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Virtual private networks, also known as VPNs, are safe to use – provided you choose a reliable one. A VPN changes your IP address to effectively mask your computer's identity and disguise your browsing location.
Considering the fact that VPNs are illegal in some parts of the world and have a reputation for being used during cybercrime operations, it's understandable why you might think they're unsafe. But in reality, there's no risk to your device in using a VPN, and you're not using some back-channel version of the internet – it's the same web, just accessed over a different server.
Top VPN services offer a great way to protect your identity online and open up areas of the internet that could be blocked off to you because of your location. This guide explains what to look out for with a VPN, the benefits of paying for one over a free alternative (far less safe), plus everything you need to know about the safest VPNs currently on the market.
What is a VPN?
A VPN is a type of software that reroutes your internet connection and data through a private, encrypted server belonging to a VPN provider. The VPN servers do not log the data passing through their servers.
When connected, all of your data will appear to be coming from the IP address of the VPN server you connected to, not your actual IP address. This will enhance your privacy and make your activity hard to track, but will not make you anonymous.
Are VPNs Safe?
As we've covered in the introduction to this article, VPNs are safe to use. The actual technical process of rerouting your connection through a reputable provider's server won't put you at risk. However, there are some important points to remember:
- VPNs are not legal everywhere in the world. In a country where VPNs are illegal, it won't be safe to use a VPN. For more information on the legal status of VPNs in various parts of the world, check out our VPN Legality Guide.
- Not all VPN providers are equal. Using a reputable VPN provider like NordVPN won't cause you any problems – but some shady VPNs actually engage in data logging practices and will happily sell your data to other companies, while others don't secure their networks and leave their users exposed to threat actors.
- VPNs do not make you invincible. When you're using a VPN, you don't have a license to carry out illegal activities or commit crimes.
Are free VPNs safe?
If you're using a free VPN, you could be taking a gamble with your online security.
Explore the terms and privacy policies of any free VPN, and you'll probably spot a clause that means agreeing to sign off on some degree of your privacy. This could be as simple as targeted advertising that will interrupt your browsing experience, or could even be as egregious as sharing your own bandwidth with other users – we're looking at you, Hola VPN.
Hola appears an attractive free VPN on the surface, offering a VPN as a browser extension, without charge. However, in order to provide this service, it allows its premium users to piggyback off your own bandwidth, which not only affects your speed but also means that there are people using your bandwidth for nefarious or illegal purposes.
A decent VPN can be had for a few dollars a month, and most take your online security seriously, without logging your activities or storing your data.
Other free VPNs are simply too limited to offer true security. The Opera Browser, for example, offers a built-in VPN. This is great for giving you a degree more privacy while browsing online. However, it won't cover all of your online activities – only what you're doing in the browser. The rest of your connection to the web is happening as usual, with all the privacy concerns that may raise.
Are VPNs safe for online banking?
A VPN can be a useful way to carry out banking safely when using a WiFi network you're not familiar with.
When you're at home however, and using your own ISP connection, there shouldn't be any real need to use a VPN for this purpose.
If you're away from your trusted home connection, and using a public WiFi network, such as at a coffee shop or store, than accessing your bank through a VPN is a smart choice. This gives you an extra layer of protection to ensure that any nefarious activity on the open network won't be able to intercept your details.
Remember, VPNs aren't just limited to use on a desktop or laptop. The best VPN services all have tablet and smartphone apps, too. And using a VPN on a phone while out and about has its own security implications – see our guide to Using a VPN Safely on a Phone for more.
Are VPNs safe for business?
VPNs are not only safe for businesses, but they're highly encouraged in the current era of online security. With cyber criminals targeting small businesses in hopes of gaining access to customer and employee data as well as trade secrets, protecting your company from security breaches is an essential strategy for long-term success.
However, you can't just ask your employees to get any old VPN. You definitely don't want to just send out a memo that says “download whatever VPN you like,” and hope that secures your company's network. No, there are specific business plans from reputable VPN providers that can help you ensure the security of your business.
Take note that you'll probably want your IT department to take control of this. They'll be able to more effectively manage accounts through admin control panels provided by VPN companies, making your business's online security more of a centralized system than a random shot in the dark.
It's important you pick a secure business VPN now more than ever – a number of IT professionals have noted that business VPN attacks have been on the rise in the last few months.
