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We all know what VPNs are great for. They can help secure your internet traffic over public networks like at a café, airport, library, or other public place. VPNs can also get around geo-blocking in order to watch Netflix catalogs around the world, or access Disney Plus in a country that doesn't have it yet. Gaming is another popular use case for VPNs.
What to look for in a VPN for gaming
For gaming there are a few essentials. The first of which is speed. If you don't have good speeds, your online experience will just be terrible in general whether gaming or not. So excellent VPN speeds are a must.
The next big feature you need is stability, a VPN connection that gets online quickly and doesn't drop or slow down. To obtain stability you need a reliable service, but it also has to have a good number of servers. VPNs can often slow down as their servers get saturated with users. A larger network won't have that problem as much since it will automatically connect users to other servers that aren't seeing such heavy use.
If you have speed, stability, and a large server network to choose from then you're good to go. The only other thing you need is unlimited bandwidth, which means you need a paid service. Free VPNs have daily or monthly allotments, making it more or less useless for gaming.
Here's what we suggest as the best VPNs for gaming. (Too see our VPN picks for all the various common use cases, check out our comprehensive best VPN roundup.)
ExpressVPN is our top choice for the best VPN overall, and what makes it a good choice as a general VPN also helps when it comes to gaming. First, its speeds are in the top five in our download tests. Upload speeds are a bit weaker, retaining around 67 percent of the base speed when the top performers are around 80 percent. Still, ExpressVPN's upload speeds should be more than fast enough for gaming.
This VPN also has more than 3,000 servers in 95 countries around the world, giving this service a sizeable network. You should have no trouble finding a server that isn't too busy in most of the major countries. ExpressVPN costs about $100 per year, but if you want a VPN to make your gaming better it's worth it to pay the premium. Plus, there are a number of other advantages you can get from Express, which you can read about in our review.
A frequent choice as the top VPN from a number of critics, NordVPN is a very good choice for gaming. It has very fast download speeds (another top-five finisher), and its upload speeds were in the top 10, making it more than fast enough. NordVPN also has a wide range of servers with more than 5,000 total in 59 country locations. NordVPN isn't quite as easy to use as ExpressVPN, but it's still easy enough to understand for both novice and expert users. NordVPN also has a few nice features such as multi-hop VPN and TOR connections.
If you want servers, servers, and more servers then Private Internet Access is the choice for you. PIA has around 10,000 servers at the moment, and its speeds finished within the top 10 in our tests. Upload speeds were lower than NordVPN and ExpressVPN, but they are still stable enough for gaming. PIA doesn't have a ton of extras, but it's the best choice when you want a massive amount of server choices with good speeds.
ProtonVPN is our top finisher for upload speeds. So if that's the main concern for you, this is your pick. It's also the second-place finisher for download speeds. However, its server choices are quite a bit more modest than the other VPNs mentioned in this roundup, with just over 1,500, meaning there will be times when most of its servers are at or near capacity, especially in the United States. The country count is a bit lower at 63, but most of the major destinations you need are here. It's also stable and quick to connect. ProtonVPN has several pricing tiers so be sure to pay attention to what each tier offers before buying.
To test VPN speeds, we take the base download speed on three days, with each testing day having a minimum speed of 80 megabits per second (Mbps). Then we test the speeds three times each in five different countries on each testing day. These countries are often, but not always the U.S., the UK, Germany, Australia, and Japan.
The daily speeds are averaged together to get a daily average speed. Then we take the average of each testing day to get an overall global average. That overall average is then expressed as a percentage of the base speed. That way the test results provide a sense of how much speed a VPN retains over multiple locations. We avoid hard numbers since speeds can vary so much based on factors such as your service provider, router, devices, and time of day.
Do you need a VPN for gaming?
So we've seen what you need from a gaming VPN, but is this even something you need for your favorite online adventure or shoot ‘em up?
The answer is it all depends. One of the most common questions people have about VPNs and gaming is whether it will improve your ping times. That is, the speed, measured in milliseconds, that your PC can send data to the game's servers. VPNs can't really help here since it adds another connection point between you and your destination server. Instead of going from your PC to the game server and back, it goes from your PC to the VPN server to the game server and back. In most cases you will probably find that ping times either worsen or stay about the same.
Either way, it's a rare case where ping times are helped by a VPN. The one exception might be stability. In these instances, your bare internet connection isn't stable enough due to a high amount of activity in your neighborhood, or heavy load on your home network. In those cases, a VPN might make things a little more stable since you connection runs through a VPN server that specializes in keeping things moving.
That brings us to the next topic of potential ISP throttling. We're not talking about the nefarious kind where your service provider might try to charge you extra for access to gaming servers. Instead, we're talking about everyday traffic shaping, as well as penalizing bandwidth hogs (you) for taking up too much bandwidth at peak times.
Again in those cases a VPN may help. It all depends on how closely your ISP is monitoring your activity. If it's slowing down your connection to a specific server and prioritizing other traffic, then a VPN will most likely help. If, however, you're getting penalized for being too much of a bandwidth hog, the ISP will still see larger amounts of bandwidth and penalize you on that basis.
If your favorite time to play is 7PM at night, and that's a high traffic time, a VPN might help.
Another reason people love a VPN is for getting around geo-blocking restrictions. For the most part this is a bad idea or unnecessary for gaming. Many games already let you change regions freely, while others will only let you switch every few weeks. In those instances where you can't switch regions, and you want to try getting around geographic restrictions, keep in mind that your gameplay experience may not be that great. On top of that, you may be violating the games terms of service, setting yourself up for a ban. That goes for playing games and trying to get access to games early, as well as accessing DLC that isn't available where you are. It's up to you, but keep in mind there are risks to getting around geo restrictions in games. Plus game networks like Steam don't like this kind of activity, and the only thing worse than getting penalized by a game would be getting penalized by Steam.
One final issue is if you are playing a game that uses a peer-to-peer network instead of a client-server setup. These games aren't as common as they once were, but the fear here is that someone will find your IP address and try to kick you offline with a denial-of-service attack. A VPN would definitely help with that, and if you're experiencing something you think might be a DDoS then you could try playing with a VPN to see if it helps.
VPNs are solid tools for a few use cases, but whether you need it for gaming depends largely on your personal situation.