What is a VPN? What it does, how it works, connections
Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) are increasingly commonly used as internet users want to protect their privacy online and get around geographical restrictions. But what exactly is a VPN, and what does it do? Read on to decide if you should be using a VPN, and check out our list of recommended servers.
What is a VPN?
VPN stands for "Virtual Private Network". Connecting to a VPN while using the internet is a way of protecting your privacy online, as it makes it impossible for other users or programs to track exactly where, or who you are. You might think of it a bit like a PO Box; you can use a PO Box to send and receive mail, while keeping your location and identity secret.
How does a VPN work?
A VPN works by routing your online traffic through a remote server which is set up specifically for this purpose. Most VPN companies will have servers set up in different points around the world. When you connect to your VPN, you are connecting to one of their servers. Once this connection is established, they connect you to the internet.
Why do you need a VPN, and what is it used for?
If you're wondering why you'd need a VPN in the first place, you're not alone. And in fact, there are a variety of reasons that someone might want to use a VPN. The most common reasons are to improve privacy and security, and to get around geographic restrictions or censorship. In the first instance, people simply want to remain anonymous, and surf the internet without risking the trail of data they leave behind falling into the wrong hands. In the second instance, users in, say, China, which has strict internet censorship and blocks access to many western internet sites (this infrastructure is known as the Great Firewall of China) may use a VPN server to pretend they are actually in the UK so they can log into Facebook or Whatsapp.. Equally, VPN users in America may enjoy connecting to different servers around the world in order to watch localized Netflix shows which are not available in their country.
But these aren't the only reasons people use a VPN. A company who employs remote workers off-site may require their workers to connect to a customized VPN in order to gain access to the company intranet and resources, in order to keep content secure.
What kind of VPN should you choose?
With so many VPN companies around…. How can you know which one to choose? First of all, you have to define your requirements. Do you need multiple devices connected at the same time? Do you need servers in specific countries? Is download and upload speed a big issue for you? Do you require enhanced security features? Is a Kill Switch (which automatically disconnects you from the internet if the VPN connection fails for any reason) a must-have? Carefully review the options, and do your research before committing to any VPN service.
Are VPNs free?
Yes, there are free VPNs available for download on the internet. But have you heard the saying "if the product is free, you're the product"? This means that whenever you use a free service (like Facebook, Google, Instagram…) your data is probably being collected and sold to third parties. We recommend being extra cautious whenever using free online products, and VPNs are no exception. Some free VPNs have in the past been found to compromise their clients data, have poor security, and monitor and sell their clients data, which defeats the purpose of using a VPN in the first place! Therefore, you should do your research before downloading any free VPN. More reliable free VPN services will have restrictions of some kind, such as browsing speed or monthly download caps. If you really can't afford a paying VPN service, another good option is to use free trial periods that most premium VPNs offer.
What does a VPN cost?
If you're happy to spend a bit of money to stay secure online, then you can sign up for a good VPN for as little as $2 a month. Check out our recommendations and pricings for the best VPNs available.
What are the downsides of using a VPN?
Using a VPN may slow down your browsing, especially when loading high-resolution sites or playing online games. If you are using a VPN in a restricted country such as China, you may also sometimes have difficulty securely connecting to a server, as the internet police are constantly hunting down VPN service providers and blocking them.
What are the risks of using a VPN?
While the use of a VPN is totally legal in most places, this is not the case everywhere. It is illegal to use a VPN in certain countries such as China, North Korea, and Iraq. People found to be using VPNs in those countries risk penalties such as imprisonment or deportation, so users are advised to exercise extreme caution.
What doesn't a VPN do?
VPNs sound great, right? But they can't do absolutely everything. Don't make the mistake that some people do, and think that just because your online data is secure, that you are totally safe. A VPN can't protect you from the usual internet malware floating around. It doesn't scan your data, it only routes it. So stay vigilant about online safety, and check out our recommendations of the best antivirus software.
How do you install a VPN?
Now you know everything about VPNs, the only thing left to do is install your own! Click here to see how to install a VPN on mobile, PC, Mac, and browser.