What Is a VPN and Why You Need One
VPNs, or virtual private networks, are affordable, legal, and a great way to keep your internet activity (mostly) away from prying eyes.
Even if you don’t use the public Wi-Fi at a café or the library, you’re probably already aware that almost everything you do online is tracked. Hello, suspiciously timed ads for a yodeling pickle you jokingly linked to your friends last Tuesday . . .
(It’s real, Google it. But beware, you’ll probably get ads for it after you do that.)
That’s right, your internet service provider (ISP) or any company that makes money by marketing ads to you is probably logging everything you do online right now. And possibly hackers too.
We don’t mean to freak you out. Even the thought of those odd ads for yodeling pickles are unnerving. But we want to stress that it’s always a good idea to protect your online privacy. Even if you’re not using public Wi-Fi.
The good news is, a virtual private network (VPN) is an easy—and often cheap—way to add an extra layer of security so you can surf the web in peace.
It’s always a good idea to protect your online privacy, even if you’re not on public Wi-Fi. And VPNs are an easy way to add an extra layer of security so you can surf the web in peace.
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What is a VPN?
In a nutshell, a VPN is software that builds an encrypted connection from your computer to a VPN server, and then to your ISP, which sends you to the website you want to visit. This is sometimes called the VPN tunnel, and it creates a secure connection to the website. Now prying eyes can’t watch what you do online—even if you’re shopping for creepy green vegetables that shout yodel-ay-ee-hoo!
You can think of a VPN like a goalie protecting its net—in this case, your computer and private data.
When another player tries to track your internet activity or gain access to your info, the VPN blocks it. The only ones who get to know what you’re doing online are the VPN and whatever website you’re visiting.
What is encryption?
Encryption converts all your information into a secret code so that only the person (or computer) with the key to the code can read it.
A VPN can also mask your IP address to give you even more privacy online. Your IP address is assigned to you by your internet provider and is a unique series of numbers that attaches to everything you do online.
That means every online place you visit knows exactly where you’re located thanks to your IP address. But a VPN hides your personal IP address. Instead, the IP address of the VPN server you connect to is what shows up online.
What is a VPN server?
Servers are essentially storehouses of data—every website in existence is stored on a server (or servers), and VPN servers are no exception.
VPN servers are set up to host users and connect them to the internet, but they’re also configured to encrypt and decrypt the data you send and receive from websites online. (The data needs to be decrypted so your computer or mobile device can read it.)
Another way VPN servers are unique is that they’re often located in different countries, like the US, UK, Sweden, or Germany. By hosting servers in different cities and countries, a VPN protects you from ads targeting certain geographical regions.
What’s more, if a VPN connection can make it look like you’re surfing the web from a condo in California or a flat in London, it’s also possible for you to get around region restrictions on certain websites or apps.
What VPNs can’t do
VPNs may seem like a miracle when it comes to securing your online privacy. But there are a few things they can’t do, such as fully prevent companies from tracking your information or speed up your internet.
Cookies can still track your information online
Even if you use a VPN, there are still ways for ad companies to track your path across the internet even after you’ve left their sites.
One example is cookies. You can think of cookies like a sort of digital ID card that you show to websites you visit online. That ID card includes information about you, like what pages on a website you visit, what’s in your shopping cart when you shop online, and any personal information you’ve volunteered, like your name.
With ad companies, the cookies you create can contain information about multiple sites you’ve visited if those sites all contain ads that are managed by one advertising company.
There is good news, though. Cookies don’t give these ad companies or websites access to your computer or any personal information you haven’t purposefully shared online. And cookies can’t infect your computer or device with viruses or malware.
Also, you can easily delete cookies whenever you want.
VPNs won’t make your internet faster
You should also know that a VPN can’t speed up your internet. Actually, a VPN will probably do the opposite and slow down your connection. That’s because you need to connect to both your ISP’s server and the VPN server to encrypt your online identity and traffic.
And if you choose a server that’s located far away from your current location, it takes more time for your internet connection to travel there and back.
It’s likely you won’t notice much of a change if you’re on a decent NBN connection. But this is the main reason we don’t recommend using a VPN with satellite NBN internet—because your internet connection already needs to travel thousands of miles above the Earth and back.
Using a VPN with satellite internet isn’t recommended
This is because of latency, or the time it takes for your data to travel from your computer to the VPN server, then to the satellite, and on to the website you’re visiting.
VPNs still have to follow laws in the countries they’re based in
You should also know that a VPN still has to follow laws and restrictions imposed by the country it’s based in. That potentially includes subpoenas and warrants, which means a VPN may have to comply if asked to hand over your internet history.
Is a VPN legal?
Short answer: yes, but not everywhere. VPNs are legal in most Western countries.
But there are some countries where VPNs are totally banned—mostly countries with super-restrictive governments like Iraq, China, and Russia.
It’s also important to know that, while a VPN is legal, it doesn’t make illegal acts okay. This includes illegal activity like downloading copyrighted information, such as songs or movies, cyberstalking, and hacking computers or networks.
Also, using a VPN to get around geo-restrictions, like streaming a TV show that’s only available in the US, is still likely a violation of the streaming app’s Terms of Service and could result in your account getting banned.
