How We Test & Review VPNs

Headshot of Site Editor Callum Tennent

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

We put every VPN on our website through an extensive and fair test program, making sure to only recommend the very best VPN services. Here we explain exactly how our testing experts rate VPNs and why you should trust our process.

Our VPN Reviews Are Always Unbiased

Unlike other VPN review websites, our VPN reviews are impartial and free from outside influence.

We never take compensation in exchange for positive coverage, and VPN services will never have a say in how we rate the products we review.

Our team of VPN experts runs each VPN through the same in-depth test program, ensuring that all the results you see are directly comparable, with no favoritism or bias.

We test on a wide range of platforms, and we purchase every single subscription at full retail price. Our goal is to make sure that, once you buy a VPN, your experience using it is as similar to ours as possible.

PayPal receipts for various VPN subscriptions

To avoid bias, we purchase every VPN subscription at full retail price.

We do everything in our power to make your buying decision as easy as possible, and your needs always come first. We are always honest, transparent, and open in our reviews.

To learn more about how we can afford to maintain such high editorial standards, head over to our page explaining how we make money.

Our VPN Testing Methodology

Across you’ll see two different types of ratings for VPNs: overall ratings and use case ratings.

Use Case Ratings

When you want to see the best VPNs for a specific use, device, or region, our experts create a special methodology just for that page.

They consider the most important decision-making factors specifically for that task and assign them a weighting that reflects how much they matter. These subcategory ratings combine to create a unique overall rating for that use case.

Don’t worry if that all sounds a little confusing – you can find a full testing methodology, as well as the thought process from the expert behind them, on every ‘Best VPN’ page.

Overall VPN Ratings

An overall rating, which you see on all 70 VPN reviews, is what this page is dedicated to explaining.

Our experts calculate this rating based on a fixed set of testing categories they believe to be the most important for all VPNs, no matter how you plan on using them. These ratings are formed from years of first-hand impartial testing data.

There are seven key areas that we award ratings to on every VPN review. Here they are, along with the proportion they contribute towards a VPN’s overall rating:

  • Privacy & Logging Policy: 30%
  • Speed & Reliability: 25%
  • Features, Encryption & Security: 20%
  • Streaming: 10%
  • Torrenting: 5%
  • Ease of Use: 5%
  • Support: 5%

We also award ratings to three other areas: ‘Price & Value for Money’, ‘Bypassing Censorship’, and ‘Server Locations’.

Price & Value for money does not receive a weighting. We believe that price is entirely subjective – what is expensive for one user is affordable for another.

As such, it does not factor into the final overall rating. The subcategory rating is simply there so that you can compare one VPN to another.

Bypassing Censorship and Server Locations are also not given their own individual weighting. That is because they are a contributing factor to the 20% allocated to ‘Features, Encryption & Security’.

We highlight it and give it its own subcategory rating, though, as to some readers it is considered an extremely important feature.

Read on to see exactly what we look for when we test VPN services, how important we consider each category, and what separates a decent VPN from a great one.

1. Privacy & Logging Policy: 30%

Minimum Requirement: No personal data retained and all aggregated data deleted ASAP.
We Recommend: A strict zero-logs policy with absolutely no activity or connection logs.

We begin every review by visiting the VPN service’s website and reading through its privacy policy and logging documents.

Almost every VPN retains some amount of data. Some of this is perfectly acceptable, like the total number of users connected to a server or the total amount of data transferred in a 24-hour period. We often refer to these logs as ‘aggregated usage data’, and they pose no threat to your privacy.

Some other logs are not so harmless. We instantly penalize any VPN that logs your IP address, for example. The same goes for any VPN storing your DNS requests or browsing history.

It’s not always so obvious, though. Privacy policies can be deliberately confusing or dense, packed with legal terms. Others are entirely too short, leaving far too many questions unanswered.

Our experts take a deep-dive into the history and ownership of every VPN. Who owns the company? Where is it based? Can these people be trusted with your sensitive data? If we aren’t satisfied with the answers to these questions, then the VPN will score poorly.

2. Speed & Reliability: 25%

Minimum Requirement: Fast enough for HD streaming on local connections.
We Recommend: Less than 20% speed loss on local connections or 40% on distant ones.

