browsing of the user is concealed and masked from anyone else who might want to see it (like hackers, ISPs, Government agencies etc).
But there are hundreds of these providers all over the web now, all offering paid-for VPN subscriptions. Are all these VPN services basically the same? Are there any actual differences between the brands? Does it really matter which one you pick?
In terms of function, all VPNs basically work the same, providing an encrypted, masked internet connection which conceals the actual IP address, location and browsing of the user. They are all essentially a privacy and security tool for internet users, with slightly different branding.
In terms of a buying decision, all VPNs are effectively identical for the most basic users who just need a secure internet connection for conventional browsing.
For users who need more advanced features, like access to streaming services, more obscure server locations and stronger privacy, then there are some differences between different VPNs, and it is worth comparing them to see which ones offer certain features and which don’t.
In other words, all VPNs are both alike and not alike, depending on what criteria you are looking at, and how deep you want to go into the topic. In this post, we’ll provide as comprehensive an answer as possible, both for basic and advanced users.
Are VPNs The Same? (An Answer For No Nonsense Buyers)
We want to first answer this question in simple, bottom line terms for more more non technical readers, who broadly understand the use and benefits of a VPN, but want to know if there’s any actual practical difference between the different providers, in terms of their own use needs.
In other words, for simple, no nonsense VPN users, is there any actual difference between the different Premium VPNs when the “rubber hits the road?”
For basic VPN users, the answer is effectively no – for all intents and purposes, most Premium VPN services are the same, providing the same basic features and services and working in the same way. They just have a different branding and interface.
Here’s the kind of user we are referring to here:
- If a user just wants a VPN purely for safe, secure, encrypted basic browsing. They’re not at all interested in accessing streaming services. They just want it for basic browsing, YouTube, social media, transactions, email etc. at home and on public Wi-Fi on a couple of their own devices maximum.
- If the user isn’t interested in having servers in 100 countries. They live and work in just one major Western country, and just need a VPN server there, and perhaps occasionally on holiday in other major western countries.
If this description matches what you need from a VPN, then effectively, all VPNs are going to be the same, and do the same job for you. They all offer a secure connection and servers in the major countries you’d expect. Just pick a brand you like and go for it!
See our Cost and Privacy sections below and pick one you like. AtlasVPN is a great option for these users, as is Private Internet Access (PIA). See also the Free Version section if you want to try out a free VPN first to see how it works and what it’s like.
However, for more advanced or picky users that ARE looking for more specialized features, or are especially picky about user data collection and privacy, then there are certain differences between VPN services, and they’re not all exactly alike, although they broadly work in the same way.
For those users looking to break down more into the specific features of the different VPNs, see the sections below where we go through criteria like cost, servers, speed, privacy and free versions.
Features That Nearly All Premium VPNs Offer
Here’s a quick run down of the “as standard” features that are alike in VPNs – that you can expect all Premium VPN providers to be offering now:
- Secure, encrypted VPN connections which mask your IP address and location and replace it with a location you choose.
- 24/7 customer support
- 30 day money back guarantee
- Zero logs policy (skip any VPN that doesn’t)
- Multiple simultaneous connections per account (anything from 5 to unlimited – see below).
- Servers in USA, UK, Canada, Australia plus all major European countries.
- Apps for all major devices (Windows, Android, Mac, Linux, Apple iOS, Smart TV, consoles, browsers).
- Multiple different VPN connection protocols (OpenVPN, WireGuard, IPsec etc).
And then there are some more advanced, specialized features that only SOME VPNs offer:
- Split tunneling – have some connections VPN and other non-VPN on the same device (becoming more popular but not universal yet)
- Dedicated IP – usually extra cost but offered by some providers
- Antivirus/Anti-malware – bundled in as extra with some providers.
But for the most part, all VPNs are alike in terms of the standard basic features they offer – it’s very similar across the board in the VPN market.
Now let’s dive into some of the features that can vary in terms of quality and scope between different VPNs.
Are Free VPNs The Same As Premium VPNs?
This is something to cover right away, since readers might be wondering whether they can get everything they need from a free VPN, without even needing to pay. Are Free VPNs exactly the same as Premium ones? Do they do exactly the same job and work in the same way?
