expressvpn review

ExpressVPN Review

Last updated on October 20, 2020

ExpressVPN is one of the world’s leading VPN providers, offering military-grade encryption, lightning-quick streaming speeds, and 160 server locations all around the world to choose from. While it doesn’t come extremely cheap, you can use it to access content from geo-restricted sites like Netflix and BBC iPlayer, and protect your identity when gaming or torrenting, safe in the knowledge that your privacy will be safeguarded by a robust no-logs policy. You can install it on just about any device or operating system, and it won’t slow you down or interfere with apps like Skype or WhatsApp. Best of all, it’s incredibly easy to set up and use, with easy switching between locations from your desktop, mobile app, or browser. Plus, it even works in China.

ExpressVPN Key Features

Servers: 3000+ 

IP Addresses: Not known 

Countries: 94  

Compatible With: 

Google | BBC iPlayer | Facebook | Skype | Spotify | Netflix | iOS

Recommended For: 

Streaming | Connection Speed | Multiple Locations Worldwide

ExpressVPN: Pros & Cons

6 Things We Like:  

  • Fast  
  • Reliable 
  • Huge range of countries 
  • Privacy-friendly 
  • Easy to use
  • Works in China

3 Things We Didn’t Like:  

  • Interrupts AirDrop 
  • Connection unsecured when switching locations
  • A little pricier than many competitors

 

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ExpressVPN For Streaming

One of the most common uses for any VPN is streaming video. I tried streaming Netflix, YouTube, BBC iPlayer, and Amazon Prime from various locations around the world and had no issues signing in to any of them.

First, here’s the BBC iPlayer. You need to be located within the UK to use iPlayer, and using a London-based VPN server worked perfectly:

BBC iPlayer screenshot

Next, here’s the Comedy Central channel on YouTube. It’s blocked in the UK…

Comedy Central Blocked

… But BOOM. Unlocked in under two seconds by switching to a US server and hitting refresh.

Comedy Central unblocked

Okay, next let’s try Netflix, which is famously a hard nut to crack. 

I started with the US, since I was already on a New York server. I had no trouble getting in or playing the videos.

I also tried switching to servers in France, Brazil, and Japan. All of these worked just fine with an updated video library, and no problems signing in or streaming video.

Copy of Japan Netflix

Next, I thought I’d try Amazon Prime Video.

A strange thing happened when I tried to access Amazon Prime in a Chrome browser from a US server, though. I was able to sign in, and a US flag at the top indicated that I was viewing the US library. However, Amazon still *knew* I was in the UK:

Copy of Prime US

I then changed to a different US server and tried again in Safari, out of curiosity. This time, when I signed in, I was shown a drop-down menu to change my registered location – but I couldn’t choose anything other than the UK and one other country that wasn’t the States. I couldn’t work out why this was the only other country listed – and then I remembered that I once had something delivered from Amazon Prime to a friend who lives there.

Copy of Prime -update location

I also tried to “rent” a movie listed as $0 on the US site but around $8 on the UK site. Even though it’s free, I had to enter credit card details, which led to this warning:

Copy of Prime - Service Area restriction

It looks like Amazon Prime has found a couple of workarounds to stop people from outside the US accessing the US video libraries. 

You either need to change your primary region to the US, which you can only do if you have registered a US address with them (and which changes your entire Amazon account to the US, too) or you need to have a US credit card. Both of which are fine if you’re an American abroad trying to get into your usual Prime video library. ExpressVPN would work wonderfully for you. But for everyone else, it seems that the party’s over.

How is ExpressVPN for Torrenting?

Torrenting worked fine with ExpressVPN combined with uTorrent. I tried out the dependable Pirate Bay and since I would certainly never, you know, imply that you should do something illegal, I tested it here by downloading the public-domain Complete Works of Shakespeare. There were no issues and it just took a few seconds.

Copy of Pirate Bay 1

(Funnily enough, though, I kept getting ads flash up telling me my traffic was unprotected and I should download ExpressVPN immediately. Which I suppose may at least be a sign that the VPN was convincing…)

Is ExpressVPN Good for Gaming?

