When it comes to virtual private networks, or VPNs, NordVPN has proved itself to be our top service for securing your online activities. The company now has more than 3,400 servers across the globe, including specially optimized servers. It also takes a strong stance on privacy for its customers. NordVPN wraps all that up in a snazzy client that’s consistent across every platform on which it’s offered, and it includes ad blocking for good measure. For its superlative user experience, numerous features, and robust service, it’s a rare 5-star PCMag Editors’ Choice winner.
What Is a VPN?
When researchers cobbled together the ARPANET in 1969, they didn’t give much thought to security or privacy. While the internet has changed a lot in the intervening decades, it’s still true that the web does little to protect your identity and your data. That’s why you need a VPN.
When you switch on a VPN, it creates an encrypted tunnel between your computer and a server controlled by the VPN service. All your web traffic is routed through this tunnel, meaning that no one, not even someone on the same network as you, can sneak a peek at your data. It also prevents malicious network operators from intercepting your information or using DNS poisoning techniques to trick you into visiting phishing pages. A VPN will even protect your web traffic from being monitored by your ISP, which is critically important now that Congress has given a green light to ISPs to sell user data.
Because your web traffic appears to emanate from the VPN server and not your home computer, your true IP address is hidden from the outside world. That’s valuable, because an IP address can be used by spies and advertisers to track your movements across the web. IP addresses can also be used to approximate your location, which is another reason to keep it hidden.
VPNs have long been used by journalists and political activists to access websites blocked by repressive governments. You can also use them to bypass the blocks placed on streaming content that’s limited to certain geographic regions. For example, if you jump to a VPN server in Canada, you may find you’re able to watch MLB games for free. It’s worth noting that Netflix actively blocks VPN users, so a VPN that works with Netflix one day may be blocked the next.
Pricing and Features
NordVPN supports Android, Chrome, Firefox, iOS, Linux, macOS, and Windows with handy apps. NordVPN’s mobile clients both allow you to purchase full subscriptions through their respective app stores. Alternatively, you can configure some routers to connect via NordVPN. Doing so supplies coverage for all the devices on your network, including smart home devices that can’t run a VPN on their own.
NordVPN offers three pricing tiers: $11.95 per month, $69.00 annually, or $79.00 every two years. The company accepts credit cards, of course, but also PayPal, various anonymous cryptocurrencies, and other online payment methods. NordVPN has a 30-day money-back guarantee, too.
NordVPN also offers a three-day free trial, but activating the trial is more than a little convoluted. The company has offered the free trial for years, but it still hasn’t made it easy to access, and, considering the limitations, it’s almost not worth it. There are many capable and more generous free VPN services out there. TunnelBear and other services offer free versions with a limited amount of data available per month, or sometimes per day.
As of this writing, the average price for a top-rated VPN service is about $10.50. NordVPN is notably a bit above that average, but its host of extra features, excellent apps, and core service more than justify the price tag. That said, other VPN services have more flexible pricing plans. KeepSolid VPN Unlimited, for example, offers a $3.99 week-long subscription. That’s ideal for a short trip abroad, when using a VPN is a must. VPN Unlimited also offers a lifetime subscription, in case you want to hedge your bets on encryption for the 22nd century.
You can use up to six devices simultaneously on NordVPN, though there are some limitations concerning connecting devices to the same server. That’s still excellent, as most VPN services limit you to five simultaneous connections. If you need more than six devices, consider installing NordVPN on your router (as mentioned above), or purchasing a subscription with TorGuard VPN. That service lets you add more simultaneous connections for an additional fee.
One of the perks of using a VPN is that your actual IP address is hidden from the outside world. Some users may require a static IP address, however, which NordVPN can also provide. For a $70.00 fee, you can secure a dedicated IP address on a NordVPN server in Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, or the United States. Static IP addresses are handy if you are concerned about VPN traffic being blocked, and NordVPN’s wide selection of US and Western European IP addresses means your new static IP will go unrecognized. Other services, such as TorGuard VPN and VPN Unlimited, also offer static IP addresses and other add-ons.
There are several ways to establish a VPN connection, using different protocols. Our preference is for services that use OpenVPN, which is open source and therefore been thoroughly picked over for potential problems. It also has a reputation for excellent speed and quickly reestablishing a connection.
