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What is a VPN and why do you need one?

VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. But what can it do for you? Let's take a look.

Published onJune 4, 2021

VPN stock photo 4
Edgar Cervantes / Android Authority

Security and privacy on the Internet are major concerns these days. We keep a lot of personal information on our phones and computers after all. If privacy is important to you, we really recommend using a VPN (Virtual Private Network). It’s a term you have likely heard in the context of privacy, and maybe even geolocation. But what is a VPN, and what can it do for you? Let’s take a look.

Why you need a VPN?

data path without VPN

Before diving into what a VPN does, let’s look at why you may need one. Most of what people do on the Internet doesn’t need to be hidden. What if you wanted to access something that’s a bit more sensitive, though? Say if you’re looking up information about a disease or an emotional problem, or a subject that is taboo in your country? Having your ISP know what adult websites you’re visiting isn’t ideal either. All of a sudden the idea of a bit of privacy is more important.

There is also the issue of public Wi-Fi hotspots. In a lot of countries, access to Wi-Fi is available everywhere and often for free. Be it a school or college campus, a shopping mall, or coffee shops and restaurants, getting online is easier than ever. However, many of these free Wi-Fi hotspots are completely open and without any encryption.

You don’t know what equipment is being used or what snooping is going on. What’s much worse though is the fact that it’s surprisingly easy for someone to capture all the packets that are being transferred by being connected to the same open network. Pulling out a password and capturing a list of websites and services that you are using is possible. More malicious actors can even set up fake hotspots just to steal your info.

If you don’t use a VPN, you should never do anything like access online banking or PayPal when connected to public Wi-Fi!

Finally, there’s also the problem of geolocation. Some content is blocked in certain countries, because of either politics or business. A benign example might be my needing to access local content on a streaming service while I’m traveling. After all, no one wants to miss the big game or the latest episode of their favorite shows. Unfortunately, licensing issues and other geolocation restrictions mean that I can’t access what I want when I’m away. A VPN lets me circumvent this restriction.

What is a VPN, anyway?

data path with a VPN

So what is a VPN? A VPN allows your data to go over an encrypted connection from your devices to another point on the Internet, likely in another country, and then make its way onto the public Internet.

The upshot of this encrypted connection is that your data has the IP address that is assigned to the other end of the tunnel, not your home. That means that when you connect to a web server, the IP address it sees is of the VPN endpoint. So if you access a sensitive site, your IP address and location are not exposed. When it comes to the geolocation issue while traveling, you can connect to a VPN server in your country and access content to make it appear as though you’re back home.

There is also another surprising benefit. Some online services charge different amounts depending on your location. There are quite a few examples of how users get flight tickets for significantly cheaper by using a VPN and switching to another location. I’ve personally not had much success in this regard, but there have definitely been small but noticeable differences in price.

How do VPNs work?

express vpn connected

The first thing you need is to find a VPN provider. Express VPN is my VPN service of choice, but there are a lot of factors that go into picking the right one for you that we’ll discuss further. You’ll likely need to sign up with an email address and provide some form of payment info. Some VPNs consider your privacy in this instance too and let you pay using cryptocurrencies.

Depending on the service provider, you will either need to set up the VPN manually or use an app. The latter is certainly the preferred option, but setting up a VPN manually on any device isn’t too hard either. Most VPNs come with desktop and smartphone apps that automate the whole process. You can also find services that let you easily set up a VPN on gaming consoles, smart TVs, and operating systems like Linux.

Once you have a VPN configured or an app installed you need to connect to a server. On most apps, it’s as simple as choosing a location and tapping on a “connect” button. What happens now is that your device will make an encrypted connection to the VPN server in whichever country you picked.

Now all your Internet traffic (including DNS lookups) will go down this encrypted tunnel before it hits the public Internet. When it exits the tunnel and travels on further it will bear the IP address of the VPN server and not your IP address. When data comes back it heads first to the server and then the server sends it back to you along that encrypted tunnel.

If you are wondering, the data still needs to go over your Wi-Fi to your router/modem and then to your ISP. However, now all that data is protected and isn’t decrypted until it hits the VPN server. This way, your service provider, or anybody else attempting to track your traffic or steal your information, can only see encrypted data.

How to choose the right VPN

Speedtest VPN

A lot of elements go into what the best VPN for you is. There are hundreds of options available and makes picking one a little harder. Let’s take a look at the key factors you need to consider.

