While on-board VPNs have been introduced by bothand in recent months, when it comes to protecting your privacy, there’s just no substitute for an unaffiliated and independent . Whether you’re browsing on public Wi-Fi at a hotel or airport, logging into your bank’s website, or just looking to enjoy some semblance of basic privacy on the web without having trackers trail you across your app — a safe, fast, and flexible VPN has become a cornerstone tool for your everyday smartphone user.
Finding the right VPN, however, is trickier. More than 480 million mobile VPN apps were downloaded around the world in just 12 months between 2019 and 2020. That’s 54% more than the year before, according to a report from research firm Top10VPN. And many of those subscribers are turning to free VPN services. While free services made up 84% of all mobile VPN downloads, we strongly recommend and using a thoroughly tested commercial VPN whenever possible. That’s what you’ll find below.
At present, this list is effectively a subset of our main. That’s because, during , we look into each service’s mobile app experience before we rank them. It may not always be the case that the best VPN overall will be the best to use with your mobile device, but a growing mobile-first approach among most leading providers has, in this case, paid off for the leading providers and their subscribers. Most recently, we’ve found the ranking champions on our overall best VPN list to have made competitive strides with their product’s mobile offering for both Apple and Android products, a trend we expect to continue.
For the same reason, this list also currently reflects the same rankings you’ll find in our list ofand the . If and when a VPN offers a mobile client more closely tailored to the environment of either of those smartphones, you’ll see those changes reflected in their respective directory.
As always, we’re actively working on more research and testing. As such, you might see this list updated as we stay on top of security improvements, speed rankings, cost value and user-friendliness for each of these apps.
- Intuitive app interface, with plenty of power under the hood
- Number of servers: 3,200-plus
- Number of VPN server locations: 65
- Country/jurisdiction: British Virgin Islands
Despite its customizability and powerful performance as a VPN, Surfshark’s iOS and Android apps offer an interface that is surprisingly intuitive for first-time users. Its four-tab design elegantly conceals a host of privacy tools and connection options, highlighting a single-click connection button on the app’s landing screen.
Quickly access one of Surfshark’s multihop connection options — one of its most promising features, which jumps your connection through multiple countries to hide your trail — through its main location-selection screen, with no need to rummage through the app’s VPN settings. Surfshark also gets bonus points for making its customer support options readily available, including its help ticket feature and user guide library.
Read more: Surfshark VPN review: A feature-rich service with blazing speeds and a security focus
While Surfshark’s network is smaller than some, the VPN service makes up for it in features. 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.
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 VPN provider has a solid range of app support, running on Mac, Windows, iOS, Android, FireTV and routers. Additional devices such as game consoles can be configured for Surfshark via DNS settings. We 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.
Along with multihop, Surfshark also offers two more 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. And NoBorders Mode “allows [you] to successfully use Surfshark in restrictive regions.”
Just be careful. Doing any of those things could be illegal in your country and could result in severe penalties. During our testing, we didn’t see a DNS leak or IP address leak, and had no trouble accessing Netflix.
Unlike many other VPN providers, Surfshark doesn’t offer a one-year plan. Its best offer is $2.49 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 $13 a month. Definitely take advantage of its generous 30-day trial to decide if you like this 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 our Surfshark VPN review.
Screenshot by David Gewirtz/CNET
- Simple, fast, effective iOS app
- Number of servers: 3,000-plus
- Number of VPN server locations: 160
- Country/jurisdiction: British Virgin Islands
Just as ExpressVPN consistently proves itself to be one of the fastest VPNs on the market, its apps for iOS and Android are designed with a streamlined approach aimed at connecting fast without a fuss. A single button on its landing screen directs you to connect quickly, with the only accompanying option a drop-down server location selector with your fastest nearby city selected by default.
ExpressVPN’s other options — its security and privacy tools, account and settings options, and support page — are all kept neatly tucked away under a garden variety three-bar icon in the screen’s top left corner. And they’re worth checking into. ExpressVPN has included an on-board IP address checker, along with two leak testers and a password generator.
Read more: ExpressVPN review: A VPN speed leader with a secure reputation
The company tells us its network is powered by TrustedServer technology, which ExpressVPN built to ensure that there are never any logs of its users’ online activities. In the privacy world, ExpressVPN has a strong track record, having experienced a server seizure by authorities which proved their zero-log policy true at the time. We also like the quality of the VPN’s setup guides, and the detailed information in its FAQ.
