The simple act of connecting to a website these days is like navigating iceberg-laden waters. We don’t see 99 percent of what happens when we go online. If we could see it all, the view would be pretty scary.
We’d see internet service providers (ISPs) (the very companies that give us our internet) scooping up our browsing histories en masse, hordes of cybercriminals prowling in the shadows, and firewalls curtailing our movements left and right.
Sound grim? Well, we don’t mean to scare you. But you may want to consider spending a few bucks each month for your own virtual private network, or VPN.
What’s a VPN?
Just to be clear, a VPN isn’t a magical sword. It won’t vanquish Instagram impostors or keep hackers from infesting your apps. It won’t necessarily even keep ads and viruses off your desktop computer or smartphone (though some do). You should probably look into an ad blocker or top-of-the-line antivirus software for that.
But the right VPN will do two things faultlessly: It will encase your internet connections in ironclad tunnels so that no one can get inside, your ISP included; and it will encrypt any data you send — from emails and files to simple requests to visit websites — so that if anyone does manage to break in, all they’ll walk away with are oodles of gibberish.
What does that mean for your everyday internet safety at home and on the go? A ton.
Did You Know: An ordinary cybercriminal would have better odds at counting all the atoms in the universe than decrypting VPN traffic.
How VPNs Keep You Safe
VPNs Protect Against Cybercrime
When you’re at home, the odds are pretty good that hackers aren’t lined up outside your router with their safe-cracking gear, rubbing their hands together and waiting for you to log in to your bank account. The average personal network just isn’t that interesting a target to cybercriminals, who are usually looking for bigger hauls.
But your odds of running into a fraudster skyrocket when you’re out and about and connecting to unprotected networks with your mobile devices. Like public restrooms, public Wi-Fi networks can be pretty dirty places.
Say you’re sitting at Starbucks nursing your Iced Toasted Vanilla Oatmilk Shaken Espresso. If you’ve been to that particular Starbucks before, your iPhone will probably connect to the Wi-Fi network automatically.
While you’re checking out the latest on TMZ, a hacker sitting in the park across the street — a professional who’s used a decoy SSID, or network name, that looks just like Starbucks’ to fool your phone into connecting to their evil access point — is now stealing all the passwords, photos, and emails off your phone. If you’re like most of us, you won’t know a thing — not until you’re locked out of all your accounts or you get a ransom note demanding a sum of money you don’t have.
This is just one of many modes of attack in the cybercriminal’s arsenal, but it’s one of the most common. Apple Macs and iPhones, Windows devices, Android smartphones, and even laptops running Linux are vulnerable.1
Fortunately, guarding against SSID attacks is simple. Install a VPN on your phone, and set it to connect automatically whenever you’re outside the house. A VPN won’t allow your phone to connect to a dirty network, and it will translate any data you send while you’re sipping espresso at Starbucks into the equivalent of Klingon.
Fun Fact: If you actually were sending emails in Klingon (a.k.a. tlhIngan Hol), you might not be safe. Not anymore. Per The Verge, Klingon is not only taught on Duolingo, you can now use the fake Star Trek language to communicate with Microsoft’s Cortana.2
VPNs Keep Snoopers off Your Devices
You may not have to worry about cybercriminals busting into your router at home, but your ISP is another story, and it goes like this.
Every second of the day, we produce a trove of personal data simply by searching for stuff in our browsers. And we hand it over for free to our ISPs, who got carte blanche from the U.S. government to collect it back in 2017.
If all our ISPs did with our search histories was hoard it, fine. But they don’t. They make a mint selling it to advertisers and data brokers, who use it to reengineer our online behavior.3
If you don’t want to fill your ISP’s already gold-lined pockets with even more gold, you don’t have to. Rerouting your website traffic through a VPN will put the kibosh on the legal surveillance market for good. With one of the best VPNs, you can usually secure up to six household devices at once so that the whole family can surf anonymously.
VPNs Let You Decide What You Watch and Share
VPNs aren’t all about saving us from a world overrun by cybercrooks and corporate snoops. You can use a VPN to access and stream content too.
This doesn’t have to mean anything as elaborate as sneaking past the Great Firewall, though there are VPNs that specialize in bypassing censorship. (VyprVPN is one of the best, and we’ve got a full report on VyprVPN’s chameleon protocol.) Maybe you just want to access a georestricted website or watch your favorite Netflix series.
If you’ve ever spent any time in Europe, you’d know that you can’t access a number of U.S. news sites because of the General Data Protection Regulation, which went into effect in 2018. With a VPN, you can flash those sites a bona fide U.S. IP address and slip right in.