Free VPNs work in the same basic way as Premium VPNs, but they often do not offer the same range of features and functionality as paid services. More specifically, server choice and data use are often restricted on free VPNs in a way that they aren’t on Premium plans.
Firstly, free VPNs only offer a very limited number of locations, not the entire server selection that’s available with paid versions.
Some common countries that free VPN servers are located in are:
Therefore if you live in one of these countries, and/or need an IP address there, and accessing streaming services isn’t your priority, then a free VPN might actually be all you need. However, for unlimited use and access to more locations and streaming sites, you usually need a Premium VPN.
Secondly, some free VPNs only offer limited use, though it does vary and some free VPNs are also unlimited. If there is a data cap, it’s often around 10 GB/month, which equates to around 300 MB/day – still a decent allowance. Some free VPNs also limit speeds as well. Therefore, for large scale video streaming or downloading, you’ll need an unlimited paid plan.
Thirdly, almost all free VPNs will NOT allow access to streaming services like Netflix. For this, you almost always need the more advanced, better obfuscated servers you get with Premium plans. And even some Premium VPNs might not offer consistent and reliable access to streaming sites because of aggressive blocking by the streaming platforms. You have to be quite picky if this is what you want.
Finally, there are also some other small differences between free VPNs and paid ones, like there often being a lack of extensive 24/7 customer support, or at least very slow to respond support.
Therefore with free VPNs, you do get what you pay for, and there will be features missing that you need to upgrade to get. But that doesn’t always stop some users getting everything they need from a free VPN.
Differences in VPNs by Cost
This is a major factor for most VPN buyers when comparing options. There is actually huge variability in the cost of VPNs, and sometimes you don’t need to pay for features you don’t need, whilst other times you DO need to pay more to get specifically what you need. So it can work both ways.
Here’s some comparison on this (12 month subscriptions unless otherwise stated):
More Expensive VPN Options:
- ExpressVPN – $8.32/month – most expensive, but also the best for streaming (see below)
- VyprVPN – $8.33/month
- Hide.me – $6.66/month
Mid range VPN Options:
- NordVPN – $5/month – good for streaming and very reliable.
- ProtonVPN – $4-8/month – good for streaming and Swiss based.
- PrivadoVPN – $4.99/month
- TurboVPN – $5.00/month
- Tunnelbear – $4.99/month
- CactusVPN – $4/month
Cheaper VPN Options:
- Private Internet Access – $3.33/month – great value and good server choice plus 10 connections as well.
- AtlasVPN – $3.29/month – great value no nonsense VPN service.
- PrivateVPN – $1.61/month for 36 months – great pro-rata value – by far the best available.
- Surfshark – $3.59/month for 12 month, even cheaper pro-rata for 24 months.
Bottom line – ExpressVPN might be an option where it’s good to pay more to get good streaming servers. For users looking to save money who don’t need a massive server selection, AtlasVPN or PrivateVPN can actually be perfectly fine. Private Internet Access stand out as providing the best of everything, and are also a good option.
Differences in VPNs By Access To Streaming Services
Now we get to a differentiating factor that definitely IS important for some VPN users. The whole topic of VPNs providing access to streaming services is a tricky one, since there is a constant cat-and-mouse battle between VPN companies and streaming services, with the latter constantly finding and blocking VPN IP addresses, and the former constantly having to issue new IPs, or find ways to get around the blocking.
Therefore, this is a dynamic and changeable issue, but here are some VPN’s that have the best reputation for providing widespread and reliable access to streaming services (including in multiple countries) at the time of writing:
- ExpressVPN – is one of the more expensive options, but generally considered the best VPN for streaming.
- NordVPN – close to ExpressVPN in terms of reliable access.
- ProtonVPN – (excellent for Disney Plus and Netflix on Plus servers)
- PrivateVPN – cheap plans.
- PrivadoVPN – lesser known but surprisingly good when tested in the UK.
If you know you’re going to be needing access to specific streaming services in a specific country, and aren’t sure if a VPN offers it, always open up a live chat with their customer service on their site and clarify before buying. In any event, almost all VPNs offer money back offers within 30 days if it doesn’t work.
Differences in VPNs By Server Choice
Another clear differentiating factor between VPNs is that some offer different (and a different number) of server locations, both country and city.
