After years of foolishly running my online business via public WiFi, I decided to start using a VPN to secure my communications (and access a bit of out of market sporting events while traveling).
But I found out that finding the right VPN to suit my needs was a bit complicated. There’s no such thing as a general “best” VPN – instead, they all have to make tradeoffs that fit many but not all needs. NordVPN and AirVPN were two that I looked at closely.
But first, here’s a bit of background.
AirVPN is based Italy and operated “by activists and hacktivists in defense of net neutrality, privacy and against censorship.” They were founded in 2010 as a free service.
NordVPN is a 10 year old VPN provider based in Panama. They are have a rapidly growing customer base. They claim to be the “world’s most advanced VPN” with a focus on privacy.
They both have advantages & disadvantages in my experience. This NordVPN vs. AirVPN comparison will look at each based on – pricing, features, performance, usability, customer service, and market focus.
Disclosure – I receive referral fees from companies mentioned on this website. All opinions and data are based on my experience as a paying customer performing independent research.
At first glance, it seems like there’s a significant price disparity between NordVPN and AirVPN.
Take a closer look, and the pricing is fairly comparable given features paid for over course of a year. Any shorter, and AirVPN is hands down cheaper.
Like some VPN providers, NordVPN offers a much lower monthly rate if you pay for multiple months (one or two years) up front.
AirVPN offers a fairly flat fee service for support and improved access (this structure dates back to their founding as a free service for activists).
The monthly price for an annual subscription to NordVPN is similar to the monthly price for an annual subscription to AirVPN.
* Note that prices in the table are per monthly prices.
As you can see from the table above, a full year plan from AirVPN is still slightly cheaper than a similar full year plan from NordVPN.
Both VPN providers offer a free 3-day trial of their services.
The only thing is – the free trial for AirVPN is slightly harder to get. NordVPN allows you to sign up for their free trial on their website. AirVPN, on the other hand, requires a written request before they grant a free trial.
Both NordVPN and AirVPN accept a variety of payment options. These include credit/debit card, PayPal, and even Bitcoin. AirVPN has a slight edge with their range of international payment processors and/or the gift voucher option.
Features and Customization
Both NordVPN and AirVPN come with just about every feature you expect from a quality VPN service. NordVPN positions themselves as the “world’s most powerful VPN” while AirVPN’s website plainly pushes their feature-heavy Internet security credentials & overall mission.
AirVPN’s feature page emphasizes security features –
Now. Before I go any further I want to highlight two caveats.
First Caveat – Note that no VPN is 100% secure. Your traffic is still routing through a company. Any company can go out of business or go rogue. If you are trying to avoid your American ISP – then you are simply replacing distrust of Comcast/Charter with the trust of your VPN. If you are a political activist where trust is a life or death situation, you need to be using something like Tor. This is a segue to NordVPN’s / AirVPN’s unique features, but the point remains using a VPN does not instantly create security/privacy. That is something you do via aligning company incentives (ie, paying for companies who maintain security) & being proactive.
Second Caveat – There is an inherent tradeoff between convenience and control. The more convenience/ease that you provide with a VPN, then less control the end user has. The more control you give the end user, the less ease/convenience/simplicity you provide. Neither approach is good. Neither is bad. It’s simply a tradeoff. You’ll see the same tradeoff with privacy and network performance. Every VPN tries to strike a balance between the two. Both NordVPN and AirVPN lean towards control. But AirVPN leans way into the control field. If you want to turn every knob and protocol variable, then AirVPN is for you. You can go ahead and skip all of the other factors. If you want simplicity and convenience, be sure to keep reading to the usability section.
Either way – in addition to strong security and encryption features, both NordVPN and AirVPN include an intuitive interface, customizable options for advanced users, and simultaneous connection support.
Here are a few of the top features that both VPN providers share:
- AES 256-Bit Encryption
- DNS Leak Protection
- Internet Kill Switch
- P2P Sharing and Torrenting
- Access Geo-Restricted Content
- Simultaneous Device Support
- Mobile Device Compatibility
Despite their similarities, NordVPN and AirVPN also share a lot of differences – as noted in the second caveat. Some of these are relatively minor while others should significantly affect your overall decision.