The same goes for streaming georestricted content (that you pay for already). Missed season 3 of “Ozark” when it was still playing in New York? You might be able to find it playing in Germany, as long as you have a VPN that works with Netflix.
Finally, when you surf the web with a VPN, you won’t have to worry about your ISP canceling your internet service if you indulge in the occasional torrenting binge. That’s because with a VPN, your IP address can’t be traced back to your home. Check out our top VPNs for torrenting for more on that.
VPN Tip: If a streaming service like Netflix detects too much traffic coming from a particular IP address, they’ll ban it. If that happens to you often, you might consider either switching VPNs or paying for a static (personal) VPN that no one else but you can use.
VPNs Secure IoT Devices
The world is getting smarter. We have smart fridges, smart locks, smart sensors, and smart cars. Some of us live in smart homes. As it is now, we connect to our smart devices via the internet, usually using apps on our smartphones. For example, your smartphone talks to your thermostat over Wi-Fi.
We could be at home on our network or at a restaurant using theirs. If our Wi-Fi connection isn’t secure, the conversations our machines are having are an open book to the outside world.
Your average grifter probably isn’t going to be interested in changing the temperature in your fridge. But do you want thieves casing your home by hacking into your home security cameras?
This isn’t science fiction, by the way. The cybercriminals who paralyzed the entire East Coast in 2021, in the notorious Colonial Pipeline ransomware attack, snuck into the network with a stolen password. Once they were inside, they took control of Colonial Pipeline’s operational technology; i.e., their machines. Hackers gaining control of our machines is only a little less scary than a machine taking control of itself.
And, as we saw above with ISPs, there’s more at stake than just your physical security. Alexa is IoT too. We wouldn’t want Jeff Bezos sifting through our dinner conversations to flesh out our Amazon profile.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that if you want to hide the conversations in your smart home, you can do it. All you need is a best-in-class VPN. Just make sure you don’t stop with your PCs or even your router (if you like to get your hands dirty). Be sure to secure any mobile devices where your smart apps live.
VPNs Give You Flexible Connections
There are cases where you don’t want a VPN or can’t use one. You might want to browse local restaurants, for instance, while streaming video in another country. Or the opposite. You might want to browse local content in another country while streaming HBO Max, which is only available in the U.S.
But it might not be a case of accessing content at all. Many banking apps don’t like VPNs. Likewise, if you’re connecting to work remotely, your company’s server might not allow you to connect via a VPN.
And that’s OK. The best VPNs are flexible and have a special feature called split tunneling that lets you pick which apps and URLs pass through your encrypted tunnel and which connections are open.
FYI: Has a thief ever gotten one of your passwords? It probably wasn’t because they hacked your phone. It’s more likely that you gave it to them by accident via a clever phishing or smishing (SMS phishing) attack.
How to Choose a VPN
Now that we know why we should all be connecting to the internet with a VPN, the question is, which VPN should we be using? I won’t lie; the market is cheek by jowl with tempting out-of-the-box VPN solutions. (We know. We’ve tested most of them.)
I can’t cover all our favorite VPNs here, but I can give you a checklist of the features and capabilities to look for when you’re shopping for yours. Here are the top six, in no particular order.
VPN Tip: We already mentioned a few good reasons for adding a VPN to your digital routine, but that’s just scratching the surface. For a deeper dive into VPN privacy and streaming features, check out our complete VPN buyer’s guide.
VPNs are known to slow down internet connections, sometimes considerably. So when you’re shopping for a VPN, pay attention to the speed tests in reviews, especially if your download speeds are 100 Mbps or slower. Also, look for VPN providers with speedy “lossless” protocols. (Protocols, by the way, are the instructions that determine the speed and security of your connection.) Two VPNs with fast proprietary protocols are NordVPN and Hotspot Shield. Read more about NordVPN’s blazing-fast NordLynx protocol in our NordVPN review.
Secure DNS Servers
Vulnerable servers are like poorly guarded banks. A seasoned hacker can tap in and take what they want. Some VPN companies, like ExpressVPN, own and maintain all their servers; others rent them out. You should find a VPN provider that takes DNS server security seriously.
According to a new study from Deloitte, the average American home has 25 connected devices, up 38 percent from before the pandemic.4 Most VPNs offer protection for five to 10 simultaneously connected devices. If you have a full house, consider a VPN provider that can accommodate all of your devices.
