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If you’re new to the world of VPNs and are completely confused by the entire concept, don’t worry – you’re not alone!
Here’s what I’m going to cover:
Table of Contents
What Does a VPN Mean?
VPN stands for a Virtual Private Network. They were originally created to connect business networks together securely over the internet or allow you to access a business network from home.
They have become more prevalent for anybody concerned about their online privacy and data because they essentially divert your internet traffic away from your internet service provider (ISP) or mobile carrier to another computer, called a server.
Here’s a great short clip from Surfshark VPN explaining what a VPN is:
How Can a VPN Help Me?
When you use a VPN, your data is encrypted en-route to the VPN server, where it is then decrypted, and then re-encrypted again before it leaves the VPN server. This process creates an encrypted tunnel.
While you’re connected to the VPN, all your internet traffic is routed through this tunnel, so your data is secure from prying eyes along the way. Because your traffic is exiting the VPN server, your device appears to have the IP address of that server, masking your identity and location.
For instance, say you’re at a Starbucks on your laptop or at the grocery store using your mobile device. The internet connection you’re using, whether WiFi or from your ISP or mobile carrier, can monitor and track what you’re doing – and so can Google and Facebook. With a VPN, your online presence is obscured and encrypted, so your browsing is private and cannot be logged or tracked.
If you believe you don’t need a VPN while at home, you might want to think again. Your ISP has enormous insight into what you do online and they can sell anonymized data about their customers.
If you find that quote interesting and want to read more, check out full article: It’s Your Data: Empowering Consumers to Protect Their Privacy on Broadband Networks.
It’s not just your ISP that you have to think about, but also the services you use like Google and Facebook, as they track your online footsteps, collect data, analyze it, and then deliver targeted messages or advertisements.
Finally, some VPNs can remove geoblocks; websites or content that otherwise isn’t accessible in your area. Let’s say you live in the United States but wish to watch streaming content from England, you could connect to a VPN server in England and bypass any geographic restrictions.
What Can I Do With a VPN?
Here are a few key things you can do with a VPN:
- They Keep Your Online Activities Private & Secure By Encrypting Your Data
- They Keep Your Data Safe on Public WiFi Networks
- They Stop Google/Facebook From Tracking You
- They Block Your ISP From Seeing What You’re Doing
- They Help Avoid Your ISP From Throttling Your Internet Connection
- They Help You Access Foreign Content
- They Bypass Government Censorship
- They Bypass Office/School/College Internet Restrictions
What Can't I Do With a VPN?
So the idea of a VPN sounds appealing, doesn’t it? Well, let me explain a few things that a VPN won’t or can’t do. There are multiple ways your online behavior can be tracked. Even with a VPN, things like cookies allow companies to track your internet usage even after you’ve left their sites.
VPNs also only do so much to anonymize your online activities. If you want to browse the web anonymously, you’ll want to look into a project called Tor. While discussing Tor is a topic for another day, it basically bounces your traffic through several servers, making it much harder to trace. It’s also managed by a non-profit organization and distributed for free. One thing to note, though, is that some VPN services offer the ability to connect to Tor via VPN for additional security.
It’s also worth noting that while most VPNs are involved in progressive causes, they are still a for-profit business. They also have to abide by the laws of the country in which they officially reside, and respond to subpoenas and warrants from law enforcement.
What Do I Look For In a VPN?
You’ll want to learn about their logging policy and if they’re audited by a third-party. ExpressVPN was recently audited by PwC and confirmed that they don’t keep any logs.
- Learn where they’re located.
For me, choosing a VPN outside of the fourteen eyes surveillance network is important as that eases my privacy concerns a bit more. NordVPN, for example, operates out of Panama, and is not subject to any laws that would require it to retain user data. ProtonVPN is located in Switzerland, which has some of the world’s strongest privacy laws.
- Find out how many servers they have & where they’re located.
This is important because the more servers a VPN has, the more traffic it can handle before it becomes too congested and slows down your internet connection. It’s important to note that any VPN, by nature, will slow your internet down as it has to make another “stop” before going to your destination.
- Think about any special features you might need.
One thing I like to look for in a VPN is if they offer a dedicated IP address. Having a dedicated IP address means you can restrict access to certain networks from an IP address. For example, the servers I own will only let me log in if I’m coming in from certain IP addresses. PureVPN and NordVPN both offer the ability to have a dedicated IP address. Other features you may want to look for is if the VPN supports peer-to-peer (P2P) sharing.
- Determine device compatibility and number of connections you need.
Another important factor that should be covered is making sure your VPN supports a wide variety of platforms and operating systems. A really good VPN will offer simultaneous connections to all your devices.
Recommended VPN Services
NordVPN was my preferred, #1 VPN for the longest time due to their incredible speed and dedicated IP address support. They are still in my “arsenal” of VPNs that I’m subscribed to and they strike a great balance of price and performance.
NordVPN has over 5,469 servers in over 59 countries. They offer specialty servers for peer-to-peer (P2P), double VPN encryption, TOR, and more.
Since they’re registered in Panama, NordVPN is also far away from 14 Eyes of Surveillance and troubling data retention laws. This allows them to collect zero sensitive user logs.
Unlike many VPNs, I find their Windows app a little cumbersome and sometimes have to reinstall it for whatever reason.
You can test them out for up to 6 devices with a risk-free 30-day money-back guarantee.
1 Year Plan
$59 for the first year
2 Year Plan
$95 for the first 2 years
ExpressVPN has remarkably fast speeds across all 3,000+ servers in 160 locations in 94 countries, advanced security on both apps and server, a zero-log policy, and 24/7 live chat support. Out of the VPNs I’ve used, it has the fastest download speed.
