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What is a VPN, and do you need one?

VPN key

A Virtual Private Network, or VPN, is a service that provides a secure connection to the internet, helping protect your broadband activity from eavesdroppers.

They can also be used to mask your identity and make it appear like you’re accessing the internet from a different location.

Virtual Private Networks: the key points

  • VPN stands for Virtual Private Network.
  • A VPN provides an encrypted internet connection, helping to obscure your online activity from eavesdropping.
  • VPNs can hide your location by making it appear like you're connecting from another city or country.
  • You may be able to stream video or music from other regions when using a VPN.
  • A VPN can also allow you to access blocked websites.

What does a VPN do? How does it work?

A VPN works as an encrypted tunnel to the internet where communication between your home broadband and the internet is routed via the VPN server.

You connect to the VPN with a secure encrypted link and then use the VPN server’s broadband connection to browse the internet.

VPN diagram

This means that anyone monitoring your broadband connection won’t be able to see what you’re doing. All they get is an encrypted connection to the VPN provider.

It also means that sites or services you use while connected to the VPN will see the VPN’s IP (Internet Protocol) address rather than your home IP address.

An IP address is a series of numbers that identifies devices on a network. The IP address can be used to figure out your location, track your identity online, and let sites control what you see based on where you live.

When using a VPN tunnel, your public IP address will be that of the VPN server, so it can provide some anonymity and also make it appear like you’re in a different country. If you move to another country but want to access shows and music from home that are inaccessible, a VPN is a great workaround.

What do the different VPN protocols mean?

When you connect to a VPN, you may be able to choose how you connect to the service. This might be referred to as the tunnelling protocol, and can impact the speed and security of your connection.

Here’s a brief overview of the standard protocols you’ll find with most VPN providers.

OpenVPN is the best choice for most people as it offers a good balance of speed and security. OpenVPN is also an open-source protocol, so its code can be inspected by anyone, which can help to improve security.

WireGuard is a new protocol that is rapidly gaining popularity as it promises to offer better performance than OpenVPN. However, it’s not as mature as OpenVPN. There have been some concerns about the level of privacy WireGuard offers.

  • L2TP/IPSec

This is an older standard that offers similar speeds to OpenVPN. Though there are no known exploits, there are indications the US National Security Agency has been able to compromise its security. It’s also easier to block than OpenVPN, so it is less likely to work in countries with restrictive internet policies.

  • PPTP

This is the oldest protocol still in widespread use. PPTP is fast, but it is not secure. There are known vulnerabilities, and PPTP traffic can be decrypted.

Not every VPN provider offers all these protocols, and some may only support one.

OpenVPN is standard across the industry and is what we would recommend for most. If you need to use a different protocol, check it’s supported before signing up.

Why do I need a Virtual Private Network?

Not sure if a secure VPN is something you need? Here are a few common VPN uses where they could be helpful...

  • Hide your IP address and location

When you’re connected to a properly configured VPN, nobody but the VPN service can see your true IP address and local network. This can help you stay anonymous and let you access services when your home IP is blocked.

  • Protect yourself when using public Wi-Fi hotspots

Public Wi-Fi networks can be risky because you don’t know who may be snooping on the connection. Using a VPN with public hotspots is highly recommended to prevent your traffic from being intercepted by third parties and hackers.

  • Stream Netflix and other video services from different regions

Streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video have different catalogues in different countries. You can view these with a VPN, letting you check out a completely different range of content and get access to shows and movies before they come out in the UK.

Music services like Spotify can also be accessed, though you will need to create a new account with the VPN switched on. The good news with services like Spotify is that you don’t need the VPN switched onto your country of choice at all times. Once you’ve logged in, you can switch it off or to a faster connection.

  • Change your location

Geo-blocking is widely used to restrict access to specific countries. For example, YouTube videos may be limited to viewers from certain locations. You can bypass these limits by using a VPN server based in a country that is permitted to see the content.

  • Access blocked web pages

If your internet service provider (ISP) has blocked a site, it can be accessed with a VPN. They are also useful in countries where the internet is heavily censored.

  • Protect yourself when torrenting

VPNs are often employed for torrenting, protecting users from the potential legal repercussions of acquiring movies, music, and TV shows via BitTorrent.

  • Privacy and security

A VPN can protect your browsing history from eavesdropping. This is especially useful if you’re accessing the internet from any location where the connection could be monitored, such as a public Wi-Fi hotspot. The VPN will also hide your true IP address from the rest of the internet, a must for online privacy.

  • Access local content when travelling

Using a VPN server based in your home country, you can browse the web like a local. You’ll circumvent geo-blocks and avoid minor annoyances like automatic language selections and prices in the wrong currency.

 

  • How to stay secure on a VPN

    VPNs can be a powerful tool, but they aren’t a bullet-proof solution, and you still need to be cybersecurity conscious when using broadband with a VPN.

    Choose a trustworthy provider. You’re trusting the VPN with your data, so research the provider first. 

    Enable the kill-switch. Any modern VPN client should have a “kill-switch” feature. It helps to protect your privacy by automatically cutting off internet access if your connection to the VPN is lost.

    Use the latest software. Keep your VPN client software bang up to date to get the latest bug fixes and security protocols.