One of the biggest concerns when trying to connect to a VPN for gaming online is your Ping speed. Internet access involves sending out constant access requests and getting a response, too quickly for you to notice the process, and your “ping” speed basically means how many milliseconds your connection takes to react to each request. When you’re playing a video game any tiny delay can ruin the experience so you need a fast ping, i.e. the lowest possible number. A low ping score and high download speed are the best indicators that you’ll have a decent frame rate per second – i.e. that the gameplay will be smooth. 

I tested out my ExpressVPN connection by downloading and playing a free game called World of Tanks: Blitz on Steam:

Copy of speedtest gaming - world of tanks

Connecting to a London-based server gave a Ping score of 23, which is great for gaming.

Copy of Speed test London

As you can see, there weren’t any visible lags or other issues. The main problem was that I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to be doing and kept crashing into a wall, to be honest.

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Speed: How Fast is ExpressVPN?

ExpressVPN is famously super-speedy. It also has a handy feature whereby the app automatically recommends the best servers for your location, which will deliver the fastest connections.

For comparison, here’s my speed without a VPN:

And here it is while connected to an ExpressVPN-recommended server in London, (situated around 400 miles from where I’m currently based). There’s barely any dent in the upload or download speed:

As a journalist, a daily frustration is being locked out of geo-restricted news sites while trying to conduct research. That means I need to be able to jump between different server locations quickly. ExpressVPN makes this really easy: I kept the VPN running continuously for a full week, switching mostly between UK-based servers and US-based servers depending on what I was trying to access. ExpressVPN takes just a few seconds to switch between each server, and the speeds stayed really high.

For example, here’s what happened when I tried to open an American local news site, the La Crosse Tribune, while still connected to a UK VPN server. I got this message:

It took two or three seconds to switch over to a New York server (around 3,200 miles away), and then all I had to do was refresh the page:

Despite the distance, I still had a pretty decent speed:

Over the course of the week, with ExpressVPN running in the background, I carried on doing all the usual stuff – browsing, streaming video, playing music on Spotify, checking my WhatsApp messages – without noticing any problems. Occasionally when using Twitter, I noticed that photos were refusing to load, but switching to a different server quickly fixed the problem.

That said, I wanted to test my speeds from a few more far-flung or unusual locations. To start with, I tried New Zealand, which is where most of my family are but, more importantly for the purposes of this exercise, the farthest place in the world from where I live now.


Oof. Not the speediest. Although to be fair, I tested it by streaming the New Zealand-filmed romcom Falling Inn Love on Netflix NZ and it played fine.

I then hopped over to India, switching to a server in Mumbai. Interestingly, there was a bit of a delay while ExpressVPN tried and failed a few times to connect, although it got there in the end.

Not bad, especially given that I was connecting to a server over 4,500 miles away. And having tested it by watching a few YouTube clips of Sindhu Vee, my favorite Indian stand-up comedian, I can confirm that there were no streaming issues, either.

And finally, to bring things a little closer to home, I picked one of ExpressVPN’s recommended nearby locations, Amsterdam. This time, it connected in under a second. And with excellent upload and download speeds, too.

Speeding Up Your Connection

As a side note, a lot of people worry that VPNs will slow them down, but a top VPN can, in some cases, speed up your connection. That’s because VPNs like ExpressVPN use their own lightning-quick DNS servers, but also because they can prevent bandwidth throttling. This is when your Internet Service Provider (ISP) deliberately slows down your internet connection, either to regulate network traffic or because you’ve hit your data cap.

You can tell very quickly whether your ISP is doing this by testing your speed with and without your VPN. If it’s faster with a VPN, you know your ISP is responsible.

Security and Privacy

VPNs keep your internet activity anonymous by routing your traffic through another server, masking your computer’s IP address. That means your Internet Service Provider (ISP) can’t track what you’ve been up to. Unless you do something else that reveals your identity or location, like use your real name, neither can your government or anyone else who might be interested in monitoring you closely.

Encryption

…. Provided, of course, that your VPN provider encrypts all that internet traffic.

