If you’re on the hunt for a VPN that works well with Windows, you’re in luck. While MacOS users need to factor in several Apple-specific things, finding a reliable Windows VPN is a lot more straightforward. Thanks to Windows’ global domination as an operating system and its relatively customizable operating environment, nearly all the top VPN providers ensure their services will work seamlessly for anyone running Microsoft. So if Windows 10 or Windows 11 is your operating system of choice, you can breathe a sigh of relief. You won’t need to compromise on VPN quality and security.
All our top picks for the best VPNs to use in 2021 are compatible with all currently maintained Windows versions, and CNET has tested them for use in the latest available OS. All of them also offer a stand-alone VPN client that will work without a hitch on your desktop. (They’re likely to work on Windows 11 as well, which is available now for eligible devices and will continue to roll out through mid-2022. And if you still haven’t upgraded to Windows 10, you can do that for free.) I’ve specifically tackled some core factors in testing, including security strength, speed measurement and cost value.
CNET Windows Report
Check out our picks for the best VPN for Windows, ranked for their current performance on all categories. Once you choose the right VPN service for you, make sure you read our guide on how to set up a VPN on Windows 10.
Editors’ note: Following the Sept. 13 sale of ExpressVPN to Kape Technologies, a company that has raised significant privacy concerns for us in the past, we’re carefully re-evaluating ExpressVPN to determine the implications that its new ownership may have on users’ privacy. We’ll update our recommendations and reviews if and when warranted.
More about VPNs How we evaluate and review VPNs Best mobile VPN of 2021
Blazing speeds, proven privacy
Number of IP addresses: 30,000Number of servers: 3,000-plus in 160 locationsNumber of simultaneous connections: 5Country/jurisdiction: British Virgin Islands94-plus countriesThree months free with one-year plan, plus a free year of Backblaze cloud backup (limited-time offer)
ExpressVPN tells us its network is powered by TrustedServer technology, which the VPN provider built to ensure that there are never any logs of users’ online activities. In the privacy world, ExpressVPN has a strong track record, having experienced a server seizure by authorities which proved its zero-log policy true at the time. I also like the quality of the VPN’s setup guides and the detailed information in its FAQ.
While its speeds consistently compete with heavy-hitting competitors, CNET’s 2020 speed tests saw ExpressVPN produce a 52% overall loss of normal internet speeds, representing a significant slowdown compared with its 2019 score of 2% speed loss.
Like the rest of the top five VPN services, ExpressVPN offers a useful kill-switch security feature that prevents network data from leaking outside of its secure VPN tunnel in the event the VPN connection fails. ExpressVPN also offers excellent DNS leak protection. Unlike the others, though, ExpressVPN gained points for supporting Bitcoin as a payment method — something not all of my favorites offer, but which adds an additional layer of privacy during checkout.
The VPN service provider has been in business since 2009, and ExpressVPN has a substantial network of fast VPN server locations spread across 94 countries. This is the best VPN for protecting your online privacy, has best-in-class encryption, and provides unlimited bandwidth. Its best plan is priced at less than $7 a month for an annual package, which includes three months free.
Read more: ExpressVPN review: A VPN speed leader with a secure reputation
Read our ExpressVPN review.
Solid security suite
Company is based in privacy-friendly jurisdiction.
$6.67/mo for 1-yr plan + 3 mo free
See at ExpressVPN
A speed leader, packed with features
Number of servers: 3,200-plus
Number of VPN server locations: 65
Jurisdiction: British Virgin Islands
$2.21 a month (83% discount) for a two-year plan
While Surfshark’s network is smaller than some, the VPN service makes it up on features and connection speed. Let’s start off with the biggest win it offers: unlimited device support. If you want to run your entire home or office on Surfshark’s VPN, you don’t have to worry about how many devices you have on or connected. It also offers antimalware, ad-blocking and tracker-blocking as part of its software.
