VPNs or virtual private networks
By Phil Wilkinson-Jones | Friday, October 2nd 2020
You may have heard of VPNs as being a thing that can improve your online security or as something that can help you watch US Netflix. In both cases, you'd be right. A VPN can help with both of those things. But what exactly is a VPN, and how does it work?
Here we'll cover what they are, why you might want to use one, how they work and what to look for when choosing one. We'll also talk you through the big players in the VPN market – the guys who make the best VPNs that are available right now.
What is a VPN?
A VPN, which stands for virtual private network, creates a private network across a public internet connection. This gives you privacy and anonymity online, preventing even your broadband provider from being able to see the websites you visit. People often use VPNs as a way of improving their online security, to stream films and TV shows not available where they live, and to give them safer connections to public wifi hotspots.
Businesses also use VPNs to give workers remote access to their networks, something that is becoming increasingly common as more of us work from home.
How do VPNs work?
Instead of connecting you straight to a website using a public connection, a VPN re-routes your internet traffic through its own servers, in effect creating a private, encrypted tunnel for your use alone. This stops third-parties, including your own broadband provider, from being able to see what you're doing online.
VPNs don't just hide what you're doing, they also disguise where you are. By routing your internet traffic through a server in, say, California, a VPN can trick the website you're using into thinking you're in the good old US of A. If you've been desperate to watch a series that's only available on the US version of Netflix, you can see how this could be beneficial.
Why should I get a VPN?
There's a few reasons why people choose to get a VPN. Let's break down the big ones.
- Streaming – In a world of increasingly complicated TV and film rights, where you live plays a pretty big part in dictating what you can and cannot watch. VPNs are capable of routing your internet traffic through servers in countries all around the world, helping users get around what is known as geoblocking (the process of restricting access to certain content based on geographical location)
- Security – VPNs are pretty much the safest way to use the web privately. Even if all of your online activity is lawful (and we hope it is), it's nice to go about your business without being spied on
- Unblocking websites and social media – We're pretty lucky in the UK that we are able to access much of the internet freely and easily. In many countries, governments place tight restrictions on what websites you can and cannot visit, and banned websites often include some of the major social media platforms. VPNs can be used to open up life-saving channels of communication by helping people evade censorship and access outside sources of information
- Safer access to public wifi – This is one of the biggest reasons to install a VPN on your mobile device. Most of us have connected to a public wifi network in a train station, shopping mall or cafe at some point. It's convenient but public wifi is hardly the most secure way to get online, which is why a lot of people recommended sticking to 3G or 4G wherever you can. A VPN lets you connect to public wifi securely and will even protect you from fake hotspots, convincing-looking wifi networks designed to steal your personal information
- Cheaper holidays – It may sound unlikely, but using a VPN could actually save you money on your next holiday. Firstly, flights and hotels can sometimes cost different amounts based on your IP address, something that is disguised by using a VPN. There's also a theory that prices get hiked once companies know that you're looking to book a holiday. If your browsing history is hidden by a VPN though...
How to choose a VPN
When you start looking at VPNs, it's easy to think 'they're all offering essentially the same service so let's just go with the cheapest'. While price is of course something you should take into consideration, there are other things you should weigh up when making a comparison.
Where the servers are located
As a general rules, the more servers in different locations a VPN has, the easier it will be for it to spread the load and avoid congestion. But if your reasons for wanting a VPN require connection via a server in a particular country, you may want to look at server locations before you sign up, rather than choosing based on sheer numbers.
How many simultaneous connections there are
It may be that you're only interested in having a VPN installed on your laptop, or on your phone. You may want a VPN on every device you own. Whatever the case, most VPNs limit the number of devices you can connect through the VPN at any one time so bear this in mind.
What seems like the best value deal at first may not be when you realise that £6.99 per month only lasts for one month and it's going to be double that for the rest of the year. Take advantage of free trials and short one-month deals to find what works for you. And read the small print – all VPNs say they won't track what you're doing online but if you have doubts, it's best to read up before you sign up.
Are free VPNs safe?
Some of the big VPN providers now offer free versions of their software. They're perfectly safe to use but won't come with all the freedoms and features of the paid versions. Going for a free VPN might be the ideal option if you're trialling the service for the first time but there's likely to be a data cap. Some providers give paid users priority when it comes to distributing bandwidth and others will only give you a limited choice of server locations.
If you're making a trip and need a bit of extra security while using public wifi hotspots, a free VPN will do the job. You also might find it works for you if you're not a heavy internet user and just want some extra security at home.
What are the best VPN services?
The VPN market has expanded dramatically in recent years and there is now a lot of competition. Here are some of the big names in VPN services and a quick breakdown of what they offer.
- Windscribe – Windscribe offers servers in more than 60 countries with its paid service. Its free service has 11 locations and offers a 10GB data cap. Its paid version is also one of the cheapest VPNs on the market
- ExpressVPN – A bit more expensive, ExpressVPN offers 160 endpoint locations in 94 countries and lets you use up to five devices simultaneously
- Private Internet Access – One of the cheapest paid-for VPNs around, Private Internet Access offers servers in 74 countries and supports 10 simultaneous connections
- Tunnelbear – Canada-based Tunnelbear offers browsing from 23 countries and supports five simultaneous connections. It offers a free service which comes with a 500MB data cap
- Mozilla VPN – Better known as a maker of web browsers, Mozilla boasts more than 280 VPN servers in more than 30 countries and supports six simultaneous connections
- NordVPN – NordVPN has more than 5,400 servers in 59 countries, lets you use up to six devices on one account and promises no bandwidth limitations
- Opera – Opera is a web browser with a free built-in VPN. Despite being free, there's no data limit but it doesn't have the biggest choice of endpoint locations
- ProtonVPN – Based in Switzerland, ProtonVPN supports up to 10 devices on one profile and has more than 1,000 servers in 54 countries
- VyprVPN – VyprVPN offers up to five simultaneous connections and lists Apple TV+, BBC iPlayer and ESPN+ among the streaming services it supports. It has more than 600 servers around the world
- Bullguard – Bullguard, best known for its anti-virus software, offers VPN plans from one month up to three years. You can use up to six devices simultaneously
- IP Vanish – IP Vanish boasts more than 1,500 VPN servers around the world and promises to protect every device you own
- CyberGhost – CyberGhost has more than 6,500 servers in more than 89 countries and you can use up to seven devices simultaneously
Frequently asked questions
Will a VPN let me watch American Netflix?
It's worth checking that the VPN you're thinking of using has servers in the US, but its fair to say that most decent VPNs will give you access to content only streamed on the American version of Netflix.
Is it worth using a free VPN?
A free VPN will not come with all of the features and technical support of a paid one. But it will almost certainly give you more online protection than if you didn't use a VPN at all. And you may still be able to stream content from other geographical regions.
Does a VPN stop my ISP seeing my browsing history?
Yes, using a VPN hides your browsing history from everyone, including your ISP (internet service provider). Using features like private browsing windows only stops the device you're using from keeping a log of your online activity – your ISP will still be able to see what you're up to.
Are VPNs safe for online banking?
Using a VPN adds an extra layer of encryption so online banking would be safer. Because VPNs protect you when using public wifi, you'd even be able to use your banking app while online at the cafe – something we wouldn't advise doing otherwise.
What are some good free VPNs?
Providers such as Windscribe, Tunnelbear and ProtonVPN all offer pretty good free VPN packages, and there are others. The browser Opera includes a free VPN as standard.