Like the rest of the top five VPN services we’ve reviewed, ExpressVPN offers a useful kill switch feature, which prevents network data from leaking outside of its secure VPN tunnel in the event the VPN connection fails. Unlike the others, though, ExpressVPN gained points from us for its support of bitcoin as a payment method — something not all of our favorites offer, but which adds an additional layer of privacy during checkout.
The company has been in business since 2009, and ExpressVPN has a substantial network of fast VPN servers spread across 94 countries. Its best plan is priced at less than $7 a month for an annual package, which includes three months free.
Read our ExpressVPN review.
- An easy to use, reliable VPN application
- Number of servers: 5,200-plus servers
- Number of VPN server locations: 62
- Country/jurisdiction: Panama
NordVPN is one of the most recognized brands in the VPN field. Part of that brand recognition is based on its intuitive design. The Nord VPN iOS app is just as easy to interact with as its desktop client, with a similar design. It poses no learning curve if you’re new to the app and looking to move from desktop to a mobile iOS device like an iPhone or iPad.
Just as the desktop client does, Nord’s Android and iPhone apps open to a familiar blue-scale landing screen map where a user can opt to either select a country or connect to the fastest server automatically. Nord gets bonus points for its split-tunneling feature, which allows you to select other apps that you don’t want to run through your encrypted VPN connection.
Read more: NordVPN review: Still the best value for security and speed
Nord offers a generous simultaneous connection count, with six connections allowed through its network — 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. We detected no privacy leaks during our tests, and found its speeds to be reliably fast.
The company’s one-year subscription plan costs $4.92 a month ($59 billed at once). While that yearly price is lower than most other contenders, the month-to-month price of $12 is at the high end of the spectrum. But the VPN provider does offer a full 30-day refund policy.
While NordVPN has lived on our top VPNs list for a long time, we 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 we’d have preferred that Nord 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 its VPN user activity. As a result, Nord remains on our list as a recommended VPN service provider.
Read our NordVPN review.
Screenshot by David Gewirtz/CNET
- Most customizable VPN app
- Number of servers: 1,600
- Number of VPN server locations: 75
- Country/jurisdiction: US
A big win for IPVanish is its fun, configurable interface, which makes it an ideal client for those who are interested in learning how to understand what a VPN does under the hood. With both its iOS and Android apps, IPVanish manages to pack the same extensive suite of digital knobs and dials into a smaller screen to impressive effect.
If you’re looking for the ability to do some precision-tuning to your VPN connection, IPVanish is a solid bet. From generating visual graphs of your internet activity to a bevy of switches controlling split-tunnelling, LAN connection allowance and more — IPVanish is an app for the methodical tech tweaker who enjoys having exact control over their mobile traffic.
Read more: IPVanish review: Get under the hood with this zippy VPN
Its multiplatform flexibility is also ideal for people focused on finding a Netflix-friendly VPN.
A unique feature of IPVanish, and one we’re intrigued by, is the VPN’s support of Kodi, the open-source media streaming app that was once known as XBMC. The integrated IPVanish Kodi plugin provides access to media worldwide.
At $11 a month or $65 a year, IPVanish VPN is obviously trying to move you towards its yearly program. We’re a little disappointed that it only allows a seven-day trial, rather than a full 30 days, but it does offer a full money-back guarantee. That said, the company gets kudos for its recent increase from 10 to now unlimited simultaneous connections. We also liked its connection kill switch feature, a must for anyone serious about remaining anonymous while surfing.
Read our IPVanish review.
What is a mobile VPN?
Use a mobile-friendly VPN to avoid slower speeds and ensure greater data privacy for your whole device. Mobile VPNs generally have a smaller memory footprint, and require less processing power than desktop VPNs, so they run faster and save more battery. Our top three VPNs listed above all have excellent, easy-to-use mobile app options for their services. Some VPNs will only work with one type of platform — like Apple or Android — and some are universally compatible. To find the right mobile VPN for you, check out our other mobile-specific VPN guides below. We routinely update them with our re-testing information so check back often.
What’s the best free VPN?
None of them. Seriously. While there are plenty of excellent free security and privacy apps online, VPNs sadly aren’t among them. Safe VPNs cost companies a lot of money to operate and keep secure, and a free VPN app is almost always a malware-laden data snoop. But there’s good news: The burgeoning VPN market is hyper-competitive right now, so prices for even the best VPNs regularly drop to less than $5 a month. In fact, the least expensive VPN we’ve seen so far ranks in our top three VPNs overall for security and speed. Check out our quick list of budget-savvy VPNs to find one in your price range.