A virtual private network, better known as a VPN, gives you online privacy and anonymity by creating a private network from a public internet connection. VPNs mask your internet protocol (IP) address so your online actions are virtually untraceable. Most important, VPN services establish secure and encrypted connections to provide greater privacy than even a secured Wi-Fi hotspot.
A virtual private network is a key privacy tool that you should use when you’re logging onto the internet from a public place such as a coffee shop, hotel lobby, or any other spot that offers access to free public Wi-Fi.
A VPN creates a type of tunnel that hides your online activity, including the links you click or the files you download, so that cybercriminals, businesses, government agencies, or other snoops can’t see it.
How does a VPN work?
There are many different VPN types, but we’ll focus on consumer VPN here — that’s the one NordVPN offers. When you download client-based VPN software to your device, it does most of the work for you — you only need to log in and connect.
However, it’s helpful to know how a VPN works to understand the service better. Here’s what’s going on behind the scenes:
When you connect to a virtual private network service, it authenticates your client with a VPN server.
The server then applies an encryption protocol to all the data you send and receive.
The VPN service creates an encrypted “tunnel” over the internet. This secures the data traveling between you and your destination.
To ensure each data packet stays secure, a VPN wraps it in an outer packet, which is then encrypted through encapsulation. This is the core element of the VPN tunnel, keeping the data safe during transfer.
When the data arrives at the server, the outer packet is removed through a decryption process.
What are the benefits of a VPN connection?
A VPN connection disguises your data traffic online and protects it from external access. Unencrypted data can be viewed by anyone who has network access and wants to see it. With a VPN, hackers and cyber criminals can’t decipher this data.
Secure encryption: To read the data, you need an encryption key . Without one, it would take millions of years for a computer to decipher the code in the event of a brute force attack . With the help of a VPN, your online activities are hidden even on public networks.
Disguising your whereabouts : VPN servers essentially act as your proxies on the internet. Because the demographic location data comes from a server in another country, your actual location cannot be determined. In addition, most VPN services do not store logs of your activities. Some providers, on the other hand, record your behavior, but do not pass this information on to third parties. This means that any potential record of your user behavior remains permanently hidden.
Access to regional content: Regional web content is not always accessible from everywhere. Services and websites often contain content that can only be accessed from certain parts of the world. Standard connections use local servers in the country to determine your location. This means that you cannot access content at home while traveling, and you cannot access international content from home. With VPN location spoofing , you can switch to a server to another country and effectively “change” your location.
Secure data transfer: If you work remotely, you may need to access important files on your company’s network. For security reasons, this kind of information requires a secure connection. To gain access to the network, a VPN connection is often required. VPN services connect to private servers and use encryption methods to reduce the risk of data leakage.
Why should you use a VPN connection?
Your ISP usually sets up your connection when you connect to the internet. It tracks you via an IP address. Your network traffic is routed through your ISP’s servers, which can log and display everything you do online.
Your ISP may seem trustworthy, but it may share your browsing history with advertisers, the police or government, and/or other third parties. ISPs can also fall victim to attacks by cyber criminals: If they are hacked, your personal and private data can be compromised.
This is especially important if you regularly connect to public Wi-Fi networks. You never know who might be monitoring your internet traffic and what they might steal from you, including passwords, personal data, payment information, or even your entire identity.
What should a good VPN do?
You should rely on your VPN to perform one or more tasks. The VPN itself should also be protected against compromise. These are the features you should expect from a comprehensive VPN solution:
Encryption of your IP address: The primary job of a VPN is to hide your IP address from your ISP and other third parties. This allows you to send and receive information online without the risk of anyone but you and the VPN provider seeing it.
Encryption of protocols: A VPN should also prevent you from leaving traces, for example, in the form of your internet history, search history and cookies. The encryption of cookies is especially important because it prevents third parties from gaining access to confidential information such as personal data, financial information and other content on websites.
Kill switch: If your VPN connection is suddenly interrupted, your secure connection will also be interrupted. A good VPN can detect this sudden downtime and terminate preselected programs, reducing the likelihood that data is compromised.
