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Though most users are unaware of it, real threats do exist online. For example, did you know your internet service provider (ISP) can access, track, and package your online data to sell to advertisers? Or that every time you connect to public WiFi at a coffee shop, your web traffic is easier for hackers to intercept?
It’s true the internet is great for sharing information, but it’s not designed to protect your privacy or encrypt your data. Without security tools of your own, this leaves you exposed to bad actors.
Similar to locking your doors at night, it’s important to protect your online privacy with the same measures. One of the easiest ways to accomplish this is by using a virtual private network as it shields your personal data from outside intruders. Best of all, it’s very easy to install and set up.
What a VPN Is and Isn’t
Before choosing a VPN, it’s important to understand how one works. After all, just like the internet, VPNs have limitations of their own.
How a VPN works
When you turn on a VPN, your online data is routed through an encrypted tunnel to a VPN-operated server before exiting onto the public web. Again, any data sent back to your device is rerouted in the same way. This effectively masks your real IP address from online snoopers because your web traffic appears to come from the VPN server instead of your actual location.
It also encrypts your online data as it passes through the VPN tunnel, protecting you from things like identity theft and ISP speed throttling. Check out the main advantages (and a few disadvantages) to using a virtual private network:
Anonymizes your IP address
Encrypts personal data
Prevents ISP speed throttling
Access geo-restricted content
Bypass censorship firewalls
Protects peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing
Help users avoid price hikes from website cookies
Better online gaming experience
Protection in a hostile environment
Limitations of a VPN
Some providers advertise special add-on features, but the primary purpose of avirtual private network is to protect your online privacy and data. So, it’s important to keep in mind the limitations when using a VPN.
A VPN isn’t 100% secure. If you want to completely anonymize your web traffic, we recommend using the Tor browser in tandem with your VPN service. Rather than routing your data through one server, Tor funnels it through multiple “gatekeepers” if you will, to make it harder for third parties to track your online activity. However, the extra routing will slow down your internet speed, so if gaming or streaming matters to you, this may not be worth the hassle.
A VPN isn’t antivirus software. While it may offer malware blocking features, it’s not going to be as robust as standalone antivirus software. These tools are specifically designed to safeguard your device from malware and are much better at it.
A VPN isn’t a password management tool. A few premium VPNs like NordVPN offer a password manager addon (i.e. NordLock), but most do not. If that’s the case for your VPN, consider using a password tool like LastPass to prevent account breaches.
VPNs have come a long way over the years, but it’s still not magic. Here’s a summary of the disadvantages you may face when using one:
Free VPN services are risky
Quality VPNs cost money
Sometimes slows internet speed
VPN connections can suddenly drop
VPN blocker technology exists
Not compatible with all devices
How to Choose a VPN
Today, people use VPNs for a variety of activities from unlocking restricted content to avoiding bandwidth throttling. Whatever the case may be for you, it’s important to have a clear idea of your VPN must-haves before laying down your credit card.
Privacy & security
As we tried to hit home earlier, the main functions of avirtual private network are privacy and security. If you care at all about your online protection, we recommend looking for a provider with a proven no-logs policy and a jurisdiction outside the 5 Eyes. This means that your VPN will not track or store any of your web traffic and isn’t beholden to government surveillance agencies that can request access to your data.
There are hundreds of VPNs to choose from, but it’s no surprise that the best ones come with a price tag. If you need a trustworthy provider but can’t afford to break the bank, you still have plenty of options. Many premium providers offer cheap VPN plans on their longer-term contracts. Or, if you prefer to pay nothing, there are a few free VPNs still worth your time.
Stream blocked content
Unblocking geo-restricted content is another must-have for users. You can think of it as a byproduct of how a VPN works. When your VPN hides your IP address, it effectively masks your geographical location – which websites use to display and block certain content. If you wish to watch Netflix UK but live in the United States, a VPN can help bypass these restrictions. Look for a provider that offers streaming capability and fast speeds.
The safest way to torrent is by using a VPN, yet not all providers support it. If you need a torrent-friendly service, look for one that doesn’t log your online activity, won’t slow your internet speeds, and is based in a free jurisdiction. If you’re unsure of which torrenting site to use, check out our list of best torrenting sites in 2022. You won’t ever regret having extra privacy when file sharing.
Improve online gaming experience
Because VPNs are known to slow down internet speed, gamers often overlook them. However, if you choose the right VPN for gaming, you can actually see an improvement in your online gaming experience. At an elite level, gamers frequently use DDoS or swatting tactics to slow down their opponents’ connection or disrupt their game. A virtual private network hides your IP address, which shields you from these attacks. It also helps you avoid ISP speed throttling, ultimately improving your speeds. For this, we recommend looking for a provider with proven IP leak protection and fast speeds.
When rating VPNs, our team of experts tests every VPN firsthand to provide the most accurate and up-to-date information possible. With years of dedicated experience writing about VPNs, cybersecurity, and technology, our experts score each provider based on their:
Check out the best VPNs to find a provider that meets your needs.
How to Use a VPN
Fortunately, setting up a virtual private network isn’t rocket science. Many providers today have gone to great lengths to make their apps easy to use. On most devices, it takes less than two minutes to install and set up. First, choose your provider and then follow these three simple steps:
1. Download your VPN app
Once you’ve settled on a VPN, the first thing you need to do is download the application on your device(s). Providers usually have a Downloads page on their website. If your subscription comes with multiple connections, we recommend downloading the app on as many of your devices as you can.
2. Set up your VPN service on your device
As soon as you’ve installed the app, you will be prompted to login to your account with a username and password. You should have this information handy from when you signed up for the service.
3. Connect to a VPN server
After you’re logged in, your app will either connect you to a nearby server or give you the option to select a server location of your own. Note that the further away you are from a network server, the slower your actual speeds will perform. And that’s it! Your web traffic is now secure.
It Isn’t All Greek
Hearing the term virtual private network may intimidate the average user, but it’s for that very reason that we encourage you to invest in one. If you’re not well versed in computers, a VPN is one of the simplest ways to cover your security bases. Even if it sounds Greek, many providers have gone out of their way to make their apps a set-and-forget privacy tool that runs in the background. Once installed, you can rest easy knowing that your web traffic is exactly that – yours.
To find the right VPN for you, check out the best VPNs available.
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