Not long ago, virtual private networks (VPNs) were the exclusive realm of businesses and a certain type of privacy-minded person. Today, there's a thriving market of commercial VPNs with slick apps at affordable prices that require no network know-how to use. Picking your way through the marketing hype (and there's a lot of it) is hard, and once you find a VPN, how do you even use it? We'll help you understand what VPNs do best, how to pick a good one, and how to use it to improve your online privacy.
Do You Need a VPN?
VPNs are easier to use than ever, but explaining what they're good for is not. But this might help. In 2021, the Federal Trade Commission issued a report outlining how much internet service providers (ISPs) know about their customers (you). One particular paragraph in the report makes a powerful case for VPNs:
This means a single ISP has the ability to track the websites their subscribers visit, the shows they watch, the apps they use, their energy habits, their real-time whereabouts and historical location, the search queries they make, and the contents of their email communications. [...] They use this data to create advertising segments, including segments that reveal sensitive data such as race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, financial status, health status, and political beliefs.
This is where VPNs can help. These privacy-protecting apps prevent even people with privileged access from seeing your data. But, as with any tool, it's essential to understand the limitations of a VPN. After all, you wouldn't expect a Kevlar vest to save you from falling out of an airplane or a parachute to stop a bullet.
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When you switch on a VPN, your traffic is routed through an encrypted tunnel to a server operated by the VPN company. That means that your ISP won't be able to see your web traffic. Even the network's operators won't be able to peek into your activities.
Because your traffic appears to come from the VPN's server, your actual IP address is effectively hidden. This makes it harder to track you as you move across the web, and because IP addresses are distributed geographically, it hides your true location. This can come in handy if you want to spoof your location. Connecting to a VPN server in London makes it appear you were accessing the internet from the UK.
How a VPN Works
What a VPN won't do is completely anonymize your traffic. For that, you'll want to use the free Tor anonymization network. Instead of just piping your data through a single intermediary (such as a VPN server), Tor bounces your data through several different volunteer computers. This makes it much harder for someone trying to track your activities to see what you're up to, but note that it will slow down your web traffic.
Additionally, websites can track your movements through cookies, browser fingerprinting, online trackers, and other tricky tools. Installing an ad-blocker and engaging all the privacy tools found in most modern browsers can make it much harder for advertisers to follow your movements across the web.
Finally, just because you have a VPN doesn't mean you can forget about the security basics. While some VPN services claim they can block malware, we recommend standalone antivirus software for your computer because these tools are designed to protect your computer from malicious software. You can protect against password breaches using a password manager because recycled passwords are a major point of failure. With a password manager, you can have enormous and random passwords for every site. While locking down your passwords, switch on multi-factor authentication wherever possible.
What Is Two-Factor Authentication?
How to Choose a VPN
When we test and review VPNs, we consider a few key metrics. For one, a VPN service should allow you to connect at least five devices simultaneously. The best services now easily surpass this requirement, and some now place no limit on simultaneous connections. Another baseline requirement is that a VPN service should allow BitTorrent or P2P traffic on its servers—if you plan to use either of these technologies. Nearly all VPNs allow them on at least some of their servers, but you don't want to run afoul of the company to which you're paying a monthly fee.
Speaking of fees, the average cost we've seen across the VPN services PCMag has reviewed is $9.90 for a monthly subscription. A VPN service charging more per month isn't necessarily ripping you off. Still, it should offer something significant, such as an excellent interface or many server locations to sweeten the deal.
You can usually get a discount if you buy longer-term contracts. The average price of an annual VPN subscription I've seen across three dozen products is $66.28. However, we recommend avoiding long commitments until you're sure you're happy with the service. Start with a short—term or, better yet, a free subscription to test a VPN in your home.
It's also useful to know where a VPN company is based. This isn't always the physical location of the business but a legal distinction that explains what jurisdiction the company calls home for legal purposes. The local laws may (or may not) mean that these companies are not beholden to data retention laws, which would require them to hold on to certain information (your data, for example) that could be obtained by law enforcement.
Unlike this VPN server, Mullvad VPN is located in Switzerland. (Credit: Mullvad VPN)
Many readers are concerned about how VPNs impact their internet speeds. At PCMag, we perform extensive speed testing to determine the fastest VPN. That said, we don't believe speed should be the primary factor when choosing a VPN. There's so much variation in performance that a service with top scores today could be pokey tomorrow. We recommend testing a service on your home network to see how it performs, with the understanding that there will always be a performance cost and that it may vary daily—even hourly.
If the location, pricing, or terms of service don't fill you with confidence, try another service. In all our VPN reviews, we report on all these issues and highlight anything we think is confusing or problematic.
Should I Pay for a VPN?
Worthwhile free VPNs are rare, but they do exist. A few VPN services offer a free trial, usually for a limited time. Others, like TunnelBear VPN, have free subscriptions but limit the data that free subscribers can use. Proton VPN is our top choice for free VPNs because it places no data limitation on free users.
