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Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) aren’t just for corporate offices and sketchy nephews anymore. Anyone who’s ever shopped online, used the Wi-Fi at their local coffee shop, or felt creeped out by targeted advertising can benefit from the privacy and security a good VPN offers.

Put simply, VPNs are one of the easier and more effective ways the average internet user can protect themselves online.

With all the options out there, though, it’s hard to know what type of VPN you’ll need and what features are actually helpful. To make matters worse, most of the guides available online will try to sell you on a particular service rather than educate you about how to choose for yourself.

In this article, we’ll walk you through everything you need to know, from the basics of how VPNs work to how to tell which VPN providers are trustworthy.

A Closer Look at Major VPN Brands

Major VPN services have a lot in common. At their core, they all work in pretty much the same way (and we’ll talk more about how VPNs work in just a moment). Still, there are some big differences in the quality, price, and experience offered by different VPN providers. Let’s meet some of the major players.

  • What is a VPN?

    VPN services generally encrypt your data, making it safer to use your laptop on public Wi-Fi at coffee shops, airports, and etc.

    To understand VPNs, it helps to think of data you’re sending and receiving on the internet as being a little bit like the letters that the postal service carries back and forth. When you’re using the internet without a VPN, it’s a bit like putting outgoing mail in your home mailbox and receiving incoming letters. Just as the postal service carries your packages, the internet sends data “packets” back and forth via cables.

    Privacy and security are the core problems with both systems. When mailing a letter, for example, it’s easy for a thief to steal the envelope and see:

    1. Origin and destination address
    2. Contents of message

    Digital data packets being sent over the Internet have the same problem. VPNs work to solve these problems by encrypting the packet contents, wrapping the packets inside other packets — a practice called “tunneling” — and routing packets through intermediary points on the network to disguise the sender and recipient. In other words, VPNs just make it tougher for hackers to identify and read your digital “mail.”

    Like the postal service, Internet sends data packets between locations… with little to stop a third-party from reading them on their way.

    To return to the postal analogy, let’s imagine we’re in Shanghai, and we want to send a letter to New York. Using a VPN is like writing the letter in code (encryption), putting the envelope inside a box (tunneling), and mailing it to Paris, where our associate (VPN provider) forwards it to its final destination.

    Not only does this keep the contents obscured to spies, but it also makes it impossible for them to understand exactly where the real destination and return address are. If a route becomes compromised, future packages are mailed via alternative routes to avoid tampering.

    And potential thieves aren’t the only ones who can be fooled by our package’s little jaunt to Paris. When our recipient gets the package in New York, he or she has no way of knowing it started in Shanghai — as far as they’re concerned, this package is from Paris.

    This is an added benefit to using a VPN. When we hide our location by running our traffic through a VPN or proxy server, we also adopt a new location — a new “IP address,” in computer lingo. Being able to shift your virtual location is a powerful thing. This is commonly used for getting around geo-blocked content and firewalls — for example, accessing sites that might be blocked in your country or unlocking Netflix’s foreign streaming libraries. (Keep in mind that doing this can open users up to legal trouble and/or violate the terms and conditions of services you access using a VPN.)

    Connected to CyberGhost VPN
    Connected to CyberGhost VPN

    Is there any downside to using a VPN? There’s nothing too serious, but there are a few small drawbacks. For one thing, your connection can feel a little slower when you’re using a VPN: Just as mailing a package to Paris and then re-mailing it to New York would take longer than just mailing it straight to New York, it typically takes longer for your data to run through a secure VPN connection that it would take to connect straight to whatever website or app you’re trying to use. You may also find that certain apps try to keep you from using them with a VPN, since VPNs can give you unauthorized access to things like Netflix’s foreign movies and TV shows.

    Why should I use a VPN?

    Pros Cons
    • Security on public Wi-Fi
    • Conceal your location
    • Helps guard against tracking
    • Remote access to private networks
    • Usually slows down speed and increases latency (“lag”)
    • Monthly fee for most services
    • Known VPN servers may be blocked by applications (Netflix, Skype, Slack, etc.)

    There are four main reasons that people use VPNs: network security, location changing, browsing privacy, and access to private networks. We’ve talked a bit about each of these already, but let’s get into more detail.

    Security on public Wi-Fi

    Regular public Wi-Fi users use VPNs to prevent cyber attacks in public spaces like coffee shops, hotels, restaurants, and airports. While Wi-Fi hotspots are convenient to connect to, they’re also easy targets for attackers to access personal information like passwords and banking logins — or even personal photos. Using a VPN in a Wi-Fi setting hides this sensitive data from other network users and potential attackers.

