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A VPN (Virtual Private Network) is an online service that creates a secure connection to another network over the internet. It hides your IP address and encrypts your traffic, effectively protecting your privacy from your Internet Service Provider (ISP), your government, and other unwanted onlookers.
You can use a VPN to secure yourself on public wifi hotspots, unblock geo-restricted services such as Netflix, secure your P2P traffic, avoid speed throttling, and much more.
What is a VPN and how does it help?
A VPN is a tool for security and privacy, but it can do way more than that. So if you ever asked yourself, “Why do I need a VPN?” read on to find out. Here’s how a virtual private network helps:
- Encryption. A VPN encrypts your traffic so that it becomes virtually indecipherable to third parties.
- Hiding your IP. A VPN hides your IP, which in turn hides your location as well.
Access to Netflix. With a VPN, you’ll be able to watch your movies and shows outside your home country.
- Torrenting protection. A VPN will protect you when torrenting.
- Firewall circumvention. From the ones at your office to the ones used in China, firewalls block certain websites from users. VPNs allow you to circumvent these restrictions.
- Wi-Fi protection. Finally, a VPN will protect your connection on public Wi-Fi and help avoid bandwidth throttling. Some Virtual Private Networks even offer anti-malware solutions.
What does a VPN hide?
As you can see, VPNs hide your actual IP address. They also encrypt your traffic using a military-grade cipher. But how does that translate into real-world scenarios? Let’s take a look.
- IP address. Websites track you by your IP address. By using a VPN, you can hide your real IP address and your identity behind the IP of the VPN server.
- Location. Your IP gives away your approximate location. With a VPN, it becomes difficult to track you and your movement. Plus, changing your location enables you to access geo-blocked content.
- Web activity. If you’re using a VPN provider that doesn’t log your web activity, you can be sure that neither your ISP (Internet Service Provider) nor your government knows what you’re doing online.
How does a VPN work?
A VPN works by rerouting your internet traffic through a remote server and encrypting it in the process. That way, the VPN server is responsible for all of your internet requests, while your ISP can only see that you’re connected to a VPN. Furthermore, your IP address is now hidden behind the IP address of the VPN server.
This process, illustrated above, involves creating what is known as a VPN tunnel. It uses unique tunneling protocols to “wrap” packets of data in a layer of encryption so that anyone intercepting it cannot make any sense of it. Most VPNs use military-grade encryption, which means that it’s virtually impossible to break the cipher using a brute force attack.
Without a virtual private network:
- Your connection request goes straight to the ISP, which in turn forwards it to your desired online resource.
- Your traffic will be unencrypted, and your ISP will know everything that you do on the internet.
- Your IP address is visible and gives away your approximate location.
- Your torrenting activity is public because people can recognize you by your IP.
Using insecure VPNs is almost as bad as having no VPN at all. In fact, it could be far worse. If users feel protected when they are not, they might let their guard down and share information that puts them at risk.
Here are some of the risks that poorly run VPNs can expose users to:
- IP and DNS leaks (on rare occasions, VPN connections can drop unexpectedly, exposing your actual IP address and invalidating the security that a VPN was providing)
- Your online activity data being sold to marketers
- Exposure to malware
- Out of date (and easy to hack) encryption
Despite people knowing about these risks, many VPNs remain vulnerable to IPv6, DNS, and WebRTC leaks. All of these VPN security vulnerabilities leave users wide open to hacking attempts or government surveillance.
A significant proportion of VPN users rely on them for protection in rather sensitive situations. Perhaps they’re journalists or political activists, hiding from the malicious gaze of government agencies. Or maybe they’re simply torrenting and would instead not get hit with fines. Whatever the case may be, using a faulty VPN can result in a nasty surprise.
Can a VPN protect me from hackers?
A virtual private network can protect you from hackers, but it doesn’t give a 100% guarantee, just like any other online security solution. That being said, a solid VPN will make hackers work much harder, and that’s the least you can do for your safety.
