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

A virtual private network, or VPN,  is an increasingly popular tool to help secure your network and open up a new world of online possibilities. And, like with any new technology, the next logical question is likely: 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. Some countries like the UK also require ISPs to keep records of your IP addresses and sites you visit, undermining your privacy. When you use a VPN though, 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, users have used VPNs for China, Russia, and other countries where internet access is heavily restricted. For some, having the ability to instantly unblock and access western 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 and assuming a new one. As soon as you connect to a VPN server, all your network traffic becomes encrypted and largely 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 threatened and 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. If your new IP matches your VPN connection, you know you’re browsing on a VPN server. If you see your existing IP, you may not have installed the necessary client software from your VPN provider or it might not be correctly set up. 

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 is a great feature for the jet-savvy or everyday traveler. With all the dangers surrounding unsecured public Wi-Fi networks, having the ability to instantly secure your connection is priceless.

You may think it’s unlikely this will happen to you but bad actors often use “honeypot” Wi-Fi Hotspot, that looks legitimate but when you connect to it, it can redirect you to advertising content or phishing websites that harvest your personal information.

If you have a VPN correctly set up on your device, you remain protected precisely because your connection to the VPN server is encrypted. Other people connected to the network can’t see what sites you’re visiting, or what type of data you’re downloading such as streaming video. 

Speaking of which, 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.

In offering this service, VPN providers are engaged in an eternal struggle with sports networks and other websites which don’t want people to access content in this way and try to block VPNs. 

However, you’ll be pleased to hear that some providers have risen to the challenge and offer streaming VPNs for online services like Netflix and sport events.

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. This is sometimes known as “traffic shaping” If, for instance, your internet plan caps your data at a certain level, or slows down certain content like streaming video you can use a VPN to circumvent this process and return your streaming speeds to normal.

Reliable VPN providers also use their own DNS servers. This not only protects you from DNS Leak, where your ISP might be able to tell which sites you’re visiting .It can respond to your connection request faster than the DNS server provided by your ISP.

We don’t recommend using VPNs to share illegal content. However, they can also be very useful in protecting your identity if you’re using P2P software synch as for torrenting

If you regularly use software like this, be aware that your IP address is publicly available to other connected peers whenever you’re using the software. Using a VPN means connection requests are shunted through the VPN server and encrypted, so other users are not able to know IP addresses. Your ISP also won’t be able to tell that you’re using P2P software from inspecting your connection records.

Some of the major providers actually have VPNs for torrenting specifically designed to work with P2P software and the BitTorrent protocol.  

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 and running one of the fastest VPNs.

We’ve previously explored ways to speed up your VPN, but it stands to reason that routing all your traffic through a remote server is always going to somewhat slow down your connection relative to connecting directly to the Internet. However, the VPN can improve your connection speed in other ways, such as using DNS servers that are closer to you. 

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. If you’re booking for the most private VPNs check the provider offers a strict “no log” policy and, preferably, has allowed a third-party VPN audit. You should also make sure the provider’s servers aren’t located somewhere where they can easily be hacked or seized by bad actors. 

Naturally it’s very easy for the provider to claim that they already have this. The gold standard in this case should be those VPN providers like ExpressVPN and NordVPN who regularly submit themselves to audits by a trusted third-party to prove that they do indeed keep no personal data about customers and have a secure setup. 

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. If your VPN provider rents server space from a third party cloud provider, remember that ultimately they cannot control what data comes in and out of those machines. This became painfully obvious in 2019, when NordVPN revealed one of their servers at a data center had been compromised the previous year. Still, this was only one of many of thousands of secure servers they manage.

Most “free” VPNs, on the other hand, use open networks which are often unsecured and full of privacy gaps. We’ve tested out the best free VPNs, but many of these are forced to limit your bandwidth in order to be fair to all customers. Unscrupulous “free” providers can even sometimes sell customer’s data, making signing up with them very costly indeed. 

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 has dedicated desktop and mobile VPN apps for the devices you own, and what kind of features these offer. 

One of the most important features you should have is an automatic VPN kill switch baked into the VPN client apps in case your connection gets lost. This means if the initial connection to your VPN server fails or drops out during use, all your Internet activity is shut down until you’re securely connected to your VPN again. If you’re not sure if your VPN provider offers this service, follow the steps in our tutorial How to test your VPN kill switch.

We’ve tested hundreds of VPNs and have found none to be as secure, fast, or dependable as ExpressVPN. If you’re new to VPNs, we recommend starting there. 

If you don’t feel a good “all rounder” like ExpressVPN is for you, take some time to consider how you do want to use your VPN service. For instance, if privacy is more important to you than anything, consider subscribing to NordVPN which offers a ‘Double VPN’, or ‘multihop’, which shunts your web traffic through two VPN servers, meaning you’re still protected even if one of them is compromised. 

If you’re more concerned with being able to access location specific services in other countries, make sure that your provider offers this specifically as part of the service. For instance, ExpressVPN actually states on its website that using the software can help you watch Netflix USA. 

If you’re looking for a way to download large files via P2P, it stands to reason that you should choose a provider which doesn’t place any fair use limit on the amount you can download, or your connection speed. You should also check if they have any servers specifically designed for use with P2P. If this is the main way you’re going to use a VPN, you should seriously consider signing up with a provider whose client software has a built-in kill switch. This is because by maintaining connections with so many other peers, your device is much more vulnerable to hacking than if you were simply browsing the web.

If you’re simply looking for a VPN that will boost your speed and provide a reliable connection, make sure that your provider has servers located close to you, to minimize latency.

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.

With contributions from