Antivirus vs. VPN: Whatโ€™s the Difference & Do You Need Both?

Updated on: May 8, 2024
Fact Checked by Katarina Glamoslija
Eric Goldstein Eric Goldstein
Updated on: May 8, 2024

Short on time? Here are the best antivirus programs and VPNs in 2024:

  • 🏅 Best antivirus in 2024: Norton 360. Provides a 100% malware detection rating for Windows, macOS, Android, and iOS devices, as well as excellent anti-phishing protection, comprehensive parental controls, a robust firewall, live identity theft monitoring (for US users only), and backs each annual purchase with a 60-day money-back guarantee.
  • 🏅 Best VPN in 2024: ExpressVPN. Has excellent security and privacy features, works with all of the top streaming sites, maintains blazing-fast speeds, has user-friendly apps for all devices, provides great value, and comes with a 30-day money-back guarantee.

Antivirus programs and VPNs (virtual private networks) are two essential internet security tools that protect users in different ways, but when you combine them together, they provide maximum security and privacy for your data and your devices.

An antivirus is software that blocks and removes all forms of malware on your device. And the top antiviruses on the market in 2024 also include advanced security features to keep your computer, smartphone, and other devices safe, including:

  • Advanced firewall.
  • Anti-phishing protection.
  • Data breach monitoring.
  • System tune-up tools.
  • Parental controls.
  • And much more…

However, a VPN is completely different from an antivirus — a VPN provides online privacy and protects a user’s online data with encryption. A top-notch VPN allows users to:

  • Replace their personal IP address with a new virtual IP address.
  • Watch their local streaming sites securely.
  • Use torrenting and other P2P sites anonymously.
  • Access the internet in restrictive countries.
  • Securely access public Wi-Fi networks.
  • And much more…

Basically, there is a difference between these two security tools. Antivirus software is designed to provide maximum internet security, while VPNs are designed to provide maximum online privacy — they’re both vital tools that you should have on your devices in 2024 to remain safe from cyber attacks and prying eyes.

Quick summary of the best antiviruses in 2024:

  1. 🥇 Norton — Best overall antivirus in 2024 with a powerful malware scanner and tons of extra features.
  2. 🥈 Bitdefender — Comes with an excellent (and fast) virus scanner built on cloud-based technology.
  3. 🥉 Intego — Best antivirus for Macs (with great optimization tools for MacBooks).

Quick summary of the best VPNs in 2024:

  1. 🥇 ExpressVPN — Best overall VPN in 2024 with advanced security features and a massive server network.
  2. 🥈 Private Internet Access — Secure, intuitive, and highly customizable VPN with excellent Android and iOS apps.
  3. 🥉CyberGhost VPN — Easy-to-use VPN with fast speeds and solid features (great for beginners).

How Antivirus Software Protects Your Devices

The top antiviruses detect, block, and remove malware files, and they also provide a suite of other excellent internet security tools to protect your device and data.

The best antivirus programs provide real-time malware detection that scans downloads and running processes to prevent malware from infecting your device in the first place. But if your device is already infected with malware, you can use an antivirus to scan your disk and remove all of the suspicious files from your device.

Also, many antiviruses have web shields, which detect and block phishing sites and exploit attacks. They also come with network protections, which prevent man-in-the-middle attacks, spoofing attacks, and other cyber attacks. Other features include data breach monitoring, parental controls, identity theft protection, and password managers — all of these features help to provide a comprehensive set of protections against the latest cyber threats.

How a VPN Protects Your Data

Like an antivirus, a VPN also protects your data — but in a completely different way. The best VPNs protect your data with 256-bit AES encryption, which makes your online traffic completely unreadable (this is the same encryption used by banks and governments).

When you connect to a VPN server, all of your data is routed through an encrypted server, preventing hackers and your internet service provider (ISP) from spying on your online activities (such as browsing, streaming, torrenting, and gaming). For example, a cybercriminal or your ISP won’t see that you’re accessing facebook.com — instead, the VPN will encrypt your traffic, and a hacker or your ISP will only see random strings of characters like JHFh345=fsjuAGFH254jfuse.

VPNs also protect your online privacy. When you connect to a VPN server, the VPN replaces your IP address with a virtual IP address from the location that you’re connected to — all of the sites you visit will see only the VPN’s IP address and think you’re actually in that location. For example, if you live in the US and connect to a VPN server in the UK, you will get a UK IP address. Any website that you visit will only see your UK IP address and not your real IP address in the US.

Benefits of Using an Antivirus & VPN Together

There are many benefits to using both an antivirus and VPN. An antivirus protects your devices from dangerous malware attacks and other cyber attacks, and a VPN protects your data with high-end encryption and your privacy by assigning you a virtual IP address. But if you only have one of these online security tools, you may leave your device vulnerable to a serious cyber threat.

