Chances are you’re well aware of the benefits of a VPN. They lend security, peace of mind, and even let you stream content from other countries.
But despite the perks, you’re still not willing to spend too much on one. After all, $10 or $13 a month adds up quickly, and if you choose to use a VPN forever, well, let’s not do the math.
Between $3 and $8 a month is a much more attractive offer, and luckily, some of the best VPNs on the planet don’t have to cost a penny more.
So which of the cheap VPNs is the best? Which offers the fastest speeds, the best customer service, and the coolest advanced features?
Let’s investigate the top five cheap VPNs.
Overview of the best cheapest VPNs
|VPN||Best for||Number of servers||Number of server locations||Price per month||Notable restrictions|
|Surfshark||Value||3,200||100||$2.49 – $12.95/mo.||None|
|NordVPN||Security||5,400||80||$4.13 – $11.95/mo.||No split-tunneling|
|ProtonVPN||Free option||1,050||54||$0.00 – $7.99/mo.||Limited torrenting|
|Hotspot Shield||Mobile app||1,800||110||$2.49 – $9.99/mo.||Only five devices supported|
|ExpressVPN||Speed||3,000||160||$8.32 – $12.95/mo.||No BBC iPlayer access|
Surfshark offers pretty much everything a new VPN user could ask for at an incredibly low price. For less than the cost of a Chick-fil-A chicken biscuit, you’ll get all the essentials like security, server options, and customer support, and even a handful of nice-to-haves.
For example, Surfshark offers a neat feature called split tunneling, which lets you route just some of your data through a VPN to maintain maximum speeds. For example, you can watch Netflix from another country through your VPN in one window, while browsing the open web at near-full speeds in another.
Speaking of streaming, unlike some competitors, Surfshark lets you unblock pretty much every service out there, from Netflix to Hulu to BBC iPlayer.
As for drawbacks, Surfshark doesn’t seem to audit their own security as often as some competitors, their last one reportedly dating to 2018. But this hasn’t manifested in any actual security breaches or concerns, so take it as you will.
Overall, Surfshark is an effective, fully-featured VPN for a bargain price, and an excellent starter VPN for newbies on a budget.
Surfshark’s $59.76 24-month plan ($2.50/month) is fully refundable within the first 30 days, so you can try it risk-free.
In addition to sponsoring your favorite YouTuber, NordVPN offers one of the most functional, well-respected, and popular VPNs on the market.
Despite the Scandinavian name, NordVPN is actually HQ’d in Panama, which is precisely where you want your VPN based. Panama lives outside of any virtual surveillance jurisdictions, so NordVPN never has to forfeit your data to any prying government or foreign agencies.
Plus, NordVPN boasts over 5,400 servers in 59 countries, meaning you’ll almost always be able to find a server with low traffic and low latency.
NordVPN isn’t the fastest VPN – they themselves warn of a 15%-20% speed loss – and it’s a bummer that they don’t offer features like split tunneling to speed things back up a bit. If your primary reason for buying a VPN is security, there’s perhaps no better option than NordVPN.
There are tons of free VPNs out there, but ProtonVPN is the only one I’d recommend.
Anyone who’s cross-shopped free VPNs might find this surprising since on paper, ProtonVPN isn’t even the best one. Although it offers unlimited data usage (a rarity among free VPNs), you can only choose from three USA-based servers which are often as full as a rush-hour subway car. Speeds are limited, and you can’t torrent or stream over ProtonVPN’s free version.
So why would I recommend it? Because it’s the only honest free VPN I’ve found. Other free VPNs are able to offer more features because they sell your data to third parties. When your own VPN snoops on you and leaks your personal info, it kinda defeats the whole point of having a VPN, right?
If you only need a VPN once in a full moon to, say, bank online over public Wi-Fi, ProtonVPN is a great option to have in your back pocket.
In either case, you probably want to enshroud your mobile phone data in the protective cocoon of a VPN. You probably don’t want too many fancy, confusing features – just a glorified on/off switch so you can browse safely and efficiently while you otherwise enjoy your vacation.
