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Why Expats Need a Good VPN

Updated: May 21

Soon after I moved to Mexico in 2022, I started having difficulty accessing some of my financial accounts online. Then one of our streaming services started to block us.


In both cases, the problem was the same.


These websites detected my foreign IP address (i.e. where my computer was located), triggering security concerns for banks and legal issues for streaming services, as the content was not authorized for use outside of U.S. borders.


The solution to these and other common connectivity issues is to use a VPN (virtual private network) on devices you use to connect to the internet.

the best VPN providers
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What Does a VPN Do?

 

Because I don't write this blog for tech nerds, I’ll keep it simple. VPNs provide users with:


  • Security against online scammers. One of the key benefits of using a VPN is that it encrypts your data, which makes it much harder for criminals to target you online.

  • Maximum privacy when surfing the internet. When using a VPN, even your internet service provider (ISP) is blocked from seeing exactly which sites you visit.


  • The option to change your IP address so your physical location is hidden. This is critical when you need to visit a site that blocks access for visitors outside the U.S.


  • The ability to save money on travel bookings. I stumbled onto some new research while writing this article regarding the penalty Americans pay for their travel bookings. The study (which you can read about here) found that booking flights and hotels can cost up 70% more when the shopper has an IP address in a U.S. location compared to a foreign one.


That finding is unsurprising given the differences I've noticed anecdotally when booking international travel from Mexico.


The bottom line is that by using a VPN on your computer or mobile phone, you can accomplish everyday activities unimpeded, including streaming movies or shows, managing your finances, and browsing the internet safely -- from anywhere in the world.


What Do VPNs Cost?


Now, VPN service isn’t something I expect to deliver much joy or excitement in my life. As such, my goal in selecting a provider was to find a solution that met my needs at the lowest possible cost.


My first thought was... Are there any free VPN providers?


In a word, YES. But that doesn't mean these options are the right way to go.


Delivering a free VPN service, unfortunately, means cutting a few corners. Compared to paid VPNs, the tradeoff is a noticeable degradation of the customer experience.

the best VPN providers

What do I mean by a "degraded" user experience?


You are likely to be bombarded with advertising, which is annoying at the least and disruptive to getting things done at its worst. Free VPNs show ads to generate income since their users aren't providing any.


Free VPNs also short-change users with slower connection speeds. This happens because the provider lacks a robust worldwide server network or because a high volume of users chasing free service causes congestion.


Even here in Mexico where life is lived at a leisurely pace, you may quickly conclude that a free VPN is wasting your time, and start looking for something better.


Choosing a VPN Provider


Before we dive into specific company reviews, let's examine three factors to keep top of mind when choosing a VPN service.

1. Price. While the best VPNs aren't free, most do offer free trials. This gives you a chance to kick the tires before committing to one in particular, and something I highly recommend taking advantage of before making a decision.


Among the best providers, you can expect to spend between USD $2-$7 per month on the service with a year-long commitment, or up to USD $12 per month without one.

2. Performance. Internet speed and choice of servers are the key factors to look for here.


In short, all VPNs impact your internet speed because it takes time to encrypt your data. But this is one area where VPN providers are absolutely NOT created equal.


Sometimes the performance differences between providers are minor, and sometimes they differ mucho.


In speed tests conducted by CNET in 2024, NordVPN won the contest by a healthy margin. Their service averaged 11% speed loss versus 17% for Surfshark and nearly 25% for Express VPN.


To put these scores in context, it’s not unusual to see free VPNs ding your internet speed by 50% or more, so all three of these providers did quite well in the CNET evaluation.


Additionally, speeds will vary by server location. Readings from controlled experiments in a corporate office may not match what you get in a remote part of the Yucatan or while on vacation in Bora Bora.


3. Ease of Use. Some of you may be wondering... How much time and tech-savvy are needed to get a VPN up and running on my devices?


As someone with deep experience in ecommerce, this isn’t something that caused me much anxiety. But for tech-phobes, finding a solution that's straightforward and painless is critical.

And tech-savvy or not, who doesn't have something better to do than install VPN software on their computer or mobile?

 

VPN Providers I Recommend


Now, let’s look at some of the top providers in the marketplace and how their offerings differ.


Surfshark BEST FOR: Budget-Conscious Users


This is my VPN provider, and I won’t lie, I originally chose it for its attractive pricing.


