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What is a VPN, and do you need one?

A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is a service which provides a secure connection to the internet, helping to prevent eavesdroppers from monitoring your broadband activity. They can also be used to mask your identity and make it appear like you’re accessing the internet from a different location.

Everywhere we go on the internet someone is watching. Sometimes this is intrusive but not necessarily malicious, like ad networks tracking browsing habits to better target their marketing. But it can be someone up to no good, like a hacker monitoring a public Wi-Fi hotspot, or a government spying on its citizens.

Because of this and many other reasons, protecting your privacy online is important. And one of the best ways to do that is using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to encrypt your home or mobile broadband connection.

What does a VPN do, and how does it work?

A VPN provides a confidential 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, then use the VPN server’s broadband connection to browse the internet.

This means that anyone monitoring your broadband connection will not be able to see what you’re doing, all they’d see is a scrambled 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 which identifies devices on a network. The IP address can be used to (roughly) figure out your location and let sites control what you see based on where you live.

When using a VPN your public IP address will be that of the VPN server, so it can provide some anonymity and make it appear like you’re in a different country.

What do the different VPN protocols mean?

When you connect to a VPN, there may be a choice of different VPN protocols which impact the speed and security of your connection. Here’s a brief overview of the most common protocols you’ll find with most VPN providers:

  • OpenVPN

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, reducing the risk of flaws or exploits.

  • WireGuard

WireGuard is a new protocol which is rapidly gaining popularity as it promises to offer better performance than OpenVPN. However, it not as mature as OpenVPN and there are concerns about the level of privacy it offers.

  • L2TP/IPSec

This is an older standard which offers similar speeds to OpenVPN. Though there are no known exploits, there are indications the NSA has been able to compromise its security. It is 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 security agencies are able to decrypt PPTP traffic.

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, but if you need to use a different protocol this is something you should check is supported before signing up.

Why do I need a Virtual Private Network?

Not sure if a VPN is something you need? Here are a few common scenarios where a VPN is 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. This can help you stay anonymous, and let you access services when your home IP is blocked.

  • Using public Wi-Fi hotspots

Public Wi-Fi can be risky because you don’t know who may be monitoring the connection. Using a VPN with public hotspots is highly recommended to prevent your traffic from being intercepted.

  • Stream Netflix and other video services

Streaming providers 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.

  • Change your location

Geoblocking is widely used to restrict access to specific countries (for example on YouTube, where 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 allowed.

  • Access blocked web pages

If your broadband provider has blocked a site it can be accessed with a VPN. VPNs are also useful in countries such as China 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 you from eavesdropping, something which 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.

  • Access local content when travelling

Using a VPN server based in your home country you can browse the web like a local, circumventing geoblocks and avoiding 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 are not a bullet-proof solution and you still need to be security 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 and 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 and Browser Privacy Test 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: 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, then signing up and paying for it. 

Most VPN providers will require you to register with at least an email address, though some do not 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 a cryptocurrency, gift cards, or even cash.

How to choose the right VPN

There’s a huge choice of VPN services including standalone VPN providers, VPN modules for anti-virus software, and free ad-supported networks.

It’s extremely important to choose 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 which could flag up potential problems. Avoid any VPN service which does not 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 support for more information. 

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

For further help with choosing a VPN provider, visit our guide to the best VPNs for some recommendations.

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: download an installer for the VPN client, install the client, then enter your account details to log in.

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

Most VPNs will offer software clients for Windows, Apple Mac, Apple iPhone and iPad, and Android mobile devices. Some also offer Linux software.

If you need to use the VPN with something which does not have a client (such as a router) then you should confirm before signing up that the VPN can support this. Ideally, they will offer a configuration generator which allows you to download a configuration file that 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 web site. But they often have small data usage limits, and can be much slower than paid services. 

    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 are able to see what you’re doing. 

  • Is it legal to use a VPN?

    VPNs are perfectly legal. Some countries - notably China and Russia - 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 will not be able to see past the encryption of your VPN connection. It can also hide your true IP address and location from web sites. 

    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, it 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 would 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 business may also issue a VPN service to employees for additional security on the internet when working outside the office.

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