Two-factor authentication: By using a variety of authentication methods, a strong VPN checks everyone who tries to log in. For example, you might be prompted to enter a password, after which a code is sent to your mobile device. This makes it difficult for uninvited third parties to access your secure connection.
The history of VPNs
Since humans have been using the internet, there has been a movement to protect and encrypt internet browser data. The US Department of Defense already got involved in projects working on the encryption of internet communication data back in the 1960s.
The predecessors of the VPN
Their efforts led to the creation of ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network), a packet switching network, which in turn led to the development of the Transfer Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP).
The TCP/IP had four levels: Link, internet, transport and application. At the internet level, local networks and devices could be connected to the universal network – and this is where the risk of exposure became clear. In 1993, a team from Columbia University and AT&T Bell Labs finally succeeded in creating a kind of first version of the modern VPN, known as swIPe: Software IP encryption protocol.
In the following year, Wei Xu developed the IPSec network, an internet security protocol that authenticates and encrypts information packets shared online. In 1996, a Microsoft employee named Gurdeep Singh-Pall created a Peer-to-Peer Tunneling Protocol (PPTP).
Contiguous to Singh-Pall developing PPTP, the internet was growing in popularity and the need for consumer-ready, sophisticated security systems emerged. At that time, anti-virus programs were already effective in preventing malware and spyware from infecting a computer system. However, people and companies also started demanding encryption software that could hide their browsing history on the internet.
The first VPNs therefore started in the early 2000s, but were almost exclusively used by companies. However, after a flood of security breaches, especially in the early 2010s, the consumer market for VPNs started to pick up.
Here’s how to surf securely with a VPN
A VPN encrypts your surfing behavior, which can only be decoded with the help of a key. Only your computer and the VPN know this key, so your ISP cannot recognize where you are surfing. Different VPNs use different encryption processes, but generally function in three steps:
Once you are online, start your VPN. The VPN acts as a secure tunnel between you and the internet. Your ISP and other third parties cannot detect this tunnel.
Your device is now on the local network of the VPN, and your IP address can be changed to an IP address provided by the VPN server.
You can now surf the internet at will, as the VPN protects all your personal data.
What kind of VPNs are there?
There are many different types of VPNs, but you should definitely be familiar with the three main types:
Often not all employees of a company have access to a company laptop they can use to work from home. During the corona crisis in Spring 2020, many companies faced the problem of not having enough equipment for their employees. In such cases, use of a private device (PC, laptop, tablet, mobile phone) is often resorted to. In this case, companies fall back on an SSL-VPN solution, which is usually implemented via a corresponding hardware box.
The prerequisite is usually an HTML-5-capable browser, which is used to call up the company’s login page. HTML-5 capable browsers are available for virtually any operating system. Access is guarded with a username and password.
A site-to-site VPN is essentially a private network designed to hide private intranets and allow users of these secure networks to access each other’s resources.
A site-to-site VPN is useful if you have multiple locations in your company, each with its own local area network (LAN) connected to the WAN (Wide Area Network). Site-to-site VPNs are also useful if you have two separate intranets between which you want to send files without users from one intranet explicitly accessing the other.
Site-to-site VPNs are mainly used in large companies. They are complex to implement and do not offer the same flexibility as SSL VPNs. However, they are the most effective way to ensure communication within and between large departments.
Connecting via a VPN client can be imagined as if you were connecting your home PC to the company with an extension cable. Employees can dial into the company network from their home office via the secure connection and act as if they were sitting in the office. However, a VPN client must first be installed and configured on the computer.
This involves the user not being connected to the internet via his own ISP, but establishing a direct connection through his/her VPN provider. This essentially shortens the tunnel phase of the VPN journey. Instead of using the VPN to create an encryption tunnel to disguise the existing internet connection, the VPN can automatically encrypt the data before it is made available to the user.
This is an increasingly common form of VPN, which is particularly useful for providers of insecure public WLAN. It prevents third parties from accessing and compromising the network connection and encrypts data all the way to the provider. It also prevents ISPs from accessing data that, for whatever reason, remains unencrypted and bypasses any restrictions on the user’s internet access (for instance, if the government of that country restricts internet access).