Surfshark can cost as little as $2.19 per month if you commit to a longer time horizon. Unsurprisingly, the savings increase the longer your time commitment, with an introductory 2-year deal costing $59 currently.


That’s a savings of more than 70% over competitors' prices! They also have a 30-day money-back guarantee so you can test it out first.


Besides compelling prices, Surfshark is one of the top-rated VPN providers for performance and features, based on reviews from Techrader and CNET.


Surfshark is also a standout for its fast connection speeds-- topping all but NordVPN in the aforementioned CNET study. They also allow users an unlimited number of devices on their accounts, a distinguishing feature in today's marketplace.


For this reason, Surfshark is also the best option for large households, as well as those with numerous devices to protect.


Surfshark's network spans 3,200 servers in 100+ countries. You can choose which country you connect to, or automate your connection to the fastest location. Customer support (which I've made little use of) is available via live chat or email.


It's also easy to use. Having never installed a VPN service before, I was able to complete installation on my laptop in about 15 minutes. And software updates are quick and painless.


One area where I've found Surfshark ineffective was unblocking YouTube TV content, but I attribute that more to YouTube's technical changes than Surfshark's shortcomings. (I know of no VPN provider that consistently unblocks this streaming service when connecting outside the U.S.)

 

NordVPN BEST FOR: Speed


NordVPN has earned a reputation -- validated through extensive testing -- for being the fastest VPN on the market. They deliver superior speeds due to their massive network, spanning 6,300 servers in 111 countries.


As noted previously, CNET measured average speed loss of only 11% with NordVPN, putting them well ahead of the competition. Because of its superior performance, it's the top pick of numerous tech blogs for VPN service.


NordVPN

From a practical standpoint, blazing-fast speed makes a difference for households with a lot of data-intensive activities, e.g. streaming media content (especially live sports), gaming, and videoconferencing. It's also a great choice for digital nomads who globetrot.


But this VPN provider brings more to the table than speed. Its top-notch security protocols, user-friendly apps, and decent prices further sweeten the deal.


You can connect up to 6 devices simultaneously with NordVPN, which is adequate for most households.


On the downside, premium performance does come at a higher price. As with most things in life, you get what you pay for.


NordVPN offers new users an introductory annual price of USD $60 in year 1 (USD $5 per month), which escalates sharply to ~ $99 for year 2. And like most others, they offer a free trial with a 30-day money-back guarantee.


ExpressVPN BEST FOR: Good All-Around Performance


ExpressVPN is a top-tier provider with a strong commitment to transparency, privacy, and performance. It's an excellent choice for those who stream a lot of online media due to fast speeds relative to all but NordVPN and Surfshark.


ExpressVPN uses the latest encryption protocols and RAM-only servers for total privacy while online. It also submits to frequent independent audits to ensure product reliability.


The service allows up to 8 simultaneous devices per account and offers a 30-day money-back guarantee.


And although it costs a bit more than NordVPN, one distinguishing feature of ExpressVPN is its pricing policies. They are both transparent and flexible-- giving users lots of commitment options as well as clear instructions on how to disable autorenewal.


As someone who's worked in the software industry, trust me -- that's unusual, and kind.

NordVPN

Prices vary based on your time commitment. Plan on spending at least $13 a month with no commitment, or as little as $69 for your first year ($6.67 per month). Thereafter, this premium VPN service costs about $100 per year.


Despite its stellar credentials and above-board practices, I'd still opt for NordVPN as the fastest option or Surfshark as the most economical before giving ExpressVPN a try. (unless you need to connect more devices than Nord allows.)


CyberGhost


Matching Surfshark's $2.19 per month offer with a 2-year plan, CyberGhost is a decent alternative to the three VPNs presented above, especially for the cost-conscious.


CyberGhost operates a huge server network that spans 100+ countries and can be used on up to 7 devices simultaneously. Importantly, it's easy for beginners to install and use.


They also offer a 45-day money-back guarantee so you can try it out risk-free.


Potential downsides with CyberGhost include uneven performance by server location, with degradation increasing materially at greater distances. Customer support is also limited to live chat, as the company is based in Romania.


Conclusion


In summary, VPNs are an important tool for expats, helping to protect your privacy while ensuring maximum security when conducting everyday activities online -- whether at home or traveling far and wide.


And while you could spend countless hours researching all the possible VPN providers out there, if you decide to use any of the companies profiled above, you can be confident that you're getting industry-leading performance at a reasonable cost.


 

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