Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) aren’t just for corporate offices and sketchy nephews anymore. Anyone who’s ever shopped online, used the Wi-Fi at their local coffeeshop, or felt creeped out by targeted advertising can benefit from the privacy and security a good VPN offers.
Put simply, VPNs are one of the easier and more effective ways the average Internet user can protect themselves online.
With all the options out there, though, it’s hard to know what type of VPN you’ll need and what features are actually helpful. To make matters worse, most of the guides available online will try to sell you on a particular service rather than educate you about how to choose for yourself.
In this article, we’ll walk you through everything you need to know, from the basics of how VPNs work to how to tell which VPN providers are trustworthy.
What is a VPN?
The Internet is similar to the postal service: a network for carrying information. Just as the postal service accomplishes this by sending letters via carriers, the Internet sends data packets via cables.
Privacy and security are the core problems with both systems. When mailing a letter, for example, it’s easy for a thief to steal the envelope and see:
- Origin and destination address
- Contents of message
Digital data packets being sent over the Internet have the same problem. VPNs work to solve these problems by encrypting the packet contents, wrapping the packets inside other packets — a practice called “tunneling” — and routing packets through intermediary points on the network to disguise the sender and recipient.
To return to the postal analogy, let’s imagine we’re in Shanghai, and we want to send a letter to New York. Using a VPN is like writing the letter in code (encryption), putting the envelope inside a box (tunneling), and mailing it to Paris, where our associate (VPN provider) forwards it to its final destination.
Not only does this keep the contents obscured to spies, but it also makes it impossible for them to understand exactly where the real destination and return address are. If a route becomes compromised, future packages are mailed via alternative routes to avoid tampering.
As an added benefit, we can make it appear that the letter is coming from Paris so far as the recipient in New York is concerned, since the IP address associated with the packet will be the VPN’s server, not your personal IP address. This is commonly used for getting around geo-blocked content and firewalls — for example, accessing sites that might be blocked in your country. (Keep in mind that doing this can open users up to legal trouble and/or violate the terms and conditions of services you access using a VPN.)
Why should I use a VPN?
There are four main reasons that people use VPNs: network security, geo-blocking, browsing privacy, and access to private networks.
Security on public Wi-Fi
Regular public Wi-Fi users use VPNs to prevent cyber attacks in public spaces like coffee shops, hotels, restaurants, and airports. While Wi-Fi hotspots are convenient to connect to, they’re also easy targets for attackers to access personal information like photos and conversations, or passwords and banking logins.
Using a VPN in a Wi-Fi setting hides this sensitive data from other network users and potential attackers.
Another common way people use VPNs is to access website content that is only available in certain countries. This is called Geo-blocking, and it’s the reason why you can’t access certain content on video services or web applications.
VPNs help bypass these restrictions by connecting you to a server in whatever country allows you to access the video, which is called “Geo-shifting.” Keep in mind that we do not advise readers to use VPNs for this, even if they are technically-savvy enough to understand the mechanics of the service. In some countries, this is more than just a legal problem.
Geo-shifting can, however, be very useful for users who wish to avoid targeted ads and confuse trackers.
Safeguard private information from advertisers and corporations
US regulators recently pulled back requirements that prevented ISPs selling their customer’s private information — including browsing history, location data, app usage, and etc. 
Not only that, but cybersecurity attacks have greatly increased (and become more sophisticated). With 64% of Americans experiencing some form of data breach in the past year, most recently the Equifax leak that exposed millions of American’s SSNs and addresses, it’s no wonder half of Americans feel less safe online than they did five years ago.
Because of this, many people are turning to VPNs as a way to maintain their right to privacy and safely browse the internet.
Remote access to private networks
VPNs have traditionally been used by companies to let their employees access the internet from various locations using their centralized, private network. This type of use allows a remote worker to access and manipulate files on their employer’s Local Area Network (LAN) even though they’re technically outside on the Wide Area Network (WAN).
Selecting a VPN: Things to Consider
Choosing a VPN is no easy task. After all, you’re putting your trust into a provider to protect your privacy. While VPNs should have your well-being in mind, this is not always the case.
The most important feature a VPN service can have is probably its reputation, and it’s definitely worth the time to shop around and find a more reputable service. Be aware that VPNs can see your traffic and activities, so you have to trust that they’re going to protect you.
Below are common features and terms to help demystify common features of VPNs so you can choose the best one for you.
Encryption is a way of protecting information and sensitive data, and people have used this security technique since the early days of human communication. Basically, encryption is the process of changing information or data into an unreadable, coded format.
VPNs use “tunnels” to send the encrypted data through, concealing your sensitive data and connecting you safely to a network or website.
Of course, some VPNs and tunnels are more secure than others. This depends on their protocol.
VPN protocols are a fancy way to refer to the way VPNs connect you to a server and the guidelines they use to construct a tunnel for your data to safely travel through. There are several ways they do this, and each has their pros and cons.
What you’ll be looking for in an ideal protocol is a good balance between accessibility and speed, and there is a give and take between these two features depending on the protocol.
For instance, the most popular (and secure) VPN protocol is called OpenVPN, as it supports most platforms (Windows 2000 and higher, Mac OS, Linux, Windows Phone, and more). While this is one of the safer and more universal options out there, you will sacrifice internet speed.
