VPNs are not only essential tools to protect you online. They can help you access geo-blocked content, bypass censoring firewalls, and hide your activity from prying eyes like your ISP, the government, and other peeping-Tom 3rd-parties. But you likely already know that. The problem is, if you want to be extra safe – which you should, especially if torrenting, using Kodi, or concerned about your online privacy – then you need to make sure your VPN is working, not leaking.
If your VPN is leaking your private data, you need to put a stop to it. In this guide, we’re going to show you how to choose a VPN that’s reliable and won’t leak. Then, we’ll give you our suggestions of the best VPNs that protect against leaks. Finally, we’ll show you how to check for leaks of every kind, and what to do if you find one.
- 1 Hallmarks of a leak-free VPN
- 2 5 VPNs that protect your online activity
- 3 How to stop leaks
- 4 More about leaks
- 5 Don’t forget anti-virus protection
- 6 Conclusion
Hallmarks of a leak-free VPN
With as many as 84% of free VPNs allowing user data to slip out, you need to be careful who you trust. While we never recommend so-called “free VPNs” – for reasons detailed elsewhere – there are still some things to consider when selecting a paid VPN. While a provider may advertise many of the same features as others, the provider’s history of being able to follow through needs to be strong. And with hundreds of providers to be found with a click of Google’s “search” – trying to sift through rapidly becomes overwhelming.
Our list of recommendations was informed by strict criteria that we developed, ensuring that each VPN is thoroughly vetted, qualified, and leak-free:
- Security – Your VPN should have strong security. 256-bit AES encryption is the industry standard. But alongside this, each VPN should have other features like a kill switch (in case of accidental drop) and DNS leak protection.
- Logging policy – Without a strict zero-logging policy, you’re never truly private. ISPs collect and keep records of all your online activity. When you route your Internet connection through a VPN, they can no longer “read” your data – but if your VPN is just recording what you do instead, then what’s the use of it? A good VPN will not keep any records that can be traced back to you.
- Network size – The size of a VPN provider’s network can be looked at as a sign of its reputation, functionality, and stability. Larger VPNs tend to have a better infrastructure in place, helping to reduce the chance of any leaks. Plus, when a provider offers a large network, you have more options for getting online and bypassing blocks and censors.
5 VPNs that protect your online activity
That said, here are our choices for the top 5 VPNs that are good at staying leak-free – and will keep your online activity protected.
1 – ExpressVPN
ExpressVPN comes in at #1 for good reason: it’s fast, it’s secure, and it has a proven reputation. Let’s break down each of those: ExpressVPN is one of the fastest providers on the market. They offer unlimited bandwidth, no speed caps, and a nifty speed test to choose the fastest server in your search parameters. If you like to torrent or use P2P networks, there are no restrictions there, either. These things make them ideal for buffer-free streaming, fast downloads, and seamless browsing.
When it comes to security, though, ExpressVPN is hard to beat. 256-bit AES encryption wraps your data securely, IPv6 support blocks any spying eyes from seeing your IP, and a built-in DNS leak test + many others ensures your VPN usage is leak-free, no matter your device. ExpressVPN also doesn’t log any of your data that can be traced back to you and is based in the British Virgin Islands – where they’re exempt from U.S. and European laws, giving you greater anonymity online.
You can learn more about his great provider in our full ExpressVPN review.
2 – NordVPN
NordVPN gives any of the top-tier providers on the market a run for their money in any direct comparison. With a massive server network of more than 5,200 servers scattered across 62 countries, NordVPN is the biggest in the industry and always growing. It also provides specialty servers for advanced users – so you’ll get access to ones configured for functions like Onion over VPN, Anti-DDoS, Double VPN use, P2P, Dedicated IP addresses, and Obfuscation. And with powerful 256-bit AES encryption, kill switch, DNS leak test, and CyberSec, even “regular” servers lock down your activity.
NordVPN also has one of the most complete zero-logging policies around, with no logs kept on traffic, IP address, timestamps, bandwidth, or browsing history. Combine that with their location in Panama, and your anonymity is assured.
Check out our full NordVPN review to find out more of their best features.
