Everyone knows their browsing history isn’t always private, with cookies and trackers following people all over the web. But being watched by strangers through smartphones, laptops, and other devices is still a valid concern today. Virtual private networks (VPNs) have become very popular for that very reason.

This helpful technology didn’t just become popular because of what it was first created for, establishing a secure connection between networks so people can safely access business information remotely. Now, VPNs are used for various things, including accessing geo-blocked content, bypassing geo-blocking, for security reasons, and – of course – accessing work systems securely.

What is a VPN, though? A VPN is a type of software (that often comes in the form of apps) that encrypts and reroutes a network connection through a secure server. This prevents third parties from tracking everything a person does online and stealing information or even installing malware.

So let’s quickly explore what VPNs do and why they’re important.

How Does a VPN work?

While learning how a VPN works may seem complicated – and it’s certainly backed by a lot of complex technology, the concept is simple. The VPN encrypts the connection on the device so that the moment data packets are sent via the network, they’re unreadable. This means that even if a hacker manages to get access to the connection, they won’t be able to see anything. 

Once the connection is encrypted, which happens instantly, it then bypasses the internet service provider (ISP) and is directed through a secure VPN server first, which decrypts the connection again. Only then are the data packets (i.e., information sent over the internet) directed to their intended destination. And the process repeats with any responses sent back from a website’s server.

This means that, generally, not even a person’s ISP or government will be able to snoop on them when they’re using a VPN. However, there are ways for entities to realize when a person is using a VPN. Complete anonymity also isn’t guaranteed since the web browser a person uses, and the websites they visit can still gather info about them, especially if they enter any personal information.

When someone installs a VPN (either manually or in the form of an app, but more on that later), it has to be turned on every time. A VPN doesn’t automatically protect the device once it’s installed unless it’s installed on the router.

Do VPNs Really Work?

Absolutely, albeit only if a person uses a legitimate VPN. Free VPNs are usually a no-go because they are either unreliable or simply scams in disguise. VPNs are meant to protect people’s privacy, but free VPNs have to make money somehow. So the result is that they either don’t have the resources to run the service effectively or use shortcuts that undermine privacy. Some even sell people’s information to third parties, undercutting the whole purpose of using a VPN in the first place.

Generally, a VPN connection is very secure because of three factors:

  • VPNs usually use dynamic IP addresses, which means that the IP address changes often and cannot be tracked accurately.
  • Many people share the same IP address when connecting to a VPN server (unless they splurged on a dedicated IP), making it hard to track any one individual.
  • VPNs, at least the good ones, use strong encryption protocols like OpenVPN and AES.

How Do You Get a VPN, and Which One Should You Choose?

How do I get a VPN?

To get VPN access, a person will have to sign up for a VPN service first. That means finding a good service, usually a paid one. Make sure to thoroughly vet a VPN before signing up. 

After that, install the VPN. This is as easy as downloading and installing an app. What is a VPN app? It’s a regular app like any other that can be installed on smartphones, computers, and even tablets.

But it is possible to manually install a VPN as well. For instance, on Windows, that will require going to network settings, selecting VPN in the sidebar, and clicking on “Set up a virtual network”. Just follow the steps and make sure to have the relevant details of the VPN handy.

Most VPNs don’t have to be configured beyond that, but many do let people change some settings in the app. For example, users can change the type of encryption protocol the connection uses or which available VPN server in the world they want to connect to. The latter will effectively change their IP address and thus hide their location.

How to Choose a VPN: Good vs. Bad VPNs

Not every VPN is equally reliable. Plus, people have different needs. For example, someone looking for a VPN to work securely from home won’t seek out the same features as someone looking to access Netflix US from Australia. Here’s a short overview of what makes for a good VPN:

  • A no-logs policy
  • A kill switch
  • Plenty of servers spread out across the globe
  • A strong encryption protocol
  • Peer-to-peer friendly 
  • High speeds
  • Static and dynamic IP address options
  • Additional security features
  • Reliable customer service and a strong FAQ section
  • Good online reviews
  • Supports the platforms a person wants to use (i.e., Android, Windows, etc.)

It’s great if a VPN can provide all or most of these features, but that’s not always possible, especially for someone on a budget. Instead, a person should identify what they want to get out of the VPN connection and prioritize those features.

When Should I Use a VPN?

Even though many people know there are benefits to using a VPN, some may still wonder if VPNs are worth it? That depends on why a person will be using the VPN, but for the most part, the answer is yes. 

Even though many people only tend to use VPNs for specific things, like streaming series or doing work, they have become an essential security tool. Hackers and other unsavory characters are always looking for new ways to spy on people, steal from people, and inconvenience everyone

Even if a VPN doesn’t seem necessary on the surface level, they are useful and essential in today’s technologically dependent age. People do everything on and with their devices, from taking them into the toilet to internet banking. These devices are a goldmine of information for even novice hackers.

It’s pretty easy to guess the answer then: Everyone should be using a VPN and turning it on whenever they’re connected to the internet. It has become just as essential as having an antivirus program. Barring that, at least make sure to use a VPN when connected to a public network such as a restaurant’s WiFi.

Is it illegal to have a VPN?

VPNs are perfectly safe to use and legal in most countries. There are some countries, however, such as China and the UAE, where VPNs are banned and illegal. Those governments keep track of whether people use VPN connections, which can lead to a fine or jail time, depending on the offense. 

Before traveling and using a VPN, make sure it’s legal in the destination country.