For starters, a VPN encrypts your traffic using a military-grade cipher, which completely stops any hacker. Furthermore, DNS and IP leak protection mean getting your actual IP address will be quite a challenge.
Do VPN providers see my online activity?
When you’re using a VPN, your ISP cannot see what you do online because your traffic is encrypted. But can a VPN provider see your online activity? Well, it depends on the VPN you’re using.
Technically, all of them can see your traffic, so this is a matter of ethics. Usually, VPN providers claim to have a no-logs policy, meaning they don’t monitor and don’t store your session’s logs. However, not all of them practice what they preach. For instance, in 2017, PureVPN admitted to handing over records of a suspected cyberstalker to the FBI.
Then there’s the legal system of each country. Some like Australia have strict data retention laws, requiring VPNs to store logs for two years. That’s why the best VPNs choose their home bases in privacy-friendly countries like Switzerland, which are not a part of any surveillance alliances, such as the Fourteen Eyes intelligence alliance.
How to choose a VPN?
Choosing a VPN will mainly depend on your use case. VPNs are quite versatile and can accomplish a wide variety of things, but not every provider is suited for every type of activity. However, there are some basic characteristics that any proper VPN should have:
- AES-256 encryption. Any VPN worth its salt should be using strong encryption to secure your connection.
- Good server coverage. A decent number of servers worldwide is necessary for good connectivity from anywhere. For optimal speeds, look for a VPN with servers in your home country.
- Kill switch. A good way to avoid IP or DNS leaks is having a reliable kill switch.
- Multiple simultaneous connections. A premium VPN should allow you to connect more than one device on a single subscription. Somewhere between 5 or 10 connections.
- Price. Naturally, a worthwhile VPN needs to priced accordingly. Most services shouldn’t cost more than $5/month, but there are exceptions.
After that, here are some specific details that you need to pay attention to depending on your VPN use case:
- Streaming. If your main priority is watching movies and shows online, you need a streaming VPN that can reliably get around geographical restrictions. Furthermore, fast connections are essential if you want to watch content in HD. Plus, compatibility with your preferred streaming services and devices.
- Security. For general safety online, look at what bonus features the service offers. Besides the essentials, look for ad and malware blockers, traffic obfuscation methods, DDoS protection, and other similar features.
- Privacy. To maintain anonymity, look for providers that have anonymous payment options, privacy-respecting jurisdiction, audited no-logs policies, and registration without personal information.
For more information on the various features that VPNs offer, you can find detailed explanations at the end of this article.
Once you’ve gained more knowledge about the essential pillars of a VPN, a great way to further your knowledge before getting one is reading various VPN reviews online. For example, we have reviewed many well-known providers, such as NordVPN, Surfshark, and VyprVPN.
Of course, you can’t just depend on one website to provide you with all the information (though I wouldn’t mind if you picked VPNpro as your go-to site). It’s best to read a few different reviews from different sources to ensure that the facts add up.
Similarly, you should take these reviews with a grain of salt. These sites may play favorites with certain VPNs and try to embellish some positive aspects while also glossing over the negative aspects. But usually, the sites that go too far with this don’t last very long. It’s better to be as unbiased as possible.
Similar to reviews, VPN comparisons are an overview of the main features between multiple VPN providers. However, this is done with two or more providers to see which one is better and in what respects. These are an excellent source of information if you’re picking between a few providers but can’t seem to make up your mind.
However, it’s essential to be somewhat familiar with the topic of VPNs before diving into these. Such comparisons are fairly condensed and don’t go into too much detail about the basics. Don’t worry, you’ll be ready to dive into our comparisons after finishing this article.
While paid VPNs are generally better, it’s hard to tell whether a free VPN wouldn’t be enough for you. Plus, many different factors influence the VPN cost. Furthermore, most premium VPNs come with a 30-day money-back guarantee, meaning that you won’t have to pay for something you don’t like.
What are the most popular VPNs on the market?
The most popular VPNs are not always among the best. Some of them gain audiences only because they’re free. That’s why the list below is of VPNs that have earned their popularity through merit and effectiveness.
