What is a VPN, and how do they work?A VPN (Virtual Private Network) is a tool that helps to protect your online privacy by creating an encrypted tunnel for your data. There are various different types of VPNs, but they usually take the form of downloadable software or browser extensions.
When you connect to a VPN on your device while using a public network, it route’s your device’s internet connection through a specially-configured private server run by the VPN provider.
After that, any activity you do online looks as if it’s coming from the VPNs server, rather than your own IP address. This disguises your online identity and encrypts your traffic so that your ISP and other third parties can’t track your online activity, see what websites you visit, or steal your data.
Even if your data is intercepted along the way, it’s completely unreadable. Encryption transforms it into complicated code that nobody can read without the key (a very strong password that can be used to decrypt the code back and into readable information).
It’s also worth noting that most VPN companies have a network of private servers spread all across the world. This allows for something called location spoofing.
You can choose to route your connection through a server in a specific country in order to make your connection appear like it’s coming from within that country, thus allowing you to access geo-locked content.
What to look for in a VPN providerThere are lots of different factors to look out for when choosing the best VPN provider. Here are some of the main ones:
- Performance & speed. Speed is arguably the most important factor to look for in a VPN. There’s nothing more frustrating than having to wait forever for videos to buffer and pages to load when connected to your VPN, so make sure you choose a high-performance provider.
- Server locations. One of the main reasons people use VPNs is to spoof their location and access geo-locked content (such as US-only Netflix shows). Look for a VPN provider with servers in the location you plan on spoofing from most often.
- Bandwidth. Free VPNs often limit bandwidth to 10GB or less. You’ll eat that up quickly if you plan on streaming video online, so it’s also worth choosing a VPN provider that offers unlimited bandwidth.
- Device compatibility. If you plan on using a VPN on multiple devices, make sure you choose a plan that’s suitable. Some virtual private networks can be used on any device, from smartphones and tablets to desktops and even game consoles.
- Encryption protocols. Different VPN providers use different methods to secure and encrypt data. Look carefully at this when choosing a provider as it’ll have a big impact on your security. The AES (Advanced Encryption Standard) is widely considered to be the gold standard.
- Kill switch. This is another essential security feature. A kill switch cuts your internet connection if your VPN stops working to ensure your privacy and security aren’t compromised. Only use virtual private networks that offer this feature.
- No logs guarantee. Virtual private networks prevent your ISP from tracking, storing, and selling data on your web browsing habits to third parties. However, unless your VPN provider offers a no logs guarantee, they could track your online activity and sell it themselves. This is often the case with ‘free’ VPNs. Therefore, make sure you choose a VPN provider that respects your right to anonymity and offers a no logs guarantee.
- Dedicated IP. Typically, when you connect to a VPN server, you share the IP address with tons of other VPN users. However, some VPN services provide you with a dedicated static IP address that only you can use, which improves performance and security. Just be aware that dedicated IP plans typically cost more than regular VPN services.