What Is a VPN? And Do I Need One?
In the technology world, VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) are a hot topic. No matter where you seem to turn, there are advertisements promoting VPNs when using your computer or other mobile devices.
But what exactly is a VPN, and how can it help you keep sensitive data, such as your financial information, secured?
We’re going to take a deep dive into VPNs — what they are and how they work. Then, we’ll talk about whether VPNs are something you truly need for your online security.
What Is a VPN (Virtual Private Network)?
Let’s start with the basics: What on Earth is a VPN, and do I need to be a computer engineer to understand the concept? Actually, VPNs aren’t too complicated. Let’s use the analogy of driving.
Let’s pretend that connecting to the internet is like driving a car. Normally if you want to visit a website, you’ll need to travel from your home to that specific website. When you’re driving, anyone can see where you’re going, but you might not always want that, especially when visiting sites such as your bank.
When using a VPN, your computer creates a secure ‘tunnel’ that allows you to get to your destination without anyone else knowing where you’re headed. Your car burrows underground using the tunnel, to get to where it needs to go and no one is able to see your route.
This is the basic idea of a VPN. When you use a Virtual Private Network (VPN), you are encrypting your traffic (tunneling) and creating a more secure connection, where your internet traffic isn’t on display to anyone watching.
But, do you need a VPN?
Do I Need a VPN?
Answering whether or not you need a VPN is a bit complicated. While VPNs do indeed provide a security boost to your internet browsing sessions, the web already offers some forms of secure encryption, such as HTTPS.
Is Your Connection Already Secure Enough?
If you’ve ever looked at the full address of a website in your address bar, it will likely look something like this: “https://www.google.com./.” That HTTPS at the beginning stands for Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure and it allows for secure communication over the internet.
This technology already encrypts your communication, making that visit to your banking website much more secure. So if HTTPS is already encrypting your browsing experience, why would you use a VPN, especially when you will likely need to pay for it?
For starters, VPNs provide an extra layer of security, hiding not only the data that is being transmitted but also your personal online address and destination.
For example, without a VPN, a malicious hacker on a public WiFi network might not be able to read your bank login information, but they can see that you are visiting your bank. On the other hand, a VPN would help to prevent that hacker from even seeing what site you are visiting.
Not every website uses HTTPS, though the majority do to keep users safe, especially banking sites. When using a regular HTTP website, VPNs become much more valuable for keeping your data private.
Top Reasons Many People Use VPNs
VPNs can be a great way to make public WiFi and other unsecured networks, such as those found at coffee shops, libraries, airports, and hotels, just a bit safer. But the debate continues on whether or not that extra layer of security is worth the cost of a VPN.
There are other reasons to use a VPN beyond attempting to stay safe on public Wi-Fi. We’ve broken down some of the most popular reasons to use a VPN, so you can decide if utilizing one might be the right choice for your devices.
Attempting to Block Online Tracking: While VPNs do not completely block companies from tracking your online whereabouts (usually for monetizing and advertising purposes), they can attempt to block many common ways advertisers track users. Hiding your IP address is one of making your online activity less identifiable.
Blocking Internet Throttling: Some internet service providers (ISPs) and public WiFi networks may throttle or limit the speed of your connection to certain websites and services (such as media streaming and video calling). A VPN can hide your activity, making throttling more difficult and restoring your speed.
Bypassing censorship: Depending on what country you live in, you may face censorship laws that prevent access to certain websites or services. By utilizing a VPN, you can connect to the entirety of the web without government interference.
Online Streaming Services: Many streaming services, such as Netflix, offer different content depending on where you are connecting to the internet. For example, there may be a show or mobile app available in Japan that is not available in the USA. By using a VPN, you can trick a streaming service into thinking you are connecting from a specific country, allowing you access to a larger library of content.
So, Do I Need a VPN?
If you identify with any of the reasons above, using a VPN might be the right choice for you. If you are trying to bypass government censorship, block internet throttling, access the entirety of an online streaming service, or obscure your online footprint from advertisers, VPNs might be a smart option.
In particular, we would recommend VPNs for anyone dealing with sensitive information, who is also accessing the internet through potentially insecure means, such as public WiFi.
VPNs at home can also have a purpose, as you are hiding information from your Internet Service Provider (ISP). But again, for most users the protection provided by your web browser and the HTTPS protocol are enough to keep you safe.
Why Shouldn’t You Use a VPN?
For the most part, there aren’t too many downsides to using a VPN beyond the cost. However, there are a few circumstances in which you may want to avoid using a VPN or at least reconsider their application.
If you are an online gamer, VPNs might not be the right choice for you. While VPNs tend to boast about their fast speeds and low latency, we’ve found that VPNs tend to cause more problems with connection speed. Additionally, you may be able to access new game servers around the world, but your experience may suffer due to the connection delay.
Another instance you may want to reconsider using VPNs is banking—surprise, we’re sure you didn’t see that one coming! While VPNs can be useful for blocking out your information on public WiFi networks, you’ll want to make sure a local VPN is selected. If you live in the U.S. and suddenly use a London-based VPN, your bank may be confused and trigger a fraud alert.
Lastly, VPNs can simply be finicky. Some WiFi networks refuse to work with VPNs engaged, while other times connections can be poor and your internet service would continuously drop or refuse to connect.
How Do I Get a VPN?
There are many different VPNs available, but it is critical to only choose VPNs that are well respected and well known. After all, you will be sending all of your data through this connection, so you’ll want to trust the company handling it all.
We’ve put together a few different VPN providers that you may want to check out.
5 Top VPN Providers
|Number of Servers
Starts at $6.67/mo.
Starts at $2.49/mo.
Starts at $3.29/mo.
Starts at $8.00/mo.
Starts at $3.33/mo.
Some of the above VPN services provide free tiers; in these circumstances, they typically provide a small amount of data before you need to upgrade. Be wary of other ‘free’ VPN services, as some may keep an eye on the data that you transmit for advertising or nefarious purposes.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
VPNs are typically most useful when used on public WiFi networks, encrypting your data from potential hackers on the network. However, VPNs can be useful at home for bypassing Internet Service Provider (ISP) throttling restrictions, bypassing censorship, accessing the entire catalog of a streaming service or trying to reduce your footprint for advertisers.
Businesses need to make money, so no VPN is truly free. However, if you are looking to download a limited VPN for occasional use at an airport or hotel, you may want to consider either ProtonVPN or TunnelBear. Both provide free VPN services that are either data or speed-restricted.
If you need a VPN on your laptop or tablet, you likely will need it on your smartphone. VPNs can be set up easily on both iOS and Android devices.
Netflix subscribers commonly utilize VPNs to bypass local content restrictions. Due to licensing agreements, many streaming services are only able to broadcast certain content in specific geographic locations. By using a VPN, you can change your apparent location and access new content from around the world.
VPN prices can range from only a few dollars to quite a bit each month. Most VPN providers offer discounts for those who sign up for yearly or multi-year subscriptions versus monthly. The cheapest VPN in our table roundup was Surfshark, coming in at only $2.49 a month if you sign up for a full-year subscription.
Michael Archambault is a senior writer for The Penny Hoarder specializing in technology.