3 – CyberGhost
CyberGhost promises you easy use and effective privacy, and they deliver on both. CyberGhost gives you a colorful display devoid of unnecessary noise, and with it 6 pre-configured profiles. With the best settings in place straight out of the box, you can surf anonymously, unblock streaming and basic websites, protect your Wi-Fi connection, torrent, and easily choose your VPN server. Plus, you can turn on toggles for things that add extra protection, blocking malicious websites, ads, and online track, compressing your data, automatically redirecting to HTTPS, or boosting your speed. So with just a few clicks you can be perfectly set for your use-case.
With more than 3,100 servers in 59 countries, CyberGhost has the infrastructure to provide unlimited bandwidth, no speed caps or throttling, and plenty of extra security outside of their standard 256-bit AES encryption. Plus, you can connect to as many as 7 devices at once. And finally, CyberGhost gives you immaculate privacy with their near-perfect zero-logging policy – they even refuse to keep your email address.
Interested? Find out more in our comprehensive CyberGhost review.
4 – PrivateVPN
PrivateVPN delivers a no-frills experience – but they don’t spare their resources when it comes to speed and security. Military-grade, 256-bit AES encryption is standard through OpenVPN with UDP/TCP, but you also get other protocols like L2TP/IPSec, PPTOP, and even IKEv2 for mobile devices. Between all these options, you’ll be able to find the right balance of speed and security for you.
PrivateVPN is no slouch in their speed, promising reduced latency and higher download speeds, which they proved were fast in our review of them. This makes them prefect for streaming platforms like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, and more.
Take a look at our full review of PrivateVPN to discover more about this provider.
5 – PureVPN
With PureVPN, you’ll have no trouble with protecting your activity online. They give you the complete package: 256-bit AES encryption, DNS, IPv6, and WebRTC leak protection, even anti-virus software built in. Plus they’ll stop spam, put up a NAT firewall, DDoS protection, and app filtering. So with PureVPN you get the whole security package, kit-and-caboodle. And a network of 2,000+ servers across more than 140 countries, you’ll have no shortage of options to choose from.
PureVPN has a wide software availability, with support for desktop (Mac, Windows, and Linux), mobile (Android, iOS), browser extensions, Smart TVs, routers, and gaming consoles. So whatever you want to do online, with whatever device – you can do it safely with PureVPN.
How to stop leaks
As in everything, context is important. Before we can talk about the different types of leaks and their solutions, it’s important to know how to identify them in the first place. There are a lot of free tools available online that can help you test for DNS and IP address leaks in your VPN. Regardless of the tool, the steps are pretty similar:
- Disconnect from your VPN, then visit the testing website using your web browser.
- Write down your public IP address and DNS server address.
- Return to your VPN and reconnect to a server. Then, return to the testing tool’s website. If you left it up, refresh it. Compare the IP and DNS addresses.
If your VPN is working properly (i.e. not leaking any data), then the testing tool’s website should not display the same IP address or DNS server as it did when you were disconnected. If either address matches your public IP address or DNS server address, then you have a leak.
There are essentially 2 basic schools of tests: basic tests, and advanced ones. Below, we cover both.
With these, you’re relying on the website to identify any problems. We often recommend ipleak.net to test your connection whenever you setup your VPN. To do so, you follow the steps above – that works to see how well the VPN is working when the encrypted “tunnel” is active and stable.
But, you can also check how well your VPN is working when the tunnel gets disrupted. To do that, connect to your VPN first, then open ipleak.net. Once you’ve confirmed that the connection is working properly, manually interrupt it while still running your VPN – this means either turn off your Wi-Fi or pull the ethernet cable. After a few moments, reconnect and see how the VPN holds up. Use ipleak, and other testing sites to check.
Doing this will detect any obvious problems with your VPN.
Here are a few other testing sites you can use, and keep in mind several VPN providers offer leak tests themselves:
- net – tests IPv4, IPv6, WebRTC, and DNS.
- org – tests IPv4, IPv6, WebRTC, and DNS.
- ac – tests IPv4, IPv6, WebRTC, DNS, browser fingerprints, and others.
- test-ipv6.com – tests IPv4 and IPv6.
- BrowserLeaks – tests WebRTC.
The downside of basic tests is just that – they’re basic. Sometimes they don’t pick up every leak, so you may be at risk without knowing it. The best way to avoid this is to create a full-service leak-testing suite for your OS. These run a gamut of tests and identify any possible leaks there might be. But doing that is far beyond the ability of most people. Thankfully, a few VPN providers have done that work for you.
