VPNs are a necessity for anyone heading online these days, right up there with firewalls and antivirus software. Consequently, most of us have some familiarity with this tool; even so, not everyone knows just how many uses a VPN actually has. Below, we give you a crash course in what they do, how they work, and why, if you don’t have one, you definitely need one.
What Does a VPN App Do?
A VPN protects your privacy when you’re online. It hides your location, conceals your personal data, and ensures that no one knows what you’re doing. One way or another, we can all think of good uses for technology like that.
Wait, What Is a VPN?
If you check our guide to VPNs, you’ll discover that the letters stand for virtual private network. You’ll also learn that a VPN is an encrypted tunnel between your device and a network. Really, then, the secret is encryption. By encoding your IP address and all of your web traffic, a VPN hides everything you’re up to online in unreadable code so you can surf with complete anonymity.
What Exactly Do VPNs Hide?
Basically, the encrypted tunnel of a VPN hides two important categories of information:
- Web activity: First, it conceals all of your online behaviors. This means no one can see where you go or what you do online. As an added bonus, the VPN also encrypts any information you send or receive, so whether you’re uploading a sensitive work file from home or checking your bank balance, you can trust that everything is safe and secure.
- IP addresses: In addition to your web activity, a VPN also encrypts your IP address, the marker that identifies your computer and its location. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, for anyone to connect your online activity to you specifically.
Why Do You Need a VPN?
You may already have a sense of what a VPN app can do and how it can be useful. Let’s break VPN uses into four categories:
- A VPN protects your identity. Identity theft is a big business these days. Hackers look for any way to steal information about you; then, they use that information themselves or they sell it to the highest bidder. They value most your PII (personally identifiable information), meaning any and all information that might be used to identify or impersonate you. This can include:
- Social Security numbers
- Birth dates
- Biometric data
By encrypting all of this information, a VPN ensures that even if hackers somehow accessed it, they’d never be able to make sense of it.
- A VPN protects your privacy. It might be obvious that if a VPN protects your identity, it protects your privacy. Hackers aren’t the only people looking to spy on you, though. If you log on through a typical ISP (internet service provider), you’re also subject to surveillance by government agencies. Using a VPN ensures absolutely no one can see your online behaviors.
- A VPN allows you to bypass restrictions. Whether you’re a Chinese dissident trying to support reform, a student at a major university logging on to an LGBTQ+ website that’s being filtered, or an employee playing solitaire on his coffee break, a VPN can hide what you’re up to. Whatever the particular restriction, logging on to a VPN helps you get around it.
- A VPN allows you to access more streaming service libraries. Most of us use at least one streaming service these days, and many of us use half a dozen or more. Not everyone realizes, though, that many streaming services like Netflix offer different content in different countries. These different libraries are generally locked away so Americans can’t see what the Brits are watching, and the Brits can’t see what the Canadians are watching. With one of the best VPNs for Netflix, though, you can connect to the internet with an IP address from virtually any country in the world and unlock all this great content.
Have another favorite streaming service? Whether you’re looking for the best VPNs for Hulu, the best VPNs for Prime Video, the best VPNs for YouTube TV, or the best VPNs for Disney+, our reviews can make your search easier.
How Do VPNs Protect Against Identity Theft?
The whole point of a VPN is to encrypt your internet connection and hide your data and online behaviors within a secure tunnel. That protects your identity in several ways. The tunnel hides:
- All of your PII
- Activities such as purchases and bank transactions
- IP addresses
- All of your online behaviors
Why Do You Need a VPN on Your Mobile Devices?
Maybe it’s because a cellphone is portable, or maybe we use it more frequently so it just seems like too much trouble to worry about it. Whatever the reason, people don’t think as often about their security when they’re using cell phones. In fact, there are just as many reasons, if not more, to use a VPN on your mobile devices than to use one on your PC.
- Protect sensitive data. Your mobile device contains just as much sensitive data as your laptop or PC. In fact, it may contain more, since it constantly monitors your movements.1
- Eliminate vulnerabilities. Often, your mobile device is even more vulnerable to spying than your other devices, since you may use it more frequently on public Wi-Fi networks.
- Access streaming services. A VPN on your mobile device allows you to do all the same things you can do on your PC or laptop. You can access more streaming content, avoid government spying, and visit restricted websites.
- Safeguard connections. Most of us regularly move information back and forth between our phones and our computers. A VPN makes sure both sides of that connection are protected.
