Let’s face the facts. The internet is a dangerous place.

But it’s not dangerous like, say, running into a burning building to save a pet is dangerous. It’s dangerous like being a zebra in the Serengeti is dangerous. Most of the time you’re totally fine going to the watering hole, but if a lion chooses you to pick off … well … that’s that.

Cybercrime works in the same way. Most of us are fine going about our day-to-day digital business, but there are definitely predators lurking just beyond the treeline. Sometimes they pick you because you’re an easy target — like if your personally identifying information was leaked — and sometimes you’re just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sometimes all it takes to fall victim is bad luck — plain and simple.

FYI: Identity theft affects about 1 in 20 Americans annually. In 2019, losses totaled nearly $17 billion.1

That said, there are steps that can be taken to better protect yourself from the rest of the internet-going herd. There are good digital hygiene practices like using two-factor authentication and stronger passwords. You can set up firewalls on your network and use antivirus software. You can learn to spot phishing emails and avoid giving your personal information to sketchy online retailers. All of these actions will certainly keep you safer online.

But make no mistake. Just because you haven’t fallen victim yet doesn’t mean you won’t in the future. No single piece of software or online behavior can prevent you from every threat out there; the best you can do is prevent yourself from becoming an easy target.

This brings us to the heart of what we’re talking about today — virtual private networks, and if you really need to use one. Before we answer that question, though, we first have to understand what a VPN is, how they work, and what their capabilities are.

What is a VPN?

A virtual private network, or VPN for short, is a piece of software that conceals the physical location of your computer while encrypting your data. There’s a lot of highly technical networking jargon we can get into on exactly how this works, but that’s a little beyond the scope of this article, and unless you have a master’s in computer science, it’s going to sound like Greek. If you’re interested in really getting up to speed, though, you should check out our VPN buyer’s guide. There’s all sorts of great information over there.

The NordVPN desktop dashboard

NordVPN Dashboard

For our purposes, think of it this way: Your computer is the origin point of your data, and that data needs to connect with a destination webpage, like SafeHome.org, for it to display on your screen. On the unsecured internet, it’s very easy for someone to intercept that data to figure out where you’re located and what you’re looking at. Sometimes there’s sensitive information included in that data that a bad actor can use to take advantage of you like bank account information, log-in credentials, or other pieces of personally identifying information.

Pro Tip: In recent years there has been a big push to use browser-based “VPNs” from both service providers and internet browsers themselves. Don’t be fooled, though. These aren’t so much VPNs as they are proxies.2 And while proxy servers can bolster digital security, they’re nowhere near as helpful as an actual VPN. Check out our analysis of ZenMate for more on that.

Now, if you’re using a VPN, that data travels through a private tunnel from your computer to its destination, making it much harder for folks to see what you’re up to online. What’s more, the VPN encrypts — or scrambles — your data so that even if someone were able to get their hands on it, it would be incomprehensible. Most VPNs use 128-bit encryption, but some bump that up to 256-bits. More info on that in our Ivacy VPN review.

Generally speaking, VPNs greatly increase your privacy and anonymity online. But they aren’t a silver bullet.

What VPNs Can and Can’t Do

Like we said earlier, there is no single fool-proof cybersecurity measure. Even if you’re using the most advanced VPN on earth coupled with the most state-of-the-art antivirus software, you could still fall victim to a social engineering attack and become a victim anyway.

VPNs are great privacy tools, but they won’t protect you from downloading viruses, they won’t prevent some forms of cyber attack, they can’t protect you from making mistakes with scammers, and they can’t prevent you from traveling to unsafe corners of the internet.

Pro Tip: There are a few VPNs on the market that bundle their services with other cybersecurity protections. Check out our IPVanish test and review for more information.

What they will do is make sure people aren’t snooping on your online activity. That includes hackers, identity thieves, and even overly curious internet service providers and government surveillance agencies. If you don’t want people to know what you’re doing on the internet, a VPN is the best place to start.