The advantage of this type of VPN access is greater efficiency and universal access to company resources. Provided an appropriate telephone system is available, the employee can, for example, connect to the system with a headset and act as if he/she were at their company workplace. For example, customers of the company cannot even tell whether the employee is at work in the company or in their home office.
How do I install a VPN on my computer?
Before installing a VPN, it is important to be familiar with the different implementation methods:
Software must be installed for standalone VPN clients. This software is configured to meet the requirements of the endpoint. When setting up the VPN, the endpoint executes the VPN link and connects to the other endpoint, creating the encryption tunnel. In companies, this step usually requires the entry of a password issued by the company or the installation of an appropriate certificate. By using a password or certificate, the firewall can recognize that this is an authorized connection. The employee then identifies him/herself by means of credentials known to him/her.
VPN extensions can be added to most web browsers such as Google Chrome and Firefox. Some browsers, including Opera, even have their own integrated VPN extensions. Extensions make it easier for users to quickly switch and configure their VPN while surfing the internet. However, the VPN connection is only valid for information that is shared in this browser. Using other browsers and other internet uses outside the browser (e.g. online games) cannot be encrypted by the VPN.
While browser extensions are not quite as comprehensive as VPN clients, they may be an appropriate option for occasional internet users who want an extra layer of internet security. However, they have proven to be more susceptible to breaches. Users are also advised to choose a reputable extension, as data harvesters may attempt to use fake VPN extensions. Data harvesting is the collection of personal data, such as what marketing strategists do to create a personal profile of you. Advertising content is then personally tailored to you.
If multiple devices are connected to the same internet connection, it may be easier to implement the VPN directly on the router than to install a separate VPN on each device. A router VPN is especially useful if you want to protect devices with an internet connection that are not easy to configure, such as smart TVs. They can even help you access geographically restricted content through your home entertainment systems.
A router VPN is easy to install, always provides security and privacy, and prevents your network from being compromised when insecure devices log on. However, it may be more difficult to manage if your router does not have its own user interface. This can lead to incoming connections being blocked.
A company VPN is a custom solution that requires personalized setup and technical support. The VPN is usually created for you by the company’s IT team. As a user, you have no administrative influence from the VPN itself and your activities and data transfers are logged by your company. This allows the company to minimize the potential risk of data leakage. The main advantage of a corporate VPN is a fully secure connection to the company’s intranet and server, even for employees who work outside the company using their own internet connection.
Can I also use a VPN on my smartphone or other devices?
Yes, there are a number of VPN options for smartphones and other internet-connected devices. A VPN can be essential for your mobile device if you use it to store payment information or other personal data or even just to surf the internet. Many VPN providers also offer mobile solutions – many of which can be downloaded directly from Google Play or the Apple App Store, such as Kaspersky VPN Secure Connection.
Is a VPN really so secure?
It is important to note that VPNs do not function like comprehensive anti-virus software. While they protect your IP and encrypt your internet history, a VPN connection does not protect your computer from outside intrusion. To do this, you should definitely use anti-virus software such as Kaspersky Internet Security . Because using a VPN on its own does not protect you from Trojans, viruses, bots or other malware.
Once the malware has found its way onto your device, it can steal or damage your data, whether you are running a VPN or not. It is therefore important that you use a VPN together with a comprehensive anti-virus program to ensure maximum security.
Selecting a secure VPN provider
It is also important that you choose a VPN provider that you can trust. While your ISP cannot see your internet traffic, your VPN provider can. If your VPN provider is compromised, so are you. For this reason, it is crucial that you choose a trusted VPN provider to ensure both the concealment of your internet activities and ensure the highest level of security.
How to install a VPN connection on your smartphone
As already mentioned, there are also VPN connections for Android smartphones and iPhones. Fortunately, smartphone VPN services are easy to use and generally include the following:
The installation process usually only downloads one app from the iOS App Store or Google Play Store. Although free VPN providers exist, it’s wise to choose a professional provider when it comes to security.