Speed is another factor that impacts every single VPN user. It impacts every single thing you do while connected to your VPN, and if it’s too slow you’re less inclined to use it.

We have two different testing methods for calculating VPN speed:

Method #1: Manual Speed Tests

We use manual speed tests to measure the speed of every VPN service you see reviewed on our website. To begin with, we record our internet speed without the VPN running.

We then launch the VPN, connecting to servers in the US (East Coast), UK, Australia, Central Europe (usually Germany, or France), and Singapore. If one of these locations is not available, we’ll test a nearby country or region instead.

Testing locations around the world gives a good overview of how a VPN performs over short, medium and long distances.

ExpressVPN speed testing with

Our manual speed tests compare connection speeds before and after connecting to a VPN.

We test each location several times, and we compare the average speed in each location to our speeds without the VPN active.

This allows us to calculate the VPN’s percentage speed loss.

For each region, the amount of speed lost is assigned a specific score. This applies to download and upload speeds lost, as well as latency gained. Below is how much each of these three factors affects the overall speed rating:

  • Download speed: 70%
  • Upload speed: 20%
  • Ping: 5%

Local connection speed (for example, from London to London) is prioritized, with the importance decreasing the further away the location is. We also factor in upload speeds and ping/latency, too.

We test VPN speeds using whichever connection protocol the provider recommends as fastest, while still being secure.

In some instances that can be a proprietary protocol created by the VPN service, but most of the time it will either be OpenVPN or WireGuard. IKEv2 is also a popular choice.

screenshot of the protocol settings menu on ExpressVPN's desktop app

We test every VPN service using the fastest connection protocol they offer.

Method #2: Automated Speed Tests

We have developed a global testing tool that tests VPN speeds throughout each day, in order to deliver accurate and up-to-date figures.

Currently, we use our tool to automatically test the 18 popular VPNs. The locations we test are:

  • Amsterdam, NL
  • Frankfurt, DE
  • London, UK
  • New York, US
  • Paris, FR
  • San Francisco, US
  • Singapore
  • Sydney, AU
  • Tokyo, JP
  • Toronto, CA
  • Vancouver, CA

Our testing infrastructure, made in-house by our engineering team, runs automated tests between and within every city listed above. This gives you great insights into how a VPN will perform for you all around the world.

Here’s a sample of what our VPN speed test tool looks like, along with live data from some of the fastest VPN providers:

NB: The data from our manual testing is used to calculate the speed rating in our VPN reviews. The automated data is used in our list of the top five fastest VPNs. It is designed to be a live comparative tool for readers such as yourself.

3. Features, Encryption & Security: 20%

Minimum Requirement: AES-128 encryption, 100 servers, internet kill switch.
We Recommend: All the above, plus extra security features and obfuscation tools.

A VPN’s main job is to keep you safe and anonymous online. That’s why we lend such a high weighting to this category.

The first thing we check for is the protocol selection. OpenVPN (UDP/TCP) and IKEv2 are two safe and popular choices. WireGuard is a newer option that’s also a great choice, along with a number of proprietary protocols created by VPN services themselves.

We also check the encryption standard. AES-256 is commonplace, and incredibly secure. AES-128 is slightly less common, but can also be trusted. We run IPv4, IPv4, DNS, WebRTC, and HTML5 geolocation leaks to make sure that the VPN is functioning properly.

We count every single VPN server, along with the number of countries and individual cities they’re located in. The number of these, plus the evenness of their global spread is what is used to calculate the Server Locations rating.

The Private Internet Access app, showing how you can customize your VPN encryption settings.

Advanced security features are factored into our overall ratings.

We try out every extra feature on every platform, too – the kill switch is the most important, but obfuscation, split-tunneling, and ad blockers are also popular.

This area is also where the ability to bypass censorship is considered. Working against censorship is more of a bonus than a must-have feature, but it’s extremely impressive when a VPN can manage it.

We have a test server located in China which we can connect to remotely from our office in London. We have a variety of VPNs installed on it and test them for their ability to bypass the Great Firewall of China on a weekly basis.

4. Streaming: 10%

Minimum Requirement: Works with US Netflix.
We Recommend: Unblocks numerous streaming services and multiple regional content libraries.

There’s nothing too complex about how we test VPNs for streaming: we simply buy a subscription to the service in question and test which VPN servers work to unblock it.

