Your mobile phone might not have an Ethernet port or need to use Wi-Fi, but that doesn’t mean you are safe from the prying eyes of three-letter government agencies, attackers, or advertisers. That’s why it’s a good idea to get a virtual private network, or VPN, such as NordVPN, for your Android smartphone. NordVPN is impressive, with the largest collection of servers we’ve seen, specialized servers, ad blocking, and an excellent user interface.
What Is a VPN?
When you connect to the Wi-Fi at a local coffee shop, know that other people on the same network can snoop on your traffic. Worse, an attacker could create a bogus network and swipe the passwords and personal information from anyone that connects to it. This may sound far-fetched, but Pwnie Express breached 35,000 devices using the same tactic—and that was a demonstration at a security conference, where you’d assume people would be more savvy about such things.
Meanwhile, on the web, advertisers and spy agencies can watch your movements online with smart ad trackers and sophisticated surveillance tools. Even if you think have nothing to hide, it’s disconcerting how easily you can be tracked. Internet service providers also have secured the right to sell anonymized user data, adding yet another bad guy to the list.
You need a VPN to secure your connection. A VPN creates an encrypted tunnel between your computer and a remote server. No one on the same network as you, even those operating a fraudulent network that you’ve connected to, will be able to see anything of your traffic but meaningless gibberish. Out on the web, your identity is also secure with a VPN. Ad trackers and anyone watching your movements will see the IP address of the VPN server you’re connected to, instead of your own IP address.
It’s true that cellular networks are more secure than Wi-Fi, generally. But there are still some risks. Modern wireless standards like LTE are encrypted, but the code protecting data sent over 2G has long been broken. Clever attackers can set up a phony cellular tower, similar to a Femtocell, and jam the LTE and 3G bands to force nearby phones to connect via the less secure 2G connection. Then it’s a man-in-the-middle attack, with the bad guy intercepting everything you send. Although such attacks are primarily the work of researchers, you can take comfort in the fact that VPNs work over cellular connections, too.
Pricing and Features
NordVPN is available for $11.95 per month, which is on the expensive side for a VPN. The current average monthly price for one of PCMag’s top-rated Android VPNs is $10.16. Private Internet Access, on the other hand, costs only $6.95 per month. There are also many great free VPN services available, so being short on cash is no excuse for not staying safe online. For instance, ProtonVPN’s free service does not impose any data limitations.
If you find that you love NordVPN, you can spring for longer-term plans. A six-month plan costs $54, and $83.88 gets you a year’s worth of VPN service.
A NordVPN subscription let you use the service on up to six devices simultaneously, which is slightly more than average. That said, IPVanish and CyberGhost offer 10 and seven simultaneous connections, respectively, and Avira Phantom VPN lets you use as many devices as you like without limitation. If you have both iPhone and Android devices, you’re in luck because the NordVPN iPhone app is almost identical to the Android one. In addition to Android, NordVPN offers clients for Chrome, Firefox, iOS, Linux, macOS, and Windows. You can also configure NordVPN on your router to protect all of the devices on the network.
Servers and Security
At the time of publishing, NordVPN maintains over 5,100 servers. That’s the most of any VPN service we’ve tested. Private Internet Access, which boasts the second largest collection of servers, maintains 3,152 of them. TorGuard and, more recently, CyberGhost, have also passed the 3,000-server milestone. One thing to keep in mind when it comes to server counts is whether a VPN company uses virtual servers. A virtual server is a software-defined server that can be configured to appear in a different location than the physical server it lives on. The problem with virtual servers is that your data may pass through a country with more invasive data collection policies than the one you initially selected. NordVPN does not use any virtual servers.
NordVPN covers 62 countries across a good geographic range, which is above average when compared to the other VPN services we tested. IPVanish covers about the same number of countries, with Private Internet Access, TunnelBear, and ProtonVPN trailing considerably. Hide My Ass VPN and PureVPN offer servers in 190+ and 180 countries, respectively.
NordVPN covers several regions worldwide including Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. Still, NordVPN neglects to offer servers in countries with some of the most restrictive internet policies, including Cuba, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. That said, it does have a presence in Egypt, Russia, UAE, and Vietnam.
NordVPN goes further than many services by providing servers for specific purposes. For example, the company offers Onion Over VPN (that is, the Tor network), P2P, and Double VPN. The company also offers static IPs for sale. NordVPN supports OpenVPN, the open-source protocol we prefer, and it also offers IKEv2 and IPSec.
NordVPN distinguishes itself with a few extra security features. For example, its CyberSec option promises to help you avoid ads and potentially dangerous URLs that might host phishing pages or malware. We don’t test the efficacy of ad-blockers, but it’s a nice extra. Note that the malware and phishing protection is based on URL blacklists, which isn’t the fastest way to protect against online threats. NordVPN also says that CyberSec can prevent infected devices from being used in botnets, an interesting feature we haven’t seen elsewhere.
Journalists and political dissidents have long used VPN technology to circumvent restrictive internet laws in other countries, though that is becoming more difficult in China, where the government has vowed to block all VPNs. NordVPN has a version of its Android client available for users within China who still wish to take advantage of the privacy and security offered by a VPN. The company recommends that customers in China use the Obfuscated Servers option in the app’s settings. We don’t choose a best VPN for China due to the potentially severe consequences of it failing.
