VPNs can be difficult to shop for even if you’re pretty comfortable with technology. This is because VPN marketing tends to focus on how advanced the apps are, and often forgets that most potential customers don’t have a degree in computer networking. Essentially, new users are bombarded with technical terms and statistics without having the context needed to understand what these mean or how the service’s features actually help them.
Here’s the good news: we’ve performed an in-depth, side-by-side comparison of two extremely popular services, Surfshark and Hotspot Shield. You’ll find the results, including a description of what each feature does, below. This should give you a better idea of what each has to offer, so that you can sign up with confidence and avoid disappointment down the line.
Pricing and discounts
|Subscription periods||One month||One month|
|Six months||One year|
|One year||Three years|
|Special offer||81% discount on annual plan and 12 months extra free||Save 77% on three-year subscriptions|
|Highest price per month||$12.95||$12.99|
|Lowest price per month||$2.49||$2.99|
|Money-back guarantee||30 days||45 days|
Surfshark and Hotspot Shield both cost a little under $13 USD per month on a rolling subscription, placing them firmly at the higher end of the pricing spectrum. That said, it’s not uncommon for month-to-month subscribers to pay more. On the plus side, there are steep discounts if you’re willing to commit to a medium or long-term plan upfront.
So just how much can you save? Well, if you sign up for Surfshark’s annual plan, you can get an extra year of coverage for free, and an 81% discount on what you’d normally pay if you subscribed month-to-month. This brings the total cost to just $59.76 for two years instead of $310.80, or $2.49 per month. It’s worth mentioning that after your first two years, you’ll be billed annually, which effectively increases the price to around $5 per month.
Mid-term subscribers might find Hotspot Shield a little expensive, with one year of coverage costing $95.88 ($7.99 per month). However, its three-year plan comes with a steep 77% discount, meaning you’ll pay just $107.64 (around $2.99 per month). For context, users on a monthly rolling subscription would pay $467.64 for the same coverage period.
These VPNs each come with a risk-free money-back guarantee. This means you can sign up, use the service as much as you like, and if you’re unsatisfied, cancel within a set time period to receive a full refund. This guarantee lasts 30 days for Surfshark users and 45 days for Hotspot Shield customers. Hotspot Shield also has a free tier but this doesn’t really provide a good look at what the service can do since you’re limited to 500 MB of data per day and can only use a handful of servers.
Best Deal for Surfshark:Choose Surfshark’s annual plan to get an extra year of coverage and save 81% on the two-year term.
Best Deal for Hotspot Shield:Sign up for a three-year subscription to save more than 75%.
|Simultaneous connections||No limit||5|
|Operating system apps||Windows, Linux, MacOS, Android, iOS, Amazon Firestick/ Fire TV||Windows, MacOS, Android, iOS, Amazon Firestick/ Fire TV|
|Manual install devices||Select routers||Select routers, Linux systems|
|Free extras||Automatic ad-blocking and malware-scanning. Stealth mode. Browser extensions for Chrome and Firefox.||Browser extensions for Chrome and Firefox, free access to 1Password and Hiya|
Whichever service you choose, you’ll have access to apps for a wide range of devices. Notably, each is included in the Amazon app store; this saves you the trouble of having to sideload your VPN onto your Firestick. Both VPNs also offer addons for Chrome and Firefox, allowing you to change location, disconnect, or tweak settings without opening the app.
The main difference here is that Surfshark has a command line-based installer for Linux, while Hotspot Shield users have to follow manual setup instructions. Additionally, Surfshark doesn’t restrict the number of devices you can connect at once, while its rival limits you to five simultaneous connections per account.
Each of these VPNs includes a few extras too. Surfshark, for instance, blocks ads and malware automatically, and offers a stealth mode that lets you browse safely wherever you are. Hotspot Shield, on the other hand, provides its users free access to password management tool 1Password, as well as either Robo Shield or Hiya (depending on your location) services that blocks nuisance calls automatically. Users in the US also get Identity Guard, a service that monitors the internet for your personal information and helps protect against identity theft.
|Netflix||Multiple libraries including US, UK, Australia, Canada, India, and Japan||Multiple libraries including US, UK, Canada, Japan|
|Amazon Prime Video||US, UK||US, UK|
So far, these two VPNs have been pretty evenly matched but Surfshark definitely pulls ahead here. Not only was it able to unblock every service we tried it with, it allowed us to access a couple of additional Netflix libraries too. This makes it an exceptionally attractive option for anyone who likes to stream, particularly as the lack of a connection limit means you can effectively watch anything, anywhere.
