Not sure what a VPN is, or what you can do with one? This simple guide for beginners has the answers.
In these days of constant connectivity and ever-increasing internet use, reports of security breaches, identity theft, financial fraud, and unauthorized personal data sharing are a significant concern for everyone. A Virtual Private Network, or VPN, is a valuable tool that alleviates these concerns. Additionally, VPNs come with several other outstanding (and often unexpected) benefits as well.
What Is A VPN?
VPNs were originally developed to allow remote workers to safely access corporate networks when away from the office. Obviously, the corporations didn’t want hackers to get access to corporate records, so the Virtual Private Networks were developed to serve as a separate little private internet for its users. Over time, individuals recognized that these exceptional privacy benefits could be extended to their own internet activities as well. In fact, the VPN service for individuals has been so successful, the term VPN is now almost exclusively used in reference to a service that provides private internet usage for anyone surfing online. A once obscure corporate initiative is now a $70 billion industry.
Since the ordinary internet user doesn’t have an corporate IT guy on demand, VPN services had to evolve to make VPNs easier to use. Thankfully, the VPN companies have answered the call, and for the most part they have made VPN usage extremely simple. Even an inexperienced computer user can be up and running with a VPN in minutes. Not only are VPNs now easy to install, but competition among VPN providers has made them very affordable as well. For just a few dollars a month, a good VPN service will not only protect your privacy, but will also open up a whole new world of TV, movies, music, gaming, and more for users.
The Many Benefits Of Using A VPN
While most people know a VPN is a must-have for online privacy and protection from hackers, these handy tools also offer so much more. When first learning about VPNs, people are often quite surprised by these other benefits. Here are the main reasons to use a VPN.
Bypass online censors: A VPN will let you avoid online censorship and access blocked content. As a result, restricted political discourse and non-mainstream news reporting are available to people otherwise subject to government and corporate propaganda. Other blocked content is also instantly available when you use the internet with a VPN.
Access TV channels, sites & apps worldwide: On a lighter note, a VPN will allow a resident in one country to get unrestricted access to the TV broadcasts available in other countries. Prior to VPNs, access to another country’s television channels, sporting events, news, movies and music was almost impossible. So, if you’re tired of US television, a VPN will get you access to all the great free TV in the UK. (And vice-versa if you’re in the UK.)
Stream more sports: Unrestricted access to TV sites and services has a lot of benefits for sports fans. Think of the possibilities: A soccer fan in the US can stream European League matches, or a US expat can get complete access to NFL football again. In fact, the viewing options offered by the NFL, MLB and NHL to residents of other countries are better than what’s offered in the US. As a result, NFL fans living in the US, for example, use VPNs to get access to these better viewing options!
Enjoy online poker and sports betting: Living in the US, but want to play poker online or do some sports betting? A VPN will get that done for you as well.
Watch more on Netflix and Amazon Video: Did you know that Netflix and Amazon have significantly different streaming libraries depending on what country you live in? A VPN will get around these content blocks as well–giving you so many more shows and movies to watch.
Use Torrenting sites and Kodi safely: Do you torrent music and movies, or use Kodi? The extra security protection of a VPN is essential to stay secure and anonymous.
Save money on VoIP calls: Ever use Skype or other VoIP services and get hit by big charges for international calls? With a VPN you can appear to be in the same country as the person you’re calling, and avoid costly bills.
Keep sensitive online activities private: If you do online banking or other sensitive activities, a VPN will give you a safe zone, and protect you from spies, hackers and rogues.
Avoid online ads and tracking: Sick of seeing annoying online ads, and getting tracked by marketers online? Many VPNs block ads and trackers, as well as malicious malware.
Block unwanted surveillance: Disgusted by Facebook’s privacy breaches? Tired of Big Brother and government agencies doing blanket surveillance of your internet usage? A VPN will allow you to appear as if you are in another country. (And yes, VPNs are legal in the US, Canada, Europe and most of Asia.)
