Digital privacy was the last priority on most Internet users’ minds for decades. Then Edward Snowden came along to show us all the error of our ways.
In the post-Snowden world, everything is different. Suddenly privacy, anonymity, and security online are essential for most users. Consequently, the Virtual Private Network has become much more critical, the most powerful tool to ensure those things.
So the demand for VPN services has exploded, and so has the number of vendors offering the “best, most powerful, secure, private and anonymous” VPN in the business. Of course, very few of the VPNs out there can fulfill those promises. Surfshark and ExpressVPN are among them.
The best VPNs are very user-friendly. However, this apparent simplicity is deceptive. The machinery behind the few clicks the user has to make is exceedingly complicated. Moreover, it requires vast amounts of expertise and infrastructure from the provider, so many of them want their potential customers to learn about it. Education is always a good policy, of course. But VPN technology is somehow specialized, so unless you’re a geek or a networking professional, the material you need to understand regarding VPN is likely to be beyond your reach.
So, the market is too big, there are too many offers on the Internet and telling apart the best from the rest takes time, energy and expertise. So, what can you do about it? Well, nothing! We’ve done it, so you don’t have to.
We chose two of the best VPNs in the industry to compare the head-to-head: ExpressVPN and SurfShark. This article will give you all the information you need to compare them in full detail, we will explain the most advanced features in each, and by the time you’re done reading, you’ll know which is the one for you.
ExpressVPN and SurfShark are two of the best VPNs in the business. Unfortunately, when you have to see two such good services side by side, the edge that one gets over the other comes down to subtle things and incremental features.
What we have with both providers are two services that are at the top of their powers but that are looking to serve different types of users. So choosing either VPN is more about suiting a digital lifestyle than about a single feature that is so much better with one of them.
We had both VPNs fighting six rounds. ExpressVPN took the Security, Privacy, and Ease of Use ones. Sufshark, however, got away with speeds and price. In addition, customer service was a draw. So ExpressVPN carried the day. However, Surfshark remains the better option for many users. Specifically, those who want better speeds and want a more cost-effective service. This is not to say that ExpressVPN lacks speed, but it’s way more expensive.
So ExpressVPN is a better VPN than SurfShark because it’s more complete at present. But do not underestimate SurfShark. It’s turned the VPN world upside down in a short period, and it would not be a surprise if it surpasses ExpressVPN soon.
In PrivacySavvy, we keep compiling lists of the best VPNs for this or that specific task or in terms of a particular feature. In every case, both SurfShark and ExpressVPN are leading the pack (usually along with NordVPN). Of course, Express VPN remains the best-known option because it’s been around for a long time, and it’s gathered a massive (and deserved) reputation. But SurfShark is top-notch service, and it managed to win a few rounds in our contest.
Each VPN vendor has an audience and a user base for sure. Still, we wanted to figure out which is best when considering several aspects of the service: customer support, user-friendliness, pricing, privacy, speed, and security.
There are strengths and weaknesses in both networks — and you’ll find them out if you read the rest of this article. But, hopefully, the detailed information we will offer to you here will help you decide which of the two fits your digital habits in the best possible way.
ExpressVPN vs. Surfshark: The quick comparison
ExpressVPN has more than 3000 servers in 94 countries, while SurfShark has 3200 in 65 countries. So Surfshark’s international presence is evidently inferior. But it has servers in all the jurisdictions that count, and that 3.2k servers, a higher number than ExpressVPN’s, is quite impressive for a service that’s not been around for so long.
Both VPNs are good for unlocking Netflix, BitTorrenting, preventing DNS leaks, obfuscated traffic, split tunneling, using a kill switch, and using RAM-only servers. And both support Linux, Android, iOS, macOS, and Windows.
Then there are the features that diverge. For example, ExpressVPN supports five concurrent connections to the network, while SurfShark will give you an unlimited number.
