ExpressVPN and Surfshark are two of CNET’s best VPN picks, both earning Editors’ Choice designations. ExpressVPN is CNET’s Editors’ Choice for best overall VPN, and Surfshark is CNET’s Editors’ Choice for best value VPN. Both are excellent options for anyone who wants a VPN that offers first-rate privacy protections, but can also reliably handle geoblocks when streaming content online.
Both are first-class VPN providers, but ExpressVPN edges Surfshark in this head-to-head. Read on to find out why.
Read more: Best VPN Services of 2023
ExpressVPN vs. Surfshark
Speed winner: ExpressVPN by a wide margin, thanks to Surfshark’s inconsistency and sputtering OpenVPN speeds
Finding the fastest VPN is a priority for most VPN users, so we put VPNs through rigorous speed testing. In my most recent speed tests in the first quarter of 2023, I registered an 18% average speed loss with ExpressVPN and an average 40% speed loss with Surfshark.
ExpressVPN was consistently speedy regardless of which protocol, device or location I tested it through. The only other VPN that performed more consistently during my most recent speed tests was NordVPN. The best speed performance I got out of ExpressVPN was through the OpenVPN protocol from my testing location in Hungary, where I registered a 9% speed loss compared to my base speeds. The best speed performance I got through WireGuard with ExpressVPN was from my other testing location in Ohio, where I registered an 11% speed loss. And with ExpressVPN upgrading its server fleet to 10Gbps servers, I’m hoping to see even faster and more consistent speeds from the provider in the future.
Surfshark’s speeds through the WireGuard VPN protocol from Ohio were excellent, causing my speeds to dip a mere 8% below my base internet speeds — above the top speeds I saw from ExpressVPN. However, Surfshark’s speeds through the OpenVPN protocol on my Windows laptop were abysmal, cutting my base speeds by a whopping 76%. And that’s the core issue, here. While Surfshark sometimes offered good speeds, I never knew what to expect from different protocols or devices.
I have found that VPN speeds through Windows machines tend to be marginally slower across the board than they typically are through a Mac, but other VPNs I tested through Windows didn’t register such a dramatic drop in speeds as Surfshark did. Losing more than three quarters of your base speed can be a real downer if you’re a gamer, torrenter or like to stream content. That said, Surfshark’s OpenVPN speeds through my Mac were fairly respectable (34% speed loss), though not overly impressive. Still, the inconsistent nature of Surfshark’s overall speed performance was a major disappointment.
If you want to optimize your speeds with Surfshark, I recommend connecting through the WireGuard protocol, especially if you’re a Windows user. Surfshark tells me that its development team is working on the issue, so hopefully OpenVPN speeds will improve in the future.
Cost winner: Surfshark, thanks to its impressive suite of features at a significantly lower price
ExpressVPN is, by all measures, a premium VPN service. It’s top of the line when it comes to speed, privacy, features and unblocking capabilities. And, compared to the competition, it’s expensive. ExpressVPN’s most cost-effective subscription plan is its annual plan, which costs $100 per year. You can also opt for either a biannual plan for $60 every six months or a monthly plan for $13 per month.
For that price, you get five simultaneous connections, access to a global network of servers spanning 94 countries, 24/7 live chat customer support, an easy-to-use app for all of your devices and unparalleled streaming capabilities. Additionally, you’ll eventually get access to ExpressVPN’s password manager, Keys, at no additional cost, once it exits beta and is rolled out universally to all users.
Surfshark is far easier on the pocketbook than ExpressVPN. Though Surfshark’s monthly pricing is equal to that of ExpressVPN at $13 per month, its yearly rate is considerably cheaper at $48 for the first year (then $60 per year) — a savings of $40 per year after the promo pricing ends. And while we don’t recommend committing to any VPN provider for more than a year due to the volatile nature of the industry on the whole, you can get your first two years with Surfshark for $60 total (which then renews annually at $60).
If you go with Surfshark’s annual plan, you get a feature set comparable to ExpressVPN, for a fraction of the cost. And unlike ExpressVPN’s meager simultaneous connection limit of five, Surfshark allows for an unlimited number of simultaneous connections. In addition to that, you’ll get access to servers in 100 different countries, 24/7 live chat customer support, an ad and malware blocker, cookie popup blocker and split tunneling. And Surfshark’s streaming capabilities are constantly improving, putting the provider nearly on the same level as ExpressVPN in that regard. With Surfshark, you can unblock an impressive number of international Netflix libraries. And, following our previous Surfshark review, the provider improved significantly in its ability to reliably unblock Disney Plus.
