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September 27, 2021 (Last updated: November 7, 2021)
The ultimate VPN guide for beginners
You have likely heard the term “VPN” before. VPN stands for Virtual Private Network and is commonly used by companies who need a method for their employees to securely access the internal company network when they’re working remotely.
However, in recent years, the VPN has become more popular with everyday computer users. They use it for various reasons: to securely use an open Wi-Fi network, use a website or service that isn’t available in their country, or hide their IP from potential attackers are just some of the reasons.
VPNs are a complex topic, so we’ve created this guide to help you understand what they are and why using a VPN may be something you should consider.
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What is a VPN, and How Does It Work?
It’s helpful to think of a VPN in terms of a tunnel. A tunnel, whether it’s cut through a mountain, under a city, or even underwater, connects two places that otherwise couldn’t be connected without a much longer alternate route. Construction crews build super strong tunnel walls to hold back the dirt, rock, or water from the vehicles and trains that pass within.
VPNs create a secure channel, also called a “tunnel,” between two locations on the internet. This allows data to pass between these locations as if they were on the same local network. Data passing through the tunnel is encrypted, making the connecting parties’ communications (and activities) secure, just like the tunnel walls allow travelers to pass through safely.
Most VPNs use a simple app, which allows users to turn the service on and off. Activating the VPN creates the encrypted tunnel, which protects data passing through until they disconnect.
What a VPN is Used For
We’ve mentioned some of the possible uses for a VPN at the beginning of this guide. Let’s look at those and others in a little more detail.
Working from home: A VPN allows companies to offer access to applications and services that are only available on the internal network to remote workers. Since communications are encrypted, attackers can’t spy on any data traffic passing over the VPN.
For privacy: A VPN is a private connection, just as its name implies. Your IP address (assigned to every device connected to the internet) is hidden from anything you access by connecting to the VPN. Instead, they will see the IP address of the VPN connection you’re using.
To hide location: Not only will you appear to be from the IP address of your VPN server, but since IPs are assigned geographically, you’ll also appear to be accessing the service or website from the country that server is in. This is why VPNs are popular for viewing streaming content: services like Netflix use IP addresses to determine what content library to show you, and a VPN can get you access to content you wouldn’t otherwise see.
In gaming: Gamers use VPNs to maintain a stable connection during gameplay. Gaming connections are frequent targets for hackers, and the secure nature of the VPN blocks the hacker from seeing what you’re doing.
The use of VPNs to bypass Internet restrictions in repressive societies is another common method.
Why Would I Need a VPN?
The most likely reason you’d want a VPN is for its inherent privacy features, which make your internet connection much more secure. On a work VPN, you connect directly with the home office, allowing your company’s servers to offer you access to applications hidden from the public internet.
For home computer users, privacy is equally important, but for other reasons. We share personal information over the internet regularly: a VPN adds an extra layer of encrypted protection to the data you transmit. As long as you’re careful with your personal information, your data or identity theft chances are dramatically lower when connected to a VPN.
Advantages and Disadvantages
VPNs are admittedly not for everyone and have some drawbacks that you’ll need to consider before using a VPN. We’ve listed some of the biggest advantages and disadvantages below.
VPNs used to be extremely difficult to set up. Modern VPN services have made it extraordinarily easy, with an app that helps you both set up your device and connect. You will be up and running in a matter of minutes.
VPNs can take the worry out of public Wi-Fi hotspots. By connecting to your VPN immediately after connecting to the hotspot, your connection is far more secure.
If you believe you might be a target for directed hacking attacks, a VPN will allow you to hide your connection to those outside of the VPN. This could be useful for the gaming applications we discussed previously. However, it will be helpful for anyone looking to hide their connections for security reasons.
The amount of bandwidth to maintain a VPN connection is considerable, and as more people connect to the VPN, everyone’s connection slows down. VPN connections are already slower than they would be if you were physically at the server location, and heavy VPN server usage makes your connection much slower.
VPNs use an outdated method of cybersecurity where all the protection is on the perimeter. Think of a moat around a castle. That moat protects the castle very well, but if the enemy can cross the moat, the castle will likely fall into enemy hands. If a hacker can somehow make their way into the network, users are just as much at risk as they’d be on any public connection.
VPN use for certain services might be prohibited. For example, streaming media services like Netflix routinely block the IP addresses of VPN connections as they’re commonly used to get around regional restrictions.
Free vs. Paid VPNs: Does it Matter?
There are plenty of options in both free and subscription-based VPNs to choose from, and there is a significant difference between the two. While free VPNs might seem attractive due to the price, some may need better performance and functionality than a free VPN can provide.
Many VPN options are quite affordable if you don’t mind paying for a year of service upfront and are a good deal for the better security they provide. While free VPN services have improved their security considerably, most use weaker encryption to protect data transmitted through the network.
You’re also far more likely to have bandwidth limits, as well as a slower connection since free VPNs must squeeze as many users onto a single server to make it cost-effective. While the connection will be fast enough to perform simple tasks, you’ll likely run into trouble when attempting to do things that use a lot of bandwidth, like gaming or streaming.
You also might see or be forced to view ads to use the service. While these ads are simply “paying the bills,” it might be annoying. And while those outside of the VPN can’t log your activities, your VPN provider can. The VPN provider has less incentive to track you to monetize your use of the VPN if you’re paying them a monthly or annual subscription fee.