Did You Know: ExpressVPN is a double hammer against cyber goons. They use immaculate server technology, reducing data leaks to just about nil, and they’re based in the British Virgin Islands, which means snooping governments can’t touch them. Read the full story in our hands-on ExpressVPN review.
When you use a VPN, you hide your browsing history from your ISP (and anyone else that’s snooping). But your VPN provider can technically keep tabs on you. If they happen to be based in a country under the jurisdiction of the Fourteen Eyes,5 they could be forced to hand over that info to the authorities in the worst-case scenario. So privacy purists should be looking for VPNs that are exempt from international intelligence sharing agreements. Here’s a short list: NordVPN (Panama), ExpressVPN (British Virgin Islands), CyberGhost (Romania), ProtonVPN (Switzerland), and VyprVPN (Switzerland).
Ease of Use
VPNs for technical enthusiasts exist. (Windscribe VPN is one of them. If you’re curious, we spent quite a bit of time testing Windscribe.) But, frankly, most of us are just looking for a VPN that’s smooth, low-maintenance, and user-friendly; in other words, a VPN that we can leave running in the background without a second thought. How can you get a feel for that without purchasing a subscription? Most top VPNs give you a free trial of some kind. Take advantage of those. Play around with the dashboard. Set up a tunnel. If it feels good and has all the features you need, that’s a good sign.
Finally, the average cost of a top-rate, all-in-one VPN is about $8 or $9 per month. But you can find stripped-down VPNs — good ones — for as low $1.67 per month.
As with every other piece of tech you integrate into your digital world, the VPN you choose is going to boil down to your personal needs. Do you want a gorgeous app packed with extras that will make it easier for you to stream, download, and game (NordVPN)? Or do you want a hardcore privacy tool with a handful of toggles that you can turn on and forget about (VyprVPN)?
Like I mentioned above, there are plenty of options. The good news is that securing your network is doable on a reasonable budget, whatever VPN you pick.
FYI: You need a download speed of at least 25 Mbps to stream HD video. So if you’ve got a 60 to 100 Mbps connection and you’re afraid a VPN will tank your speed, don’t worry.
VPNs aren’t the only tools you need to secure your digital life. Antivirus software is still the safest bet for keeping malware off your devices. Strong passwords will go a long way to keeping hackers out of your accounts. And just being vigilant will foil the average phishing or smishing attack.
But if the internet is an ocean — and in many ways it is — a VPN is your first line of defense against the bad guys, sealing off your data from grifters and safeguarding your privacy from the snoopers who think providing you with an internet connection is the same thing as having the right to monitor it.
Will a VPN protect me from viruses and malware?
Some VPNs have built-in malware blockers, but a VPN’s primary function is to encrypt and protect your data. The best protection from malware is plain old antivirus software.
Will a VPN slow my internet connection down?
To a degree. When you run your connection through a VPN, you will notice a drop in speed. But unless you’re doing heavy downloading or you have a very slow connection, it shouldn’t affect your day-to-day online activity too much.
Can a VPN keep me safe from cybercriminals?
Yes. VPNs route your internet traffic through safe servers via impenetrable tunnels, and they also encrypt your data. That means that even if a hacker got their mitts on your data, they wouldn’t be able to do anything with it.
How can a VPN protect me against phishing attacks?
Unfortunately, it can’t. Being vigilant against email and SMS fraudsters is on you and Gmail.
Can criminals break through VPNs?
Technically, yes. Give a thief a big enough computer and enough time and money (we’re talking millions of dollars), and they’d probably be able to bust through your tunnel. But the odds of that happening are minuscule, so rest easy.
Aireye. (2021). The SSID Stripping Vulnerability: When You Don’t See What You Get. aireye.tech/2021/09/13/the-ssid-stripping-vulnerability-when-you-dont-see-what-you-get/
The Verge. (2014). Microsoft teaches Cortana to speak Klingon. theverge.com/2014/10/3/6900339/microsoft-teaches-cortana-to-speak-klingon
FTC. (2021). A Look At What ISPs Know About You: Examining the Privacy Practices of Six Major Internet Service Providers. ftc.gov/system/files/documents/reports/look-what-isps-know-about-you-examining-privacy-practices-six-major-internet-service-providers/p195402_isp_6b_staff_report.pdf
Deloitte. (2021). 2021 Connectivity and Mobile Trends Survey . deloitte.com/us/en/insights/industry/telecommunications/connectivity-mobile-trends-survey.html
SafeHome. (2022). Everything You Need to Know About the 14 Eyes.