Do You Need a VPN on All Your Devices?
It’s a good idea to install and use your VPN on all your devices. After all, any device that connects to the internet is ultimately vulnerable to spying and hacking. Luckily, most reputable VPN services offer protection for multiple devices for one price. That makes it easy to protect yourself no matter which device you happen to be using at any given time.
What Types of VPNs Are There?
While most people use remote access VPNs, there are actually three different types of VPNs:
- Remote access: The most common VPN connection, remote access VPNs connect a user to a secure remote server.
- Site-to-site intranet: In this case, users on different LANs (local area networks), connect to one another securely through a shared WAN, a wide area network. For instance, employees in one branch of an office can communicate safely with employees at another branch.
- Site-to-site extranet: A site-to-site extranet VPN creates a secure channel between two separate intranets without allowing users on either side to access data from the other. This can be particularly useful if employees from two separate companies are collaborating on a single project.
How Do You Set Up a VPN?
In most cases, the easiest way to set up a VPN is by downloading a program directly from the company’s website.
- Visit the website of the VPN you’ve chosen.
- Subscribe to the VPN on the order page.
- Pay any necessary fees.
- On the download page, choose the download file for your operating system.
- Once the download is complete, install the software.
- Adjust the VPN’s settings to suit your needs.
- Log into your account.
- Choose the server you want to connect to.
- Click Connect.
You can also manually set up a VPN. How you do so will vary depending on what kind of device you’re using.
- Go to Start/Settings.
- Choose Network and Internet.
- Choose VPN.
- Choose Add VPN.
- Click on the dropdown menu beneath VPN Provider.
- Choose Windows (built-in).
- Give your connection an identifying name under Connection Name.
- Enter the server’s address (available from your chosen VPN).
- In the dropdown menu below VPN Type, choose Connection Protocol.
- In the dropdown menu below Type of Sign-in Info, select the method appropriate to your VPN.
- Click Save.
- The VPN you’ve just set up will now appear in your VPN list.
- Choose your new VPN and click Connect.2
- Go to Apple Menu.
- Go to System Preferences.
- Choose Network.
- In the list at the left, pick the Add button.
- Click the Interface pop-up menu.
- Click Choose VPN.
- Choose the VPN Type pop-up menu, and decide which kind of connection you are setting up (based on your chosen VPN).
- Give the VPN service you’re setting up a name. Choose Create.
- Enter the server address and account name (available from your VPN).
- Choose Authentication Settings, and type the authentication information (available from your VPN).
- If necessary, enter the Advanced settings, and type in information such as the TCP/IP settings, DNS servers, and proxies.
- Choose Apply.
- Choose OK.3
To install a VPN on an Android:
- Open the Settings app on your phone.
- Navigate to Network & Internet.
- Navigate to Advanced.
- Choose VPN.
- Tap the plus sign in the top right corner.
- Enter the required information (available from your VPN).
- Choose Save.
- To connect, return to the Settings app.
- Return to Network & Internet.
- Choose Advanced
- Choose VPN.
- Select the VPN you want.
- Enter the username and password (available from your VPN).
- Choose Connect.4
- Using your Safari browser, download the VPN configuration file from your chosen VPN.
- Close the Profile Downloaded pop-up.
- Under your device’s settings, navigate to General.
- Navigate to Profile.
- Choose the name of your VPN.
- Choose Install and enter your device passcode.
- When a warning pops up, choose Install.
- When installation is complete, choose Done.
- To connect to a VPN, return to Settings.
- Navigate to General.
- Choose VPN.
- In the VPN menu, select a server and move the toggle to On.5
- Log in to your router by entering your IP address into your browser’s search bar.
- Some routers will already be configured for VPN. If not, use your router guide to reconfigure the settings to direct traffic to a VPN server.
- If your router is configured, enter the necessary log in information (available from your VPN).
- Your router should now direct traffic through your chosen VPN.
- To get out of the VPN, log in to the router once again and change the configuration again for normal operation.6
Tip: Installing a VPN on your router allows you to protect all of the devices on your network. It also helps you bypass VPN restrictions on how many devices you can use with a single subscription.
How Do You Set up OpenVPN?
Some users may prefer to install OpenVPN directly onto their device rather than use a VPN company. The following set of steps can take you through that process:7
- Retrieve the necessary OVPN, or OpenVPN configuration files, from your VPN service provider.
