The Best VPNs For College Students

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What’s a Good VPN for School Wi-Fi?

When you connect to a shared Wi-Fi network, the operator of that network can potentially see everything you do. An attacker on that network could do the same. With a VPN, both of them are blind to your activities. This makes a VPN an enormously useful tool for improving your privacy, especially when you’re connected to a Wi-Fi network you don’t manage. And one place where you’re highly likely to be connecting to Wi-Fi networks you don’t manage is when you’re going to college. But which VPNs are the best for school Wi-Fi use? It’s not a simple question, as not every excellent VPN is suited to students’ needs, as we’ll explain.

What’s a VPN, Anyway?

Max went to college to get a degree in English literature and, as such, had never heard of a VPN until well after he graduated. Fortunately for you, gentle reader, years of working at PCMag and reviewing security software and services means that he can now explain. Jake, who is a current college student, did a lot of the legwork for this piece, and this article relies on him to ensure that PCMag’s picture of college life is up to date.

When you switch on a VPN, it creates an encrypted tunnel between your computer and a remote server operated by the VPN company. Your data travels through the tunnel, to the server, and then out onto the open internet. This means your data appears to be coming from the VPN server, not from your computer, and the ISP or whoever is running the network you’re connected to won’t be able to see what you’re up to online.

Editors’ Note: IPVanish is owned by j2 Global, the parent company of PCMag’s publisher, Ziff Davis.

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There are lots of reasons to use a VPN. Max uses one because he doesn’t want ISPs to monetize his online activities, which Congress says they can do, nor does he want to make it easy for corporations and intelligence agencies to track his movements online. Journalists and political activists use VPNs to tunnel around internet restrictions in repressive countries. About a quarter of people, according to our survey data, use VPNs to sidestep geographic restrictions and stream video online.

Do I Need a VPN at School?

It’s been a while since Max was a student, but he believes (and Jake confirms) that it’s a fair assumption that there are a lot of Wi-Fi networks on college campuses. You might use one at a dorm, at the library, or at the quirky local coffee shop that will be replaced by a Panera when you visit for your 10-year college reunion. Most of those networks are probably safe, but it’s always a good practice to use a VPN wherever possible to make ensure that no one is spying on your activities. Even if HipsterCoffeeShopWiFi is safe, it’s all to easy to accidentally connect to the very unsafe HipsterCoffeeShopWiFi_ that someone might be running with the express purpose of sucking up your private info and passwords.

Another reason to use a VPN is to get around restrictions imposed by whoever is running the network. Back in Max’s day, the University hadn’t gotten wise to BitTorrent and some people (definitely not him) may have taken advantage of the enormous bandwidth the school provided to download (and again, this is not about Max) several hundred episodes of a popular anime series, for example. He seriously doubts that permissive attitude persists to this day. If you’re using a network that blocks BitTorrenting, or some other online activity, a VPN may help.

Of course, if you need quick access to the latest show, you’ll probably stick to streaming. Jake is aware that others people (not him) have spent considerable time perusing less-than-legal sites with names like Cartoonkitty or Moviesmoviesmovies. These shady catalogues of ill-gotten videos are legion—and useful if you’re desperate for, say, the entire run of Pokemon because it’s too damn hard to find collected in one aboveboard place. But if your school fastidiously blocks some of these sites, you may need a VPN to satisfy your Team Rocket craving.

What Doesn’t a VPN Do?

VPNs are enormously powerful tools. They protect your internet traffic from snooping, make it harder for you to be tracked online, and can help you circumvent restrictions on your browsing. However, they aren’t a magical shield that protects against all the threats out there.

For Max, a defining college memory was trying to withdraw some cash from an ATM, only to discover his account was empty. All his money had been stolen and transferred to Turkey. A VPN wouldn’t have helped with that, but knowing more about how skimmers work might have.

While some VPNs offer a modicum of protection against malicious websites, VPNs are no substitute for antivirus. If you just got a new laptop to take to school, you should protect that investment from malware.

A VPN also can’t adequately protect you against phishing attacks. That’s when an attacker uses a convincing email or specially built website to trick you into entering your personal information. Browsers are very good at catching phishing sites, but better safe than sorry: scrutinize every site you visit and every link you click.

Lastly, VPNs do help improve your privacy, but they cannot provide total anonymity. For that, you’ll want a tool like Tor, which does far more to obfuscate your online activities at the expense of speed.

What VPNs Make the Cut?

The last time Max visited his alma mater in Ann Arbor, he discovered dozens of new “luxury housing” developments for students. Despite this, Jake assures him that students are as broke as ever. Given that, we favored VPNs that offer either a free trial or a free version.

Even if you plan on purchasing a VPN subscription, we highly recommend trying out a VPN with a free version or free trial first. If the VPN you’d like to buy doesn’t have a free option, we recommend using a short-term subscription. This way you can test out a VPN and see if it is blocked by any services you really need. Most free VPN subscriptions have some kind of limitation—either the amount of data you can use, or the number of servers you can connect to, and so on. ProtonVPN is notable as it offers the only free VPN subscription that does not include a data limit.

Can Schools Block VPNs?

The other criteria we looked at to make this list was whether the VPN included the tools to get around networks that block VPNs. Your college, for instance, might very well have a blanket ban on the use of VPNs, since using a VPN could potentially prevent them from enforcing other usage rules—like the prohibitions on BitTorrent we mentioned earlier, for example.

A representative from TunnelBear explained that the most likely way a VPN would be blocked would be if the network administrators block the specific ports used for VPN traffic. The OpenVPN protocol, for instance, requires port 443 or port 7011 to function, for instance. To test if those ports are being blocked, you can type into the URL bar in your browser, and replace the XXX with the port you’re curious about.

