What Is a VPN?
When you connect to a virtual private network, or VPN, it routes your web traffic through an encrypted connection to a server operated by the VPN company. An observer will see all your web traffic (and the traffic of other VPN customers) flowing in and out of the VPN server, not your Android device. Also, when you're connected to a VPN, your true IP address is hidden. All a snooping advertiser or scurrilous spy will see is the IP address of the VPN server. This protects your privacy but also makes it harder for anyone to discern your location because IP addresses are distributed geographically.
All this helps protect your privacy online. Advertisers and corporations are eager to know your habits, but a VPN makes it harder for them to track you online. A VPN also prevents your ISP from seeing what you're up to—which is good, because they're also keen to monetize your data.
Mobile devices are unique because they have so many ways to communicate with the internet with both a Wi-Fi and cellular radio onboard. They also move around with us, out of our safe home networks and into all sorts of other places. We've seen some remarkable research that hints at the privacy consequences of mobile devices: phony wi-fi devices that impersonate familiar networks can ensnare thousands of unsuspected devices, and bogus base stations that can track phones (and perhaps intercept data). These are exotic concerns, but it's important to understand the worst-case scenarios to protect yourself.
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What a VPN Isn't
Too much of the security industry relies on fear, uncertainty, and doubt among consumers. Although there are absolutely threats to your privacy and security lurking out there, no single tool will protect against all of them.
While some VPN services claim to protect you against malware and phishing sites, standalone antivirus software undoubtedly does a better job of this. One of the most dangerous threats people face is having an account taken over by an attacker. To protect against this, we strongly recommend using a password manager to create strong, unique passwords for every site and service you use. We also recommend enabling multi-factor authentication, wherever it's available. While VPNs do make it harder for you to be tracked online, advertisers and snoopers have a variety of tools at their disposal, such as browser fingerprinting. We strongly recommend familiarizing yourself with the privacy settings in Android OS and in your browser of choice.
Keep in mind that although VPNs do improve your privacy online they aren't true anonymization services and you can't use one to connect to hidden websites on the dark web. For both of those activities, you should use the Tor anonymization network. There are Tor client Android apps on the Google Play store, so getting online with Tor is simple.
Finally, a VPN could potentially have as much insight into your online activity as your ISP, so it's important to pick a VPN you can trust. When we review VPNs, we read through privacy policies and interview company representatives to understand what efforts they make to protect customers. If for whatever reason you don't think you can trust a particular VPN, choose another. There are plenty.
Do VPNs Work With Netflix?
A common use of VPNs is location spoofing. When you send your web traffic through an encrypted tunnel to a remote server, the data appears to originate from the VPN server rather than your actual location. Journalists and activists have used this capability to get around restrictive internet controls imposed by various governments.
But for most people, location spoofing with a VPN is for streaming content that's restricted to specific geographic regions. That said, video streaming services are starting to get wise. We've noticed that Hulu and Amazon Prime Video also frequently block access when they detect a VPN. Note that streaming companies are well within their rights to block VPN users. Just because you're paying to watch Netflix in the US doesn't mean you are allowed to view UK Netflix.
Some VPNs work with Netflix, but their effectiveness can change on a day-to-day basis as the streaming companies and VPN services play a cat-and-mouse game of spoofing and blocking.
VPNs and Speed
It's not surprising that rerouting your connection to other, perhaps distant, servers can negatively impact your internet speeds. Usually, a VPN greatly increases your latency and reduces the speed of download and uploads. The severity of the impact depends on the location of the VPN servers and the network infrastructure the VPN provider can access, among other things.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has limited our access to the PCMag Labs test network, requiring us to change how we perform VPN speed tests. Instead of testing all the products back-to-back once a year, we are continuing to test VPNs and update the results on an ongoing basis. Note that we don't look at VPN performance over cellular connections. That's because we can't control how or when the phone connects with cell towers. Instead, we test speeds only on Windows machines. Our most recent results are in the table below.
What Makes a Good Android VPN?
Although Android phones and tablets are a radically different form factor than desktops and laptops, what we look for in a VPN remains the same.
The number and distribution of available VPN servers provided by the company is important. Lots of servers in lots of places means finding a server near where you live and while traveling should be easier than with a service that has only a few server locations. A surfeit of servers also means there are many options when spoofing your location.
The location of a VPN company is also important. Depending on where the company has its corporate headquarters, local laws may require the company to retain user data. That's not a good thing, especially if maintaining your privacy is your primary concern. We read each company's terms of service and interview representatives to fully understand the security and privacy measures a VPN provides.
Another important feature Android owners should look for is split tunneling. This lets you designate which apps send their data through the VPN connection and which travel outside it. That's useful for apps that frequently block VPN access or require a lot of bandwidth but not security—such as video or music streaming apps as well as mobile games.
The price and number of licenses per subscription are important factors to consider. VPN services range from free to incredibly expensive, but it's typical for a service to allow five simultaneous accounts per subscription. Some companies have started moving away from this restrictive model, which is good news for consumers. If you're paying more than about $10 per month, be sure that the VPN service offers features that justify the price. Our list of the cheapest VPNs is a good place to start and our list of free VPNs gets the job done without requiring you to open your wallet.
Finally, it's worth thinking about the experience of using a VPN app. If it's ugly, confusing, or difficult to use, you probably won't use it. A good VPN app doesn't need to be a work of art, but it should be reliable and easy to use. Look for apps with simple interfaces and ones that provide most, if not all, of the functionality you'd find in the desktop version of the app.
VPNs On the Move
VPNs help protect your privacy, even when you're using your smartphone or tablet. It won't protect you from every threat, of course, but it's a simple way to be more secure.
(Editors’ Note: While they may not all appear in this story, Encrypt.me, IPVanish, and StrongVPN are owned by Ziff Davis, PCMag's parent company.)