Layer 2 Tunnel Protocol (L2TP) with Internet Protocol Security (IPSec), on the other hand, has great security with little speed sacrifice, but is limited to Windows and Mac. You can configure L2TP with IPSec for Linux and Android, but this can be a headache if you don’t know what you’re doing.
Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP) is compatible with most platforms and is easy to set up, but it has the lowest security encryption. This will work if you’re using a VPN for streaming Geo-blocked videos online or the casual browsing at the local coffee shop, but anything else will need a better protocol.
When considering a protocol, you’ll need to consider the needs for your specific activities and weigh this with compatibility and speed.
Surveillance and Jurisdiction
Some countries are better about privacy than others – to put it mildly. Again, surveillance is becoming more commonplace in certain countries around the world.
Some sources maintain that the countries with heavy surveillance are called the “Five, Nine, and Fourteen Eyes.” The main “Five” include the US, UK, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia, all of whom reportedly analyze and share data with each other. The “Nine” and “Fourteen” refer to countries added to this cooperative information-sharing later on (and include Denmark, France, Spain, Italy, Sweden, Norway, and others).
The reason I mention this at all is because it’s important to know that your right to privacy (or lack of it) transcends national borders.
Depending on your preferred level of privacy, you will want to know where the VPN’s server is located. If it’s in one of these countries, in other words, it could be subject to unlawful searches or compromises for the sake of national security.
While having a VPN in one of these countries will most likely not impact the casual internet user, the potential for having your data handed over to the government remains for users who are concerned about potential government targeting or legal troubles, if it happens that the VPN provider is keeping traffic logs without disclosuing this to customers.
VPN Traffic Logs
Another thing to look at is whether the VPN keeps traffic logs recording the user’s online activities.
Some VPN providers keep records for harmless legal reasons, while others sell this data to 3rd parties.
If the whole point of using a VPN is to maintain a safe level of privacy, then having them sell your information negates your original goal.
Be sure to read the privacy policies and pay attention to whether the VPN provider is logging your information and, more importantly, why they’re doing so. This will safeguard against any potential headaches later on.
VPNs often include a feature known as a “Kill Switch” that shuts down your connection to the internet in the event that the VPN connection fails. The reason for including this feature is so your connection doesn’t default to an unsecure internet connection that would compromise your privacy.
Common causes for disconnections are anti-virus settings, network congestion, and down servers.
Kill switches tend to be for users with a high-concern for privacy, like people torrenting copyrighted material, activists who require high-levels of anonymity, or people handling confidential data.
Most of us don’t necessarily need this feature for more day-to-day activities, but it’s good to know what it is and that it’s an option. Essentially, kill switches are a personal preference, and it depends on why you have a VPN in the first place.
Speed and Bandwidth Caps
Some VPN services do have bandwidth restrictions, and you should probably try to avoid them if speed is a major concern for you.
Most services have fairly high bandwidth caps, though, which are highly reasonable and only put into place to prevent people abusing the privilege.
Method of PaymentYou’re probably wondering how to maintain privacy while making payments to the VPN, and there’s a lot of articles and blogs out there suggesting you make non-traceable payments using Bitcoin, cash, or Target gift cards.
While cash payments will help maintain anonymity, this is unnecessary unless you’re doing illegal stuff like downloading copyrighted material.
For basic security and privacy purposes, fear not – Paypal or CC Payment Service will work just fine.
In terms of standard pricing, expect to pay anywhere from $1–10 a month, give or take a dollar or two. Again, it depends on which service you subscribe to and why. Some services offer a discount to users who pay the entire year upfront, while other offer discounts for credit card payments.
Beware of Fake VPNs
Ever since Congress rolled back the regulations on privacy allowing ISPs to sell your private data, there have been people out there trying to capitalize on this fear.
In fact, a couple of years ago a free VPN service was even selling their users’ bandwidth to another company. More recently, a fake VPN service was caught trying to mine email addresses of unsuspecting users.
These are usually more obvious than not, but a sure-fire way to avoid the fake VPNs is by doing your homework. Look around and check into the VPNs reputation and be wary of any free or low-cost VPNs (Note: Not all free or low-cost VPNs are out to get you, but you tend to get what you pay for).
Again, these tend to be the exceptions and not the rule, but it’s still important to be aware of this possibility.
Time to Get Started
VPNs might be intimidating at first, but if you’re concerned with privacy and safety (and you should be), there is no substitute.
That said, take your time and do your homework before signing up for a VPN, and definitely don’t compromise your needs for convenience by choosing the first one you see.
References and Footnotes
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James Webb is a tech and gadgets expert with a focus on educational content development. He draws on his background in the startup world to make complicated technologies and topics easy to understand for normal folks.
Questions & Answers
1 ANSWERED QUESTIONS
Will a VPN keep me secure from the WPA2 Wi-Fi hack?
Yes, a VPN will add a layer of security, assuming the service you’re subscribed to uses encryption. (Virtually all of them do.) However, it isn’t a silver-bullet fix and won’t solve all problems related to the WPA2 crack, or “KRACK.”
The only sure-fire way to protect yourself from Wi-Fi breaches at this point is to wire directly into your router with an ethernet cable. For mobile devices, consider disabling Wi-Fi until a fix is presented.