- NordVPN – starts at $3.71/month
- Surfshark – starts at $2.21/month
- VyprVPN – starts at $8.33/month
- PrivateVPN – starts at $2.00/month
- Private Internet Access – starts at $2.03/month
In general, using a free VPN is riskier, although it depends on its type.
✔️ Doesn’t cost money
✔️ Can try out many different options without commitment
❌ Slow connection speeds
❌ Limited server selection, bandwidth, and browsing data
❌ Potential data logging
❌ Won’t get around geo-restrictions
❌ Ineffective or lack of security features
There are two types of free VPN services:
- Completely free (funded by ads and other means)
- Freemium, i.e., paid service with a free version (funded by paying customers)
“If it’s free, you are the product” – this applies to the first type of free VPNs. Usually, this means ads, but it can also mean that the VPN tracks your online activity and sells that data. Some might say, “so what?” but for many, that’s defeating the entire purpose of using a VPN.
The second free VPN type is less risky, but there’s a different issue. Because the business model of these VPN services is to sell subscriptions, the free versions are usually loaded with limitations. However, you can minimize most of these issues by choosing from the top free VPNs.
Paid VPNs are not ideal, but they are generally a lot more powerful and trustworthy.
✔️ Negligible speed reduction
✔️ Wide range of servers worldwide
✔️ 24/7 customer support
✔️ Can get around geo-restrictions
✔️ Plenty of bonus security features
❌ Costs money
❌ Cheap plans require year-long commitments
For starters, they don’t come with free VPN limitations, such as security flaws, poor privacy, slow speed, or unhelpful customer support. They don’t show ads, don’t sell your data, and put effort into keeping you safe online. Most premium services also include a reliable kill switch and leak protection – something that many free VPNs lack.
What’s more, free VPNs won’t be able to unblock Netflix and other streaming platforms. They might not support torrenting either. Therefore, if you want to access your favorite movies and shows in addition to allowing P2P traffic, a worthwhile premium VPN is the way to go. The best part is that you will be able to get your money back most of the time if the service doesn’t live up to your expectations.
Which VPN to choose?
Here’s a quick look at the most secure and notable VPNs on the market today.
1. NordVPN overview
NordVPN is the number one VPN that you can get. It’s based in Panama, has a third-party-audited no-logs policy, and is loaded with 5200+ servers in 60 countries. It uses AES-256 encryption by default, has the proprietary NordLynx tunneling protocol, and has a kill switch to protect your IP from leaks.
If you’d like, you can try out the service by grabbing the 7-day free trial on Android devices. After that, you can use the VPN on six devices simultaneously. Pricing starts at $3.71/month, and you get a 30-day money-back guarantee.
2. Surfshark overview
For well-rounded security and privacy, Surfshark is an excellent choice. Located in the Netherlands, this service allows unlimited simultaneous connections and comes equipped with the fast WireGuard protocol. Additionally, MultiHop and CleanWeb features will secure your privacy even further than a typical VPN.
With 3200 servers in 65 countries, Surfshark is well-equipped against any geographical restrictions. Furthermore, it’s pretty cheap and starts at $2.21/month.
3. PrivateVPN overview
PrivateVPN is all about quality over quantity. With 200 servers in 63 countries, this Sweden-based service can effortlessly fulfill all of your VPN needs. It uses the OpenVPN tunneling protocol, is equipped with a kill switch, and has a strict no-logs policy. Plus, you can secure up to six devices simultaneously.
In addition, you can get a 7-day free trial on their website to try out the service for free. Once that is up, pricing starts at $2.00/month and comes with a 30-day money-back guarantee.
Best VPN by category
Naturally, some VPN services are better suited for specific devices or use-cases. That’s why you need to think about under what circumstances you’ll be using your VPN the most and choose the best product for those situations.
Thankfully, we already went through the trouble of testing loads of VPNs to figure out their strengths and weaknesses. Here’s a quick glance at some of the categories that we’ve covered:
What is a VPN: video explanation
If you prefer a short video explaining what a VPN is, check out the video on our Youtube channel below. It’s around three minutes long and will introduce you to the basics of VPNs.
