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The Beginner’s Guide to VPNs 2021
Welcome to a comprehensive guide explaining everything you need to know about a VPN (or “virtual private network”). Because security and privacy are so important, a VPN is all but required these days if you use the internet. It’s even more important if you connect in a public place like a coffee shop or library.
To help you learn about the features and advantages of using a VPN, we created this guide as a way to explain the big picture. If you want to dive deeper into each VPN, we’ve also reviewed most of the popular VPN apps available, created guides for specific types of users, and have also compared the most popular VPN apps in a head-to-head round-up. It’s all available here.
What is a VPN and how does it work?
A virtual private network (VPN) works by creating a tunnel between your computer and a secure server, usually one that is close to you. For example, if you are using a laptop and enable a VPN, it might connect to a server in Chicago. All of your internet activity is encrypted through the tunnel to and from that server. You can stream files, make back-ups to the cloud, access websites, download movies, and play games knowing your internet activity is safe.
A VPN is essential. Especially in an age of criminal hacking, invasion of privacy, and tracking what you do online—we can’t emphasize it enough: with a VPN, you are protected, and without one, you are taking greater risks online.
A VPN is an app you install on your phone and a client you use on a laptop or desktop. It protects your internet connection by adding encryption on the fly. If you visit a website that is not secure, your own internet feed will stay protected because of the VPN. On a public wireless network, for example, a hacker would not be able to tap into your computer and steal your credit card and other data.
Why do I need a VPN?
The decision about using a VPN is really based on your own threshold for exposing personal data, financial information, and web surfing preferences. Without a VPN, you are revealing your location and which websites you visit to advertisers, the website owners, and even government agencies (not to mention hackers).
If you use a VPN, you obscure your personal information. When you transmit a credit card number, date of birth, and your address to register for a new app, for example, the VPN encrypts that data and makes it secure so it can’t be hacked.
However, a VPN protects the actual connection, and that is the most typical attack vector for hacking. The VPN works in the background at all times, making sure your data is not compromised and protecting your identity and anonymity at all times.
Using a VPN isn’t the only thing you should do to protect your info. Keep in mind that hackers are known to use social engineering tactics that can still compromise your accounts—someone might try to call you and ask for a password, for example. Always be mindful of who you give your personal information to.
Which features should I consider?
You might think of a VPN as merely a way to protect your internet connection, and that is mostly what they do. At the end of the day, a VPN is making sure you are secure, anonymous, and private when you surf and when you hand over personal data like a credit card. The VPN creates a tunnel between you and a remote server.
However, when you do register for a VPN service and start using one, you will notice there are plenty of extra features. For example, several VPN providers include a free ad blocker as part of the total package. In a few cases, there is also a malware blocker. This protects you from downloading a malware client by accident, which can infect your computer. Some additional features to consider include the number of countries and servers, how many devices you can use it on, bandwidth restrictions, and interface.
Some of the most popular VPN clients go even further. Hotspot Shield includes access to 1Password for free (it’s a password management app). TunnelBear has a unique feature that tricks any website into thinking you are not using a VPN.
Which security protocols are supported?
Most of us use a VPN because of the extra security. Every VPN adds encryption to the connection that helps protect you from hacking and also ensures more privacy and anonymity when you surf. However, many VPN providers let you select which security protocol you want to use for the connection.
A good VPN allows flexibility because you can enable the protocol you want, run a speed test, and choose if you want to use a different protocol. The difference is that some tend to be a bit faster but not as secure, and some are slower but add more protection.
Why does the number of servers matter?
The number of servers you can access is critically important. Some of the lesser-known VPN providers only offer a few hundred servers. The top VPN clients in this guide typically offer a few thousand.
CyberGhost offers over 6,600 servers. That means, you can always find a secure connection no matter where you live. It also increases the value of that VPN because you can connect using a remote server as a way to bypass any country or geographic limitations in your area.
And you can experiment. If you connect to one server and test the speed, discovering it is slower than expected, you can always switch to another server and see if that provides more bandwidth. Most of the top VPNs offer over 1,000 servers for you to test out.
Why does the number of countries matter?
Next to the total number of servers, another factor to consider is the number of countries. While a VPN like CyberGhost offers over 6,600 servers for your connection, the server locations might not be as geographically dispersed as other options.
That’s why it’s important to look into the total number of countries, especially if you plan on traveling and want to connect securely from that remote location. A higher number of countries also means you have the flexibility to connect to a media streaming or download service easily. Ultrasurf offers the most countries with over 180. Tunnelbear offers the least number of countries with 26.
Does rerouting through other countries slow down my speed?
When you access a website through a server in another country, be aware that this can slow down your internet speed. A general guideline here is that the server closest to your actual location will likely be the fastest. If you are in Chicago and connect to a server in Austria, you can expect a slower speed. That’s because a VPN not only has to access the server that is not close to you but also adds encryption to the connection.
Can I access my VPN on multiple devices?
Almost every VPN service we’ve found allows you to connect using multiple devices with one account. That’s one big advantage of using a VPN. Unlike some software, such as virus-checker or photo-editing apps, you are not restricted to just one gadget such as your phone.
In most cases, a VPN allows you to connect from up to five devices. However, a recent trend with apps like IPVanish and Surfshark is to allow unlimited device connections. They do not restrict how many devices you can use.
Does a VPN work on my phone or tablet?
When VPN services first became popular about 20 years ago, they were mostly intended for corporate use. They only worked on a laptop or desktop, and they were both complicated to install and use.