NordVPN supports OpenVPN and my second-best choice, IKEv2/IPSec. The older and less secure PPTP and L2TP protocols are also supported. Note that many iPhone apps don’t currently use OpenVPN, as Apple has more stringent requirements for apps that include this technology. NordVPN, however, does.
For its proxy extensions in Firefox and Chrome, the company uses TLS 1.2. Most consumers won’t have to worry about this distinction. If that sounds like you, just rest assured that NordVPN is using good technology by default.
Servers and Server Locations
NordVPN lets you select one from a list of 59 countries, encompassing some 3,400 servers, as of the last count. That puts it slightly above Private Internet Access, which offers 3,275 servers in 44 locations across 28 countries. The bulk of NordVPN’s servers are in the US and the UK, which is not unusual for VPN companies. However, NordVPN has a good mix of servers the world over, covering several locations across Asia, Central and South America, Central and Eastern Europe, and a handful in India and the Middle East. The company currently offers only one location in Africa—South Africa—and I would like to see more added in the future. NordVPN offers servers in Turkey, Hong Kong, and Russia, all of which have repressive internet policies.
Recently, NordVPN announced that its servers are accessible from within China. This means that anyone within the country could circumvent government control over websites. That’s particularly notable, because China’s so-called Great Firewall greatly restricts the sites that can be accessed from within the country’s borders. Access is only available to Windows users, although other platforms will be added, the company says. We’ll see how that holds up against China’s recent efforts to restrict VPN use.
A NordVPN representative told me that all of its servers are dedicated, and none is a virtual server. That means that the servers are physically located where they claim to be, an important distinction when you are considering where your data is living. VPN companies have various ways of handling this. Golden Frog VyprVPN, for example, only stores customer data in Zurich, Switzerland, regardless of the VPN server location. AnchorFree Hotspot Shield Elite, on the other hand, is 20 percent virtual servers.
VPN services can spin up new servers on an as-needed basis, but I still regard these numbers as important. The more diverse the location of servers, the more options you have for spoofing your location. It’s also more likely that you can find a nearby server when traveling, which generally translates to better VPN performance. The number of servers is also important; the more servers there are, the fewer people connecting to the same server, giving each user a larger slice of the bandwidth pie.
NordVPN’s best feature, however, is the variety of specialized servers it offers. These include servers for BitTorrent VPN traffic. Other VPN services have selection tools to help you solve specific problems, but NordVPN goes further with unique offerings such as double encryption, connection to the TOR anonymization network, and anti-DDoS servers.
Your Privacy With NordVPN
When you use a VPN, it has as much insight into your online activities as your ISP does. If it so desired, it could examine every bit of information passing through its system. It also can potentially identify you to another party—law enforcement, for example—making it possible to track you online. That’s why it’s important that before you buy a VPN subscription, you understand and are comfortable with the steps the company has made to safeguard your privacy.
A representative from NordVPN assured me that the company does not insert ads into your web traffic, nor does it profit from the sale of user data. As for data it gathers, the company representative told me that NordVPN only collects aggregated app-crash statistics and voluntary diagnostic data. The representative also affirmed that NordVPN does not collect any personally identifiable information.
NordVPN is based in and operates under the legal jurisdiction of Panama, where there are no laws requiring data retention. The company says it doesn’t collect log data, so it has no information it can actually hand over in response to a subpoena.
Hands On With NordVPN
For this review, I used a Lenovo ThinkPad T460s laptop running the latest version of Windows 10. Some VPN services prefer to just use the VPN client software built into the operating system instead of creating a stand-alone application. NordVPN offers both options. I performed all of my tests using the NordVPN Windows client.
Nearly every VPN company I have reviewed so far offers handy apps instead of requiring that you manually set up your VPN. NordVPN has always offered an excellent user experience with its apps, regardless of the platform you use. The current Windows client looks like and shares a lot of design features with the NordVPN mobile apps, with a monochrome blue map as its focus. It’s a bit whimsical, with submarines and ships on the cartoon seas, but it’s an easy way to select the server you want. A search bar at the top of the screen makes short work of finding a server if your geography skills are lacking, or you can view the servers as a list. This last option places the specialized servers at the top, and it provides useful analytics about the load on any given server.