The setup is extremely user-friendly, as the default settings are already mostly designed for the average smartphone user. Simply log in with your account. Most apps will then guide you through the key functions of the VPN services.
Switching on the VPN literally works like a light switch for many VPN apps. You will probably find the option directly on the home screen.
Server switching is usually done manually if you want to fake your location. Simply select the desired country from the offer.
Advanced setup is available for users requiring a higher degree of data protection. Depending on your VPN, you can also select other protocols for your encryption method. Diagnostics and other functions may also be available in your app. Before you subscribe, learn about these features to find the right VPN for your needs.
In order to surf the internet safely from now on, all you have to do is first activate the VPN connection through the app.
But keep the following in mind: A VPN is only as secure as the data usage and storage policies of its provider. Remember that the VPN service transfers your data to their servers and these servers connect over the internet on your behalf. If they store data logs, make sure that it is clear for what purpose these logs are stored. Serious VPN providers usually put your privacy first and foremost. You should therefore choose a trusted provider such as Kaspersky Secure Connection .
Remember that only internet data is encrypted. Anything that does not use a cellular or Wi-Fi connection will not be transmitted over the internet. As a result, your VPN will not encrypt your standard voice calls or texts.
What are the VPN basics?
A VPN enables you to connect to the internet in an encrypted fashion, which adds security and privacy to your online browsing. This is especially important when using public Wi-Fi. That’s because it’s easier for identity thieves and other cybercriminals to eavesdrop on your online activity and steal the personal information you send and receive when you are using public Wi-Fi.
It gets worse. You may think you’re using the free public Wi-Fi provided at an airport, hotel, or coffee shop. But you may have logged onto a Wi-Fi network created by a cybercriminal. Once you’re on this network, the hacker can easily spy on your browsing and steal any personal information that you include in email messages or forum chats. If you log onto your online bank or credit card accounts, the cybercriminal might snag your log-in information.
A VPN, though, allows you to use inherently non-private public Wi-Fi by creating an encrypted tunnel through which your data is sent to a remote server operated by your VPN service provider. The VPN server then sends the data to the site you’re seeking to connect with, encrypted and safe from the prying eyes of identity thieves and other cybercriminals.
This isn’t to say that VPNs don’t come with challenges. They can sometimes slow your computer’s performance, especially if your VPN’s servers are geographically distant. For best performance, consider a VPN with servers located around the world. That way, your data can be routed through a closer location.
Some VPN services limit your usage. For instance, they may limit the amount of data you can send in a single connection or over a period of time. They might also limit the speed of the data. This can be common with free VPN services.
How does a VPN protect your IP address and privacy?
VPNs essentially create a data tunnel between your local network and an exit node in another location, which could be thousands of miles away, making it seem as if you’re in another place. This benefit allows online freedom, or the ability to access your favorite apps and websites while on the go.
Here’s a closer look at how a virtual private network works. VPNs use encryption to scramble data when it’s sent over a Wi-Fi network. Encryption makes the data unreadable. Data security is especially important when using a public Wi-Fi network, because it prevents anyone else on the network from eavesdropping on your internet activity.
There’s another side to privacy. Without a VPN, your internet service provider can know your entire browsing history. With a VPN, your search history is hidden. That’s because your web activity will be associated with the VPN server’s IP address, not yours. A VPN service provider may have servers all over the world. That means your search activity could appear to originate at any one of them. Keep in mind, search engines also track your search history, but they’ll associate that information with an IP address that’s not yours. Again, your VPN will keep your online activity private.
VPN privacy: What does a VPN hide?
A VPN can hide a lot of information that can put your privacy at risk. Here are five of them.
1. Your browsing history
It’s no secret where you go on the internet. Your internet service provider and your web browser can track just about everything you do on the internet. A lot of the websites you visit can also keep a history. Web browsers can track your search history and tie that information to your IP address.
Here are two examples why you may want to keep your browsing history private. Maybe you have a medical condition and you’re searching the web for information about treatment options. Guess what? Without a VPN, you’ve automatically shared that information and may start receiving targeted ads that could draw further attention to your condition.