For example, I strongly recommend that you use a VPN when downloading torrent files. Thanks to a VPN’s encryption, other torrent users and your ISP won’t be able to see the files you download. And since a VPN assigns you a new IP address, no one will have access to your true identity.

But a VPN doesn’t provide the security features that an antivirus program offers, such as real-time protection and a web shield. Real-time protection blocks you from downloading malicious torrenting files, and a web shield blocks you from visiting malicious websites, such as phishing sites, that may distribute malware on your device. Using an antivirus and VPN together provides the best security for your devices.

Some Antiviruses Include a VPN

A lot of the top antivirus brands on the market have their own VPN, which is either included in the antivirus package or offered separately at an additional cost. However, most antivirus VPNs are only good for basic online activities like browsing — many of them don’t support streaming or torrenting, aren’t as fast as a standalone VPN, and set a limit on the amount of data you can use each month. But a lot of the VPNs from antivirus companies still provide good value for someone who is looking for a decent and secure VPN that’s packaged with an excellent antivirus.

My favorite antivirus with a VPN is TotalAV — it has unlimited data, maintains fast connection speeds, works with all of the top streaming services like Netflix and Disney+, and doesn’t keep logs of user data (websites that you visit and files you download).

That said, VPNs from antivirus companies are not as good as top standalone VPNs like ExpressVPN or Private Internet Access, which provide better security and privacy features, maintain faster speeds, work with all of the top streaming services, offer better torrenting support, have larger server networks, and also work in countries that restrict access to the internet.

How to Choose the Right Antivirus For You

Malware Protection & Internet Security Features

A good antivirus should include:

  • Malware scanner with multiple scan types.
  • Real-time malware detection.
  • Anti-phishing and unsafe website detection.
  • Secure firewall.

A good malware scanner blocks close to 100% of malware files, even during intensive stress-testing. SafetyDetectives uses a proprietary database of nearly 1,000 malware files for our antivirus scan tests, and top brands like Norton and Bitdefender both scored 100% in our testing. An antivirus should also offer a variety of virus scan types like full disk scans, quick scans, and custom scans, which can allow users to easily examine different parts of their systems. Real-time malware protection scans downloads and recently-opened files and runs processes to prevent malware from infecting your device.

Web protections detect and block phishing sites, exploit attacks, and suspicious web pages more accurately than built-in protections from browsers like Chrome and Firefox. And a secure firewall is necessary for detecting malicious network attacks as well as suspicious outgoing activity from compromised devices.

Today’s top-notch antivirus programs come with a ton of additional features, like parental controls, data breach monitoring, identity theft protection, system optimization, game boosters, and password managers. Check out our list of the top 10 antiviruses on the market so you can figure out which antivirus has the tools you need to stay protected.

Speed & Impact on System Performance

Malware scanners are great for removing malware, but they may slow down your computer. This is because a full disk scan compares every single file on your device against a massive database of millions of known malware files — it’s a pretty complicated process that can take up to 4 hours to complete.

Fortunately, there are technologies that help reduce the impact an antivirus has on your devices. Many antivirus programs (like Bitdefender and TotalAV) use cloud-based scanners, which allow servers in the cloud to scan your system instead of forcing your computer to do the heavy lifting. A cloud-based scanner won’t slow down your system at all, even during a full disk scan.

However, even conventional antivirus scanners have options to improve system performance. Most antiviruses include a scan scheduling feature, which allows you to run full disk scans when you’re away from your devices (such as overnight). Also, Norton and Intego use a smart file-caching feature, which skips over files that have already been deemed safe, so every scan after your first one takes less time. Plus, many antiviruses come with a gaming mode, which suspends a scan (and all notifications) when your device is in full screen mode.

Device Compatibility & Ease of Use

Mac and Android-based malware have been increasing in recent years, and iOS users are still susceptible to a variety of cyber attacks.

The best antivirus companies, like Norton, have excellent software for every major platform. But we also have breakdowns on the best antivirus programs for Windows, Mac, Android, iOS, and even Linux for users looking for device-specific protections.

When it comes to ease of use, you should look for internet security suites that are easy to install, include all of their features in one intuitive interface, and are user-friendly when it comes to customizing and setting up their additional features. I think TotalAV is one of the easiest antivirus programs to use in 2024.

Pricing

Antivirus programs offer tiered pricing options — ranging from minimal single device plans like Norton AntiVirus Plus, which costs $29.99 / year*, all the way up to Norton with LifeLock, which includes identity theft protection for US users and costs $99.99 / year*.

Every antivirus in our top 10 list offers either a money-back guarantee or a free trial — most money-back guarantees last for 30 days, while Norton offers 60 days with all of its plans.

Most free antivirus options are frustratingly limited, so we don’t usually recommend them, but Avira Free Internet Security is a decent option if you’re dead-set against paying for antivirus protection. It comes with an antivirus scanner, real-time protection, a firewall, device optimization, and more.

