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By: Stacy Garrels | November 12th, 2020
Previously Updated March 8, 2021
If you’re trying to figure out which VPN to get (or even what’s a VPN), check out this helpful overview. We’ve put together some common FAQs on VPNs. Learn about VPNs in easy-to-read, plain English. And if you’re already ahead of the curve, just go straight to the list of our top 10 best VPN recommendations.
What is a VPN?
A VPN, or Virtual Private Network, is a way to make your Internet activity more private and more secure. It connects your Internet device (smartphones, tablets, laptops, smart TVs) to another computer (server) on the Internet. Then, when you search the web you’re doing so with the server’s connection. This protects your privacy (blocks your true geographic location) and blocks out untrustworthy Wi-Fi connections trying to snoop on your activity and your data.
You can think about it like this. Instead of connecting 100 different computers to the internet, all of these 100 computers only connect to one computer. This one computer takes on all of the risk for you and for the 99 other computers. This one computer then protects all of your data. And before that computer even sees your Internet footprint (all of the data you share while using the web), it encrypts your data. Encryption just means that it changes your information into a special form of code that outsiders (hackers) can’t read.
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How do VPNs work?
When you turn on your VPN (usually as simple as clicking a menu dropdown option), it encrypts all of your Internet browsing activity through a secure channel or encrypted tunnel controlled by the VPN company. You may be thinking, wait! Isn’t my Internet activity already private and secure? Why do I need this?
Here’s a different way to think about it. When you leave your house to go for a walk, anyone can follow you. They can see where you go, how long you’re gone, how far you walk, and who you meet with. Sounds creepy, right? But if you could switch on a VPN before leaving for your walk, it would mean that when you stepped out the front door you were going for a walk in a secure tunnel. No one would know where you went or what you did.
That’s how VPN protocols work. A VPN protocol is used to move your data through the tunnel (your walk) and then another VPN protocol is used to secure that data.
PPTP, L2TP/IPSec, OpenVPN, SSTP, and IKEv2 are five of the most common VPN protocols. You can read more on them if you’re interested, but you don’t need deeper info to have a general understanding of how VPNs work.
Different VPN protocols have different functionality. Some do certain things better, like speed, mobile friendliness, open source options, data encryption, or network compatibility.
Don’t Fall Prey to Hackers!
When you think about it, VPN is the opposite of public WiFi. Logging onto a free, open network like “caribou_coffee_shop” is free and convenient, right? It will save your data and often give you a faster connection speed. But, how do you know that “caribou_coffee_shop” is the coffee shop’s courtesy public WiFi? Any hacker could be setting up that network, and using it to trick users into using that connection and providing sensitive information as they search the web. In fact, free public WiFi networks are a common scam for hackers.
Why do I need a VPN?
Re-read the above section on not falling prey to hackers.
But seriously, there are plenty of other benefits. You can’t be tracked online when you use a VPN. The VPN will hide your IP address. (Your IP address has information about how you connect to the Internet. Think about it as your home address for the network.) When you’re on a VPN, the VPN will hide your IP address.
In addition to blocking your IP address, there are many reasons to consider VPN use. Use a VPN for:
- Protecting personal data. Your online privacy is important. Many of us make online purchases with a credit card, do online banking, use Venmo, log onto social media accounts and dating apps, share photos of our kids, and plenty of other personal data we’d like to keep hidden from prying eyes.
- Changing your geographic settings. With many VPN’s, you can select the location settings to a different part of the globe like Australia or Canada. Say you have an online store with lots of international traffic. Some visitors will see the page in English language and prices in USD. Other visitors may see the page in the French language with prices in Euros. The IP address will detect the visitor’s location and which version of the website to show. But if you’re based in the United States, how do you view the other International pages to make sure they look OK? You would need to use a VPN to bypass geo-restrictions and view those international pages.
- Avoid being tracked while torrenting certain videos, photos, or other files. (Although we do not condone using a torrenting VPN to download copyrighted or otherwise protected materials.)
- Work access. With more and more of us working remotely, your employer may require you to access your business’ network through a VPN. Common business resources you may access via VPN can include Sharepoint, Intranet, Jira, WordPress, Salesforce, business databases, and productivity tools.
- Connect to your home network while traveling. When you’re away from home, you can set up a VPN to have access to your home network and its resources. (A VPN allows you to remotely access your desktop over the Internet. Like when someone takes over and controls your computer to troubleshoot an issue.) Being able to connect to your home computer while traveling is convenient. You’ll have access to your photos, files, games, music, and video.
- Bypassing censorship. In some countries, people use the VPN for unblocking their favorite content and evading government censors. (China is a good example. People will use VPNs to unblock government censored sites, which can range from news outlets critical of the government to social sharing sites like Facebook.)
What’s the difference between a VPN vs a proxy?
Both a VPN and a proxy server will shield or mask your IP address, but a VPN also encrypts (hides) the data you send and receive. A proxy will not do this. A proxy just pushes your data through a different server, but doesn’t usually offer any extra data protection. If you already have a proxy, a VPN would be a security upgrade. But if you have a VPN right now, you don’t need to go through a proxy server. But some users will go through both a VPN server and a proxy for an extra layer of online anonymity.