How to set up a VPN?
Most VPNs are easy to set up and use. All you need to do is pay, sign up for the service, install the app, log in, and start using it. Even if there’s no dedicated client for a particular device, most likely, you can manually configure it using a step-by-step guide.
If for some reason, you don’t want to use the VPN app, you can download OpenVPN software and the configuration files from your provider’s website. Of course, you will be able to use only the OpenVPN tunneling protocol.
After you log in, you can choose the fastest server or any other that’s available. Just keep in mind that not all servers may be suitable for streaming or torrenting. Most providers mark specialized servers either in the app or on their website.
Want to learn more? Read our ultimate guide on setting up a VPN
Quick guide how to install a VPN
Installing a VPN on your device has never been easier. Just follow our simple step-by-step guide.
- Choose a VPN provider. We recommend NordVPN, currently 68% OFF!
- Go to their website and download the app for your device
- Install the software and log in with your credentials
- Connect to any server worldwide and revel in the benefits of a VPN
Should I use a VPN for torrenting?
You should use a VPN for torrenting, even if it’s legal in your country. For starters, your ISP and leechers can see your IP address and determine your location. Such exposure can result in a cyberattack against you or the government sending you a legal notice.
However, when you use a VPN, your traffic is encrypted, and third parties see only the server’s IP address. There’s also no way to tell what you’re downloading or seeding because data deciphering using brute force would take eons.
Is using a VPN for online streaming a good idea?
Using a VPN for streaming Netflix and other content platforms is a good idea. First and foremost, a good streaming VPN greatly expands your selection. Furthermore, a VPN can unblock Netflix libraries from different continents, in addition to streaming services that are unavailable in your country. These include Disney+, Amazon Prime, BBC iPlayer, and Hulu, among others.
With that said, you need a paid VPN to watch Netflix and other platforms. Free VPNs are easily blocked and often prove to be too slow to stream in HD quality.
VPN technical features
Here’s an explanation of many of the technical terms that you will come across when reading about VPNs. This overview includes the essential features, such as encryption and tunneling protocols, and some bonus features that not every provider includes.
Encryption ensures that the data that goes through the VPN tunnel is secured and unreadable to snoopers. Of course, not every encryption standard will do, as weaker encryption means an easier time for hackers to decipher your information.
AES (Advanced Encryption Standard) is the de facto standard in the VPN industry. It comes in either 128, 192, or 256-bit key lengths, which tell you how strong the encryption is. In this case, longer key lengths mean more effective encryption.
AES utilizes the symmetric key method, meaning that one key is used for encrypting and decrypting data. This method provides improved performance over asymmetric encryption.
A tunneling protocol defines how data travels between different networks. Simply put, tunneling protocols influence many of the main characteristics of how a VPN software works in a given situation. Some protocols, like WireGuard, are lightweight and optimized for speed. Others can be optimized for security and getting around various online censorship methods. Some are just plain outdated and only kept around because of backward compatibility with older devices.
A VPN works by rerouting your internet connection through a server in a remote location. Unsurprisingly, connecting to a server further away leads to a slower connection as the data travels a greater distance. Meanwhile, connecting to a nearby server offers almost no reduction in speed.
What follows is that a VPN with a wide selection of servers is objectively better in most cases as you can have a more optimal connection. However, there are other factors to consider as well.
For instance, A VPN provider might be renting servers from a third party, which can be considered a security flaw. To remedy this, a provider should have full ownership of their server network, although that might come with the downside of less global coverage.
Thankfully, you don’t need a separate VPN subscription to secure each of your devices. Practically all providers give you the option to connect multiple devices simultaneously with a single subscription. Between 5 to 10 connections are relatively standard and should be enough for the typical person, but, in rare cases, VPNs let you connect an unlimited number of devices. One such service is Surfshark VPN.
