There's no doubt that the popularity of the best VPNs has soared in the last couple of years.
And it's really easy to see why. Whether it's folk wanting to protect themselves and their data while working at home thanks to those watertight encrypted tunnels, using a VPN for Netflix, or simply to get around blocked websites - downloading a VPN with pre-installed settings and protocols can help.
And with the US FCC (Federal Communications Commission) having stripped away net neutrality provisions, there’s never been a better time to arm yourself with a VPN. Using a trustworthy service is a great way to encrypt your online traffic and avoid government censorship, not to mention bypass certain ISP (Internet Service Provider) restrictions.
There are dozens of reasons why you should use a VPN, but here are seven of the best.
1. Browse anonymously
When you connect to a secure VPN, you’re able to browse the web with complete anonymity. That’s because a good VPN service will route all data traffic from your ‘client’ device through one of its own servers. As far as the Internet is concerned, your IP address will be that of the server, not your home network.
This means, for instance, if you send an email and somebody tries to track you down based on the IP address from which it was sent, they’d get no further than the VPN server which could be thousands of miles away from your real location.
More than that, VPNs also block your ISP from tracking your every move on the internet. Whereas incognito mode simply makes sure your browsing history isn’t recorded on your computer, a VPN lets you hide your traffic from your ISP. This is because using a VPN established an encrypted ‘tunnel’ between your device and the VPN server. Anyone with access to your ISP’s records would only see the encrypted data - any websites you access or apps you use are channeled through the tunnel, so your ISP has no way of knowing exactly what you’re accessing or what programs you’re using.
This is especially important if you’re concerned about your internet browsing history. Back in 2017, the US government gave ISPs the power to package and sell user data. That means everything you do online could become fodder for marketers or insurance companies. If that sounds spooky to you, then using a VPN is a great way to keep your digital life private.
If privacy is important to you, we’d advise against using a “free” VPN service as they’ve been know to keep the lights on by selling off user data. Instead consider using a VPN provider who specializes in protecting your privacy. For some tips, see our roundup of the most secure VPN providers.
2. Encrypt your network
Cybersecurity is an increasing headache, as hackers and malware become ever more prevalent, and that situation isn’t likely to improve any time soon. So it’s a sound idea to use a VPN to encrypt your internet connection (alongside your usual antivirus software), allowing you to browse without worrying about exposing your network.
This is absolutely essential when you’re traveling and find yourself browsing via public Wi-Fi hotspots (in hotels for example). Many of these don’t use any form of wireless encryption, so it’s much easier for bad actors to snoop on your data. Some hackers even deliberately set up enticing-looking “honeypot” WiFi networks, just so people will connect and expose their data.
Read more about why you definitely need a VPN when using public WiFi in our online guide.
ExpressVPN, NordVPN, IPVanish, Surfshark and other top-tier VPN providers use the very best encryption such as AES (Advanced Encryption Standard). Another popular choice is ‘ChaCha20’ which is about as secure as AES but is specifically designed for streaming data over networks, so is perfect for VPNs. You can read more about different VPN Protocols and encryption schemes here.
Provided you use a secure encryption protocol with the right VPN server, your connection is fully encrypted, making it near impossible for anyone to see what you’re doing online, whether you’re browsing on a secure network or an open one.
Better yet, if you set up a VPN on your router, you can encrypt the traffic of all the devices in your house. That way you never have to remember to turn on the VPN each time you boot up your computer or switch on your phone.
Not all routers support this but you can check with the manufacturer to see if this is possible. If not, you may be able to ‘flash’ your router’s firmware to an open source alternative like DD-WRT.
If you don’t have a router yet, take a moment to read through our list of the very best VPN routers.
This is one of the defining differences between VPNs and proxy servers and sites: whereas a proxy only covers a single device’s web traffic, you can hook up your VPN to a router to cover every device in your network.
This is particularly helpful if your VPN provider doesn’t offer special ‘client’ software for all your devices : for instance, 2nd and 3rd generation Apple TV’s have no built-in app store. They can, however, connect to WiFi, so you could connect them to your router running VPN software. This would mean you’d benefit from extra privacy, as well as possibly being able to stream content from other locations (see below).
Many small- and medium-sized businesses have begun installing VPNs on their office networks. It’s an upward trend that’s only expected to gain momentum as cybercrime becomes more prevalent.
3. Stream content from anywhere in the world
When it comes to watching content from abroad – whether it be unblocking Netflix or Hulu – getting the best streaming VPN to watch your favorite shows can open up a world of new content to devour.
Connecting to a VPN automatically changes your IP address. Sites (or, at least, content on those sites) that may be blocked in your region become readily available, making it possible to access any site and service from virtually anywhere in the world.