Think of each element of your cybersecurity posture like a piece of swiss cheese. The individual slice has big holes in it, right? But if you take a bunch of pieces — your VPN, your antivirus software, your good digital hygiene practices — and put them all together, the block itself becomes solid. That solid block of cheese is your comprehensive cybersecurity posture.

FYI: If you’re looking for a VPN to complement other identity theft protections, read our NortonVPN cost guide. It’s a great program that plays well with Norton’s suite of cybersecurity products.

Alright, enough with the metaphors. Let’s get down to brass tacks. Do you need one or not?

Do I Need a VPN?

We’ll make this really simple. If you value your privacy online, the answer is yes. You should use a VPN.

Now with this in mind, there are some that would say if you’re not doing anything wrong, there’s nothing to hide. Counterpoint to that, though: It’s shocking how easy it is to glean information about people who take no measures to prevent it. VPNs aren’t just for folks trying to hide their nefarious activities — they’re to prevent nefarious folks from taking advantage of people whose activity is 100 percent above board.

ProtonVPN's Dashboard

ProtonVPN’s Dashboard

That said, there are some people who use VPNs to dabble in… shall we say… less than legal activities like digital piracy. To those folks, we say this: That’s a little like robbing a bank with a mask on. Sure, your identity is hidden, but you’re still probably going to get caught in some other way. Your VPN isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card.

FYI: It’s estimated that about 41 percent of internet-connected individuals in the U.S. use a VPN.

So overall, that’s the big takeaway. VPN = Privacy. It’s not our job to convince you that you should use one, but if you’re not sold, you should consider these use cases.

Who Uses VPNs?

Like we said above — if you’re at all concerned with your privacy online, you should invest in a VPN. But there are a few categories of folks who should absolutely be using one.

If you’re a journalist or activist: Let’s talk about the heavy stuff first. If you’re an activist or journalist who deals with sensitive topics, you should definitely consider the privacy of yourself and your associates — especially if you’re in a country that frowns on organizing or whistle-blowing. Even if you’re in a “free” country, though, you should expect that people are taking an interest in you if you’re trying to make waves — and some of those people might not be too pleased with what you’re trying to accomplish.

ExpressVPN Not Connected vs Connected

ExpressVPN Not Connected vs Connected

If you’re one of these folks, look into a VPN with elevated security protocols. You’ll find in our review of ExpressVPN that their network is entirely RAM-only, meaning that it’s physically impossible for your data to be stored. You might also consider our test of ProtonVPN. They’re based in privacy-friendly Switzerland and have some heavy-duty security protocols in place for their users.

If you handle sensitive information professionally: “Sensitive information” could be any number of things. Clients’ names, addresses, birthdays, or payment information. Online vendors — looking at you.

Generally speaking, if it could be used to take advantage of someone or steal their identity, you have an obligation to protect it morally, professionally, and sometimes legally. Unfortunately, some organizations aren’t taking cybersecurity seriously, and with working from home on the rise, it might be incumbent on the employee to take responsibility.

If you find yourself in this situation, consider our NordVPN review. They’re fast, they’re powerful, and they’re extremely reliable.

If you use unfamiliar Wi-Fi networks: If you’re one of those folks who likes to work from a coffee shop or restaurant, or if you’re constantly traveling and using your hotel’s Wi-Fi to connect, you should really consider investing in a VPN. Unsecured Wi-Fi networks are identity thieves’ playgrounds, and there’s no telling who’s snooping around for low-hanging fruit.

Also — a quick note on that. When you’re shopping around for VPNs, you’re going to want to pick one with a strong mobile client. After all, you’re far more at risk when you’re out and about doing your banking from your phone than you are doing the same from your desktop. Check out our guide to the best VPNs for iPhone as well as the top services for Android, depending on your platform of choice.

If you travel to countries with strict internet regulations: If you find yourself headed to countries where the internet is heavily regulated like China, Russia, the UAE, Turkey, or others, you might want to invest in a VPN for two reasons: One, it’ll prevent intelligence and law enforcement agencies from targeting you, and two, it’ll allow you access to the internet you’re used to. By spoofing your location, you’ll have access to streaming platforms, social media, and news sites that might be blocked by the government.

