It's 2020, and concerns over online privacy are graver than ever. In all the madness, you've likely heard about Virtual Private Networks, or VPNs. These services can be used in a number of ways to protect your privacy, and give you access to a safer online experience.
However, what many don't realize is that a good VPN can also offer some handy benefits that make your online experience a little more enjoyable. From unblocking content to saving money, these services have hidden depths that are certainly worth investigating.
We had a chance to talk with a number of VPN experts, including Ruby Gonzalez, Head of Communication at NordVPN, to discuss exactly what these helpful services can and can't do. Take a look at what they had to say, and start taking advantage of these innovative security services.
In This Guide:
What is a VPN?
The basic idea behind a VPN is to create a private, encrypted ‘tunnel’ that connects your computer, smartphone, or tablet directly to a secure VPN proxy server. This, in turn, connects you to the rest of the internet.
The VPN server hides your true IP address, making it impossible to trace the connection directly to you. With all traffic to and from your device secured, no one can snoop on your activity or hijack your connection.
To use a VPN, you basically need two main things: an account with a VPN provider, and a VPN ‘client’ on your device. The latter is a utility or app that you install on your PC or mobile device that you use to make the connection.
As far as what they're used for, that's a completely different discussion. As you can see from the graph here, VPNs are most commonly used to access entertainment content that might be blocked due to geographic restrictions, but there are quite a few other reasons why people might utilize them.
What Can a VPN Help You to Do?
Not so long ago, VPN technology was mainly used by businesses, only. A VPN allows separate sites of the same business to connect to the same local network, or to allow employees to work securely off-site, while still connecting to the company servers.
This sort of business-use still widely happens. But, VPNs are rising in popularity with personal users deploying them for a all sorts of reasons, including:
- Protecting against government or ISP monitoring
In the wake of 2017’s repeal of Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) internet privacy laws, a VPN could be used to prevent government agencies from freely monitoring your internet activity, and stop internet service providers (ISP) from collecting personal information about you without your consent.
- Masking your identity or location
If you don’t want others to know where you are connecting from, you can use a VPN to make it look as if you are connecting from somewhere else.
- Protecting yourself on public hotspots
Public wi-fi hotspots can leave you vulnerable, as poor security means your data could be intercepted. This is why it’s a bad idea to do your online banking in a coffee shop, for example. VPNs solve this risk by providing encrypted connections that are protected from prying eyes.
- Using geo-locked services
Want to watch Netflix while you’re on holiday abroad? A VPN can make it look as if you’re still connecting to sites and services from within the US. Likewise, if you needed to use a services that was restricted to users from another country, a VPN could make it look as if you were connecting from within the country you need. Not all VPNs connect to Netflix successfully, as the streaming giant tries to detect VPNs and block their access. Some, however, are successful, so read our guide to the best VPNs for accessing Netflix to see which we'd recommend.
- Avoiding bandwidth throttling
Some ISPs throttle your bandwidth – restricting the speed of your connection – if you use certain websites and services, such as video-streaming services. With a VPN, your ISP wouldn’t be able to tell which services you were using, so couldn’t know to throttle your connection. However, doing so could be a false economy, as there can be some slowdown when using a VPN, anyway.
- Carrying out illegal activities
A VPN isn't a licence to carry out illegal online activities. However, plenty of maliciously-minded types attempt to use them this way. Because of the anonymity offered by VPNs, it’s possible for people to use them in order to carry out activities that could otherwise get them into hot water, such as downloading copyright-protected material from peer-to-peer file-sharing sites.
If you haven't traveled internationally in recent years, you might not realize that some of your favorite streaming services are a whole lot different in other countries. Whether it's because of licensing deals or censorship laws, Netflix, Hulu, and many others feature entirely different catalogues of content from country to country. Luckily, VPNs are here to save the day.
“Many services like to restrict their content exclusively to people in certain parts of the world, and if they travel – tough luck,” said Gonzalez. “A VPN, however, will let you bypass geo-restriction. Simply set your location to your country of origin to enjoy the content as if you were browsing from home!”
As we mentioned above, unblocking content is the number one use of VPNs around the world. A good VPN will let you hide your IP address and connect to servers in other countries, so that streaming services function as if you're in those countries. And considering no country has more than half of the content available in North America, it's safe to say a VPN is necessary if you're hoping to continue watching your favorite shows.
