How and Why to Use a VPN: A Primer on Virtual Private Networks
Learn all about how to use a VPN and why you'd want to.
TL;DR: From hardware VPNs to DPNs, virtual private networks span a broad range of tools, and learning about them could be key to improving your own cybersecurity.
Should you be using a virtual private network? And what the heck is it, anyway? If you’re wondering whether a VPN is really necessary for you, personally, the answer depends to some extent on what you do online and what other security measures you are already taking.
Here are the basics about what a VPN is, what it does, how to set up a VPN, and more, so you can make an informed decision about what’s right for you.
What Is a VPN?
To be super clear: VPN stands for virtual private network. A literal private network, for instance, could be one that you have in your office that no one can connect to but employees. You might be familiar with that concept already from what's known as a LAN, Local Area Network. A VPN connection can simulate this when you use a shared network with others, including at home, at work, or in a cafe, thereby creating a “virtual” private network.
What Is a VPN Connection?
VPN platforms have servers all around the world. As soon as you connect to the internet, you would connect to one of these servers before opening up any browsers, websites, or other programs. That will be your virtual private network connection. It tells anyone or anything looking that your computer is actually in the location of the server. This can be super useful if you want to, say, find out what's playing on Canadian Netflix or enjoy shows from the BBC.
What Does a VPN Do?
When you connect your computer or device to the internet, you set up a pathway of sorts between them, along which your data travels back and forth. Others using the same network to connect to the internet will be using the same pathway, although everyone will be assigned their own lanes.
Then what does a VPN do? The virtual private network connection turns your lane into a tunnel. So no one else can even see the data transmitted within it, much less interact with it in any way.
VPNs can actually block your IP address. Not even your Internet Service Provider (ISP) can see into your tunnel. That’s why you may also experience faster browsing with a VPN because you can bypass throttled bandwidth.
ISPs throttling bandwidth has grown more common since 2020, but using a VPN could help you bypass those artificial slow speeds for smooth, speedy browsing.
Why Use a VPN?
There are three main reasons why anyone would benefit from using a virtual private network: security, privacy, and access.
Any data you transmit online is at risk on any shared network, particularly on public Wi-Fi networks where it's easier for hackers to access your device. Although most websites handling sensitive personal information have extra security in place, even the information on your laptop is vulnerable when you connect to public networks.
VPNs often use military-grade encryption to protect you from identity theft, financial losses, and much more. One of the most common encryptions you'll find is 128- or 256-bit AES encryption.
A typical method of breaking encryptions is called "brute-forcing," essentially running a program that tries to guess your encryption key. With 128- or 256-bit encryption, it would take over 1,000 years for a modern computer to crack the encryption.
While maybe not quite as scary as your security risks, the number of entities following you around the internet is downright creepy. There could be some severe consequences from third parties being privy to your personal circumstances, browsing history, or purchases you make. Location data in and of itself has risks.
There is a great deal of online content that is restricted due to your geographic location.
You could be visiting a country that censors certain websites, or you could be at home, trying to watch that show everyone on Twitter—excuse us...X—is raving about, except it’s not available where you are.
When you connect to one of your VPN’s servers in a different city or country, it shows your location as being in that city or country, letting you access content from around the globe.
How to Find the Best VPN for You
The first thing you need to decide is what you will be doing online regularly. For example, if you are most worried about your passwords getting hacked, you may be able to make do with an outstanding password manager.
Similarly, ad blockers can do a pretty good job blocking trackers, as well as ads, obviously. And no matter what a service promises about protecting you from malware, you still need to use dedicated antivirus programs, so don’t disable Windows Defender or the like.
A VPN provides additional layers of protection, so if you decide to take the plunge, there are five main categories for you to choose from: free, paid, hardware, software, and DPN.
If you feel that you’ll only need a virtual private network occasionally, then a free service may be fine. However, one thing you need to be aware of is that some free services can slow down your internet connection. So if you are planning to use a VPN mainly for watching movies from overseas, a slow connection may mean you have to deal with buffering.
