NordVPN review 2021: The ultimate all-rounder

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NordVPN Review in Short: NordVPN's performance during my reviewing period was outstanding. I believe it is one of the fastest and safest VPN services available. Despite the 2018 security breach, its track record with independent auditors is impressive, while I had no issue unblocking all the popular streaming services. I highly recommend NordVPN to Borderpolar's readers as its price tag on long-term plans makes it a very compelling pick.

Before reviewing NordVPN, I knew I would be reviewing one of the best VPNs in the market. As a matter of fact, I had already used NordVPN for quite some time back in 2013. The hardest part of this review is doing NordVPN justice. Calling it “bang for the buck” or “value for money” VPN provider would not be fair as readers tend to associate the terms with products that make cuts in terms of quality. I could not find any such cut with NordVPN, so at the end of the day, we have a premium VPN that is arguably second to none and definitely the best you can get to make the most out of the price you pay.

In my NordVPN review, I explained that I found it missing key elements, especially trustworthiness. This review is quite refreshing for me, and the whole experience was very similar to the one I had when reviewing ExpressVPN.

Speaking of ExpressVPN, we will also try to answer the omnipresent VPN question; Is ExpressVPN or NordVPN the better VPN provider? While this is a tough question to answer, NordVPNs impressive feature set puts ExpressVPN's price tag into perspective.

There is another important aspect I would like to address in the prologue of my NordVPN review. Our readers are aware of my obsession with VPN trustworthiness and transparency. There is no point in discussing privacy and security if you cannot even trust the VPN service you pay.

In October 2019, a report emerged online that a hacker accessed one of the rented NordVPN servers without authorization in 2018. First of all, the report appeared at least 11 months after the security breach, so we definitely know that NordVPN never disclosed it. This, of course, is a very alarming approach, so I had to learn more about the actual breach.

As it turns out, the breach did not involve user-identifying information, as no passwords, usernames, and other credentials were leaked. The attacker got access to three private encryption keys that expired within an hour and could potentially set up a fake NordVPN node during that time.

Due to the layers of encryption involved in the data transfer and processing, the attacker could not access any information other than what an ISP would see for 50 to 200 users using the server during that period of time.

NordVPN decided against informing its customers, but it's hard to tell if that was a marketing move or an effort to avoid causing panic for an essentially minor breach. The kickback back then was hard, and NordVPN would have to regain the lost trust. As it turns out, in 2018, before the breach was revealed, NordVPN became the first major VPN provider to have its no-logging policy independently audited.

NordVPN also moved to RAM-only technology on its servers at the time, which means that nothing gets stored on the disks, and instead, everything is handled in the volatile RAM. Nord also went through multiple security audits after the discovery; it started a bug bounty program and started investing heavily in VPN server security.

Judging the non-disclosure on NordVPN's side is definitely a tough ask, so I will at least call it a questionable decision. However, the aftereffects of the breach are definitely in the customers' favor, as NordVPN did a lot to regain our trust at no additional cost for us.

After addressing the elephant in the room, I would like to explain how I evaluated NordVPN during the review period. Speed tests alone are not enough to demonstrate the VPN's performance. So, I watched 10 seasons of Shameless (U.S.) on Netflix US and Netflix Denmark (interchangeably) during that time, on Full HD. The evaluate the latency, I stayed connected to the US while writing blog posts, and my editor was extremely responsive. This is pretty much the highest praise I can give to a VPN, and I also did a lot of browsing and kept the VPN on because I actually did not realize it was active.

Once again, that was a very ExpressVPN-like performance. I also used NordVPN on my mobile to watch Shameless and to go to Paris and Tampa to catch Pokemon by spoofing my location on Android. I ended up recommending NordVPN for location spoofing in Pokemon Go.

I'm afraid this introduction renders the rest of the review useless, but regardless, let's see everything NordVPN has to offer.

NordVPN logo

NordVPN Features

NordVPN offers a plethora of features, and all of them scream “premium.” Even the Obfuscated Servers are available at no extra cost, and you only need to pay extra for a dedicated IP, a feature that most customers do not need. In essence, NordVPN hits all the right boxes, and it is best-in-class in almost every category, or at least right up there.

