Most VPN services provide apps for just about every platform, and many provide extensions for Google’s Chrome browser. Not all these extensions are as powerful as their sibling apps, however, and almost none of them work the same as true VPNs—they function differently and only protect your browser’s traffic.
Most Chrome Browser VPNs (Probably) Aren’t VPNs
With exceedingly rare exceptions, a Chrome browser extension from a VPN service is not actually a VPN. It’s more likely that it’s an encrypted proxy.
While a VPN uses a VPN protocol to encrypt all the traffic coming off your device and route it through a VPN server, a proxy can only encrypt and route the traffic from one app at a time. In the case of a Chrome extension, only the browser traffic is encrypted and routed. This keeps your ISP from seeing what you’re up to (and they can see a lot) and makes you harder to track online by hiding your IP address. Rerouting your traffic can also unblock some websites and sometimes let you access streaming content from other countries.
All the other web traffic generated by your machine—from apps, the OS itself, everything—travels as usual.
If you’re only concerned about unblocking online content or adding additional privacy to your web browsing, a proxy is fine. But it’s not a VPN and shouldn’t be mistaken for one. For more on the topic, you can read our explainer, VPNs vs. Proxies: What’s the Difference?
We confirmed that all the services listed here (with one exception) only encrypt browser traffic. We’ve reached out to the individual vendors to confirm that their Chrome extensions function as proxies.
Irritatingly, most VPNs do not make it clear that their Chrome extensions are anything other than a full-fledged VPN. Most do note that their products will protect your browser traffic, but not all of them say that it will only protect your browser traffic. Granted this distinction is confusing, but VPN services should do a better job of explaining exactly what these tools do.
The one exception to this is ExpressVPN. ExpressVPN’s Chrome extension isn’t a proxy, but it also isn’t a VPN app either. ExpressVPN describes its Chrome extension as a “remote control” for your VPN and that seems pretty accurate. To use the ExpressVPN Chrome extension, you first need to download and log in to the ExpressVPN desktop app. Once you do that, you can use either the desktop app or the Chrome extension to control your VPN connection.
This is a real VPN connection that affects not just your browser traffic, but also all the web traffic from your device. Conveniently, you don’t need the ExpressVPN desktop app open in order to use the Chrome extension. If you want actual VPN protection for your machine controlled by your browser, ExpressVPN is your best option.
How Did We Make Our List?
To compile this list, we started with our roundup of the best VPN services. From these, we looked at which offer a Chrome extension and which don’t. Surprisingly, two of our Editor’s Choice winners, IVPN and ProtonVPN, do not offer any browser options. Less surprisingly, perhaps, there’s also no Chrome VPN from Mozilla—the company does, after all, focus most of its efforts on the Firefox browser. Editors’ Choice winner Mullvad VPN offers a Firefox plug-in, not a Chrome extension. Keep in mind that all these services offer desktop apps and mobile apps in addition to these extensions.
That leaves NordVPN, Surfshark VPN, Private Internet Access VPN, CyberGhost VPN, TunnelBear VPN, and ExpressVPN. We installed and tested all these VPNs in the latest version of the Chrome browser running on a 2020 MacBook Pro.
For each service, we explored its features and tried to access Netflix. We also used the DNS Leak Test tool to determine if the extension had hidden our IP address (a good thing) and if it was leaking DNS information (a bad thing). Fortunately, all the extensions we tested secured IP and DNS data.
Can You Trust Chrome VPN Extensions?
By default, all Chrome extensions have access to more or less of your browser data. That can be a privacy concern on its own. Chrome VPN extensions (again, they’re probably encrypted proxies) do more and could grant the VPN service remarkable insight into your traffic. All your browser traffic will flow through the VPN service’s servers, so it’s important that you trust the service you settle on.
When we review VPN services, we look through the privacy policies issued by the VPN companies for any potential risks. We also check whether the companies issue transparency reports about their interactions with law enforcements.
Recommended by Our Editors
Several VPN services commission third-party audits that examine their infrastructure and ability to stick to their privacy policies. While we acknowledge that audits are imperfect tools, we think they offer the best way to get insight into how these services operate under the hood.
Did We Ghost CyberGhost?
Careful readers will notice that although CyberGhost VPN is on our list of the best VPN services and does offer a Chrome extension, it’s not on this list. When we went to test the CyberGhost VPN extension, we discovered that it is strictly a free offering with no option to log in to your CyberGhost VPN account. All Chrome extension users, paying and not, are limited to just eight servers, and the extension provides no other options. In our testing, we found the CyberGhost VPN Chrome extension to be very slow, with some websites (including Netflix) timing out entirely.
While the CyberGhost VPN Chrome extension might be a good choice for anyone who doesn’t want to pay or create an account in order to protect their browser traffic, the hands-on experience was far poorer than the others we tested. It didn’t make the cut.
Should You Use a Chrome VPN Extension?
Without question, the desktop app provided by a VPN provides better protection with more features and options than a browser extension. A standalone VPN app encrypts all the traffic from your machine and lets you use all the features and privacy tools that are part of your subscription. There’s nothing you can do with a VPN service extension for Chrome that you can’t do, and perhaps do better, with a true desktop VPN app.
That said, there are some use cases where Chrome extensions from VPN services can shine. If you’re using a machine without permission to install software, you may still be able to log into your Chrome account and use the extension. It’s also useful if you really don’t want to hide or protect anything but your browser traffic.
Whatever you decide, don’t forget that a VPN (or an encrypted proxy) cannot protect you from every threat to your security and privacy. We strongly recommend that readers make use of antivirus software, use a password manager to generate unique and complex passwords for every site and service, and enable multi-factor authentication wherever it’s available.
Our 5 Top Picks
NordVPN’s Chrome extension has the option to have specific websites bypass the encrypted connection. The extension also includes ad-blocking, which appeared to be effective in our testing. We like that NordVPN includes a pause button; this lets you shut off the connection and automatically reconnect it after a preset period of time. We weren’t able to stream Netflix while connected to a US server, but we could stream content from a UK based server. This extension says it can also block webRTC.
The Surfshark Chrome extension is nearly identical to its desktop app in terms of design, and includes several of the Surfshark One features as well. Unfortunately, none of these are available on macOS. Like others, Surfshark lets you specify sites you want to bypass the encrypted connection. The extension also blocks webRTC as well as ads—which it appeared to do well in testing. We were able to stream Netflix while connected to a US server.
Surfshark VPN Review
TunnelBear smartly brings its trademark bear-based style to its Chrome extension. Unlike the other services tested here, you log into the TunnelBear Chrome extension through the company’s website, which we found to be a smoother onboarding process. TunnelBear’s extension mimics the design of its desktop app, and includes the former’s micro mode, which removes the map view. This extension lacks the settings of other services, but TunnelBear does offer a standalone ad and tracker blocker. In our testing, we were only able to stream a limited subset of content on Netflix while connected to US or UK servers.
TunnelBear VPN Review
As previously stated, ExpressVPN is unique in that it is a true VPN. However, it requires that you install the full-blown ExpressVPN desktop app. As a result it’s both more capable than the other options listed here, and also completely different.
The Chrome extension from Private Internet Access is very similar to its desktop and mobile apps, with a slate of tiles you can add or remove from the extension’s window. This extension has the most extensive settings of any we tested, letting you block access to your webcam or mic, and much more besides. The extension can force HTTPS connections, block webRTC, and block ads and trackers (which appeared effective in our testing). You can easily mark sites to bypass the encrypted connection. We found that Netflix was blocked while we were connected to a US server but available when we connected to a UK server.
Private Internet Access VPN Review