  • Free vs paid VPNs: Paid VPNs offer a far better quality of service with no ads, data caps, or speed throttling, and more security and privacy features. There are a few decent options that are free. However, a paid service is a much better way to go if you are serious about your online privacy and security.
  • Privacy: The best VPNs keep zero activity or connection logs like ExpressVPN, NordVPN, and IPVanish. Others may keep connection logs only, so it depends on whether you are comfortable with that. Those that keep all logs are a complete no go.
  • Where the VPN is based: This is another key factor, as the country’s privacy and data retention laws may come into play. ExpressVPN is based in the British Virgin Islands, which is fine. IPVanish promises zero logging, but it is based in the US, which can be concerning.
  • Where you are: Your location plays an important role as far as deciding which VPN is best for you. For example, if a VPN service has no servers close to your location, you won’t get the best speeds.
  • Security: You get different security features with different VPNs. You should look for features like kill switches. This helps protect your data even if the VPN connection drops by blocking all Internet traffic. Some add IPv6 and DNS leak protection to the mix. Others have even more advanced features like obfuscation, specialty servers, double servers, and more.
  • Usage: Not every VPN lets you do everything you might want to. For example, SaferVPN features only one location for P2P, while some, like TunnelBear, don’t allow it at all.
  • Ease of use: Almost every VPN service is very easy to use, but some are simpler and less feature-packed (which can be a good thing) than others. SaferVPN is one of the simplest VPNs around in terms of bells and whistles. That said, services like PureVPN and Cyberghost completely takes the guesswork out of server selection with its modes.
  • Pricing: Pricing is often the most important factor when choosing anything. ExpressVPN is at the upper end of the pricing spectrum. There are a bunch of excellent options that are relatively affordable too. In every case, significant discounts are provided if you opt for long-term plans. Special offers and deals are also often available.

Related: Best VPN Apps for Android

Are there any negative aspects to using a VPN?

VPN stock photo 3
Edgar Cervantes / Android Authority

VPNs are the best way to address online privacy and security issues. Nothing is perfect, though, and VPNs are no different.

The biggest downside to using a VPN is speed. You are basically sending your data to another location before it heads to the right web server. This, unfortunately, means that VPN connection speeds will always be slower than your regular, non-VPN speed. Depending on the server location you are connected to, the drop can be quite significant.

Along the same lines is the server load. A VPN provider has finite resources and a server may get overloaded if there are too many simultaneous connections. Connection speeds may drop or you may be unable to connect at all. Luckily, most good VPN services feature multiple servers at every location.

A VPN connection can drop unexpectedly as well. If you don’t notice this change, you will continue to use the Internet while thinking your information is safe when it no longer is. Once again, most VPNs have a way around this issue with something called a kill switch. This feature basically blocks all Internet traffic if the VPN connection drops and only works again when it reconnects.

Using a VPN is also outlawed in some countries. Often because they offer anonymity, privacy, and encryption. Some VPN services claim to work in these places, though. However, it’s a risk that you may not be willing to take since associated punishments can often be quite harsh.

Lastly, some online services have a system to detect the use of VPNs. If they think someone is connecting via a VPN, they can block access. Netflix is one such service that goes out of its way to block access to VPN users.

Read next: What can VPNs do with your data?

Our VPN recommendations

express vpn logo

There are a lot of VPN services out there. I highly recommend ExpressVPN, though. It’s one of the simplest VPNs around, supports multiple platforms and devices, and provides excellent connection speeds as well. It’s on the more expensive side though and not everyone may like that.

See also: How to set up a VPN on Android, Windows, and other platforms

NordVPN and ExpressVPN are usually duking it out for the top spot. Nord boasts a truly impressive number of servers and has a lot more security features. Its long term plans also make it one of the cheapest VPNs you can get. ExpressVPN has the edge in terms of speed though, but your experience may be different from mine.

Cyberghost is another personal favorite. I like how simple it makes the connection experience by sorting everything into modes and categories. A huge number of servers, great security features like malware blocking, and an affordable price tag all work in its favor. Connection speeds were an issue, but that’s also improved time.

I’ve also done reviews of more services like BullGuard, SaferVPN, StrongVPN, PureVPN, VPN Unlimited, and IPVanish. There are also many more in the works, including one I’m particularly excited to try out right now — SurfShark.

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