Since VPNs remain a mystery to most people, our straightforward guide will explain exactly what you need to know: what is a VPN and why you would use one.
What is VPN?
It stands for Virtual Private Network. A VPN provides an encrypted connection between whatever device you are using - a phone, laptop, PC or tablet and a server on the internet run by a VPN provider.
You might think your connection is already secure, but while that's true for most websites, such as your bank, and any that use HTTPS, it doesn't apply to everything.
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.
A VPN gives you privacy
Without a VPN, your internet service provider (ISP) can see exactly which websites you're visiting. They can't see the content you're viewing, but for many people, this is already a breach of privacy.
With a VPN, the connection from your device to one of the VPN provider's server on the internet is encrypted. And this means your ISP can't spy on you, record information about what you're up to, nor sell it to third parties.
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.
Anonymity is really about stopping your ISP and other third parties - such as governments - from identifying and tracking you. Read about VPNs and anonymity in more detail here.
Is it legal to watch Netflix with a VPN?
The reason a lot of people use a VPN is to watch videos that aren't available in your country or region.
VPN providers offer servers in lots of different countries. In a VPN app, you choose which server to connect to. And when connected, any websites you visit think you are located where the server is, and can't see your real location.
That means when you're connected to a US server Netflix (or any other website or service) will think you are in the US and allow you to use the service just like anyone else in that country. That's how you can watch content that is usually only available to US residents.
The same is true of other services, including YouTube and Amazon Prime Video.
It also means you can watch videos and other content that you're entitled to watch, but can't because you've travelled to a different region. For example, BBC iPlayer is only available to view if you are located in the UK, but you may be abroad on holiday or on a business trip, and therefore won't be able to watch anything via the iPlayer app.
A VPN lets you get around these geographical restrictions. Check out our recommendations for the best VPNs for streaming if this is your primary reason for using a VPN.
Getting to the question of legality - apologies for the lengthy build-up there - people often confuse a company's terms and conditions with what is lawful. Breaking a company's terms and conditions is not the same as breaking the law. For example, the Ts & Cs might say that you are not allowed to use a VPN to access the service in order to watch content that isn't available to you otherwise.
But doing so does not break the law in most countries and therefore is not illegal. Immoral, maybe, but not illegal. At worst, your account could terminated, but we're not aware of Netflix or any other service doing this.
Instead, they actively crack down on VPN services and block access. This is why it's a good idea to pick a VPN service with 24/7 customer support and multiple servers in each country so there are options if some of their servers lose access to streaming services.
How much does a VPN cost?
Typically, subscribing to a VPN will cost you less than the price of a pint of beer per month.
There are always deep 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.
Using a VPN is very easy, but if you want a step-by-step guide, check out our tutorial: How to use a VPN.
Can't I just use the 'private mode' in my web browser?
If you're worried about privacy, you might be tempted to use your web browser's private or Incognito Mode. But even if you do, your internet service provider (ISP) will still know - and record - all the websites you visit.
Those sites may not show up in your browsing history, but they are still tied to your IP address, which is unique to the device you’re using (such as your phone or laptop) and can therefore be traced back to you.
Your ISP could therefore be ordered by the government to hand over those records if it is compelled to do so.
If you don’t like the sound of that, you should use a VPN whenever you use the internet.
In the US, this has become even more of a reason to use a VPN, after the Senate voted to remove broadband privacy rules that prevented ISPs from selling or sharing web browsing data without permission.
Yes, you read that correctly: US ISPs can sell your web browsing data to advertisers without asking you first.
So, no, you can't use your web browser's private mode. If you want privacy but don't want to pay, then have a look at our recommendations of the best free VPN services.
What other uses are there for a VPN?
Even if you’re not too concerned about your ISP, you should use a VPN whenever you connect to public Wi-Fi. 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 hotspot is not encrypted so someone could intercept any data sent across that connection as plain text. Again, remember that a lot of data is encrypted thanks to HTTPS, but it's still wise to use a VPN to keep your data safe from snoopers.
Any reputable website or service that takes online payments should protect your financial details (and indeed all your personal information), but using a VPN, as we've said already, gives you a second layer of protection.
It's a bit like leaving your door unlocked at home. It's shut and there's a low chance someone will open it and steal your possessions, but locking it adds that extra protection.
Another use for a VPN 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, you can decrease your ping time in some online games by using a VPN to connect to a server in the country in which the game is based.