Among CNET’s top VPN picks, ExpressVPN and Surfshark occupy opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to cost — NordVPN, Proton VPN and IPVanish fall somewhere in between. With ExpressVPN you get the quality that you pay for, and with Surfshark, you get tremendous value for the comparatively low price you pay (if you sign up for a longer-term subscription). Sure, ExpressVPN is well worth its premium price tag, but if you’re a casual VPN user who doesn’t necessarily need every bit of what ExpressVPN offers, Surfshark is more than capable of providing everything you need in a VPN at a lower cost.
Privacy and security winner: ExpressVPN, thanks to its TrustedServer technology and unmatched transparency efforts
ExpressVPN and Surfhark both offer excellent privacy for VPN users. Like CNET’s other top VPN picks, ExpressVPN and Surfshark both offer industry-standard (and virtually uncrackable) AES 256-bit encryption to protect users’ traffic. They both also offer standard privacy protections like a kill switch, DNS leak protection, no-logging policy and a RAM-only diskless server infrastructure. Both providers’ kill switch and DNS leak protection worked flawlessly during my testing. It’s a tight race here, but if I had to choose one for critical privacy needs, I would choose ExpressVPN.
ExpressVPN’s TrustedServer technology builds on top of the concept of a RAM-only diskless server infrastructure. ExpressVPN’s servers run on volatile memory, meaning that user data is never stored on a hard disk and is wiped when the server is turned off or rebooted. This makes it difficult for anyone to collect user information. And with TrustedServer, the entire software stack is completely reinstalled whenever an ExpressVPN server starts up. ExpressVPN says that this process helps mitigate risks of introducing vulnerabilities or misconfiguration.
TrustedServer, along with ExpressVPN’s apps, browser extension, router, VPN protocols and no-logs policy have all been independently audited in the past year. The company’s 12 independent audits in 2022 are a testament to its commitment to transparency and go well above and beyond what most of its other peers in the VPN industry offer.
Surfshark, by comparison, has gone through a mere smattering of independent audits over the past few years. Surfshark’s browser extensions were audited in 2018, its server infrastructure was audited in 2021 and it went through its first no-logs audit in January 2023. Three audits is better than none, but Surfshark can still do more to boost its trust and transparency.
That said, Surfshark’s Nexus network technology is a neat innovation that includes features that help boost user privacy. Through the Nexus network, you can route your VPN connection through multiple servers of your choosing at once on Surfshark’s network, rather than just one server or a preset combination of two servers. This helps add an extra layer of protection. In addition to Surfshark’s Dynamic MultiHop, the Nexus network offers other innovative privacy features like an IP Rotator that periodically changes your IP address without disconnecting from the VPN and an IP Randomizer that changes your IP address each time you visit a new website. ExpressVPN currently doesn’t offer multihop connections or IP rotator/randomizer features.
ExpressVPN and Surfshark compared
|Price||$13 per month, $60 per 6 months, $100 per year||$13 per month, $48 for the first year (then $60 annually)|
|Avg. % speed loss||18%||40%|
|Server network||3,000 servers in 94 countries||3,200-plus servers in 100 countries|
|Encryption||AES 256-bit||AES 256-bit|
|VPN protocols||OpenVPN, Lightway, IKEv2||OpenVPN, WireGuard, IKEv2/IPSec|
|Jurisdiction||British Virgin Islands||Netherlands|
|Compatibility||Windows, MacOS, Linux, Android, iOS, Fire TV, routers||MacOS, Windows, Linux, iOS, Android, Fire TV, routers|
ExpressVPN is for you if you need a VPN that can protect your privacy in situations where your online privacy is a critical consideration. The VPN’s TrustedServer technology, privacy-friendly jurisdiction in the British Virgin Islands and comprehensive list of independent security audits help reinforce its commitment to user privacy. Whether you need privacy in the face of online surveillance, or if you’re a doctor, lawyer, journalist, dissident, whistleblower, activist or anyone else who requires heightened online privacy, then ExpressVPN is the way to go.
Or if you’re a casual VPN user simply looking for a fast VPN that’s easy to use and can unblock a world of streaming options while hiding your activity from your ISP, then ExpressVPN is a great option too — as long as you don’t mind paying the premium.
On the other hand, if you’re a casual user on a budget and want a VPN that can get the job done for less, Surfshark could be the VPN for you. Though Surfshark isn’t quite at the level that ExpressVPN is in terms of privacy protections and transparency, Surfshark has a few unique privacy features like MultiHop and IP Rotator/Randomizer that may appeal to certain users who want to add an extra layer of protection to their traffic. However, Windows users who prefer connecting through OpenVPN for privacy may want to opt for ExpressVPN due to Surfshark’s speed issues through OpenVPN on Windows.
And because Surfshark offers unlimited simultaneous connections, it’s also an excellent option for folks with lots of connected devices or anyone with a large family or group of friends they want to share an account with.
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