In case you haven’t heard, Apple’s new 24-inch iMac is an absolute dreamboat of a desktop — and those colors? *chef’s kiss*
“With its fun aesthetic, compact size, smooth performance, and more,” it basically “begs to be used anywhere but the office,” says tech reporter Brenda Stolyar, who bestowed Tim Cook’s latest M1 machine with a coveted Mashable’s Choice Award after taking it for a test drive. (Here’s the full review of the new iMac.)
But for everything the new iMac can do, there’s one thing you won’t find under its hood — or that of any Apple-made computer, come to think of it — and that’s some sort of technology that can protect you from online snooping. Enter: virtual private networks.
What’s a VPN?
Without getting too deep in the weeds — we’ve already done so here — a virtual private network, or VPN, is an encrypted connection between your Mac and a private, remote server. Some have likened it to “a secure tunnel for web traffic,” “a personal bodyguard for the internet,” and “an anonymous middleman that does your browsing for you.” But in the most basic sense, it’s a service that keeps you totally incognito on the web by masking your online activities and making it seem like your connection’s coming from somewhere you aren’t.
Is a VPN necessary for Mac?
“Hold up,” you’re probably thinking. “Isn’t macOS famously secure by default?” You’re not wrong, actually: All Macs and MacBooks ship with built-in antivirus software that blocks and removes malware, and any apps you download from the internet are swabbed for malicious code by Apple’s Gatekeeper tool. Furthermore, all of the data that lives on your macOS device’s hard drive is secured with FileVault 2, a full-disk program featuring XTS-AES-128 encryption and a 256-bit key.
It’s when any of your precious data ventures outside the localized protection of your Mac that things start to get dicey — and that happens every single time you connect to the web. Your Internet Service Provider, or ISP, tracks your every click to compile browsing logs they (sometimes) sell to marketers, who are champing at the bit to use your data for targeted ads. That information can also wind up in the hands of certain government agencies if your ISP is served with a subpoena.
Connecting to a public WiFi network is especially risky since you don’t know who set it up or who else is using it; wannabe hackers can easily hop on to intercept your internet traffic in some sort of “man-in-the-middle” attack when you’re browsing the web at a café, library, or airport.
A VPN takes care of those privacy issues and then some: With your IRL location hidden, you can skirt geo-restrictions that streaming services like Netflix have put in place and bypass government censorship in places like China. Online anonymity also means you’re free to dabble in torrenting/peer-to-peer file-sharing — not that we condone the illegal kind, FWIW. (For even more VPN use cases, click here.)
Which VPN is best for Mac?
There’s no specialized VPN for Macs, but almost all major VPN providers maintain support for macOS apps. So, with lots of options, you’ll want to think carefully about which features matter most to you: Do you want a VPN with a huge server network and split tunneling for streaming and gaming? Will you feel more confident browsing with a kill switch or multihop (double VPN)? Do you need support for a bunch of connections based on the size of your household? Do you have the budget for add-ons like a dedicated IP? (Here’s a refresher on any of those terms, if you need it.)
Two, your go-to VPN should be based somewhere privacy-friendly. Certain countries (including the United States) are part of global intelligence-sharing “Eyes” alliances and can force VPNs within their borders to cough up any user data they have on hand. Move a provider to the top of your list if it’s headquartered in Panama, Switzerland, Romania, or the British Virgin Islands, which don’t have laws mandating data retention.
We should also mention that we highly recommend paying for a VPN — there are some decent free ones out there, but their log policies can be questionable, and they’re definitely not going to be as robust as their paid counterparts in terms of network size and security features.
If you need a little guidance, just keep scrolling: We’ve put together a rundown of the eight best VPNs for Mac users as of 2021. (Note that all of them accept Bitcoin for anonymous payments, use AES 256-bit encryption — a standard military-grade protocol — and support iOS apps for a secure and seamless Apple ecosystem.)
Based in the British Virgin Islands • 3,000+ servers in 94 countries • 30-day money-back guarantee • Up to 5 simultaneous connections • Verified no-logs policy • Live customer support 24/7 • Unblocks Netflix • Supports torrenting • Kill switch (“Network Lock”) • Split tunneling • Double VPN
Expensive • Doesn’t offer dedicated IPs
A trusted provider that offers a good balance of performance and privacy, but at a high price.
1. ExpressVPNThis well-established, esteemed (and slightly expensive) VPN is an excellent all-rounder that we recommend for basically every platform, including Mac.
$9.99/month (billed $59.95 every six months)
$8.32/month (billed $99.95 every 12 months)
Based in Panama • 5,300+ servers across almost 60 countries • 30-day money-back guarantee • Up to 6 simultaneous connections • Verified no-logs policy • 24/7 support via live chat • Unblocks Netflix • P2P-friendly • Kill switch • Dedicated IPs available (add $5/month) • Double VPN • Built-in ad blocker (“CyberSec”) • Onion over VPN • Cloud storage available (add $5/month)
Minor privacy breach at one of its third-party data centers in 2018 • Might be a little too complicated for VPN newbies • Add-ons can make it super expensive • No split tunneling for macOS or iOS
A full-featured VPN that’s geared toward VPN veterans who may have a bit of cash to spare.
2. NordVPNA popular provider with a plethora of features, NordVPN stays relatively affordable if you stick with its base kit.
$4.92/month (or $59 for your first year)
$4.13/month (or $99 for your first two years)
Note: NordVPN suffered a minor security breach in March 2018 when a hacker exploited an insecure remote management system at a Finnish data center where the company was renting servers. However, we still think it’s a strong contender in the VPN space.