Obviously, there's nothing worse than having your latest binge session spoiled by an overseas trip. But what about all that content you're missing out on when you're back home? A VPN will also allow you to access content from other countries that might not be available in the US, which opens up your bingeing potential substantially.
While all this might sound a bit shady as far as legality is concerned, don't worry. The practice is certainly against the terms and conditions set forth by Netflix – which does allow them to “terminate or restrict your use of our service” – but there are currently no laws in the US that prohibit the use of VPNs to stream content.
VPNs Protect Your Privacy
There's no denying the dire state of online security in the modern age, particularly when you consider that 74% of Americans are limiting online activity due to privacy concerns. While it might not be the most popular reason people use VPNs, protecting your privacy is definitely the most well-known reason behind the proliferation of these services.
While it's far from a cure-all, a good VPN can put up some sturdy roadblocks that protect your personal information from being stolen. But how exactly does a VPN protect your privacy online?
“When you use a VPN, it redirects all the data you send and receive through a particular VPN server,” said Gonzalez. “This change has two main benefits: it encrypts all the data, and it replaces your IP address. The result? It gets much more challenging to track what you do online or steal your passwords. You're safer from your internet service provider, government snoopers, pesky advertisers, identity thieves, and hackers.”
If you're new to VPNs, that probably sounds like a lot of tech jargon. Encryption and replaced IP addresses may sound like unnecessary measures for the everyday user, because some of these services actually cost money. However, the practical applications of this technology are hard to ignore as far as privacy is concerned, particularly when you consider just how crafty hackers are getting as technology evolves.
“While it doesn’t cross many travellers’ minds on a regular basis, it’s actually really simple for hackers to set up a fake malicious network and pretend to be ‘Free Airport Wi-Fi network' or ‘Starbucks Wi-Fi',” said Paul Lipman, CEO of consumer cybersecurity company BullGuard, in an interview with Tech.co. “A personal VPN allows you to avoid putting yourself at risk while connecting to an unknown network. Don’t take the risk when you don’t have to.”
No, not every public wifi network is a trap. But the peace of mind that comes with using a VPN when you're surfing at a local coffee shop is enough to put you at ease the next time you log into your personal accounts outside of your private network.
You Can Save Money with a VPN
Here's where VPN use gets a bit more niche. Protecting privacy and accessing blocked content are both quite popular, but did you know that you can also save money on flights and hotels with a VPN? It's all in the geographic location!
“Airlines use dynamic pricing, which means they increase and decrease airfares depending upon the country you are visiting from,” said Rameez Usmani, Digital Marketing Executive at PureVPN, in an interview with Tech.co. “With a VPN, you can find cheap flights by changing your current location to a virtual server in another country.”
How cool is that? VPNMentor even did a comparison between flights found through a USA server and an Indian server, and the prices are clearly different, as you'll see below. Granted, the difference isn't substantial, but when it comes to traveling, saving every bit of money counts.
VPN Flight Comparison – click to expand
An even better way to save money with a VPN is to utilize a free one. Unlike many other similar services, the VPN market is filled with completely free options that can give you the basic protections and features of many of the paid models. However, as is typically the case with free services, there's a catch.
“One of the things to remember about free VPNs is that if you’re not paying for it, then it’s likely that you are the product,” said Steve Fallin, Senior Product Manager at NetMotion Software, in an interview with Tech.co. “Part of the business model for these freemium consumer VPNs is often to log and sell your data. When you use that kind of VPN, you’re putting a lot of faith in people who have access to all of your data.”
The idea of utilizing a free VPN to improve your online security is a bit of an oxymoron. While you might be protecting your information from hackers, you're also offering it up willingly to a VPN provider that may not have the best security practices. Simply put, you're trading one aspect of your online security for another, and that doesn't make a lot of sense.
Free VPNs are also typically riddled with bugs and often don't offer some of the sweeter perks, like access to Netflix. If you're looking into a VPN, a free option truthfully can be more of a risk than not using one at all – so you're better off finding something in your price range, rather than rolling the dice on a free plan.
What Can't a VPN Do?