An example of a minor difference is P2P filesharing. While both providers allow it, NordVPN clearly states that it’s only allowed on certain servers, in countries where the practice is legal.
Another minor difference is in exactly how the two services go about security. Neither keeps any logs on user data, giving you confidence that your data is safe*. This point will pop-up w/ speed & performance.
Both services also utilize OpenVPN, AES 256-Bit Encryption, and Perfect Password Forwarding, as well as DNS leak protection and an Internet kill switch.
The Perfect Password Forwarding for each is done with a 4096-Bit Diffie-Hellman key.
The difference here is largely in VPN protocol options. AirVPN only allows you to use OpenVPN protocol (claiming others are too insecure) while NordVPN lets you choose from IKEv2, PPTP, L2TP, and IPSec as well as OpenVPN.
However, a huge difference in the way NordVPN and AirVPN do business is their actual company location.
NordVPN is based out of Panama while AirVPN is based out of Italy. This small fact in itself is a huge plus for NordVPN and a damaging knock on AirVPN as far as privacy is concerned.
The reason? Panama has great online privacy laws while Italy’s are quite invasive. In fact, Italy is a member of Fourteen Eyes, a spying alliance that combines the Internet surveillance efforts of the NSA and GCHQ.
Panama, on the other hand, has completely uncensored Internet. It has no mandatory data retention laws or online government surveillance. The country is outside the direct grasp of the NSA and GCHQ, unlike Italy.
With that said, AirVPN has done an excellent job maintaining the security and privacy of their users, despite their Italian headquarters. If you want to base your security/trust based on a company’s founding story & general values, I can’t argue against AirVPN. They really were founded as a community-supported VPN for activists. Security & privacy are built into their DNA and their fan-base.
The fact that they don’t keep data logs of any kind means that they can’t provide any user information to an outside agency, such as the government, even if prompted.
Also, it’s worth noting the Tor options provided by both companies. NordVPN offers Tor over VPN while AirVPN offers VPN through Tor.
The VPN through Tor option is unique in that it first connects you to a Tor network before connecting to AirVPN. Combine this with Bitcoin payment for true anonymity.
Tor over VPN, unfortunately, is less impressive. With this setup, you connect first to NordVPN then to a Tor browser. Connecting manually to a Tor browser first (or with AirVPN) is a much more secure method of accessing the web.
Another feature worth noting is NordVPN’s “double VPN.” The company seems to enjoy talking up this unique offering, but we’re not so convinced about it. Simply put, a double VPN chains together multiple VPNs into a string. Data passes through two VPNs (instead of just one) while traveling from the Internet to your computer.
Of course, a double VPN does have security benefits – but these are minimal. And a double VPN results in a potential loss of speed.
Though a double VPN is beneficial for a small percentage of users, the loss in speed should steer most people away (which will segue into the next section).
Both NordVPN and AirVPN are available on Windows, Mac, Android, iOS, and Linux. NordVPN allows for six simultaneous connections while AirVPN allows for five.
Performance and Speed
A VPN is going to inherently slow down your non-VPN connection since you are literally adding a middle-man located thousands of miles away. But a good VPN can minimize your speed loss with well-optimized servers, a well-balanced network, and servers located in geographically ideal locations.
There are two quick caveats before I discuss general speeds.
First, both these providers have a heavy presence in Europe. I live (and conduct my tests) from Atlanta, Georgia, USA. I try to test comparable servers (ie, use the same server locations for both) but both have a bigger geographic lag than with other VPNs.
Second, both these VPNs place a big emphasis on zero logging. They don’t even log bandwidth or time stamps. That’s good from a privacy perspective, but it can also be bad for network stability since they don’t have as much insight on server spikes & usage. They both provide real-time user tools to get users to self-select high-performing servers. But – it’s not something they can control or even nudge. Here’s AirVPN’s speed board.
Either way – both AirVPN and NordVPN are affected with inconsistent speeds. Here are my baseline non-VPN speeds –
Here’s NordVPN’s best speeds – only about 52% of non-VPN bandwidth despite the low latency –
Here’s AirVPN’s typical first test connection –
Yeah…not so good. So let’s reconnect!