Why businesses should use a VPN
Now that you know that VPNs are safe for businesses, it's important to understand just how important it is for your company to utilize one to improve security. For one, security breaches are a real threat in 2023, and doing everything you can to protect your company data is vital.
In fact, with remote work becoming such a common occurrence at businesses during – and likely after – the pandemic, security gaffs have risen substantially.
This is where a VPN really shines. If you're working at home or even in a coffee shop, a business VPN will completely encrypt your online activity, protecting you from anyone trying to access the network. Particularly with a business account run by your IT department, you'll have the peace of mind that comes with your entire staff behind securely protected, no matter where they are.
How to use a VPN Safely
The best way to use a VPN safely is to have a good one like NordVPN, rather than more basic tools like Encrypt.me. If you like the idea of a VPN to protect your identity and keep your online activity private, follow the tips below:
- Use stealth servers. If you live in a country where VPN usage is tightly monitored or controlled, connect to a stealth (or obfuscated) server, as this will appear like normal traffic.
- Use a Kill Switch. Get a VPN with a Kill Switch. This means that if your connection to the VPN fails, your browser won't pick up on your standard connection, saving you from having your activity exposed.
- Check your provider's terms. Boring? Yes, but check the terms of the VPN you're considering to see what, if anything, they do with your data. The best won't log or collect anything at all.
- Use a VPN on Public wifi. When you sign up for a VPN, download its associated app too, to ensure you're protected on your tablet or phone when out and about.
For more, see our complete guide on How To Set Up a VPN
Benefits of Using a VPN
VPNs have a myriad of use cases and benefits, which you can take advantage of once you choose your provider and download the client for your device. VPNs will help you:
- Enhance your privacy on public wifi networks
- Unblock content not available in your country
- Skirt round draconian censorship laws
- Stop ISP bandwidth throttling
- Hide all of your data from your ISP
- Reduce your ping time while gaming
Some of the most advanced VPNs will also:
- Scan the dark web for credential leaks
- Alert you to suspicious websites
- Provide multiple secure encryption protocols
- Provide your with “security scores”
Limitations of VPNs
Now we've covered some of the benefits of using a VPN, but it's also important to know what VPNs can't do. It's good practice to know the limitations of any software product you're using, but if you live in a region governed by an authoritarian government, for instance, knowing what a VPN could save your skin one day. Most VPNs can't:
- Offer virus protection. Some VPNs, like Surfshark, can alert you to suspicious websites, but they can't prevent malware from entering your device's systems or flush it out if you're already infected.
- Make you anonymous. We've mentioned this before, but it's good to reiterate – VPNs enhance your privacy, but do not make you anonymous or digitally invisible in any way. There are still ways to track you while you use a VPN, it's just it makes it a lot harder.
- Hide that you're using a VPN. Most of the top VPNs on the market now offer obfuscated (or “stealth”) servers that scramble your VPN connection and make it look as if you're not using one. Some only offer this feature on specific protocols, however, while others don't have stealth servers at all.
Safe VPNs to Choose
A safe VPN service can connect you to the web securely. VPN security begins with choosing the right VPN. A proper VPN encrypts all your data, keeping it safe from snoopers and hackers.
A poor VPN, by contrast, gives a false sense of security – the worst services may even share your data with advertisers. Take no chances when it comes to choosing a VPN – put your trust in one of our recommended services, below, and you can't go wrong:
Lowest price for single month subscription to cheapest paid tier. Other plans are available.
Click to find the latest offers, deals and discounts from the VPN provider
BEST CHEAP VPN
$2.39 per month + 2 months free
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$4.99 per month
~$2.20 (3-day plan)
$1.00/month (5-year plan)
Industry-beating good value, with a single low price to cover all your devices, plus great speeds and top security features
Fast, effective, low-cost and simple – the best VPN we've tested, with risk-free money-back guarantee
A safe, simple, outstanding VPN
Outstanding value, with an advanced VPN app
Good VPN privacy at good speeds
A good, well-priced VPN
A decent option for expert users
A user-friendly VPN, let down by some speed loss
A powerful tool for expert users
Excellent privacy features for the security-minded
All of the above providers are safe VPNs maintained by reputable brands that take your security seriously. From our extensive testing, we identified three that stand out from the crowd.
