What is a VPN?

A VPN, or virtual private network, is a secure tunnel between your device and the internet. VPNs protect you from online snooping, interference, and censorship.

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A VPN (a virtual private network) is the easiest and most effective way for people to protect their internet traffic and keep their identities private online. As you connect to a secure VPN server, your internet traffic goes through an encrypted tunnel that nobody can see, including hackers, governments, and your internet service provider.

Consumers use VPNs to keep their online activity private and ensure access to sites and services that might otherwise be restricted.

Companies use VPNs to connect far-flung employees as if they were all using the same local network at a central office, but with fewer benefits for individuals than a personal VPN.

Watch TV and Netflix Anywhere

Using a VPN lets you pick where in the world you appear to be located. That means you can watch your favorite TV shows and sports events without restrictions-whether you are in a hotel, foreign country, or down the street.

Benefits and advantages of VPN

Change your location

Using a VPN changes your IP address, the unique number that identifies you and your location in the world. With a new IP address, you can browse the internet as if you were in the UK, Germany, Canada, Japan, or virtually any country, if the VPN service has servers there.

Protect your privacy

Changing your IP address with a VPN helps shield your identity from websites, apps, and services that want to track you. Good VPNs also prevent your internet provider, mobile carrier, and anyone else who may be listening from seeing your activity, thanks to a layer of strong encryption.

Increase your security

Using a VPN protects you from security breaches in many forms, including packet sniffing, rogue Wi-Fi networks, and man-in-the-middle attacks. Travelers, remote workers, and all kinds of on-the-go individuals use a VPN whenever they’re on an untrusted network like free public Wi-Fi.

Unblock websites

If you’re in a part of the world that restricts access to Google, Wikipedia, YouTube, or other sites and services, using a VPN will let you regain access to the free internet. You can also use a VPN to break through firewalls on school or office networks.

When should I use a VPN?

If privacy is important to you, you should use a VPN every time you connect to the internet. A VPN app runs in the background of your device so it won’t get in the way while you use other apps, stream content, and browse the internet. And you’ll have peace of mind knowing your privacy is always protected.

But here are some situations in which a VPN is especially useful:

While traveling

Exploring the world doesn’t mean you have to change the way you use the internet. A VPN lets you use the internet as if you were still in your home country, no matter how far you travel.

While streaming

Using a VPN lets you watch movies and TV on streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and HBO with freedom from ISP throttling or blocking by your ISP or local Wi-Fi network.

While on public Wi-Fi

Connecting to public Wi-Fi hotspots like those in cafes, airports, and parks could leave your private information vulnerable. Using a VPN on your devices keeps you safe with strong encryption.

While gaming

Using a VPN unlocks games, maps, skins, and other add-ons that might be restricted on your network. It also shields you from DDoS attacks and reduces ping and overall lag.

While file-sharing

P2P file sharing usually means that strangers can see your IP address and possibly track your downloads. A VPN keeps your IP address private, letting you download with increased anonymity.

While shopping

Some online stores show different prices to people in different countries. With a VPN, you can find the best deals in the world no matter where you’re shopping from.

How does a VPN work?

To understand how a VPN works, it helps to first understand how your internet connection works without one.

Without a VPN

When you access a website without a VPN, you are being connected to that site through your internet service provider, or ISP. The ISP assigns you a unique IP address that can be used to identify you to the website. Because your ISP is handling and directing all your traffic, it can see which websites you visit. And your activity can be linked to you by that unique IP address.

With a VPN

When you connect to the internet with a VPN, the VPN app on your device (also called a VPN client) establishes a secure connection with a VPN server. Your traffic still passes through your ISP, but your ISP can no longer read it or see its final destination. The websites you visit can no longer see your original IP address, only the IP address of the VPN server, which is shared by many other users and changes regularly.

Here are several key concepts related to VPN that will help you understand how a VPN works and the benefits it provides:

Proxying

The VPN server acts like a proxy, or stand-in, for your web activity: Instead of your real IP address and location, websites you visit will only see the IP address and location of the VPN server.

This makes you more anonymous on the internet.

Authentication

Establishing a secure connection is a tricky problem solved by clever mathematics in a process called authentication.

Once authenticated, the VPN client and the VPN server can be sure they are talking to each other and no one else.

Tunneling

VPNs also protect the connection between the client and server with tunneling and encryption.

Tunneling is a process by which each data packet is encapsulated inside another data packet. This makes it harder for third parties to read in transit.

Encryption

Data inside the tunnel is also encrypted in such a way that only the intended recipient can decrypt it. This keeps the contents of your internet traffic completely private. Even your internet service provider won’t see it.

Alternatives to VPN

A VPN isn’t the only tool that can increase your privacy, security, and/or freedom online.

Tor

Tor (short for The Onion Router) is a free network of servers, or “nodes,” that randomly route internet traffic between each other in order to obfuscate the origin of the data.

Using Tor can significantly increase your anonymity, and using Tor in conjunction with a VPN creates the best possible privacy protection.

The biggest drawback of Tor, however, is speed. Because your traffic is relayed through several hops, you will probably find it inconvenient to stream, download, or file-share with Tor.

Proxy services

A proxy server is an intermediary between your device and the internet. Unlike a VPN, however, most “proxy services” you’ll find are quite slow and don’t offer any privacy or security benefits.

So-called “free proxy services” are especially dangerous, as many will find other ways to monetize your data, like selling it to third parties.

Neither Tor nor a proxy service can replace the benefits of a VPN. A trustworthy VPN is still the best privacy solution for most people.

Speed

When you’re using a VPN, it is essential to be able to monitor its speed. The speed of your VPN connection has two main components: throughput, or the amount of data transferred in a certain period, and latency, or the time between a request and a response. While the former may seem the most crucial factor, both can impact your internet connection speed. Here are some strategies to check the speed of your VPN connection.

The first step to speeding up your VPN connection is to ensure you use a server close to your location. A server closer to your site will have a lower user load and be faster. Many VPN services have a speed test feature that will let you know how fast your connection is. If there’s no speed test feature, try visiting speed testing websites.

Can you really trust a free VPN to keep you safe?

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