VPN Comprehensive Guide

Tyler Abbott
Feb 21, 2023
Icon Time To Read11 min read

Welcome to a comprehensive guide explaining everything you need to know about a virtual private network (VPN). VPN usage basically boils down to two main features: security and privacy. In this guide, we’ll cover everything from setting up your VPN to work with Netflix, to using a VPN for online banking.

If you want to dive deeper into each VPN, we’ve also reviewed most of the popular VPN apps available, created guides for specific types of users, and have also compared the most popular VPN apps in a head-to-head round-up. It’s all available here.

How much should I pay for a VPN?

You can definitely find free VPNs, but don’t expect them to work well. For testing purposes, I used a free VPN chrome extension for the past couple weeks, and while it technically connected to a server in Oregon, there was no guarantee that my online data would get encrypted. In other words, the free VPN was totally useless as a security measure.

If you want actual online protection, you’ll need to pay for it. Pricing tends to run around $10 or $12 per month, but these apps are much cheaper if you pay by the year. Check out the prices below to get an idea of what you should pay for a VPN.

VPN pricing comparison
VPN
Monthly price
Annual price (by month)
Learn more
Ultrasurf

Ultrasurf

Free

Free

Hotspot Shield

Hotspot Shield

$12.99/mo.

$7.99/mo.

Norton SecureVPN

Norton Secure VPN

$7.99/mo.

$3.33/mo.

Private Internet Access VPN

Private Internet Access

$11.95/mo.

$3.33/mo.

Tunnel Bear

TunnelBear

$4.17/mo.

$4.99/mo.

Ip Vanish

IPVanish

$9.99/mo.

$3.75/mo.

Surfshark

Surfshark

$12.95/mo.

$3.99/mo.

Nord VPN

NordVPN

$11.99/mo.

$4.99/mo.

ExpressVPN

ExpressVPN

$12.95/mo.

$8.32/mo.

Cyberghost

CyberGhost

$12.99/mo.

$3.95/mo.

What is a VPN and how does it work?

A virtual private network (VPN) works by creating an online connection between your computer and a secure server. For example, if you are using a laptop in Las Vegas and enable a VPN, it might connect to a server in Chicago. While using a VPN, all of your online activity becomes encrypted and prevents unauthorized access. You can stream files, make back-ups to the cloud, access websites, download movies, and play games knowing your internet activity is safe.

VPNs come in the form of an app you install on your phone or a client you use on a laptop or desktop. It protects your internet connection by adding encryption on the fly. If you visit a website that is not secure, your internet connection back at home will stay protected because of the VPN. On a public wireless network, for example, a hacker would not be able to tap into your computer and steal your credit card and other data.

A VPN has become pretty much essential. Especially in an age of criminal hacking, invasion of privacy, and tracking what you do online—we can’t emphasize it enough: with a VPN, you are protected, and without one, your data could become compromised.

What are the different types of VPNs available?

Without going too deep in the weeds about VPN technology, there are two main types of VPNs on the market. Each type has a slightly different purpose, and we’ll outline that below.

First, there’s something called a remote access VPN. This is the VPN you’ll need for personal use. A remote access VPN works by connecting you to a secure server in a different location. Connecting to another server will encrypt your data and help keep your personal information away from cybercriminals.

Next there are site-to-site VPNs. These are the VPNs people use when they’re part of a large company and need to access data from their team. Many government organizations or non-governmental organizations (NGOs) end up using site-to-site VPNs to protect sensitive data. Large companies or businesses often use private networks to encourage collaboration and secure their information.

Chances are, if you’re looking for a personal VPN for your own PC or household, you’ll want to use a remote access VPN, like NordVPN.

Why do I need a VPN?

Everytime you go online without a VPN, you reveal information (like your location and which websites you visit) to advertisers, the website owners, and even government agencies—not to mention hackers.

If you use a VPN, you obscure your personal information. When you enter your credit card number, date of birth, and your address to register for a new app, for example, the VPN encrypts and secures that data so it can’t be hacked.

Using a VPN isn’t the only thing you should do to protect your info
Heads Up

Keep in mind that hackers are known to use social engineering tactics that can still compromise your accounts—someone might try to call you and ask for a password, for example. Always be mindful of who you give your personal information to.

What kind of information do websites collect?

Here’s some of your data that websites try to collect from you. Once they get this data, it can easily be sold to the highest bidder. This is also the kind of data that will remain safe if you use a VPN while browsing the internet.