FeatureValue
Number of countries (includes virtual servers)60
Number of servers5338
Log PolicyNo logs (Approved by Independent Auditors – PricewaterhouseCoopers AG, Zurich, Switzerland)
RAM-Only ServersYes
Ad and Malware BlockerYes (CyberSec)
Kill SwitchYes
External AuditsYes
Split TunnelingYes
Dedicated IPYes (extra)
Obfuscated ServersYes
Number of devices per license6
Money-back guarantee30 days
24/7 SupportYes
Tor/Onion over VPNYes (no extra features)
EncryptionAES-256
Headquarters LocationPanama (Outside of 5/9/14 Eyes Jurisdiction)
Average Download Speed Dropoff9.93%
Average Upload Speed Dropoff28.62%
NordVPN key features in 2021.

Read also on Borderpolar:

VPN Protocol Support

NordVPN supports all the popular and the most secure VPN protocols while dropping all the unsafe or deprecated ones. It also supports a unique one (NordLynx) and can automatically select the best VPN protocol for your network.

Operating SystemOpenVPN (TCP/UDP)IKEv2NordLynx (WireGuard Variant)
WindowsYesNoYes
macOSYesYes
AndroidYesYes
iOSYesYes
LinuxYesYes
List of available NordVPN protocols

A Note on NordVPN's NordLynx

Like any other VPN reviewer, I consider WireGuard the next best thing for VPN protocols. It is indeed swift and lightweight, but at the same time, it's still incomplete and experimental. Don't get me wrong; I always use WireGuard when available, and there are only a bunch of VPN providers that offer it.

Despite my affection towards WireGuard, I would not recommend it over OpenVPN. That is unless it is patched to fix its shortcomings. That's exactly what NordVPN and ExpressVPN offer with NordLynx and Lightway, respectively. NordLynx patches several WireGuard bugs, including the static IP pool, and it keeps being updated, so it is really a protocol I can recommend.

You can watch the video below to learn more about NordLynx, and this review is based on the use of NordLynx:

Server Locations

A very common indictment against NordVPN is its location support, and, indeed, it doesn't offer as many locations (either with real or virtual servers). The best way to showcase this shortcoming is to compare NordVPN to other VPN providers. Let's see then:

VPN ProviderServersCountriesLocations
ExpressVPN3,000+94160
NordVPN5,33160Unknown
CyberGhost7,09191114
Ivacy3,000+50+100+
VyprVPN700+40+70+
SurfShark3,20065+Unknown
NordVPN's coverage compared to other VPNs

One thing is clear from this table. ExpressVPN outclasses everyone in terms of worldwide coverage. Now keep in mind that the best way to reduce costs for VPN providers that offer RAM-only data processing is by servicing a smaller portion of countries and locations. This is exactly what NordVPN and VyprVPN do to maintain a premium service while keeping the cost low.

If you require the maximum number of available locations and top-quality services, ExpressVPN is the way to go.

However, if you don't really need all these server locations, NordVPN's price tag on long-term plans is far more ludicrous, as we will see below.

You can find the full list of NordVPN server locations on its website.

NordVPN HQs Location and Privacy

NordVPN's HQs are located in Panama, a privacy-friendly country. Panama has extensive legislation regulating offshore jurisdiction. Its constitution, judicial code, and criminal code have several articles that guarantee privacy and protection of personal data for its citizens and foreigners. Panama has also signed international covenants to protect the right to privacy.

This means that NordVPN can preserve your private data and information even if it receives a legal request from any government agency. Meanwhile, the no-log policy and in-memory server mean that NordVPN does not have any data other than your NordVPN account information to begin with. This is obviously great for any user that aims towards privacy.

I think it's fair to say that Panama is a great country to hide things (e.g., The notorious Panama Papers) and one of the most privacy-friendly countries around the globe.

As I have explained in several posts and reviews, I believe the whole 5/9/14 Eyes jurisdiction storyline is more the product of marketing than a real issue. But I'd take a VPN provider whose base is in Panama or the British Virgin Islands any day, over one located in the US or a country that may apply any sort of pressure to the providers.

We have explained that there is not much room for pressure when the provider has a zero-log policy, and any intelligence agency would have to perform an actual attack while the data are still live in memory. This type of attack is definitely possible but not probable.

