Everything you need to know about VPNs and how to buy one
How much do you value your privacy? Do you care that right now, your internet service provider is collecting personal data about your browsing habits to sell to marketers? Are you concerned that anyone who cares to can see exactly where you’ve been online, and what you’ve been doing there? Are you worried about the growing threats of digital identity theft? What about government interference in your affairs?
Did You Know: Cybercrime is on the rise. The financial impact is expected to reach $6 trillion by the end of this year.
More and more people are realizing just how unsafe the open, unsecured internet can be, and many are now relying on virtual private networks (VPNs) to increase their security, bolster their privacy, and protect themselves from digital threats. It’s estimated that since March of 2020, there has been a 66 percent increase in VPN use in the United States.1
But what exactly is a VPN? How do they work? What features should you look for in a VPN? And do you really need one? We’re going to answer all of these questions and more in this in-depth guide to VPNs. But to get you up to speed, we’ll start with the basics.
VPN stands for virtual private network. In the simplest terms, VPNs provide a secure, private connection between computers over the internet. Think of the internet like a street. You can drive your car (your data) on that street from point A to point B, but it’s pretty easy for outside observers to see your car, or even what you’re doing while you’re driving it.
FYI: With so many VPNs on the market, it can be difficult to decide which one is right for you. To take the guesswork out of it, we’ve compiled a roundup of the top ten best VPN services of 2021.
Or, you can use a VPN, which creates a personal tunnel from point A to point B that only you have access to. No one can see your car, no one can see inside your car, and if the VPN is good, no one will know the tunnel exists or that you’re driving in it. Make sense? In other words, your personal data remains safe and secure while using a VPN.
Wondering what you can do with a VPN? We’ll cover this in detail in just a bit. But here are a few things a VPN might be useful for:
The first VPN was created by Microsoft engineers in 1996 who were seeking to encrypt and secure data traveling through a LAN or WAN connection.2 For the most part, VPNs grew in popularity as large organizations realized they needed ways for employees to remotely access data without risking exposure, but they’ve since become extremely user- friendly and so easy to deploy that they’ve filtered down to the consumer level, meaning average folks can utilize them to stay safer online.
To understand how a VPN works, you first need to understand a little bit about the architecture of the internet. We promise this isn’t as complicated as it sounds.
With a traditional internet connection, whenever you visit a webpage, you are being connected to that site through your internet service provider — or an ISP. The ISP assigns your computer a unique number, known as an IP address so that the website and the ISP can identify you.
When you’re using a VPN, though, the client establishes a secure connection to one of their servers first. Your traffic still passes through the ISP, but they can no longer view it or know your final destination. Additionally, websites can no longer view your original IP address, only the IP address of the VPN server, which is shared with others and changes dynamically.
This process works through four key concepts. Let’s explore those now.
More and more VPN brands are cropping up in the market. But remember, not all VPNs are created equal. We’ll get more into that in just a bit, but for now, here’s a list of some of the most popular VPN brands we’ve personally tested. Any of the brands listed below can help to secure you online. But keep in mind, some are better than others. Keep reading to learn more.
This is a very common question. To the uninformed, it might seem like VPNs are something that shady characters use to engage in illicit activity online. And while it’s true that some folks use VPNs to mask criminal behavior, a VPN is really nothing but a tool. You can use a hammer to build a deck or bonk someone on the head. The hammer itself isn’t the issue — it’s how you choose to use it.
FYI: Even in places like China where VPN use is frowned upon, it’s extremely rare that their use alone will get you in any sort of trouble. It’s what you’re doing while using the VPN that might get you in hot water.
With that in mind, the short answer is no — VPNs are not illegal, at least not in the U.S. There are certain countries that frown on their use, or have banned them outright but each government’s regulation and response differs.
List of countries that restrict VPN use:
At the end of the day, it’s perfectly legal to use a VPN. Common sense and a working moral compass should help dictate what you should and shouldn’t do online.
Back in the day, VPNs were a little unwieldy. IT departments were involved in their deployment, and they weren’t really considered personal software. You had to have a pretty advanced understanding of networking, and frankly, most people didn’t have a need for a VPN in the early days of the internet.
FYI: If you’re looking for an easy-to-use VPN, check out our review of Hotspot Shield. They really try to keep things simple.
That’s changed dramatically in recent years. As online threats and concerns about privacy have become more pervasive, VPNs have evolved to be more user-friendly. Today, most consumer-oriented VPNs require little-to-no knowledge of networking to be effective security measures, and deploying them is as easy as clicking a button in most cases.
With so many VPNs on the market today, each brand is looking for ways to differentiate itself. Some are more focused on user experience, while others are more customizable. Some are optimized for streaming various media, and some are more focused on security.
