Confused by VPNs? You’re not alone. In this guide, our aim is to explain everything you need to know about a VPN in plain English.
What does VPN stand for?
This is the first question to answer. The acronym stands for Virtual Private Network. None the wiser? Thought not. So let’s continue.
What is a VPN?
It’s software, usually an app that you install on your phone, laptop, PC or even smart TV. When you use the VPN (by pressing the Connect button in the app) it creates an encrypted connection between the device you’re using and a server on the internet. This servers acts as “middle man” between your device and whichever website or online service you use.
What does a VPN do?
Let’s talk about why people use VPNs and why this encrypted connection is needed in the first place.
First and foremost a VPN gives you privacy. Without a VPN, your internet service provider (ISP) can see exactly which websites you’re visiting. It cannot see the content you’re viewing, bur it does know, for example, that you visited Google.com, Amazon.com and Twitter.com.
For many people, this is a breach of privacy.
By encrypting the connection, a VPN prevents your ISP from spying on you, recording information about what you’re up to, and from selling it to third parties.
If you ever use the Wi-Fi in a hotel, café, airport, on a train or in any other public place, you should use a VPN. That’s because unlike home Wi-Fi, most public networks aren’t password protected. This is bad for security because it means the connection between your device and the Wi-Fi hotspot isn’t encrypted. (Password-protected Wi-Fi is encrypted.)
Again, a VPN adds that encryption, which protects the data and – by extension – protects you. This is how a VPN provides extra security.
It’s worth understanding that a lot of data that goes to and from your phone and laptop is encrypted even without a VPN or a password-protected Wi-Fi connection. That’s because certain apps use their own encryption (such as banking apps and WhatsApp), and many websites use HTTPS which is also encrypted.
This means there’s no need to use a VPN when doing online banking, and some banking apps won’t even work if you try and use a VPN. But it is worth using a VPN for general web browsing as it adds that second layer of protection and covers and ‘holes’ where websites don’t use HTTPS.
Plus, a VPN encrypts – or should encrypt – all the other data sent across your connection. That includes the DNS lookups which happen when you type a website’s address into your web browser. It converts that human-readable address into an IP address so that your browser can load the web page from the server at that address.
Without a VPN’s own DNS servers, it’s likely your ISP’s DNS servers will be used, which is how it knows which websites you’re visiting.
Of course, one of the main uses for a VPN is to get around regional restrictions. Some websites and video streaming services allow only users from certain regions to access them. Try and watch BBC iPlayer in any country other than the UK, for example, and you’ll see a message telling you that you must be in the UK to watch programmes.
But you can watch iPlayer from abroad by connecting to a VPN server in the UK, which makes it seem as though you are in the country even if you’re in the US, Spain, France, Australia or somewhere else.
The same is true if you want to watch shows that are only available on the US library of Netflix, but you live in a different country.
Not all VPN services can unblock iPlayer, Netflix and other video streaming services, which is a why it’s important to read VPN reviews before you choose which VPN service you’re going to use.
See our recommendations for the best VPNs for streaming if this is your primary reason for using a VPN.
Another thing that a VPN does is to bypass any restrictions your ISP may put in place such as throttling (slowing down your connection speed) when downloading files using peer-to-peer (P2P). By using a good quality VPN service, your ISP won’t know what you’re doing and the throttling won’t kick in.
Finally, using a VPN can improve your ping time in some online games, making it more responsive.
How does a VPN work?
You might think that your internet connection is already secure, but while that’s true for a lot of websites, such as your bank, it doesn’t apply to everything. Plus, even if a website uses HTTPS (which is encrypted) your ISP can still see which sites you’re visiting.
Even if you don’t mind this invasion of privacy, it can be worth using a VPN as an additional layer of security to minimise the risk that personally identifiable information is sent over your internet connection unencrypted. In other words, let’s say you send someone an email and include your address. A lot of the time – and especially when emails are sent from one provider (Gmail, say) to another (Outlook or Hotmail, for example) the contents of the email are not encrypted.
Someone could, potentially, intercept that email and read what you’ve written.
But if you use a VPN, the data is encrypted so the email is unreadable.
To be clear, it is a bad idea to share any sensitive information via email, even with a VPN. You should instead use a more secure service such as WhatsApp, which is end-to-end encrypted.
With a VPN the data is not encrypted for its entire journey. It is decrypted when it reaches the VPN server.
Does a VPN make you anonymous?
Many VPN services also talk about how they make you anonymous online. That’s true so long as you don’t log into a website where your account contains personal details because, quite obviously, signing in with your username and password tells the website exactly who you are.
When VPN services talk about offering anonymity, they’re really referring to stopping your ISP and other third parties – such as governments – from identifying and tracking you around the web. Read about VPNs and anonymity.
Is a VPN worth it?
If you want extra privacy, security or to watch videos that are blocked in your region, then a VPN is definitely worth it.
Not all VPNs are identical, though. Some will really slow down your internet connection, which is why it’s important to read reviews before you choose one.
There are free VPN services too, which means you don’t have to pay anything to use it. However, almost every free VPN has serious limitations compared to paid-for VPNs.
Typically, subscribing to a VPN will cost you less than the price of a pint of beer per month, so it isn’t a big expense.
There are always big discounts on VPNs available, so long as you subscribe for a year or longer. Avoid rolling monthly contracts as these are expensive at over £10 / $10 per month.
We’ve tested dozens of VPN services and our top picks are NordVPN and Surfshark, but you can find alternatives in our round-up of the best VPN services.
Using a VPN is very easy, but if you want a step-by-step guide, check out our tutorial: How to use a VPN.
VPN vs proxy
If you’re wondering whether you need a VPN or a proxy, then here’s the difference: a proxy doesn’t encrypt your internet connection.
All it does is to hide your real IP address (the unique string of numbers that identifies you on the internet) and give you an IP address that can’t be traced back to you.
Most people (by which we mean consumers) use a proxy to get around regional blocks and watch videos or access websites that are otherwise inaccessible.
That’s because IP addresses relate to certain locations, so just like VPN services, you can choose where in the world you want to be – virtually – when you use a proxy service.
To see how your IP address reveals your location, head to ipleak.net. It may only reveal the general area (such your city or borough) but it’s usually fairly close to your true location.
Can’t I just use the ‘private mode’ in my web browser instead of a VPN?
If you’re worried about privacy, you might be tempted to use your web browser’s private or Incognito Mode. But these modes don’t really do what you think they do. When you use them, your internet service provider (ISP) will still know – and record – all the websites you visit.
Private mode usually means that the sites you visit don’t show up in your browsing history. But this is not a replacement for a VPN if you want to stop your ISP, your government or anyone else from monitoring your activity on the internet.
If you don’t like the sound of that, you should use a VPN whenever you use the internet.
In the USA, ISPs can sell or share their users’ web browsing data to advertisers or other third parties without asking them first.
Related articles for further reading