ExpressVPN is one of these. They released an advanced testing suite that they use to leak-proof their entire system of supported apps. But, you don’t have to be an ExpressVPN customer to use it – it’s free, open-source, and usable even on other providers. Running your chosen VPN through the advanced tests provided by ExpressVPN gives you that extra measure of assurance that your VPN is fully protecting you online.
Solutions to leaks
So, say you run your VPN through some of the basic testing tools, or the advanced tests – and turns out, you have a leak. Initially, you can try changing servers, disconnecting and reconnecting, etc., but that may not work. So what do you do? That depends on the leak.
If your VPN is throwing DNS leaks, then your real IP address gets leaked out, too, exposing everything your VPN has encrypted. The solution is to use a VPN that has its own secured and encrypted DNS resolvers, and leak protection. If you current one can’t provide that, we suggest trying one from our list above.
IP address leaks
IP address leaks often result from DNS leaks, so use a VPN that has a dedicated DNS server and built-in DNS leak protection should prevent this. Other solutions, if this is already ruled out, is to use a VPN that supports IPv6 or has a workaround; or, you can disable IPv6 in your operating system manually, using a guide online, like this one for Windows. A quick search turns up guides for your specific device and OS.
If you find a WebRTC leak, there are a few things you can do. Obviously, the first is to use a VPN that protects against these kind of breaches, but I doubt you want to jump to switching VPNs at every turn. Instead, you can try some of these:
- Set firewall rules to block requests made outside your VPN connection;
- Disable WebRTC in your browser (i.e. Firefox), then only use that browser;
- Or, use browser add-ons or extensions if you can’t disable it, like in Chrome and Chrome-based browsers. Plenty of guides turn up in a quick google search.
More about leaks
We’ve talked about 3 types of leaks: DNS server leaks, IP address leaks, and WebRTC leaks. But if you’ve never heard of them, they probably don’t mean anything to you – so let’s dig into them a bit more.
The Domain Name System converts URLs into numerical IP addresses. Normally, ISPs facilitate the translation process, but in doing so, clear text logs are kept of every website you visit. So keeping logs is pretty easy to do, which can then be sold to advertisers, the government, and other 3rd-parties. When you use a VPN, this process is performed by your provider instead and encrypted. A DNS leak occurs when these translation requests slip out of the VPN tunnel, exposing your real IP address – and all the data that comes with it. All the VPNs we recommended include built-in DNS leak protection, and if you’re doubtful you can use one of the testing sites listed earlier, like ipleak.net.
Your IP address is like your mailing address and comes in two forms: IPv4 and IPv6. If someone has ahold of either, they can identify where you are and trace all your activities online. While IP address leaks can happen because of a leaked DNS server, they can also occur when your VPN provider doesn’t offer IPv6 support. Many do not, as IPv6 is newer. You can use test-ipv6.com to check if it’s leaking.
WebRTC was developed to make peer-to-peer communication easier and more efficient, but with it came a major vulnerability: your true IP address can be revealed via STUN requests in Firefox, Chrome, Opera, and Brave. It doesn’t matter if you’re using a VPN or not – a STUN request will reveal both your real and VPN IP address, making your vulnerable. BrowserLeaks is a good test to see if you have a WebRTC leak.
Don’t forget anti-virus protection
VPNs aren’t catchall silver-bullets, unfortunately – they protect your Internet connection and online data, but not everything else. If you don’t have anti-virus protection, your device – and by extension, activity – isn’t completely secure. To ensure that your online activity is completely safe, use antivirus software. It’ll protect you from viruses, spyware, Trojan horses, and worms. There are plenty of good, reliable, and completely free programs out there, too, like Avast and Kaspersky, who scored highest in PCMag’s tests.
There you have it – a complete guide to protecting your online activities from prying eyes. We showed you how to choose a reliable VPN, test its security for leaks and holes, and how to fix those things – or know when it’s time to switch providers. Pick a VPN (or take your current one for a spin) and run it through those tests. You may be surprised.
Have you ever used a VPN? Ran it through leak tests? If you found any, what did you do? Tell us your experience with protecting your online activities in the comments section.