Plans and pricing details on antivirus websites can be pretty confusing, but all of our antivirus reviews include comprehensive pricing breakdowns so you can choose which plan is best for you.

Customer Support

These are the main customer support options offered by antivirus programs:

  • FAQs and online knowledge base.
  • Phone chat.
  • Live web chat.
  • Email support.
  • Remote access.

A good online knowledge base can be a huge time saver — for example, Bitdefender’s website provides a helpful search function, tons of well-written support articles, and even video tutorials, which should answer most of your questions. But if you’re still having an issue and are looking for personalized assistance, live chat and email are decent options, but phone support is my favorite option — Norton’s 24/7 phone support team is one of the best on the market. Also, Some providers, including Norton, can even remotely access your desktop computer and resolve your issue for you, which is really helpful for less tech-savvy users.

How to Choose the Right VPN For You

Security

A secure VPN needs to have the following industry-standard VPN security features:

  • 256-bit AES encryption — The same encryption banks and governments use.
  • Kill switch — This feature disables internet access if your VPN connection drops to prevent data leaks.
  • Leak protection — Good VPNs provide protection against IPv6, DNS, and WebRTC leaks to keep your data from leaking on the web (ExpressVPN has full leak protection).

Some top brands also include advanced security features:

  • RAM-only servers — Data is only saved to the RAM memory instead of the hard drive, and every time the server is rebooted all of the data on it is erased. ExpressVPN and Private Internet Access have RAM-only servers.
  • Perfect forward secrecy — This feature changes encryption keys at a set interval or after each session to prevent hackers from compromising past or future keys to spy on your data. Many of the top VPNs have perfect forward secrecy, including ExpressVPN.

Privacy

A good VPN protects your privacy with a no-logs policy, which prevents the VPN from storing your IP address and online traffic (the sites you visit and the files you download). Some top VPNs (like ExpressVPN) have had their no-logs policies independently audited and verified.

And some top VPNs provide even more privacy by having open-source apps (meaning anyone can inspect the code for cracks in security and privacy). Both Private Internet Access and Proton VPN include open-source apps — but Proton VPN’s apps have also been independently audited, and all “medium” and “minor” security risks that were discovered during the audit were quickly fixed.

Speed & Performance

All VPNs will slow down your speeds due to the encryption process. But the best VPNs are able to maintain fast speeds across all servers.

In my speed tests, top brands like ExpressVPN and Private Internet Access had the fastest speeds out there — they only slowed down my overall speeds by 20% on average. Websites instantly loaded, videos started almost right away and didn’t buffer, and I was able to download P2P files at lightning-fast speeds.

Streaming & Torrenting Support

Good VPNs work with all of the top streaming sites like Netflix, Amazon Prime, BBC iPlayer, and Disney+. My favorite VPN for streaming is ExpressVPN, which claims to work with 100+ streaming services.

Also, the best VPNs have excellent torrenting support — they allow P2P traffic on all servers (or a large number of dedicated P2P servers) and work with popular torrenting apps (qBittorrent, Vuze, uTorrent, etc.). Some VPNs also allow port forwarding, which lets you connect to more peers to get faster speeds. Also, other VPNs offer SOCKS5 proxy servers, which may provide faster speeds than regular VPN servers because they don’t use encryption. Private Internet Access is a great torrenting VPN — all of its servers support torrenting, it works with top P2P apps, and it has port forwarding.

Extra features

The best VPNs provide excellent value by giving you access to additional features, such as:

  • Split-tunneling — This feature lets you choose which apps use the VPN and which apps use your local network.
  • Ad blockers — Blocks ads, trackers, and malicious sites.
  • Double VPN — Routes your traffic through 2 VPN servers instead of 1 VPN server, protecting your data with an extra layer of encryption.
  • Obfuscation — This feature prevents anyone from seeing your VPN traffic and helps you use VPNs in restrictive countries.

Device Compatibility & Ease of Use

I only recommend VPNs that have user-friendly apps for all major platforms, including iOS, Android, Windows, and macOS. The best VPNs come with intuitive interfaces that are easy to navigate, include quick-connect features, and provide brief and easy-to-understand definitions for all settings and features.

Top VPN brands also allow at least 5 simultaneous connections, but some VPNs offer more — Private Internet Access and Surfshark both allow unlimited connections.

Pricing

Most VPNs offer affordable monthly and yearly plans, accept multiple payment methods, and many have a money-back guarantee.

There are free VPNs out there, but I don’t recommend that you use one. Free VPNs usually lack essential security features, log and sell your traffic, have slow speeds and buggy apps, and don’t work with streaming sites.

That said, if you’re only in the market for a free VPN, check out our top free picks in 2024 here. However, I think it’s best to purchase a low-cost premium VPN. You can check out our top premium picks in 2024 here.