On this front, you really can’t fault ExpressVPN. It boasts state-of-the-art, end-to-end encryption, using AES-256, which is the kind of encryption used by the US government to protect state secrets. I won’t go into the complexities of how encryption keys work here, but basically, if you multiplied the number of atoms on earth by 70,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, the chance of someone figuring out the code that could decrypt your internet traffic is 1 in that number. So you’re pretty safe.

Bear in mind, though, that to be totally anonymous, you’ll need to sign out of social media and online accounts like Facebook and Google – not just close the window – move on to another site (or switch to a different browser that isn’t signed in). If you’re still signed in, they know who you are and will keep tracking everything you do for their own purposes, which also means in theory that they could share that information with others. No VPN will be able to prevent that.

DNS Protection

Another excellent feature is ExpressVPN’s DNS leak protection. DNS is essentially the internet’s address book: all websites are managed by servers and every time you look for something online, your device/browser/app is sending out a query to DNS, which replies with directions on how to get to the servers, all in the blink of an eye. The trouble is that these DNS queries are logged as coming from your IP address, and many low-grade VPNs fail to disguise this.

This is called DNS leak – and ExpressVPN protects against it, ensuring that all DNS queries come from its own servers, with an assigned IP address, not your own.

Kill Switch

ExpressVPN’s “kill switch” is also a great security measure. Basically, if your internet connection drops momentarily, switching off the VPN at the same time, ExpressVPN will pause your internet connection until the VPN has had time to reconnect first. This prevents your real IP address from slipping through.

This leads me to my one big frustration with ExpressVPN: why doesn’t the kill switch appear to kick in when you are manually changing servers. I mentioned in the last section that I need to be able to jump between different server locations quickly, and while it usually only takes a second with ExpressVPN, when you choose a different location you get this warning message:

When I contacted support about this, they told me not to worry, this was “normal” and my real IP address wouldn’t be exposed during the switchover. This is pretty baffling to me, as usually when my internet drops for a moment a pop-up tells you that your connection has been paused until reconnection. Why warn users that their traffic is not secure if it… *is* secure?

Basically, I’m unconvinced that the kill switch feature is being applied until you’re reconnected. If you want to change locations, or if the server you’re using runs a bit slow and you want to change to another one, realistically your options are to risk a momentary potential privacy breach or close all your tabs and internet-connected apps until you’ve reconnected the VPN, which seems an unnecessary hassle. For most people, this won’t be that big a deal, but if you have good reason to worry that you’re being monitored by someone looking for a chink in the armor, I’d take this seriously.

ExpressVPN’s no-logs policy

ExpressVPN has a no-logs policy, meaning that it does not track your source IP address (or the one assigned to you by the VPN), your browsing activity, or history while connected, your DNS queries, or any metadata. It does, however, collect some information about the dates you connected on, the server locations you chose, whether you successfully downloaded apps and updates, and the total volume of traffic per day. The company says this can’t be used to match online activity to any individual user.

The company is officially registered in the British Virgin Islands, which isn’t under any obligation to share data. In any case, ExpressVPN says that it systematically deletes any sensitive data immediately, so even if another organization like a government agency was to demand it, this data doesn’t exist.

One thing that’s missing that would be nice to have is a built-in adblocker. ExpressVPN recommends some of their favorites on their website but this isn’t a feature of the app itself.

Privacy and Security Audits

You don’t have to take ExpressVPN’s word on this stuff. The company submits to regular external privacy and security audits, including penetration tests, to get a second opinion. In other words, they let independent, outside organizations check whether their security and privacy performance are as good as they claim – and you can download the reports to read them yourself.

Usability – Is ExpressVPN User Friendly?

I can’t fault ExpressVPN’s ease of use. It’s extremely easy to download and install – and once you have it up and running you don’t need to do any complex configuration work. The app sits in your taskbar and you just need to open it and hit the big “connect” button or choose your preferred server location. The drop-down menu navigates to support, as well as the website and other useful destinations. It really couldn’t be any more straightforward.

ExpressVPN’s Best Features

You can install ExpressVPN on 5 devices from a single subscription. My household is heavily Apple-centric, so we have it installed on two MacBook Pros, an iMac and an iPhone, but it’s also available for Android, Windows, Linux, Smart TVs, gaming consoles and routers, as I’ll explain in a moment.