When connected to a VPN, the last thing that you want is for your actual IP address to leak. However, that can happen if your VPN suddenly disconnects and you’re thrown back to your regular internet connection.
A kill switch blocks your internet whenever the VPN is off. So not only does it protect your IP address from leaking, but it also ensures that you can’t do anything on the internet while not connected to the VPN. That way, you’ll never know what it’s like to have an unsecured connection again!
As the name suggests, Double VPN is a feature that routes your connection through two remote servers instead of just one.
This feature has a few advantages and disadvantages. Generally speaking, it offers more robust security by hiding your IP address and internet traffic under multiple encryption layers. Thus, your internet traffic is less likely to be leaked or intercepted by third parties. Naturally, the consequence of this is an even more significant reduction in connection speed.
Tor over VPN
Tor over VPN combines the Tor network with a VPN for a higher level of security and privacy. Tor is a browser and free online network whose purpose is to preserve users’ anonymity. It consists of volunteer routers or relays – anyone can become one.
Instead of your computer contacting a server, the traffic is sent on a journey through several of these relays. The traffic is encrypted – levels of encryption are added or removed at each relay (depending on which way the traffic is going). This process makes it very difficult for observers to track you and see what you are doing online.
Of course, we can’t cover every single feature imaginable. Besides the features mentioned above that any worthwhile VPN will have, some are just bonuses that provide more flexibility in certain situations.
- Split tunneling – this feature allows you to select which applications or websites should always go through the VPN connection and which should not. Such traffic control is handy if you need to secure a few apps at a time while keeping others on your regular connection.
- Port forwarding – with port forwarding, it’s possible to access your private network from outside. This feature is also relevant if you want to achieve faster download speeds when torrenting.
- Proxies – these can come in many different flavors, such as SOCKS5 or Shadowsocks. Essentially they are services that route your traffic through a remote server, but only for specific apps.
- Browser extensions – some browser extensions just act as proxies, while others offer more features, such as remote access to your VPN app, online tracker blocking, or browser fingerprint spoofing.
- Adblocking – one of the most annoying and sometimes dangerous aspects of browsing online is malicious ads. Luckily, some providers block a lot of ads or domains used for nefarious purposes.
- Secure cloud storage – we’re all about diversity, so it’s nice when a VPN offers different but just as essential security features, like cloud storage. One such provider is IPVanish.
VPN Privacy practices
This is one of the most contentious VPN topics, primarily due to the difficulty of knowing the behind-the-scenes practices of VPN service providers. Thus, privacy is always an approximation rather than a hard fact.
A VPN’s location is vital due to the legal and institutional context in which the company must function. Some countries like the UK have draconian data retention laws, requiring them to collect and store data about their users. Others like the US don’t have data-retention regulations but have agencies like the NSA that carry out wide-ranging surveillance operations.
Then we have countries that belong to the Fourteen Eyes intelligence alliance. Thanks to Edward Snowden, this group is known for spying on each other’s citizens and sharing collected information, among other things.
Finally, countries like China, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, or North Korea are arguably the worst places as VPN bases of operation. You can almost be sure that their governments know all there is to know about VPN users.
On the other end of the equation are countries like Switzerland (home of ProtonVPN) with rigorous privacy protection. That includes off-shore havens like the British Virgin Islands (Surfshark VPN) or Panama (NordVPN) as well.
In any case, we can group all VPNs and their privacy policies into these categories:
- Verified no-logs policy. On rare occasions, VPN providers have to cooperate with law enforcement agencies. Yet even when they do, no information about a user can be gained from the VPN servers. Such VPNs have a no-logs policy and can be trusted. Examples include Private Internet Access.
- Independently-audited no-logs policy. Some VPNs like NordVPN or VyprVPN invest in having their no-logs policies audited by a third party, which is a sign that they’re serious about your privacy.
- Minimal logging. Some providers like CyberGhost claim to do minimal logging, and we’re inclined to trust them for the time being because they rank high in other areas, such as security.
- More than minimal logging. These services, such as TunnelBear, should be used cautiously because they care less about your privacy.
