The best and simplest way to protect your internet connection from snooping eyes while using an iPhone is to route your connection through a virtual private network, or VPN, such as NordVPN. With the NordVPN iPhone app, you can connect to servers around the world, including some intended specifically for torrenting and other activities. It’s one of the best overall VPN services we’ve tested, and an Editors’ Choice for iPhone VPN apps, along with KeepSolid VPN Unlimited.
What Is a VPN?
Most of us probably assume that our internet connections are secure from the prying eyes of spies or the nefarious activities of attackers. We shouldn’t. When you connect to the free Wi-Fi at the coffee shop, another patron on the same network may be snooping on your traffic. A savvy attacker could even create a phony Wi-Fi network and decrypt personal information you’ve sent—passwords, bank information, and so on. Out on the web, advertisers and three-letter agencies gather information about you when you visit websites; they also compare data from different sites to correlate your movements across the web.
To guard against these threats, and others, you need a VPN. When you activate a VPN connection, your web traffic travels through an encrypted tunnel. That means nobody, even people on the same network as you—even if it’s a bogus network operated by criminals—can read your traffic. From the VPN server, your traffic exits back onto the open Internet, but with a twist. To any observer, your data appears to emanate not from your iPhone, but from the VPN server—even if that server is thousands of miles from your actual location.
Journalists and activists use the location-spoofing and privacy-ensuring properties of VPNs to reach the rest of the world when operating in places with restrictive internet policies. You can also use a VPN to access region-locked content. For example, you might access free streams of BBC shows when you’re not in the United Kingdom. That said, several streaming services, and Netflix in particular, have started cracking down on users connecting via VPN. Note that these uses of VPNs could violate terms of service, or even local laws, however.
Cellular data traffic is, generally, more secure than Wi-Fi because of encryption built into the system. However, researchers have shown that even cell traffic is vulnerable. One scenario involves jamming the LTE and 3G bands and thereby forcing nearby cellphones to connect, via the less secure 2G band, to a tiny portable cell tower called a femtocell.
It’s unlikely you’ll encounter an exotic attack like this, but there are easier ways crooks can nab your data. Consider that many cell phones automatically connect to Wi-Fi networks they’ve connected to before. We’ve seen for ourselves how attackers can configure malicious access points to emulate friendly networks and trick passing phones into connecting, without the owner suspecting a thing.
Features and Pricing
The NordVPN iPhone app is available as a free download from the iTunes App Store and works on both iPhones and iPads. Note, however, that VPN apps are at a bit of a disadvantage on iOS compared with other platforms.
NordVPN doesn’t offer a free subscription. The app does say you can try the first three days for free, but it also attempts to make you complete an in-app purchase to start using the service. This isn’t unusual, but it is annoying.
A 30-day subscription with NordVPN costs $11.95, whether you’re using it for iPhones or PCs. This puts it on the higher end of VPN services, price-wise. VPN protection through the Private Internet Access iPhone app, for example, costs $6.95 per month. There are also several worthy free VPN services available, if cost is a major issue. Note that NordVPN also offers a six-month plan for $54 and a one-year plan for a very reasonable $83.88. You can sign up online using a number of different payment options, including anonymous ones, but payment is handled through iTunes on the iPhone.
One subscription lets you use up to six devices at a time on NordVPN’s service. That’s a smidge above the industry average of five and is quite a good value. CyberGhost VPN pushes the envelope with seven simultaneous devices, at the same price as NordVPN.
A subscription grants access to NordVPN’s network of 4,875 VPN servers spread across 61 different countries. That’s 1,300 servers more than the next-largest VPN provider, Private Internet Access VPN, giving NordVPN the largest network of servers we’ve yet seen.
NordVPN offers a good range of server locations, including places like Russia and China, where using a VPN is a necessity. NordVPN also offers servers in areas typically underserved by competitors, such as Africa (in Egypt and South Africa) and the Middle East (including Cyprus, Israel, and Turkey).
The Windows version of NordVPN uses the OpenVPN protocol by default. We prefer that VPN services use the OpenVPN protocol. It’s generally faster, and it’s also carefully vetted for potential security flaws because it is open source. However, Apple requires extra vetting for apps that use OpenVPN; few of the iOS VPNs we’ve seen support OpenVPN. NordVPN uses the modern IKEv2 protocol under iOS, unlike Private Internet Access and Hotspot Shield, which rely on the older IPSec protocol. KeepSolid VPN Unlimited is among the few iPhone VPN apps that support OpenVPN.
You can, however, connect using OpenVPN with a NordVPN subscription on your iPhone. To do so, you must download and configure the aptly named OpenVPN iPhone app, log in with your NordVPN credentials, and you’re off and running. Our testing, however, focuses on using NordVPN’s service with NordVPN’s app.
NordVPN includes a trio of security features it calls CyberSec. We go into greater detail in the Windows review, but the company offers the same protections regardless of platform. CyberSec includes ad blocking, malicious website protection, and DDoS protection. This last feature is interesting, as the company says that even if your device is infected, it can prevent it from joining in a DDoS attack. Note, however, that the website protections offered in CyberSec are based on blacklists of known malicious and phishing sites. This would supplement, but not replace, the built-in web browsing protection from Apple.