    Geo-shifting

    Another common way people use VPNs is to access website content that is only available in certain countries. When websites use your location to “black out” content — a practice that’s sometimes called “geo-blocking” — they tend to accomplish this by checking your IP address. Since a VPN will change your IP address, you can “geo-shift,” making it appear that you’re somewhere else. Just keep in mind that you may be violating the terms and conditions of some services if you do this.

    Browsing privacy: Keeping ISPs, advertisers, and others at bay

    VPNs aren’t just good ways to keep criminals at bay. They’re also great ways to foil prying eyes that are perfectly legal.

    When you connect to the internet without a VPN, your internet service provider (ISP) can tell where you are and what you’re doing. So can many websites, advertisers, and corporations. As you browse the web, websites track you with “cookies” and use your IP address to figure out where you are.

    This is data that can be used to target you with ads — which can be convenient, but also creepy! It’s also data that you have to hope these corporations won’t lose track of. It’s not usual for more than 60% of Americans to be affected by a data breach in a given year. Remember the Equifax leak that exposed millions of American’s SSNs and addresses? No wonder half of Americans feel less safe online than they did five years ago.

    Issues like these give us all the more reason to use a VPN. Corporations may want to keep lots of data on you — data that they can’t even seem to keep safe from hackers — but why let them? Make yourself tougher to track by using a VPN.

    Remote access to private networks

    You may have used a VPN at work before. VPNs have traditionally been used by companies to let their employees access the internet from various locations using their centralized, private network. This type of use allows a remote worker to access and manipulate files on their employer’s Local Area Network (LAN) even though they’re technically outside on the Wide Area Network (WAN).

    For this particular type of VPN use, it’s helpful to remember what VPN means: Virtual private network. When companies use VPNs, they’re having their employees share the same private network. It’s just like being on the local area network of a high-rise office building — except, in this case, it’s happening virtually. Since you’re sharing the network, you can pass data back and forth securely with your coworkers. But since the network is private and secure, businesses can use it for sensitive materials that they wouldn’t normally allow employees to view online.

    How to Choose a VPN: Things to Consider

    Choosing a VPN is no easy task. After all, you’re putting your trust in a provider to protect your privacy. While VPNs should always have your well-being in mind, this is not always the case. Some VPNs are much less reliable than others.

    The most asset a VPN service can is its reputation, and it’s definitely worth the time to shop around and find a more reputable service. If you need a place to start, check out our list of the best VPNs in 2021. Be aware that VPNs can see your traffic and activities, so you have to trust that they’re going to protect you.

    Below are common features and terms to help demystify common features of VPNs so you can choose the best one for you.

    Encryption

    Encryption is a way of protecting information and sensitive data, and people have used this security technique since the early days of human communication. Basically, encryption is the process of changing information or data into an unreadable, coded format.

    VPNs use “tunnels” to send the encrypted data through, concealing your sensitive data and connecting you safely to a network or website.

    Of course, some VPNs and tunnels are more secure than others. This depends on which VPN protocol they use — which brings us to our next section.

    VPN Protocols

    VPN protocols are a fancy way to refer to the way VPNs connect you to a server and the guidelines they use to construct a tunnel for your data to safely travel through. You can think of protocols as a set of “rules” to follow, or as certain process that VPNs use to accomplish the encryption and tunneling we were just talking about.

    Different protocols use different methods to encrypt your data, and those different methods can have different benefits and drawbacks. Some, for example, might be more secure — but slower. Others might be faster but easier for hackers to crack. Others might not work on every type of device or operating system.

    Take OpenVPN, for example. It’s a hugely popular VPN protocol. It’s also very secure, and it’s one of the protocols we recommend you use. It supports most platforms (Windows 2000 and higher, Mac OS, Linux, Windows Phone, and more). While this is one of the safer and more universal options out there, you will sacrifice internet speed.

    Layer 2 Tunnel Protocol (L2TP) with Internet Protocol Security (IPSec), on the other hand, has great security with little speed sacrifice but is limited to Windows and Mac. You can configure L2TP with IPSec for Linux and Android, but this can be a headache if you don’t know what you’re doing.

    Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP) is compatible with most platforms and is easy to set up, but it has the lowest security encryption.

    Before you can choose a protocol, you’ll have to choose the best VPN service for you. When shopping, look for services that let you choose between multiple strong VPN protocols. Make sure that the default settings favor secure options like OpenVPN. The more secure and reliable the default protocol is, the less likely it is that you’ll have to worry about changing it.

    Surveillance and Jurisdiction

    Some countries are better about privacy than others (and that’s putting it mildly). Unfortunately, surveillance is becoming more commonplace in certain countries around the world.