If you’re still not convinced that VPNs offer a tremendously valuable service, then there’s no point in reading the rest of our guide. But for the rest of you, please continue. Learning about VPNs and choosing a reputable VPN provider is one of the best decisions you can make for all your online activities.
How A VPN Works
Without a VPN, your internet use starts by connecting to your Internet Service Provider, or ISP (like Comcast or AT&T). The ISP then connects you to your desired website through its servers. Your entire internet history can therefore be viewed and stored by your ISP. Your ISP not only makes no commitment to protecting your privacy, it will actively sell your information to a slew of interested parties. These interested parties include advertisers, marketers, data aggregators, copyright watchdogs, and credit reporting companies. In addition to your ISP monitoring your online activities, other parties can — and do — spy on internet users. This includes everyone from random hackers to government agencies and copyright trolls.
When you use a VPN, however, you connect to the internet through your VPN provider’s servers over an encrypted connection (also called a “VPN tunnel”). Your ISP and other parties can therefore only see that you are connected to a VPN server. Your personal information and the websites you visit are kept hidden. This includes your IP address (“Internet Protocol”—the unique numeric address of your computer on the internet). Anyone monitoring your internet usage sees only the VPN server’s IP address, even if the server is located in a different country than you are. VPN companies typically have servers in many different countries, and use an IP address that is shared by many users, making it all but impossible for anyone to trace your personal computer.
Since all your data is encrypted by the VPN, this makes it safe to use even public WiFi hotspots. The sole downside to using a VPN is its effect on your internet speed. Data encryption requires additional computer resources, which slows online access somewhat. Also, your data travels farther to the VPN server, which can take a little longer. The amount of slowdown varies depending on your geographical location relative VPN server you connect to, available bandwidth, and how many people are using the server at that given time. However, most modern computers and devices are powerful enough to make this a minor issue. And while low quality VPNs will noticeably slow your connection speed, the good VPNs are super fast. Any slowdown is imperceptible, and it has no impact on streaming or surfing.
All these references like ‘encryption’, ‘servers’, and ‘IP addresses’ sometimes give people the impression that using a VPN is complicated. Nothing could be further from the truth–using a VPN is extremely simple. To see for yourself, check out our easy guide for ‘How To Use A VPN‘.
Using a VPN service is legal in most countries. Some countries with more repressive governments have placed bans or limitations on VPN services operating within their borders; these include China, North Korea, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Russia, and Belarus. These countries may also try to block internet users from accessing VPN services in other countries. Many European countries, including France and the UK, require VPN providers to keep logs of users’ activity for a certain amount of time, ostensibly to track terrorism threats. Therefore, to ensure your privacy it is always prudent to be aware of VPN regulations in the country where your VPN server is located.
It is important to note that although using a VPN provides privacy, it does not provide total anonymity—you are putting your trust in the VPN service to protect your data. While VPN companies go to great lengths to guard and maintain your privacy, some do better than others — log-keeping being the case in point. A VPN service that keeps logs of users’ activity may be compelled to turn those logs over to authorities for a variety of reasons, and they will. They’re not going to face criminal charges, or bankrupt their business, to protect a customer. Therefore, choosing a service that does not keep usage logs is the only route to true internet privacy and security, with the caveat that no VPN will provide invisibility from the NSA or other law enforcement agencies if they are specifically investigating you.
VPNs are available for laptop and desktop computers, smartphones, tablets, and nearly all support Windows, Mac OSX, iPhone, and Android platforms. Many also support Chrome OS and Linux; a limited number support Windows mobile devices and Blackberry OS.
However, the devices are not all equally secure. Take mobile apps for instance. While a VPN will hide and encrypt websites by accessing them through its very own browser, apps bypass the need for an internet browser — taking the user directly to the desired website or service. This is why mobile apps are so convenient. But mobile apps don’t have a static IP address, and therefore your identity and internet usage is tracked in a different manner than with a traditional ISP. Instead, mobile apps use your stored contact lists, GPS data, Apple ID, Google Play ID, and advertiser analytics (among others) to track your activity. Since it’s just the user and the app, the app is able to capture all the data and store it directly on its own servers. To avoid this unwanted data capture and maximize your VPN benefits on a mobile device, it’s prudent to access websites and services through the extra step of your VPN browser rather than through a dedicated app.