Security Breaches and Independent Audits

So, we are back to the elephant in the room—the 2018 security breach. The affected server was part of a third-party data center in Finland. Evidence indicates the attack most likely happened sometime between January 31st, 2018, when the server came online, and March 5th, 2018.

The adversary attacked a compromised data center account, not an account managed by NordVPN.

The data center deleted this account on March 20th, 2018, blocking any further access to the server.

NordVPN claims not to have been notified about the breach until April 13th, 2019, more than a year after it happened. It took down the server the same day and began an immediate audit of all its servers at the time.

From a customer's perspective, I would expect my VPN provider to inform me about the breach, its minor impact, and all the provider's action to ensure there are no further issues present. NordVPN did a lot after they became aware of the breach, so I believe they had a chance to enhance trustworthiness and show proactive action. In essence, I believe the better move from a privacy standpoint is full transparency.

I hope the provider will handle similar situations in a better way in the future. But now let's see what kind of guarantees NordVPN offers to its customers:

NordVPN's insistence on independent security audits makes me extremely happy as a reviewer. For the sake of consistency with my past positions, I will have to state that this is exactly what I want to see from a premium VPN provider.

NordVPN Apps

I tested NordVPN on Windows, macOS, and Linux using the browser extensions and Android. I had no issues with NordVPN on any device. For the sake of conciseness, we will focus on the Windows client in this NordVPN review.

General Settings

NordVPN windows client general settings
The Windows client's general options include:
  • Launch at Windows startup.
  • Launch the app minimized.
  • Show VPN status notifications.
  • CyberSec: block ads and malicious websites.
  • Client language.

CyberSec requires a special mention here, as it is a built-in ad blocker that works extremely well and indicates solid filtering of the incoming traffic to our browsers.

Auto-Connect

nordvpn app auto-connect

Users can tweak the auto-connect settings to allow the app:

  • To always auto-connect when it launches.
  • To auto-connect on trusted Wi-Fi networks.

The user can select the VPN protocol manually among OpenVPN (TCP or UDP) and NordLynx, and select the server or allow the app to perform these processes automatically.

Kill Switch

NordVPN windows kill switch

NordVPN offers my favorite type of automatic kill switch, and that comes down to its versatility. An Internet kill switch is a great feature, but specifically, killing apps instead of connecting is valuable for users. For instance, when steaming, I just want to see the Netflix app killed instead of my whole internet connection.

Split Tunneling

NordVPN offers split tunneling, but only on its Windows, Android, and AndroidTV apps. Split tunneling lets you decide which apps go through the VPN and which you access with your regular IP and Internet connection. This is useful for online banking and watching domestic streaming sites because you can lose access to them when you connect to a VPN due to geo-blocking.

Just remember, when you use split tunneling, anything you leave outside of the VPN is not encrypted. Don’t leave out any apps that require privacy (like a BitTorrent client) or need to bypass geoblocks.

NordVPN Performance

The question to answer here is simple:

Is NordVPN fast?

The simple and honest answer is, “Yes, it is fast enough.” I used Ookla's speed test to evaluate my baseline speed without VPN in Athens, Greece, and the result was the following:

The next table contains key European locations and long-distance ones, like the US, Canada, and Australia. I want to pinpoint another key feature here.

Contrary to other VPNs I have used, NordVPN changes the smart connect location depending on current conditions. For instance, it switched between Romania – Bucharest, and Spain – Barcelona for me.

LocationPing [ms]Download Speed [Mbps]Download Speed DropoffUpload Speed [Mbps]Upload Speed Dropoff
Baseline – Athens, Greece, no VPN753.92N/A10.24N/A
Greece – Athens10248.799.51%7.0531.15%
Romania – Bucharest2653.371.02%8.8913.18%
Spain – Madrid7752.72.26%8.0421.48%
France – Marseille6552.442.74%9.2110.06%
UK – London4948.69.87%8.8613.48%
Netherlands – Amsterdam5052.522.60%8.9612.50%
Germany – Frankfurt5352.552.54%9.388.40%
USA – New York12149.118.92%5.9142.29%
USA – Los Angeles17848.0810.83%3.862.89%
Canada – Toronto15847.611.72%6.6734.86%
Australia – Melbourne28438.5428.52%6.6335.25%
Hong Kong27838.4928.62%4.3157.91%
Average Download Dropoff9.93%Average Upload Dropoff28.62%
NordVPN performance around the world

NordVPN Encryption and Leak Protection

NordVPN is really outstanding in terms of encryption standards, privacy, and security.

