NordVPN full review
Even if you’re unfamiliar with VPNs in general, you’ve probably heard of NordVPN. It’s one of the biggest names and one of the most popular choices.
A VPN adds a layer of privacy when you browse the web and helps to prevent websites from tracking you. It’s also an easy way to overcome blocked content online, whether it’s a website or a steaming service that’s not accessible in your region.
NordVPN ticks virtually every box, and those it doesn’t might well be unimportant to you. For example, where Surfshark (now owned by Nord Security, NordVPN’s parent company) lets you use its VPN service on unlimited devices at the same time, NordVPN limits you to six.
But few people need even six devices connected to a VPN server simultaneously.
And though another of NordVPN’s drawback is cost, this is primarily because the price increases after the initial discounted period. But you can get around that by cancelling your subscription and signing up again with a different email address. That’s a minor hassle for what is an excellent VPN service.
It’s easy to compare VPN services on the number of servers, and the number of countries and locations it covers. But this isn’t a sensible metric in many ways.
Typically, you’ll only need to connect to servers near your physical location (for the best speeds) or in regions where you want to unblock content. That tends to be the US, UK and a handful of other countries.
Therefore, you will almost certainly never use servers in most of the countries a VPN offers.
NordVPN has servers in 60 countries, but more important is the number of servers. At the time of writing it had almost 5300. They’re in many locations, including the US, UK, plenty of European countries, the Far East, South America and Australia.
More servers, and multiple servers in popular locations, are useful because it means a higher chance of connecting to a server that’s not overloaded and therefore you get higher connection speeds.
Also note that none of NordVPN’s servers are ‘virtual servers’. That means they are physically in the locations they claim to be, not somewhere else. There’s nothing wrong with virtual servers if they are clearly marked as such and, ideally, where their true location is.
If you’re concerned about privacy, then rented servers aren’t the best. It means someone else other than the VPN provider owns the servers and therefore could have access to them, which could compromise privacy because it’s on the VPN server that your encrypted data is decrypted before being sent onto its final destination.
NordVPN began building a network of ‘co-located’ servers about 18 months ago beginning in Finland. As of February 2022, it now owns 450 servers (soon to be 480) in 16 countries, with the bulk of those servers in the US.
The kill switch is off by default in the Windows 10 app (but on in Android and iOS). Fortunately, you can choose to have it stop the internet connection to all apps, or close those you specify if the VPN connection stops for any reason or you manually disconnect from a server.
It's good that the kill switch is present in the Android, iOS and macOS apps too, but here it simply stops the connection for all apps: there's no exception list.
Split tunneling was one tick-box that NordVPN hadn't checked off until fairly recently. It allows only some apps use the VPN connection while others don't. You might only want your web browser to use the VPN connection as there's no reason for Windows updates to be downloaded over the VPN, for example.
Some VPNs offer browser extensions as a kind of alternative to (and in some cases as well as) split tunnelling, but you have to be careful: most so-called VPN browser extensions are merely proxies which don't encrypt traffic.
We spoke to NordVPN about this, and it is in the process of updating its description in each browser add-on store to make it clear that using its extension does not encrypt your traffic like a VPN does.
Getting back to split tunnelling, this feature is now available in NordVPN's Windows and Android apps. It's not uncommon for this feature to be absent from iOS and macOS apps, but it's still a frustration if you are a Mac user. (Read our Mac-focused review of NordVPN on our sister site Macworld for more.)
Double VPN routes your connection through two different VPN servers, changing your IP address twice for an extra layer of protection.
This, however, is available in only eight countries and while there are a variety of routes in the server list, there are still only eight destinations: US, UK, Canada, France, Netherlands, Switzerland, Sweden and Taiwan.
It’s still in beta, but Threat Protection offers a selection of extra-curricular features that are either absent in other VPN apps or require separate payment. This isn’t to be confused with NordVPN’s previous CyberSec feature: Threat Protection is separate and the two cannot be enabled at the same time. In fact, it gains a similar status to the VPN itself within NordVPN’s Windows app.
It’s essentially a beefed-up version, blocking website trackers, malicious adverts (and ads in general) and preventing you from visiting websites known to be infected with malware. It also checks any files you download for malware and deletes anything dangerous. If that scan can’t determine if the file is safe or not, it uploads it to the cloud for a more in-depth scan.
Though we can confirm the ad blocking works as expected – and you can see a list of the sites whose trackers have been blocked - the efficacy of the malware protection is more difficult to evaluate as none of the independent testing labs has tested it yet.
Dark Web monitoring
Oddly, Dark web monitoring hasn’t been rolled into Threat Protection. It’s found in Settings and watches out for 'leaked info linked to your email address'. If any is found, you'll get an alert so you can change your password or take some other action.
Don't get too excited, though, because it only monitors for the email address you use for your NordVPN account and you can't add other emails or credit card details: it's not a fully fledged ID protection service.
As you’d expect, NordVPN offers apps for iPhone, Android, Windows, macOS (including native support for M1-powered Macs), Amazon Fire TV & more.
The apps all have the same easy-to-use interface and let you scroll around a map to pick your location or browse from a list of countries.
On the desktop apps you can select a specific server, but you can’t see, for example, where that numbered server is in the country. That’s more important in large countries such as US, but on both desktop and mobile apps you can choose the location (such as San Francisco, New York, Chicago), but not the specific server from the 98 available in, say, Seattle. You’ll just be connected to whichever is deemed the fastest.
