What Is a VPN?
When you switch on a VPN, it sends all your data through an encrypted tunnel to a remote server operated by the VPN company. Anyone on the same network as you, even the person who owns the network, won’t be able to see your activity. Neither will your ISP, which is great because they’re now allowed to sell your anonymized browsing data.
From the VPN server, your data exits onto the public internet. Because your data appears to emanate from the VPN server and not your computer, anyone watching your traffic on the web will see the IP address of the VPN server instead of your computer’s IP address. If you select a VPN server outside your country, it will appear as if you are browsing the web from wherever the VPN server resides.
There is no magic weapon in the world of security that will make you truly safe (or truly anonymous). If people want to target you specifically—and are willing to spend the time and money to do it—it’s likely they will eventually succeed. But a VPN makes it much harder, and it can keep your data and personal information from being swept up in mass surveillance. At the very least, you won’t be the proverbial low-hanging fruit easily picked off by scammers or advertisers.
While some VPN services claim they will defend against malware and phishing sites, we don’t believe any of them provide the same level of protection as standalone Antivirus software. And no VPN, no matter how powerful, can be as useful as a password manager at protecting your online accounts. Lastly, enabling multi-factor authentication on all your accounts (especially gaming services such as Battle.net and Steam) is the best way to prevent account takeovers. Security, just like dressing for winter, is best done in layers.
Lastly, a VPN doesn’t offer the same level of anonymization as the free Tor anonymization network. Meaning it’s easier (but still very difficult) to determine your true IP address and location when you’re using a VPN than when you’re using Tor. On the other hand, VPNs have a far smaller impact on your internet speeds than Tor.
Will a VPN Make My Game Too Slow?
The biggest concern people usually have with VPNs is that they can slow internet speeds. It makes sense because routing web traffic through a VPN server adds extra physical distance and machines between computers and content out on the web—even for playing a video game.
When we test VPNs, we try to get a sense of that impact by looking at the difference between when the VPN is active and when it is not. We perform a series of speed tests using the Ookla speed test tool and then calculate the percent change. You can get all the nitty-gritty details in our article on how we test VPNs.
(Editors’ Note: Ookla is owned by Ziff Davis, PCMag’s parent company.)
Latency is likely a bigger issue for playing video games than other activities. With fighting games, in particular, split seconds can make the difference between victory and defeat. A good rule of thumb is that the further the VPN server is from you, the greater the latency. A VPN with lots of servers and locations may help you find a server that’s nearby.
Given the importance of latency, we selected the VPNs that kept their impact on latency to a minimum. To make the list, a VPN had to increase latency by less than 13% beyond our baseline measurements. We’ve also arranged them by their latency results in descending order.
You can read more about our VPN speed testing in our fastest VPN feature, and you can compare the results from all the VPNs we’ve tested in the chart below. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has changed how we test and review VPNs, so we’ll be adding new products and results continuously.
One thing to note about these results: we found Surfshark VPN and HMA VPN appeared to actually lower latency. We believe this was likely because the relative distance of the VPN server, our NYC offices where testing took place, and the Ookla Speedtest server was very low. These services should be commended for their performance, but we do not think it can be reliably replicated. So don’t bank on lowering your latency with a VPN.
Keep in mind that this is a snapshot of performance for a particular place and time, and not the final word in network performance. You will certainly see different results depending on where you live, when you connect, what your network looks like, and which VPN server you use. Our results are primarily for comparison.
What Is the Best Free VPN for Gaming?
Little in life is free, but some VPNs are free. Most reputable free VPN services have some kind of data restriction, although a few do not. So far, we think Proton VPN has the best free subscription offering.
But even the paid subscriptions to a VPN service don’t need to break the bank. The average cost for a VPN subscription is around $9.78 per month or $65.82 per year. You can also usually save money if you purchase a longer-term subscription plan, but definitely try out the service on a short-term basis first to make sure it works for you.
Most VPN services let you secure up to five devices simultaneously. If you’re looking at a service that offers fewer devices per subscription, it better offer something pretty impressive to balance that out. Keep in mind you’ll want one subscription to cover all of your devices. Several services now place no limit on the number of simultaneous connections.
There are a few other things to consider when shopping for a VPN subscription. The best services use a modern and secure VPN protocol to secure your connection. We prefer OpenVPN and WireGuard, because both have been examined by the open-source community for potential faults. It’s also a good idea to see how many servers and server locations a VPN company offers. More servers and server locations can mean better performance and more flexibility.
Can You Trust Your VPN for Gaming?
When reviewing VPN services, we contact VPN companies to confirm basic information about their operation, policies, and how they respond to law enforcement. If you’re curious about a given VPN’s privacy issues, be sure to look up its review here on PCMag.
What Is Split Tunneling?
If any impact on your latency, download, or upload speeds is simply too much for your gaming experience, there are other options. Split tunneling is a VPN feature that lets you decide which applications send their data through the VPN’s tunnel and which send data outside the tunnel as normal. If, for example, you want to secure all your web traffic, but your game of choice can’t take the strain of a VPN, you can simply omit its traffic with split-tunneling.
The downside is that this approach will not secure all of your information. You need to decide which information you’re comfortable transmitting without a VPN’s added protection and what you want encrypted. Having to make that choice is not ideal, but it is better than having no choice at all.
Will My Games Work With a VPN?
Speed isn’t the only issue for players. Some web services get confused or outright block VPN traffic. For example, Netflix blocks VPNs to enforce distribution deals that make different videos available in different countries.
Anecdotally, we can say some games will not function properly if you’re using a VPN. This is likely because of matchmaking systems using your IP address to pair you up with particular opponents or place you on a particular server. It could also be because of anti-cheating or anti-piracy measures. Regardless of the reason, the result is the same: using a VPN sometimes means your game just won’t work.
If you encounter this problem, you might consider using split tunneling to route your game’s traffic outside the VPN connection or by purchasing a static IP address or a personal VPN server from a VPN company. These are generally offered as add-ons to a standard VPN subscription, with prices varying by company and where the IP address or server is located. We haven’t tested either option for compatibility with games, so proceed at your own risk. You might consider a short-term subscription for this kind of testing.
Will a Gaming VPN Work for Me?
VPNs are powerful privacy and security tools, which can protect your online activities from spies, advertisers, and everyone else, without breaking the bank or strangling your internet connection. There are drawbacks, however, and the requirements of specific video games mean a slow, inflexible VPN simply won’t do.
That said, a VPN only makes a difference if you actually use it, and use it regularly. That’s why it’s important to try out several different vendors until you settle on one that fits your life best.
(Editors’ Note: While they may not all appear in this story, IPVanish and StrongVPN are owned by Ziff Davis, PCMag’s parent company.)