- Unzip the configuration files.
- Find the correct client installer for your device at OpenVPN.net.
- Install the client.
- Launch the OpenVPN GUI application.
- Copy all the OVPN configuration files you downloaded before into the Config subfolder in the OpenVPN installation folder.
- To connect to a service, look in the application folder for the OVPN files.
- Finally, change the OpenVPN settings to suit your particular needs for the software.
What Makes Online Privacy So Important?
From the beginning, the internet community has seen the world wide web as a private space and have fought to keep it free, accessible, and open. Many users see it as the last great haven of free speech, a place where anonymity should be guaranteed to those who seek it. Others point to its value as a site of political resistance in countries where free speech can be punished with jail or worse. Some even worry about U.S. government surveillance through the Five Eyes, Nine Eyes, and 14 Eyes organizations. For those who feel this way, a VPN offers important protection for freedom and liberty.
Why Do IP Addresses Matter?
An IP address is the one piece of information that absolutely identifies your device. When you are online, all your activity can be tracked by your IP address. Assuming you aren’t using a VPN, your home ISP or a public Wi-Fi provider has probably assigned that address. Who assigns it to you is less important than the fact that law enforcement can always trace it back to you and you alone. When you sign on to a VPN server, however, that server issues you a new address that is anonymous and untraceable.
How Do You Choose the Right VPN?
There are a number of important factors to consider when deciding which VPN is right for you:
- Encryption tools and protocols: In order to guarantee your privacy, a VPN needs to use strong encryption tools and protocols. In general, you should look for companies that use AES-256, military-grade encryption. In addition, OpenVPN is the gold standard among VPN protocols and offers the best protection.
- Kill switches: Your VPN should be able to shut down your browsers and apps immediately if you lose your connection.
- Multi-hop technology: Many of the best VPNs route your internet traffic through at least two separate servers, encrypting it multiple times for greater security.
- Split tunneling: Another useful feature some VPNs offer is split tunneling, which allows you to connect to the regular internet and a VPN at the same time.
- Torrenting support: Some VPNs also provide you with easy connections to torrenting apps and software (for more, see our page on using VPNs to torrent).
- Support for streaming services: If streaming is important to you, you should check which VPNs allow you to access content libraries in other countries.
- Speed: While every VPN slows your devices down to some extent, look for software that slows them down as little as possible. One way of checking speeds is to compare ping, upload and download speeds on a device running a VPN to the same device when it isn’t running the VPN.
- Price: Price can vary considerably among VPN services, with some even offering free connections. In addition, many companies offer large discounts when you sign up for long-term contracts. Prices generally run around $4 a month, with the most expensive VPNs costing as much as $15 a month. Besides the price, carefully consider what you’re getting for the money. For example:
- How many simultaneous connections do you get with one subscription?
- How many different devices can you install the VPN on?
- What data usage limits, if any, does the VPN impose?
Choosing the right VPN can involve a great deal of research. To save time, visit our guides, which include lists of the best Android VPNs, the best iPhone VPNs, the best Mac VPNs, and the best Windows VPNs.
FYI: A VPN company’s location can affect the privacy they offer. Companies located in Five Eyes, Nine Eyes, or 14 Eyes countries are subject to U.S. subpoenas, for example.
How Do Free VPNs Compare to Paid VPNs?
Free VPNs need to make money in one way or another. Depending on how legitimate they are or not, they may:
- Sell your private information
- Send you ads and spam
- Route traffic through your computer, using resources and bandwidth
- Record your usernames and passwords8
Even if you’re using the most reputable free VPN, though, you’ll likely find that it limits:
- How many devices you can use
- How much data you can send each month
- Which servers you can access
- What speeds you can achieve
What Are the Potential Privacy Concerns of VPNs?
When it comes to privacy, there are three elements of a VPN you should be concerned about:
- Encryption: Encryption is the means by which a VPN creates privacy. Assuming they
use military-grade AES-256 encryption and OpenVPN protocols, you should be able to trust that your data, including your IP address and browsing history, is safe and secure.
- Location: Finally, you should always check out where your VPN is headquartered. If a company is located in one of the Five Eyes, Nine Eyes, or 14 Eyes nations, government agencies and law enforcement can subpoena the company’s customer data. There are, however, exceptions to this general rule. A company in the U.S. with a policy that states they don’t log IP addresses, time stamps, or online activity, for example, won’t have anything useful to turn over should the government subpoena them.