Surfshark's Dashboard and UI

Surfshark’s Dashboard and UI

You’ll read about great geographic protections in our review of Surfshark. If you’re more into the streaming side of things, check out our analysis of CyberGhost — they’re one of the best for watching foreign media.

Now, most of these use cases are pretty serious stuff, but protecting yourself from hackers and foreign intelligence agencies aren’t the only things VPNs are good for. There’s some fun stuff in there, too.

What Else are VPNs Good For?

Like we mentioned above, people who like to use streaming platforms like Netflix, Hulu, Disney+, HBOMax, and others can find some pretty interesting uses for VPNs — namely, that by spoofing your location you’ll be able to access media libraries from other countries. Ever want to know what’s going on over on British Netflix? Save yourself the cost of a plane ticket and invest in a VPN that’s great for streaming.

FYI: Different countries have different media libraries due to interest and licensing. That’s why Netflix in Germany is going to be different from Netflix in Canada. If you’re worried about the legality of all of this, relax — you’re not doing anything wrong from a legal perspective. It does go against the terms of service for most streaming platforms, but the worst that’ll happen is that the platform will simply stop functioning properly until you turn the VPN off.

Oh, and speaking of flights — did you know that the price of your airline ticket likely depends on where you’re purchasing that ticket from? By using a VPN to virtually change your location, you can quickly comparison shop and usually find a significantly better rate. This trick works for other goods and services as well, so try it out if you’re feeling thrifty.

So now that you have a good idea of what VPNs are, what they do, and who uses them, you might be convinced that you need one, too. If that’s the case, there are a few things to keep in mind.

What Should I Look for In a VPN?

There are tons of VPNs on the market today. Some are great, some are not-so-great, and some are a complete waste of time. How do you differentiate? Well, here’s the cliffs notes version:

First, you obviously want something that works. Make sure you’re using a reputable service provider with a proven track record. Ideally, you’ll use a service that has been audited by a third-party security auditor to verify its authenticity.

DNS Leak Test with NortonVPN

DNS Leak Test with NortonVPN

[/caption]Next, you’ll want a VPN that’s fast. Generally speaking, their performance is going to be a factor of the size of their server network. Some VPNs have dozens of servers, some have hundreds, and some have thousands. Any VPN is going to slow you down to some extent, but you don’t want your speed to degrade so much that you’ll find the VPN frustrating to use.

FYI: For the most part, VPN use will slow down your internet connection. However, under certain circumstances and with certain activities, you might actually see an increase in performance.  

After that, you’ll want a VPN that offers you the specific feature you’re looking for — and not much else. It’s pointless to pay for the whole set of golf clubs when all you want to do is go to the driving range. If you’re looking to stream, find one that specializes in that. If you need it for travel, find one with good geographic protections. Just make sure you’re not paying for features you’ll never use.

Finally, you’re going to want to find something that’s in your budget. We have an entire guide dedicated to VPN pricing, but speaking in very general terms, VPNs are subscription services that cost less the longer you sign up for. A decent, middle-of-the-road VPN will cost between $5 and $10 dollars per month.

Pro Tip: If you’re looking to save, check out our guide to the best cheap VPNs on the market. These budget services might be a little stripped-down, but they’re still worth considering.

That said, there’s a lot more to VPN usage than those factors, but understanding these considerations will go a long way in narrowing down your options to a much more manageable list.

Do You Need a VPN? The Final Verdict

So now that you understand how VPNs work and why they’re important, ultimately it’s up to you if you want to use one or not. We consider them to be a pretty critical aspect of anyone’s cyber defenses, but we also understand that not everyone feels the need to be protected comprehensively. People still drive without seatbelts, after all.

If you think using a VPN is right for you, one of the best places to start your search is our guide to the 10 best VPNs. There you’ll find a service for nearly every need and budget.

Stay safe out there!