To its credit, Hotspot Shield was able to unblock some of the most popular streaming platforms, and it even works with the most in-demand Netflix catalogs. However, many larger services blocked it outright, perhaps because of the large amount of traffic coming from free-tier users.
You’re likely already aware that China limits the content its visitors and citizens can access online. It does this using a collection of tools known as the Great Firewall. While you can get around this blocking with a VPN, most of these services are inaccessible in China.
Although the Surfshark and Hotspot Shield websites can’t be reached, the apps themselves work perfectly well. As such, if you install them before arriving in China, you’ll be able to access the web freely. In fact, Hotspot Shield users don’t even have to do anything differently and can continue browsing as normal. Surfshark customers will have to enable NoBorders mode first (go to Settings > Advanced > NoBorders).
Setup and interface
|Automatic setup wizard||Windows, Android, MacOS, Linux, iOS||Windows, MacOS, Android, iOS|
|Main location selection||List-based||List-based|
|Extra settings pages||Yes||Yes|
Both VPNs offer sleek, easy-to-use desktop apps. Surfshark places your most-recently-used servers right on the main screen for faster access, plus there’s the option to just connect to whichever location is nearest to you. Servers are separated into three categories (Location, Static IP, and MultiHop), making it easy to find whatever you’re looking for. The settings are easy to understand too, with clear descriptions and for the most part, simple toggle switches.
Hotspot Shield goes for a more minimal look, with a quick-connect button, daily data usage monitor, and server selection option on the main page, plus a sidebar for accessing other sections of the desktop app. If we had one complaint, it’d be that some of the sidebar icons feel a little unnecessary, but this really isn’t a huge issue. With intuitive server selection and user-friendly settings pages, there’s a lot to like here.
Surfshark’s mobile apps are very similar to the desktop versions. There are a couple of minor changes: the sidebar has been moved to the bottom of the screen, for instance. Additionally, mobile users can’t run a speed test directly in the app like desktop users can.
The mobile version does allow you to override your phone’s GPS location without the need for third-party apps. And you can even change to a different type of encryption, a feature that isn’t available on desktop systems (although the alternative is ChaCha-poly1305 encryption, so you’ll be sacrificing security for speed).
Just like the desktop app, Hotspot Shield’s mobile app features a quick connect button and server selection option right on the home screen. Its settings are almost exactly the same too, although users can’t change protocol in the mobile app. Aesthetically, the only real change is that the sidebar is smaller and runs along the bottom of the screen.
Servers and performance
Hotspot Shield and Surfshark are similar when it comes to the number of servers, but Hotspot Shield covers many more locations.
It has Surfshark beat on speed as well, with an average of 63 Mbps to Surfshark’s 40 Mbps. If you use nearby servers, Surfshark can almost match its rival’s speeds, but there is a fairly steep dropoff the further away you get. Both VPNs are fast enough for uninterrupted 4K streaming and so are a strong choice for almost any task.
Here’s a complete list of every country where these VPNs have servers:
|Bosnia and Herzegovina||✔||✔|
|Isle of Man||✔|
|United Arab Emirates||✔||✔|
There are a couple of interesting things about the results above. First, Hotspot Shield has servers in places many other VPNs don’t, like China and the UAE. Despite this, there’s no need to worry about surveillance or governmental interference, since this VPN uses virtual servers in those locations; in other words, they’re not really in those countries, just pretending to be. Of course, as these services both have no-logging policies, you couldn’t be traced even if they were.
Notably, Surfshark covers a few locations that Hotspot Shield doesn’t, despite having a much smaller network. These include places like Nigeria, Slovenia, Paraguay, and Serbia. Unlike Hotspot Shield, it doesn’t use virtual servers, so you know exactly where your chosen server is (and which country’s data protection laws apply) at all times.
|VPN protocols||OpenVPN, IKEv2, Shadowsocks||Hydra, IKEv2|
|OpenVPN data encryption||AES-256||AES-256|
|OpenVPN control channel encryption||RSA-2048||RSA-2048|
|Cloaking technology||NoBorders obfuscation||No details available|
|App security||Kill switch (all platforms)||Kill switch (all platforms)|
|DNS status||Private DNS||Private DNS|
Surfshark supports OpenVPN and IKEv2 protocols, both of which are pretty standard inclusions. However, it also lets you connect using Shadowsocks, an open-source protocol that excels at evading detection at the cost of only encrypting your browser traffic, similar to a proxy server. Hotspot Shield has a few tricks up its sleeve too, supporting both IKEv2 and Hydra. The latter is its own protocol designed to provide higher speeds over long-distance connections.