We currently have active subscriptions and accounts for:

  • Netflix
  • Amazon Prime Video
  • Disney+ (including Star)
  • HBO Max
  • DAZN
  • Hulu
  • Showtime
  • BBC iPlayer
  • Now TV (Sky)
  • ITV Hub
  • All 4
  • Spotify

Where applicable we attempt to access multiple libraries located all around the world, which can mean connecting to dozens of different servers using multiple protocols.

The ability to stream US Netflix is the bare minimum, and the ideal streaming VPN will also consistently work with BBC iPlayer, Disney+, as well as multiple other Netflix libraries.

Using NordVPN with US Netflix

Top-rated VPNs consistently work with US streaming services.

While dedicated streaming servers can be useful if they work reliably, we favor VPNs which simply work with the desired service on any server in the relevant country.

We undertake these streaming tests on a weekly basis, on both desktop operating systems and an Amazon Fire TV Stick.

5. Torrenting: 5%

Minimum Requirement: Allows unrestricted P2P traffic on multiple servers worldwide.
We Recommend: Allows torrenting on all servers, with no restrictions and no logs retained.

Our testing method for torrenting is one of our most complex. We primarily care about bitrate – that’s how fast the torrent client is able to download while the VPN is running.

We capture a benchmark by downloading a torrent without a VPN connected, then record the speeds downloading the same torrent with the VPN running and calculate the difference.

The second most important factors are whether the VPN can be trusted with your data. What’s its privacy policy like and, equally importantly, how has it handled data requests in the past?

Another key factor is the spread of P2P-enabled servers. The ideal VPN allows torrenting on every server. In the event that one doesn’t, we look for a good global spread so that no user has to resort to a server thousands of miles from their location.

Finally, we want to see two key features: a VPN kill switch and port forwarding. One severs your connection in the event that the VPN drops (preventing other torrenters from seeing your true IP address).

The other opens ports on your network adapter, allowing torrents to transfer at a significantly higher speed. Very few VPNs offer both.

6. Ease of Use: 5%

Minimum Requirement: Easy installation and intuitive apps on most major platforms.
We Recommend: All of the above, plus clear in-app labels and apps for unusual platforms.

‘Ease of use’ is a difficult category to quantify. A great deal of usability can come down to personal preference, but our testers try to look at each VPN as objectively as possible.

At the very least, a VPN should be quick and easy to set up. It shouldn’t take more than a couple of clicks to connect to a server, with all the basic options located where you’d expect to find them.

We consider Microsoft Windows, Google Android, and Apple macOS and iOS to be the ‘core’ platforms. Most VPNs offer an app for all four, and if they don’t we’ll contact customer support to ask why.

VPN testing devices on a desk

We download and test every VPN on real equipment in our office.

Any platforms beyond that are a bonus. Linux, Amazon Fire TV, router GUIs, and browser extensions may be more niche, but can be equally important to some users.

The very best VPNs provide as much assistance and clarity within their applications as possible. Clearly labelled toggles, intuitive layouts, and even in-built walkthroughs go a long way to making new users feel comfortable, and we reward these features in our overall ratings.

7. Customer Support: 5%

Minimum Requirement: A support email address and online troubleshooting guides.
We Recommend: All of the above, plus 24/7 live chat support and in-depth FAQs.

Even our testing experts can run into trouble while using a VPN. Even the top VPNs aren’t flawless, but what sets them apart from the rest is how they handle issues from users.

At the very least a VPN should offer a dedicated contact email. You shouldn’t have to wait days for a response, either – the quicker the better, and certainly no longer than 48 hours.

Online resources are a huge help, too. Not everyone likes having to speak to a human to resolve an issue, and not all issues require that. There’s no excuse for a VPN to not have basic troubleshooting guides on its website.

We reward VPN services with extensive online resources. Setup guides for trickier platforms, troubleshooting for frequent error codes, and guides on how to utilize more advanced features are all big bonuses.

surfshark live chat

High-quality customer support is integral to every VPN rating.

Most importantly of all, though, is live chat. Being able to talk to a real human, on-demand, is an incredible bonus – particularly if that support is available around the clock. More and more VPNs are adding this feature to their service, and it’s a huge win for consumers.

About the Author

  • Headshot of Site Editor Callum Tennent

    Callum Tennent

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