We’ll get into selecting a VPN in a little bit, but regardless of their features, the vast majority of commercially available VPNs on the market today are extremely easy to access. Other than our two top contenders, ExpressVPN and ProtonVPN, Ivacy is a safe bet for a simple VPN. Read all about it in our Ivacy VPN analysis.
Looking for simplicity? Here are the easiest VPNs to use:
There is a pretty simple balance to work out when it comes to VPNs: privacy versus speed.
The benefit of using a VPN is that for all intents and purposes, you’re anonymous while online. Your ISP can’t track and record your traffic, and bad actors and government snoops can’t see what you’re doing.
For that security, though, you’re usually trading performance. Depending on your average connection speed, using a VPN might noticeably slow you down. For most modern connections using some of the better VPNs on the market, these slowdown are negligible, but sometimes it is noticeable.
FYI: NordVPN is one of the faster VPNs we’ve tested. Head over to our in-depth comparison of NordVPN vs. Norton Secure VPN to see how these industry titans measure up.
In our extensive testing of numerous VPNs, the slowdowns we’ve experienced were never enough to outweigh the security advantages. For the most part, our speeds faltered only slightly – maybe by 10 Mbps or so – but nowhere near enough for us to consider them faulty.
If you’re concerned about speeds, make sure you look for a VPN that has a solid network of servers. NordVPN runs a network of almost 2,000, and HMA has a little over 1,000.
Your speeds also depend on what kind of encryption you’re running with the VPN, and what protocols you’re using, but we’ll get into more detail with that a little later.
Did you know that if you’re watching Netflix in Canada, you’ll have a whole different library of options to choose from than if you’re watching in the states? It’s true, and it has to do with copyright laws and licensing. However, it’s also true that you can have unlimited access to a streaming platforms’ media options by using a VPN.
Since a VPN allows you to spoof your location, if you route through Canada, you’ll have access to Canadian Netflix. In theory, anyway. Some streaming platforms frown on VPN use, and in recent years they’ve cracked down on blocking certain VPN protocol traffic, but using a VPN that accounts for this can bypass geo-restrictions.
Now this gets into a bit of a gray area because VPN use can go against streaming platforms’ terms of service, but to our knowledge no one has ever had their account suspended for VPN-ing into a service. At worst, you’ll get a message saying the service is unavailable in your country.
The short answer is no, but the longer answer is maybe. There certainly are cases where authorities have tracked down cybercriminals who were using VPNs, but it’s never accomplished by a guy with three monitors displaying Matrix code in front of him muttering under his breath “I’m in.”
In reality, it is usually far more mundane and forensic than that. Law enforcement can subpoena records from VPN clients and cross-references them against ISP logs and other known bits of information, ultimately tracking down their perp. But honestly, unless you’re doing something highly illegal, there’s no reason for or ability to track what you’re doing online. For all intents and purposes, you’re a ghost.
So yes, VPN traffic is “untraceable”; however, there are other means by which you can still be exposed. The best way to protect yourself is to make sure you’re not doing anything illegal in the first place.
FYI: Want to see how two of the best VPNs for privacy and security stack up against one another? If so, check out our comparison of NordVPN vs. ProtonVPN.
VPN costs depend on a number of factors, including the depth of features offered, the duration of your subscription, and the quality of the digital protections you’ll be receiving.
Generally speaking, VPNs usually offer a month-to-month plan that will cost anywhere between $5 and $15 per month, and longer-term plans — six months, a year, two years — that are paid up front but drive the monthly costs down. Many offer money-back guarantees that allow you to try the product without risk, and some offer a free trial period.
Here’s a quick breakdown of the month-to-month costs of some of our favorite services:
*Two-month subscription price
Keep in mind that many VPN services offer deals and discounts — particularly around traditional holidays, Black Friday, and Cyber Monday. Check out our guide to VPN deals and discounts for more information.
There are a number of reasons a person might decide they need a VPN. The most common reason, though, is privacy. The need for this privacy differs from person to person. Maybe you just don’t want your ISP selling off your data to sketchy marketing companies, or maybe you’re an activist in a restrictive regime whose safety and freedom depend on online anonymity. Either way, you should certainly consider getting a VPN.
There are also a couple of benefits to using a VPN beyond staying safe online. Since VPNs mask your IP address, and your IP address tells websites where you’re coming from geographically, you can actually use VPNs to spoof your location and get around the geo-restriction imposed by some websites and services — particularly streaming platforms like Netflix, Hulu, and Disney Plus.
FYI: While it’s not illegal to use a VPN in order to make it seem like you’re in a place you’re not, doing so to bypass geo-restrictions is generally frowned upon by the service that imposed them. Be sure to check the terms of service you agreed to when you signed up before VPN-ing somewhere you shouldn’t.