NordVPN, IPVanish, and PureVPN combine great features with dependable speeds and easy-to-navigate user interfaces. Below, we give a little more detail on our top-choice VPN services:
You may worry that in order to get a safe VPN, you'll need to spend more. Surfshark proves this isn't the case – this is one of the cheapest VPNs around, but also, reassuringly, one of the most secure.
Low cost, high safety
Surfshark shames the competition when it comes to value. For just $2.49 per month, you can use Surfshark across an unlimited number of devices, and it works on Macs, PCs, iPhones, Android devices and even FireTV sticks.
In terms of safety and security features, Surfshark gives you everything you'd want in an easy-to-use package. It offers a choice of 3,200 global servers to choose from. There's an all-important killswitch function to make sure your data isn't exposed should the VPN ever pause. And, reassuringly, Surfshark holds firm to a “zero data logging” policy, keeping customers' privacy at the forefront.
Recently, Surfshark released Surfshark One, an all-in-one cybersecurity package that includes not only a VPN and an antivirus subscription but also a safe search tool (a search engine that won't track your searches) and a data breach alert function (which will notify you if your personal information appears in a breached database). The threat of being hacked or scammed is greater now than it has ever been before, so signing up to a provider prepared to cover all bases for just $3.49/month (just $1.19 more than a regular Surfshark subscription) is a shrewd move.
Try Surfshark VPN for yourself or see how it compares in our list of the Best Cheap VPN providers.
- Great value plans
- Unlimited simultaneous connections
- User interface is easy to navigate
- Excellent range of security features
- Surfshark One (VPN + antivirus, safe search & data breach alerts) for just $3.49
- Been around a lot less time than its competitors
- No fully free tier
- Competitors like NordVPN are quicker
- 'Fastest Server' isn't always fastest server
NordVPN takes your security very seriously. To begin with, it uses military-grade 256-bit AES encryption to protect your information, a great bonus if you're looking to use public WiFi networks without concern.
Additional VPN security features
As well as built-in malware blocking, NordVPN also features a Kill Switch option.
This will stop your browsing dead should your connection to the VPN fail, instead of continuing your activity on your ISP.
- Risk-free money-back guarantee
- Excellent mobile app for iOS
- Lightning-quick connection speeds
- Packed with useful security features
- Excellent value for money
- Couldn't unblock some streaming services
- Roughly half of the server network is located in US
Unlike some other VPNs, IPVanish has a policy of not logging your data. This means that records of your online searches and the websites you have visited won't be kept. Overall, it's a very safe VPN.
Secure but technical VPN
IPVanish has over 1,000 servers in 60 countries, and owns them all outright, rather than leasing them from third-party data centres. This means that your data is passing purely through IPVanish's systems, rather than a faceless third party.
It's a powerful VPN to choose, though arguably a little technical if you've never used one before. However, the privacy conscious will love the ability to deep-dive into the settings and features.
- Controls a proportion of its server network
- Solid privacy and security features
- Decent speeds
- Slightly intimidating user interface
- Hasn't made the switch to RAM servers
- Priced above some rivals
PureVPN is not only a capable and safe VPN in its own right, but also boasts an impressive suite of additional security features. One of these is Ozone, a tool that gives you content filtering tools, and has intrusion-detection features that alert you if someone is trying to hack into your PC.
Then there's a tool called Gravity. This is an ad-blocker that stops ads appearing during your browsing.
Simple but secure VPN
For VPN first-timers, PureVPN is also brilliantly simple to use. You don't have to delve into complex settings to get up and running, and there's support on hand, too. Best of all? You don't have to spend much – it's a great-value VPN.
- Effective privacy and security features
- Smart Mode-based approach
- Clear notifications
- Excellent value
- Not quite as fast as billed
- Doesn’t unblock Netflix unless you use the browser extension
Are VPNs safe and worth the money?
VPNs are legal in the vast majority of countries, but a VPN will only really be safe to use if you can be sure you're not going to get a knock on the door from the police simply for using one in the first place, regardless of your activity.
On a related note, while there are many safe VPNs out there, we'd advise staying away from free VPNs in general, which often don't have the resources or desire to keep their users safe. This is a no-brainer when you consider that paid subscriptions are just a few dollars a month – and it's better to be safe than sorry.
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