See also: Our guide to VPN protocols
These VPNs both use effectively uncrackable 256-bit AES encryption and 2048-bit RSA keys. For context, without the correct decryption key, this would take several lifetimes to crack. There’s a kill switch built into each service too; these automatically block your internet access when you lose connection to the VPN so that you never have to browse unprotected.
Each of these services can hide the fact that you’re using a VPN but (perhaps understandably) neither is particularly forthcoming about how their cloaking works. We do know that other services reshape your data, hiding the telltale indicators of VPN traffic that VPN-blocking networks and services look for.
|HQ base||British Virgin Islands||USA|
|Connection logs||Some but no identifiable data||No|
|Activity logs||None||Aggregate logs only|
|User details for signup||Email address||Email address|
|Anonymous payment options||Bitcoin, Ethereum, Ripple||None|
When it comes to privacy, Surfshark has a clear advantage. It’s based in the British Virgin Islands, a location without any mandatory data-retention laws, whereas Hotspot Shield operates out of the US. This is a Five Eyes country, which means that any of the other member countries can request details of your activities and share them with the US.
Of course, this isn’t a huge issue since neither VPN logs data that can personally identify its users. Surfshark only logs diagnostic information, like failed connection attempts, while Hotspot Shield stores only aggregate data, making it impossible to tell who accessed what. Surfshark allows its users to sign up anonymously by paying in cryptocurrencies, which gives it an edge over Hotspot Shield. We also liked that it didn’t limit you to just Bitcoin, since other currencies have been increasingly popular of late.
|Dedicated IP address possible||No, although static IP servers are available||No|
These services use shared IP address allocation systems to provide an additional layer of privacy. Essentially, every user connected to a given server shares one IP address. This way, it’s effectively impossible to tell who accessed what.
Neither VPN includes a NAT firewall, but to be fair, they don’t need one since they block all incoming data automatically. Although it’s not possible to get your own dedicated IP address on either service, Surfshark does allow you to access static IP servers. These provide you the same IP address every time, but you will be sharing it with other users.
|Live chat||Yes (Zendesk)||Yes (Zendesk)|
|Average email response time||6 hours, 10 minutes||1 hour, 10 minutes|
|Searchable knowledge base||Yes||Yes|
Both of these services offer 24/7 support over live chat and email. This means that you’re never more than a few minutes away from an answer to your problems. However, while Surfshark will answer anyone’s questions, Hotspot Shield only provides personalized support to paid subscribers. Otherwise, you’ll have to hope that there’s a relevant article in the knowledge base. Surfshark has a searchable database of questions too, plus an official YouTube channel full of video walkthroughs.
If you’re having difficulties, live chat is usually the best bet. That said, we wanted to see how easy it was to get help if you couldn’t use this service. After all, it might go offline from time to time, or you might be in a location where VPN websites are blocked. With this in mind, we sent each service three questions over email and measured their responses. Take a look below for the results:
|Question||Initial response time||Number of emails||Question answered|
|How do I unblock BBC iPlayer with this VPN?||7 hours, 13 minutes||1||Yes|
|My speeds are slower when connected - is this normal?||7 hours, 17 minutes||1||Yes|
|Are the Russia and Hong Kong servers safe to use?||4 hours, 47 minutes||1||Yes|
|Question||Initial response time||Number of emails||Question answered|
|How do I unblock BBC iPlayer with this VPN?||33 minutes||1||Yes|
|My speeds are slower when connected - is this normal?||10 minutes||1||Yes|
|Are the Russia and Hong Kong servers safe to use?||2 hours, 49 minutes||1||Yes|
Each of these services got back to us pretty quickly, but Hotspot Shield had a far lower average response time than Surfshark. It’s important to note that this can vary pretty significantly based on the time of day, any ongoing server problems, or even just staff availability, so response times this low aren’t guaranteed.
Both providers answered our questions with a mixture of pre-written and personalized responses. Hotspot Shield went even further, though, and provided specific instructions for unblocking BBC iPlayer on all of the devices we had connected at the time.
Money-back guarantee: 30 DAYS
To be clear, either of these VPNs would make an excellent everyday service. Hotspot Shield is quick and reliable with decent unblocking ability, and offers plenty that its rivals don’t. For instance, it boasts an expansive server network, the ability to browse without restriction in China, and an extremely responsive support team.
Surfshark is the better choice for the average user, though. It may not cover as many countries, but it provides pretty high speeds and can unblock far more geo-restricted services. Further, this privacy-first provider keeps no logs, accepts cryptocurrency payments, and lets you connect as many devices as you like. In short, Surfshark is a highly-versatile VPN that’d be a great choice for just about any task.