Today, a VPN can run as an app on your phone. They are easy to install and use, and operate more like a chat app than a complicated security or encryption software. Ironically, a VPN is actually quite powerful in how it uses encryption and connects to a remote server, but you’d never know that.
Does a VPN work on my game console?
Another perk of using a VPN is that it will protect your game console. A few VPN clients like ExpressVPN even offer an Xbox app you can install right from the game console. However, in most cases, the way you will protect your game console is by installing the VPN on your router. This is not as complicated as it sounds. VPN clients like NordVPN and IPVanish provide clear instructions for installing a VPN on your router.
If you’re playing video games, we’ve dug up the best VPNs for gaming so you can get back to beating your high scores.
How does a VPN affect my streaming?
Many people like using a VPN because it protects their media streaming and even opens up media streaming servers that would not be available otherwise. That’s because a VPN creates a secure connection to a remote server, and the streaming site won’t know your exact location.
A few media streaming sites like Netflix and Amazon Prime are known for blocking VPNs, and you may find that you have to disable the client for some sites, although the best VPN apps we found tend to work with most media sites.
What Are The Most Advanced VPN Features?
A VPN client comes in all shapes and sizes. There are high-end options like ExpressVPN and NordVPN, and even free clients like Ultrasurf. We recommend visiting the VPN home page on our site and reading up on the reviews, though, because each VPN offers a wide variety of extra features.
To help you get the big picture, here are some features to look for that many would consider as more advanced.
For starters, look for the encryption protocol. Some VPN apps use OpenVPN, some use 256-bit AES, some use something called IKEv2/IPsec. The point is that you can often pick an alternative encryption standard, which could speed up your connection.
Some VPN apps include an ad blocker. For example, TunnelBear offers a free ad blocker for Chrome. Surfshark includes one called CleanWeb. These add-ons enhance the VPN because they block ads but also prevent malicious code, viruses, and other dangers from infecting your device.
From there, other advanced features include things like ghosting your IP address (your service provider won't know you are using a VPN), extra storage included for your video files and photos, and written assurances about an audit to make sure your server logs are never shared with outside parties.
How much should I expect to pay?
That’s right: a VPN does cost money—although, there is one free VPN client called Ultrasurf that’s worth considering. VPN providers charge you because there is a vast network of servers you connect to, and a VPN is working hard in the background to secure all of your online activity. Pricing tends to run around $10 or $12 per month, but these apps are much cheaper if you pay by the year.
Annual price (by month)
Norton Secure VPN
Private Internet Access
Data effective 12/23/2020. Offers and availability vary by location and are subject to change.
Who needs a VPN?
We’ve presented a few of the advantages of using a VPN and also the features worth considering. We’ve covered the top picks available and why they are helpful and useful. The final question is this: is a VPN for you?
We’ve found that a VPN meets the needs of a diverse crowd.
- Most people love using a VPN because they can protect their online activity and credit card info.
- Media streamers use a VPN because they can feel safe online and also access media streaming sites in other countries.
- Office workers and mobile app users tend to like a VPN because they are flexible and secure.
- Anyone who uses the internet as part of their work or in daily life will benefit from using a VPN.
If you want to learn more, we cover the nitty-gritty of our favorite picks in this comparison of the best VPN services.
How do Americans Use VPNs? It's Not Just for Security
We’re protecting ourselves more in public during the pandemic, but now that we’re inside and online more often, are we keeping up with our internet safety?
A virtual private network, or VPN, can mitigate the risk of identity theft, data tracking, and other malicious online activity that can put a wrench in your life. But apparently, Americans use VPNs for more than online safety.
Using Google Trends, we dug into America’s rising interest in VPNs following the COVID-19 outbreak to determine which states used VPNs the most.
We also surveyed Americans to ask how they were using VPNs. While some were using it to protect their privacy, more were using it for some potentially “out of bounds” fun.
COVID-19 caused interest to rise in VPNs
According to Google Trends, America's interest VPNs peaked at the end of March,1 when 32 of the 50 states went into lockdown following the pandemic’s outbreak.2
Working from home, staying in to stream movies, and more video calls may have triggered some online safety concerns across America.
Most Americans use VPNs for streaming
Our survey found that just under half of Americans had never used a VPN. Many people might not think they need a VPN, but one in four Americans work from home using a VPN. Some companies require VPN use, but anyone working with personal or sensitive information should consider using one.
Yes, VPNs protect your online safety, but Americans who use VPNs have also found ways to bypass boundaries that standard networks don’t allow.
According to our survey, Americans who use VPNs did the following:
- 38% stream TV shows and movies unavailable in America.
- 36% watch Youtube videos unavailable in America.
- 34% keep their actions and internet browsing activity private.
- 25% work from home.
In other words, over a third of Americans use VPNs to stream movies, shows, and videos they aren’t typically (or legally) allowed to. We won’t go into the details about how to do that, but if you have three friends who use VPNs, one of them might know.
Only 8% of Americans who use a VPN said they accessed illegal content—which begs the question: do Americans know the difference between legal and illegal streaming with a VPN?
However, a third of Americans do use VPNs to keep their online activity private—which is what a virtual private network is intended for. Your everyday activities like banking, shopping, and streaming can put you at risk of hackers and criminals. A VPN acts as an extra layer of protection against them.
We made the trends chart using search volume for the term "VPN" per Google Trends data on a scale from 0 to 100, where the week with 100 showed the most interest, and where 0 would be no interest at all.
We then surveyed 500 Americans over the age of 18 about VPN use. The margin of error is ± 4% at a confidence level of 95%.