Performance & use is also affected by the geographic spread of servers across countries. If you are trying to access geo-restricted content in the UK…and there is no server in the UK, then you are out of luck.
Additionally, if you are primarily on the other side of the world as the closest VPN server, then your speeds are always going to have a built-in lag.
NordVPN has servers located in over 58 countries. They also have a high raw number of servers to choose from if one is lagging. With just a little switching around you’ll find one with a fast connection…if you are near where their servers are clustered.
That’s because NordVPN’s servers are mainly clustered in Europe rather than spread across the globe.
So – NordVPN has a decent country count…with a caveat.
That said – AirVPN currently has servers in only 15 counties. All of these are in Europe plus a few servers in the United States, Canada, and Hong Kong. Note the distribution on their charts –
Like I mentioned in the Features section caveat – there is a tradeoff between convenience and control. Some people want to be able to turn every knob and every setting. Some people just want their software to work. Some want a balance.
Overall, NordVPN tries to allow for some customization while also having the straightforward setup of other VPNs.
Signing up requires only an email address. Create a disposable email for even more privacy.
After sign up, you’re sent an activation link. The next step is to download the client, create a name and password, and you’re good to go. It’s that easy and painless.
The NordVPN client is extremely straightforward, no matter the platform. It’s created with utmost simplicity in mind to better appeal to beginners.
The AirVPN client is much more complex. It’s fully open source design not only lends itself to increased customizability but also gives you the ability to conduct an independent audit.
If you are expecting a simple sign up…you are in for a frustrating experience. I covered it in my full AirVPN review, but here are a couple snapshots of my signup process.
AirVPN’s user interface is one of the most fully featured VPNs on the market…it’s also a bit of a pain for the average user.
It’s a better choice for advanced users while NordVPN is undoubtedly a better choice for beginners.
There’s a big divide between these two VPN providers when it comes to customer support.
NordVPN offers 24/7 support via support tickets & knowledgebase. They take the traditional company approach of top down customer support.
AirVPN has much slower response times. With only an email system in place, responses often take several hours.
That said – AirVPN’s “thing” is not typical top-down company customer service. They have a *very* active forum filled with active, dedicated customers willing and able to help fellow customers out. AirVPN has more of a community feel than a company support feel.
On that note, NordVPN’s support has many of the issues & non-issues of typical company support. There are horror stories floating around online – some anecdotal, some seemingly legit. I haven’t had any issues, but they also don’t seem to put a ton of investment into their support channels either.
AirVPN isn’t plagued by any of these issues. The online consensus is that while their professional support is often slow, it’s nothing but friendly, knowledgeable, and professional. Additionally, the community is usually helpful and they have customers annotating their FAQ section frequently.
A plethora of resources are available on both company’s websites. Both maintain community forums, although AirVPN’s leans heavily towards the technical side (and comes with the jargon).
If you are a DIYer & comfortable with community support, then you’ll likely find AirVPN to be a fit. If you are more accustomed to typical customer support, then NordVPN will be a better fit.
The target audience of NordVPN and AirVPN is surprisingly different.
NordVPN caters much more towards the casual, everyday VPN user…who also prizes privacy-focused features. The entire service is simple, straightforward, and has privacy features that at least sounds good – like the no-log policy and double-encryption setup.
AirVPN takes a more complex, fully-featured route. Their service is tailored for a more experienced VPN user that wants greater customizability and control.
With that said, both NordVPN and AirVPN can be used for the same applications, such as staying secure on public Wi-Fi, P2P file sharing and torrenting, and accessing streaming entertainment content like Netflix in geo-restricted areas.
Lastly, NordVPN and AirVPN have a tilt toward Europe / Asia over the Americas in server locations.
Conclusion: NordVPN or AirVPN?
Though they’re fairly different services, each is effective at what it does. Both VPN providers also get consistently high rankings from all of their users.
If you – like the ethos & mission of AirVPN; you prize complete control & customization; or you simply don’t mind DIY / community support, then you should go sign up for AirVPN here.
If you – like a cleaner, simpler setup; you prize higher performance; or want dedicated customer support, then you should sign up for NordVPN here.
Kudos on securing your digital life – be sure to consistently use whatever VPN you sign up for :)