How to Choose the Right VPN
Choosing the right VPN provider comes down to what you plan to use the VPN for. When shopping around for the best service, consider these six factors:
Avoid using VPN with the PPTP protocol. PPTP is a VPN protocol, one of many. However, it’s obsolete, and the encryption is easy to break, making it insecure. Look for support for either the L2TP/IPsec or OpenVPN protocols and use those instead.
Look for a provider with a “kill switch.” While it might sound bad, it’s not: this functionality keeps your data secure in the event of a failure of the VPN service. The kill switch allows the VPN to lock a device down, so it doesn’t begin to dump data onto a public connection, defeating the purpose of using a VPN in the first place.
Choose a provider with a server closest to you physically. This ensures your connection will be as fast as possible since the data from your connection has less time to travel to the VPN server. Free VPN services often have few servers, but most VPN services have hundreds if not thousands of options, and most label each server with its physical location.
How many simultaneous connections does it support? We all have multiple devices we use regularly, and many of us live with others who also might want to use the VPN. If you’re all connecting at the same time, then the number of simultaneous connections should be a primary factor in deciding which VPN provider is best.
How much bandwidth do you need?
Bandwidth should never be an issue if you’re using your VPN provider for everyday personal and work tasks. However, if you’re gaming or streaming over the VPN, a service with unlimited bandwidth is necessary.
Does the VPN provider keep logs? If they keep logs, what kind of data is stored? Stay away from providers that don’t answer this question specifically. Most VPN providers claim not to log the activities of their users, but we recommend acting like they do and using your best judgment when using a VPN.
There are many choices out there for VPN services, but we’ve narrowed down the list of hundreds to the six best VPN providers. See a clear overview of all popular VPN services here.
ProtonVPN is unique in our list because it offers both a free and a paid option (and you can upgrade from the free version to the paid version quickly if you need to). The free version is limited to only one connection, with speed throttled making it unusable for high bandwidth applications. You’re also limited to about two dozen servers across three countries, making it difficult to find a server close by in many cases.
Opt for either the Basic or Plus plan instead. The Basic plan offers over 350 VPN servers in over 40 countries with “high speed” access, while the Plus plan offers more than 1,200 servers in more than 55 countries with the fastest speeds, up to 10Gbps. You gain an extra simultaneous connection with the Basic plan and up to 10 connections with Plus. BitTorrent support is included with the Basic and Plus plans, but streaming service support requires the Plus plan.
NordVPN is one of the most well-known VPN services and offers a single plan, with deep discounts for annual and two-year plans. It also has far more servers than ProtonVPN, with over 5,200 servers in 60 countries. NordVPN’s customer service is available 24/7 (ProtonVPN’s does not), and one-click activation of the VPN connection makes it a good choice for those with minimal computer knowledge.
Other notable features include a dedicated IP address, which means you’ll never be assigned an IP that somebody else has used, and the capability to simultaneously use the VPN and browse the open internet if you’d like. There’s even an app to make it easy to use the service on your mobile devices.
Cyberghost offers one of the best money-back guarantees of any VPN service, giving you a full 45 days to see if the service is a good fit. It also offers the cheapest monthly fees when purchasing a two-year prepaid plan. Its network is also more extensive than either ProtonVPN or NordVPN, offering over 7,100 servers in more than 90 countries.
Both streaming service and BitTorrent support are included, with up to seven simultaneous connections allowed. With 24/7 live support and apps for all the major platforms, Cyberghost is an excellent choice for those who want to get online quickly and get help if there is any trouble.
While Surfshark might not have as many VPN servers as other providers (about 3,200 in over 60 countries), it does offer one thing that many do not: an unlimited number of simultaneous connections. This makes Surfshark a great choice if you know you won’t be the only person using the VPN.
NortonVPN is brought to you by the same company that developed Norton Antivirus. It’s also fairly new, so it didn’t have the more advanced features of other VPN providers, like the “kill switch” technology we discussed earlier, or the split tunneling feature like NordVPN has. But a recent update has added those features, and there’s a 60-day-money-back guarantee to test out the service, longer than anyone else.
One feature that makes NortonVPN different from other VPN providers is “compromised and insecure network detection.” The VPN’s app continuously monitors the security status of your WI-Fi connection, and automatically connects to NortonVPN if it detects you’ve connected to an insecure or suspicious network.
PureVPN may not be as well known or backed by a familiar name like the others, but it is by no means a lesser alternative (it has nearly 3 millon subscribers worldwide). In fact, it has the most geographically diverse server list, with over 6,500 servers spread across 140+ countries, and offers up to ten simultaneous connections with split tunnelling capabilities.
You can also add on a dedicated IP (NordVPN offers this as a standard feature), and port forwarding, which allows you to access your device or a service from anywhere in the world securely. If it doesn’t work out, you can cancel anytime in the first 31 days and get a full refund.
While a VPN isn’t for everyone, most people can benefit in some way from using a VPN while online. With hacking incidents involving the disclosure of personal information becoming ever more frequent, using a VPN can provide an added layer of security. Even the most insecure connections, like public Wi-Fi hotspots, can be secured.