    For many VPN users, the countries to watch out for are the ones in surveillance and intelligence-sharing alliances — most notably the “Five Eyes,” “Nine Eyes,” and “Fourteen Eyes” alliances. These are agreements between countries that ensure that each member nation is keeping an “eye” out for online rule-breakers and sharing what they find with the other nations in the alliance. This means that VPN services located in the U.S., the U.K., Canada, New Zealand, and Australia (the five countries of the “Five Eyes” alliance) could theoretically be forced to hand over user data to the authorities, at which point it would effectively be in the hands of all five of these countries’ governments! This makes VPN services based in these countries — as well as in countries among the larger “Nine Eyes” and “Fourteen Eyes” groups, like Denmark, France, Spain, Italy, Sweden, and Norway — less appealing to users concerned about prying government eyes.

    While having a VPN in one of these countries will most likely not impact the casual internet user, the potential for having your data handed over to the government remains for users who are concerned about potential government targeting.

    It’s also worth noting that the government can’t subpoena records that don’t exist — which brings us to one of the most important things to know about any VPN service.

    VPN Traffic Logs

    Another thing to look at is whether the VPN keeps traffic logs recording the user’s online activities. Some VPN providers keep records for relatively harmless legal reasons, while others sell this data to third parties, effectively defeating the purpose of using a VPN in the first place.

    The very best VPN services keep as few logs as legally possible — ideally, none at all.

    VyprVPN Encryption Protocol
    VyprVPN Encryption Protocol

    Be sure to read the privacy policies and pay attention to whether the VPN provider is logging your information and, more importantly, why they’re doing so. This will safeguard against any potential headaches later on.

    “Kill Switch” features and other safeguards

    Virtually all VPN services work by encrypting and tunneling your data in the way we described earlier. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t extra safety and privacy features to look out for.

    One common feature is a “kill switch” that shuts down your connection to the internet in the event that the VPN connection fails. While we always hope that our VPN stays connected, there’s always a risk that something goes wrong. If you remain connected to the internet as your VPN goes down, your real location and data will suddenly be exposed. A kill switch feature prevents this by instantly closing down your connection to the internet when your VPN goes down.

    A kill switch is a nice feature, and it’s not universal. You should shop around for a service that has this feature and other protective measures like it.

    Speed and Bandwidth Caps

    Like some ISPs, some VPNs try to limit their users with speed caps and data caps. These limitations are more common among free and cheap VPN services. Speed caps and data caps can be a problem, especially if you’re hoping to stream video while connected to your VPN. Be sure to read the fine print to avoid VPN services with strict caps.

    Prices and Payment

    You’re probably wondering how to maintain privacy while making payments to the VPN, and there’s a lot of articles and blogs out there suggesting you make non-traceable payments using Bitcoin, cash, or Target gift cards. While cash payments will help maintain anonymity, this is unnecessary unless you’re doing illegal things like downloading copyrighted material.

    For basic security and privacy purposes, fear not – Paypal or CC Payment Service will work just fine.

    In terms of standard pricing, expect to pay anywhere from $1–10 a month, give or take a dollar or two. Again, it depends on which service you subscribe to and why. Virtually all services offer better deals for customers who are willing to pay for one, two, or even three years of service up front. The one-time payments can appear steep, but you’ll come out well ahead in the long run — as long as you’re sure you’ll keep using the VPN for years to come, that is.

    Beware of Fake VPNs and Shady Companies

    Ever since Congress rolled back the regulations on privacy allowing ISPs to sell your private data, there have been people out there trying to capitalize on this fear.

    A couple of years ago, a free VPN service was even selling their users’ bandwidth to another company. More recently, a fake VPN service was caught trying to mine the email addresses of unsuspecting users.

    These are usually more obvious than not, but a sure-fire way to avoid fake VPNs is by doing your homework. Look around and check into a VPN’s reputation before you buy, and be especially wary of free or low-cost providers, which are more likely to be scammers than the paid ones. (That’s not to say that there aren’t great free VPNs, though — check our reviews to find the right choices!)

    Fortunately, shady and fake VPN services are the exception rather than the rule. There are a lot of fantastic VPN providers out there, and we’ve tried and reviewed dozens of them.

    Time to Get Started

    NordVPN Servers
    NordVPN Servers

    Due to increased surveillance and cybercrime, there has never been a better time to invest in a VPN service. Even casual internet users can understand and benefit from VPNs.VPNs might be intimidating at first, but if you’re concerned with privacy and safety (and you should be), there is no substitute.

    That said, take your time and do your homework before signing up for a VPN. Don’t compromise your needs for convenience by choosing the first one you see.

  • References and Footnotes