How Does a VPN Work?
A VPN is an encrypted tunnel through which you connect to the internet. While your data is in the tunnel, your IP address and online activities should be completely hidden from others. Typically, you log on to your chosen VPN through an app or a client installed on your device.
Most VPNs maintain hundreds or even thousands of servers located in countries around the world. When you log on to the VPN, you connect to a particular server, and that server issues an IP address which masks your actual IP address. Everything you do in the VPN tunnel is attached to that anonymous address. Additionally, the VPN tunnel itself hides all of your activity beneath a layer of encryption protocols so that even if someone were able to see that activity, they’d be unable to decode it.
What Is Encryption?
In the simplest terms, encryption means encoding information, and it’s a technique for concealing data that dates back hundreds of years. Simultaneous encryption, the foundation for most of today’s VPN encryption, actually dates back some 2,500 years to the Greeks’ Caesar cipher.9 Essentially, simultaneous encryption means a message is encoded using a key and only the sender and receiver possess the key to decode it. VPN encryption is built on this system, but it uses far more complex encoding methods than Caesar could have dreamed of, such as:
- AES encryption: The complexity of the encoding cipher determines how hard the code is to crack. The current standard in ciphers is AES encryption. Developed for use by the U.S. military in the early 2000s, AES involves separating text into a series of grids and then scrambling the grids. AES divides data streams into 128-bit chains of cipher blocks. The “key” to deciphering these chains can be 128, 192, or 256 bits long, each progressively harder to break.10 The best VPNs typically use AES-256 to encrypt user data.
- Public key encryption: The danger with symmetric encryption is that someone will discover the key to the cipher. This key is especially vulnerable when one side sends it to the other. Public key encryption solves this problem by using separate encryption and decryption keys. The VPN server uses a publicly accessible key. The user, however, has their own private key for decrypting the data.
- Transport layer security: VPNs use transport layer security (TLS) to authenticate both sides of the VPN connection. TLS ensures that a hacker or spy can’t pretend to be the user or the server in order to steal the key. Typically, a VPN uses TLS encryption when a user first connects.
What Are Protocols?
Internet protocols are the instructions a VPN follows for transmitting information across its network. There are a number of available protocols for a VPN to choose from, each with its own pros and cons.
- PPTP is one of the fastest VPN protocols
- The PPTP protocol has been in use since the mid-1990s,11 which has given hackers time to learn its weaknesses. While it provides some security, it cannot stand up to a serious hacking attack.
- Because it is an open-source software, OpenVPN is free to use.
- The broader internet community regularly tests OpenVPN to make sure it is bug-free.
- No specific company created OpenVPN, so there’s no chance it contains any backdoors that might allow the government to spy on users.
- OpenVPN’s heavy encryption means it doesn’t run as fast as other protocols.
- Developers created WireGuard to be a faster alternative to OpenVPN.
- Like OpenVPN, the protocol employs open-source software, so anyone can test it.
- WireGuard has only been in use since 2019, so the open-source community hasn’t had a lot of time to rigorously test it.12
- The L2TP protocol is a relatively fast protocol.
- L2TP double encapsulates data sent through the VPN tunnel, making it safer than PPTP.
- L2TP must be used in conjunction with IPSec in order to be secure.
- L2TP uses UDP, which makes it easy for sites to block it.13
- SSTP uses military-grade AES encryption.
- The protocol gets past most blocked sites because it looks like normal HTTPS (secure) web traffic.14
- SSTP could include backdoors because Microsoft created it, so it has not been subject to free and open testing.
- IKEv2 is faster than OpenVPN.
- This protocol is difficult to set up on the server end; inexperienced VPN companies can make mistakes.
Firewalls can block it.
Can I Be Tracked Online While Using a VPN?
The point of a VPN is to prevent you from being tracked while online. The very name virtual private network explains that your connection is meant to be private. In addition, a VPN is designed to encrypt both your IP address and your web activity within a secure tunnel. However, the VPN itself could, if it wanted to, see what you were doing. After all, it has access to all the tools it uses to encode your data. That said, reputable VPNs guarantee they don’t monitor or record your online activities.
Are VPNs Legal?
VPNs are absolutely legal for use in the United States. That said, it is certainly possible to practice illegal behaviors while using a VPN. Downloading copyrighted material through a torrent, for example, is against the law, and while a VPN should protect your identity while you’re downloading the content, the activity remains illegal. In addition, there are a number of countries where VPNs are illegal, including:
- United Arab Emirates
What Are the Limitations of VPNs?
