Fastest VPNs we’ve tested: NordVPN, ExpressVPN and Surfshark compared – CNET

You’re working from home. You’re gaming, you’re binging Netflix, you’re listening to music — and if you’re reading this, you’re probably searching for a VPN that can handle the massive flood of data running through your coaxial cable. That’s where this list comes in. We’ve tested and reviewed the top VPN performers to find you the fastest VPN that will protect your online privacy and won’t slow you down.

Keep in mind, however, that it’s not easy to speed test a VPN in a way that translates to practicable consumer advice. First, the speed of a VPN can change from day to day, prompting some review sites to create automated monitoring processes. Second, the use of any VPN, no matter how fast, will somewhat reduce your browsing speeds. Then there’s the impact of underlying internet speeds in the US, which vary widely according to state and provider. Finally, if you eliminate all potential variables — from network interference to individual machine quirks — to create a lab-like test setting, you’re essentially testing a product in a digital environment that bears zero resemblance to the operating environment most of us live and work in. 

Read more: The best VPN service

For these reasons and others, I’m more interested in creating a VPN testing environment that resembles what you, the regular user, are likely to experience. And that’s also why I’m more interested in measuring the amount of speed lost with a VPN (which, for most VPNs, is typically half or more) across both high speed and slower connection types. I want to know these products are going to perform when you’re running multiple devices — Mac or Windows — on a residential internet connection that may or may not be shared by others, with an eye toward how well they can handle not just browsing, but the heavy traffic loads of streaming, gaming and torrenting.

My speed tests for the fastest VPN service are currently conducted manually using OpenVPN protocol — generally considered the most widely used and most secure type of open-source protocol. To be clear, some of the brands have their own proprietary protocols that may well offer a faster speed, but I wanted to keep this an apples-to-apples comparison. First, I test my internet speed without a virtual private network. Then, I connect my machines to the VPN, and pick five servers in diverse locations across the world. I test those five servers, five times each, at intervals over two to three days via the widely used Ookla Speedtest. Then I average the download speeds of each to find out what percentage of my normal internet speeds are lost with the use of each VPN. (Find out more about how we evaluate and review VPNs here.)

Because of the ever-changing roster of frontrunners in the VPN race, you can expect this list to change as it gets updated with our most recent test results for the fastest VPN experience. Among the VPNs we’ve tested so far, here are the ones that were the fastest VPN at the time of publication.

VPN speeds compared

2020 tested speed loss* 2019 tested speed loss* Net change
Surfshark 17% 27% Faster in 2020 test
ExpressVPN 51% 2% Slower in 2020 test
NordVPN 53% 32% Slower in 2020 test

*Lower number is better

Surfshark

  • 16.9% speed lost (faster than 27% loss in previous test)
  • Fastest VPN connections: US
  • Slowest connections: Australia 

As a relative newcomer in the VPN world, Surfshark ended 2019 with just 27% speed loss in my review, positioning it far ahead of all of its competitors — except for the seemingly uncatchable speed leader ExpressVPN, which dominated my 2019 testing with less than 2% speed loss. But at the close of 2020, Surfshark was surging ahead of the pack with 17% speed loss, as ExpressVPN speeds fall to 52% speed loss in my most recent tests.

The remarkable thing about Surfshark’s speed is that its average speeds aren’t fighting to overcome major speed losses in any particular test region. This thing showed up on race day and stole the gold, seemingly without breaking a sweat. During testing, my base non-VPN speeds averaged 194 megabits per second, while Surfshark’s overall average was 161 Mbps. After taking the averages of five testing locations, not one of the averages from those locations fell below 100 Mbps. That’s an across-the-board win against its competitors in every test column. 

While the competitors below seemed to struggle with US speeds, Surfshark clocked a 204 Mbps average on US connections. Because Surfshark allows you to choose which server to connect to (with a handy visual icon to signal each server’s overall crowdedness), one way I could have juked the stats here is by hand-picking servers across the US with the least VPN traffic load. And I would have loved to report New York speeds, for example, specifically for you. But that wouldn’t have been fair; NordVPN still frustratingly lacks that feature, so I used Surfshark’s automatic server selection option (as I did with the other test subjects). NordVPN couldn’t get close to Surfshark’s American speeds during testing, though, averaging just 89 Mbps on US connections by comparison. 