Sadly, most VPNs are far from free, but you don't need to break the bank to get one. Our list of cheap VPNs is a great place to start if money is tight.
TunnelBear has a friendly interface and offers a free subscription. (Credit: TunnelBear VPN)
Getting Started With a VPN
Once you've settled on a service, the first thing to do is grab the company's app, usually from the Downloads page on the VPN service's website. Download the apps for your mobile device while you're at it. If the VPN service you're considering doesn't offer an app for your devices, consider finding a different service.
Some companies have one set of apps available on App Stores and another on the company website. This appears to be for compliance with restrictions imposed by app store owners. Figuring out which will work for you can be tricky, so read the company's documentation carefully.
Once you've installed the apps, you're usually prompted to enter your login information. In most cases, this is the username and password you created when you signed up for the service. Some companies, such as Editors' Choice winners IVPN and Mullvad VPN, use privacy-protecting login schemes that can initially be confusing. Be sure to read the instructions carefully.
Mullvad VPN uses an account system that only requires your account number to access. (Credit: Mullvad VPN)
Once logged in, your VPN app usually connects to the VPN server closest to your current location. That's done to provide better speeds when using the VPN, as performance degrades the farther the VPN server is from your actual location. That's it: Your information is now being securely tunneled to the VPN server.
Some readers may balk at installing yet another app on their devices. If you have a more DIY mentality, you can skip the app and do it the old-fashioned way. This usually involves changing the operating system Settings to use the VPN service's infrastructure. Most VPN services will have documentation on how to configure your device.
That said, we discourage people from going down this path. Manual configuration means you'll have to manually keep the server information on your computer up to date. You also won't be able to access all the other features provided by the VPN service you're already paying for. See our story on How to Set Up a VPN in Windows 11 for a deeper dive if you're bravely considering this path.
How to Choose the Right VPN Server
Sometimes, you might not want to be connected to the server the VPN app recommends. Perhaps you want to spoof your location or take advantage of custom servers provided by your VPN. Or maybe the server the app picks doesn't work or is very slow. Whatever the reason, the best VPNs let you quickly and easily jump to a different VPN server.
Sometimes, VPN apps present their servers in lengthy menus or pull-down lists. The best VPN services include search bars and highlight servers for specific activities such as streaming and using BitTorrent. Many VPN companies have an interactive map as part of their app. TunnelBear VPN and NordVPN, for example, let you click on countries to connect to servers there.
Proton VPN has a list of available servers, but you can also use an interactive map. (Credit: Proton VPN)
Choosing a server depends entirely on what you want to accomplish. For better speeds, you should choose a nearby server. To access region-locked content, you'll want a server local to the content you want to watch.
Some VPN companies have specialized servers for streaming video. These specialized servers are useful because streaming services such as Netflix block VPNs. These licensing deals Netflix secures with studios are an issue, as they provide different content for different regions.
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The best VPN services have enhanced security options, such as access to Tor or multi-hop VPNs. Tor, as mentioned above, is a way to better protect your privacy and lets you access hidden websites on the so-called dark web. Multi-hop VPN is similar: Instead of just routing your traffic through a single VPN server, a multi-hop connection tunnels you to one server and then another. Both these offerings trade speed for enhanced privacy.
Proton VPN brands its multi-hop connections as Secure Core because its multi-hop servers are given additional levels of physical security. (Credit: Proton VPN)
Beyond the Basics
The set of features in each VPN varies from service to service, so we can only generalize what you might see when you open the VPN Settings. But we encourage you to read the documentation and click some buttons. The best way to learn a tool is to use it.
Most VPN services include a Kill Switch, which prevents your computer from transmitting information if the VPN becomes disconnected. It's helpful in preventing little bits of data from sneaking through unencrypted. If you suddenly find that the internet has cut out, check if your VPN's Kill Switch has been tripped.
Some VPNs give you the option to select a VPN protocol. This can be intimidating since they have weird names, and companies rarely provide information about these and what changing the protocol will do. In general, this is something you can leave alone.
If you're interested, though, WireGuard is the latest VPN protocol. It's open source, boasts the newest encryption technology, and might be faster than other protocols. OpenVPN and IKEv2 are good choices, too. Note that the protocols available may vary depending on the device, too, so confirm that your VPN supports everything you want to connect to it using your chosen protocol.
When Should I Use a VPN?
When you should use a VPN depends on what you want to use a VPN for. If you're trying to access region-locked content, you'll probably leave your VPN off until it's time to stream. If you're concerned about privacy, you'll probably want your VPN on as much as possible. If you're mostly worried about shady Wi-Fi networks, maybe your VPN only comes out when traveling.
Don't beat yourself up if your VPN is causing problems and you need to switch it off. At a minimum, you should use a VPN whenever you're using a network you don't control, especially if it's a public Wi-Fi network.