Clicking the Quick Connect option at the top of the screen or the System Tray, will connect you to the VPN server that NordVPN thinks is best (generally, the closest and therefore fastest). That’s a great option for people unfamiliar with VPN services, as is the Settings option that forces NordVPN to launch and connect on startup.
From the Settings section you can also change the DNS resolution service, although NordVPN uses its own secure option. The client includes options to automatically connect on startup, but it doesn’t have a split tunneling feature that lets you route some traffic outside the VPN’s encrypted tunnel. TunnelBear is one VPN service that does include this feature, though using it does limit your protection.
In the NordVPN settings you can also select a TCP or UDP connection, and even opt to connect to what the company calls “obfuscated servers,” which it says helps circumvent government VPN blocking. The client also includes a Kill Switch that shuts off access to the internet for specific applications, should your computer become disconnected from the VPN.
NordVPN and Netflix
I am pleasantly surprised that NordVPN did not interfere with Netflix at all in my testing. That’s great, because Netflix blocks VPNs aggressively.
That said, other companies offer specialized servers just for streaming video services. Previous versions of NordVPN highlighted special streaming servers, and I wish they’d do that again.
Many VPNs include additional features to help secure customers and lure in new ones. NordVPN has a small collection it calls CyberSec. With it, NordVPN can block ads and malware, and prevent DDoS activity at the network level.
I don’t test the efficacy of ad blocking with VPNs, but I did confirm that far fewer ads loaded on pages when NordVPN was active than when it wasn’t. I really like that VPNs are adding this particular feature, since many online ads contain trackers that can correlate your movement between websites. That said, TunnelBear provides ad and tracker blocking in a handy browser plug-in that offers far more flexibility in what get ads get blocked and on what sites. My preferred ad blocker for browsers is still the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Privacy Badger.
To block malware payloads, NordVPN uses blacklists of known malicious sites, as well as phishing sites that are designed to trick you into handing over your personal information. It’s a good start, but these sites are short-lived, and new ones pop up in seconds. Plus, blacklists can only do so much. Stand-alone antivirus applications include advanced heuristic models that can catch never-before-seen malware before it damages your computer.
None of this is to sell NordVPN short; more protection is always good, but don’t expect this to replace your antivirus. Also, I do not currently evaluate the anti-phishing capabilities of VPNs.
The last tool, DDoS protection, is a unique and interesting offering. During a DDoS attack, infected computers simultaneously access the same website over and over again. If there are enough machines involved, it can bring even the most robust website to a screeching halt. NordVPN says that even if your computer has been infected with malware for these kinds of nefarious purposes, the anti-DDoS feature prevents your computer from joining in the attack.
Speed and Performance
Using a VPN adds physical distance and other limiting factors to your otherwise-normal internet connection. The result is, usually, a slower experience with increased latency. When I test VPNs, I take a snapshot of that impact to compare how each performs. To measure this effect, I perform two tests using the Ookla speed test tool. (Note that Ookla is owned by Ziff Davis, which also owns PCMag.)
First, I establish a baseline average result without the VPN in use. Then, I do the same thing with the VPN active, and compare the results to find a percent change. This first test uses a nearby VPN server, and I perform a second test looking at the performance between Ookla’s test server in Anchorage, Alaska, and a VPN server in Australia. This is an extreme example, using two points as far apart as I can manage. Keep in mind that networks are fickle things, and can change depending on where and when you connect, so your mileage may vary.
My tests show that NordVPN increased latency by 15.4 percent domestically, and 281.2 percent internationally. TorGuard turned in the best domestic score, reducing latency by 6.7 percent; and TunnelBear had the best international test score, increasing latency by just 270.3 percent.
In the all-important download tests, NordVPN reduced speeds by 5.1 percent domestically and 73.2 percent internationally. TorGuard had the best speed in the domestic test, in which it reduced speeds by 3.7 percent. AnchorFree Hotspot Shield Elite had the smallest impact on the international test, reducing speeds by 39.9 percent.
Finally, NordVPN reduced upload speeds by 5.3 percent in the domestic test and 97.82 percent in the international test. IPVanish had the smallest impact on domestic upload speeds, reducing them by only 2.9 percent. Private Internet Access had the smallest impact in the international upload test, reducing speeds by 97.3 percent.
In this latest round of speed testing, NordVPN fares extremely well. It has the second-best score for latency, but is in the top three for domestic downloads (TorGuard has the best score), and the top five for domestic uploads. It’s at the bottom of the top five for international uploads, but that still means it beat out more than half of the competition. I don’t believe speed test results to be the most important metric for evaluating a VPN, but you won’t have to worry much about speed with NordVPN. That said, I currently regard TorGuard VPN as the fastest VPN, as it appears to have a slight edge with low latency and solid upload and download performance.
NordVPN for Android
The Android client for NordVPN quite well suited for the mobile experience, with handy buttons along the bottom to access the important parts of the app. The large, raised central button gets you online quickly and with a minimum of fuss.
NordVPN has taken great pains to provide a familiar experience across every device the company supports, but each client is tweaked to work best on each platform. On Android, for example, you can still access the company’s excellent specialized servers from the hidden left tray. But you can check your service and toggle the VPN on and off from the notification tray, which is always accessible.
For its excellent collection of features and consistent, friendly interface, NordVPN is an Editors’ Choice for Android VPNs, too.
NordVPN for iPhone
NordVPN for iPhone continues NordVPN’s tradition of providing the same user experience across all the company’s supported platforms. Even on iPhone or iPad, all the features feel very familiar to users of other NordVPN products.
Unfortunately, the iOS version doesn’t have some of the handy options that you find in the Android edition, because of the quirks of iOS. Still, this well-designed app feels very much at home on Apple’s platform. NordVPN also brings its Kill Switch and Smart Reconnect feature, which is quite welcome.
Unsurprisingly, NordVPN gets an Editors’ Choice for VPN for the iPhone, too.
NordVPN for Mac
As with Android, there are a few flourishes that make the macOS client for NordVPN feel right at home on a Mac. The main view is the lovely and familiar monochromatic blue map, with its cartoon boats and submarines. But the hidden left tray moves in with a slickness typical of the best macOS apps. Clicking the magnifying glass in the upper right to search the available servers blurs out the main page. These are small tweaks, but most VPNs services don’t take the effort to really optimize their clients for particular platforms.
When I last tested the Mac app, my lone complaint was that NordVPN’s excellent specialized servers are too hard to find via the Mac client interface. You have to apply special filters to the full list, or notice the small links at the bottom of the search page. In my opinion, these should be front and center for the user to discover. I also wish you could select different VPN protocols, but, on the other hand, NordVPN already uses my preferred choice, OpenVPN.
Unfortunately, NordVPN performed poorly in my last batch of macOS VPN speed tests. That said, the features and overall experience of NordVPN outweigh the speed results, and NordVPN is one of our favorite VPN clients for Macs.
NordVPN for Chrome and Firefox
In addition to phones and computers, NordVPN provides a Chrome plug-in and, more recently, a Firefox add-on. Browser plug-ins for VPNs are becoming more common, and it’s a development I appreciate.
When active, they secure only the data that’s transmitted through your browser, leaving the rest untouched. This is a compromise in security, but it can be more efficient for some activities, such as gaming with a VPN. A company representative tells me that both extensions are encrypted using TLS 1.2.
The NordVPN browser VPN lacks the granularity of the full-fledged client on both Firefox and Android. You can’t connect to specific servers, for example, just locations. These plug-ins are, however, easy to use and lightweight, and they include all of the company’s CyberSec protection, which I discuss below. They also have ability to block WebRTC, which can leak information about your activities. That said, I prefer the plug-ins from TunnelBear, one of which serves as a VPN connection and the other as a fine-tuned ad blocker.
In my experience, the average person would rather risk having no protection than deal with frustrating security software. That’s why NordVPN succeeds: It makes using a security tool simple. It has everything we expect in a VPN, with specialized servers for Tor-Over-VPN and double encryption being the service’s standout features. Continued server upgrades put it among the most robust VPN services available, and ad blocking and network protection features raise NordVPN’s abilities still higher. NordVPN also has an excellent stance on user privacy, collecting very little data and operating out of the legal jurisdiction of Panama.