Today’s world is connected by the internet. In an instant, businesses can conduct transactions across the globe, people can communicate with anyone, anywhere, and at any time, and a huge portion of the world’s economy relies on the world wide web. While this interconnectedness has brought the world together, it comes with a cost: a loss of privacy. That’s where a virtual private network (VPN) comes in.  

What is a VPN? Simply put, a VPN hides your information by sending it through an encrypted tunnel that’s connected to a separate network over the internet. There’s more to VPNs than meets the eye, and whether you’re a business owner or an individual, they can give you peace of mind knowing your data is secure.

If this sounds confusing, don’t fret. Read through for a complete overview of virtual private networks, what they are, how they work, and more. Or, if you’re looking for the answer to a specific question, use the links below to navigate to your answer.

What is a VPN?

A virtual private network (VPN) is a service that protects your personal data by connecting your internet connection to a remote server. When you use the internet with a VPN, your data is encrypted, which increases internet privacy by making it virtually untraceable—shielding you from prying eyes and cybercriminals using the same WiFi connection as you.

For example, if you’ve ever been to a coffee shop or the airport, you most likely connected to their free WiFi. Public WiFi is great, as it allows you to gain access to the internet for free. However, it comes at a cost, as anyone using the same public WiFi can potentially gain access to your personal data, such as your credit card numbers, business contacts, and Social Security Number. One of our top WiFi security tips is to use a VPN when accessing public WiFi to prevent people from intercepting your data.

How does a VPN work?

Now that you know what a VPN is, you’re probably wondering how they work. Your computer, along with other devices such as smartphones and tablets, come with an internet protocol (IP) address, which links all of your online activity. When you log onto your computer and open up your web browser, you connect to your internet service provider (ISP). 

Your ISP allows you to access the web and visit any websites or online resources of your choosing, and they save your internet traffic to their servers along the way. What you may not know is that your ISP can share your browsing history and internet traffic to third parties like the government and advertisers.

What does a VPN do with your internet activity? A VPN prevents your internet service provider from accessing your entire browsing history by creating a secure connection to another network. 

So, what is a VPN connection? A VPN provider creates a connection to its own IP address. When you connect to the internet with a VPN turned on, you connect to the VPN server’s IP address, not your own. Your VPN provider can have servers located thousands of miles away and all over the world. This means through a VPN connection, your internet activity will appear as if it’s located at one of these remote servers, not your own.

Along with hiding your search activity from your ISP, VPNs create an encrypted tunnel between your local network and one of your VPN provider’s remote servers. If you use a public WiFi network, your encrypted data is virtually impenetrable, leaving hackers and eavesdroppers with a pile of scrambled code.

Why do I need a virtual private network?

A virtual private network may sound confusing and unnecessary, so why use a VPN? While VPNs were originally used by businesses to connect multiple offices securely, more and more individuals today are using personal VPNs to build a home network and keep their communications and personal data secure when using WiFi networks.

Even if you consider yourself an open book, you might not feel comfortable knowing your online activity is being tracked and watched. If you want online security, you’re going to want a VPN. Take a look at some other reasons why you might need a virtual private network:

You want to access streaming services

Streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Disney+, along with professional sports broadcasts, are only available in certain countries. If you travel, you may not be able to access your suite of streaming services or watch your favorite shows and movies. With a VPN, you’ll be able to pick an IP address in your home country to gain access to your streaming platforms.

You travel frequently

Countries might have contractual terms put in place that prevent people from accessing certain websites. This means some websites you take for granted in your home country might not be available in a country you’re visiting. With a VPN, you’ll be able to choose a remote server in a different country to access restricted websites.

You regularly connect to public WiFi

When you connect to free public WiFi, whether at your local Starbucks or the airport, hackers might be able to intercept your data and steal your photos, passwords, and personal files. This is even true if the public WiFi is password protected.  

A VPN prevents cybercriminals from stealing your information because it encrypts your data, making it nearly impossible to decode. This way, you’ll be able to online shop, check your bank statements, and access your social media accounts knowing you took preventative measures to ensure no one’s watching.

You want more security

VPNs encrypt data transfers when you use the web. Encryption is the process of encoding your confidential information and turning it from plaintext to ciphertext, which can only be decrypted by authorized users with the encryption key. When VPNs are used, only computers at each end of the encrypted tunnel can access the information. This keeps all of your data, including search history, banking information, files, photos, and other digital data completely secure.

You want more privacy

Have you ever looked at a product online and seen ads for the same or similar products for the next few months? Perhaps you were looking for a new pair of running shoes or new curtains for your living room. Before you know it, every time you log onto your computer, ads for new Nike shoes or Home Depot curtains bombard your screen. This is because your internet service provider is legally allowed to share your information with third parties using your IP address. 

Your computer’s IP address can give away a lot of information about you, including your torrent download history and information about your location, including your city and country. A VPN will shield your online history from advertisers, government agencies, and other third parties, so you can browse the internet without your ISP tracking your digital footprints. 

How do I get a VPN?

There are numerous VPN service providers on the market today that businesses and individuals can sign up for, making it extremely easy to get a VPN. You also don’t need to switch internet service providers or buy any fancy equipment to use a VPN. To get a VPN, all you have to do is find a VPN service provider that meets your needs. Some popular VPN service providers include:

  • ExpressVPN
  • Norton Secure VPN
  • CyberGhost
  • Surfshark
  • NordVPN
  • TunnelBear

Once you sign up with a VPN service provider, you’ll be able to go to your computer’s settings and add a VPN connection. 