In 2017, NordVPN announced that its servers are accessible from within China. This means that anyone within the country could circumvent government control over websites. That’s particularly notable, because China’s so-called Great Firewall greatly restricts the sites that can be accessed from within the country’s borders. We’ll see how that holds up against China’s efforts to restrict VPN use. NordVPN recommends that if you are using its product to avoid government censorship that you use the Obfuscated Servers option in the Settings menu, or contact tech support for assistance.
Your Privacy and NordVPN
When you use a VPN, it has as much insight into your online activities as your ISP does. If it so desired, it could examine every bit of information passing through its system. It also can potentially identify you to another party—law enforcement, for example—making it possible to track you online. That’s why it’s important that before you buy a VPN subscription, you understand and are comfortable with the steps the company has made to safeguard your privacy.
NordVPN operates under Panama’s jurisdiction, where there are no laws requiring data retention. It boasts a no-logging policy and will not restrict your bandwidth. A lack of logs is good for privacy, as it means there’s no information for spies or investigators to gather via subpoena or other means.
Hands On With NordVPN
The iPhone app has the same layout as NordVPN’s Android app. The main page features a large map of the world, with pins representing all the NordVPN server locations. Tap one, choose a server, and you are quickly connected. We’re suckers for a good visual impression, and NordVPN’s map, with its subtle colors and cartoon submarines, looks great. If you’re in a rush, you can tap the Quick Connect button, which connects you to the nearest (and therefore likely fastest) VPN server. TunnelBear VPN (for iPhone) and VPN Unlimited also let you select servers from a map.
Tap List and you can choose your server location from a list instead of a map. We’re pleased that this list now includes NordVPN’s specialty servers. Tapping the account icon lets you toggle the Kill Switch and Smart Reconnect features, as well as accessing your account information. The Kill Switch automatically blocks data from flowing out of your phone should the VPN lose its connection. Note that this feature is much less common on iPhone VPNs. Some companies have told us it’s not possible on iOS.
The full list of servers starts with specialty servers: Anti-DDoS, Onion (TOR) over VPN, and P2P. A list of available countries follows these specialty types. Within each country (or specialty) the servers you’ve marked as favorites show up first. We really like it when VPN companies organize their servers by the actions users want to perform. It helps demystify the whole process and can help novice users more easily access some of a VPN service’s more advanced features. Hide My Ass offers a similar purpose-based selection mode, PureVPN takes this concept to an even greater depth, and CyberGhost identifies each purpose with a high-res animated image.
Many mobile security apps skimp on design, which is a shame, because an ugly app or one that is difficult to navigate won’t appeal to the average consumer. Private Internet Access, for example, has one of the most robust VPN infrastructures on the market, with thousands of servers available. But it has an ugly app on just about every platform. NordVPN, on the other hand, always appears reliable and friendly, even on a small screen.
As with the latest Windows edition, we managed to stream content from Netflix. Netflix continues to ramp up its protections, though, so this ability might not last.
Good Speed Test Scores
Regardless of the VPN you choose, the process of routing your web traffic through additional servers far from your current location increases connection latency and slows your overall speeds. For testing purposes, we used an Apple iPhone SE.
In rare cases, the VPN service may connect you to higher-bandwidth infrastructure or use other optimization techniques that can improve your Internet connection speeds. Indeed, the traffic optimization used by AnchorFree Hotspot Shield Elite significantly increased upload and download speeds. Turning on traffic compression in CyberGhost also sped uploads and downloads, to a lesser degree.
To test VPN speeds, we use Ookla’s internet speed test tool (Ookla is owned by Ziff Davis, the publisher of PCMag). We turn off cellular data and connect to Wi-Fi. We run several tests without connecting to a VPN server and then calculate the percent change from tests run with the VPN connected. Of course, networks are notoriously finicky things, so your mileage may vary.
In general, NordVPN turned in average performances in our testing. We found that NordVPN increased latency by 31.7 percent. That’s better than average, but CyberGhost only increased latency by 3.7 percent, and Private Internet Access by 15.7 percent.
In the download test, NordVPN reduced speeds by 25.7 percent, slightly worse than average. That’s not too bad, considering that TorGuard slowed the download test by 59.7 percent. Interestingly, our latest results on Windows have TorGuard at the top in this test. As noted, Hotspot Shield aced this test, speeding up the download by 76.1 percent. CyberGhost came in next, slowing downloads by just 9.5 percent.
None of the tested products dramatically slowed upload speed. The biggest hit came from Private Internet Access and TorGuard VPN, both of which slowed uploads by 8.5 percent. HotSpot Shield sped up uploads by 4.3 percent, and PureVPN only slowed uploads by 2.2 percent. NordVPN’s 5.5 percent impact is somewhere in the middle.
NordVPN clearly has a moderate impact on internet performance, which we found reflected in our time using the service. We found that web pages, even those with numerous media items, loaded as swiftly as we expected with NordVPN enabled. To determine the fastest VPN, we look to the speed test results from the Windows apps, and found that TorGuard VPN had the smallest impact on browsing speeds.
An Award-Worthy VPN
It’s easy to make the case for the NordVPN iPhone app, despite its relatively high price. It offers the most servers the world over, letting you choose where your connection appears to come from and providing a nearby choice wherever you might travel. NordVPN’s inclusion of specialized servers means that you can easily find the right one for your needs, and its excellent design means you won’t mind using it. We wish it directly supported OpenVPN, but that’s really an Apple issue. NordVPN is an Editors’ Choice for iPhone VPN apps, along with KeepSolid VPN Unlimited.