We've learned a lot about what a VPN can do, but what can't a VPN do? There are a lot of misconceptions about VPNs, particularly in the US, where usage numbers are some of the lowest in the world. So to quickly set the record straight:
“No one is completely 100% anonymous or safe online, even if you have a VPN, an antivirus, a reliable firewall, and other security tools,” said Gonzalez. “If you give up your personal data on social media, or reuse the same passwords on all your accounts, you can still be tracked or fall victim to a cybercrime.”
Unfortunately, VPNs are but a small part of a flawless online security strategy. They can't protect you against viruses, and they can't improve your password strength. If you want a rock-solid guarantee that your personal information is safe online, you're going to need to utilize antivirus software and password managers, and always observe security best practices any time you use the internet.
Additionally – and we can't believe we have to say this – but engaging in illegal activity is still illegal if propagated through a VPN. Anonymity does not absolve you of any legal obligation to your home country, and you can still be prosecuted, regardless of the status of your VPN. We just thought you should know.
What VPN features should you look for?
Without getting too technical, here are the key features that you should consider when choosing the VPN that’s right for you:
- VPN Prices
Obviously, value for money is a chief consideration. Most VPNs have a charge system that’s monthly or yearly, with better deals depending on how long you’re willing to commit. Cheap services aren’t always best but, equally, paying top dollar doesn’t guarantee you features that you’re sure to need. Free VPNs are rarely the smartest choice – they can leave you with poorer speeds, sketchier privacy policies, and annoying adverts.
- VPN Speeds
Some VPNs are better than others when it comes to maintaining a fast connection when enabled. You’ll typically lose some speed, but this could be anything from 5% to over 60%, depending on the server location and how busy it is.
- Security and Privacy
Using a VPN doesn’t make you completely invulnerable. It’s best to choose a service that uses strong encryption, for example. Some VPNs also provide additional built-in anti-malware protection. And watch out for VPNs that log your data and online activity themselves – free services can often be guilty of this.
- Supported VPN Protocols
Not all VPNs use the same protocols for connecting. The best ones support a protocol called OpenVPN – a type of connection that uses secure (SSL) encryption.
- Other VPN features
Do you need a VPN that provides a mobile app, as well as a PC-based client? And, if you need to be able to choose a different country as your location when browsing, you’ll need to choose a VPN with servers in that country.
Will VPNs Slow Your Internet?
Using a VPN may affect the speed of your internet connection, but how noticeable this is depends very much on the service you use.
Free VPNs tend to be slower than paid-for services. But, even some paid-for VPNs can make browsing the web and downloading files noticeably slower. This is can happen if there are too many users and not enough servers, though some VPNs are also guilty of throttling bandwidth.
Free VPNs tend to be slower than paid-for services
Other issues that can affect your internet speed include heavy encryption, which can hog your device’s CPU, and the physical distance between you and the VPN service’s servers.
For example, if you’re based in the US, you may find your internet is far slower if you choose an international server for your VPN connection. Try picking a US-based one for a speed boost, without unduly sacrificing your privacy.
Are VPNs Legal?
VPNs themselves are legal to use. But, it’s possible to use one to carry out activities that aren’t. Here at Tech.co, we in no way endorse any illegal activities that may be conducted via a VPN. Our reviews and recommendations will never prioritise services that offer to help users conduct such activities.
Even some activities that seem relatively harmless – such as using a streaming service abroad – may constitute a breach of contract for the service. For instance, Netflix's terms of service state that you should only access the service from within the country where you created the account.
It’s also worth noting that the country the VPN company is legally based in determines the regulations you may need to abide by.
Should You Pay For a VPN?
To answer this question, it depends on how much you’re going to use the service, and the level of features you need. Free VPNs tend to be pretty bare-bones affairs, with little in the way of extra features.
Many free services don’t support the safest connection protocols. Some may even log your browsing activities, which could present a privacy problem.
Free VPNs tend to be pretty bare-bones affairs and don't support the safest protocols
The quality of service can be a problem with free and ultra-cheap VPNs, too. You may find there are limits imposed on the amount of data you can download or upload, for example. Or, you may find that server bottlenecks and speed-throttling affect your speeds.
Since free VPN providers need to make their money somehow, you may also find that you have to put up with intrusive ads.
The good news? You don't have to spend much to get a great VPN. See our guide to the Best Cheap VPNs to see our recommendations for VPN services that cost less than a cup of coffee per month.
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