ProtonVPN takes a different, more automated approach. A representative of the company tells us, “if the ProtonVPN app encounters a block, it will automatically search for an unblocked port.” If the connection is still blocked, the company advises toggling between OpenVPN TCP and UDP connections in order to find unblocked ports.

The TunnelBear representative said that it’s possible, albeit less likely, that a university might block the VPN at the protocol level. Some VPNs include tools to get around this. They work by disguising your VPN traffic as something innocuous, such as HTTPS traffic. For TunnelBear, this is feature is called GhostBear, but it has other names depending on the VPN service you chose.

In our list, we highlight the VPN services that offer protection from Deep Packet Inspection. We did not, however, include every service that offers obfuscated networks or multihop VPNs. Those are great tools for improving privacy, but are more geared at evading nation-level censorship. If you want to get around the Great Firewall of China, these might help, but they’re not the right fit for circumventing your university’s IT department.

Lastly, we only accepted VPNs that allowed BitTorrent on their servers. Note, however, that free trials and free versions sometimes limit the servers you can access, which may cut you off from the VPN servers designated to handle BitTorrent traffic.

What’s Next on the Syllabus?

Once you’re set up with a great VPN service, the next challenge is locking down the rest of your digital life. Antivirus is an essential set, but so are password managers. People are really bad at remembering things, as many of you will discover come finals season. Password managers create and replay passwords, saving you precious brainpower and providing peace of mind.

In addition to being difficult to remember, passwords are also woefully insecure. If you can, activate two-factor authentication on every site and service that offers it. With 2FA, even if an attacker manages to steal your password, they won’t be able to access your account.

Finally, consider graduating your privacy protection. Everyone, from intelligence agencies to online advertisers, is hungry for your data. Services like Abine Blur help by creating disposable email addresses, phone numbers, and even credit card numbers. The best way to keep your personal information safe is to not hand it out in the first place.

  • ProtonVPN

    Pros: Excellent free version. Flexible, low-cost plans. Focus on physical security. Excellent privacy policies. Slick, accessible client. Multi-hop VPN to secure locations and Tor connections. P2P friendly. ProtonMail bundle available.

    Cons: Few servers and locations. Difficult to find fastest servers. Full access to servers and features only at highest pay level.

    Bottom Line: ProtonVPN doesn’t have as many servers as much of the competition, but its focus on exacting security at an affordable price tag makes it a compelling choice. Plus, its free version is the best we’ve tested so far.

    Read Review

  • TunnelBear VPN

    Pros: Affordable. Excellent privacy policies. Annual independent audits. Friendly, approachable design. Browser extensions, including stand-alone ad blocker. Good speed test results. Bears.

    Cons: Lack of geographic diversity in server locations.

    Bottom Line: If you’re tired of edgy security products, let the strong-but-cute bears of TunnelBear VPN defend your web traffic. Easy to use and easily affordable, it’s an Editors’ Choice winner.

    Read Review

  • IPVanish VPN

    Pros: 10 simultaneous connections. Good geographic diversity of servers. Allows BitTorrenting. Automatic IP address cycling.

    Cons: Unwelcoming interface. Limited global server presence.

    Bottom Line: VPN service IPVanish secures your web traffic from prying eyes. It packs powerful features veteran VPN users will appreciate, and presents a good value overall, although its interface may intimidate the less experienced.

    Read Review

  • TorGuard VPN

    Pros: Affordable. Numerous servers spread across the globe. Lets you easily add simultaneous connections. Many add-ons. Good speed test scores.

    Cons: Clunky client. No free subscription.

    Bottom Line: TorGuard VPN is the best bet for BitTorrent seeders and leechers looking to secure their web traffic. It’s packed with features sure to appeal to security wonks, though its client is clunky.

    Read Review

  • Avira Phantom VPN

    Pros: Unlimited devices, even in the free version. Affordable, flexible pricing. Excellent consumer privacy policy. Botnet protection. Allows P2P and BitTorrent.

    Cons: Few servers and server locations. Inelegant desktop client.

    Bottom Line: Avira Phantom VPN secures the web browsing of as many devices as you like, making it a great value, but it offers a small number of servers and server locations, and its app is clunky.

    Read Review

  • VPN

    Pros: Simple design. Excellent privacy policy. Good speed test scores. BitTorrent friendly. Supports anonymous payments. Advanced features.

    Cons: Comparably few servers. No specialized servers. Unintuitive design. Some protocols limited to higher tiers.

    Bottom Line: VPN service is affordable, has an excellent privacy policy, and offers solid technology. Its client app can be a pain to use, however, and some VPN protocols are limited to higher tiers.

    Read Review

  • Surfshark VPN

    Pros: Unlimited simultaneous connections. Unusual multihop and split-tunneling tools. Well-designed app.

    Cons: High price. Occasionally opaque privacy policy language. Geographic distribution of servers could improve. Mixed speed test results.

    Bottom Line: Surfshark VPN’s comparatively high price is balanced against unlimited devices per account and an excellent set of features.

    Read Review

  • AnchorFree Hotspot Shield VPN

    Pros: Easy-to-use software. Free version available. Large server network. P2P and Bittorrent allowed. Malware detection. Free browser plug-ins.

    Cons: Expensive. Comparably few server locations. No specialized servers. Plug-in conflict with Chromebooks.

    Bottom Line: AnchorFree Hotspot Shield is robust VPN service with a slick interface, but it’s held back by poor speed-test performance and a high price tag.

    Read Review

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