Do I need a VPN? A comprehensive look at one of the world’s leading privacy tools

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VPN. You may have heard the term before, but didn’t know what it meant. A VPN, or virtual private network, is an increasingly popular tool to help secure your network and open up a whole new world of online possibilities. And like with any new-fangled tech concept you come across, the next logical question is probably: Do I need one?

VPNs are surprisingly simple apps that perform a very complicated job: They protect your data and secure your internet. With the growing fervor surrounding online privacy and the right (or lack thereof) to be forgotten, it’s about time you start using one.

A VPN lets you browse anonymously

You may not realize it, but everything you do online—the sites you visit, the services you use, even the music you listen to—is all dictated by your IP address. It’s the one thing network servers use to route you to the appropriate URL, and it’s the basis for how the internet, as a whole, operates. 

If a person in the UK hops onto Google and searches for Amazon, they’ll automatically be redirected to Your IP address is regulated through your ISP (internet service provider), but when you use a VPN, you’re able to circumvent your ISP and assume another IP address in the location of your choice. 

Suddenly sites that may not have been accessible in your geographical location will now become available. With a VPN, you’re literally able to browse the web from anywhere in the world. 

Why you need a VPN

For years, VPNs have been used in countries like China and Russia where internet access is heavily restricted. For some, having the ability to instantly unblock and access sites like Google, YouTube, and Facebook has been a lifesaver, and is one of the main reasons why so many privacy activists champion VPN use as the first – and often last – line of defense toward securing a more free and open internet.

But more than just being a tool to help users access sites abroad, VPNs also come with a handful of other great benefits: students can use them to access university-specific sites and services outside the classroom; gamers can use them to secure their network when they play online; and media-savvy people can use them to access live streams from anywhere in the world.  

While a VPN makes it easier to unblock the web, it also comes with another added benefit: privacy. When you use a VPN, you’re essentially shedding your old IP address while assuming a new one. As soon as you connect to a VPN server, all your network traffic becomes encrypted and anonymous. Your ISP can’t see what you’re doing; therefore, you’re able to browse without having to worry about your information being logged, recorded, or used in some non-altruistic way. (At a time when we’re seeing users’ personal data being weaponized like never before, this point can’t be stressed enough.) 

One of the easiest ways to tell if and when a VPN is working is by checking your IP address (opens in new tab). If your new IP matches your VPN connection, you know you’re browsing on a VPN server.   

Other advantages of using a VPN

Aside from the privacy and open networks, VPNs also come with a host of other benefits. For instance, if you’re traveling or using a public WiFi hotspot, a VPN can instantly secure your connection. This a great feature for the jet-savvy or everyday traveler. With all the dangers surrounding unsecured public WiFi networks, having the ability to instantly secure your connection is priceless.

More recently, people have been turning to VPNs to help them access live sports streams. Because most major league networks have started employing blackout streams to help promote ticket sales, fans around the world have been turning to VPNs to connect to a nearby location and cheer on their favorite team live without having to wait the next day in order to watch the match.

What’s more, VPNs have, in some cases, actually been found to help increase overall network speeds. This typically occurs when a user’s network is being throttled by their ISP. If, for instance, your internet plan caps your data at a certain level, you can use a VPN to circumvent this process and return your streaming speeds to normal.

VPNs can also be used to torrent content anonymously. And while VPNs are perfectly legal, we don’t recommend using them to torrent illegally. 

Disadvantages of using a VPN

Because they offer myriad benefits and are generally extremely easy to use, VPNs don’t come with many disadvantages. That said, they can sometimes cause a certain level of latency in your network, with some users reporting significant drops in streaming speeds. This often occurs when users connect to a VPN server location in a different part of the country and can often be mitigated by choosing a closer location.

While not necessarily a disadvantage in VPN software, some VPN companies have also been found to keep logs and/or spy on their users. This is why it’s important to do your due diligence before selecting a VPN provider.

What to look for in a VPN provider

With so many fly-by-night VPN providers popping up, it can be hard to separate the good from the not-so-good. Fortunately, there are a few key characteristics to look for in a VPN. First, make sure the server offers private browsing. Most subscription-based VPNs host their own network servers, which means they’re able to allow their users the comfort to browse anonymously. Most free VPNs, on the other hand, use open networks which are often unsecured and full of privacy gaps.

Second, Make sure the VPN you’re using doesn’t keep logs. This should be explicitly written in the company’s terms of service. Finally, check to see if the service offers dedicated apps for the device(s) you own, and what kind of features these apps offer. Most VPNs today have started baking in automatic kill switches into their apps in case your connection gets lost. It’s a nice feature to look for if you value your privacy, but it certainly isn’t a requirement.

That said, we’ve tested dozens of VPNs and have found none to be as secure, fast, or dependable as ExpressVPN (opens in new tab). If you’re new to VPNs, we recommend starting there. 

Desire Athow
Managing Editor, TechRadar Pro

Désiré has been musing and writing about technology during a career spanning four decades. He dabbled in website builders and web hosting when DHTML and frames were in vogue and started narrating about the impact of technology on society just before the start of the Y2K hysteria at the turn of the last millennium.