Information on how you interact with the web. Facebook is widely known for tracking how you interact with websites even outside the Facebook app. In order to produce better, more targeted ads, websites can collect patterns based on your browsing history and the web browser you use.

Your IP address. Any website you visit at any time can collect your IP address and circumvent private internet browsing. Every person needs an IP address to access the internet. Your IP address can lead back to you and your approximate location when you accessed the internet. By itself, your IP address doesn’t reveal too much about you. But if it’s paired with other personal information, it could reveal more info about you than you want it to.

Cookies. These are tiny text files that you can collect when visiting many websites. Cookies help other websites keep track of your personal preferences. On the one hand, this can be helpful when you’re searching the same thing or trying to find an old website you signed into. It helps keep your browsing history for you. However, cookies are often used by websites for marketing and advertising. Cookies can collect info from site-to-site or from page-to-page.

Information about your browser. Websites can often see which browser you’re using. While this might not seem like a big deal at first, your browser can make it easier for websites to use cookies. The browser itself collects information (browsing history) about which accounts you’ve signed into. All of this stored information makes your internet experience less private.

Best VPN for beginners

Now that you’ve got the basics of what a VPN is and how it works, it’s time to take a look at different VPN providers. To get you started, here’s our picks for the best VPN providers for beginners:

Best VPN providers for beginners
Brand
Price
“How to use” videos and instructions
Money-back guarantee
Details

VPNSecure

$9.95/mo.

Lists easy-to-use instructions in separate categories for each application

90-day refund based on specific requirements

Norton Secure VPN

$5.00/mo.

Includes step-by-step instructions for Windows, Mac, Android, and iOS

Unusual 60-day refund policy

Surfshark

$11.95/mo.

Has a ‘beginners guide’ with helpful instructions for every platform

30-day money-back guarantee

VPN Secure

A top-rated VPN with a cheap 30-day trial.

With its great trial policy, VPNSecure makes a lot of sense for test driving a new VPN. You'll only pay a buck for the first month of service, which should give you ample time to decide whether VPNSecure is a good fit for you or not.

VPNSecure does require that you state your displeasure by chat or email and work with tech support to resolve any issues, but if you decide to part ways, they do allow that. VPNSecure also has clear and helpful instructions so you can learn how to optimize and use your VPN service, even if it’s your first time.

VPNSecure plans and prices
Brand
Price
“How to use” videos and instructions
Money-back guarantee
Details

VPNSecure

$9.95/mo.

Lists easy-to-use instructions in separate categories for each application

90-day refund based on specific requirements

What stands out about VPNSecure?

  • 30-day trial period
  • Highly rated VPN
  • Online privacy
  • Great instructions
  • Mobile device compatible (Android and iOS app)

Want to know more? Read our full-length VPNSecure review.

Norton Secure VPN

A 60-day return policy makes Norton Secure VPN our second pick.

Second only to VPNSecure is the highly rated Norton Secure VPN. You’ll find clear and helpful instructions for using the VPN app on a laptop or smartphone, stated in a way that will get you up and running quickly.

Norton is well-known for being a professional security company, and it knows how to present features in a clear interface. The 60-day refund policy is offered with the annual membership and allows you to try out all of the features in the full version.

Norton Secure VPN plans and prices
Brand
Price
“How to use” videos and instructions
Money-back guarantee
Details

Norton Secure VPN

$5.00/mo.

Includes step-by-step instructions for Windows, Mac, Android, and iOS

Unusual 60-day refund policy

What stands out about Norton Secure VPN?

  • 60-day return policy with annual membership
  • Clear install instructions
  • Online privacy
  • Reliable and secure VPN overall
  • Mobile device compatible (Android and iOS app)

Want to know more? Read our full-length Norton Secure VPN review.

Surfshark

A 30-day return policy is nice, but this is also a reliable VPN overall.

Surfshark is an impressive, powerful, and easy-to-use VPN, which makes it a bit surprising that there’s a 30-day return policy for new VPN users. You can kick the tires all you want, but we’ve found the interface to be one of the best around. Another bonus is that this VPN includes helpful instructions they call “beginner’s guides'' for new VPN users.

Surfshark plans and prices
Brand
Price
“How to use” videos and instructions
Money-back guarantee
Details

Surfshark

$11.95/mo.

Has a ‘beginners guide’ with helpful instructions for every platform

30-day money-back guarantee

What stands out about Surfshark VPN?

  • 30-day refund policy
  • Beginner’s guides for new users
  • Online privacy
  • Clear and efficient interface
  • Mobile VPN (Android and iOS app)

Want to know more? Read our full-length Surfshark review.