Leaks and Kill Switches
A functioning VPN should hide your IP address while you are using the internet, but no system is infallible. If a website can still somehow see your personal IP address while you are connected through a VPN, this is known as an “IP Leak.” To check for leaks, connect through your VPN and go to the website ipleak.net (or test-ipv6.com to check for IPv6 leaks). If you can see your IP address or your ISP’s name on the page, you have an IP leak. A Complete Guide to IP Leaks is a valuable resource for determining why you have a leak, and how to fix it. The best VPNs however, like our top picks, have built-in IP leak prevention.
Another potential problem is a VPN dropout. Even the best VPNs have occasional connection failures. When this happens, your IP address is exposed if you remain connected to the internet. As a solution, many VPN services include what is called a “kill switch” that shuts down your internet connection whenever a VPN dropout occurs.
Torrent is a fast, reliable, secure protocol that help users download and share large data files, including movies, photographs, and games. It works best when used with a VPN. Unfortunately, not all VPN services support torrenting, so you’ll need to confirm this. The VPN services that do support torrenting are the ones that specifically offer protection against your ISP (and others) being able to view your IP address during P2P (peer-to-peer) downloading and file-sharing. With a torrent friendly VPN, only the IP address of your VPN server will be visible. Also remember that torrenting downloads of very large files can take hours, and may be unattended — so it is important to use a VPN with a kill switch.
Logging and Real-Time Tracking
Many VPN providers tout themselves as “zero-log.” What they generally mean by this is that they do not keep “usage logs”—details of which websites you visit. Nonetheless, VPN services usually do keep some type of connection log. The important point is to determine the exact nature of the log. Commonly, it is simply a log of connection times—when, how long, and how often you used the service. The companies justify the retention of these logs to fix technical issues and deal with abuse.
Even if no log-keeping is going on, the VPN service can monitor the user’s internet connections in real time. Many providers claim not to do this unless it is necessary for troubleshooting technical glitches. Despite this claim, the laws of many countries allow for specific, requested log-keeping of an individual who is under legal investigation, and these laws also prohibit the VPN service from warning the customer of this log-keeping activity.
Prices for VPN service vary from under $4 to $15 per month, with some services giving you a significantly better deal if you sign up for one year or longer. There are free VPN services, but most have notable limitations in operating features, speed, and performance, as well as privacy trust issues.
How To Choose A VPN Service
Considering the number of VPN services currently on the market, it can be confusing and overwhelming to decide which one is best for you. Since there really is no such thing as a “perfect” VPN, it’s best to recognize your main reason for wanting a VPN. Do you simply want privacy for surfing the internet? Do you want to access TV streaming services from other countries, or download freely without fear of detection or repercussions? Once you have your priority usage in mind, you can peruse VPN reviews for the ones that stress the features you need. Make sure that a given VPN unblocks the particular streaming sites that you wish to view, since some do not support Netflix, for example.
Other factors to consider are:
- cost—most services offer a money-back guarantee so you can try it out and see how it matches your own needs before committing
- security/privacy claims (look for a no-log policy
- number and location of VPN servers, especially relevant to your location
- number of devices that can connect simultaneously
- useful software features, such as kill switches and DNS leak protection,
- ease of use
- customer service
- support for the platform(s) you are using (i.e., Android and iOS).
Some VPN companies offer specialty addons, such as cloud storage or advanced security options like VPN through Tor. Tor is free software that directs internet traffic through a worldwide volunteer overlay network designed to provide anonymous communication by concealing the user’s location and usage history. If you connect through Tor, even your VPN provider is unable to see your IP address. Also, some VPNs specialize in a specific task, such as getting around the Great Firewall of China for example.
