Do You Need an iPhone VPN?
Modern cellular communication is thoroughly encrypted and not easily tapped without police-level tools such as a Stingray-like device or data dumps from cell towers. That said, there are well-documented attacks that can intercept cell transmissions, and phony cell towers may be a bigger problem than you think. There are also fake Wi-Fi networks that mimic networks your iPhone already trusts, enticing them to connect without your knowledge. We’ve seen this attack in action—it’s a staple of security researchers showing off their tricks.
The real day-to-day problem is companies who are out for your data. Advertisers track your movements across the web and can build up detailed records of your preferences they can transmute into cash with the dark alchemy of targeted advertising. Facebook, Google, and other big-name companies have driven an industry built on hyper-specific ad targeting. Even your internet service provider (ISP) can aggregate and sell anonymized information about online activity.
How to Use iPhone VPNs for Encryption and Location Spoofing
When your VPN is active, all your network traffic—whether from browsers, apps, or iOS itself—gets encrypted before leaving your phone. This encrypted data travels to a server owned by the VPN provider, where it’s decrypted and sent on its way.
Encrypted web traffic isn’t the only reason you need a VPN. With a direct, no-VPN connection to a website, your IP address identifies you to not only that site but also your geographic location. When you’re using a VPN, however, the IP address others see is that of the VPN server you’re connected with, not your own.
Beyond protecting your traffic, VPNs can also let you spoof your location and tunnel past local internet restrictions. Journalists and political activists working against repressive regimes have long relied on VPNs to communicate safely with the outside world. Just know that in some countries, you may break local laws just by using a VPN. For example, Russia has banned VPNs, claiming a need to block terrorist activities. China has also banned most VPNs, though some still manage to connect.
Spoofing your location can also get around restrictions of another kind. It’s not uncommon for online streaming services to offer content in one region but not another. Offerings from Netflix and Hulu differ by country. Brits can watch BBC shows for free, while the same shows require a subscription in the US. Spoofing your location with a VPN can get you access to shows not normally available to you. But take care: Location spoofing may violate your terms of service. In addition, companies like Netflix are cracking down on VPN users. Streaming is often not an option when your VPN is running.
What an iPhone VPN Can’t Do
The widespread adoption of HTTPS means most of your traffic is already encrypted. That makes it much harder for anyone snooping on your activity to see much beyond what websites you’re visiting. That said, your ISP still has remarkable insight into your online activities, and there is a benefit to hiding your IP address, which VPNs can do and HTTPS can’t.
Remember that using a VPN doesn’t make you invincible to online threats. We highly recommend enabling multi-factor authentication wherever possible, creating unique logins with a password manager, and creating passkeys wherever possible.
Although a VPN makes it harder for you to be tracked online, advertisers have numerous tricks to gather data on your activities. Adjusting the privacy settings in your mobile browser can also go a long way toward keeping advertisers blind to your activities. For desktop users, we highly recommend using a tracker blocker like the EFF’s Privacy Badger.
While the data going to and from your VPN server is encrypted, using a VPN doesn’t get you the level of anonymity obtained by connecting through the TOR network, nor the concomitant ability to dive into the scary depths of the dark web. On the plus side, some VPN services include TOR-specific servers.
Does Using a VPN Slow Down Your iPhone’s Internet Connection?
The short answer is yes; a VPN will almost certainly increase the latency of your internet connection and make your uploads and downloads slower. Anecdotally, the already limited speeds of mobile devices seem to be especially adversely affected by VPNs. We also have noticed, but have not confirmed with testing, that VPNs seem to disconnect and reconnect more frequently with mobile devices than desktop machines.
To get a sense of the impact a VPN may have on your internet connection, we compare the results from a series of Ookla speed tests with and without the VPN active. (Editors’ Note: Speedtest by Ookla is owned by Ziff Davis, the publisher of PCMag.) Network speeds can vary greatly depending on the time of day, the network conditions, and your location, so we consider our results to be a snapshot for comparison rather than the final judgment on a service’s performance.
We measure speeds on the PCMag Labs network using a Windows desktop. Before 2021, we tested VPN products back to back, but COVID-19 restrictions have limited our ability to test VPNs in the PCMag Labs. We now use a rolling model and will release new results throughout the year. The latest data is in the chart below.
We rely on a Windows desktop and wired connection for our testing because we’ve found more reliable than testing on individual mobile devices. But as we said above, there appear to be some unique issues with VPNs on mobile. Also, not all VPN providers use the same protocol on every platform, which can impact performance.
Can You Trust Your iPhone VPN Service?
If you’re using a service to route all your internet traffic through its servers, you have to be able to trust the provider. We’re not cryptography experts, so we can’t verify all the encryption claims providers make. Instead, we give special attention to the privacy practices of VPN companies and not just the technology they provide. In our testing, we read the privacy policies and discuss company practices with VPN service representatives. We look for a commitment to protect user information and to take a hands-off approach when gathering user data.
As part of our research, we also make sure to find out where the company is based and under what legal framework it operates. Some countries don’t have data-retention laws, making it easier to promise “We don’t keep any logs.” Knowing what personal information the VPN collects and under what circumstances a VPN provider will hand over that information to law enforcement is also useful.
We also liked to see policy backed up by some verifiable effort. Transparency reports and audits are imperfect tools, but we prefer services that have at least tried to prove their worth to the public.
Which Free VPN Is Best for Your iPhone?
Finally, there’s the bang-for-your-buck factor. While it’s possible to get a VPN for free, even the best no-cost services have some limitations, such as draconian bandwidth caps. The average price for a paid subscription among the evaluated services is about $10 per month. These usually offer five simultaneous connections, which would cover most individuals and some households. If the service you’re looking at costs significantly more or offers significantly less, it’s important to make sure it’s justifying its value some other way.
Proton VPN is the only service that does not have data restrictions, making it the only truly free VPN on our list. However, the free tier limits your server location to the Netherlands, Japan, and the United States, and you can only use the free VPN service on one device at a time.
What Is the Best iPhone VPN?
Using a VPN isn’t about protecting your device; it’s about protecting your privacy and network connections. That means any type of device that connects online can benefit from a VPN, making it an enormously versatile tool for your privacy toolkit. Read our reviews, check our ratings, and select the best VPN for you. Once you’ve chosen a service, read our guide on how to set up and use a VPN.
(Editors’ Note: While they may not appear in this story, IPVanish and StrongVPN are owned by Ziff Davis, PCMag’s parent company.)