If you have a specific reason for using a VPN, such as downloading torrent files, then you can choose from the list of P2P servers and there’s even a section for Onion over VPN, though there are just two locations for those: Netherlands and Switzerland.
Plus, even though it’s handy to have the extra protection of Tor without having to use the Onion Browser, we found that connecting to one of the two locations prevented us from visiting any websites at all.
Getting back to the main list of servers, a niggle is that you can’t see which server has the fastest ping: the only option is “Fastest”, which could mean connection speed. Of course, if you did experience a slow or laggy connection, you can simply disconnect and reconnect to a different server.
Connections typically take just a couple of seconds – especially when using the NordLynx protocol.
You can have up to six devices connected to NordVPN at the same time. That's fewer than some rivals, including Surfshark which allows an unlimited number of connections. But six should still be enough for most people, including families.
Recently, Nord added a security score in its apps to highlight some of the features that users might not know about that could improve their security, such as auto-connect, kill switch, threat protection and multi-factor authentication.
If you click ‘Let’s go’ when the window pops up, a Wizard takes you through the features, explaining what they do and providing a simple option to enable them.
It needs a bit of work, at least in the Windows app, because if you enable Threat Protection, the wizard disappears and you’re left half-way through the process and have to click back on the shield icon to continue. But it’s a welcome addition nonetheless.
NordVPN offers exceptionally good performance thanks to its NordLynx encryption protocol. This is WireGuard, though Nord decided to give it its own name because no VPN service can use plain WireGuard without modifying it to achieve the level of security and privacy expected of a VPN.
Importantly, the speeds you get when using NordLynx go far beyond the average broadband connection speed. Even our office connection - at 100Mbps for both upload and download - isn't nearly quick enough to show how fast NordVPN is.
Instead, we have to look to third-party testing, such as results from VPNpro. You can see these for yourself, over the past 7, 14 or 30 days in five different countries. This is a much better gauge of how quick a VPN is than testing on a single day.
VPN speeds vary all the time and are affected by many factors, but even so, NordVPN is the fastest VPN service by a comfortable margin, delivering average speeds of over 1000Mbps and up to almost 1600Mbps on occasions.
NordVPN is registered in Panama which means, because there are no mandatory data retention laws there, it does not have to keep logs when people use its service.
And like many VPNs, it operates a no-logs policy. But unlike a lot of rivals, that policy has been audited (twice, by PWC) to verify that it sticks to its own rules. The second audit was in 2020, and in 2021 it commissioned VerSprite to check over the security of its apps.
No significant issues were found in any of these, meaning you don’t just have to take NordVPN’s word for it that it is both secure and doesn’t log your activity.
One of the main reasons to get a VPN is, for many people, to watch videos and access website or other services that are blocked in the country or region where they live.
NordVPN is generally very good at unblocking. Although it is – as with speed testing – not massively representative to test unblocking in a single week, or even a single day, when we tried various streaming services, NordVPN was able to unblock them all without hassle.
US Netflix, US Amazon Prime Video, BBC iPlayer (and even ITV Hub), Disney+ were all accessible. However, that was using the Windows and macOS apps. It’s a slightly different story on the mobile apps: none of them would unblock Prime Video.
This proved a good opportunity to use the 24/7 live chat support where an agent confirmed that Prime Video was “currently unavailable” and that “our technicians are aware of this particular issue and are working towards a solution”.
Do bear in mind there are no guarantees with Nord (or any VPN) will unblock a certain streaming service on any given day. VPNs and streaming services play a cat-and-mouse game of blocking and unblocking each other, and things change all the time.
Price & Plans
NordVPN doesn’t offer a free tier or even a trial. If you want to try it out, you’ll have a to pay for at least a month’s use, but this is refundable if you’re not happy.
That’s the most expensive way to use the service though. The cheapest option at the time of writing was to subscribe for two years, which works out at £3.29 (inc VAT) / US$3.71 per month but - like other VPN services - requires the whole amount to be paid all in one go, so works out at £79 / US$89.
You may find slightly lower prices if there’s a seasonal sale, but those are the regular prices Nord charges throughout the year. (Note that the prices you’ll see on Nord’s website exclude any VAT or tax.)
Note that after the two years are up, your subscription will automatically renew on an annual basis for approximately £89 / $99 per year. The prices are subject to change – Nord says you ‘will be charged at then-applicable renewal price’ but – obviously – that’s not at all competitive. It’s more than twice the cost per month.
It’s a shame that it doesn’t do what some rivals do and renew your subscription at the same price you paid before. This means you're better off cancelling and looking for another deal when your initial subscription expires.
NordVPN asks only for an email address when signing up and you can pay via various Bitcoin services or the usual credit and debit card options, Google Pay and Amazon Pay.
For alternative recommendations see our roundup of the best VPN services.
NordVPN strikes an excellent balance between the cheapest and most expensive VPN services. It’s not as cheap as we’d like it to be, and the huge price increase after the initial deal expires can be a bit of a sting in the tail if you’re not organised, but its two-year subscription is good value.
It’s just about the fastest VPN service out there, supports all popular devices (including routers) and is packed with features – now including Threat Protection.
It has a solid track record for unblocking streaming services and – if you care about privacy – pretty robust credentials there, too.
We’d like to see even more owned & operated servers (the current count is less than 10 percent of the total) and a clearer indication of the renewal price when you first sign up. It would be nice, too, if the rules on multiple devices were relaxed a bit. Six simultaneous connections is enough for most people, though, and if you really want unlimited connections, you could opt for Surfshark which is now owned by Nord Security and is cheaper per month.
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