Click here to read Mashable’s in-depth review of NordVPN.
Based in the British Virgin Islands • 3,200+ servers in 65 countries • 30-day money-back guarantee • Unlimited simultaneous connections • 24/7 live chat support • Unblocks Netflix • P2P-friendly • Kill switch • Split tunneling (“Whitelister”) • Double VPN (“MultiHop”) • Built-in ad blocker (“CleanWeb”) • Data breach detection and private search mode available (“Surfshark Alert” and “Surfshark Search” — add 99 cents/month total)
Needs a few more years to completely trust • No-logs policy hasn’t been verified by a third-party audit • No dedicated IPs
An extremely promising provider with fantastic security offerings and a dirt-cheap monthly rate.
3. SurfsharkWallet feeling a little light after you upgraded to the new iMac? This promising young VPN has all-in-one plans that start at just $2.50 a month.
$6.49/month (billed $38.94/month every six months)
$2.49/month with code surfsharkdeal (billed $59.76 upfront, then annually after the first 24 months)
30-day money-back guarantee (except for cash payments) • Up to 5 simultaneous connections • Verified no-logs policy • In-house support team • P2P-friendly • Kill switch • Split tunneling • Double VPN • Open source code • 10% discount if you pay with cryptocurrency
Small network (<800 servers across 37 countries) • Based in Sweden, a Fourteen Eyes country • No split tunneling on Mac or iOS apps • Can’t unblock Netflix • No dedicated IPs
An affordable general-purpose VPN that promises true anonymnity.
4. Mullvad VPNThis open-source VPN with a reasonable monthly flat rate takes a strong stance on privacy, but movie-watchers and gamers should steer clear.
30,400+ servers in 78 countries • 30-day money-back guarantee • Up to 10 simultaneous connections • No-logs policy has been validated in court (third-party audit coming soon) • 24/7 support • Free 7-day trial for iOS • P2P-friendly • Kill switch • Split tunneling • Dedicated IPs available (add $5/month) • Built-in ad blocker (“MACE”) • Free email breach monitoring
Based in the U.S., a Five Eyes country • Struggles to unblock Netflix
A straightforward VPN that can make bottlenecks and dropped connections a thing of the past.
5. Private Internet AccessBasic but well-built, PIA boasts an absolutely massive server network for a speedy, smooth user experience.
$3.33/month (billed $39.95 every year)
$2.69/month (billed $69.95 every two years) + two months free
Note: PIA’s first independent audit was in the works at the time of writing, and it’ll probably pass with flying colors — its no-logs policy has previously held up in court twice.
Click here for Mashable’s in-depth review of PIA.
Based in Romania • Over 7,500 servers in 91 countries • 45-day money-back guarantee (except on monthly plans) • Up to 7 simultaneous connections • 24/7 live, in-house customer service team • Free 24-hour trial • Unblocks Netflix (and tons of other streaming services) • Supports torrenting • Kill switch • Dedicated IPs available (add $3.75/month) • Built-in ad blocker • Password manager available (add $2/month)
No-logs policy hasn’t been verified by a third-party audit • No split tunneling on Mac or iOS apps
A secure, user-friendly VPN with an extremely diverse network.
6. CyberGhost VPNSkirt Netflix’s annoying geo-restrictions with the help of this zippy, user-friendly VPN and its top-notch support team that’s cheap if you’re willing to commit.
$3.99/month (billed $47.88 every year)
$3.49/month (billed $83.76 every two years)
$2.25/month (billed $87.75 every three years)
Up to 5 simultaneous connections and unlimited data with paid plan • Verified no-logs policy • Kill switch (“VigilantBear”) • Split tunneling (“SplitBear”) • Ad-blocking Chrome extension available (“TunnelBear Blocker”) • Publishes regular security audits
Based in Canada, a Five Eyes country • No money-back guarantee (refunds offered on a case-by-case basis) • Small server network in only 26 countries • Can’t unblock Netflix • Not torrent-friendly • No dedicated IPs
An unintimidating interface for people new to the whole VPN thing.
7. TunnelBearCome for the bears, stay for the security and simplicity.
$0 (only 500MB of browsing per month)
$4.99/month (billed $59.88 every 12 months)
$3.33/month (billed $120 once)
Click here to read Mashable’s in-depth review of TunnelBear.
Based in Switzerland • 30-day money-back guarantee • Up to 10 simultaneous connections • Verified no-logs policy • Unblocks Netflix • P2P support • Kill switch • Double VPN servers (“Secure Core”) • Built-in ad blocker (“NetShield”) • Built-in Tor support • Open source code • Super aggressive stance on privacy/transparency • Bundle with ProtonMail at the highest tier
Small-ish network (up to ~1,200 servers in 55 countries) • Still pretty new • No split tunneling on Mac or iOS apps • No dedicated IPs
A budding VPN that commits to privacy like none other.
8. ProtonVPNNo one is more committed to keeping you anonymous online than ProtonVPN, an open-source option offering tons of features at a premium.
€0/month for 1 medium-speed connection and servers in 3 countries
€4/month (billed €48/year) for 2 high-speed connections, servers in 43 countries, P2P support, and access to geo-blocked content
€8/month (billed €96/year) for 10 highest-speed connections, servers in 55 countries, P2P support, access to geo-blocked content, NetShield ad blocker, Secure Core VPN, Tor over VPN, and streaming support
€24/month (billed €288/year) for all Plus plan features + an advanced ProtonMail account