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Virtual private networks used to live only on your desktop as part of bulky, overcooked software. As work-from-home starts to become the new normal for many, so does VPN use during the coronavirus pandemic, and the rate at which people are downloading VPN apps onto their phones is increasing exponentially. 

The research firm Top10VPN released a report in 2019 that showed more than 480 million downloads of VPN apps occurred in the previous year globally; a 54% increase year-on-year. Of all the VPN downloads, around three quarters were to devices running Android. 

Of all the apps downloaded, 84% were free mobile VPN services, but Rae Hodge and cnet don’t recommend going for the free versions. When you pay for your VPN, you get value out of a glitch-free and secure service on your Android phone. 

Here’s a list of the best Android VPN apps that have been tried and tested this year.

Surfshark

New on the scene and fast, with lots to explore

Image credit: cnet.com
  • A powerful backend with an intuitive interface out front
  • 1,000 servers
  • 60 server locations
  • Based out of the British Virgin Islands

Even if you’ve never used a VPN app before, you should have no problem navigating Surfshark, and if you’re an old hand you’ll still appreciate the level of customization you can achieve as well as the power it packs. It’s got a simple four-tab interface that belies the plethora of privacy tools and different ways to connect, with a single-click option to quickly connect taking center stage as you open the app. 

Surfshark’s option to connect through multihop is a promising feature and you get quick access to it as you go into the screen for location selection. It sets you up to connect across a few different countries so your internet fingerprint is hidden and you don’t need to go hunting for it buried in settings. Extra kudos to Surfshark for having easily accessible customer support options such as a help ticket option and a library of information in the user guide. 

Compared with other VPNs, Surfshark’s network isn’t so big, but you get a lot of features to compensate. Probably the biggest tick for the app is that it supports as many devices as you can throw at it. If you want to get your whole home, or even whole office set up, on to the VPN you can go right ahead with no restrictions on connected devices. Also thrown into to deal is ad-blocking, antimalware, and tracking-blocking, all as standard. 

In an audit by Cure 53, an expert security firm out of Germany, Surfshark was awarded high marks for its Chrome and Firefox extensions. It’s pretty good going, but worth bearing in mind that Surfshark did commission the report themselves. Here’s a link to the PDF report if you want to check it out. 

The app runs on a decently broad range of devices and operating systems, namely Mac, iOS, Windows, FireTV, and of course Android. Using the DNS settings, you can also run Surfshark on other devices like your gaming consoles. One really cool feature you need to know about is the whitelisting option, where you can grant automatic access around the VPN for trusted apps and sites; useful and even important for some business use. 

It’s not just the multihop mode that’s really useful; there’s Camouflage Mode that masks that you’re even using a VPN from your ISP; and NoBorder Mode that allows for Surfshark to work even in places it’s technically not allowed. It is worth noting that using these settings might be illegal in some countries and you could get into a lot of trouble. Also useful to know is that when Hodge tested Surfshark there was no leaking of the IP or DNS addresses and Netflix could be accessed without a hiccup. 

To get Surfshark’s annual plan, it’s priced around the market average for a full-featured VPN at $72 in year one. When you look closely, it seems that could go up to $143 per year after that. For a monthly subscription, you’ll pay $12 and the best deal you can get is $2 average when you pay $48 for two years upfront. You should definitely take the month-long free trial to see if you like what you get and make sure you check back in 23 months to see if you can keep your discount price.

SEE AT SURFSHARK

ExpressVPN

Super fast, extra safe

Image credit: expressvpn.com
  • The app is effective, quick, and easy
  • Over 3,000 servers
  • 160 international locations
  • Registered in the British Virgin Islands

ExpressVPN is rightly famed as one the fastest VPNs you can use, and its app plays into the reputation with a streamlined design that gets you connected without a hitch. One the landing screen there’s one simple button that offers a quick connection and you only have to choose a location from a drop-down box – the default is set to your nearest available connection. 

Other options like tools for security and privacy, account settings, and support, all sit in a standard hamburger button up in the top left of the screen. You should check these out because you get an in-built IP address checker, a password generator, and two leak testers. 