Another reason someone might use a VPN is to stay safe on public Wi-Fi networks. Coffee shops, cafés, restaurants, and hotels are all great places to get some work done on your laptop or mobile device, but you never know who is operating the public Wi-Fi networks found there, nor are you aware of who you’re sharing the network with. There are tools made specifically for harvesting data off public networks, so you should take every measure to safeguard your digital privacy. A VPN is ideal for this.
Here’s a short list of public places you definitely don’t want to go unprotected at:
This question is best answered by asking another question: How much do you care about your privacy? Because without a VPN, you have to assume you’re being watched online.
Nine times out of ten that observation is passive and non-threatening. And a lot of people are okay with that — that’s just the price of doing business these days. Privacy has eroded over the years as the internet gained popularity and the advent of social media kicked that degradation into high gear. Without lamenting this loss or waxing philosophical about its societal implications, you simply need to ask yourself if privacy is important to you. If you answer yes, then you need a VPN.
So that’s the highbrow way to approach this question, but there are also more practical, functional ways to think about it. Are you often on public Wi-Fi? We’re talking about the networks you’d find at coffee shops, libraries, and hotel rooms. If so, you definitely need a VPN. These networks are about as secure as Swiss Cheese, and it borders on reckless to connect to them without some security measures in place.
Do you handle a lot of sensitive information at your job or in your personal life? Things that could do damage if they were to get in the wrong hands, like people’s personally identifying information such as birthdays and Social Security numbers? If so, you should absolutely consider running a VPN to prevent data leaks that could jeopardize the financial well-being of those individuals, put your organization in a murky legal situation, or expose you to legal action.
FYI: If you’re feeling like a VPN is right for you at this point, you might want to check out how our two favorites stack up head-to-head in our NordVPN vs. ExpressVPN comparison.
Do you travel abroad often for work or pleasure? If so, using a VPN can not only help keep prying eyes away, they can also provide you with some creature comforts. By connecting to a VPN server from your country, you’ll be able to enjoy the internet as if you were in your living room. Your services should work without interruption, and you should be able to stream your favorite movies and shows without missing a beat.
So far we’ve seen what VPNs are, how they work, how much they cost, and considered who needs to use them. If you’re thinking you would benefit from utilizing a VPN, here’s what you should look for, as well as a primer on some of the terms you’re going to come across while shopping around.
As with any consumer software product, quality and features will vary wildly from provider to provider. Some are world-class, some will get the job done, and others aren’t worth the time spent downloading them. Below are some of the features you should use in your checklist, though, when comparison shopping for VPNs.
FYI: Want an easy-to-use, super secure VPN that doesn’t log your traffic? Check out our review of Windscribe.
That said, there have been instances where VPN providers who claimed to be no-log services ended up secretly keeping logs of some information, and turning that data over to authorities when asked.3
FYI: RAM-only servers, like those we saw in our Surfshark analysis, are pretty much the gold standard of server security. Since these machines don’t use hard drives, nothing is ever physically recorded. Even if they wanted to violate their no-log policy, the data that could be collected simply doesn’t exist.
Those are the key features that all VPNs need in our opinion, but there are a few other things to look out for when you’re shopping as well. Below are a few more advanced VPN options that can be helpful.
Without getting too deep into the weeds, VPN protocols are sets of rules that determine how data moves from your device through the VPN server network. This is how VPN providers ensure stable, secure connections.
There are quite a few protocols out there, but the three most common ones you’ll see are OpenVPN, IPSec/IKEv2, and WireGuard. Some VPNs like NordVPN offer their own proprietary protocols as well, but these are the three you’re going to encounter most often.
Pro Tip: Head over to our Surfshark vs. NordVPN breakdown to learn more about these two perennial favorite VPNs and how they measure up.
OpenVPN is open source, versatile, and secure. IKEv2 was developed for stability and speed. Different-use cases demand different protocols, and having the option to switch between them is important.
Here’s a breakdown of what each common protocol is best for, and some of their drawbacks:
Let’s take a second to talk more about that last one — WireGuard. This is the newest protocol in the industry. It’s faster and more secure than its predecessors, but it’s still considered experimental.4 It looks like in the next few years this protocol will become the industry standard, so it’s great to use a VPN that supports it today, but keep in mind that it’s not widely utilized and still has some known vulnerabilities.
So if protocols make the rules for how your device talks to the VPN network, encryption is the content of the message. Let’s explore that a little more.
Simply put, encryption is the process of encoding and decoding information. VPNs encrypt your data so that if it’s intercepted, it will be incomprehensible to the interloping party.
Encryption requires the use of an algorithm that generates what’s called a “key.” The key is used to decrypt the data so that authorized parties can view it.
There are two main types of encryption used in the VPN industry, AES-256, and AES-128. The former is more secure than the latter, but VPNs using AES-256 usually run slightly slower. That speed reduction might be imperceivable, though, given your connection settings.
FYI: It would take the world’s strongest supercomputer millions of years to brute force attack data that has been encrypted using AES-256. If you’re looking for that kind of security, check out our review of VPNSecure.