Customer Support

Good VPNs provide the following customer support channels:

  • 24/7 live chat.
  • Email support.
  • FAQs.
  • Setup tutorials
  • Troubleshooting guides.

ExpressVPN offers all of the above options whenever you need assistance, plus helpful video guides. Some top VPNs, like IPVanish, provide phone support as well.

Antivirus vs. VPN Comparison Table

Antivirus VPN
Detects and removes malware
Blocks network-based cyber attacks
Provides parental controls
Monitors your system in real-time to prevent malware attacks
Protects your online data with 256-bit AES encryption
Replaces your IP address with an IP address from another location
Works with geo-restricted sites like streaming apps
Prevents you from downloading malicious files
Prevents you from visiting suspicious websites
Works in restrictive countries
Secures P2P traffic
Blocks ads

Frequently Asked Questions

What’s the difference between an antivirus and a VPN?

Integrating an antivirus and a VPN ensures maximum security and confidentiality for your internet activities. An antivirus recognizes, obstructs, and eliminates malware, as well as offering protection against other cyber threats. Conversely, VPNs employ advanced encryption to secure your data and offer additional online privacy.

For those in search of a premium antivirus suite, Norton 360 is a top contender. It includes vital features like anti-phishing protection, data breach alerts, a smart firewall, parental controls, and a secure VPN with unlimited data usage.

A VPN replaces your IP address with a virtual IP address from a different location, allowing you to hide your internet traffic (browsing, streaming, torrenting, etc.) from your ISP, data trackers, hackers, and more. The best VPNs, like ExpressVPN, also include industry-standard VPN security features like 256-bit AES encryption, a kill switch, a strict no-logs policy, and full leak protection. Also, they come with advanced security features such as RAM-only memory and perfect forward secrecy, extra features (split-tunneling and an ad blocker), and work with all of the top streaming services.

Which antivirus has the best VPN?

TotalAV comes with the best VPN — it’s secure, fast, easy to use, works with top streaming sites like Netflix and Amazon Prime, and allows torrenting on all non-US servers.

That said, TotalAV’s VPN still isn’t as good as the top standalone VPNs on the market. These VPNs provide better torrenting support, larger server networks, access to advanced security features, and faster speeds.

What’s the best free VPN and antivirus?

I typically don’t recommend free VPNs — free VPNs usually are missing basic security features, may log your data, set a limit on how much data you can use each month, and have slow speeds.

But if you’re looking only for a free VPN, check out these top options. Instead, I recommend a premium VPN like ExpressVPN — it has faster speeds, access to servers in 90+ countries, works with all of the popular streaming apps, supports P2P traffic, and allows 5 connections.

When it comes to free antiviruses, I think there are some good options that include features that you need to keep your devices safe.

If you’re looking only for a free antivirus program, Avira Free Internet Security is the best one out there — it provides 100% malware detection, a good web shield, and a decent password manager. But users who upgrade to a paid Avira subscription get a VPN with unlimited data, important password manager protections, and a full suite of system tune-up features.

Do I need an antivirus and a VPN?

Yes, I strongly recommend that you use both security tools together — an antivirus protects your devices from malware infections and other cyber threats, while a VPN encrypts your online traffic and provides extra privacy while you’re online.

There are dozens of good antivirus programs out there in 2024 — I recommend Norton for its unbeatable malware protection, ease of use, and wide variety of security features, including anti-phishing protection and webcam protection.

And out of the top VPN brands on the market, I prefer ExpressVPN because it has high-end security features, maintains blazing-fast speeds, works with all of the top streaming sites, and is very user-friendly.

Best Antiviruses in 2024 — Final Score:

Our Rank
Our Score
Best Deal
1
9.8
save 58%
2
9.6
save 50%
3
9.4
save 60%

Best VPNs in 2024 — Final Score:

Our Rank
Our Score
Best Deal
1
9.8
save 49%
2
9.6
save 83%
3
9.4
save 83%
*1st year, terms apply
The listings featured on this site are from companies from which this site receives compensation and some are co-owned by our parent company. This influence: Rank and manner in which listings are presented. 
Learn more
About the Author
Eric Goldstein
Eric Goldstein
Chief Editor
Updated on: May 8, 2024

About the Author

Eric Goldstein is Chief Editor at SafetyDetectives. As an internet security researcher and IT journalist, he has over 2 years of experience writing and editing articles and blog posts about VPNs, antiviruses, password managers, parental controls, and identity protection products and tools. In addition, Eric writes and edits news stories focused on cybersecurity issues for SafetyDetectives. He also spent 20+ years as a sportswriter for multiple media outlets and served in a communications role for a national corporation. When he's not working, he can be found spending time with his family, working out, and watching his favorite sports teams.