Where are VPNs banned?
The legality of your VPN depends on where you are at any given moment, not where you’re from. You can’t hop on your VPN during a vacation to Shanghai just because it’s legal in your home country.
Here’s a current list of countries where VPNs are illegal2:
- North Korea
- United Arab Emirates
We also mentioned that VPN providers have to follow the laws of the countries they’re located in.
For example, if your VPN provider is located in a country where the government could legally make VPNs hand over information, then your VPN could potentially hand over your personal information to a foreign government.
Even if you personally don’t live in the same country as your VPN provider, your info could still be compromised.
How to choose a VPN
There are lots of VPN providers to choose from out there, but deciding on one might be a little confusing. Which VPN will actually secure your internet connection and protect your data?
Here are a few quick things you should look for when choosing a VPN service:
Choose a secure protocol
VPN providers use lots of different methods, or protocols, to keep your data away from baddies. And some protocols are more secure than others.
You don’t need to know the technical details of how each protocol works (unless you really want to). You just need to know which ones are the most secure. Keep in mind, which protocols you can use will also depend on what type of device you have.
|Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP)||Somewhat secure|
|Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol with IPsec (L2TP/IPsec)||Secure|
|Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol (SSTP)||Extremely secure|
|Internet Key Exchange, version 2 (IKEv2)||Extremely secure|
|Advanced Encryption Standard (AES)||Extremely secure|
Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP): PPTP is one of the oldest protocols around—Microsoft developed it in the 1990s. PPTP gives you a really fast connection and it works even on older devices. But its security isn’t the best—it can be cracked.
Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol with IPsec (L2TP/IPsec): L2TP/IPsec is a little bit newer than PPTP, and it’s more secure, but it’s also slower. Some websites that use firewalls might also block your L2TP/IPsec connection, which is annoying.
Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol (SSTP): SSTP is super secure but works only on Windows devices, so you can’t use it on your Macbook or iPhone. On the bright side, SSTP doesn’t get blocked by firewalls as much as L2TP/IPsec.
Internet Key Exchange, Version 2 (IKEv2): You can use IKEv2 on basically any device (except Linux-based systems) and it’s very secure. It’s also faster than some other protocols like L2TP/IPsec.
Advanced Encryption Standard (AES): AES is recommended by governments and cybersecurity experts, including the NSA. It’s typically used with 256-bit keys, which means it has 2^256 potential key combinations. Yow!
Just how many combinations is 2^256?
Uhh, yeah. That’s a huge number of combinations. So you can imagine how much time and money it would take for someone to crack AES security protocols. They’d be sillier than a yodeling pickle to try it.
OpenVPN: OpenVPN uses open source code, meaning that it’s constantly analyzed and updated by cybersecurity experts worldwide. Chances are that when a new bug is found, OpenVPN is updated first.
Look for a “no logs” policy
When you look for a VPN provider, it’s best to choose one that keeps “no logs.” That means the VPN provider doesn’t keep any records of who you are or your online activity.
If your VPN provider does keep logs, then there’s a record of you somewhere in the world. That means information about your online shopping habits, that one time you illegally torrented a movie, and even your dive into the dark rabbit hole that is yodeling veggies could potentially get out.
Paying for a VPN is almost always worth it
There are some free VPNs, but we recommend paying for one if you want to ensure your data is kept secure and your VPN provider isn’t selling it on the side. Seriously, this has been known to happen3,4—and many well-known, free VPNs collect and store your data.
How much does a VPN cost?
VPNs are usually not very expensive—most cost less than $10 per month. That means a VPN is likely still within your budget. And we’ve got a list of the best budget VPNs in case you’re interested.
|Brand||Price||Number of VPN servers||Most powerful feature||Details|
|NordVPN||US$11.95/mo.||5,760||Free malware protection software||View Plans|
|Hotspot Shield||US$7.99/mo.||3,200+||Free password manager||View Plans|
|ExpressVPN||US$12.95/mo.||3,000+||Best interface that’s clear and easy to use||View Plans|
|CyberGhost||US$12.99/mo.||6,200||Access on up to seven devices||View Plans|
|PureVPN||US$10.95/mo.||2,000+||Includes innovative "mode" settings||View Plans|
Recap: What’s a VPN and should you use one?
A VPN (virtual private network) creates a secure connection when you use the internet and protects you from hackers, search engines, invasive pickle ads, and anyone else you don’t want watching you online.
We recommend using a VPN any time you’re online, but especially if you use public Wi-Fi at the airport, a cafe, the library, or elsewhere. VPNs stand between you and the websites you visit so your data isn’t as vulnerable to leaks and theft. And if you’re at home, it’s a good idea to install your VPN service directly on your router so it protects your entire private network.
Do you use a VPN? Do you think it’s worth it for online privacy? Let us know in the comments!
- The Mozilla Blog, “The USA Freedom Act and Browsing History”
- Comparitech, “Where are VPNs Legal and Where are They Banned?”
- Norton, “Are Free VPNs Safe? 7 Things to Know Before Using Free VPNs”
- Digital Trends, “Hola! Hola Found to Be Selling Users’ Bandwidth as Botnet”