Surfshark’s VPN protocols available include OpenVPN (the industry’s golden standard), IKEv2, and WireGuard. ExpressVPN has them too, but it also offers L2TP/IPSec and Lightway.
Neither network keeps any logs on user activity. This is a policy supported by hardware choices. Both VPNs use RAM-only servers. No hard drives. That means that the servers are 100% volatile upon reboot, and they are physically incapable of keeping any records beyond a single session. So you see, both VPNs stick to the zero-logs policy because they care about your privacy but also because they no longer have any choice!
Only Surfshark supports DoubleVPN connections, adblocking, online tracking blocking, static IP addresses, email leak notifications, anonymous search engine, automated HTTPS redirect, and a data compression option.
On the other hand, only ExpressVPN supports a custom DNS option.
The battle for security
You want your VPN to keep you safe against government agencies, hackers, and your ISP –oh yes, your ISP could be watching you throttle your account. If you’re going to get any meaningful protection from a VPN, then all of your incoming and outgoing traffic must be anonymized. That’s the essential security task, so let’s see how our two participants do.
ExpressVPN supports four VPN tunneling protocols:
- OpenVPN: This open-source VPN protocol is the industry standard for creating online secure tunnels.
- IKEV2: A protocol suited for mobile connections.
- L2TP/IPSec: These are two protocols combined. One of them provides encryption, and the other one, tunneling.
- Lightway: This is ExpressVPN’s implementation of WireGuard. WireGuard is the most modern VPN protocol, but it has privacy issues. ExpressVPN managed to correct those issues and deploy it because it has very high transfer speeds, making it ideal for torrenting, streaming, and gaming.
That is a very wide arrange of protocol options. It includes no outdated legacy protocols (SSTP or PPTP). Lightway gives you the best speeds of any VPN protocol, and it also adds TCP support obfuscation without the privacy problems that arise from WireGuard. Lightway’s speeds make it a preferred option for HD video streams, torrenting, and getting around censorship. IKEv2 establishes resilient connections that hold well when against frequent and sudden changes in the network, which is why it’s a good option when you’re on the go.
SurShark offers the same protocols except for L2TP/IPSec. So it covers the same essential ground as ExpressVPN, but it’s more limited. Also, SurfShark has adopted WireGuard without all the enhancements in ExpressVPN, so it only supports UDP connections, and it could be dodgy on privacy.
Encryption and other features
Both VPNs encrypt all the traffic with the AES 256-bit algorithm. This is military-grade encryption that’s beyond any possibility of failure. Another common feature is the kill switch. This piece of software keeps an eye on your connection to the VPN. If you lose the link to the VPN, it shuts down all your traffic to ensure that nothing from your device hits the Internet without encryption.
Then there are the “stealth locations,” which are also available on both. Another name for this feature is “server obfuscation,” and it’s exceedingly valuable for protecting you. This feature takes all your traffic and makes it look as if it was HTTPS. Since HTTPS is supposed to be encrypted, it seems “normal” to any external observer. But it has the additional advantage that you could be using HTTPS with millions of websites on the Internet; hence nobody can tell you are using a VPN. The result is that you can use these VPNs even in countries that have banned VPN services. That’s very useful indeed.
SurfShark features the “double VPN” option. Double VPN connections appeared first in NordVPN. The idea is that your traffic goes through two servers in the VPN network instead of one, which is the standard. It is a great security measure, as it adds an extra encryption layer to your traffic. However, this level of security is overkill by any reasonable standard at comes at a cost — it reduces your speeds significantly.
PricewaterhouseCooper is one of the world’s top four security auditing firms. It audited ExpressVPN, and it came out with flying colors. Surfshark’s servers and browser extensions passed an inspection by Cure53, but it wasn’t a full independent audit.
ExpressVPN wins in security
Our two VPNs come very close in the high quality they offer regarding security. ExpressVPN wins it, though. The difference is its WireGuard implementation (Lightway). Because it combines the highest possible speeds in a VPN network with the best security and Privacy, SurfShark has WireGuard too but a standard implementation.