Surfshark again outperformed its peers during UK and European tests, averaging 165 Mbps and 171 Mbps in each, respectively. While future tests might include other regions in Europe, I currently go for a mix of German and French connections. Usually, no matter the VPN, Frankfurt speeds weigh down the average, while connections in Orange and Paris bring on a major numbers boost. That was still the case with Surfshark’s speeds, but even Surfshark’s German numbers were higher than the average speeds of its competitors. 

Australia is normally where we see numbers take a dive — the continent’s distance from my test site in Kentucky provides for major latency. Latency was still high, but Surfshark seemed unfazed, clocking a 126 Mbps average download speed. For comparison, that’s close to the 122 Mbps average I measured for ExpressVPN’s European connections. 

Singapore is where speeds always get competitive. The speed testing site that I and most other reviewers use, Ookla, ranked Singapore’s internet speeds the fastest in the world in 2018 with an average national speed of 181 Mbps. How did Surfshark do there? An easy, breezy 142 Mbps average.  

Was it a fluke? Was my VPN connection just having a great day? Was Surfshark’s overall server traffic particularly light that day? All of those things are possible. That’s why I aim to keep retesting this newly crowned speed queen, and why I always recommend you opt for VPNs that offer money-back guarantees and allow you to test their services in your own non-lab settings for 30 days. But these are speeds I haven’t seen from any VPN I’ve tested so far. 

Surfshark is a beast. If you’re shopping for pure speed right now, this fast VPN is the service provider you’re looking for.

Read our Surfshark review.

ExpressVPN

  • 51.8% speed lost (slower than previous 2% loss in previous test)
  • Fastest VPN connections: Western Europe
  • Slowest connections: US 

It killed me to see ExpressVPN’s pace fall from the jaw-dropping speeds I clocked for it last year. It’s not only our Editors’ Choice for VPNs but — because it’s one of the few VPNs proven to keep no usage logs during a geopolitical trial-by-fire — it’s my own personal favorite VPN. Its history and durable encryption, combined with its then-untouchable speeds, non-Five Eyes jurisdiction and streamlined user interface made this VPN worth the higher-than-average subscription cost. 

Last year, ExpressVPN gave me a less than 2% speed loss overall. This year, I clocked a 52% speed loss. Though that’s a major dip, it’s still a better-than-average score compared to other VPNs. To be clear, ExpressVPN is still a speed demon that consistently ranks in the top 10 for sites with massive automated VPN speed-test processes. Just because Surfshark beat it to the finish line this time doesn’t mean ExpressVPN is at all sluggish. It still flies, and most people will have no problems gaming, streaming or even torrenting heavily. 

During testing, my non-VPN speeds averaged 193 Mbps, and ExpressVPN’s overall global average speed was 93 Mbps. Peak speeds were reached on European connections, averaging about 122 Mbps between Frankfurt, Berlin and Paris. 

Australian speeds outperformed the UK with averages of 101 Mbps and 86 Mbps, respectively. Between the two, however, the UK caught the better individual high score, topping out at 157 Mbps in a single test compared to Australia’s highest single-round score of 136 Mbps. Singapore’s scores also edged out the UK’s by just three points at 89 Mbps. US scores were where ExpressVPN’s averages got dragged down: US speeds averaged just 66 Mbps, despite reaching up to 134 Mbps on a single test round. 

Because of ExpressVPN’s history of smoking its opponents on speed tests, my first instinct was to check for a testing issue on my side. So I walked back through my testing process, double-checked my setup and retested to make sure I wasn’t accidentally dipping ExpressVPN’s numbers. 

When my results appeared consistent, I checked in with a couple of sites whose automated speed testing I trust and compared notes: Sure enough, as of late October, both Top10VPN and ProPrivacy speed tests show that ExpressVPN has struggled with consistency and slipped down the rankings in the past couple of months. 

I reached out to ExpressVPN to find out what’s happening with the recent dips in its speeds. The company looked into it, and said several of its in-house tests were seeing speeds between 200 and 275 Mbps using OpenVPN protocol. Those results were far above my own.