If so, Hotspot Shield is the VPN for you. Most high-quality VPNs come with both a desktop and mobile version, but Hotspot Shield wins out for having an extremely intuitive and simple mobile app that doesn’t drown you in desktop features.
Plus, Hotspot Shield carries a reputation for absorbing as little internet speed as possible, which is critical when you have none to spare in the first place. Trust me; when you’re desperately trying to check your flight over your hostel’s 200-kilobyte Wi-Fi, you’ll be glad to have a fast VPN!
ExpressVPN is what I’d call the “Mercedes of VPNs.” Sure, it costs more than twice what some other VPNs cost ($99.95 annual plan, aka $8.32/month), but like a luxury German car, it’s speedy and rich with features.
To start, ExpressVPN is one of the “fastest,” aka least slowing of the VPNs on the market. While midtier VPNs can often slow your internet speeds by up to 50%, browsing through ExpressVPN can be up to 98% as fast as browsing without.
As for security, ExpressVPN is one of the few VPNs using virtual servers in addition to physical ones. I won’t bore you with the tech details, but the bottom line is this: by strategically placing virtual servers in countries with shaky security or network infrastructure (e.g. Turkey), ExpressVPN can offer an overall safer experience than its competitors.
In addition to rigorous speeds and industry-leading security, ExpressVPN backs everything up with a 24/7 customer service team. That’s why despite the price, ExpressVPN remains extremely popular.
How I came up with my list of best budget-friendly VPNs
There are dozens of VPNs on the market these days, so to handpick my list of the best five, I looked at scores above average in the following key areas:
Price and value
The price of a VPN can be deceiving. In many cases, a service charging $2.50 a month will actually provide more features and better customer service than one charging $8.99 a month.
Therefore, I prioritized VPNs that charge affordable rates and offer a surprising amount of value for those rates.
When you live in a country with “shockingly slow” internet speeds, you don’t want to hemorrhage what little bandwidth you have to your VPN. That’s especially true if you’re investing in a VPN specifically to download or stream content.
All VPNs slow down your internet speeds, so I heavily favored those that slow you down the least.
On average, using any VPN is a heckuva lot safer than nothing at all – especially when you’re on public Wi-Fi. Even still, certain VPNs go the extra level to protect their users’ data and browsing activity. Only VPNs that went above and beyond earned a spot on this list.
Similarly, in the hypercompetitive VPN market, services need to offer innovative and helpful features to stand out and earn their $2.50. Advanced features like split tunneling, BBC iPlayer access, virtual servers, and a highly-rated mobile app all helped the winners on this list stand out.
Customer service is becoming an increasingly important feature of VPNs. I didn’t go into much detail in this piece, but VPNs can be complex. Anything beyond basic functionality can become quickly overwhelming, like P2P Sharing, Port Forwarding, and VPN Chaining. Therefore, VPNs lacking support resources didn’t make the cut.
Finally, a VPN’s reputation in the safe browsing community carried heavyweight. I actually disqualified a few popular VPNs for having a shady background of publishing fake reviews, selling user data through backdoors, and infecting devices with malware. CyberGhost, Private Internet Access, Zenmate, and TunnelBear all gave me icky vibes and lost their spot on the list.
Why should you use a VPN?
Despite the drawbacks, you should always use a VPN when browsing on public networks, especially if you’re banking or investing. But increased security isn’t the only reason folks invest in a VPN. For as little as $2.50 a month, here’s what else you get:
- Peace of mind while banking online. Even if your bank account is protected by your name, password, and childhood best friend’s favorite popsicle flavor, bad guys can still get in with ease by stealing the data you type into those fields. Therefore, a VPN provides tremendous peace of mind while banking or investing online.
- Hide from your nosy ISP. Despite the wave of internet privacy laws passed in 2016, your internet service provider is still snooping on you to either sell your data or throttle your speeds after too much usage. A VPN shuts the door in their faces.
- Fewer targeted ads. Ever been creeped out by how personal some of the ads are on Facebook or Reddit? A VPN prevents these sites from leaking your data so you’ll see fewer ads that somehow know you better than your friends.