Not all VPNs are created equal, and each comes with its own positives and negatives. You might be able to log on to Disney+ on one VPN, for instance, and not on another. One VPN might offer multi-hop technology, while another VPN does not. In addition, some VPNs place limits on:
- How many devices you can install the VPN on
- How many simultaneous connections you can have
- Your connection speeds
- Which servers you can access
- Which torrenting apps and streaming services you can access
- How much data you’re allowed to use per month
Will a VPN Slow Down My Connection?
Every VPN slows your internet connection to some extent. The process of encryption uses devices’ resources. Typically, when using a VPN, your device will slow down in three important areas: ping times, download times, and upload times. The best way to check your VPN’s speeds is to test these speeds when the VPN is running against the same times when it is not.
Are There Any Alternatives to Using a VPN?
While VPNs are the best known and most convenient way of hiding your online activity, they are not the only technology that can do this. Other options include:
- Smart DNS: Like a VPN, when you route your internet traffic through a smart domain name server, that server disguises your location. You can use Smart DNS to unlock geo-blocked websites. However, unlike a VPN, a DNS does not encrypt your online activity, only your domain name.
- Proxies: Proxies work like Smart DNS, except where Smart DNS only conceals your DNS, proxies also conceal your IP address so you can’t be tracked online. Proxies are different from VPNs, though. Specifically, proxies differ from VPNs, because they don’t encrypt your online activity.
- Lantern: An alternative to VPNs that is growing more popular, Lantern is an open-source software application that uses a peer-to-peer network to create internet connections. As a result, your location can’t be tracked, because it is mixed with other users’ locations.
- Psiphon: The Psiphon app actually uses VPNs, but it has other evasion techniques it can switch to if the VPN should fail. For instance, it might employ SSH or an HTTP proxy.
- Tor: The encrypted browser Tor is also becoming increasingly popular. When you connect to a website, Tor bounces your internet signal off multiple network nodes, which obscure what you’re doing online.
- Operating systems: Some operating systems, including Tails, Whonix, and Qubes, protect your internet connection in the same basic way a VPN does, but you don’t have to purchase a VPN to get the encryption.
- Mobile apps: There are a variety of mobile-only apps on the market that work like VPNs, Tor, and similar programs, such as Orbot, Orfox, and Firechat.16
A VPN app provides you with an encrypted tunnel through which to access the internet. This encryption hides your IP address and conceals your online activities, giving you complete anonymity as you surf the web. There are, of course, a number of solid VPN companies out there, each offering a unique set of features, from split tunneling to access to streaming libraries around the world. You can narrow down your choices, though, by checking out our complete list of the top VPNs. Once you’ve found one you can trust, a VPN offers an affordable way to make sure hackers and government agencies can’t spy on you.
Frequently Asked Questions
Below, we’ve got even more answers to some of your most common questions about VPN apps.
Can you be tracked if you use a VPN?
You can be tracked through some VPNs but not through others. Assuming they don’t have any leaks, all VPNs encrypt your data so hackers can’t track you. However, the government could potentially track you if your VPN is headquartered in one of the Five Eyes, Nine Eyes, or 14 Eyes surveillance countries. However, if your VPN doesn’t log IP addresses, online activity, or time stamps, the government will have nothing to track you with.
Should I have a VPN on or off all the time?
You should have your VPN on all the time if security and privacy are important to you. Your IP address and data are only encrypted when it is on. However, leaving your VPN on all the time will result in slower connection speeds. If speed is important, you may prefer to switch back and forth between a VPN and the regular internet. Finally, some VPNs limit how much data you can use each month. In this case it might also be advantageous to turn a VPN on and off as necessary.
What are the disadvantages of a VPN?
The primary disadvantage of a VPN is slower internet connections. In addition, most VPNs charge for their services, whether the fee is monthly, yearly, or more. Of course, specific VPNs may have their own individual disadvantages:
- Inability to access blocked sites
- Shared IP addresses
- No split tunneling
- No multi-hop
- Inability to access some certain streaming services
Is a VPN illegal?
Using a VPN is not illegal in the United States, though breaking the law while logged on to a VPN is still breaking the law. In addition, some countries including Russia, China, Iran, Iraq, and Turkey have outlawed VPNs.
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