VPNs, or virtual private networks, have a shady reputation but in actuality they’re incredibly safe and commonplace tools to help you make the most of the web. Some people wouldn’t dream of using the internet without masking what they’re up to. This isn’t necessarily bad stuff that needs to be kept out of The Man’s™ prying eyes, but it is something you don’t want hackers or internet snoops taking a look at.

But what actually is a VPN and how do they work? How do you know if you should really be using one for the browsing habits you have? Well, here’s a quick rundown of everything you need to know before you start using a VPN.

What is a VPN?

A VPN, or virtual private network to use its full name, is a network of computers securely connected to each other via the internet. It enables users to connect and transfer data to one another without the prying eyes of would-be hackers and internet snoops. VPNs are also incredibly handy for circumventing region-locked content, such as watching American Netflix – although many companies are now savvy enough to block against known VPN addresses.

How does a VPN work?

A VPN works by connecting two or more computers together via a secure, encrypted connection across the internet. Paid-for VPN services, such as Buffered, can also mask your IP address, meaning you’re harder to track down online than if you used a free service such as CyberGhost.

The process of connecting to a VPN is incredibly simple. First you connect to the internet via your ISP, and then simply initiate a VPN by using a client or connecting to a specific server your company might be using. There are also various security systems that VPNs use, of which you can find a complete rundown on Wikipedia, but the most common is a Secure Shell (SSH) connection.

SSH connections are used to circumvent government content filters, such as the block on YouTube and Twitter in Tehran. SSH connections are also useful for accessing American Netflix and HBO Go services, as they mask your IP address in the process.

When should I use a VPN?

VPNs have various uses and can really be utilised whenever you feel like it. Every company should really be using a VPN, but many individuals also feel the need to protect their personal data by deploying one when browsing the web from their phone or computer. Some routers allow you to set up a VPN directly on your entire network, meaning any device you use on that network is secured – saving you from having to instigate one on your device every time you plan to access the internet.

Many use VPNs because they don’t want their online activities tracked. That, understandably, sounds rather dodgy – especially as there are legitimate concerns over a VPN’s ability to let you carry out nefarious activities online without being traced. But, for the most part, you’ll probably be using a VPN to watch region-restricted content.

Is a paid VPN better than a free one?

VPNs come in two flavours: paid-for or free. Free VPNs may sound ideal for a one- or two-time use to view inaccessible content, but the benefits of a paid service certainly outweigh those of a free client.

VPNs cost money to run, so alarm bells should be ringing when you see a VPN service being offered up for free. Not only are free services inherently slower and less secure and usually fail to mask your IP address, they also carry some serious dangers such as the sale of your information and hijacking of your internet bandwidth and IP address. By making use of your own computer’s address, these free VPNs can allow other users to perform illegal activities while using your location.

A paid-for VPN, however, offers up a lot more security and a promise that it won’t sell your information or use your bandwidth for others as it uses your subscription to pay for its services instead. You’ll also find that your connection runs faster, doesn’t drop out and your IP address is masked. 

Where can I get a VPN from?

Searching for “best VPN” or “VPN download”, or really any search that contains “VPN”, always brings up a slew of ad-supported VPN download links. You should not click on those when looking to download a VPN. Your best bet, when searching for a VPN, is to go directly to a trusted client or download source. Google Play and the Apple App Store both offer up a wide selection of free and paid-for VPN clients for mobile devices.

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