In terms of VPN usage specifically, “NordVPN guarantees a strict no-logs policy for NordVPN services, meaning that your activities using NordVPN Services are provided by automated technical process, are not monitored, recorded, logged, stored or passed to any third party.” The policy continues, “We do not store connection time stamps, session information, used bandwidth, traffic logs, IP addresses or other data.” All those policies seem solid to us, but ultimately you need to be comfortable with this policy on your own, so make sure to read it for yourself as well.
In November 2018, NordVPN completed an audit of its no-log policy by one of the “big four auditing firms.” It joins a small but growing group of VPN companies that use third-party audits to validate the their efforts to protect user security and privacy. TunnelBear is another noteworthy example of companies that have taken this step.
Hands On With NordVPN
We tested NordVPN on a Google Pixel running Android 9. We didn’t have any issues logging into the app nor did we experience any lag or crashes in use. The dependability of a VPN app is important, since it is your first (and likely most important) line of defense against internet-based privacy threats. The app’s design and layout is slick and stylish, a marked departure from the dull, confusing interfaces that dominate the security sector.
The app’s main page shows a large map with all of NordVPN’s server locations. The large Quick Connect button beneath the map connects you to the server NordVPN thinks is best for you. You can select a server from the map, too, or scroll down to select from a list of servers organized by country. Users also have the option to add servers to My Favorites, select one of NordVPN’s specialty servers, or search for a specific server.
Tap the gear icon next to any of the country locations to get a complete server list for that location. For some larger regions, such as the US and Canada, users can filter by city as well. Each server tells you how far away it is in kilometers, which does not seem as intuitive as displaying the server load, which it previously did. Sure, the closer the server, the more likely you are to get faster performance, but this metric tells us nothing about how crowded a certain server is, which could also have a significant impact on speeds.
NordVPN also has a few advanced settings, such as forcing TCP connections, enabling obfuscated servers, and the CyberSec options. You can also configure a number of auto-connect preferences. Private Internet Access offers more settings for power users. Hide My Ass also deserves credit for including a button that quickly changes your IP address. What you won’t find with the NordVPN app is a Kill Switch, which shuts down all network communications should the VPN connection fail.
Notably, KeepSolid VPN Unlimited lets you choose to have the VPN reconnect only under certain conditions, such as when you’re connected to unsecured Wi-Fi. With Private Internet Access, you can designate specific sensitive apps to use the VPN, rather than routing all of your traffic through it. NordVPN is also missing this feature, which is known as split tunneling.
Any VPN service you choose will likely impact your network speeds. Your speeds while connected to a VPN depend on several variables, such as your geographic location, the time you connect, the server you select, and even your device. As such, consider our test results more a snapshot of VPN performance at the time of testing than a definitive ranking.
When we test mobile VPNs, we turn off mobile data and connect to PCMag’s snappy FiOS connection over Wi-Fi. We consider this to be a VPN best-case scenario. It also controls for the mercurial nature of cellular networks, and reflects the scenario in which a VPN will most likely be used. If, as NordVPN does, the app automatically selects a server, we use that one for testing. If not, we select the closest available server in the US.
Once connected, we run several speed tests using Ookla’s Speedtest.net app with and without the VPN active. We then compare the median-based average of those tests to find a percent change. (Note that Ookla is owned by Ziff Davis, which also owns PCMag.)
In testing, we found that NordVPN increased latency by 20 percent, and decreased download and upload speeds by 48.7 percent and 22.6 percent, respectively. NordVPN performed better than the average (and close to the top) in every category.
NordVPN, PIA, and TurboVPN led the way in the latency tests, only increasing ping by around 20 percent. In the download test, Speedify came out on top; it only decreased speeds by an impressive 3.4 percent. NordVPN turned in the best results in the upload category, with KeepSolid VPN following close behind at 29.6 percent.
NordVPN and Netflix
Many video streaming services, including Netflix, do not play nicely with VPNs. In our testing, however, we found that many of the Android VPNs we tested did not cause any issues with streaming via Netflix’s app. We tested this compatibility on a Nexus 5X running Android 8.1, since we experienced playback problems with the Netflix app on our Google Pixel with Android 9, even when not connected to the VPN. In any case, NordVPN worked fine with Netflix in our testing and we had no issues streaming an episode of Disenchantment.
Check out our roundup of the best VPN services to use with Netflix if you stream lots of video. Note that while these services worked at the time we tested them, your results may be different. As mentioned, some VPNs offer split tunnelling features which allows you to exempt certain apps from using the VPN connection. This is useful for video streaming apps that won’t work otherwise, or any other app for that matter that requires you to have a set location and IP address.
Excellent Across the Board
There’s no question that you need an Android VPN, and NordVPN is one of our favorites. The service earned an Editors’ Choice award on the desktop with its simple design, wealth of advanced features, and excellent speed test scores. While the Android version doesn’t have all of NordVPN’s desktop features, it does have a top-notch interface, a large number of servers (including specialized servers), and strong results in our speed tests. Accordingly, NordVPN is an Editors’ Choice winner for Android devices as well. Private Internet Access is another top pick, thanks to its extensive customization options, while TunnelBear is an ideal choice for general users.