Our digital security experts break down exactly what a VPN is and why you might need it if you're using public Wi-Fi networks.
Learn about using virtual private networks to shield your identity, access blocked content, improve download speeds, and more.
VPNs were first developed for businesses that wanted secure file access for remote users. Now VPNs are common in homes and on smartphones worldwide. This guide can help you understand why VPNs are popular, what to look out for, and which VPN companies could best meet your needs.
What Is a VPN?
VPN is an acronym for virtual private network. A VPN lets you securely access the Internet over public networks (café Wi-Fi, for example) and from home. Breaking down the definition:
- Your VPN is a private network because you’re the only one with access. Your privacy is protected with a new IP address, data encryption, and the routing of your activity through various servers. It appears to webmasters as if your traffic is coming from a different location.
- Your network is virtual because the intermediary servers aren’t in your physical possession; you access them over the web.
The best VPN companies let you choose from servers in dozens of countries. You can make it look as if traffic originates in your own country or from elsewhere. Why would you change locations? That’s explained in parts of the next section, “Why To Use a VPN.”
Why Use a VPN?
A VPN can be useful for many reasons: protecting passwords, defeating censors, increasing download speed, and more. Here’s a rundown of benefits.
Safely Use Wi-Fi Hotspots
When you go online in public, it’s wise to use more protection than you would at home. The main risk of joining public Wi-Fi is getting intercepted by hackers. Basically a hacker can collect your information – your bank login, for example – before it reaches its intended destination. Immediately they could try a bank account takeover and other identity fraud. A VPN dramatically reduces the risk of interception. Furthermore, it ensures that even if your data is stolen, it will be encrypted and therefore probably discarded by the thief.
In lieu of a VPN you could use your smartphone’s hotspot instead of public Wi-Fi… but that gets expensive. A VPN is a more affordable everyday solution, as well as one with more benefits.
Enhance Privacy At Home
Surfing from home is safer than using public Wi-Fi. Even so, your home Internet use isn’t private even if you clear your browser history. Your data is logged by your Internet service provider (ISP)… and a US federal law passed in 2017 lets ISPs sell your data!
The information is supposed to be sold in anonymized form only. However, as reported at FTC.gov, by 2019 the Federal Trade Commission suspected that major ISPs were selling sensitive data. Targets of their probe are AT&T, Comcast, Google Fiber, T-Mobile, and Verizon.
Some VPN companies sell data too, but choosing a high-quality VPN lets you keep your computer activity private. Some of the best VPNs that don’t log your data are ExpressVPN, NordVPN, IPVanish, and Surfshark.
Access Your Computer Remotely
As mentioned above, VPNs were first developed for corporate reasons, letting workers have secure remote access to files. With your own VPN, you can securely access your home or business computer from anywhere in the world. This can be more convenient and secure than loading important files onto flash drives, plus a VPN lets you remotely run your desktop computer’s programs.
Websites can use geo-blocks, or geographical blocks, to restrict traffic from certain parts of the world. A VPN lets you bypass geo-blocks by routing your traffic through a server outside of your area.
Copyright is a common reason for websites to use geo-blocks. For example, after a Hollywood movie runs its course in US theaters, the producer might let Netflix stream it to US audiences. Meanwhile, if the movie is still new to theaters in other countries, then Netflix may be required to apply location-based blocks. When you travel, a VPN could let you use Netflix as if you were in the US.
Important: If using Netflix or another streaming service like BBC iPlayer or Hulu is among your reasons to choose a VPN, then make sure the specific service can be accessed as you expect. Netflix and others have managed to defeat many VPNs! As of 2020 some of the best VPNs that can bypass Netflix geo-blocks are ExpressVPN, NordVPN, and Surfshark. These providers can not only bypass blocks, but also allow high-quality streaming (i.e., without the frustrations of buffering and time-outs).
Price manipulation is another reason for websites to geo-block. That is, a company can set its prices based on where you live. Regional price differences are fair in some cases. For example, it costs a company more to employ home healthcare workers in Manhattan compared with Phoenix…. but in the case of digital goods like online video games, regional differences may seem unjustified.
Australia is often a target of geoblocking for price manipulation, and thus VPNs have surged in popularity among Aussies. (Also contributing to VPN popularity in Australia is the fact that local ISPs have been required to collect metadata since 2017.) Using a VPN, you might find that some of your favorite companies advertise different deals depending on where people apparently live. Knowledge can be power!
Some other online providers that use geo-blocking are Airbnb, Amazon, bank websites, and gambling websites. The best VPNs let you tunnel past geo-blocks with ease; you can change your virtual location with one or two clicks.