“We think one possible explanation is that there was network saturation between your ISP and our data center during the time period that you tested, which again should not be a typical result,” an ExpressVPN spokesperson said.

The company also pointed to its new protocol, currently in development. 

“We are transitioning our legacy OpenVPN infrastructure to Lightway, a VPN protocol that we developed in-house to deliver WireGuard-like speed but far superior security,” the spokesperson said. “It’s in beta right now as we’re still applying tweaks so we can provide the Lightway benefits to our customers at scale, but once it goes into full release within the next couple of months, we are confident it will deliver speeds on par with or better than the fastest Wireguard setups from other providers.”

Is ExpressVPN still my favorite? Absolutely. And while the call isn’t mine alone, I’d argue it takes more than a single speed dip to dethrone the Editors’ Choice. All the same, if Surfshark ever gets its servers seized by a government and is found logless in public, ExpressVPN is going to have a problem on its hands.

Read our ExpressVPN review.

NordVPN

  • 53% speed lost (slower than previous 32% loss in previous tests
  • Fastest VPN connections: Singapore
  • Slowest connections: US

Right out of the gate, it should be said that NordVPN has been steadily improving its speeds since I tested it for the first time last year. While my latest tests show the VPN provider falling 2 percentage points behind ExpressVPN, other speed testing sites have seen it routinely surge ahead. Since its embarrassing third-party server breach last year (which appeared to cause minimal damage), NordVPN has gotten aggressive. Along with a suite of fleet-wide privacy improvements to its servers, it’s revved up its engine. 

Granted, some of that may have to do with a new security protocol NordVPN rolled out, called NordLynx. It’s built on the still-developing protocol WireGuard, which some argue is less secure than OpenVPN (an option available in all the VPNs listed here, and one I use in testing), but which ultimately creates a faster VPN tunnel. The improvements earned it recommendations from both Ookla and AV-Test

Even with the accolades of others, NordVPN’s overall global average speed was 91 Mbps during my testing, in a dataset with average non-VPN speeds of 194 Mbps, for a speed loss of roughly 53%. While it’s normal for a VPN to cut your internet speed by half or more, the notable context here is that across the averages of my five test zones, I never saw NordVPN fall below 85 Mbps. It’s still one of the most consistent, stable VPNs I’ve worked with. 

Singapore led the VPN speed test averages at 98 Mbps, while UK speeds beat European speeds by a hair’s breadth. At 99.93 Mbps, UK VPN connection speed squeaked ahead of French and German ones, which averaged 91.90 Mbps. NordVPN also had another photo finish during testing, with Australia beating US scores, 88 Mbps to 86 Mbps. None of these are scores that you can look down your nose at. 

Read our NordVPN review.

Boosting your speed

No matter which VPN you’re using, there are configurations that can help you max out your speeds. These suggestions aren’t aimed at improving overall privacy, however, and some may come with privacy reductions depending on which VPN you’re using. But if you’re interested, here are three ways to boost your VPN speed:

  • Check your protocol: If a VPN works by sending your internet traffic through encrypted tunnels, the VPN’s protocol is the method it uses to dig that tunnel. VPNs use different types of security protocols for different reasons, and most VPNs allow you to switch between protocol options at will. Generally, the more secure a protocol is, the slower your VPN speeds. We usually recommend choosing the OpenVPN protocol because it’s secure without being cumbersome, but you can amp your speeds by switching your VPN app to IKEv2/IPsec protocol. 
  • Choose nearby servers: The closer you are physically located to a server, the faster speed your information is going to travel. Select a server located as close as possible to you to get rapid-fire data return. If you’re using a VPN that visually displays how crowded an individual server is, like IPVanish, be sure you’re selecting a server that’s handling a low amount of traffic.
  • Split-tunneling: Split-tunneling is a feature offered by most leading VPNs that allows you to decide which of your apps’ internet traffic is being sent through your VPN. Reducing the amount of device data you’re sending through your VPN may improve speeds. All the VPNs listed in this article offer split-tunneling directly through their apps except for NordVPN, which only offers split-tunneling through its mobile apps and via desktop browser extensions for Chrome and Firefox


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