However, all VPNs will offer at least one server location in major countries:
- New Zealand (mostly)
- Portugal (more mixed here – check beforehand)
- At least some servers in the Far East (countries do vary)
- Almost always in Mexico
- Often in Brazil
So if you live in one of these countries, you’re likely covered no matter the VPN you use. If you want more specialized server locations, then you will need to shop around.
Here’s a quick comparison chart of server selection for some major VPNs:
|Provider||Price (12 months paid in advance)||Number of countries offered||Number of Servers Offered||Main Benefits|
|Hide.me||$5/month||46||160+||Free version available|
|ExpressVPN||$8/month||94||160+||Best country choice|
|ProtonVPN||$4/8/month (Basic/Plus)||63||1700+||Reputable brand|
|Private Internet Access||$3.33/month||84||10,000||Great server & country choice.|
It’s very true that some VPNs offer a much superior country and server selection to others, but it’s also true that for many users, this isn’t really important.
How many VPN users really need servers in Eritrea or Marshall Islands, like some providers offer? Very few, so whilst it’s a nice bonus that some VPN services do offer a large selection of servers in 80-100 countries, it’s also true that not everyone needs them.
If you’re a standard VPN user that’s only ever going to need a connection in major Western countries (UK, US, Commonwealth, Major European countries), then it really doesn’t matter what VPN you pick, since they all offer servers in the same major countries. In this sense, all VPNs are alike for server choice.
But for most users, even a cheap and cheerful option like AtlasVPN (34 countries) or PrivateVPN (63 countries) will provide you with all the locations you need, because the major ones are always covered by all of them.
In terms of providing both a good server choice (80+ countries) AND low cost, then Private Internet Access is the best option I could find.
Differences in VPNs by Server Speed
This is again difficult to really pin down 100%, since you’ll often get different results comparing different VPNs one day to the next.
In my experience, I’ve never had problems with any Premium VPN being too slow. They all deliver acceptable or good performance for browsing or video streaming. I’ve managed to watch YouTube videos fine on every paid VPN service I’ve tried for example, even using servers further away. Page load speeds are also usually very good on most VPNs, though I have noticed PrivadoVPN connections sometimes provide slow page loading (but oddly, very good video streaming).
In this sense, Premium VPNs are pretty similar. However, here’s some providers that have a particularly good reputation for server speed specifically:
Differences in VPNs by Server Reliability
This is honestly not a massive factor nowadays, since Premium VPN providers tend to be up to speed in terms of what is required in terms of servers to give a good performance for customers. Most paid-for VPNs will deliver a plenty reliable-enough service, with 99%+ uptime.
But here are a few lesser known VPNs with poor reliability reputations that should be steered clear of:
- Touch VPN
Most of the rest should be fine. I’ve tried quite a few VPNs (free and paid) and I’ve never seen one with truly unreliable servers – they all do pretty much the same job. The worst I’ve seen from them is very occasional server disconnects (or one particular server temporarily down), but you can usually just connect to another one.
Differences in VPNs by Free Version Or Not
Not a massive factor for some users, but it can be useful if a VPN offers a free version, to at least try the service and interface out to see if you like it (and find it reliable), before buying a paid plan.
Here are some excellent free offerings from some VPN providers.
|Provider||Free Server Locations||Data Limit||More Info|
|ProtonVPN||3 (USA, Amsterdam, Japan)||Unlimited||See here|
|AtlasVPN||3 (USA East, USA West, Amsterdam)||Unlimited||See here|
|TurboVPN||4 (USA, Germany, Singapore, India).||Unlimited||See here|
|Hide.me||5 (Netherlands, USA*2, Germany, Canada)||10 GB/month||See here|
|PrivadoVPN||8 (USA, UK, Canada, Germany, France, Netherlands, Switzerland, Mexico)||10 GB/month||See here|
|Windscribe||10 (USA, UK, Canada, Hong Kong, France, Germany, Netherlands, Switzerland, Romania, Denmark).||10 GB/month||See here|
|Tunnelbear||49||500 MB/month||See here|
As you can see, the free versions are not always unlimited, but they can offer you a decent data allowance to try them out, and even for all your browsing if you live in a country where they’ve got free servers and don’t do a lot of streaming.
