What is a VPN and Should I be Using One?
By Natalia Lusinski
June 28, 2021
You may be excited when you see that a café has an open WiFi network — you can go online and order that new pair of shoes while you wait for your latte. But not so fast. In fact, you should feel the opposite… unless you’re using a virtual private network (VPN). A VPN protects you in many ways, including from cybercriminals, such as hackers, who can access your private information, like the credit card number you just entered (or had stored in your phone) to pay for those shoes.
At some point, you may have heard “VPN” thrown around in conversation and thought, “a V-P… what?” What does it even mean?
What is a VPN?
In essence, a VPN masks your internet protocol (IP) address, which is your unique address on the internet. An IP address marks your location, and a VPN disguises your IP address, making your online behavior private and anonymous. VPNs secure and encrypt your connections.
Even if that café above required a WiFi password, it’s not as safe and secure as using a VPN. Of course, it’s not 100 percent foolproof — there could still be a data breach at your bank, for instance — but using a VPN is much safer than not.
And with so many more people working remotely these days, there’s been an increased demand for VPNs.
How does a VPN work?
When you use a VPN, it acts as a high-security encrypted tunnel for your web traffic. No one else has access to this tunnel: not the government, not businesses, not cybercriminals, and not even your internet service provider.
As your data goes from your device to the internet, it becomes encrypted so it’s undecipherable. Others can’t see what sites you’ve browsed or what you’ve sent or downloaded. You can use a VPN on all your devices, from your phone to tablet to laptop to desktop computer.
What are the benefits of using a VPN?
There are many benefits of using a VPN.
It can better protect your data.
With your data protected, a VPN can reduce your chances of identity theft and of hackers getting access to your private information, like your banking or credit card details. You can also feel safe emailing secure or private documents, like work files, medical documents, and bank statements.
You can feel more confident, and safe, when surfing the internet.
When using the internet — especially when it comes to looking up private information, like your bank balance — a VPN will make the connection more secure. You can use a public WiFi network with the security of a private network (but even safer).
Plus, a VPN allows you to surf the internet anonymously. It protects you from having your search history collected and sold to third parties. For instance, when researching the shoes you bought in the café example above, you probably started getting a lot of shoe ads all of a sudden. It’s not a coincidence. With a VPN, even though search engines track your browsing history, your shoe search history is connected to the IP address from the VPN, not your actual IP address.
You can access websites you may not be able to without a VPN.
You may be in a country that regulates access to certain websites. When you use a VPN, you have control of your IP address, which means you can change your location to the city of your choosing. For example, you may be on business in London and need access to a website that’s only available in the U.S. You can set your VPN to a city like San Francisco. Make sure you choose a VPN that has servers in cities or countries you may anticipate needing to log in from. Also be sure to follow the law in whatever country you’re using a VPN in, as some countries prohibit or regulate them.
Your internet connection(s) may be faster.
A VPN can help you avoid data or speed throttling, which is when your internet service provider (ISP) limits your bandwidth or speed. ISPs sometimes decrease the amount of content you can watch, which results in more profit for them.
VPNs are cost-effective and can save you money.
VPNs are cost-effective. Some are free, but you have to look at what you’re getting for your money. Paying for one is usually best.
They can also help you save money. For example, you can find local flight prices by using a VPN. Without using a VPN, foreign sites might show you higher fares than if you use your VPN and select a server local to your travel destination.
How do you know your VPN is secure?
There are several factors to consider when you’re trying to determine which VPN to use:
Find a VPN with a 256-bit encryption, which is the highest level encryption key available. According to Techopedia, if a hacker were to try to break a 256-bit encrypted message, it would require 2,256 different combinations and be nearly impossible.
Look for a VPN that changes their IP addresses constantly. This adds another layer of privacy. The more IP address options a provider has, the better.
Make sure there are at least 1,000 servers offered. Also keep in mind that the fewer servers, the more likely your browsing speed will be slower.
VPNs with a “kill switch” are best. In case the VPN goes out and you lose your internet connection for some reason, your information will still be secure and anonymous. When you get online again, your VPN will connect again.
Find a VPN with domain name system (DNS) leak protection. This is crucial in case your online traffic somehow becomes unencrypted — perhaps due to a reset of your system preferences — making it potentially accessible to third parties.
Make sure the VPN you choose has a no-log policy. In other words, make sure your VPN provider won’t log your online activities.
What are the best VPN service providers?
There are several different VPNs out there, some free, some not. It all depends on what features are most important to you.
Although there are plenty of free VPNs on the market, consider if they’ll “cost” you in other ways. Will there be data limits? Will you see ads? Will they collect your personal information and sell it to third parties?
Here are a few highly rated VPN services.
ExpressVPN makes many best-of lists, likely due to features such as its kill switch, speed, and worldwide availability (over 3,000 remote servers in 94 countries). Although you can install ExpressVPN on any and all of your devices, only five can be connected at any one time. To bypass that, however, you can buy an additional license and set up a VPN router. ExpressVPN also has a 30-day money-back guarantee on all its plans.
$12.95/month; $9.99/month (6-month plan); $8.32/month (12-month plan)
Buy 12 months, get 3 free (which equates to less than $7/month)
NordVPN is another top VPN choice, with more than 5,200 servers in 59 countries and a kill switch feature. While many VPNs enable up to five concurrent connections, NordVPN allows for six. With NordVPN, you can also opt for using a dedicated IP option, which can come in handy when you’re doing things like online banking. So instead of looking like you’re constantly in a different location — which may look suspicious to your bank and could result in locking you out of your account — you can use a static dedicated IP.
NordVPN also provides added security through their Onion Over VPN feature wherein your internet traffic goes through one of their servers and then goes through the Onion network before reaching the internet. Usually, you can access the Onion network only with The Onion Router (Tor) browser. But with NordVPN, you don't need to download a special browser. With the Tor browser, your computer does not directly communicate with a website’s server, which is where the added security comes in. Benefits include your online browsing habits being hidden, especially from ISPs and advertisers.
$11.95/month; $4.92/month (1-year plan); $3.71/month (2-year plan)
30-day free trial
Cost: Varies from $0, $4, $8, $24/month billed annually, depending on factors like the number of VPNs (1, 2, 5, or 10) and security features (such as whether or not you want Tor over VPN).
Whichever VPN you choose, it will make you and your family feel more secure when going online — especially when it comes to important information — which matters most of all.
Here at Trustworthy, through our Family Operating System®, we’ve made it our mission to make sure you and your loved ones will not only have peace of mind, but security, too — no matter what the future holds.
If you're ready to upgrade the way you organize your family’s essential information, we're happy to help.