Also, ExpressVPN has survived an entire server, logging, and privacy audit, which SurfShark hasn’t.
The battle for speed
Speeds are essential. They’re also tricky. We conducted careful speed tests on both VPNs to report back to you.
We tested using symmetric Internet service with 500 Mbps as the baseline speed.
Before we get to the results, let us tell you a word about speeds: they depend on many variables that include your ISP, your hardware, physical location, weather, how far is the VPN server you pick, and many more. So while our tests can be considered a reliable guide, you shouldn’t expect to reproduce our exact experience from your end because your environment is undoubtedly very different from ours.
|Download speed local server (in Mbps)||320||379|
|Upload speed local server (in Mbps)||170||266|
|Ping local server (in Mbps)||8||4|
|Download speed international server (in Mbps)||140||373|
|Upload speed international server (in Mbps)||27||20|
|Ping international server (in MS)||115||77|
As you can see from the table, the speeds are similar on both networks. So either will give you a smooth daily operation. Of course, some of the baseline speed is lost because you’re investing it in the encryption and traffic routing that a VPN needs, but that is expected.
However, despite the similarities, SurfShark outperformed ExpressVPN in the download speed category. So, if you are the type of user who downloads large files, uses BitTorrent, streams HD videos, or likes to game online, SurfShark is the way to go.
SurfShark’s triumph is no small feat. Consider that ExpressVPN was the fastest VPN online for an extended period and that it has Lightway is a protocol that is very fast indeed.
The battle for privacy
Protecting your privacy is also your VPN’s job. And the main threat to your privacy when you’re using a VPN is not in any third party but in your VPN provider itself. How is that possible, we hear you ask?
Remember that security and privacy are different things, even if they are related. Ensuring security is technological (with encryption being the standard solution). But on the other hand, there’s privacy which is not about technology but policy. The primary key to ensuring user privacy is sticking to a zero-log policy. A VPN that keeps no logs on user activity has no beans to spill about you to anybody else. So what you need from your VPN is that it says it keeps zero records and honors that policy.
So let’s see how each VPN does on privacy issues.
ExpressVPN hails from the British Virgin Islands. Several good VPN services operate out of this jurisdiction because its laws are very privacy-friendly. And it’s beyond the reach of the worst international data-sharing and surveillance alliances. And this country has no data retention laws, so keeping zero data is legal there.
As we’ve mentioned earlier, ExpressVPN has been around for a while and has helped set many standards in the industry. So it’s among the top no-logging VPNs in the industry.
ExpressVPN works on a standard known as “TrustedServer.” This means that their IKEv2 and OpenVPN traffic goes through RAM-only servers. RAM-only servers have no hard drives in them. Instead, everything works out of a massive RAM bank configured to simulate a hard drive. But it’s still RAM, so it’s volatile. Everything in the server disappears into the digital ether every time the server gets a reboot (about once a week).
In other words: it’s not just that ExpressVPN doesn’t want to keep logs on you. It can’t! It’s adopted RAM-only servers in its entire network specifically to prevent the very possibility of maintaining records.
Additionally, the PwC audit showed beyond any doubt that the company is indeed fully committed to user privacy.
SurfShark also sticks to a zero-log policy. But it collects your IP address when you use the Smart DNS feature, which is far from ideal.
There is a common misconception going around the web about SurfShark –that it’s in the British Virgin Islands, as ExpressVPN. It’s not. SurfShark is a Dutch company, and the Netherlands is a member of the 9-eye alliance. The so-called “Eyes Alliance” comprises Western countries that spend a lot of resources on domestic surveillance. And then share the data they gather with the other alliance members.
That is the death of privacy, of course, and that’s why it’s crucial to pick a VPN that doesn’t keep any logs at all — and SurfShark delivers in this regard, mostly. But if an unfortunate accident leaks any info from SurfShark to the outside world, then it’s fair game for the international spying alliances.