    Use encrypted sites. While the link between you and the VPN is encrypted, the link between the VPN and the wider internet may not be. So just like you would with any other broadband connection, use HTTPS-encrypted web sites whenever possible. You should also remember to never enter passwords or other personal data into an unprotected service.

    Check for IP and DNS leaks. IP and DNS leaks can inadvertently reveal your identity when connected to a VPN. Use online tools like DNSleaktest.com to see if your VPN is secure. 

    Use the OpenVPN protocol. There are numerous security protocols for VPNs, but the best all-rounder for security, stability and speed is OpenVPN. Typically, a VPN provider will offer a choice of protocols. So, if OpenVPN isn’t one of them, look for a different provider.

How do I get a VPN?

Getting a VPN is as simple as choosing a provider and then signing up and paying for it. 

Most VPN providers will require you to register with at least an email address, though some won’t even ask for that much information.

Payment can always be made with a credit or debit card, and they usually support popular payment processors such as Paypal. Many also offer alternative methods for more anonymity, such as cryptocurrency, gift cards, or even cash.

How to choose the right VPN

There’s a massive choice of VPN services, including standalone VPN providers, VPN modules for anti-virus software, and VPN apps like ExpressVPN and NordVPN. If you aren’t sure whether a VPN is worth it for you, you can try out a free VPN service. But we don’t recommend using these regularly.

It’s essential to select a provider you can trust because you’re going to be sending all your internet traffic through their server.

Read reviews, and search for relevant news articles when searching for the best VPN for you that could flag potential problems. Avoid any VPN service which doesn’t explicitly state it has a “no logging” policy, as this could mean it is recording data about its users.

If you have a specific requirement, such as the ability to stream Netflix from a particular country, you’ll want to check that the VPN can support this before you pay. If it’s not clear from their site, then contact its support for more information.

Some providers offer a free trial or money-back guarantee, so you can test before committing to them.

How do I set up my VPN?

Once you’ve got an account with your chosen provider, you can install the software and start using the VPN. 

Each provider varies, so we can’t detail the exact steps, but in general, you will need to download an installer for the VPN client, install the client, and then enter your account details to log in.

It’s worth taking some time to read any documentation provided to understand the client software settings and customise it to your liking.

Most VPNs will offer software clients for most operating systems including Windows, Mac, iPhone and iPad, and Android devices. Some also offer clients for Linux systems.

If you need to use the VPN with something which does not have a client, such as a router, you should confirm before signing up that the VPN can support this. Ideally, they’ll offer a configuration generator that allows you to download a configuration file which can be loaded into a router or any other compatible device.

Frequently Asked Questions about Virtual Private Networks

  • Can you get a free VPN?

    Free VPN services do exist and can be convenient if you just want to access the occasional blocked website. But they often have small data usage limits and can be much slower than paid services. 

    However, some free VPNs are also ad-supported and may record your activity or inject advertising into sites, negating the point of using one for privacy.

    If you do decide it’s not worth paying for a VPN, then choose your free VPN very carefully. Read the terms and conditions, make sure you’re only activating it when it’s needed, and assume that they can see what you’re doing.

  • Is it legal to use a VPN?

    VPNs are perfectly legal. Some governments have made noises about banning them and do restrict their use, but as they’re used by businesses, a blanket ban on VPNs would be hugely problematic for any country that decided to try it.

    That doesn’t mean you can get away with using a VPN for illegal activity. While it is harder to track down someone using a VPN, it’s not impossible.

  • What does a VPN hide?

    A VPN will do a lot to protect you against someone monitoring the broadband, as they won’t be able to see past the encryption of your VPN connection. It can also hide your actual IP address and location from websites.

    But remember that only the connection between you and the VPN is encrypted, and you can still be identified.

    Techniques such as browser fingerprinting could reveal your identity. And if you log in to any site or service while connected to the VPN, then the operator of that service would have a record of your access.

    In general, a VPN provides a high level of security for average users, but don’t expect complete anonymity. If you’re concerned about being specifically targeted by someone with serious skills and resources, like professional criminals or a government agency, you’ll need to take more extreme steps that are beyond the scope of this guide.

  • Do businesses need a VPN?

    Not every business needs a VPN, but they are commonplace.

    Businesses often use VPNs to provide secure access to internal systems for remote workers. A company may also issue a VPN service to employees for additional security on the internet when working outside the office.

Expert Summary

A VPN is a very helpful piece of software that can not only protect you from others spying on your internet explorations, but allow you to access content in other countries.

That said, VPNs won’t always protect you. So, you should make sure to secure your router at home as well as relying on a VPN whilst out and about. Make sure you do your research before selecting a VPN to find one that’s trustworthy. Even if it’s highly rated for security, your data could still be discovered through browser fingerprinting, so always be aware.

But, overall, a VPN is a great idea. It will, in general, make your internet activity private and can allow you to access websites and services that you otherwise might not see. And it does all this legally!

Meet the author:

Contributor

Matt has been working with Broadband Genie since 2009. A lifelong tech enthusiast, he has 20 years of experience writing about technology for print and online.


Specialist subject: The technicalities of broadband

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