Can I use a VPN with Netflix?

Ever wanted to stream something from another country on Netflix? Of course you have. That’s probably half the reason why you’re investigating VPNs in the first place. Well, we’re happy to report that you can definitely stream Netflix while using a VPN.

Why does Netflix block VPNs?

Netflix has many country-specific content agreements with different producers and networks. These agreements mean users can only access this content when they (or their IP address) are in a certain geographic area.

For example, you can watch Resident Evil: Retribution on Netflix in Canada, but not in the US. Meanwhile, the hit crime drama NCIS is available on Netflix in the United States, but nowhere else.

Netflix tries to block VPN access to its content to honor these country-specific agreements. However, many VPNs are good at getting through Netflix’s firewalls. But just because you can use a VPN to access content outside your country, doesn’t mean you should—this violates Netflix’s terms of service.

Can Netflix ban you for using a VPN?

We’re not lawyers, but it seems like the general consensus is that it isn’t technically illegal to trick Netflix into thinking you’re in another country using a VPN. But that doesn’t mean Netflix likes it when you do this.

Netflix can ban you or any of its users for any reason, we assume (but again, we’re not lawyers). It could certainly ban you for breaking their terms of service. However, we haven’t found any accounts of users being banned for using a VPN to stream content from another country. But Netflix will block certain content if it thinks you’re using a VPN to access foreign movies and shows.

Of course, you’re not doing anything wrong if you use a VPN server in your own country to use the internet and stream privately.

Will a VPN slow down my internet while streaming Netflix?

Yes, VPNs will always slow down your internet connection to a certain extent. But better VPNs—like NordVPN or Hotspot Shield—will lose less speed than lower-quality and free-to-use services.

You can compensate for slower VPN speeds by upgrading to a faster internet service provider and making sure you’re using top-quality Wi-Fi equipment

Does Netflix detect NordVPN?

No, not in our experience. NordVPN is considered one of the very best VPNs for streaming on Netflix, Max, Hulu, and other services. It reliably allows you to connect to these services and stream their content seamlessly.

How to choose the best Netflix VPN

The best VPNs for streaming will give you optimal speeds and will have streaming-specific tools, like NordVPN’s SmartPlay feature. There are plenty of great services to choose from, like NordVPN, ExpressVPN, and Surfshark, but you’ll have to pick the one that’s right for you and your budget.

Best VPNs for streaming comparison chart
FeatureNordVPNExpressVPNProtonVPNSurfshark
Price$11.95/mo. $59.00/yr. $89.00/2 yrs. $12.95/mo. $59.95/6 mo. $99.95/1 yr. $0.00–24.00/mo.$12.95/mo $38.94/6 mo. $59.76/2 yrs.
Servers5,200+3,000+1,4293,200+
Countries60946165
Simultaneous connections651–10Unlimited
Logs policyNo logsNo logsNo logsNo logs
Works with Netflix
Icon Yes  DarkYes
Icon Yes  DarkYes
Icon Yes  DarkYes (may have trouble with free version)
Icon Yes  DarkYes
Torrenting support
Icon Yes  DarkYes
Icon Yes  DarkYes
Icon Yes  DarkYes
Icon Yes  DarkYes
Ad blocker
Icon Yes  DarkYes
Icon Yes  DarkYes
Icon Yes  DarkYes (with higher tiers)
Icon Yes  DarkYes
VPN protocolNordLynx (WireGuard) Lightway, OpenVPN, and othersOpenVPN, WireGuard, IKEv2WireGuard, OpenVPN, IKEv2
Customer support24/7 live chat24/7 live chatOnline forums, contact form (no live chat) 24/7 customer support
Free trial
Icon No  DarkNo
Icon Yes  Dark30 days
Icon Yes  DarkUnlimited free version
Icon Yes  Dark7 day free trial
Learn more

Should I use a VPN for online banking?

Yes, it is safe to use a VPN while doing your online banking. Whenever you’re traveling, using public Wi-Fi at a hotel, coffee shop, or restaurant, you should use a VPN to keep your information from the prying eyes of internet hackers. We recommend that you don’t do online banking on public Wi-Fi, but if you have to, it’s important to use a VPN. When you use a VPN for online banking, you ensure that your account information is kept private.

With online banking, you’re using personal information, bank account numbers, secure passwords, and in some cases, social security information. If hackers see your information while you're online banking, they could steal money from your account, make you a victim of credit card fraud, or even steal your identity. Thanks to the encryption provided by a VPN, your information becomes much less vulnerable.