If you’re thinking of using your VPN in this way, make sure to check with your provider that they have servers in the country from where you want to stream. Online video services like Netflix USA actively check to see if people are connecting via a VPN and will sometimes restrict your services if they detect it.
This means before you sign up for a 1- or 2-year subscription, make sure to check if your VPN provider can actually access your favorite streaming sites via a 30-day trial or just paying for one month in advance. If the service is blocked, try switching to a few different servers in the same country, as it may only be the IP address of one server which is restricted.
You can also use the best VPNs for torrenting and download without having to worry about your ISP zeroing in on your online activity. Most VPNs come with unlimited bandwidth and server switches, which means there are no data caps restricting the amount of content you’re able to access. It also means you can endlessly hop from location to location, which is useful when content is only available in certain areas.
If you’re thinking about doing this, firstly check if your VPN offers specialist servers for P2P downloads
4. Avoid network throttling
With the net neutrality repeal, ISPs in the US now have more power over how they market their services, which means users can soon expect some sites to load faster – while others may load much, much slower.
In the UK, traffic throttling (or shaping) is an accepted fact that is detailed and documented by most of the country’s big ISPs. Fortunately, a VPN service can help reset your online network to its original settings and allow you to browse, stream, and download without having to worry about slow-loading sites. This is because all your data is sent down the encrypted VPN tunnel : your ISP can’t tell if you’re browsing the web, streaming video or downloading files. All they can see is the encrypted data and the amount of information being transferred over the network.
Above all, a VPN is a simple and effective way to fight back against the status quo. Privacy advocates say using a VPN to slip through the cracks and browse normally isn’t only recommended, it’s encouraged.
And while it’s entirely possible that Comcast, ATandT and other internet providers could one day ban VPNs, the staggering amount of both business and everyday VPN usage makes this a very unlikely scenario.
If you’re worried that your ISP may try to block connections to VPNs, consider using a service that employs obfuscation technology to make VPN usage harder to detect.
Sometimes this is done through having specialist ‘obfuscation servers’ like those used by NordVPN. Other providers may actually code this into the protocols they use like the VyprVPN ‘chameleon’ protocol. Be warned though, this may come at the price of reduced performance.
5. Find better deals online
This lesser-known VPN trick is a great way to save on flights and hotels. By connecting to a VPN server outside your home region and comparing prices online, you might be able to save a significant amount of money on rentals and airfares.
That’s because most sites (including Kayak and Priceline) actually charge different amounts based on a user’s IP address. Start by checking prices in and around your location. Then try comparing prices between different cities and, if possible, nearby states.
After that, try switching your VPN location to a few different countries and check the same prices. It’s a fairly simple trick, though it’s worth taking the time to do a more wide-ranging search – that way you’ll cast a more expansive net for trying to find the best deals.
Next time you’re looking for cheap flights, try using a VPN to check prices from different countries – just remember to browse in incognito mode and clear your cookies before and after each visit.
Using a VPN isn’t compulsory for gaming but it can save you a lot of grief. Some unscrupulous gamers who are jealous of your progress, may try to target you with DDOS (Denial of Service) attacks by flooding your home network with so much traffic your game slows to a standstill.
Disgruntled players have also been known to use someone’s IP address to stalk them via social media.
This type of attack can only work though if a bad actor knows your IP address. When you connect to the Internet via a VPN, the rest of the Internet sees the IP address of the VPN server, not yours so you’re protected from these kind of attacks.
ISP’s will also sometimes ‘throttle’ traffic from gaming, presumably because they don’t see it as important.
You also may be able to improve the speed and reliability of your in-game connection by choosing a game server in a different location. (If you select a VPN server in a particular country, you should be able to access the same game servers as anyone else who’s there).
7. Bypass censorship
Not all of us are lucky enough to live in a western democracy with guaranteed freedom of expression and a free media. Even those of us that do sometimes will need to visit countries that don’t respect these rights, so engage in restricting and blocking certain websites.
Using a VPN is a great way to get around restrictions like the “Great Firewall of China”, as connections to the Internet are made via your VPN server, which should have no such limitations.
If you plan to visit countries known for restricting internet access, we strongly recommend signing up with a VPN beforehand, as many providers’ websites are blocked from within these territories.
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Adam was formerly the Content Director of Subscriptions and Services at Future, meaning that he oversaw many of the articles TechRadar produces about antivirus software, VPN, TV streaming, broadband and mobile phone contracts - from buying guides and deals news, to industry interest pieces and reviews. Adam has now dusted off his keyboard to write articles for the likes of TechRadar, T3 and Tom's Guide.