Or maybe you just want to price airline tickets for a flight next month. The travel sites you visit know you’re looking for tickets and they might display fares that aren’t the cheapest available.
These are just a few isolated examples. Keep in mind your internet service provider may be able to sell your browsing history. Even so-called private browsers may not be so private.
2. Your IP address and location
Anyone who captures your IP address can access what you’ve been searching on the internet and where you were located when you searched. Think of your IP address as the return address you’d put on a letter. It leads back to your device.
Since a VPN uses an IP address that’s not your own, it allows you to maintain your online privacy and search the web anonymously. You’re also protected against having your search history gathered, viewed, or sold. Keep in mind, your search history can still be viewed if you are using a public computer or one provided by your employer,school, or other organization.
3. Your location for streaming
You might pay for streaming services that enable you to watch things like professional sports. When you travel outside the country, the streaming service may not be available. There are good reasons for this, including contractual terms and regulations in other countries. Even so, a VPN would allow you to select an IP address in your home country. That would likely give you access to any event shown on your streaming service. You may also be able to avoid data or speed throttling.
4. Your devices
A VPN can help protect your devices, including desktop computer, laptop, tablet, and smart phone from prying eyes. Your devices can be prime targets for cybercriminals when you access the internet, especially if you’re on a public Wi-Fi network. In short, a VPN helps protect the data you send and receive on your devices so hackers won’t be able to watch your every move.
5. Your web activity — to maintain internet freedom
Hopefully, you’re not a candidate for government surveillance, but who knows. Remember, a VPN protects against your internet service provider seeing your browsing history. So you’re protected if a government agency asks your internet service provider to supply records of your internet activity. Assuming your VPN provider doesn’t log your browsing history (some VPN providers do), your VPN can help protect your internet freedom.
How can a VPN help protect against identity theft?
Identity theft occurs when thieves steal your personal information and use it to commit crimes in your name — like taking over or opening new accounts, filing tax returns in your name, or renting or buying property. A VPN can help protect against identity theft by helping protect your data. It creates an encrypted tunnel for the data you send and receive that’s out of reach of cyberthieves.
If your smartphone’s Wi-Fi is enabled at all times, your device could be vulnerable without you ever knowing it. Everyday activities like online shopping, banking, and browsing can expose your information, making you vulnerable to cybercrime.
A VPN can protect the information you share or access using your devices. That’s especially important when using a public Wi-Fi network, where a cyberthief on the same network could capture your login credentials and the credit card number you type in when you shop online.
You can’t prevent identity theft. No one can. Some security aspects — like a data breach at an organization where you have an account — are out of your control. But a VPN can help safeguard the information you send from and receive on your devices.
Do you need a VPN at home?
If you’re logging onto the internet from your home? Do you need a VPN?
Probably not. When you established your home Wi-Fi network, it is likely that you protected your network with a password. Because of that, you may not need the added security of a VPN to shield your online activity.
Investing in a VPN for home use, then, might be a waste of money, unless you want to keep your web surfing private from your internet service provider (ISP) or if you choose to access streaming content or sports coverage that you couldn’t otherwise access from your location.
Tempted to invest in a VPN service provider for home internet access? You could do that, but it might not be a wise financial move. It’s worth noting you might consider a free VPN, but those services may cover their costs in other ways such as selling your data to third-parties for marketing purposes.
There are exceptions where you might consider using a VPN at home. You might want to use a VPN if you’re worried about your ISP tracking your online activity. If you connect to the internet through a VPN, the provider of your internet services won’t be able to see what you’re doing online.
However, the company that provides your VPN service will. If you trust that company more than your internet service provider, then using VPN at home might make sense.
There’s another reason to use VPN. It can help you stream content or watch sporting events that aren’t available in your location. Keep in mind you should understand any contractual agreements you’ve accepted with your streaming provider. Further, governmental regulations in other regions or countries might make this a bad idea.
What should you look for in VPN services?
The VPN market is crowded with options, so it’s important to consider your needs when you’re shopping for a VPN.