While VPN providers make a lot of promises about the security of their services and the anonymity provided, the fact of the matter is no security measure — physical or digital — is perfect. There will always be ways of circumventing protections and finding back doors. Are you 100-percent anonymous online using a VPN? No, that’s impossible, but you’re far more protected than your friend who isn’t using one.
Think of your house. You probably have locks on the doorknobs, deadbolts on the entryways, and latches on the windows. You might even have a video doorbell or security cameras. One of these items alone isn’t enough to protect your home completely, but by adding layer upon layer of protection, you become far less vulnerable. Can someone still break in? Yes. But it’s far more unlikely.
The same goes for cybersecurity. Even if you’re using a VPN, someone still might use a phishing attack to convince you to share your password with them. You might be susceptible to malware if you’re not practicing good digital hygiene. Someone might steal your laptop out of an unlocked car.
You get the point.
A VPN isn’t enough to keep you completely secure online, but selecting a good one is a step in the right direction. So with that in mind, where should you start your search?
We’ve spent hundreds of hours putting VPN products to the test, developing in-depth reviews, comparison guides, as well as a list of the best VPN services out there. Here’s a breakdown of some of our favorite VPNs.
|VPNs||Accolade||SecureScore||Best Feature||Hands-On Review|
|ExpressVPN||Best Overall||9.2||RAM-Only Servers||ExpressVPN Review|
|NordVPN||Best Security||9||VPN-Into-Tor||NordVPN Review|
|ProtonVPN||Best Privacy||8.9||SecureCore||ProtonVPN Review|
|VyprVPN||Best Design||8.7||Private DNS||VyprVPN Review|
|TunnelBear VPN||Best User Experience||8.4||User Interface||TunnelBear Review|
All of these VPNs offer 30-day, money-back guarantees or limited free trial versions. Depending on what you’re looking for specifically, one of these five will likely get the job done, or you can expand your search to some of the other VPNs we’ve reviewed. IPVanish is a great service for beginners, and when we reviewed HMA VPN, we found it has a blazing-fast network with great features.
Pro Tip: Read our IPVanish vs. NordVPN comparison to see how these user-friendly VPNs stack up against each other.
As mentioned, we’ve spent countless hours putting the industry’s best VPNs to the test, and we’ve narrowed our criteria down to seven points:
Using these metrics, we generate SecureScores for each VPN on a 10-point scale. Some of these determinations like features and ease-of-use are made by using the VPN hands-on over the course of several days, while others like Network Speeds and Data Protection are determined using online speed tests over multiple days.
The internet is a different place than it was 10 years ago, and we’re spending more and more of our lives in digital spaces. Our work is performed online, many of our meetings are online, and we shop and entertain ourselves online. With this in mind, why wouldn’t folks take some easy measures to protect themselves?
FYI: Considering the security and overall peace of mind VPN use offers, they truly are dirt cheap. Even the most advanced options like ExpressVPN’s plans and NordVPN products are still less than $15 per month, and if you sign up for longer subscriptions, you can probably pay for the month-to-month cost with the change you find in your car’s cupholder.
VPNs are also extremely easy to set up and deploy. You don’t need a computer science degree to understand how they work and what features you’ll need to stay safe and secure online — and most of the top brands on the market already provide these functionalities. No-log servers are top priority along with strong encryption and jurisdictional independence. Beyond that, any features the VPN offers can be considered an add-on.
At the end of the day, you need to understand that cyber threats are ever-evolving, and our digital privacy is eroding. This is something smart consumers are starting to take more seriously and fight back against.
VPNs aren’t just for data geeks and privacy hawks anymore. For the average, everyday internet user, the use of VPNs to stay safe online makes a lot of sense. So stay safe out there.
In our testing, our top three favorite VPNs this year were ExpressVPN, NordVPN, and ProtonVPN.
While it’s difficult to say what an enterprising hacker with a lot of time on their hands can and can’t accomplish, hacking VPN-routed traffic is virtually impossible.
No, VPN use isn’t illegal; however, if you engage in illegal activity while using a VPN, like illegally sharing copyrighted material, you can still be charged.
While Netflix has cracked down in recent years on VPN use, there are plenty on the market that will allow you to unlock Netflix’s geo-restricted content.
On average, a decent VPN will cost anywhere from $5 to $15 per month.
Johanns, K. (2020, March, 27). Tech Time Warp: A look back at the first VPN. SmarterMSP.com.
Kerrigan, S. (2018, April 27). Virtual Private Networks: How They Work And Why You Might Need One. Interesting Engineering.
Maxwell, A. (2018). IPVanish “No-Logging” VPN Led Homeland Security to Comcast User. Torrent Freak.
Wire Guard. (2021). WireGuard: fast, mordern, secure VPN tunnel.