Summary: Virtual private networks, or VPNs, are nothing new. You might think that the only people who need them are obsessed with staying off the grid. That’s not the case, and VPNs can even be used to unlock more streaming content on Netflix, Hulu, and more. We’re breaking down how VPNs work, who should use one, and how to find a service that works for you.
You already know that virtual private networks, otherwise known as VPNs, are a cost-effective way to increase your online security. But how do you know if you need one? Well, the short answer is that everyone can benefit from using a VPN. The longer answer is that some people can benefit more, and we’ll get into all of that here. Plus, because VPNs are a paid service, we’ll look at how to make sure you’re choosing a trustworthy provider.
How Does a VPN Work?
We’ve got a deep dive to answer “What is a VPN?”, but we’ll recap the basics in case you missed it. A virtual private network offers users more online privacy and anonymity by encrypting your IP address. VPNs can change your location, increase your security, and even unblock websites, all while keeping your data safe from prying eyes.
Using a VPN means that your internet service provider (or anyone else) can’t see your destination. All they can see is that you were online. Plus, any website you visit can’t see your actual IP address — they’ll only see the proxy address assigned by your VPN. In practice, this can prevent ad networks from tracking you, protect your data from government tracking, hide your identity when conducting sensitive searches (think research done for work by journalists or lawyers), and can even help guard against data breaches.
When Should I Use a VPN?
You can be connected to a VPN at any time. But there are a number of scenarios when you may want to be sure you’re connected.
When Using Public WiFi
Any time you’re connected to a public WiFi network—like at the airport or a coffee shop—you should definitely be using a VPN. Because those networks are public, they’re not encrypted, meaning it’s easier for criminals to find and steal your data. Using a VPN to connect to a public network protects your data and hides your browsing history and personal information (like passwords or routing numbers).
If you’re connected to public WiFi without a VPN, at the very least avoid using any apps that have sensitive information. In other words, skip shopping online or checking your bank account. Stick to the weather app and Wordle.
When Working Remotely
If you’re one of the 92 million Americans who can work remotely at least part of the time, you probably need a VPN. Using a VPN allows you to connect with your office network and look at documents (including confidential files) without worrying that a hacker will steal it. You can also make any financial transactions without breaking a sweat. Just don’t forget to file that expense report.
When Streaming or Gaming
Bet you thought we’d never get to the lighthearted side of VPNs, didn’t you? In addition to all the other benefits, you can also use it to access content that’s available in other locations.
VPNs can be used for gaming to access a wider library of games, use public WiFi to game, and even to protect yourself from trolls. Having a VPN can protect your personal identity, so if someone is a sore loser, they can’t track down your location.
If you’re streaming, you can use a VPN to get around content restrictions. Some streaming platforms use “geo-blocking” strategies, which means that the content varies between locations. For example, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is available on Netflix in the U.K., but is exclusive to Hulu in the U.S. Or, if you’re a scary movie fan, you might use a VPN to watch Rosemary’s Baby — available on Netflix Japan, but not in the U.S.
A VPN can also help alleviate buffering issues to deliver a smoother streaming or gaming experience because it gets around bandwidth issues. However, using a VPN can also lead to slower connections in some cases.
Can VPNs Slow Down Your Internet?
In some cases, a VPN can slow down your internet connection. Because it reroutes and encrypts your internet activity, it can take a few extra seconds. But the good news is, it really is just a few extra seconds. In most cases, you won’t notice the slight delay. It might be noticeable during activities like competitive gaming, when milliseconds can make a difference to your health status.
There are a few steps you can take to increase your speed with a VPN:
- Connect to a VPN server that’s as geographically close to you as possible (this won’t necessarily work if you’re using a VPN to connect to another country’s streaming platforms)
- Choose a VPN provider that has a higher number of servers so you’re less likely to be impacted by other users
- Adjust your encryption strength — stronger encryption keeps you safer but also takes more time, and you may not need the strongest setting depending on what you’re doing
Overall, VPNs don’t have a noticeable impact on your internet experience, and they work to keep you safer.
How to Choose a VPN Provider
It’s clear that most people can benefit from a VPN. While there are some free VPN options, keep in mind they’re not as robust as you probably want. Think: low data restrictions (as low as 10 GB per month, or about 2 movies on Netflix), limited server options, and connections on just one device. Plus, some scammers set up “free VPN” fronts to steal your information. If it’s a company you’ve never heard of, do some online research first and make sure they’re a real company.
If you’re ready to take the plunge, use these five tips to find a VPN that works for you.
First, look for a company that uses OpenVPN or Lightway security protocols — it’s more secure than older guidelines like PPTP and works faster, too. Win-win.
Second, consider how many servers the company has and where they are. You want many servers in a variety of countries. Pro tip: if you’re using a VPN to avoid government supervision, consider checking into where the VPN company is based and avoid countries with close ties to your own.
Third, find a service that lets you be connected to two or more devices at one time. That way you can use your phone and computer at the same time and be protected on both. Or, you can be connected to a VPN for work while your roommate is connected to stream their favorite movie.
Fourth, Consider data restrictions. Just like our fiber internet has no data caps, avoid a VPN that has low restrictions. Really, anything less than one terabyte (or 1,000 GB) isn’t worth your time. It might take a little digging (or fine-print reading) to find the exact number, but it’s best to make sure before investing any time or money in the service.
Finally, check out what kind of activity logs they keep. Some providers keep activity logs for a short amount of time (only a few hours), but many don’t keep any records — that means added security for you and less storage space the provider needs. You might also see something called a kill switch system, which locks down the connection if your VPN fails for any reason. That way, your information won’t default to an unsecured internet connection.
Our favorite service is EarthLink Protect+ powered by Norton. You’ll get a VPN plus real-time threat protection, dark web monitoring, the LifeLock identity alert system, a million-dollar protection package, and more, all in one neat package. And with a 30-day free trial, you can make sure the service works for you before fully committing. Psst: it pairs great with our fiber internet plans.
Staying safer online can feel overwhelming. But with a VPN, you’ll have less to worry about and can work from your favorite brunch spot without worrying who could be looking over your (virtual) shoulder.