According to ExpressVPN, its network is powered with TrustedServer tech so that no record is ever logged of anyone’s activities. When it comes to privacy concerns, ExpressVPN has been a leader; the company had its servers seized by authorities and indeed there were no logged activities to find. The FAQ section is also very useful, as are the VPN setup guides that you have access to. 

As with all the other VPNs we’re looking at here, ExpressVPN has a handy killswitch, meaning that there can’t be any leaks of network data through the VPN channels if the connection drops out. What makes ExpressVPN really stand out is the option to pay with bitcoin which isn’t standard with all on the list, but does offer extra security when you make payment. 

In operation since 2009, ExpressVPN now has a network of VPN servers that covers 94 countries. For that level of global coverage, the best price plan comes in at a little under $7 per month on an annual package, plus there are three months free.

SEE AT EXPRESSVPN

NordVPN

Secure and reliable

Image credit: nordvpn.com
  • The app is simple and reliable
  • More than 5,200 servers
  • Covers 62 locations
  • Based out of Panama

If you’ve ever looked into VPNs before, you’ll have definitely come across NordVPN; it’s a stalwart of the market. And for good reason – the design and customer service is very user-friendly. The Android app is as simple and effective as the system you use on your desktop, it looks and feels very similar. When you’re going from desktop to mobile app, there’s nothing new that you need to figure out. 

In the same way the computer-based interface does, the mobile app gives you a map of locations in the familiar blue hues and you can choose from a range of countries or just find the fastest local server. Extra brownie points go to Nord for its split-tunneling, where you can choose particular apps that you want to still run on your normal, unencrypted connection. 

You can connect up to six devices on your NordVPN account, generous in comparison to the five or fewer you can get with most competitors. You can also use the dedicated IP option if you want to go to another level with your VPN use. There’s also a kill switch in the system and even the ability to use the VPN when accessing Tor. When Hodge did testing there were no privacy leaks to note and the connection was fast and reliable. 

For a one-year sign up you pay $84 upfront, which is $7 per month, a low price when compared to others, but if you want to pay month to month it gets pricey at $12 a pop. September 2019 saw a little creep in the longer-term plan prices; for three years it’s $125.64 which averages $3.49 per month, an increase of 50c per month. The two-year plan jumped by a dollar a month, so it’s $95.75 upfront or an average of $4.99 each month. It does also come with a refund policy in the first 30 days, too.

Nord is generally on any list of top VPNs, but it did have some security concerns when a rented server was accessed without authorization back in 2018. Multiple security audits ensued after a little time lag and they introduced a bug bounty program and invested more cash in server security. 

It would have been more impressive if NordVPN had admitted the problem sooner, but the security breach was limited and no information about user activity was leaked, at least proving there aren’t any logs of activity. With this in mind, NordVPN gets to be part of our list. 

SEE AT NORDVPN

IPVanish

New starters get something flexible and fun

Image credit: wired.co.uk
  • Loads of customization options
  • 1,300 servers
  • 60 locations
  • Based in the USA

With IPVanish you get an app that’s fun and easy to configure, which makes it well-suited for people who want to really get to grips with the inner workings of a VPN. The Android app for IPVanish still has all the settings to twiddle about with; it’s on a smaller screen but no less impressive. 

To get really into the nuts-and-bolts of your VPN connection, you want to be choosing IPVanish. You can have the app generate graphics that map your internet activity and there are myriad switches for LAN connection allowance, split-tunneling, and other stuff. For tech fiddlers who like to really take control of their software and what goes in and out of their phone, IPVanish is perfect. 

With multiplatform flexibility, it’s Netflix-friendly, which is a nice bonus. Unique to the VPN is Kodi support, which used to be called XBMC – an open-source media streaming app. If you’ve ever dived into customizing media players you’ve used one of these systems and when you plug in IPVanish into you can access all kinds of international media. 

Priced at $5 per month or a year for $39, there’s a clear strategy to get you onto their annual plan. The seven-day free trial is a tad disappointing – we’d usually expect 30 days – but you do get a money-back guarantee if you’re not happy. Recently, IPVanish has doubled the available connections to 10 and you get the standard kill switch, which is one of the most important things when wanting internet anonymity.  

SEE AT IPVANISH

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