A proxy is less sophisticated than a VPN and will use less bandwidth (although many VPNs will not slow down your Internet speed). A proxy is commonly used for privacy protection (since it blocks your IP address) or to access geo-blocked content. With a proxy, you could change your geographic location settings to “tell” a website that you are a site visitor from a different country.
Basically, a Proxy is similar to a VPN but less secure. It blocks your location, but not your activity. A VPN will encrypt your data.
Are VPNs legal? Can I use a VPN for Netflix?
Yes, in the United States it’s completely legal to use a VPN. (Government agencies at every level use a VPN.) But different countries will have different rules around VPNs and the legality of VPN use itself.
Within the United States, there are different rules and regulations when it comes to the usage of a VPN. You can’t use a VPN, for example, to cover up illegal activity. And while it is not illegal to use a VPN for streaming services like Netflix or Hulu, there are rules and restrictions in place to prohibit you from watching content that is only available in certain geographic locations. Violating your streaming service’s terms and conditions could get you in hot water.
Are there any disadvantages to using a VPN?
Advantages always come with disadvantages, right? VPN’s aren’t 100% foolproof; there are always some security loopholes that the bad guys will find. While you’re definitely safer with a VPN than without, keep in mind that data can still fall through the cracks. In addition to using a VPN, it’s a good idea to set secure passwords (that you change frequently), use privacy-focused browsers like Firefox, monitor your credit report, and you can use tracker blockers like Privacy Badger, a secure browser extension.
And with VPN data encryption (protection) there comes a trade-off: speed. Using a VPN service could potentially slow down your Internet connection speed or download speeds because it needs to also encrypt all of your data. Many users don’t notice the slightly slower speed (it may take a couple seconds or less for something to load). And with a good VPN service, you won’t lose any connectivity speed when surfing the web and downloading or uploading data.
If you’re concerned about speed, you can run speed tests on fast.com or speedtest.net. It’s quick, easy, and free! It lets you know how fast (or slow) your Internet speed is.
How can I make sure it’s a legit VPN?
Using a legit VPN service is absolutely a great idea, make sure to avoid VPN scams. When you sign up for a VPN service, free or paid, you’re putting a lot of trust into that company to handle your privacy and security. Just like fraud anti-virus companies, there are click-bait companies creating fake VPNs to get your personal data.
Some legit VPN services out there include TunnelBear, ProtonVPN, Windscribe, Hotspot Shield, SurfShark, ExpressVPN, and IPVanish.
Keep in mind, there are scam companies that will create bogus websites to get to you to download a fakeVPN product. They are stealing a reputable company’s name to get your trust. They can also install malware on your machine when you install the VPN software.
To make sure you’re signing up for a legit VPN, check out the top 10 best, legit VPN’s we’ve shared in this article. Or you can also look at VPN reviews and resources on sites like Reddit or TorrentFreak to see what other consumers have to say about the best VPN services.
Should I pay for a VPN?
While there are plenty of good, free VPNs, paying for a VPN is worth it in the long run. You’ll get faster speeds, more bandwidth, better customer support, and no annoying ads. (Many free VPNs also come bundled with unwanted toolbars and applications on your machine.) In fact, with a paid VPN you can expect unlimited bandwidth (confirm first) and support for unlimited devices. A free VPN may only support one device or two.
Most VPNs offer a free version for you to try out the service and security features. After that, pricing is cheap. You can typically get monthly pricing for around $5 a month. And most (if not all) VPN providers will offer a 30-day money-back guarantee.
Personally, I say yes. Pay for a VPN because it’s cheap, faster, has unlimited bandwidth and unlimited device support options, and a more user-friendly experience. I use it for our Fire TV, phones, laptops, Kindle Fire, iPad, and Surface Tablet. Also, if you want to go to the trouble of getting a VPN, a paid version will ensure faster speeds and customer support.
And while you can pay for many VPN services with Bitcoin or other cryptocurrency, a major credit card, PayPal, or other less obscure payment options work just fine.
How do I get a VPN?
- First select the VPN service you want to use. Do you want to sign up for a freemium VPN app service, monthly subscription, or year plan? (Many enterprise packages are year plans.) What is their privacy logs policy? Some VPNs will store your data for up to 30 days, others will discard it completely because they have a no-logs or no-logging policy. Is there chat support? How much customer support would you require? What sort of computers and mobile devices would you be connecting?
- Make sure that it will work with the OS (operating systems) of your desktop and mobile devices. (Most VPN apps will work across Windows, Mac, tablets and iPads, and iPhone and Android smartphones, but it’s always smart to confirm in advance.) Install the VPN app or software.
- Download the VPN. Download the VPN app software on the company’s website or from the app store. Again, make sure you’re getting the VPN software from the VPN’s actual, legitimate website.
- Install the VPN software on your machine.
- On a Mac, you’ll be asked to drag a specific file into your Applications folder. You may be asked to provide your password before launching the application.
- On a PC or Windows machine, you’ll be asked to “run” the .exe file and follow the installation prompts (in the grey pop-out boxes). Afterwards, launch or open the app from your Start menu. You may need to restart your machine.
- On an Android or iOS mobile device, you can start running the app from your home screen. The same way you run or open any other app on your phone that you’ve downloaded from the iOS or Google Play stores. You will be asked to create an account (setting up a login and password), or log into an existing account.
After it’s on a machine or mobile device, it’s easy to open a VPN connection. Just tap or click on the VPN app (icon) on your home screen, desktop, or in your files.
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