Over the past few years VPNs have become popular with home users for unblocking content online and also enhancing your privacy and security while browsing the web.
Privacy is increasingly a concern for everyone. You may think that the sites you visit, the products and services you buy and what you watch and download are all private. But they’re not. Your internet service provider knows where you go online and in some countries, particularly the US, this information can even be sold for marketing purposes.
Websites use trackers to follow you around and that’s why, for example, you’ll often see adverts for products you viewed just minutes ago.
It doesn’t have to be like this, though. A VPN makes your web browsing private (unlike the ‘private’ mode in your web browser) by using encryption so your ISP, the government and anyone else cannot know what you’re up to.
These days, VPNs are seen as an essential security tool which will – along with antivirus – help to protect you.
Why it’s worth getting a VPN
1. A VPN helps stop trackers
Using a VPN hides your IP address. This is a bit like your physical address, but for your internet connection, and it allows those website trackers to do their job.
When you connect to a VPN, your real IP address is replaced by one belonging to the service, making it much more challenging to track your activity.
2. A VPN stops your ISP from selling your data
Normally when you connect to the internet, your data goes via your internet service provider in a readable format. Not all data, but things such as your web searches, the URLs of the websites you visit and more.
When you connect via a VPN that information is encrypted so your ISP cannot read it, which means it cannot be sold on to companies which will then try to sell products and services to you.
3. A VPN gives extra security online
The same encryption gives you extra security online which your antivirus software doesn’t deal with. It helps to prevent hackers from stealing your login details, and other confidential data.
4. A VPN lets you access blocked websites and videos
One of the most popular uses for a VPN service is to get around regional blocks. Let’s say you want to watch BBC iPlayer but you don’t live in the UK. Even if you register for an account, you’ll just get an error when you try and watch anything saying that iPlayer is only for UK residents.
But if you connect to a VPN server in the UK, your IP address is replaced with one from the UK and you can watch content as if you were physically in the UK.
5. A VPN adds security to public Wi-Fi
If you’ve ever connected to free Wi-Fi on public transport, at a hotel or in a café, you might not have had to enter a password. That’s nice and convenient, but very bad for security.
When Wi-Fi isn’t password protected, there’s no encryption, and this means emails and messages you send could be seen by others. Again, a VPN adds that layer of encryption which stops criminals from stealing your identity and other sensitive information.
6. Most VPNs can be used on multiple devices
Aside from a minority of services, VPN providers allow you to connect several devices to the service at the same time. This is ideal for families, or simply anyone who wants to use a VPN a lot.
What a VPN cannot do
- It doesn’t make you anonymous online
Contrary to the claims that some VPN services make, a VPN doesn’t necessarily hide your identity. Despite changing your IP address and encrypting your data, if you log into a website with your username and password, that site will know who you are. If you log into Facebook and post something, this information will be linked to you, regardless of whether you use a VPN or not.
Similarly, if you use Google search while signed in to your Google account (or signed in to Chrome) then Google knows who you are and what you’re searching for.
- VPNs don’t stop malware
Although some VPNs have ‘antimalware’ features, these don’t replace proper antivirus. They usually warn you of dangerous websites, but don’t actively protect your device from attacks.
- Be wary of free VPNs
Yes, free VPN services exist. But in general they are very limited in their capabilities and in some cases are gathering and selling your data. They can do this because when your data reaches the VPN server it is decrypted in order to be sent on to the website you want to visit.
Therefore it’s crucial you use a trustworthy VPN service, as it has access to your data.
Recommended VPN services
Though we have rounded up a handful of free VPN services, we would still recommend paying for one. This is primarily because of the limitations of free services, but also because you can pick a trustworthy provider that operates secure servers that will keep your data safe.
And since you’re still reading, you probably want to know which VPN service is best.
Currently, NordVPN is at the top of our list of the best VPN services. It offers a great all-round package which doesn’t cost much per month and offers thousands of servers around the world along with excellent speeds. It has also been audited twice to show that its no-logs policy works and that it doesn’t collect or store any information about its users on its servers.
Another option is Surfshark, which is cheaper still. Like NordVPN, it offers WireGuard as one of the encryption methods, and this makes it one of the quickest VPN services around. The last thing you want is for your internet connection to run slowly because you’re using a VPN.
Both services offer apps for all popular devices and operating systems including Windows, macOS, Android, iPhone, iPad, Amazon Fire TV and more. They’re also reliable at unblocking popular streaming services such as iPlayer, Netflix, Disney+ and others.