What is a VPN? How they work and why you need one

The Best VPN Services for 2017
The Best VPN Services for 2017 (Image credit: Android Central)

Since you're here, chances are you've come across the term VPN or Virtual Private Network. Mabe you've heard about VPNs because you want to watch BBC iPlayer on U.S. soil or Netflix when traveling abroad, or perhaps you want to know everything about why a VPN is also great for anonymity, security, and your personal online safety. If any of that applies to you, you're in the right place.

What is a VPN and why do I need one?

A VPN is a clever way of obscuring your online identity and encryption data sent and received from your devices. Usually, when you go online you get connected to a server and given a unique IP address. This identifies where you are logging on from and can be used to associate data with you. Since these servers are relatively open, there are inherent risks to privacy with that data being visible to your Internet Service Provider (ISP) or even potential bad actors wanting to intercept that data.

This IP address and associated data can give away your real-world identity, allowing potentially negative entities to track you down, as well as potentially leaking personal information. This is especially important when travelling and using open Wi-Fi at airports and hotels that could, potentially, be insecure.

Since this specific identity also means your location can be determined, you might also run into problems with geo-restricted content. A VPN is a great way to unblock this content as it allows you to appear to be in a different country. For example, if you live in the UK and want to access a show that is not in your local Netflix library but is available on U.S. Netflix, you can select a VPN server in the U.S. and appear as if you are located across the pond for easy access. Same goes for local news, MLB blackouts, and even bypassing content restrictions in places where authorities impose censorship.

How does a VPN work?

So, you want to get that privacy leak plugged up? That's where a VPN can help. It masks your IP address and location by effectively bouncing your signal through other servers. To any online entity or potential threat, you will appear to be someone else logged on in another location.

That means that when contacting a website or other online service, any data sent and received will be going via the VPN server, effectively creating an encrypted tunnel for your data to travel through. As well as safeguarding the data as it moves to or from your device, it also helps anonymize you as the origin of the data appears to be the VPN server, rather than your device, hiding your identity and location.

Effectively, A VPN is affording you a buffer layer to keep you safer and more anonymous when online rather than having data collected by every site you visit and sent in an unencrypted format that could be accessed if intercepted.

Is a VPN secure?

A VPN is a super secure way to go online thanks to the wonder that is encryption. Many VPN providers use military-grade digital security that is used by governments, banks, and security firms the world over, so you can definitely rely on it being secure.

Encryption works by giving both parties a key. Any data is sent in code with one key being used to write the code and the other being used to decipher it. If you don't have a key, you can't understand the message even if you do somehow manage to get ahold of it. There are different grades of encryption but this will depend on which VPN service you go for, with some more complex than others.

All that means your network is pretty much hack-proof and all your browsing information is encrypted in transit making it unreadable to anyone bad actor trying to sleuth it.

Is a VPN good for Netflix, BBC iPlayer, and Hulu?

Lots of VPN services are great for accessing geo-restricted content when you'd otherwise be denied. For the UK's BBC iPlayer while in the U.S., or U.S. Netflix and Hulu while in Europe, a VPN can make you appear to be in the right geographical location to these services.

If you're on vacation in France, say, and want to watch the latest releases on Netflix then you'll be blocked as Netflix will see you're not in the U.S. Fire up your VPN service, select a U.S. server, then go back into Netflix. Now Netflix will think you're back home and give you access to all your content once again.

Of course, some people also use a VPN to access international Netflix content outside of their country but we're not encouraging or condoning that since it goes against the terms of the service.

Does a VPN work for P2P torrents?

Sharing P2P content, or torrenting, may be illegal in some cases but not all. What you choose to share is down to you. But should you wish to do so with anonymity and a layer or security, then a VPN can provide that.

It's worth nothing that not all VPN services will support torrents and some are faster than others, so it's worth reading into the best torrenting VPNs if you're getting a VPN specifically for P2P content.

How fast is a VPN?

A VPN service's speed varies widely. This is due to two main factors: location and servers. One VPN service could be a lot faster than another for you because that one may have more servers, or better connections between servers, allowing for faster data speeds. The servers themselves could also be faster on one VPN over another.

Some VPN services are really fast for local access, but then slow down a lot once you change your location to somewhere far away. Others offer a more consistent speed no matter where you are. As you might imagine you usually get what you pay for.

If you're looking for a VPN for streaming or a gaming VPN, speed might be something you really want to factor in before signing up.

What is the best VPN for me?

The best VPN service for you will depend on what you need. But for an overall top-rated service we vouch for ExpressVPN as it offers a solid all-around setup for a fair price, though there are cheaper VPN options. You get a wide number of internationally placed servers, high-grade encryption security, and excellent 24/7 live chat support. Also, the clients, aka apps, work really work across devices including iOS, Android, Mac, and Windows with a super simple to user interface and added security of a kill switch and more. All that can be used across five devices at the same time.

There are lots of great VPN options out there, but ExpressVPN is our favorite. It offers reliable connections, fast speeds, and great customer support. Sign up today and get three months free!

If you want the cheapest option, then there are free VPN services but these generally limit you on data. HotSpot Shield Free VPN is a great option as it gives you plenty for free and then you can upgrade to the Premium version if you like it and want more. You are limited to 500MB of data allowance per day on the free version, but at around 15GB per month that's a lot for most people.

If absolute security is your main requisite then Surfshark is a good choice as it uses a private DNS, double VPN hop and AES-256 encryption to keep your identity and location totally hidden.

How much does a VPN cost?

As you've probably worked out, VPN services vary and so do their prices. They start at free, with limits on things like data or server availability, but then go up to over $100 per year. The average monthly price, if you pay month-to-month and don't commit to longer is about $10 per month.

Often committing for a longer-term gets you a better VPN deal. If you go for a year then it'll generally work out nearer to $5 per month, go for two years and it'll drop to lower, and so on. So it really depends on how you want to pay.

Lots of services offer a seven day free trial or a 30-day money-back guarantee. So, generally, you'll be able to try before you really buy anything which makes that commitment to a longer set of payments — and saving money — easier to do comfortably.

We test and review VPN services in the context of legal recreational uses. For example:

1. Accessing a service from another country (subject to the terms and conditions of that service).

2. Protecting your online security and strengthening your online privacy when abroad.

We do not support or condone the illegal or malicious use of VPN services. Consuming pirated content that is paid-for is neither endorsed nor approved by Future Publishing.

Luke Edwards