As well as the desktop app, you can get a mobile app for Android or iOS (which, again, I have running in the background on my phone all the time). The newest version of ExpressVPN also offers a browser extension for Chrome and Firefox.

Router Installation

You can also install ExpressVPN on your router, which allows you to protect all your traffic from one place and means all your devices are using the same VPN server at once.

I haven’t tried this yet as I don’t have a secondary router or Raspberry Pi I can use to test it, but the support team at ExpressVPN did recommend it as a way to fix one of my few irritations with ExpressVPN. Namely, that it stops you using AirDrop to share files over Bluetooth between Apple devices. I found this really annoying, as AirDrop is fast and secure, and I don’t really want to switch off my VPNs on all devices to use it. It’s also strange that this happens with AirDrop, which uses Bluetooth, but the VPN didn’t stop Spotify from connecting to my wireless speakers, which connect through WiFi.

Split Tunneling

Another useful feature is split tunneling, which allows you to route some of your internet traffic through the VPN and have other apps or programs connect to the internet directly. For example, you could still connect to a printer over LAN and access local news services while streaming a video from overseas. Bear in mind that the local internet traffic isn’t protected, though.

Split tunneling is not available for iPhones, but you can use it for Android, Mac, and Windows.

Pricing

ExpressVPN isn’t the cheapest VPN out there, but it’s certainly worth the price.

If you pay monthly, it’s $12.95, while six months costs $59.95 (the equivalent of $9.99 per month). At the moment, the company is offering 15 months for the price of 12, which costs $99.95 and works out as the equivalent of $6.67 per month. The monthly subscription isn’t much higher than other top-rated competitors, although some other VPN providers do have much more generous long-term subscription packages.

There aren’t any hidden costs or fees and ExpressVPN offers a 30-day money-back guarantee, just in case you find it’s not for you.

Customer Support

ExpressVPN offers 24/7 support via live chat and email. At least, it does in normal circumstances. I was contacting support during the Covid-19 lockdown, meaning the live chat feature had temporarily been suspended, but email contact was still up and running. The website warned that it might take a bit longer to hear back via email, but I had an initial response to both my queries within 15 minutes.

It’s also really easy to contact customer support. You click a tab straight from the app and it opens a window to type your query in. The team will then reply to your registered email address. The team member who replied to me was friendly and helpful.

Conclusion

The great thing about ExpressVPN is that you can install it, pick your server and then leave it to do its thing. It’s incredibly reliable, barely affects your internet speed and you’ll pretty much forget it’s even running most of the time. This provides enormous peace of mind when you’re doing things like mobile banking on the go, connected to easily-breached public WiFi. For journalists like me, it also makes it safer to research potentially sensitive topics without attracting attention and can reach out to potential sources without putting either of us in danger.

While accessing Amazon Prime US turned out to be a bit of a let-down, ExpressVPN successfully unlocks Netflix and other video libraries from just about anywhere, and in all the time I’ve used it I’ve never had a single site or app flag up my IP address as a VPN. This time around, I was testing the latest version from the UK, but in the past, I’ve used ExpressVPN in countries in high-censorship countries like Saudi Arabia and China (where you need it to use the whole Google suite, including Google search, Drive, Docs, Mail, and YouTube) without any trouble.

One thing to watch out for with ExpressVPN is that, if you decide to switch off the VPN, this can confuse your internet connection afterwards. On several different devices, I found that turning off the VPN meant that the device could no longer detect the original internet connection, and only turning the VPN back on would get me back online. The best workaround I found was to turn off WiFi first, then turn off the VPN, then turn the WiFi back on again. This fixed the problem but might prove a bit cumbersome for some users. On the plus side, it’s a sign that accidentally turning off your VPN won’t leave you unprotected online!

I’m also a little troubled by the possibility that internet traffic may not be entirely secure as you switch between servers – here’s hoping ExpressVPN irons that out quickly, if it’s a bug. But overall, this is an extremely secure VPN from a company that takes privacy extremely seriously, with an impressive range of features that more than justifies the subscription fee.

 

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