- Extensive logging. Finally, we have services that collect as much data as possible and probably sell it to third parties. That’s why they have no problem with handing over your information to authorities if needed.
Another important aspect of VPN privacy is the sign-up process. Some services require personal data that includes names and addresses. Meanwhile, others will only ask for an email, which can be a throwaway account. On the other hand, Mullvad VPN is an exceptional case that uses a randomly generated number as a way to distinguish between accounts.
Additionally, paying for a VPN anonymously, for example, with either cryptocurrencies or gift cards, is crucial as well.
We’ve already mentioned tunneling protocols earlier. Here are the most commonly used ones if you’d like to further your understanding of the topic.
Deemed to be the next-gen tunneling protocol, WireGuard is relatively new. However, some providers like Surfshark VPN or VyprVPN have already implemented it. In the next few years, WireGuard should be available on most premium VPNs because its speed and safety are unparalleled. What’s more, this open-source protocol is easy to implement and audit.
Arguably the most popular tunneling protocol, OpenVPN, is supported by virtually every VPN. It’s open-source, very secure, and supports all major platforms. OpenVPN works with either UDP or TCP network protocols, where the former is faster, but the latter is more stable.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to configure and audit on devices with weak processors, such as old routers or smart TVs. Furthermore, it’s also easy to detect by Deep Packet Inspection (DPI).
Another standard protocol, especially on mobile devices, IKEv2, brings security and speed. It’s usually implemented together with IPSec protocol, where IKEv2 does the transport part, and IPSec ensures safety. This protocol has native support on iOS, so expect to see it on the mobile versions of most VPNs. IKEv2’s biggest drawback is that it’s not open-source and cannot be audited.
Just like IKEv2, it’s made out of two protocols and is most often used on iOS mobile devices. L2TP/IPSec is still quite common but already outdated, so you should avoid using it whenever possible. That’s because Snowden leaks have confirmed that the US government may have hacked L2TP/IPSec.
SSTP is a less popular protocol, mostly because Microsoft created it and works only on Windows, with some exceptions. It’s hard to block by using DPI and can pass firewalls pretty easily. However, there are some concerns that Microsoft may have a backdoor for accessing SSTP traffic.
PPTP is a rare, totally outdated, and not secure protocol that you shouldn’t be using. Just like SSTP, it was developed by Microsoft. The problem is that this happened back when Windows 95 was the latest OS. Although it’s quite fast, this comes at the cost of safety, which is simply too high.
A VPN is so much more than just an online security tool. Different aspects make these programs capable of many things, such as unblocking geographically restricted content, protecting personal data, hiding your browsing habits from your ISP, data brokers, and even your government. What matters is that you choose the best VPN for your specific need.
You may also like to read:
How to watch Netflix with a VPN
How to change Netflix region
Best VPN for crypto trading
Should I leave my VPN on all the time?
How to change region on Steam
How to watch ITV Hub from anywhere
What is a VPN and why do I need it?
A VPN is a security tool that routes your internet traffic through a remote server while encrypting it in the process. Because of this, your online activities are hidden and kept confidential. Furthermore, by routing your traffic through a server in a different country, you can circumvent various geographical restrictions.
Are VPNs safe to use?
Most premium VPNs are safe to use and improve your overall security. However, some free VPNs are used to collect your data and sell it to advertisers. Additionally, unverified software could contain malware.
Can you be tracked through a VPN?
No, using a VPN makes you completely anonymous and untraceable. However, an untrustworthy VPN could be logging your data and sharing that information with other parties, such as governments and marketing companies.
Should I leave my VPN on all the time?
Leaving a VPN on all the time is not mandatory, but it is recommended. It will ensure that your actual IP address does not leak, your true location remains hidden, and you avoid various inconveniences from switching your IP constantly.
Ethan is a security researcher and digital privacy advocate. He spends his time unraveling various anonymity and security tools, plus contributing to open-source projects. Otherwise, he keeps a low profile by hiking or cycling around the countryside.