All virtual-private-network service providers claim to be very private. That's part of the job description. But some VPN services are more private than others, and our favorites are Mullvad and Windscribe.
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The most private VPN services don't ask for any information about you — not your name, your email address or your credit-card number. They let you pay anonymously in prepaid gift cards or in cash.
Many more services let you pay pseudonymously in Bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies, but those methods aren't completely anonymous. Each Bitcoin transaction is a public record, and if you make a large number of transactions, that might be enough to identify you.
As for email privacy, you could generate a disposable email address to register for those VPN services that require one. There are online services that promise to do so completely anonymously, but there's always the chance that the email address could be traced back to you.
Mullvad: No name, no email address, can pay completely anonymously
The most private VPN service we've tested is Mullvad. It doesn't want your name or your email address, and the website states that Mullvad accepts cash "in any currency."
Just go to the Mullvad website, generate a random account number, and mail cash and a piece of paper with the account number to Mullvad's headquarters in Sweden. You can even get an account and download the software through the Tor anonymization protocol at http://xcln5hkbriyklr6n.onion/.
No password or email address needed
Based in Sweden
Quick, easy setup process
Accepts cash payments
No discount for yearly payment
Clunky desktop interface
No client software for mobile devices
Mullvad also takes Bitcoin, Bitcoin Cash, credit cards, wire transfers, PayPal or the Swedish mobile-payment platform Swish.
Obviously, you give up your privacy if you pay with a credit card. You get a 10 percent discount if you pay in cryptocurrency, and anyone who doesn't pay cash gets a 30-day money-back guarantee.
Like many other VPN providers, Mullvad provides you with a "kill switch" option that cuts off all internet connections if the VPN connection drops. Mullvad's default VPN protocol is OpenVPN, but it also offers the new WireGuard protocol. You can set up Mullvad connections manually on most operating systems and on routers running the DD-WRT firmware.
That One Privacy Site gives Mullvad very good marks, except for the fact that Mullvad is located in Sweden, whose government is rumored to share intelligence with the "Five Eyes" group: Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Mullvad's client software for Windows, Mac and Linux is easy to set up and use. Unfortunately, Android and iOS have to install an open-source OpenVPN app and then import a Mullvad configuration script for each country they want to connect to, which can be tricky.
In our tests, Mullvad's download and upload speeds were kind of meh, but the service is affordable and was the only service that managed to get Netflix streams from every country we tried — at least some of the time.
MORE: Best VPN Services Tested
Windscribe: No name, no email address, takes Bitcoin
Windscribe also lets you sign up anonymously, although it makes you create a username and password instead of giving you a random account number. However, you can't pay with cash or store gift cards. You can pay with Bitcoin, however, and Windscribe also takes credit cards, PayPal and PaymentWall.
Free tier with large data allowance
Integrated ad blocking and tracker blocking
Windows desktop software requires frequent resets
Not the most comprehensive platform support
Because Windscribe offers 2GB of data for free each month, no strings attached, you could create several accounts and bounce from one to the next when you run out of data. If you provide a valid email address, you can bump that free allotment up to 10GB per month, but that might undermine your privacy.
Windscribe's transparency report states that despite nearly half a million requests for user data in 2018 related to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and 37 requests from law enforcement agencies, "exactly zero requests were complied with due to lack of relevant data."
Windscribe offers client software for Windows, Mac, Android, iOS and Amazon Fire devices, and there's a command-line application for Linux. The client software uses the IKEv2 VPN protocol by default when possible, but will switch to OpenVPN if needs be. There's no kill switch, but Windscribe argues that its firewall gives you the same protection. You can set up Windscribe manually on almost any widely used platform and on some routers.
That One Privacy Site gives Windscribe generally good marks for privacy, with one big red flag: The company is based in Canada, part of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing group.
In our tests, Windscribe was very fast and easy to use. Its Windflix servers in the U.S. and U.K. were among the most reliable at connecting to Netflix and BBC iPlayer in those countries. Windscribe also one of the least expensive yearly subscription prices we've seen.
Other VPN services
All of the other paid VPN services we've reviewed do require email addresses. None accept cash, but a few do take gift cards, including Hotspot Shield, IPVanish, Private Internet Access and VPN Unlimited. Unfortunately, all those are located or partly located in the U.S., which makes them subject to FBI search warrants and National Security Letters.
Why you can't blindly trust your VPN provider
When you sign up for a VPN service, you give it permission to view all the data you're trying to keep private from some other party, such as your internet service provider. But can you trust your VPN provider?
You shouldn't have to. It does help to know as much as possible about a VPN provider, such as who owns it, who runs it and where it's based. (Some VPN companies don't tell you, and for all you know, they could be the NSA or its Russian or Chinese equivalents.) But if you're really privacy conscious, you'll want to give your VPN provider as little information about yourself as possible.