How We Test Virtual Private Networks (VPNs)

Our reviewers conduct a range of tests for each VPN service to determine if each product is actually as secure, easy to use, and fast as advertised by each VPN company.
Here’s how we test VPNs:

Category Breakdown
  • 5% - Purchase & Download
  • 10% - Installation & Setup
  • 25% - Security & Privacy
  • 15% - Overall Speeds
  • 15% - Extra Features
  • 10% - Server Locations & Options
  • 10% - Pricing
  • 10% - Customer Support & Refunds
1. Purchase & Download

1. Purchase & Download — 5%

We purchase the most comprehensive VPN package offered by each brand. During the payment process, we look at how much personal information we need to provide to complete a purchase and whether or not the company offers any anonymous payment methods like cryptocurrency.

A VPN company only needs an email address and payment information to create a user’s account, so if the company asks for more identifying information, we assess whether or not the company has a valid reason to do so.

Once we’ve completed our purchase, we read the system requirements and download the installation file from each company’s website.

Based on our experience when purchasing and downloading each VPN, we give a score out of 10. This score makes up 5% of the final score

2. Installation & Setup

2. Installation & Setup — 10%

We install the VPN on a variety of systems, including Android, iOS, Windows, and Mac. The installation process is closely monitored to determine the difficulty of installing the VPN on each system.

Once installed, we set up the VPN by logging into our account and adjusting the settings as required to ensure the VPN is set up correctly on our systems.

We consider how intuitive the VPN program is and whether or not we think both non-technical and technical users could quickly understand how to use the program’s interface.

Based on our experience with the installation and setup of each product, we give a score out of 10. This score makes up 10% of the final score.

3. Security & Privacy

3. Security & Privacy — 25%

We conduct a series of tests to ensure each product indeed protects a user’s information, including browsing activity and IP address, and we strive to find any potential flaws in each VPN’s security features.

Our reviewers look at things like:
  • VPN protocols — we look at the range of VPN protocols offered by each provider, including OpenVPN (UDP), OpenVPN (TCP), IKEv2, WireGuard, and any others that are offered by the VPN service provider.
  • Encryption — we examine the strength and functionality of the encryption method used by the VPN to obscure a user’s browsing data.
  • DNS leak protection — we perform various leak tests to ensure there are no data or IP leaks when using the VPN service.
  • IPv4 & IPv6 visibility — we assess whether or not each VPN is capable of obscuring both IPv4 and IPv6 addresses.
  • Company logging policy — we dissect each provider’s logging policy to ensure the company is as committed to protecting user data as it claims it is.

Once our security assessments are complete, we give an overall score out of 10. This score makes up 25% of the final score.

4. Overall Speeds

4. Overall Speeds — 15%

All VPNs slow down a user’s internet connection a little bit. This is due to both the time it takes to reroute user traffic through an intermediary and the time it takes to encrypt that traffic.

Our reviewers test the VPN’s overall speeds with a variety of speed tests. Our methodology includes measuring the percentage difference between the speeds without a VPN and the speeds with the VPN (connected to many servers in many different locations).

To get the most accurate results, we test the overall speed of a VPN by measuring the following:
  • Local server speeds — the download and upload speeds of servers that are located near our reviewers.
  • International server speeds — the download and upload speeds of servers across a wide range of countries all over the world.
  • Ping speed — how long it takes to reach the network host.
  • Streaming speeds — the general experience (buffering, glitches, interruptions, etc.) while streaming in HD.
  • P2P speeds — the download and upload speeds associated with P2P file sharing and torrenting.

Typically, good VPNs only have a slight impact on speed. If a VPN only drops the original download speeds by under 10% for local servers, we consider it as a very good VPN. In general, a good VPN won’t slow down connections by more than 50% on any server (keeping in mind that the further away a server is, the slower the speed will be).

Once our tests are complete, we collate our speed test data and give a score out of 10. When calculating the score, we typically place more emphasis on download speed than upload speed and ping, but certain considerations are made in unique instances (like gaming and torrenting). This score makes up 15% of the final score.

