Do VPNs really have all the servers they claim in exotic locations all over the world?
In many cases, the answer is no.
The true location of some VPN servers may be entirely different. In other words, a server that is allegedly in Pakistan is actually in Singapore. Or a server that should be in Saudi Arabia is actually in Los Angeles, California. (Both are real examples from below.) This is known as spoofing the true location.
Why is this important?
First, the performance may suffer if the actual server is significantly further away. Second, it’s bad if you are trying to avoid certain countries (such as the UK or US) where the server may be located. Third, customers aren’t getting the true server locations they paid for. And finally, using fake server locations raises questions about the VPN’s honesty.
In this article we’ll take a deep dive into the topic of fake VPN server locations. The point here is not to attack any one VPN provider, but instead to provide honest information and real examples in order to clarify a confusing topic. We will cover four main points:
- VPN server marketing claims
- Fake server locations with ExpressVPN (11 are identified)
- Fake server locations with PureVPN (5 are identified, but there are many more)
- How to test and find the true location of VPN servers
But before we begin, you might be asking yourself, why do VPNs even use fake server locations?
The incentives are mainly financial. First, it saves lots of money. Using one server to fake numerous server locations will significantly reduce costs. (Dedicated premium servers are quite expensive.) Second, advertising numerous server locations in a variety of countries may appeal to more people, which will sell more VPN subscriptions.
Here’s how that works…
My, what a larger server network you have!
Most of the larger VPN providers boast of server networks spanning the entire world. This seems to be the trend – they are emphasizing quantity over quality.
Take Hidemyass for example and their server network claims:
“We have 720+ vpn servers in 320+ locations in 190+ countries around the world, and we offer over 93,000 + ip addresses.”
If you think there are physical servers in 190+ countries, I have a bridge to sell you!
Upon closer examination of Hidemyass’s network, you find some very strange locations, such as North Korea, Zimbabwe, and even Somalia.
But reading further, it becomes clear that many of these locations are indeed fictitious.
Hidemyass refers to these fictitious server locations as “virtual locations” on their website. Unfortunately, they do not have a server page available to the public, so I could not test any of the locations. The Hidemyass chat representative I spoke with confirmed they use fake “virtual” locations, but could not tell me which locations were fake and which were real.
PureVPN is another provider that admits to using fake locations, which they refer to as “virtual servers” – similar to Hidemyass. (We will take a closer look at PureVPN below, with testing results for the servers that are not classified as virtual.)
ExpressVPN also boasts of a large server network. Unlike with PureVPN and Hidemyass, ExpressVPN does not admit to using fake locations anywhere on its website. The ExpressVPN chat representative I spoke with claimed that all server locations were real. (This was proven through testing to be false.)
Just like with Hidemyass and PureVPN, testing results show that ExpressVPN is using fictitious server locations, which we will cover in detail below.
Testing VPN server locations
With free network-testing tools, you can quickly find the true location of a VPN server. This allows you to cross-check dubious server locations with a high degree of accuracy.
For every VPN server examined in this article, I used three different network-testing tools to verify the true location beyond any reasonable doubt:
- CA App Synthetic Monitor ping test (ping test from 90 different worldwide locations)
- CA App Synthetic Monitor traceroute (tests from various worldwide locations)
- Ping.pe (ping test from 24 different worldwide locations)
First, I used this ping test, which pings the VPN server from 90 different worldwide locations. This allows you to narrow down the location with basic triangulation. In general, the lower the time (ms), the closer the server is to a given location. Pretty simple and accurate.
Second, I ran traceroutes from various locations based on the results in the first test. This allows you to measure the distance along the network to the final VPN server. With ExpressVPN, for example, I could run a traceroute from Singapore and find that the VPN server is about 2 ms away, which means it is also located in Singapore.
Third, I used another ping test to again ping the VPN server from different worldwide locations. This tool also includes traceroutes for each location (MTR).
Note: When running traceroutes or ping tests, you may have some outlier test results due to different variables with the network and hops. That’s why I recommend running multiple tests with all three of the tools above. This way, you will be able to eliminate outlier results and further confirm the true server location.
With every fictitious server location found in this article, all three tools strongly suggested the exact same location. If there was any doubt, I did not label the server as “fake” below.
ExpressVPN server locations
In the map below you can see many of their southeast Asia server locations in red boxes. These are all the locations that were determined to be fictitious after extensive testing, with the actual server being located in Singapore.
ExpressVPN does not make any of their server URLs publicly available. So to obtain the server URL, you need to have an ExpressVPN account, then go into the member area and download the manual configuration files.
In total, I found 11 fake VPN server locations with ExpressVPN.
In addition to Pakistan, here are the other fictitious server locations found with ExpressVPN:
- Sri Lanka
PureVPN server locations
PureVPN has quite a few fake server locations.
On the PureVPN server page you find that many of the servers begin with “vl” which seems to stand for “virtual location”. You find two different types of these prefixes: vleu (which probably stands for virtual location Europe) and vlus (which likely means virtual location US). Every “vl” location I tested was indeed fake (or “virtual” as they like to call it).
But I also found that many of their non-virtual locations are also fake, such as Aruba and Azerbaijan in the screenshot above.
Here is one example:
PureVPN’s Azerbaijan server (United Kingdom)
The ping test clearly shows this server location to be in the United Kingdom – in close proximity to Edinburgh.
Furthermore, the ping times for Turkey (which is close to Azerbaijan) are much higher than the UK.
The server location is already clear; it is located in the UK.
But to further verify the location beyond doubt, I ran a traceroute from Edinburgh, UK to the “Azerbaijan” server:
At around 2 milliseconds, this server is without a doubt in the United Kingdom, not Azerbaijan.
In addition to Azerbaijan, I also found four other fake “non-vl” server locations with PureVPN:
- Saudi Arabia
Note: I did not spend much time testing PureVPN server locations because it was clear that many locations were fake. Consequently, I only chose five examples for this article.
Conclusion on fake VPN server locations
Dishonesty is a growing problem with VPNs that more people are starting to recognize. From fake reviews to shady marketing tactics, false advertising, and various VPN scams, there’s a lot to watch out for.
Fake VPN servers are yet another issue to avoid. Unfortunately with all the deceptive marketing, it can be difficult to find the true facts.