How do I choose a VPN provider?

When searching for a VPN provider, it’s important to find one that has your best interests in mind. Consider these factors when choosing a VPN provider:

  • Data Limits: If your internet usage is high, it’s best to ensure your VPN provider offers unmetered bandwidth with no data limits so that you can continue with your internet usage without fear of any data cap.
  • Price: Each VPN provider charges its own price, and as with many things in life, the more expensive option is often better. While there are free VPN service providers you can use, you can expect to be bombarded with advertisements or have some of your personal information collected and sent to third parties. Most VPN providers charge anywhere between $3 and $15 per month, and are often more secure and provide more bandwidth.
  • VPN Protocols: There are numerous VPN protocols, which are the rules that negotiate the connection between you and the VPN server. When choosing a VPN provider, make sure they use the most current protocols. The three common protocols are Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP), Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol (L2LP), and OpenVPN. Of the three, OpenVPN often provides the strongest security.
  • Accessibility: If you have multiple devices, such as a laptop, smartphone, and tablet, you most likely want your VPN to be accessible on each device. As you look for VPN providers, make sure they provide access to multiple devices.
  • Privacy: One of the most common reasons people use VPNs is to enhance their privacy. However, not every VPN respects your privacy. Make sure to always read the terms and conditions to verify the VPN provider has a no-log policy, which means they won’t keep track of your online activities.
  • Location: Another reason people use VPNs is to gain access to geo-blocked websites and resources. For example, if you’re traveling outside of the U.S. and want to watch Netflix, you may need a VPN to access the same shows. Make sure your VPN provider has servers in the country or countries you need access to.

What are the advantages of a VPN?

The core of the matter is stated in PCWorld, “…VPNs can be helpful tools for protecting online privacy, and you need not be an office drone to enjoy their benefits.” VPNs offer a host of alluring advantages. Creating a VPN at home can allow gamers to create a local area network (LAN) and connect with friends from other areas without having to go through third-party sites or servers. Or, businesses can keep confidential information secure when working from remote areas. Before long, everyone will have personal, secure networks for home, work, and play.

Some advantages of VPNs include:

  • Security: When you enable a VPN, all of your important information, such as confidential files, banking information, passwords, and other private details, travel through an encrypted tunnel. This makes it difficult for hackers to decipher the code and access your information.
  • Privacy: When you connect to your ISP, your connection is open to the world. This means random people and third parties like advertisers and the government can look at your data, log it, and use it without you knowing. 

They can also look at your IP address and show targeted ads and even charge different prices for products you were viewing online. As stated, a VPN encrypts your data and hides your IP address, making it challenging for third parties to track your activity.

  • Access blocked websites: Countries around the world have the ability to restrict access to certain content, such as social networks, games, and search engines like Google. Additionally, educational institutions and workplaces often use firewalls to block access to certain websites to block inappropriate content or increase productivity. With a VPN, you’ll be able to bypass filters and unblock restricted websites.
  • Remote access: For businesses, VPNs can increase productivity because they can make information available remotely from anywhere, such as an employee’s home or an office located overseas. If a problem arises at work and an employee isn’t at the office, they can connect to the VPN and access information and files they may need.

What are the disadvantages of a VPN?

While there are numerous benefits of VPNs, that doesn’t mean they don’t come with their own drawbacks. Take a look at some disadvantages of a VPN to help guide your decision-making process:

  • Legality issues: Unfortunately, some countries deem private networks illegal. If you live in a country or are traveling to a country where VPNs are illegal, you can face jail time or end up paying a hefty fine.
  • Decreased performance: When you use a VPN, it must connect to a private server before you access a website. This can cause performance issues and subject you to longer load times. If you’re experiencing slow internet speeds while using a VPN, use our internet speed test to get the metrics report you need to understand the quality and efficiency of your connection.
  • Privacy problems: In some cases, you might not have complete anonymity when using a VPN. Depending on the terms and conditions, some VPN providers may track your activity and send it to third parties. Or, a VPN provider might have to comply with the government and hand over your personal information to federal, state, or local authorities.

As with most decisions in life, it’s important to weigh the pros and cons to determine what choice is right for you. VPNs have many beneficial advantages that can protect your information on the web. However, there are some disadvantages that could cause problems down the line.

Key takeaways on virtual private networks

Virtual private networks create a secure connection between your computer and a remote server by creating an encrypted tunnel for your private information to travel through. They’re a popular security measure businesses and individuals invest in to protect confidential information. Here are some key takeaways on VPNs:

  • VPNs encrypt your data to make it untraceable by prying eyes and hackers.
  • Public WiFi networks are vulnerable, which means your information can be stolen. A VPN will protect your files when you connect to public WiFi networks.
  • A VPN hides your IP address by connecting to a remote server with a different IP address. This prevents your internet service provider from tracking your online activity and handing it over to third parties like the government and advertisers.
  • There are many reasons you may need a VPN. If you travel frequently, want to access streaming services abroad, regularly connect to public WiFi, or want more privacy and security, a VPN can fix all of these problems.
  • It’s important to keep certain factors in mind when choosing a VPN service provider, such as the VPN protocols they use, their accessibility, locations of their servers, and privacy policy.
  • VPNs have many advantages, such as the ability to access blocked websites, secure your information, enhance privacy, and provide remote access.
  • VPNs also come with several disadvantages, such as legality issues, a decrease in web performance, and privacy problems.