Encryption

NordVPN uses the highest standard of encryption to keep your data private and secure. By default, its apps use the AES-256-GCM encryption algorithm with a 4096-bit DH key, which the NSA recommends securing classified information, including the TOP SECRET level.

No known practical attack can break the AES-256-GCM encryption. If you used a brute-force attack – which means checking all possible key combinations – you would need more resources than humanity currently has at its disposal to crack the encryption. Right now, there is not enough time in the Universe to crack the AES 256-bit encryption.

The number 256 refers to the encryption key size, so 256-bit has 2^256 possible combinations. While theoretically, no encryption cipher is truly impregnable, AES with 256-bit keys is an absolute overkill when it comes to security. Breaking it would theoretically require billions of years.

As I always mention, this level of encryption is what is expected from a VPN service in 2021. 

Leak Tests and Leak Protection

A VPN does not necessarily guarantee that there won't be any DNS, IP, WebRTC, or IPv6 leaks. If your IP leaks, then your location and privacy have been compromised, while a DNS leak means that your online activity is visible to your ISP and third parties.

A reliable VPN protects you against DNS leaks and guarantees your privacy and anonymity. I tested several countries, including the US, Canada, UK, Romania, Spain, external IP, DNS, WebRTC tools, and ExpessVPN's tools, and I did not observe leaks of any kind. 

ExpressVPN no ip dns webrtc leaks
Testing leaks on ipleaks.net leads to exactly what you want to see

It is worth noting that checking your VPN for leaks is not a one-time thing, it should be a constant check, but I have not found a better way to do this.

Tor Compatibility (Onion Over VPN)

NordVPN Onion Over VPN

Generally speaking, Tor is better used in standalone mode with complex bridge setups to avoid any tracking. However, with NordVPN, we have an interesting case of Onion Over VPN worth examining. Onion Over VPN dedicated servers allow you to connect to the Onion network without using the Tor browser. Let's call this an ease of use feature.

I don't necessarily recommend using this feature, as using your regular browser requires tweaking its settings to block trackers and Javascript execution. Contrary to VPN providers like CyberGhost, which use dedicated servers with extra protection, NordVPN maintains a high-quality service across all its servers, so you can use the Tor Browser while connected to a NordVPN server.

nordvpn onion over vpn
Onion over NordVPN Image Credit: NordVPN

Whether you pick any of these two options highly depends on your security model. Using Onion over VPN does not necessarily provide a better layer of protection. However, personally, I am thrilled with Onion Over VPN during my VPN evaluations. Keep in mind that purists will advise against it, though.

Other Specialty Servers

Double VPN Servers: Combines two NordVPN servers to make a VPN-VPN connection. So, to reach your intended destination, your data makes two hops for maximum security. You can use a double VPN setup with the OpenVPN protocol (TCP or UDP).

Obfuscated Servers: These servers are useful only in extreme censorship cases; these servers scramble your VPN traffic and data to look like regular HTTPS traffic. Governments that place restrictions on VPN usage, such as the Chinese government, sometimes rely on traffic analysis to block VPNs. Obfuscated servers help you overcome this problem and allow NordVPN to work in China.

P2P Servers: Optimized for P2P traffic and best used when downloading files using torrents. However, they are great for any type of P2P traffic.

Dedicated IP Servers: these will be reserved for those who have purchased a static IP. When connected, your IP will always remain the same. This may be useful if you’re not that concerned about staying anonymous and have other use cases. They’re only available with OpenVPN either in UDP or TCP mode.

Privacy Policy

NordVPN's privacy policy is one of the most comprehensive out there, and I highly encourage readers to read it. Frankly, it's among the most transparent ones you will find across software service providers.

Does NordVPN Keep Activity Logs?

NordVPN's policy states that it keeps no logs of any activity or connection logs, including all of your online traffic, websites visited, data content, and DNS queries.

As I already mentioned, the independent audits provide a strong level of trust regarding NordVPN's zero-log policy, arguably the strongest across all VPN service providers.