Does a VPN keep my internet browsing private?

Most VPNs do not keep your data, but a few shady VPNs might. To ensure that VPNs aren’t saving your data and selling it to advertising companies (or worse), make sure to find a VPN provider with a “no logs policy.” This is an agreement by the VPN company not to track any user data. Here’s a few VPNs we can recommend that indeed do come with the “no logs policy.”

Top VPNs
VPN
Monthly price
Number of servers
Number of countries
Details

ExpressVPN

$12.95/mo.

3,000+

94

NordVPN

$11.95/mo.

5,278

60

Hotspot Shield

$12.99/mo.

1,800+

82

CyberGhost

$12.99/mo.

7,600

91

Even though you didn’t ask for it, here’s a few more tips outside of using a VPN to keep your browsing information private.

Use incognito mode when browsing on Chrome

Chrome’s incognito mode that stops your browser from collecting any information from the websites you visit. While this might sound like the perfect way to keep your browsing private, it’s limited.

While incognito mode might stop your browser from collecting info from other websites, it doesn’t stop those websites from collecting your info while you visit. People can still track your info and watch you online, which is why using a VPN still beats out simply using incognito mode.

Guest mode is another Chrome feature that helps keep your browsing data private. It was designed for people searching the internet on someone else’s computer, but turns out, it works just as well when you’re using your own. Like incognito mode, guest mode stops websites from installing cookies onto your computer and tracking your whereabouts.

Whether you use guest mode or incognito mode, it’s up to you. They both serve the same purpose and both prevent any information from being saved.

Clear cookies and browser history

Whenever you sign in to a website or even just visit a site, your information becomes easier to track. In order to stop this from happening, use a browser history and cache cleaner to remove cookies and other tracking debris that you possibly picked up.

Browser cleaners work by clearing your internet history (which you can also do manually through Chrome) and removing any of the most basic malware people often use to track your activity.

Download only trusted content

After you’ve cleaned your internet history, be careful what you download. Downloading free things off the internet—like music and videos—is often just a ploy to install harmful malware onto your PC. You probably remember the early 2000s when we all slowed down our computers by trying to get free tunes off LimeWire. Hopefully we learned from those mistakes: always avoid downloads unless it comes from a website you trust.

Some VPNs come with a built-in password manager
Megaphone

A password manager is a service that’s used to store and manage all of your passwords in a single location. Instead of you having to think up and remember a range of secure passwords for the various sites and services you use, a password manager can do the hard work for you. Certain VPNs, like Norton 360, include them as part of a software suite. It certainly comes in handy when you need to think of a new password on the spot.

Best ways to protect your data online

Here are some of the best tips out there for keeping your data private. It doesn’t matter if you’re just learning about internet privacy for the first time or if you’re an expert in internet safety. These tips will help you remain more anonymous online so you can have more peace of mind.

  1. Limit the amount of information you put on social media. This is true especially for Facebook. Think twice about sharing the exact location of your latest vacation to hundreds of friends and a giant tech overlord. If you want your private information kept safe, then just be careful with how many details you share. Facebook is known for selling, sharing, and leaking user information. Once it’s out there, it’s really tough to bring it back.
  2. Start using a VPN (virtual private network). Using a VPN will help by masking your IP address and keeping your information encrypted. This makes it much harder for hackers to steal your information. You can easily change your IP address with a VPN. Instead of connecting directly to your server, you’ll be connected to a different server at an undisclosed location.
  3. Block third-party cookies through your browser. Under the Privacy or Browsing options in your browser’s settings, you can find a tab that says, “Block third-party cookies and site data.” Third-party cookies are what websites use to remember something about you. Selecting this option will stop some of the tracking. Unfortunately, not all websites honor users who’ve selected this setting.
  4. Use Tor browser. Similar to how a VPN protects your IP address by giving you a fake one, Tor browser does something similar by randomly routing your data so it’s almost impossible to keep track of. It works like a private web browser. There’s a lot more information you should know before using Tor, so it might just be easier to use a VPN. There are some cases where entities have been able to trace information over Tor, even though this hasn’t happened often.

Additional contributions by John Brandon.

Tyler Abbott
Written by
Tyler Abbott
Tyler has been obsessed with watching sports as efficiently as possible since the creation of the DVR. He is always on the lookout for the best tech in TV and wireless so he can watch all the sports and still have enough time to hang out with his baby. He has written about streaming, wireless, and TV for over three years. He hopes the Lakers will eventually get better.

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