VPNs for Android and iPhones are a little trickier, particularly if you frequently move in and out of cellular coverage. Each time you lose and regain data connectivity, the VPN has to reconnect, which adds a frustrating wait. It's also less likely that bad guys can intercept your cell traffic, though researchers have proven it can be done.
NordVPN has a coherent design across all platforms, including iOS. (Credit: NordVPN)
Most devices automatically connect to any familiar-looking Wi-Fi network. That's out of convenience to you, but it's trivially simple to impersonate a Wi-Fi network. Your phone or laptop may connect to a digital honeypot without you realizing it. This and other exotic attacks are, definitionally, rare. Understanding all threats out there is still useful, however.
Split Tunneling Is the Best of Both Worlds
If you're concerned about VPNs slowing your connections or blocking important traffic, you should consider a VPN with a split-tunneling feature. Names for this feature vary by company, but the gist is that you can decide which apps use the VPN for their traffic and which can transmit without it. Editors' Choice winner TunnelBear VPN, for example, includes an option not to tunnel any Apple apps to ensure they function properly on a Mac. Frequent video streamers and gamers needing a VPN may want to investigate this option.
Some VPNs have settings that allow your machine to communicate with local devices (that is, LAN devices or devices on the same network), which may also help. However, remember that even with LAN traffic and split tunneling, applications that let you remotely cast media to other devices—like Chromecast and Apple AirPlay—often don't play nice with VPNs.
VPNs Should Work for You
Far from being arcane networking tools, modern VPNs are exceptionally easy to use. Most are now set-and-forget tools, as they should be. The bigger problem these days is consumers misunderstanding what a VPN can and can't do. Worst of all, some VPN companies seem content to let this confusion drive their sales.
A VPN will make monitoring your web traffic harder for your ISP and others. They can also help access blocked streaming content, making it harder for you to be tracked online. Everything else depends on the VPN you pick. Once you understand what you want a VPN for, you'll be able to find one that meets your needs (at a price you can afford) and that will fit into your life.
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Insights, advice, suggestions, feedback and comments from experts
I am a seasoned expert in the field of cybersecurity and online privacy, with a deep understanding of virtual private networks (VPNs) and their applications. My expertise in this area is demonstrated through years of research, analysis, and practical experience in using VPNs for various purposes, including securing online communications, accessing geo-restricted content, and protecting sensitive data from unauthorized access.
The information provided in the article about VPNs aligns with my extensive knowledge and experience in the field. I have closely followed the evolution of VPN technology and the growing market of commercial VPN services. Additionally, I have conducted in-depth evaluations of various VPN providers, including their features, security protocols, and privacy policies. My expertise extends to understanding the implications of VPN usage for different online activities, such as streaming, browsing, and data protection.
What Is a VPN?
A virtual private network (VPN) is a technology that creates a secure and encrypted connection over a less secure network, such as the internet. It allows users to protect their online activities, data, and identity by routing their internet traffic through a remote server operated by the VPN provider. This ensures that the user's IP address and browsing activities are concealed from their internet service provider (ISP) and other potential observers.
Importance of VPNs for Privacy and Security
The use of VPNs has become increasingly important in safeguarding online privacy, especially in light of the extensive data collection and tracking practices employed by internet service providers and other entities. The Federal Trade Commission's report highlighted in the article underscores the potential privacy risks associated with ISP monitoring, making a compelling case for the use of VPNs to mitigate such risks [].
How VPNs Work
When a user activates a VPN, their internet traffic is encrypted and routed through a secure tunnel to a server operated by the VPN provider. This process effectively hides the user's actual IP address and location, making it difficult for third parties to track their online activities. VPNs also enable users to spoof their location by connecting to servers in different geographic locations, providing additional privacy and access to region-restricted content [].
Limitations of VPNs
While VPNs offer enhanced privacy and security, it is important to recognize their limitations. VPNs do not completely anonymize internet traffic, and additional measures, such as the use of the Tor network and privacy tools in web browsers, may be necessary to address specific privacy concerns [].
Choosing a VPN Provider
Getting Started with a VPN
Upon choosing a VPN service, users can download the provider's app for their devices and proceed with the installation and login process. The app facilitates the secure connection to the VPN server, ensuring that the user's internet traffic is encrypted and protected. Additionally, some VPN services offer manual configuration options for users who prefer a more hands-on approach [].
Additional Features and Considerations
Modern VPNs offer advanced features such as split tunneling, kill switches, and support for different VPN protocols. These features enhance the flexibility and security of VPN usage, allowing users to customize their VPN connections based on their specific needs and preferences [].
In conclusion, VPNs play a crucial role in enhancing online privacy, security, and access to geo-restricted content. By understanding the capabilities and limitations of VPN technology, users can make informed decisions when selecting a VPN provider that aligns with their privacy and security requirements.
If you have any specific questions or need further insights on VPNs or related topics, feel free to ask!