5. Extra Features

5. Extra Features — 15%

When testing VPNs, we also consider the range of extra features each VPN offers and how well they work. Some of these features include:

  • Split tunneling — we award points to the VPN if it allows you to route some of your traffic through the VPN and the rest through your regular internet connection.
  • Ad-blocker — we check whether the VPN blocks ads and pop-ups while you’re browsing the internet, and if the ad-blocking works well.
  • Support for Tor traffic — we assess whether the VPN provides you with an extra layer of security for surfing .onion sites.
  • Obfuscation — we check whether the VPN provides obfuscation, which hides your VPN traffic and makes it look like regular internet traffic. This might help you access the web on restrictive networks.
  • Double VPN — we award extra points to VPNs that effectively disguise data twice by routing it through two different VPN servers.

Once we have evaluated each of the VPN’s extra features, we give an overall score out of 10. This score makes up 15% of the final score.

6. Server Locations & Options

6. Server Locations & Options — 10%

Generally speaking, a good VPN should have a large number of servers all over the world. The more server locations there are, the less likely that any one server will experience a high load at any given time (and impact overall speed and performance).

A wide variety of servers is important to ensure most users can connect to a server that’s near their actual location, while also allowing users to securely stream content from their preferred platforms as needed.

We also check to see what kinds of servers the VPN service provides. We look for options like P2P-optimized servers for secure torrenting and dedicated streaming servers for fast HD streaming with no lags or buffering.

We give high scores for VPNs that offer a range of server types as well as a large number of server locations. This score makes up 10% of the final score.

SafetyDetectives does not condone copyright infringement. Using a VPN to access streaming libraries from outside your current location may violate your chosen streaming platform’s terms and conditions. Our international team tests VPNs with the streaming platforms available in their region(s).
7. Pricing

7. Pricing — 10%

When judging the price of each VPN, our reviewers look at the range of subscription plans offered by each company, break down what features come with each plan, and determine if each VPN is worth the money.

Each plan is compared to similar packages offered by other VPN providers to see if each product is low-cost or expensive compared to the competition.

As well as looking at the original price of each package, we look at the available discounts and deals that each company advertises. If available, we’ll let the user know if the discounted price is a good buy or not.

We give each VPN provider a score out of 10 for pricing. This score makes up 10% of the final score.

8. Customer Support & Refunds

8. Customer Support & Refunds — 10%

Our reviewers contact each VPN provider’s customer support team. VPN providers are given higher scores if they have a wide range of support options, including email, live chat, phone, support forums, social media, and other support channels.

We send questions to each available support channel and judge how fast the support team responds to our request and how useful the response is in helping us solve an issue. The faster and more helpful the response, the higher we score each provider’s customer support.

Subjective experience can be a factor when reporting our customer support experience. However, to mitigate reporting based on one isolated incident, we contact support teams multiple times over the duration of our full VPN testing process to ensure our results are fair and well-rounded.

Finally, we see if each provider offers a refund policy or money-back guarantee. We then request a refund within the correct time frame to see how easy or difficult it is to get our refund processed and how long it takes for the money to arrive back in our account.

This score makes up 10% of the final score.

Final Scores for VPNs

Using the results from each individual test, our reviewers calculate a final score for each VPN based on the score of each test category.

Each test category has a varying influence on the final score, so we divide each test score by the following percentages:

Purchase & Download: 5%
Installation and Setup: 10%
Security & Privacy: 25%
Overall Speeds: 15%
Extra Features: 15%
Server Locations & Options: 10%
Pricing: 10%
Customer Support & Refunds: 10%

We then add up the figures to reach a final score for each VPN, which is shown at the top of each review. Products with an overall score above 8/10 are generally considered to be a great choice for most users. Products scoring around 7/10 are generally pretty good, though there are likely better options elsewhere. Scores around 6/10 and below indicate that our reviewers ran into many issues, and the product probably isn’t the best for most users in its current form.