Here are some notable VPNs that DON’T currently offer a free version:
- Private Internet Access
- Le VPN
Note – some of these providers do offer a 30 day refund guarantee, which they class as “free” (try for “free”), but that’s not my definition of free. By free, I mean in this section 100% free VPNs with zero upfront payment needed to use them.
Differences in VPNs by Number of Simultaneous Connections Allowed
Pretty simple criteria – different VPNs allow their software to be installed and used at the same time on different numbers of devices per account.
Most Premium VPNs offer at least 5 devices/connections, but some offer more.
Here are some VPNs that offer Unlimited devices/connections per account:
This can be useful if you’re wanting to offer complete protection to a large home network with a lot of devices.
VyprVPN also offer a very generous allowance of 30 simultaneous connections.
Here are some that offer 10 devices/connections:
Most of the rest are going to offer 4 or 5 simultaneous connections/devices (NordVPN offer 6 connections), which might still be plenty enough for many users.
Differences in VPNs By Privacy (Zero Log Policy)
This is becoming less and less of a differentiating factor with most of the Premium VPNs now, since it’s pretty much expected as an industry standard now.
A zero log policy with a VPN basically refers to a policy whereby a provider does NOT collect or store any personally identifiable information about you (such as IP address, browsing history, connection times etc), that could be requested or passed on to third parties.
Whilst the wording and presentation differs slightly between VPNs, here is a bottom line criteria to use:
Put simply, if a VPN does not have a clearly advertised zero log policy, very clearly and unambiguously worded, with no significant caveats or clauses, then don’t use it if privacy is your main concern. Zero log policies are also more watertight if they have been officially audited as well by a third party, so this is a good thing to see from a provider.
A VPN’s zero log policy needs to be watertight to the extent that, even if authorities did ask them for user data, they couldn’t provide it because they don’t store it. If you’re in any doubt, open up a live chat and ask this question to a provider, and see what answer you get.
Whilst there is some debate about how water-tight and enforceable zero log policies really are, you still need to look for them, and avoid any VPN that doesn’t have one.
Also look for a VPN based in a country that has strong privacy and consumer protection laws.
Here are some example of this if this is your main concern:
- NordVPN – based in Panama, with ZERO data retention laws. Zero log policy.
- ProtonVPN, PrivadoVPN, VyprVPN – all based in Switzerland, with very strong data protection and privacy laws, and zero log policies.
- ExpressVPN – based in British Virgin Islands, with zero data retention laws. Zero log policy.
Other VPNs are based in different countries, like Singapore, Canada and Hong Kong, but basically if user privacy is your concern, then it might be best not to use a VPN that’s based in any country that belongs to The Fourteen Eyes intelligence sharing alliance (US, Commonwealth, major EU countries – Canada is one to watch out for, as some VPNs are based there).
As regards VPNs with bad reputations for tracking users or collecting data, or being infected with malware, it’s usually the free ones that have a bad reputation here.
Here are some ones to steer clear of:
- Hotspot Shield
- Betternet VPN
- Hola VPN
- Psiphon VPN
A Simple Criteria For Assessing VPNs (And Choosing One)
Here’s a simple decision making process for going through to decide whether it even matters which VPN you go for, and if so, which one to get:
- Use – For Basic (non streaming) use, all Premium VPNs are pretty much identical. Pick one you like either on branding or cost grounds and go for it!
- Streaming – If you specifically want access to streaming sites like Netflix, this is where you have to be picky. ExpressVPN or NordVPN are your best options here, though they cost more than some others.
- Zero logs – If you’re not bothered about privacy, and just want access to content, skip this. If you are privacy focused, make sure they have a watertight, audited, clearly worded zero logs policy, and are preferably based in a privacy friendly country.
- Number of devices – If you’re just going to be using it on one or a couple of your own devices, any VPN will sort you out. If you need something more comprehensive for the family, pick an option with 10 or more devices.
Bottom line decision – One Premium VPN that stands out as providing a lot of the best features all at once (10 devices, low cost, large server choice, good speeds, zero logs, some streaming access) is Private Internet Access (PIA). This would be my recommendation, but there are plenty of other good options as well.