NordVPN full review

NordVPN is one of the - if not the - best-known VPN service. It’s really easy to use and offers excellent privacy and security at great speeds. There are also advanced features for users that want to go a little deeper in the app than simply connecting to a server. Add in the low monthly price and great customer support and it couldn't be easier for us to recommend. Indeed, we've rated it number one in our round-up of the best VPN services.

NordVPN hack: In light of the news that one of the company's servers was hacked into, you may be wondering how this affects you. We explain what you need to know in our separate article Is is safe to use NordVPN?

A VPN, which stands for Virtual Private Network, can keep you completely anonymous online. If you don't use a VPN, your internet activity can be traced right back to your exact location, which many users find to be an invasion of their privacy. It encrypts your connection to the internet so your ISP (and government) can't see what you're up to, and the same encryption stops anyone hacking you when you're connected to open public Wi-Fi.

By using a VPN, you’ll be connecting to a server located somewhere else in the world, whether that’s another town in the country you’re currently residing in or a location on the other side of the planet. All data sent or received from the internet via that server will be routed via a private tunnel that can’t be penetrated by anyone trying to look in from the outside, so your data is safe from spying eyes.

NordVPN review

A bonus that comes from using a VPN is that it tricks websites and services into thinking you really are in the location of the server you’re using. This means you will be able to access content the would otherwise be blocked.

For example, if you’re on holiday but want to catch up on your favourite TV shows or sports on BBC iPlayer, you can use NordVPN to connect to a UK server and get access to iPlayer. Without the VPN, you'd just see an error message saying it's only for people in the UK.

The same works for those looking to watch US Netflix content from the UK. It’s important to note, though, that using a VPN in this way is often against the terms and conditions of the streaming service you’re using, so proceed at your own risk.

NordVPN: Price

As with most VPN services, subscribing for just one month costs a lot, but if you’re willing to commit to a longer contract prices drop sharply. The cheapest option is for three years, which works out at £2.82 / $3.49 per month but requires an upfront fee of £101.76 including VAT) / $125.64.

See all of the plans available and choose the one that's best for you on NordVPN's website here.

If you prefer to be totally anonymous, you can pay via various BitCoin services, but there are the usual credit and debit card options, among others.

If you are concerned about whether or not NordVPN is right for you, there's no free trial. But you can take advantage of the 30-day money back guarantee (which the company says it will honor for “accounts in good standing” that purchased the product outside of the Apple App Store).

NordVPN: Installation & ease of use

NordVPN is one of the simplest and most intuitive VPNs we’ve tried. It’s easy to install, takes no time at all to get up and running, and is speedy, stable and reliable.

It’s available on a wide variety of devices, so whether you’re on a PC, a Mac, a phone or tablet - even your Amazon Fire TV Stick - you will be able to use NordVPN. (For more on this, visit our sister title Macworld's guides to the best VPN for Mac and the best VPN for iPhone).

You’ll need to choose a subscription plan from Nord's website to create your account, then download the relevant app from your device's app store. If there is no app, you'll probably find a step-by-step guide for how to use NordVPN on it in the support section of Nord's site.

Connecting to a VPN server is as simple as choosing a country on the map, or easier still, just click connect and you will automatically connect to the most efficient server. There’s a zoomable map or country list available that’ll let you select the country you’d like to connect to if you have specific needs, with the client itself then selecting the exact server to use.

If you want to take things even further, you can choose from the entire list of servers by clicking the three dots next to the country name in the country list.

NordVPN review

From there, you’ll be able to see the server load, which indicates how many people are currently connected to give you an idea of speed and reliability. The closer this gets to 100% the slower it’ll be, but that's why it's so handy that Nord has thousands of servers. You can also click the heart icon to add a particular server to your favourites for quick access at a later date.

If you plan to always connect to a particular server, you can set NordVPN to connect to it on launch, and you can also set the app to launch as soon as your computer starts up.

Different servers will suit you best for different activities. For example, if you’re using NordVPN for security or anonymity you may want to choose a different server than those best for streaming or P2P (peer-to-peer) and NordVPN’s excellent and speedy support service can help you determine which that is via chat.

SmartPlay

You won’t always need to ask support though. NordVPN used to have a handy search feature that would allow you to find the best server for your needs, but the company is confident that it can now do that itself thanks to its SmartPlay feature.

SmartPlay automatically reroutes you through a server that will work best for the content you’re accessing, perhaps American Netflix from the UK for example. (It’s important to note here that watching US Netflix in the UK is against the terms and conditions of the service, so you should do so at your own risk).

We found that NordVPN worked every time with the streaming services we tried, including Netflix, BBC iPlayer and Hulu.

NordVPN is one of few VPNs that works in China and the Middle East, with the help of obfuscated servers designed to get around heavy restrictions on internet access in those regions. You can see which servers are obfuscated by checking the server list here. However, bear in mind there are no guarantees: VPNs and governments - and video services - play a cat-and-mouse game of blocking and unblocking each other, and things change on a daily basis.