Top Ten VPN Picks
#1. NordVPN — Rating 9.8
What we like:
- Fastest VPN across servers
- Works great with popular sites, apps, and services
- Excellent privacy features; no logs
- Best for Netflix, TV, sports
- Allows Tor and P2P traffic
- Built-in SmartDNS
- Leak prevention and automatic kill switch
- Works in restricted countries, like China
- Super easy to use; perfect for beginners
- Blocks ads, malware, and trackers
- Best deal and 30-day money-back guarantee
What we like less:
- Mobile app is a little too streamlined for advanced users
- Alternative app security protocols must be manually accessed
NordVPN is the all-around top scorer, with its stellar security while simultaneously avoiding geo-blocks and ISP throttling, combined with its low price. It is extremely easy to install and to use. Streamers on Kodi and beyond love the high-speed streaming and built-in Smart DNS. Apps for any device are excellent, and encryption is top-notch—military grade. There are a multitude of server locations around the globe. Reliability and performance are not diminished by the emphasis on security. NordVPN is affordable and it comes with a 30-day money-back guarantee so you can’t lose if you try it out. [Check out NordVPN today.
#2. ExpressVPN — Rating 9.1
- Reliable access to all popular sites and services
- Extremely consistent high performance
- High reseller ratings from over 3,000 reviews
What we like less:
- Higher cost
- Little connection metadata to improve service
ExpressVPN’s performance strength, privacy controls, and security make it a good choice for streaming fans. It costs a bit more, but the high-level encryption, speed, access to popular sites, and terrific customer support may make it worth the money for some consumers (though our testing hasn’t revealed any advantages over NordVPN). There are many servers around the globe, with an emphasis on the US, and it works well even in high-censorship countries. Apps are very user-friendly, with quick downloads and connections. Security and privacy features are top-notch on public and private networks. ExpressVPN is incorporated in the BVI, and therefore not subject to EU or US regulations.
#3. IPVanish — Rating 9.0
- Server speeds, both up & down
- Easy connection
- Great choice for P2P applications
What we like less:
- App confusing to use
- Inconsistent customer support
- Short refund period (7 days)
Highwinds Network Group launched IPVanish in 2012, and it continues to be one of the top VPNs around. Its super-fast server speed and versatile apps make it excellent for streaming, file sharing, and gaming, with very good options for security and servers. IPVanish works great with P2P applications, and its strict zero-log policy makes it good for those wanting maximum anonymity, despite being subject to U.S. privacy laws. Cons include less-than-stellar customer service, relative difficulty of app use, and the fact that it’s blocked by Netflix. Although IPVanish is extremely fast with terrific security, it is not for beginners or streaming fans. It is recommended for those stressing privacy, unblocking, sports, and travel.
#4. CyberGhost Pro — Rating 8.8
- Custom app experience tailored to customer usage
- No logging at all, even for connection metadata
- Ad-blocking, anti-malware and no-tracking
What we like less:
- App needs to be streamlined
- Server locations somewhat limited
- Customer support is a bit slow
CyberGhost Pro, the brand new upgraded version from the Romanian-based provider that originally launched CyberGhost in 2011, offers vast improvements in speed and performance. Their approach and design were always innovative, and the new version is a great option for those wanting speed along with many excellent privacy features. The server network is limited to 39 countries, but congestion is not much of an issue, with over 1,000 servers available. They added or updated some interesting extras, including anti-malware and ad-blocking, and free proxy service is offered on the website so you can try out the IP address masking. Their website is well-designed overall, and offers great customer support resources.
#5. HIDE.me — Rating 8.4
- Lightning-fast UK server speeds
- Apps easy to use
- Great advanced features, including kill switch
What we like less:
- Netflix blocked
- Limited server choice; none in China
- Basic packages have data caps
Hide.me is a good overall VPN value, with strong privacy features, speeds that are adequate in all locations and blazingly fast in some, and fast friendly customer service. Based in Malaysia, Hide.me has a completely zero-log policy along with other advanced privacy features. Speed is just incredible on the UK server (at least 80Mbps down and 100Mbps up), and close in South America. Their server network is relatively small, but they are building that up by gradually adding countries. Hide.me apps, though not visually exciting, are very easy to use with good functionality. Streaming works well, but Netflix is blocked, which is a definite downside for some users.
