What Is A VPN?
Learn about VPNs and how they can secure your internet connection.
A virtual private network (VPN) is a valuable tool for users who want to improve their online security and privacy. VPN providers route your internet signal through a third-party server to create a secure connection. With a VPN, it’ll be harder for people like hackers or advertisers to peek at your online activity, and they can also be used to watch overseas streaming content.
If you’re interested in getting a VPN, but you’re unsure where to start, let’s walk through the basics of VPNs.
How does a VPN work?
Your internet connection works kind of like a car driving up and down a road. When you want to visit a website, your computer and the website directly swap data back and forth.
But when you’re on a VPN, your data makes a second stop en route to its destination:
- Your data leaves your computer.
- Your data goes through the VPN provider’s servers and gets secured.
- Your newly secured data goes from the VPN provider to its final destination.
Third-party providers around the world operate VPNs by running their own VPN server networks that are placed across the world. To use a VPN, you’ll sign up for service with a VPN provider and download an application on your computer or smartphone. This will give you access to a VPN provider’s server network.
What are VPNs used for?
Nefarious groups like advertisers, hackers, and government officials can potentially peek at data like your browsing history and financial information while it travels through the internet. VPNs use encryption to securely protect this data and make it anonymous—during the encryption process, your data is basically scrambled to ensure other people can’t access it.
If you’re in Iowa but use a VPN server that’s in Stockholm, your internet location will “appear” to be from Sweden. And once your data goes through a VPN server and gets encrypted, it’s much harder for people like advertisers to see information like your browsing history and credit card information.
VPNs are frequently used by businesses that work with confidential data. Before employees at these companies can access their work network, they’ll need to log into a VPN as an extra security step.
What kind of VPNs are there?
VPN providers are divided up into two camps: free VPNs and subscription VPNs.
Although it’s hard to beat free, we generally recommend being cautious about free VPNs. It costs money to run a VPN server, and if a provider isn’t charging you to run it, they may be selling your data to advertisers to make up the difference.
Google and Apple’s app stores occasionally have fly-by-night VPN providers with unreasonably high review scores and zero name recognition. Reputable providers like ProtonVPN and Windscribe have good free VPNs, but don’t download the first free VPN in your search results.
If you spring for a subscription VPN, you’ll get better security options and more features for your monthly fee. The best VPN services offer tools like international server networks that stretch from the United States to Switzerland along with verified support for overseas streaming services. In many cases, subscription VPN providers offer trial periods or 30-day money back guarantees that’ll give you a chance to try out the VPN service.
Check out our best VPN guide for a full breakdown of the leading VPN services.
Do I need a VPN?
If you’re debating about getting a VPN solely for security reasons, we’d say it . . . depends.
Like any security tool, a VPN isn’t a one-stop solution for secure home internet. VPNs aren’t the same thing as anti-virus protection, they tend to slightly reduce your download speeds, and you’ll also have to factor in subscription fees that typically cost between $5 and $12 per month. But VPNs can be a great resource if you’re trying to accomplish some specific goals:
VPNs for streaming
From soccer games to Indian soap operas, networks have a lot of content that’s exclusive to specific countries, but by using a VPN server, you can work around these geographic restrictions and access a lot of overseas programming. The best VPN services will list all the countries they have servers in, so you can see your VPN server options before you spring for a subscription.
For legal reasons (like having content that’s exclusive to a country), streaming services generally frown upon VPNs and try to block them. But providers like ProtonVPN and ExpressVPN are good about maintaining reliable streaming access. VPNs are technically against most streamers’ terms of service, but these policies are generally loosely enforced.
Check out our best VPNs for streaming guide for more tips if you’re interested in watching international content.
VPNs for ad blocking
Many subscription VPN services have ad blocking tools that stop banner ads from appearing while you’re web browsing. If you’re comfortable tinkering with your Wi-Fi router’s settings, some VPN services can help block ads on your smart TV.
International VPN usage
VPNs can get you past international internet restrictions, but if you’re looking for the best VPNs in countries like China, your mileage will vary widely.
VPNs aren’t an invincible internet security solution, and this is especially true in countries that enforce strict internet restrictions. If you’re traveling through these countries, read up on their internet policies and make sure you’re not putting your personal data at risk.