NordVPN Streaming and Geo-unblocking

I could not find a major streaming service that I could not unblock with NordVPN. Admittedly, most major VPN providers can unblock almost every streaming service at this point, but NordVPN was excellent in terms of stream quality, too, even when I was connected to Disney+ US or Netflix US.

However, as I will explain below, I find that more and more streaming services associate your payment details with the content you can watch

NetflixAmazon Prime VideoMSNBCITV Hub
HuluDisney+ and Disney+ HotstarFox SportsKodi
BBC iPlayerSky Sport & Sky Sports GoCBS SportsAT & T
YouTube TVHBO Max and HBO GoPandoraCW
Sling TVESPN and ESPN+ZDFSalto
FuboTVParamount PlusStan7TV
DirecTVCrunchyrollSBS Australia6Play
FunimationRai PlayPeacock TVTF1
DAZNGlobo and Globo SportvRTL9Now
TG4Amazon Prime VideoTVINGYle
NordVPN Streaming Service Unblocking Performance

Netflix

I did not experience any issues while trying to unblock Netflix regional libraries. As I already mentioned, I spent a lot of time on Netflix US and Denmark. However, I have realized that Netflix detects location/IP changes and eventually limits the content it shows you, even though it doesn't detect the use of a VPN. Notice that my avatar is a masked woman in the image below instead of a normal avatar (the Baby Boss).

In the past, I have called this a “no man's land,” but another way to describe it is Netflix showing only content that it owns and can distribute without geographic limitations.

netflix vpn location switches

In the past, Netflix would allow you to perform multiple location switches within a small time frame, but I have found that not to be the case in 2021. According to NordVPN's support, this is particularly true for users in the European Economic Area as there seems to be a timer set that limits you to your home country (in my case, Greece).

So overall, Netflix tries to restrict access to content even though it doesn't detect VPN use.

Another interesting aspect is that if NordVPN does not support a regional library, it falls back to the US library.

As you can see in NordVPN's VPN for Netflix support article, these are the countries it officially supports (and I quote here):

Netflix US:
You should connect to any of our VPN servers in countries other than Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Japan, Australia, the Netherlands, India, Brazil, Spain, South Korea, and Finland.

Note: This particular point implies that NordVPN supports 14 regional libraries (including the US) as all the others defer to the US regional library. However, below you will find mentions of support for Poland and Turkey, which I found true. I also unblocked Mexico, Denmark, and Israel, although they are not mentioned in the article.

Netflix CA:
You should connect to any of our VPN servers in Canada.

Netflix DE:
You should connect to any of our VPN servers in Germany.

Netflix UK:
You should connect to any of our VPN servers in the United Kingdom.

Netflix FR:
You should connect to any of our VPN servers in France.

Netflix IT:
You should connect to any of our VPN servers in Italy.

Netflix JP:
You should connect to any of our VPN servers in Japan.

Netflix AU:
You should connect to any of our VPN servers in Australia.

Netflix NL:
You should connect to any of our VPN servers in the Netherlands.

Netflix ES:
You should connect to any of our VPN servers in Spain.

Netflix IN:
You should connect to any of our VPN servers in India.

Netflix BR:
You should connect to any of our VPN servers in Brazil.

Netflix KR:
You should connect to any of our VPN servers in South Korea.

Netflix FI:
You should connect to any of our VPN servers in Finland

Netflix PL:
You should connect to any of our VPN servers in Poland.

Netflix TR:
You should connect to any of our VPN servers in Turkey.

Here are some regional libraries I successfully unblocked (the list is not exhaustive):

USUKGermanyFranceItaly
tick yestick yestick yes tick yestick yes
DenmarkJapanTurkeySwitzerlandIsrael
tick yestick yestick yes tick yestick yes
CanadaEgyptSouth KoreaAustraliaMexico
tick yestick yestick yes tick yestick yes
SpainTurkeyPoland
tick yestick yestick yes
Netflix libraries unblocked by NordVPN

In general, streaming services associate your payment details with the regional libraries they allow you to access more and more, thus limiting a VPN's unblocking power. This is, of course, not the VPN's fault, nor does it demonstrate limitations in the VPN's unblocking performance.

Overall, NordVPN's Netflix unblocking performance is impressive and will give you access to the most popular Netflix libraries (including those that feature Marvel movies).