#6. SaferVPN — Rating 8.3
SaferVPN is one of very few providers worldwide that offers a free trial and a money-back guarantee. The trial gives access to all features for one day. They also have a “refer-a-friend” plan that can earn you and each friend referred a free month of VPN use. A Chrome extension complements the software, and a recent app redesign gives excellent performance in an easy-to-use format. Based in the US, server selection is still a bit limited, but gradually improving; most popular sites have plenty of servers. Streaming services are not as reliable as some other providers. Privacy features have been recently upgraded, reducing connection metadata logging to a bare minimum. Customer service is fast and user-friendly.
#7. VyprVPN — Rating 8.0
- Gets around the Great Firewall of China
- Not subject to US/EU laws
- NAT firewall for additional security
What we like less:
- Logs data for 30 days (not activity usage details)
- Mobile experience could be better
- Premium plan required for best features
VyprVPN is a great choice for users who put a priority on security and privacy, since it’s incorporated in Switzerland, out of reach of either EU or US regulations. Particular global locations, including the US, have impressive server speeds as well. However, their policy of logging and keeping basic connection data (though not activity data) for 30 days may be off-putting for some users such as heavy torrenters.
VyprVPN works great with Netflix. Their apps are easy to use and offer a reasonable number of configuration and power features. Locations are fairly solid, you can select specific US cities to optimize your server connection, and VyprVPN works well in China, which many do not.
#8. ZenMate — Rating 7.3
- Simple one-button VPN
- Smart features on browser extensions
- Connection metadata logging is temporary, limited
What we like less:
- Protocols have few settings, no transparency
- Poor performance in speed tests for most locations
- Subpar customer support and information
ZenMate is a reliable easy-to-use VPN for users wanting just the basics in privacy protection and desktop features. Launched in 2013, it is more fully-developed and has more features for Firefox, Chrome, and Opera than for Windows, Mac, iOS or Android—but you do get access to all platforms with your subscription. ZenMate is based in Germany, and therefore is subject to EU data regulations. Speed is ZenMate’s most notable feature, but performance can be inconsistent, and privacy protections lack both OpenVPN and kill switch.
Their server network has enough locations for most users, but is small compared to many rivals’ networks. Customer support lacks live chat, and could use some improvement in the breadth and depth of their information; email response was disappointing as well.
#9. PureVPN — Rating 7.1
- Works well with Netflix
- Lots of servers
- Best servers can be very fast
What we like less:
- Auto mode frequently defaults to less secure protocols
- Unreliable connection via OpenVPN protocols
- Speeds are very inconsistent
PureVPN, established in Hong Kong is 2006, offers a very affordable 12-month plan with an impressive range of servers around the globe, some with outstanding performance. Beyond the reach of EU and US regulations, it works well with Netflix and most other streaming services. It is a good basic choice for cost-conscious consumers, with some great app features. However, we noticed inconsistencies in performance, and privacy protocols and procedures leave something to be desired. If maximum privacy is a top priority for you, you will want to look elsewhere.
#10. HideMyAss! Rating 7.0
- Interface is really easy to use
- Wide range of server locations, including specific cities
- Customer support is excellent
What we like less:
- Lack of advanced manual options
- Buggy app
- Subject to EU data regulations
- Connection metadata is logged for 3 months
HideMyAss! (HMA!) has one of the best app designs in the current VPN market, but with quite a few bugs. With ample financial backing from owner Avast, a top anti-virus software company, the UK-based service is a good pick for those needing a wide range of server locations, with over 120,000 IP addresses across over 900 servers. Performance is reliable and the choice of over 60 US cities makes it ideal for beating live sports blackouts.
Customer support is very good—quick response time, accurate to-the-point content. HMA! is, however, not the top choice if highest-level privacy and anonymity are your prime concerns; its UK incorporation makes it subject to EU data retention regulations and intelligence-sharing agreements with the US.