We explained in the ExpressVPN section what RAM-only servers are. The great news is that Surfshark’s network is also RAM-only, so the physical arrangement itself prevents data collecting.
The privacy winner
Both VPNs talk about keeping zero logs, and they honor the commitment. However, ExpressVPN’s physical location is better in enforcing privacy measures on behalf of the users. On the other hand, SurfShark does keep an IP address log on its Smart DNS feature. So this round goes to ExpressVPN.
The pricing battle
SurfShark’s most commonly mentioned differential advantage over the rest of the VPNs on the Internet is its price. It’s exceedingly low as the market average goes. Among the top-notch service out there, Surfshark is the most cost-effective by far. On the other hand, ExpressVPN can cash in the reputation it’s gathered over the years — it’s expensive.
Suppose you sign up monthly for either service. Both will charge you a 12.95 USD monthly fee, so there’s no difference at all.
What is the best deal you can get from them, anyway? If you choose the yearly plan with ExpressVPN (which gives you 15 months of service), you’ll pay 6.67 USD monthly. On SurfShark, if you go for the 2-year program, you’ll have 24 months for 2.49 monthly.
So this is probably the one battle in which there is no real competition. SurfShark is the better option price wise by very far, even if you try the most accessible EXpressVPN plan.
The battle for user-friendliness
Both providers have clients that are easy to use and understand. Let’s explore them in more detail.
ExpressVPN’s approach to the app’s design is all about clarity and minimalism. The giant ON/OFF button has a shortcut to the server list right beneath it. The app can scan the network for the fastest server for you and get you connected automatically.
The VPN protocol section features a bit of guidance about the protocols on offer, so you can easily choose the one that will serve you best, depending on the task at hand.
If you want in-depth information about the services in ExpressVPN, the website has it, but it’s hard to navigate.
The installation process is straightforward. Download the appropriate files, follow the steps, and click on.
Surfshark’s layout looks very much like ExpressVPN’s. The home screen allows you to pick the “fastest server” or the “nearest country.” Those two phrases are interchangeable 99 out of 100 times.
This app isn’t very generous in its educational aspect, as it explains nearly nothing about the functions.
The website is easy to navigate, unlike ExpressVPN. But also, unlike ExpressVPN, it is not so rich in information.
The app contest winner
Both apps are fully functional. But ExpressVPN’s client is more informative, so that’s why it gets the battle for user-friendliness.
The battle for customer service
An excellent VPN network must have equally excellent customer service. In a perfect world, you would never need any help with your VPN because everything would be running smoothly at all times. However, in the real world, you could need a bit of help at some point. And since the VPN is such an essential resource once you have it, that help must come quickly and be accurate.
So let’s see how both customer services look when seen head-to-head:
- Both companies support a live chat option. A human being will chat with you, not the typical AI-based chatting program.
- We found the agents in both companies to know their business inside out and answered all our questions correctly.
- Both providers support English only for customer support services.
- Both providers have extensive FAQs and tutorials.
There’s nothing to choose between the customer support services from both VPNs. In several of the previous “battles,” we had a hard time choosing a winner, but in this issue, it was impossible. Both win.
SurfShark vs ExpressVPN: The final verdict
Surfshark and ExpressVPN are among the top five VPNs in the world. Both are excellent, and they can perform any task in style.
So if you’re going to choose between both, a single feature is unlikely to make the difference. Instead, the right choice will be about the service that closely fits your digital lifestyle.
So, is your budget critical for you? Surfshark is the way to go, then. But, is privacy your top priority? Fine, it’s ExpressVPN. Do you need fast speeds to use BitTorrent, watch HD streams, and play games online? Surfshark!
Both VPNs offer excellent services, and you’ll be happy with either option. Of course, you can’t go wrong, but the devil is in the details, and we’ve shown them to you.
The competition was close, but ExpressVPN came out on top by the thinnest margin possible.