Disney+

I had no issue unblocking Disney+ with NordVPN on multiple locations. That being said, the service detects that you are traveling, so it limits your content based on your original location. In my case, I have a Disney+ US subscription, which is not limiting at all to begin with, as all new content gets aired in the US first.

USUKAustralia ItalyIndia
tick yestick yestick yes tick yestick yes
Disney+ libraries unblocked by NordVPN

Amazon Prime Video

USUKFranceItaly
tick yestick yestick yestick yes
Amazon Prime Video libraries unblocked by NordVPN

NordVPN Android App

The NordVPN Android app offers a plethora of features. To begin with, you can of course use Quick Connect or select a server to connect to. Here are some of the features you can access in the Settings:

  • Auto-Connect: You can decide to auto-connect on Wi-Fi, cellular, or always, and you can pick the fastest server, the fastest specialty server (Obfuscated, P2P, Onion Over VPN), the fast server in a specifc country or just your personal choice.
  • Protocol: You can choose NordLynx, OpenVPN (TCP), or OpenVPN (UDP).
  • Split Tunneling: You can disable the VPN for selected apps.
  • DNS: You can use NordVPN's default SmartDNS or set a custom one.
  • Local Network Discovery: Enabling this option allows you to access printers, TVs, and other devices on your local network.
  • Metered Connection: Enabling this option gives you control over how much data your phone uses while connected to the VPN.
  • CyberSec: Blocks access to malicious websites; CyberSec does not block ads on mobile.
  • Kill Switch: Enabling the kill switch through your phone's settings allows you to have an internet connection only while connected to NordVPN. If the VPn connection drops, your Internet connection will drop too.
  • Dark Web Monitor: Checks whether your email address shows up in Dark Web databases.
  • Tapjacking Protection: Enabling this feature warns you when a malicious app adds a screen overlay to highjack your tapping sessions (i.e., record and still all your taps and key presses).

This is quite an impressive feature set that you won't find on many mobile VPN apps, including the premium ones.

Ad Blocking Performance and Trustworthiness

NordVPN's ad blocker, CyberSec, performs incredibly well, and it will allow you to browse websites and even watch YouTube videos ad-free.

Past User Complaints

In the past users reported that some NordVPN features were not available if you disabled auto-renewal. Based on the screenshots I found that was true, but it is not anymore as I could access everything with a disabled auto-renewal.

Please note that some features are available only under specific protocols.

Does NordVPN Work in China?

NordVPN works in China, and its website is accessible in China, but you will have to use the specialty obfuscated servers to avoid VPN traffic detection as its use is restricted by default.

NordVPN Support

I found NordVPN's support extremely fast and very insightful for high-level questions, while I could also get answers to advanced technical questions within 1-2 business days.

NordVPN Pricing

NordVPN offers three standard subscription plans. Subscriptions cost $11.95 per month for a one-month plan, $4.92 per month for the 1-year plan, and $3.67 per month for the 24-month plan.

To compare, ExpressVPN offers three standard subscription plans. Subscriptions cost $12.95 per month for a one-month plan, $9.99 per month for a six-month plan, and $8.32 per month for a 12-month plan, so NordVPN costs 40% less than ExpressVPN on the 1-year plan, which is a very tempting price tag.

That's a huge difference in the long run, and you can see why NordVPN is a ludicrous choice in terms of pricing.

One MonthOne YearTwo Years
Monthly Rate$11.95$4.92$3.67
Yearly Rate$143.4$59.04$44.04
Total Amount Billed$11.95$59.00$99.00
NordVPN plans & pricing

NordVPN also supports many payment options, including cryptocurrencies:

Payment optionsMajor credit cards, Google Pay, Amazon Pay, UnionPay, ACH Transfer, and cryptocurrencies
NordVPN payment options

Each subscription comes with a 30-day money-back guarantee so that you can try the service risk-free. 

Overall Verdict

My experience with NordVPN was outstanding during my evaluation period. I'm glad to say that I both recommend it as an exceptional VPN service that sets high standards of trustworthiness, and I will be using it in my future online endeavors.

NordVPN review videos

NordVPN Review 2021 – Is Nord VPN the Holy Grail of VPNs? by Consumer Research Studios
NordVPN review 2021 | PROS & CONS VPN Review
Anastasios Antoniadis
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