Increase Internet Speed
The best VPNs can improve your download/upload speed. That’s because Internet service providers typically limit traffic and speed. It’s common for ISPs to slow down your connection when they realize that you’re downloading a large file or streaming video, and this can make it difficult or impossible for you to simultaneously use other open tabs. A VPN solves this problem because your ISP can’t detect your full bandwidth use. Furthermore, using a VPN may noticeably improve your device’s power conservation.
Web censorship takes many forms. For instance, before getting a VPN, this reviewer experienced low-level censorship at a California coffee shop: I couldn’t access a winery’s website because the shop manager had restricted access to “adult” sites. Now with a VPN, I can access winery tour hours without Mr. Coffeeshop snooping or intervening.
A much wider-scale example of web censorship is China with Facebook. The Chinese government banned Facebook after the platform was used for anti-government organizing… yet with VPNs, anyone can access Facebook without restrictions.
In short, a VPN can help you defeat censors. Not every VPN can necessarily dodge a specific censor, however, so do research before choosing a VPN for this purpose. If you want Facebook access from China, for example, then some good choices are ExpressVPN, NordVPN, and Surfshark. IPVanish is also a favorite VPN for accessing Facebook and other government-blocked sites.
Avoid DDoS Attacks
DDoS refers to distributed denial of service. As Cloudflare explains, with DDoS the perpetrator remotely installs malware on many computers, and then has those computers simultaneously request information from the targeted site. This results in the denial of service to traffic on a specified list of IPs, which may include yours. With a VPN you can set a new IP anytime to bypass DDoS attacks.
Any website can be a victim of DDoS attacks. A prominent example is from 2013 when attackers hit the anti-spam service SpamHaus. This type of cyberattack is also known to especially plague gamers. A VPN lets you quickly get a new IP address to resume play without DDoS interference.
Split Tunneling and Other Special Services
Some VPN companies offer unique services for free or a nominal fee. One example is Surfshark, which offers a 99 cents/month HackLock service to monitor for email leaks and let your surf without targeted ads or targeted search results. A second example is split tunneling, available from Express VPN and other leaders. With split tunneling, you can simultaneously use your ISP for some traffic and your VPN for another.
Yet a third special feature is the kill switch. It helps protect your identity in case your VPN connection is dropped and your device automatically reconnects. Without this service, your real IP would likely be shown at reconnection.
Are VPNs Legal?
Generally, VPNs are legal in the USA and most other countries. The US Federal Trade Commission even has a webpage advising consumers about choosing trustworthy VPNs. Overall the FTC recommends using a VPN but cautions consumers to research VPN companies carefully. Their caution is based on a report that many VPN companies sell data logs, insert frustrating pop-up ads, and are otherwise not the best solutions for computer security. Our VPN reviews can help you choose from high-quality options.
Of course, using a VPN doesn’t make all Internet activity legal. You remain bound by local laws. If you download or upload pirated content, for example, you could be held liable even with a virtual private network.
Disclosure laws apply in many countries (Canada, France, Ireland, Russia, the UK, possibly in the US, and more). This means that people working for the VPN company may be required to disclose activity to law enforcement. Also, be aware that so-called patent trolls can populate file-sharing networks. If you share pirated material, then they might forward your activity to authorities. When you first get a VPN you can try a DNS leak test to help ensure that your actual IP isn’t easily determined. If you choose a VPN with a free trial period, then you can quickly cancel your deal. Obviously though, it’s best to choose a leak-proof VPN from the start. NordVPN is among those that promise to be leak-free.
Outside of the US, you may be legally restricted from VPN use. China, Russia, Iran, and the United Arab Emirates are some examples of countries that permit VPN use with government-approved providers only. Generally, the approved VPN companies comply with government censorship regulations and anti-privacy laws, so they may be useless depending on your reasons for using a VPN. Using a non-approved virtual private network could result in a hefty fine and other punishment. In the United Arab Emirates, the potential punishment is a six-figure fine plus jail time.
Some countries ban VPNs altogether. Just a few examples in 2020 are Belarus, Iraq, and Oman.
Before using a VPN, be sure you know the legal consequences for use.
Are VPNs Easy to Use?
A VPN can be simple to use. First, you’ll install the software, which makes it especially important that you choose a trustworthy provider. Then with some VPNs, you can shield your IP and encrypt your Internet connection with just a couple of clicks. If you prefer, you can choose a more complex VPN that lets you choose from lots of settings or protocol. One VPN protocol could be better for streaming Hulu, for example, and another would optimize efforts to bypass government censorship. Read on for details.
