If you’re trying to access blocked websites on your school’s Wi-Fi network for legitimate reasons — or to increase your privacy while browsing on campus — you need a well-tested virtual private network that can overcome tight network restrictions while covering your tracks. Whether you’re using an Android, Windows, iPhone or MacOS device, theprotect your privacy by creating an encrypted tunnel between your device and the website you’re trying to access. This tunnel prevents your internet service provider from being able to see which sites you’re visiting, and often it does the same for school network administrators.
Not all VPNs are created equal. And not all VPNs are meant to serve the same needs. Some VPNs are better suited for critical privacy needs, like researching topics about private health conditions on socially conservative campuses. Other VPNs are suited for fast streaming of international media. Still others are more geared toward convenient gaming and torrenting. The stakes can be high and your safety is paramount. So, before you decide which VPN is the best for your needs, first consider your privacy level:
It’s also important to keep in mind that there may be some limits to the privacy VPNs currently provide to MacOS and iOS users. Recent independent research has emerged suggesting that iOS (and some MacOS) users’ browsing and internet data may be sent to Apple despite the protections offered by an encrypted VPN tunnel. We will continue to update our recommendations as more information and research surface around this issue.
Once you know your needs, you can consider your budget. The top two choices below have withstood a battery of independent tests from us and we found them to be the fastest and least likely to leak. And the second choice, Surfshark, is one of the least expensive VPNs we’ve seen. Our third pick, IPVanish, may be handy for college or high school students who need more configuration options and more customizable features.
Here are the best VPNs we’ve tested in 2022 for school Wi-Fi.
ExpressVPN is currently the fastest VPN we’ve tested in 2022, causing us to lose less than 2% of our total internet speeds. 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.
In the past year, ExpressVPN increased its independent third-party audit count, published details about its TrustedServer deployment process, joined the i2Coalition to call for improved VPN industry ethics, and released an open source Lightway encryption protocol.
All of our top-rated VPNs have wide compatibility across platforms and operating systems, but ExpressVPN’s collection of setup guides, detailed FAQs and troubleshooting articles give it a clear advantage for users. So does its 24/7 customer support, and its no-questions-asked, 30-day money back guarantee.
The company has been in business since 2009, and ExpressVPN has a substantial network of more than 3,000 RAM-only servers spread across 160 locations in 94 countries. ExpressVPN’s best plan offers five simultaneous connections for $100 a year (which includes three extra months, for a limited-time deal totaling 15 months of service). You can also opt for a $13 monthly plan, or pay $60 for six months.
While Surfshark’s network is smaller than some, the VPN service makes up for that on features and speed. Surfshark and NordVPN announced a merger in February, continuing a trend of consolidation in the VPN industry. Although they’re now sister companies, each VPN runs a separate network. And Surfshark’s is usually less expensive.
Let’s start off with the biggest feature 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 anti-malware, ad-blocking and tracker-blocking as part of its software.
And it’s fast. With more than 3,200 servers in 65 countries, we lost less than 17% of average internet speed during our most recent speed tests. That’s faster than the 27% speed loss we saw in previous tests, and pushes it ahead of ExpressVPN to be the current front-runner in our speed comparisons.
100% of those servers are optimized for torrenting. And while it’s not the best VPN for torrenting (port forwarding is limited), Surfshark’s obfuscation and automatic killswitch still make it competitive for peer-to-peer sharing.
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. 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.
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 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 our testing, we didn’t see a single IP address or DNS leak, and had no trouble accessing Netflix.
Surfshark’s cheapest introductory offer is $2.30 a month for its two-year plan. With that plan, you lock in for an initial term of 26 months at $60, but the subscription then renews annually at that same $60 rate. But given how rapidly things are changing in the VPN industry, we discourage people from locking in with a single provider for more than a year at a time. If you don’t want to commit to that initial 26-month term, you can get a 12-month plan for $4 a month, or about $48 for the first year. That plan also then renews at $60 for any subsequent years of service. The month-by-month plan doesn’t include any discount and is priced at $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 Surfshark into a continued discount rate).
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 a bevy of switches controlling things like the kill switch, split tunneling, VPN protocol and LAN connection allowance, IPVanish is an app that offers more options to tweak as needed when trying to get past a school network.
IPVanish has long been geared toward peer-to-peer traffic and is a solid choice for torrenters who are looking for a VPN that comes with a SOCKS5 proxy.
With its newly redesigned apps for Windows and Android, IPVanish manages to pack the same extensive suite of digital knobs and dials into a refreshingly clean mobile interface to impressive effect. Its multiplatform flexibility is also ideal for people focused on finding a Netflix-friendly VPN.
While IPVanish isn’t the fastest VPN, the 58% speed loss we measured in our most recent speed tests is about on par with most VPN providers. However, we noticed that IPVanish’s Quick Connect feature doesn’t always connect you to the best available server, so you may need to optimize your speeds by connecting manually to a server showing a lighter load by selecting the Locations option in the client.
Charging $11 for its monthly plan, IPVanish is trying to move you toward its yearly program, which costs $48 for the first year, but then jumps to $90 for subsequent years of service. The provider offers a 30-day money-back guarantee, but only if you’re on the yearly plan — which could be a disappointment to anyone who bought a monthly subscription and decided they didn’t like it.
That said, the company gets kudos for allowing unlimited simultaneous connections. We also liked its connection kill-switch feature, a must for anyone serious about protecting their privacy while surfing.
With its newly redesigned apps for Windows and Android, IPVanish manages to pack the same extensive suite of digital knobs and dials into a refreshingly clean mobile interface to impressive effect.
Its multiplatform flexibility is also ideal for people focused on finding a Netflix-friendly VPN.
None of them. Seriously, free VPNs have real limitations. While there are plenty of excellent free security and privacy apps online — and while CNET is always hunting for the best freebies — VPNs sadly aren’t among them. Because they require major physical infrastructure and hardware, safe and reliable VPNs cost companies a lot of money to operate and secure. As a result, free VPNs are almost always malware-laden data snoops. The exceptions are those VPNs, like ProtonVPN, which offer free (often speed-limited) service tiers beside their premium tiers. The other option we recommend for people who can’t afford a VPN but need online privacy is to temporarily test-drive our secure recommendations and take advantage of their cancellation periods and money-back guarantees.
There is some good news: The burgeoning VPN market is hypercompetitive right now, so prices for even the best VPNs regularly drop to less than $15 a month, with some offering annual deals around $40. Check out our quick list of budget-savvy VPNs to find one in your price range.
Does everything I use on campus need a VPN?
If your goal is to protect all your personal data from your school network’s prying eyes then, yes, you want a VPN on whatever you are using. If you’re in a shared dorm or on-campus apartment, that means having a VPN to protect your laptop, your MacBook, your phone, your Xbox and your smart TV. Often this can be done by installing the VPN directly on your local router.
If your goal is to use a VPN to gain access to streaming services which have been made unavailable in your country for whatever reason, you want a VPN on whatever device you are using to access those streaming services. This could be as simple as a VPN for your Chrome browser or setting up a VPN for your Amazon Fire TV Stick.
Whatever your reason for wanting a VPN, it’s usually a good idea to have it set up and ready to go on as many of your web-connected devices as possible.
Are VPNs legal at school?
VPNs are perfectly legal to use in most countries. There’s nothing wrong with taking steps to protect your privacy online, and you shouldn’t have to worry that using a VPN as part of that process will get you in any kind of legal trouble.
However, there are countries where VPNs are either banned or outright illegal. If you’re using a VPN in a country like China, Iran, Oman, Russia, Turkmenistan, UAE or Belarus, you may find yourself in legal trouble. The irony here is that these are the countries where internet censorship and surveillance are most common. In those countries, you’ll need to make sure you use a VPN that provides strong obfuscation so your VPN traffic is disguised as ordinary HTTPS traffic, meaning government entities won’t even know you’re using a VPN in the first place.
One important reminder: VPNs are legal in most places, but engaging in illegal activity online is still illegal regardless of whether you’re using a VPN.
It’s also important to consult your school’s handbook and any other rules for using your campus’ internet network. A VPN may be legal to use in most countries, but some campuses may individually ban their use. Be sure to know your risks and rules before using a VPN on a network you don’t own.