What is a VPN, and do you need one?

In this guide

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 is a VPN?

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.

VPNs were once a niche tool, largely used by businesses for secure access to remote systems, but in recent years they’ve gone mainstream as people become more security conscious. They are now easier and cheaper to use than ever, and there's a staggering choice of VPN providers.

How does a VPN 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 or anything monitoring your broadband connection will not be able to see what you’re doing, or retrieve data - 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 address, rather than your home IP address. 

An Internet Protocol (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.

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. When you’re connected to a VPN, nobody but the VPN service can see your true IP address (with some exceptions - see the section on security below). This can help you stay anonymous, and let you access services when your home IP is blocked.

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 traveling. 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.

When is a VPN not useful? 

As handy as they can be there are situations when a VPN is unnecessary, or even a hindrance. Such as...

Gaming. Online games need low latency, and a VPN will increase your ping rate. Provided you don’t need it to access the game, disconnect the VPN before playing to avoid handing your opponents an advantage.

Downloading and uploading. VPNs will make your broadband slower and can be unstable so, assuming you don’t have a reason to hide a download or upload from your ISP, you’re best off without when transferring files.

Video streaming. As with file downloads, the impact on speed when connecting with a VPN could interfere with video streaming. Only use a VPN for video when you need it to get around a geoblock.

Just browsing at home. Unless you’re paranoid about hiding all activity from your ISP there’s no good reason to use a VPN constantly if you’re just browsing the web at home. Enable it when you need to circumvent a site block or geographic restriction.

The limits of a VPN

As useful as they are, VPNs aren’t a perfect solution to total online security. There are some important points you need to keep in mind when connecting through an encrypted tunnel. We spoke to Daniel Kim at VPN provider Private Internet Access to find out more about the limitations of a VPN and what you can do to protect your privacy.

Anonymity is fleeting

“Logging in to personally identifying websites will render any anonymity/privacy service useless given many of these kinds of websites also double as tracking hubs of web activity”, says Daniel.

While sites and services you access when connected through the VPN may only see the IP address of the VPN server, they’ll know who you are if you do anything which personally identifies you. Cookies can give away your identity too. “Private mode should most definitely be used to avoid tracking cookies.”.

"There are methods for more advanced users (like multiple VPN hops), but these do come with limitations".

You have to trust the VPN provider

When using a VPN you’re placing a great deal of trust in the service provider. Although the link between you and the VPN server is encrypted it is still possible for the connection to be monitored by the VPN operator.

“While against policy and principal, it certainly would be possible for a VPN to partake in said efforts”, says Daniel. “There are a few major points that VPN users can look for to be extra certain of their privacy. For example, Private Internet Access is a verified VPN provider, with court records showing PIA has zero logs”.

Do some research before handing over money. Read their privacy policy, check the company’s background, read reviews and user’s opinions and search for news articles which could reveal red flags. A particularly useful resource is the annually updated feature from TorrentFreak which examines the privacy policies of many popular VPNs.

Be especially cautious with free services. They may be trying to make money in other ways, such as injecting advertisements in web pages. Read their privacy policies and terms of use carefully.

Broadband speed will take a hit

As well as the privacy and security concerns, accessing the internet through a VPN will impact broadband speed. File transfers will take a longer time and even web browsing can be noticeably slower.

For the best speed prioritise servers by location and try switching servers if it gets particularly sluggish. Peak time traffic can have a major impact, so choosing a server in a different time zone can improve performance.

You should also take advantage of trial periods and free access to test the speed of a provider before signing up.

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. We go into more detail about this below, but briefly: 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 to get a VPN provider

Step 1: Choose a VPN provider

There’s a huge choice of VPN services including standalone VPN providers, VPN modules for anti-virus software, and free ad-support networks (best avoided if you value your privacy).

It’s extremely important to choose a provider you can trust because when connected to the VPN you’re going to be sending all your internet traffic through their server.

Read user 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.

Step 2: Sign up

Once you’ve selected a provider you’ll need to register and pay. Most VPNs will offer a choice of paying per month, or paying up front for a longer term at a reduced. 

For the extra paranoid there are usually alternative payment methods such as bitcoin so you can avoid giving the VPN provider any identifying details.

Step 3: setup the VPN

Once you’ve got an account with the 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 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.

What’s the best VPN provider?

There are now a staggering number of VPN providers so choosing one can be a daunting task. Some of the highest rated VPNs include: 

You should always research a provider yourself before signing up. One of the best sources of information is the annually updated list of VPNs from TorrentFreak.com. It focuses on privacy and they contact providers to ask questions about policies, where the company is based, and what happens in the event of a court-ordered request for information to help you decide if a VPN is trustworthy. 

Frequently Asked Questions about Virtual Private Networks

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.

Am I completely anonymous when using a VPN?

A VPN will do a lot to protect you against someone monitoring the broadband connection and hide your true IP address from web sites. 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 - then you would need to take very extreme steps that are beyond the scope of this guide.

How much does a VPN cost?

VPNs are not expensive. You can find providers offering monthly subscriptions for a few pounds a month. Paying for a full year or more in one go is usually even cheaper.

Should I use a free or paid VPN?

Be extremely wary of free VPN services. These may harvest user data, or inject advertising into web sites. Remember: if you’re not paying, you are the product! 

We’d recommend avoiding them completely as a rule, though a free VPN can be handy if you don’t need it often enough to justify a subscription, and only want to avoid the occasional site block. But never login to a site or service or do anything else that may reveal private details while connected to a free service. Assume that everything you’re doing is being recorded and behave accordingly.

Should I use a VPN with public Wi-Fi hotspots?

It’s a good idea to always use a VPN when connected to public Wi-Fi. Hotspots can be very insecure and are popular targets for hackers. 

What devices support a VPN?

As well as desktop and laptop computers, mobile devices also support VPN connections. VPN providers usually offer a mobile app as well as client software for Windows and Apple Mac OS.

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