The Best VPNs for the Bay Area – SFGATE


A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is a way to stay secure even on public Wi-Fi networks. Virtual private networks encrypt your web activity and IP address, essentially allowing you to browse the web invisibly. The best VPNs are easy to use, affordable, and create a secure tunnel for your web activity. 

To find out which VPNs are the fastest and most secure, I tested them out on my 2020 Macbook Pro, putting the VPNs through speed tests, WebRTC leak tests, and DNS leak tests (more on this later). I also rated each VPN in terms of its ease of use and its compatibility with multiple streaming platforms and apps. Finally, I took into consideration the company behind the VPN in terms of data-logging, along with pricing. 

We’ve tested all of the top VPNs for fast download and upload connection speeds, strong encryption methods, strict data-logging policies, and reasonable pricing. Here are my top picks for the Bay Area and beyond to help you choose a VPN.

Side-by-Side Overview

Category NordVPN Surfshark ExpressVPN Private Internet Access IPVanish
Best for Overall Privacy Fire TV Stick iPhone Android
Headquarters location Panama British Virgin Islands British Virgin Islands U.S. U.S.
Number of servers 5,246 More than 3,200 More than 2,000 More than 3,194 More than 1,100
Lowest monthly cost $3.09 $2.49 $8.32 $2.03 $10.99
iOS app rating (out of 5) 4.7 4.8 4.6 4.7 4.5
Android app rating (out of 5) 4.5 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6
Antivirus software Malware protection included with VPN Yes, for a separate cost No Yes, for a separate cost Annual plan includes protection against ransomware and malware
Identity theft protection service Data breach monitoring included with VPN Yes, for a separate cost No Data breach monitoring included with VPN (email address only) No
Password manager Yes, for a separate cost No No No No

Best VPN Overall: NordVPN

NordVPN is based in Panama, a country that’s not a member of the international surveillance alliances Five Eyes, Nine Eyes, and 14 Eyes. Consequently, this service offers privacy protection that the U.S. cannot legally access. If NordVPN were based in the U.S., for example, the government would be able to ask the company for customer information due to its membership in this surveillance alliance. That’s why you should look only for VPN companies based in non-member countries.

In addition to providing increased security, NordVPN can also boost your internet speeds. When we connected to the San Francisco server, we experienced faster download and upload speeds — something we didn’t see with some of the other VPNs we examined. Because VPNs add more encryption and internet protocols, most will slow down your web activity and increase latency. NordVPN’s increased speeds are a significant plus, especially if you perform high-bandwidth activities like video chatting or gaming. 

The company offers much more than just VPN services, even with its lowest-cost package. With the Complete package, you’ll get additional digital security tools like antivirus software, a password manager, and encrypted cloud storage.

Feature Standard Plus Complete
VPN Yes Yes Yes
Malware Yes Yes Yes
Tracker/ad blocker Yes Yes Yes
Password manager No Yes Yes
Data breach scanner No Yes Yes
1 TB of encrypted cloud storage No No Yes
1-month plan cost per month $11.99 $12.89 $14.19
1-year plan cost per month $4.99 $5.89 $7.19
2-year plan cost per month $3.09 $3.99 $5.29

This is the most comprehensive digital security coverage of any VPN on this list, and part of the reason why this is our choice for the best overall VPN. 

Starting at only $3.09 a month if you sign up for two years, NordVPN lets customers try their service for free for 30 days. If you don’t like it, the company offers a complete money-back guarantee. While NordVPN isn’t the cheapest option at its monthly or annual term lengths, it gives you more digital security for your dollar than any other VPN we researched, with built-in malware protection, data breach monitoring, and password management. 

Best VPN for Privacy: Surfshark

Over half of VPN users say their VPNs are for general privacy, according to a 2021 VPN consumer report. If privacy is your main concern, SurfShark is a top option for several reasons: 

  • Headquarters: Based in the British Virgin Islands, neither the U.S. nor any other Five Eyes member can force the government to give them your private information. 

  • Logging policy: Surfshark doesn’t keep track of anything you do online, according to its privacy policy. While no VPN on this list logs your web activity or IP address, some VPNs log more information than others. ExpressVPN’s privacy policy, for example, tracks the dates you connected to the VPN, which server you connected to, and the total amount of data you transferred in MB. Knowing Surfshark logs nothing is a huge value-add for those focused on privacy.

