Let’s say you want to be a little more proactive about protecting yourself online. You’ve installed some antivirus software, you’re careful about which sites you visit, which links you click on, and which online merchants you do business with. You keep your passwords strong and your social media accounts on lockdown. You might even have an identity theft protection monitoring service.

What else can you do?

The answer is to use a virtual private network, or VPN. VPNs mask your location and encrypt your traffic so that no one else — meaning snooping ISPs, nosy government agencies, or malicious cybercriminals — can see what you’re doing, where you’re going, or who you’re communicating with online. While they aren’t a perfect cybersecurity silver bullet, reputable VPN services come very close to keeping you anonymous online.

Pro Tip: Nothing you do online is truly anonymous. VPNs will certainly increase your privacy, but it’s extremely difficult to be truly invisible in digital spaces — particularly for average consumers.

How Do VPNs Work, Exactly?

There’s a lot of technicalities we can get into, a lot of jargon we could speak, and a lot of networking rabbit holes to go down, but simply put: A VPN hides your IP address and encrypts your data. But there’s more to it than that.

ProtonVPN's Dashboard

ProtonVPN’s Dashboard

Think of it this way. If you take your car to the store, your neighbor can see what kind of car you’re driving, who you’re with, and what you buy. If there was a way to take your car down some James Bond-esque elevator to a private tunnel that would take you to the store and back again, your neighbor would be none the wiser, right? That’s the “hides your IP address part.”

Pro Tip: Want to see how two of our favorite VPN providers match up against each other head-to-head? Check out our ExpressVPN vs NordVPN comparison.

Now let’s push the metaphor a little beyond the conceivable. Let’s say you had a button in your car that could transmute it into a flying ball of static. Just a weird, ethereal cloud of numbers and bits. That way, even if someone was in your secret tunnel, they’d have no idea if what was passing through was even a car, let alone who was driving it or what was in it. That’s the encryption side of things.

An Example of how your IP address can show your physical location

An Example of how your IP address can show your physical location

Your VPN provider owns that tunnel, and they installed the magic button in your car. Now, to the networking professionals and computer scientists reading this: We get that it’s a lot more complicated than that, but we’re going for layman understanding here.

This hopefully gives you a general idea of how VPNs work, but to better understand these processes, we need to take a look at the architecture of the internet.

How Does the Internet Work, Exactly?

So getting your head around a VPN was easy enough, right? But to understand what all that exactly means, we need to understand a little bit about how the internet works. I promise not to get too technical, so stay with me.

Pro Tip: Consider digging into our VPN buyer’s guide for a more in-depth look at these services. There you’ll start with the basics and work your way up to expert level.

The internet as we know it is a network of interconnected devices: computers, laptops, tablets, mobile phones, televisions, printers — heck — even refrigerators and ovens are getting in on the fun. In order for those devices to talk to each other, they need to abide by certain standards, or protocols, and they have to be registered so data can pass back and forth between them.

This is where IP addresses come into play. “IP” stands for “internet protocol.” The “address” is the unique number registering your online activities from a specific device. Unlike your home address, this number can change based on the network you’re connected to, the device you’re using, or where you’re connecting from. However, it can be used to track where the connection was made, meaning if someone was so inclined, they could use your IP address to identify your physical location and track your online browsing habits.

An example of IP addresses registed to specific ISPs

An example of IP addresses registed to specific ISPs

Now here’s where VPNs enter the equation. If you connect through a virtual private network, you’re routed through a server that’s assigned an IP address registered to the VPN provider. This makes it much harder to trace your data back to you, and if your VPN is up to snuff, it’s encrypting your data securely, and isn’t logging anything — or can’t log anything, like we found in our review of ExpressVPN. It makes it nearly impossible to link an individual device with specific internet traffic.

Now, we’ve kind of touched on the various benefits of VPN use so far, but we should probably discuss them explicitly. There are three main benefits to using a VPN to hide your IP address.

Why Should I Use a VPN?

First, using a VPN to hide your IP address prevents websites, internet service providers, and others from gathering information on you based on your traffic. This means online advertisers won’t be able to inundate you with targeted ads (we’re not starting a vacuum cleaner collection, Amazon), and your ISP won’t be able to sell your data to third-party marketers. That means the service you pay for won’t be profiting off of you by invading your privacy. It also means overreaching government agencies won’t have easy access to your online activity. Take that, surveillance state.

Pro Tip: It doesn’t matter if you’re using a Mac or a PC; VPNs pretty much work the same on both platforms. We do have resources for the different camps, though. Check out our list of the best VPNs for Mac users as well as our guide to the top VPNs for Windows machines.

Second, it masks your geographic location. Your standard IP address reveals a lot of information about you, including but not limited to, the city in which the connection is originating. It’s pretty creepy that for every website you visit, any onlooker who chooses to peek in will know where you’re located, based on a string of numbers. It also means that certain websites will prevent you from interacting with their content based on where you’re from.

It further means you could be the victim of price discrimination. Booking sites for hotels, rentals, and flights use your geographic information to determine how much they’re going to charge you. If you’re able to hide where you’re from, you’re more likely to get a fair rate.

NordVPN's map interface

NordVPN’s map interface

Third, it prevents hackers and other bad actors from easily sniffing your traffic. Even if they’re able to intercept your data while you’re using a VPN to hide your IP address, it’ll just look like a bunch of gibberish. This allows you to use unsecured, unfamiliar Wi-Fi networks — like those you’d find in hotels and coffee shops — with relative confidence that the guy in the van in the parking lot won’t be able to eavesdrop and pilfer your banking info.

So there you have it. Before we wrap up, though, let’s take a second for a few final thoughts.

Using a VPN to Mask Your IP Address — A Parting Thought

There are no two ways about it. The internet is a dangerous place. Cybercrime is on the rise, and identity theft is reaching epidemic proportions. It pays to do everything you can to protect yourself in digital spaces.

Like we said above, a VPN isn’t going to protect you from every cyberthreat out there, but it’ll certainly go a long way in the effort to ensure you’re not low-hanging fruit. They’re also going to increase your privacy while you’re browsing. Seriously, you wouldn’t change without drawing the curtains, right?

And thankfully, VPNs are extremely easy to use and more than affordable in most cases. For less than a cup of coffee per month, you can take your online security from “swiss cheese” to “Fort Knox.” It just makes sense.

VPN FAQs

Does a VPN hide my IP address?

Yes, by routing your traffic through a virtual private network server, your IP address is effectively hidden.

Are VPNs hard to use?

Modern VPNs, generally speaking, are extremely user-friendly. They are easy to set up and use on a day-to-day basis for most individuals.

Are VPNs expensive?

As with anything, some services are better than others. A high-end VPN might run around $10 to $15 per month, whereas a more economical service might cost between $3 and $6.

What is the best VPN?

Some VPNs are better for different-use cases. For example, some are better equipped to handle streaming and gaming, while others are better for increasing security and privacy. At the end of the day, our two favorite VPNs are ExpressVPN and NordVPN.

Should I use a VPN on my mobile device?

When shopping for a VPN, you should definitely look for one with a solid mobile client. You’re more at risk when you’re on unsecured Wi-Fi networks, and a VPN will help keep you safe.