- Access geo-restricted content. Roughly half of VPN users pay for the service just for this perk. Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and other streaming services have different content in different countries, and you can access all of it by choosing a server from that country in your VPN dashboard.
This is an incomplete list, but needless to say, having “super incognito mode” is extremely useful, borderline necessary.
When shouldn’t you use a VPN?
There aren’t really any times that you shouldn’t use a VPN unless you’re trying to maximize your internet speed. There are, however, times you can safely get away without using one.
Browsing the internet at home on your own private Wi-Fi is generally considered pretty safe without a VPN. You may still be leaking data to your ISP, but at least they’re not trying to empty your bank account (any faster than $70 a month, at least).
You also shouldn’t use a VPN under false expectations. VPNs hide your activity from bad guys, but they don’t protect your “voluntary data input.” If you give Facebook your cell phone number, for example, Facebook can sell it, leak it, or use it. So it’s important to remember that a VPN isn’t a “Fort Knox” of personal data.
Most important features of VPNs
Perhaps you’ve considered my top five but would still like to do a little shopping around. All good! I’d do the same thing in your position – after all, you may find a niche VPN that’s a better fit for your specific needs.
When doing your own due diligence on VPNs, keep an eye on these key features:
Introductory and regular pricing
It’s worth noting that most VPNs aren’t $2.50 forever. That’s typically just the introductory rate for one or two years, then pricing returns to normal.
So when shopping around for a good value VPN, be sure to seek a great introductory rate and a reasonable standard rate. Even better, consider hopping VPNs every few years to take advantage of everyone’s intro rates.
Just be sure to set yourself a calendar reminder on the day before your intro rate expires!
I’m listing server count and location as a feature here simply to point out how not important it is. Some VPNs will boast that they have over 10,000 servers worldwide, misleading newbies into thinking more servers = better security.
But VPN servers are like cars. It doesn’t matter how many a carmaker has, just that the one you’re currently inside of works. So don’t be seduced by high server counts – just 1,000 to 5,000 that work is fine.
Server locations, on the other hand, are a bit more important. If you want to access Netflix Canada, for example, you’ll want to shack up with a VPN that has Canadian servers with high streaming speeds.
There’s an increasing number of low-rent VPN services that only have servers in a handful of countries, and they’re usually not worth paying for.
Support and customer service
Unless you’re a tech wiz that’s built a server in your garage, you probably have a learning curve ahead of you for mastering everything your VPN has to offer.
That’s why it’s important to choose a VPN with an accessible, knowledgeable customer service team. Any VPN without one, where users try to figure things out for themselves in the forums, may not be the right fit.
Speed loss statistics
When shopping for a VPN, you’ll also want a clear idea of how much it’ll slow down your internet speeds. Considering the average internet speed in America is a pithy 42.86 Mbps, a 50% slowdown could prevent you from streaming or downloading effectively at all.
Luckily, many VPNs are transparent about how much bandwidth their servers need. NordVPN, for example, only slows you by 20%, while ExpressVPN is known for providing speeds as high as 98% of your original bandwidth.
If you’re planning to use your VPN to stream geo-restricted content, like ten lifetimes of anime on Netflix Japan, you’ll want to ID each VPN’s streaming restrictions. Not all VPNs offer access to all streaming platforms (many struggle to enable BBC iPlayer, for example).
Think you’ll ever use your VPN for torrenting? File sharing? Split tunneling? There are way too many advanced VPN features to mention in this article, so do a little digging and determine which ones are important to you. After all, a single missing feature may be a turnoff!
How to pick the right VPN for you
Given everything you’ve read and researched, choosing the right VPN can still feel daunting. There are lots of features and statistics to consider, and if you’re new to the world of VPNs, it might be hard to pick one out of a lineup.
That’s especially true considering that to get rates as low as $2.50 a month, you need to make up to a two-year commitment. That’s longer than most relationships!
Thankfully, most VPNs will offer a 30-day money-back guarantee, so you can try out several and choose the one that’s right for you.