While NordVPN affects all the apps on your computer, phone or tablet, there are web browser extensions can be used so that only internet activity from within Chrome or Firefox is routed via the VPN. This is best suited to accessing blocked content, and both browser extensions come included in the price of your subscription. They are easy to install and are as simple (if not simpler) as the app itself, so you’ll have no trouble getting them up and running.

For more on this, visit our round-up of the best browser VPNs.

Note that, unlike some rivals - including ExpressVPN and VyprVPN - NordVPN doesn't offer split-tunneling, which is where you can pick which apps use the VPN. Also, note that NordVPN rents all its servers: some rivals own and operate all hardware which they claim is safer for you.

However, Nord says that it carefully chooses its providers and only rents 'bare-metal' servers and installs its own operating system and software which ensures no data is logged.

NordVPN: Security & privacy

NordVPN is based in Panama. This means it is outside the jurisdiction of the ‘14-eyes’, which is a collective of countries that has agreed to exchange information freely with one another, with a view that this will enhance everyone’s security. Any VPN provider based within those countries can be asked to share the data of its customers and is legally obliged to comply, which some say impinges on our freedom and privacy.

NordVPN chose Panama for its favorable privacy laws and the fact there is no mandatory data retention, so even if a Panamanian court requested it to hand over any customer data, the most it would have is an email address and payment information.

It runs a no-logs policy and, like VyprVPN, has been audited (by PWC) to verify that it sticks by this rule. You can read more about that here.

The service uses 256-bit encryption with the OpenVPN protocol, which is used by many of NordVPN’s rivals and is widely considered to be the recommended choice. OpenVPN is an open source protocol, so it’s been thoroughly tested and improved across the board to ensure that it is speedy and reliable.

That's not possible on iOS (so no VPN can use OpenVPN on iPhone or iPad) but you can use IKEv2/IPsec which also uses 256-bit encryption and is just as secure.

NordVPN has one interesting feature: double encryption or Double VPN as the feature is officially named, which means you can chain VPN servers for a higher level of online security and privacy.

NordVPN can also connect to The Onion Router (Tor), which is free software designed to enable anonymous communication by directing internet traffic through a huge overlay network. This conceals the user’s location, therefore making it tricky for anyone to trace the internet activity and protecting the privacy of its user.  

Usually you’d be required to have an Onion browser in order to access this, but NordVPN has Onion over VPN servers that mean you are not required to do so.

Instead it’s as simple as clicking Onion Over VPN in the Speciality Servers tab on the left. This adds extra layers of encryption and security over and above those provided by NordVPN or Onion individually. You can find out more about this on NordVPN’s website.

NordVPN: Kill Switch

NordVPN features a kill switch, available in its Windows, macOS, Android and iOS apps. This terminates internet activity should the VPN disconnect in order to prevent any data leaks. 

NordVPN’s Kill Switch is good because, rather than forcing you to disconnect all internet activity, you can choose which apps it’ll kill should the VPN tunnel collapse.

NordVPN review

However, know that there is still some risk of data being leaked. The OpenVPN version of NordVPN (which is the version you’ll be using on your PC) doesn’t allow you to terminate the internet connection on the system level yet, but iOS, Android and macOS users using the IKEv2 version of the app are able to do so. The company says it is currently working on improving its Kill Switch feature to allow this across the board.

NordVPN: Additional features

When you first begin using NordVPN you’ll be asked whether you’d like to turn on CyberSec, which is essentially an ad blocker with some malware protection built in. This is a reasonably new feature for the service, and one that several of its rivals have also adopted. It’s designed to protect against intrusive ads, malware, phishing attempts and other threats.

We already have fully-fledged antivirus and prefer not to block ads as they are part of what keeps online content available to read for free, but for some this will be a hugely appealing additional feature.

You can turn CyberSec on or off at any time.

The latest addition is Nord's new password manager, NordPass, which could also be appealing if you've been wanting to sort out your passwords for a while. With a password manager, you no longer need to remember which email address or password you use for a site: the password manager handles all that and enters the information automatically, while keeping your vault of logins safe with a single password - and that's all you have to remember. Nord says the feature will be out later in 2019.

Performance

Testing VPN speeds isn't simple. They vary not only by server (and distance from your real location) but also at different times of the day and days of the week. We can say, however, that we have been using NordVPN for a couple of years now, and have experienced great speeds on the whole, especially when using UK and US servers - we're based in London. 

We're also happy that connections are very reliable and have had so few connections drop that we can't recall any specific instances. When testing for IP and DNS leaks, there were thankfully none: as you'd expect from one of the world's top VPN services. 

Verdict

With 24/7 live chat support, reliable, fast connections, an audited no-logs policy and the extra security offered by Double VPN, NordVPN ticks all the boxes. It'll keep you anonymous and safe online, and it's also one of the cheapest VPN services when you sign up for three years. What's not to like?