Another restriction you could run into with free services is how much data they will allow you or how many devices you can connect with. At least with free VPN services, you can just keep trying them out to see which works best for you.
The good news is that paid services are relatively inexpensive, especially if you find a good VPN deal. So if you decide to invest, here are the factors you will want to consider:
- Encryption: If you are paying for a VPN to protect your data, it should have military-grade encryption.
- Privacy: A VPN can keep even your internet service provider (ISP) from accessing your data, but many VPN operators will still have access to it. You want a service that holds on to as little as possible (often referred to as "zero logging") and, under no circumstances, sells your data to third parties.
- Company Location: Where a VPN company is headquartered can be important because different countries have varying laws regarding what information a VPN is required to retain and turn over to law enforcement agencies.
- Server Locations: Do you want your VPN to have servers in the country where you live, where you travel, where the content you want is located—or all three?
- Streaming Servers: Netflix and other streaming services block VPNs, so you will need a VPN that has special servers dedicated to video streaming to access that content.
- Devices: You should be able to connect to your VPN from at least 5 devices, but if it matters to you to have more, unlimited access VPNs are available.
- Limits: Only pay for a VPN that has no restrictions whatsoever on how much data you use.
- Speed: Either use free trials or short-term contracts to make sure you get a speedy VPN.
- Kill Switch: If you want to be absolutely sure that none of your data leaks from your internet connection, then you should choose a VPN that has a kill switch, which will disconnect you from the internet as soon as it detects that your VPN connection is dropped.
The most common VPNs are software that can be downloaded to your devices. Because they’re installed on the devices, you functionally always have access to private browsing, though sometimes it’s with a monthly subscription fee.
When they were still new, software VPNs were considerably slower than the alternative because they required your device’s processor to run, but that’s less of a problem now that smart devices and computers are so powerful.
VPNs aren’t just a button on a screen. You can also purchase a physical piece of hardware that performs the same privacy-keeping function.
Hardware VPNs have their own processor, so they may be less taxing on the devices using them. They are also often one-time purchases, with the major disadvantage being you have to carry them around if you want to secure your browsing on public networks.
Decentralized Private Networks (DPN)
DPNs operate on the same principle as VPNs with one major difference. Where VPNs, by necessity, need centralized locations to store and access data around the world, DPNs turn your device into the server and the client.
Your browsing data is still hidden, and you can still change your browsing location to appear all over the world. The biggest difference is that your data is subject to less risk because there is no out-of-your-control central location containing it when it’s all still on your device.
How to Install a VPN
If you'd love to upgrade your privacy and security, but you’re intimidated about how to set up a VPN, you’ll be relieved to hear that it’s usually no more difficult than installing any other app or plugging in an external hard drive.
Just download it onto your computer or mobile device and follow the simple installation instructions provided by the service. You do have to choose the plan you prefer and enter login information at some point. If you have a hardware VPN, the installation process is only slightly more involved.
How to Use a VPN
Don’t worry about learning how to use a VPN; it’s almost always ridiculously simple.
- Connect your device to the internet as you usually do, but do not open any browsers or other programs. For most, that simply means turning your computer, phone, or tablet on, since they're auto-connected to known Wi-Fi networks. If you're away from known networks, log in to the Wi-Fi where you are, but don't start using sites or your usual apps yet.
- Click on the VPN app to open it.
- Sign in to your account, unless you’ve set the program to do that automatically.
- The app may automatically connect you to whichever of the company’s servers is located closest to you. If you want a different one, then just choose from the list. You do need to be aware that the further away from you a server is, the more your connection will degrade.
- Now you can just use the internet like you're used to.
Mobile business professionals, frequent travelers, and entertainment buffs should definitely have VPNs, but everyone else should consider using them, too, to add extra protection to their online activity.
Not sure where to start when it comes to shopping for the right VPN? Check out our VPN buying guide to explore the best VPN deals available right now.
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