One of the biggest names in VPN circles is ExpressVPN. It has long been one of our favourites, despite that high monthly price.
But the competition is catching up and ExpressVPN needs to keep ahead. At the time of writing, ExpressVPN’s Lightway protocol was in beta, but should soon be available across all its apps and should see speeds increase dramatically.
Speed is a key consideration for anyone subscribing to a VPN service, but there are plenty of others. We’ll explain everything you need to know about ExpressVPN and whether or not you should sign up.
What does ExpressVPN do?
The idea behind ExpressVPN – as with all consumer VPN services – is to grant privacy online, security on open Wi-Fi and the ability to unblock region-locked content, such as videos.
That means you need only press the big ‘power’ button in the app and within seconds you’re protected from ISPs, governments and any other interlopers sniffing your computer’s traffic. Then you’re free to visit any website and download any file without anyone knowing or being able to track you.
You can choose a VPN server in a different country to your own and this causes websites and online services to think you are in that country. This means you can access content – catch-up TV for example – that isn’t available in your country.
Some streaming services such as Netflix have different content available in different regions, so you may be able to watch something when connected to a US VPN server that you can’t watch if you’re in the UK.
Privacy & security
ExpressVPN is one of the largest VPN providers with thousands of servers. The list currently runs to 160 cities in 94 countries, including the ones you’re most likely to want to appear to be in.
Apps are available for Windows, Mac, iPhone, Android, iPad, Linux and Amazon Fire TV. But it doesn’t stop there. There are browser extensions for Chrome and Firefox and you can also use the step-by-step tutorials on ExpressVPN’s website to get the VPN running on devices including Apple TV, Android TVs, NAS drives and more.
Just note that support for devices which don’t support a VPN connection themselves is by running ExpressVPN on a router. This means the VPN connection can work on every device that connects to the internet through it, but also lets you pick which devices connect without using the VPN.
You can even purchase a router with ExpressVPN already installed.
One of the standout features is TrustedServer. It means each and every ExpressVPN server runs entirely in RAM. Although servers still have hard drives, these are read-only and contain only the operating system image needed to boot up the servers. Every server runs the same version of this software and the setup means no user data is ever written to a hard drive.
When the server is restarted, the operating system and VPN software is essentially re-installed afresh, so ExpressVPN’s servers are harder to hack, basically.
Certain rivals are converting their servers to RAM only – including NordVPN and Surfshark – and they offer similar benefits to ExpressVPN elsewhere too.
For example, all these services are registered in countries where privacy laws are favourable. This offers peace of mind because, even though they all say that they don’t store any information about your use of their service, even if they did, the local laws mean they can’t be asked to hand over data to authorities.
ExpressVPN is based in the British Virgin Islands, which is a self-governing territory that isn’t subject to British laws.
Another good security feature is the kill switch which is available on Windows, macOS, Linux and now the Android app, Network Lock is ExpressVPN’s kill switch. It stops any data being sent or received if the VPN connection unexpectedly drops, keeping you protected. If the connection is ever lost, the apps will automatically reconnect and restore your encrypted connection quickly.
You can also tweak this feature to still allow local traffic while dropping all remote traffic, to prevent other devices such as printers from losing connectivity when the kill switch is activated.
On top of this, split tunneling is available in the Windows, Android and macOS apps (as well as the router version). What this does is let you choose which apps use the VPN connection and which don’t. The advantage is that you can still access local websites or devices – such as wireless printers – without any problems while simultaneously accessing overseas sites via the VPN.
Note that split tunneling isn’t yet available on Big Sur.
Alternatively, you can install and use the Chrome or Firefox browser extension to limit the VPN’s scope to only websites you’re visiting in that browser.
It’s worth mentioning that ExpressVPN allows P2P and torrenting, which some VPN services specifically forbid.
Performance & ease of use
For most people, the core four apps for Windows, Mac, iOS and Android will cover most of their needs, and the simple interface – below – couldn’t be easier to use. Once you’ve logged in with your username and password and approved requests to allow the app to access your device’s VPN settings, it’s a simple case of picking a country and pressing the big button.
The Android app (below) features a useful widget that makes it really easy to connect to a server without even launching the app. Another thoughtful touch is that, in the app itself, there are shortcuts to launch apps after you’ve connected to a server, and you can add shortcuts to your favourite apps.
The servers we tested were all rock steady and speeds were very good. And by very good, we mean we saw only a small drop in download speeds on our 100Mb/s leased line, so this is a VPN you can use all the time without putting up with slower internet.
If your connection is quicker than this, you may well notice a bigger drop but as mentioned at the start, ExpressVPN is rolling out its own Lightway protocol which has been clocked at 500-600Mbps in ExpressVPN’s tests.
This isn’t as quick as the WireGuard-based NordLynx protocol which has been recorded at 1000-2000Mbps, however.
One box that most people will want ticked off is support for Netflix’s US library. And whenever we’ve checked this we’ve had no issues streaming from one of ExpressVPN’s US servers.
ExpressVPN also unblocks plenty of other streaming services, but is – at the time of writing – unable to unblock BBC iPlayer and ITV hub. It’s a problem for a variety of VPN services and ExpressVPN tells us that although it’s working hard on this, it’s proving rather difficult.
Fortunately, there is a workaround. Just use the aforementioned MediaStreamer – ExpressVPN’s DNS servers. You’ll find instructions on the firm’s website for various devices, from laptops and PCs to smart TVs. Essentially, you’ll lose the encryption from the VPN but iPlayer should work just fine.
Not all VPN providers have 24/7 live chat but ExpressVPN does, and it’s great. It’s a shame this is only available on its website and not directly through the mobile apps. In those, the Help section basically lets you email tech support and wait a few hours for a response.
Pricing & plans
And so, we come to the sticking point with this service. At £9.95 / US$12.95 per month or £6.44 per month when you pay by the year, ExpressVPN is one of the more expensive VPNs.
Plus, where some services allow you to use your subscription on an unlimited number of devices, ExpressVPN lets you use it on five.
ExpressVPN is offering three months free when you commit to a year’s subscription, but the pricing shown is cheeky: it counts the ‘free’ months as paid and a monthly cost of £5.12. Whichever way you look at it, it’s expensive.
The company offers 30-day money back guarantee, so you’ll get your money back – no questions asked – if you’re not happy with the service for any reason. Payment is by all the usual credit cards, PayPal, Bitcoin, and a wide range of other options including GiroPay and YandexMoney. So if you want to pay anonymously, you can do so.
ExpressVPN offers a great service which should suit privacy advocates as well as those wanting easy-to-use apps for many devices. There’s a wide choice of countries and servers, solid support and plenty of step-by-step guides for installation on devices where apps aren’t available and lots of security features to ensure your activity remains private.
It’s not the fastest, but will be faster once the Lightway protocol is out of beta and the default protocol.
Price remains the biggest drawback, and while for some people it will be well worth it, rivals such as NordVPN a similarly excellent service for less.
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