What Is a VPN, and Why Would I Need One?

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If you’ve ever been concerned about your digital privacy or online security, you may want to consider using a VPN to surf the web. To help you learn what a VPN is and why you need one, we’ve put together this guide for understanding VPN basics.

What Is a VPN?

VPN stands for virtual private network. A VPN takes a public internet connection and carves out a portion of it that becomes its user’s private network.

By using a VPN, you hide your IP address, your location, your browsing history, and your device. This gives you added privacy and anonymity from everyone, including cybercriminals and your internet service provider (ISP).

Why Do I Need a VPN?

There are many reasons for using a VPN to achieve privacy and anonymity, but here are some of the most common uses:

For Gaming

Using a VPN for gaming can help protect you from DDoS attacks. Not only does a DDoS attack disrupt your game, it can also interrupt any music or streaming services you’re operating. And depending on where you’re located, VPNs can also unlock games that might otherwise be restricted on your network.

For Streaming

Popular streaming services like Netflix and Hulu vary what’s offered in their streaming libraries depending on the country you’re in. But in many cases, you can use a VPN to get around these restrictions by logging into your streaming service from a remote server located in the country where your favorite shows are available.

For Public Wi-Fi

Public Wi-Fi is a great convenience at coffee shops and airports. It’s also a prime target for hackers, though. Enabling your VPN on public networks is a smart way to block cybercriminals from accessing your data.

For Torrenting

Torrenting is a common form of peer-to-peer file sharing that can leave details like your IP address and download history exposed while you’re accessing the BitTorrent network. VPNs hide your IP address, so that you can torrent safely.

How Does a VPN Work?

VPNs rely on four basic concepts to keep your IP address hidden and your internet activity private.

  1. Proxying. You can think of your VPN server as a proxy for your online activity. When you visit a website while logged into your VPN client, the VPN server you’re using will present its IP address and location as a stand-in for your actual IP address and location.
  2. Tunneling. Tunneling is a process that keeps your data isolated from other traffic on the internet. With tunneling, your data travels across the internet encapsulated in its own private tunnel.
  3. Encryption. To further protect your internet session, VPNs encrypt your data so that no one except for the intended party at the other end of the network tunnel can read your data. When your data is encrypted, many hackers cannot access it — even if they should manage to intercept it. A couple of common encryption types are SHA-256 and AES-256.
  4. Authentication. In order for your VPN to establish a secure connection, your VPN client and the VPN server you’ll be using must go through a process called authentication. Authentication ensures that your VPN client and VPN server are talking to no one other than each other when transmitting the data from your online session.

What Should I Look for in a VPN?

When shopping for a VPN, you may want to start by making a list of things you want to do while using a VPN. This will help you narrow your list of the best VPN services.

We also recommend you rank the following factors from highest to lowest and factor them into your final decision:

  • Price: Free VPNs may have higher risks of disconnection, reduced bandwidth, lower security protocol use, and commonly lack customer support. Paid services generally alleviate these issues, but you should make use of their free trial period to ensure their server coverage is functioning the way you need it to before you commit to their cost..
  • Speed: There are several factors that can influence your VPN’s speed. Server location, network load, and internet connection all play a role in determining how fast your data travels to the VPN server. When shopping for a VPN provider, choose a provider with a vast network of servers in many locations, as these will affect speed and reliability.
  • Support:  Support can be an invaluable part of having a great experience with your VPN service. Some VPN applications come with 24/7 chat and standard business hour phone availability, while others are chat only. Some providers don’t even have support available. That means you’re all on your own.
  • Anonymity: While some VPNs never even see your data, other options have been reported to store — and even sell — your private information. This is the most common among free VPN services, but not all free VPNs sell your data. Even if a VPN advertises a no-log policy, it’s important to read their privacy policy, so that you’re well aware of how your online activity and data are recorded.
  • Number of devices allowed: VPN providers vary on the number of devices covered by their plans. If you’re an individual who wants every device in your household operating on a VPN, then you should pay careful attention to this factor when shopping around or consider getting a special VPN router to use at home.

A couple other key factors you should consider when evaluating your VPN service include:

Its protocol versions. A VPN protocol refers to the procedure your device follows to connect to your VPN server. Some VPN protocols are built to favor speed, while others are built for getting around geo-restrictions or achieving total anonymity. Some VPN providers allow you to choose the protocol you wish to use, so it’s important to familiarize yourself with what’s available. Common VPN protocols you’ll encounter include:

  • OpenVPN
  • IKEv2
  • L2TP / IPsec
  • PPTP
  • WireGuard
  • SoftEther

Bandwidth limitations. Many VPN service providers impose limits on how much data you can send with their service before incurring additional fees. If you regularly expect to use the VPN for things like gaming and streaming, you might want to consider either:

  • VPN services with no data limit
  • VPN services with a very high data limit

Each of these will come with costs and benefits. For example, a no-limit VPN provider may charge less than a high data limit VPN provider, but they may have a trade-off in anonymity or data protection. Some VPN providers that respect their clients’ privacy hold a “no-log” policy, which means they don’t keep track of where you go or what you do.

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