And it’s fast. With more than 3,200 servers in 65 countries, I lost less than 17% of average internet speed during our most recent speed tests. That’s faster than the 27% speed loss I saw in previous tests, and pushes it ahead of ExpressVPN to be the current front-runner in the speed comparisons.
Surfshark received generally high marks when its Chrome and Firefox extensions were audited for privacy by German security firm Cure 53 (PDF link of full report) — though that audit was commissioned by Surfshark.
The company has a solid range of app support, running on Mac, Windows, iOS, Android, Fire TV and routers. Additional devices such as game consoles can be configured for Surfshark via DNS settings. I particularly like the feature that allows you to whitelist certain apps and websites to automatically bypass the VPN. For some business uses, this can be critically important.
Surfshark also offers three special modes designed for those who want to get around restrictions and more carefully hide their online footsteps. Camouflage Mode masks your VPN activity so your ISP doesn’t know you’re using a VPN. Multihop jumps your internet connection through multiple countries to hide your trail. Finally, NoBorders Mode “allows [you] to successfully use Surfshark in restrictive regions.” Just be careful. Doing any of these three things could be illegal in your country and could result in severe penalties. During testing, I didn’t see a single IP address or DNS leak, and had no trouble accessing Netflix.
Unlike many of the other VPN providers, Surfshark doesn’t offer a one-year plan. Its best offer is $2.21 a month, for its two-year plan (you pay about $60 up front). A six-month plan is $6.49 a month (about $39 up front), and month-by-month plans are $12.95 a month. Definitely take advantage of its generous 30-day trial to decide if you like this VPN service (and if you choose the two-year plan, maybe set a reminder in 23 months to see if you can talk it into a continued discount rate).
Read more: Surfshark VPN review: A feature-rich service with blazing speeds and a security focus
Read our Surfshark VPN review.
$2.21/mo for 2-yr plan + 3 mo free
See at Surfshark
Best VPN for reliability and security
Number of IP addresses: 5,000Number of servers: 5,200-plus serversNumber of VPN server locations: 62Country/jurisdiction: Panama62 countries$3.71 a month (69% discount) for a two-year planNordVPN in-depth review and hands-on testing (ZDNet)
NordVPN is one of the most recognized brands in the VPN field. It offers a generous simultaneous connection count, with six simultaneous connections through its network, where nearly all other providers offer five or fewer. NordVPN also offers a dedicated IP option, for those looking for a different level of VPN connection. NordVPN offers a kill-switch feature, and the ability to VPN into Tor. I detected no privacy leaks during my tests.
In our most recent speed tests, NordVPN’s performance was on par with many of its competitors, reducing speeds by 53% on average (which is slower than the 32% loss measured in previous speed tests). I found NordVPN’s speeds were reliably fast. There were never any sudden dips or service interruptions, and where I expected the VPN to underperform, it proved itself up to the task.
The company’s two-year VPN subscription plan costs $3.71 a month ($99 billed at once). That price is lower than most contenders, but creeps up for the one-year plan ($4.92 a month or $59 total) and the monthly plan ($11.95 a month). But it does have a full 30-day refund policy.
While NordVPN has lived on this list for a long time, CNET moved it to the penalty box in October 2019 to re-evaluate our recommendation after a report emerged that one of its rented servers was accessed without authorization in 2018. Nord’s actions following the discovery included — eventually — multiple security audits, a bug bounty program and heavier investments in server security.
While I’d have preferred it if Nord had self-disclosed the issue much earlier, the fact that the breach was limited in nature and involved no user-identifying information served to further verify that NordVPN keeps no logs of user activity. As a result, Nord remains on this list as a recommended vendor.
Read more: NordVPN review: Still the best value for security and speed
Read our NordVPN review.
Reliable, competitive speeds
$3.30/mo for 2-yr plan
See at NordVPN
For more, check out our picks for the best cheap VPN and the fastest VPN. And here’s why we recommend avoiding a free VPN and using a paid VPN whenever possible.
Which VPN should you pick?