The biggest initial selling point for me was their security and privacy. Their servers operate using only RAM. Because the servers never write to hard drives, it is impossible for any data to be stored on the server after a reboot.
They are a bit more expensive than their rivals, but they offer steep discounts for annual or two-year plans.
ExpressVPN has a 30-day money-back guarantee for five devices.
Surfshark VPN is a relatively young contender in the VPN market, as they were founded in 2018. However, they’re perhaps the biggest bang for your dollar. They’re one of the cheapest services I’ve used ($60 for a two-year subscription) and they offer various free & paid add-ons you don’t see from other services like a data leak detection system and a private search tool.
The data leak detection system checks to see if your data has been leaked based on your email address. The private search tool delivers a Google-like search experience without the tracking.
Surfshark’s growing network includes over 3,200 servers in 65 countries.
Surfshark allows unlimited simultaneous connections and has a 7-day free trial if you download their app from the Google Play Store or Apple Store and a 30-day money-back guarantee.
$59.76 initially, then annually
I like that ProtonVPN is based out of Switzerland and they take privacy and security seriously.
With 1,060 servers in 54 countries they don’t offer as many servers as other VPNs, but they’re still a solid choice for the privacy concerned. They’re especially a good option if you’re considering a Gmail alternative like ProtonMail (which I use & love).
Their biggest strengths include an attractive and user-friendly interface, robust security, and a strict no-logs policy.
While they do offer a free tier, their long-term subscriptions are fairly pricey.
1 VPN connection
Servers in 3 countries
No logs/No ads
2 VPN connections
Servers in 54 countries
No logs/No ads
5 VPN connections
Servers in 54 countries
No logs/No ads
Secure Core VPN
TOR over VPN
Access blocked content
All Plus plan features
10 VPN connections
Private Internet Access
Private Internet Access, or PIA, offers exceptional security for a low price. They have a network of 26,100+ servers in 77 countries.
To me, they are a no frills VPN; however, they have a built-in malware blocker called MACE which protects you against adware and other viruses.
You can connect up to 10 devices at once, and it’s compatible with all major platforms. Their apps are user-friendly and they offer live chat if you ever need assistance.
Private Internet Access offers a risk-free a 30-day money-back guarantee.
(Currently at $39.95/yr)
2 Year Plan
$258.79 every 2 years
(Currently at $69.95/2 yr)
PureVPN operates 6,500+ servers in 180+ locations in 140+ countries.
They offer unlimited bandwidth, P2P compatibility, dedicated IP addresses, port forwarding, and high-end security features including military-level encryption.
They have a zero-log policy and supports 10 multiple logins, so all your devices can be connected at once.
The downside with PureVPN has been their speed reliability. Sometimes you get an excellent connection and other times it’s weak. Additionally, if you choose one of their Profiles like “Streaming” it uses a weaker encryption to achieve faster results.
PureVPN doesn’t offer a free trial, but they do offer a 3-day paid trial and a 31-day money-back guarantee.
Renews at $69.95
2 Year Plan
$262.80 every 2 years
(Currently $80 for 2 years)
There are plenty of other VPN services out there; ones that have a good reputation too. However, the VPN services I reviewed above are ones that I’ve actually used.
Out of those just mentioned, if you’re looking to try out a VPN for free, TunnelBear is definitely worth checking out, though they cap your usage to 500mb.
If you’re interested in having your VPN fully integrated with your browser without an extension, take a look at Opera, who offers their VPN for free.
Everyone should have a VPN installed on at least their mobile devices for when you’re using public WiFi. Having a VPN installed on your desktop or laptop is also a good idea for those that are concerned about their privacy.
The main reason why I use a VPN is I believe privacy and my data is a fundamental right. I don’t like marketeers, Google, Facebook, or anybody else for that matter collecting my data and selling it for profit. I’m also fairly well aware of just how easy it is for hackers and scammers to gain access to devices using just your IP address and some basic exploits.
Frequently Asked Questions
People sometimes think that VPNs may be illegal because they’re occasionally used for illicit purposes, like torrenting. However, in most countries around the world, VPNs are completely legal – though there are important exceptions you need to know about. The only countries where using a VPN is a grey area (and in some cases, forbidden) are China, Iraq, Iran, Russia, Belarus, Turkey, Oman, and the UAE.
Those things that a VPN does – encrypting data, combatting geoblocks, and providing anonymity – are not illegal. But remember: Anything you do that’s illegal without a VPN is still illegal with a VPN.
Most VPNs are very easy to use. In most cases, you just need to download the appropriate app for your device, install, and launch.
The top VPN services we’ve recommended above have user-friendly interfaces that even beginners can easily figure out. Lots of times, you can use a quick-connect button to instantly connect to a nearby server.
VPN encryption lets you protect sensitive data from cybercriminals since they won’t be able to eavesdrop on your internet connections.
Besides that, VPN encryption also makes sure your internet activities can’t be monitored by your government, ISP, and advertisers.
How does that help? Well:
- It prevents governments from forcing censorship, or even putting your life in danger if you happen to end up in legal trouble in Middle Eastern countries where certain online activities are illegal.
- It protects you from unfair DMCA notices, huge fines, and even jail time if you are downloading torrents.
- VPN encryption prevents your ISP from throttling your bandwidth since they can’t see what you do online.
- Encryption also keeps advertisers at bay by making it less likely for you to get spammed with targeted ads or to have your online data sold to advertisers by your ISP.
You should keep it on most of the time to keep yourself safe from hackers, data breaches, leaks, and intrusive snoopers like your ISP and advertisers. Remember, VPNs encrypt your traffic and protect your privacy from third-parties and cybercriminals.