Think about what is important to you. Do you want to be able to surf the web anonymously by masking your IP address? Are you afraid that your information could be stolen on public Wi-Fi? Are you a frequent traveler who wants to be able to watch your favorite shows while you’re on the go.
A good VPN can help you check all three boxes, but here are some other points to consider.
How to choose a VPN
A smart way to stay secure when using public Wi-Fi is to use a VPN solution. But what’s the best way to choose a virtual private network? Here are some questions to ask when you’re choosing a VPN provider.
Do they respect your privacy? The point of using a VPN is to protect your privacy, so it’s crucial that your VPN provider respects your privacy, too. They should have a no-log policy, which means that they never track or log your online activities.
Do they run the most current protocol? OpenVPN provides stronger security than other protocols, such as PPTP. OpenVPN is an open-source software that supports all the major operating systems.
Do they set data limits? Depending on your internet usage, bandwidth may be a large deciding factor for you. Make sure their services match your needs by checking to see if you’ll get full, unmetered bandwidth without data limits.
Where are the servers located? Decide which server locations are important to you. If you want to appear as if you’re accessing the Web from a certain locale, make sure there’s a server in that country.
Will you be able to set up VPN access on multiple devices? If you are like the average consumer, you typically use between three and five devices. Ideally, you’d be able to use the VPN on all of them at the same time.
How much will it cost? If price is important to you, then you may think that a free VPN is the best option. Remember, however, that some VPN services may not cost you money, but you might “pay” in other ways,
such as being served frequent advertisements or having your personal information collected and sold to third parties. If you compare paid vs. free options, you may find that free VPNs:
don’t offer the most current or secure protocols
don’t offer the highest bandwidth and connection speeds to free users
do have a higher disconnection rate
don’t have as many servers in as many countries globally
don’t offer support
There are many points to consider when you’re choosing a VPN, so do your homework to make sure you’re getting the right fit for your needs. Regardless of which provider you choose, rest assured that a good VPN will provide more security, privacy, and anonymity online than a public Wi-Fi hotspot can.
We’ve all thoughtlessly joined a public Wi-Fi network before, whether it’s while standing in line for coffee and checking our emails, hopping onto the subway’s public network to see if it was still raining, or logging into the library’s Wi-Fi to catch up on some work. Browsing the web on public Wi-Fi networks, though, is not the safest practice when it comes to digital security. In fact, it makes it much easier for hackers to access your device, which could lead to some of your sensitive information being stolen, like usernames, passwords, bank account information, and so on.
Fortunately, VPNs encrypt your web traffic, route it through a private virtual tunnel, and replaces your IP address, making it safer to browse the internet using public Wi-Fi networks.
Having tested dozens of VPNs, we’ve familiarized ourselves with the top VPN brands, and overall, the VPNs we’ve listed below performed best in terms of features, security, and speed. They also offer the most value for your money. So if you want to find out which VPN we recommend for you, keep on reading.
But before we begin, let’s talk about our testing process. We put each VPN through rigorous testing. We tested for IP address leakage, performed several speed tests, and spent countless hours trying out their apps. We also peeked behind the curtain of each VPN company, looking for past controversies, breaches, and such. And of course, we examined their privacy policies to make sure that they aren’t collecting and selling our browsing data.
And two VPN brands come out on top: NordVPN and Surfshark. If you want to skip ahead and choose between these two brands, our Surfshark vs. NordVPN review will offer some insights. Otherwise, you can compare VPNs here. But if we were you, we’d read this whole review, as our top 12 VPNs each have something unique to offer.
The Best VPN Service for 2022
NordVPN – Best VPN for Privacy
Surfshark VPN – Best VPN for Security/Encryption
Private Internet Access VPN – Best VPN for Windows
IPVanish – Best VPN for Android
Ivacy – Best VPN For Travel
Atlas VPN – Best Data Breach Monitoring
ExpressVPN – Best Encryption
PureVPN – Best Server Base
CyberGhost – Best VPN for Mac
Hotspot Shield – Best VPN for Netflix
ProtonVPN – Best VPN for Zoom
Norton Secure VPN – Best VPN With Dynamic IP Addresses