  • Multihop: Along with NordVPN, Surfshark is the only VPN on this list to provide multihop, which means that it creates multiple tunnels to encrypt your traffic. The more encryption there is, the harder it is to track you online. 

Add in unlimited devices and unlimited simultaneous connections, and you’ll see that Surfshark offers a great value for VPN users. When your initial 30 free days are over, plans start at $2.49 per month with a two-year plan.

Best VPN for Fire TV Stick: ExpressVPN 

Setting up ExpressVPN on the Fire TV Stick was easier than any other VPN we tested. After downloading the ExpressVPN app on the device itself and logging in, we connected to the nearest server in San Francisco. The entire process only took a couple of minutes, and the VPN didn’t noticeably slow down streaming. Plus, we got a new IP address on the Fire TV Stick every time we connected. That made our binging habits difficult to track. 

It is important to note that ExpressVPN is pricier than most of the other VPNs on our list.

Pricing One-month term Six-month term 12-month term
Cost per month $12.95 $9.99 $8.32
Total amount billed $12.95 $59.95 $99.95
Cost per year $155.40 $119.90 $99.95
Savings with annual plan 0% 23% 35%

The higher price point is probably due to its name recognition. While NordVPN is the most commonly searched VPN on this list, ExpressVPN takes a close second, according to Google Trends data. People may feel more comfortable buying from a brand they’ve heard of, which explains ExpressVPN’s slightly higher pricing. If you’re going to buy ExpressVPN, sign up for a year to get the lowest monthly cost. 

Best VPN for iPhone: Private Internet Access

Just over half of the U.S. population uses iPhones, not Androids, according to a report from Comscore, Inc. Fortunately for the 57% of the smartphone market, the Private Internet Access (PIA) iOS app has a 4.7 out of five stars on the Apple store, and there’s no question why. 

When testing the app, we found it user-friendly and free of bugs. Out of all those we tested, this was the easiest to use on iPhones. Within seconds of downloading it and logging in, you can use the app for any of the following, such as: 

  • Connecting to the nearest server (although there are over 3,000 to choose from worldwide)

  • Routing some of your traffic through the VPN and some to the ISP directly (known as split tunneling, which is helpful when you are trying to save on bandwidth)

  • Checking if your information was found in any data breaches — an add-on identity theft protection service that PIA offers for free

One particularly valuable feature of PIA’s app is that you can choose which encryption method you want: 

Encryption method Safest Default Fast speeds, less safe Riskiest
Data encryption AES-256 AES-128 No encryption AES-128
Data authentication SHA256 SHA1 No authentication No authentication
Handshake RSA-4096 RSA-2048 ECC-256k1 RSA-2048

For the best encryption, choose AES-256 encryption, the current industry standard.

Tech-obsessed users will love the control they have over their VPN’s protocols and methods.

PIA is also reasonably priced, especially if you sign up for three years. It pays to commit.

Pricing One-month term 12-month term 36-month term
Cost per month $11.95 $3.33 $2.03
Total amount billed $11.95 $39.95 $79.00

Best VPN for Android: IPVanish 

IPVanish is an excellent choice for the 43% of people with Androids. We tested the IPVanish app, which has a 4.6-star rating. We connected to the nearest server, which was in San Jose, although the company offers more than 1,100 servers in over 75 locations across North America, Oceania, Europe, Asia, and South America. 

Once connected, we performed DNS and WebRTC leak tests to make sure our web activity and IP addresses were truly hidden — they were. That was a straightforward Android experience, which isn’t always the case with VPN apps. 

If you love watching sports and other entertainment on your phone, you’ll appreciate IPVanish’s compatibility with the following streaming services: 

  • CBS Sports

  • ESPN

  • HBO Max


  • NBC Sports

  • Sling TV

  • WWE Network

However, if you’re an especially privacy-minded VPN user, you may want to steer clear of IPVanish. Why? The answer is two-fold: First, the company is headquartered in the U.S., a founding Five Eyes member. Second, in 2017, it shared customer data with the Department of Homeland Security even though its privacy policy said it kept no data logs. That being said, it’s important to note that the VPN company had a different parent company than it does now, and IPVanish has reasserted its commitment to defending the privacy of its users.


To learn more about what each VPN offers, be sure to do your research and read individual VPN reviews, which address factors like VPN server locations, speed tests, streaming content, customer support, security features, and the ever-important VPN app. And if you’re interested in testing out a free VPN, consider Hotspot Shield, which has a solid basic plan that is free, along with a 7-day free trial of its premium plan.




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