What Is a VPN and Why You Should Use One

VPNs are affordable, legal, and a great way to keep your internet activity (mostly) away from prying eyes.

Have you ever cracked open your laptop at Starbucks to get some work done on the public Wi-Fi connection?

Even if you don’t use public Wi-Fi, you’re probably well aware by now that everything you do online is tracked. Yup, your internet service provider (ISP),1 companies that want to market ads at you, and possibly even hackers are probably logging everything you do online right now.

It’s always a good idea to protect your online privacy, even if you’re not on public Wi-Fi. And virtual private networks (VPNs) are an easy way to add an extra layer of security so you can surf the web in peace.

What is a VPN?

When you use a VPN, it creates a secure pathway from your computer to the websites you visit. It does this by encrypting the connection from your computer to a VPN server, then connecting you to the website you’re viewing.

Encryption is a high-tech way to convert all your information into a secret code. Only the person (or computer) with the key to the code can read it. And because VPNs encrypt all of your information before you even access the internet, not even your ISP can see what you’re doing online.

Light Bulb icon
What's an IP address?
An IP address comes from your internet provider. It’s an exact address that attaches to everything you do online, whether that’s googling cat photos or emailing your boss. That also means that every online place you visit knows exactly where you’re located thanks to your IP address.

VPN servers can be located in different cities in the US—or even in different countries like the UK, Sweden, or Germany. This helps protect you from advertisements targeting certain geographical areas. And since the VPN makes it look like you’re surfing the web from a flat in England, it’s also possible to bypass region restrictions on certain sites.

You can almost think of a VPN like a goalie protecting its turf—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.

Light Bulb icon
What's a server?
A server is essentially a big computer that stores a lot of data. Every website in existence is stored on some server somewhere and all those websites’ servers put together help make up the internet.

What VPNs can’t do

Even if you use a VPN, there are still ways for companies to track your path across the internet even after you’ve left their sites.

One example is cookies, which create a sort of user profile when you visit a site and allow that site to follow you around on your online journey. (But you can easily delete cookies whenever you want.)

It’s also important to remember that most VPNs operate on a for-profit basis, meaning they need money to survive and continue selling their services. They also have to follow any laws or restrictions the country they’re based in imposes. That potentially includes subpoenas and warrants.

Heads Up icon
Heads up
Using a VPN can slow down your internet connection a bit because it has to route through an additional server. They also don’t work well with satellite internet.

Is a VPN legal?

Short answer: yes, but not everywhere. VPNs are legal in the US, Canada, and most other Western countries.

There are some countries where VPNs are totally banned—mostly countries with super-restrictive governments like Iran, North Korea, China, and Russia.

Heads Up icon
Warning: VPNs don't make illegal things OK
Even though VPNs themselves are legal, that doesn’t mean you can use them to do absolutely anything you want. You shouldn’t use a VPN to do stuff online that’s against the law or against a user agreement, like buy drugs or access streaming content that’s not available in your area.

Illegal things are still illegal, and violating your user agreement is a good way to get your streaming service shut down.

Keep in mind, 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 Pyongyang just because it’s legal in your home country.

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 provider

Different VPNs use different methods to keep your data away from the baddies. And, surprise surprise, some of these methods (called “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.

Somewhat secure VPN protocols

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.

Secure VPN protocols

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.

Extremely secure VPN protocols

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!

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.

You can look at various VPN providers and see which protocols they use. Keep in mind, which ones you can use will also depend on what type of device you have.

One more thing: when you look for a VPN provider, it’s best to choose one that keeps “no logs.” That means it 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 and it could potentially get out.

Should you use a free VPN?

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. VPNs are usually not very expensive—most cost less than $10 per month.

Our picks: The best VPN providers

The best VPNs 2020
NordVPN$3.49–$11.95/mo.AES-256, OpenVPN, IKEv2/IPsec5,293 servers, 62 countriesView Plans
Tunnel Bear$4.17/mo.AES-2561,000+ servers, 23 countriesView Plans
Private Internet Access$2.91–$9.95/mo.OpenVPN, L2TP/IPsec, PPTP3,335+ servers, 30 countriesView Plans
IPVanish$3.25–$5/mo.OpenVPN, IKEv2, L2TP, IPsec, PPTP900 servers, 60 countriesView Plans
Express VPN$8.32–$12.95/mo.AES-256160 servers, 94 countriesView Plans
CyberGhost$4.99–$12.99/mo.AES-2565,900 servers, 89+ countriesView Plans
Norton Secure VPN$4.99–$9.99/mo.AES-2561,500 servers, 29 countriesView Plans
Perfect Privacy$8.95–$12.99/mo.OpenVPN and IPsec/IKEv236 servers, 26 countriesView Plans
VyprVPN$12.95/mo.OpenVPN, L2TP/IPsec, PPTP700+ servers, 70+ countriesView Plans
Buffered VPN$4.12–$12.99/mo.AES-256500+ servers, 37 countriesView Plans

Recap: Should you use a VPN?

You should use a VPN to protect your privacy from hackers, search engines, companies, or anyone else you don’t want watching you on the internet. Especially if you use public Wi-Fi at the airport, Starbucks, library, or elsewhere. VPNs stand between you and the websites you visit so your data isn’t as vulnerable to leaks and theft.

We recommend the following five VPNs based on the type of encryption they use, whether they keep logs, and the country they’re based out of.

  • NordVPN: No logs, up to 6 protected devices at a time, AES-256 and OpenVPN protocols, 5,000+ servers, based in Panama.
  • Tunnel Bear: No logs, up to 5 protected devices at a time, AES-256 encryption, 1,000+ servers, based in Canada.
  • Private Internet Access: No logs, up to 10 protected devices at a time, OpenVPN and L2TP/IPsec protocols, 3,000+ servers, based in the US.
  • IPVanish: No logs, up to 10 protected devices at a time, OpenVPN, L2TP/IPsec, and other protocols, 900 servers, based in the US.
  • Express VPN: No logs, up to 3 protected devices at a time, AES-256 encryption, 160 servers, based in the British Virgin Islands.
  • Cyber Ghost: No logs, up to 7 protected devices at a time, AES-256 encryption, 5,000+ servers, based in Romania.
  • Norton Secure VPN: No logs, 1–10 protected devices at a time, OpenVPN, and IPsec protocols, 1,500+ servers, based in the US.
  • Perfect Privacy: No logs, unlimited protected devices, OpenVPN and IKEv2/IPsec protocols, 36 servers, based in Switzerland.
  • VyprVPNNo logs, 3–5 protected devices at a time, OpenVPN and L2TP/IPsec protocols, 700+ servers, based in Switzerland.
  • Buffered VPN: No logs, up to 5 devices at a time, AES-256 encryption, 500+ servers, based in Gibraltar.

We recommend installing your VPN service directly on your router so it covers your entire private network, and you should definitely use a VPN anytime you use a public Wi-Fi network to get on the internet.

Do you use a VPN? Do you think it’s worth it for privacy protection? Let us know in the comments!

Need a better internet provider?

Compare internet prices and plans in your area.

Additional contributors

Mindy Woodall

  • bob

    God damn why do so many websites keep recommending Nord and ipvanish? They’ve already been proven to not deliver what they promise.