What Are VPN Protocols?
Given the varied reasons for using a VPN, most VPN companies let you choose from two or more protocols for encrypting data. Basically encryption adds packets of code before and after your data, and different protocols use different code. While one option might allow faster downloads, another might be even more secure.
Typically you can easily move from one protocol to another. Here are five top choices:
- OpenVPN is a popular VPN protocol that balances security and speed. As the name suggests, the code is open-source. This lets OpenVPN code be vetted continuously by the security community. The protocol allows fast connection speeds from many platforms.
- IKEv2 is Internet Key Exchange Version 2. It uses code that usually puts relatively little power demand on your CPU compared with OpenVPN, so downloads can be fast. This VPN protocol is popular with mobile VPN users because it can quickly establish a new connection point when your device automatically joins new 3G and 4G networks. Also, IKEv2 can resist unauthorized network changes.
- PPTP is another common choice. The acronym stands for Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol. It allows ultra-fast connections but has relatively low encryption for a VPN protocol. PPTP isn’t a good option if your reason for using a VPN is bypassing government surveillance.
- L2TP is Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol. It’s more secure than PPTP but brings somewhat slower connection speeds. Sometimes L2TP isn’t best because its fixed ports can be blocked, but generally, it’s popular when high security is needed.
- SSTP, or Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol, is Windows-friendly only. SSTP can be a good alternative to L2TP when the latter struggles with firewalls.
Drawbacks of VPNs
Are there drawbacks of using VPNs? Yes, but when VPNs are legal, the potential drawbacks can be minor. One example is that you’re in the US but posing as a Canadian IP-wise because you work remotely with a Toronto company. If you take a break from working online to do some cyber shopping, then you’ll see Canadian prices unless you adjust your VPN. Not a big deal! Another possible downside is that your Internet speed could be slowed by encryption… yet it might be increased if the VPN lets you break free of Internet throttling. There may be other drawbacks to using a VPN but generally, they outweigh the risks of proceeding VPN-free.
What To Look For With a VPN
As explained above in this VPN guide, different VPN companies offer different protocols. You might want to choose a company that can dodge blocks imposed on BBC iPlayer, Facebook, Google, Netflix, Wikipedia, or another specific website…or maybe you just care about eliminating activity logs or improving download speed from work or P2P connections. After reviewing the sections above, you can make a list of your VPN priorities.
Next, when comparing VPN companies, here are ten top questions to answer:
- What is the price per month, and can you sample the service for free? Typical rates are about $3 to $12 per month. The longer your service agreement, the cheaper the price. Often free trials or money-back guarantees are available.
- How can you pay for the VPN? You can pay for a VPN just as you’d buy many other products/services online, e.g., with a credit or debit card or PayPal. Additionally, many VPNs let you pay with anonymous cryptocurrency, gift cards, Amazon Pay, Google Pay, and other options.
- Does the company assign the same IP to multiple users? For example, IPVanish advertises that it distributes 40,000+ shared IPs amongst its users. IP sharing can be beneficial because it makes it more difficult to pinpoint a particular user’s online activity.
- How strong is the encryption? Common types of encryption are described above. Sometimes you’ll want stronger encryption, and sometimes you’ll want speed. Generally, these are trade-offs.
- How far is the VPN server from the server you want to access? The answer will affect your web speed.
If you want to stream European content to Kansas, for example, then it’s probably best to choose a company that has servers in the city of origin, on the east coast of the US, and in a city near you.
If you choose from top-rated VPN brands, then speed shouldn’t be a problem; the leaders each maintain thousands of server options.
- How many of your devices can connect at once? Some VPN providers restrict your access to one device at a time. Others let you use multiple devices simultaneously.
- How is customer support? When problems or questions arise, you’ll want a VPN company that helps you quickly.
- What special features are available? You might want a static alternative IP, split tunneling, or other special features. Make sure the services you want are available, as VPN perks vary significantly from company to company.
- How is the interface? The best virtual private networks are easy to manage from your desktop and/or mobile devices.
Finally, of course, you’ll want a VPN that’s honest. It’s best to choose brands recommended by non-partisan reviewers. It’s easy for hackers to add honest-looking products to the market, then slip you Trojan horses and other malware.
Which VPN Companies Are Best?
This guide has explained ways that some VPNs could be better than others. Sometimes it depends on whether you want a VPN primarily for privacy, security, work efficiency, or entertainment… but with a small minority of companies, you can get the best solution no matter what. Check out our favorite VPNs: