Once upon a time, virtual private networks were mostly used by employees who needed to access work networks from home or on the go—since then, they've come a long way. There are now hundreds of commercial VPNs available to just about everyone.
The best VPNs keep you safe online, protect your digital privacy, and can help unblock international streaming content—which is great, but might sound a little intimidating to VPN newbies. However, you don't have to be a tech expert to use one.
I'll show you a quick and easy way to get set up with your VPN and why you should invest in one in the first place.
What is a VPN?
In a nutshell, a VPN is a privacy tool that routes your traffic through a secure tunnel, where it's encrypted. This encryption prevents third-party snooping—so, your internet service provider (ISP), government, and any nosy cybercriminals won't be able to keep tabs on the sites you visit.
VPNs also assign you a new, temporary IP address based in a location of your choice. Connect to a server in the US, for example, and you'll be given a US IP address—and the sites you visit will think you're in the US, too. This is how VPNs can help bypass geo-restrictions and other blocks that might otherwise prevent you from checking out region-specific content.
How to use a VPN
Today's top VPNs make it incredibly easy to get up and running—no matter what device you’re using. Here's a whistle-stop tour of the process:
1. Pick a VPN provider
There might be hundreds of VPNs available, but they’re not all made equal. So, whether you want a super secure VPN or fancy bagging a bargain with a cheap VPN, make sure you stick to reputable services.
2. Download and install the VPN app
Once you've found your perfect match, head to the provider's website. Here, you'll need to decide on the length of your subscription and download the appropriate app for the device you're using.
Most VPNs now have apps for desktops, mobiles, game consoles, smart TVs, and even routers.
3. Log in to the VPN app
Installation only takes a second or two—and your next task is to input the login information you created when signing up for an account.
4. Choose a VPN server
You're almost ready to go. In your VPN app, you can usually tap a 'quick connect' button to be automatically paired up with the best server based on your location. After a few seconds, you'll be connected and your data will be traveling through the secure VPN tunnel.
How to choose the right VPN server
As I mentioned earlier, most VPNs have a handy 'quick connect' feature that'll match you with what it thinks is the best server for you. However, there might be times when you want to take matters into your own hands—if you want to access content from a specific region, for example, or find a server that’s closer to your current location and, therefore, a little quicker.
Severs are typically organized into lists; some VPNs let you rifle through them via a search bar and some even have servers dedicated to specific tasks, like unblocking streaming platforms, gaming, and torrenting. NordVPN has a pretty nifty interactive map that you can use to click on the location you want to connect to.
Why use a VPN?
So, now that we've gone over the setup process and how to pick out a server, you might be wondering why VPNs are worth using in the first place. There are plenty of reasons—and here are my top picks:
Protect your privacy
Okay, let's start with the big one—VPNs are, by design, tools that improve your online security. When your data runs back and forth through the secure tunnel connecting your device to the VPN server, it’s encrypted, and unreadable to anyone who might try to take a peek. That means any sites you visit, any files you download, and any apps you use will remain private.
Stay safe in public
Public Wi-Fi hotspots (the kind you find in airports, cafes, and hotels) are pretty handy—but they’re also notoriously dangerous. They're often unencrypted and lack security measures, which means your data is pretty much served up on a silver platter to any opportunistic hackers waiting for you to log in to an app, make a purchase, or share other sensitive details.
Luckily, VPNs put a stop to this by funneling your data through a secure, encrypted tunnel, keeping those nosy third parties at bay.
You're probably already aware that streaming platforms, like Netflix, offer different content libraries in different countries. This is down to licensing agreements—but it means that some of your favorite shows might not be available in your current location.
Lots of people are now using VPNs to expand their digital horizons and bypass these restrictions. Connect to a server overseas and you’ll be assigned an IP address based in that same place—it’s a process called 'geo-spoofing', and it’s how you fool Netflix, BBC iPlayer, and other sites into thinking you’re somewhere else in the world.
Check out our guide to the best Netflix VPNs in 2024.
Supercharge your speed
ISP throttling is a particularly annoying technique that your ISP can leverage if it thinks you're using up too much bandwidth. For instance, if you're streaming a lot of HD content or torrenting. A VPN can prevent this, however, by encrypting your data, meaning your ISP won't be able to monitor your data usage. If your ISP doesn’t have a clear picture of what you're doing, it can't hit the breaks, and you'll be able to continue your marathon of The Office uninterrupted.
Peer-to-peer (known as P2P) is a perfectly legitimate way to share and download files—but it does have a bad reputation. That's because certain protocols, like BitTorrent, are often used to share copyrighted files.
Your ISP might decide to throttle P2P traffic or block it altogether, and when you're connected to a P2P network, your IP address is visible to other connected 'peers'. As you can imagine, this isn't totally secure. VPN encryption stops your ISP from filtering out specific traffic, like P2P, conceals the contents of your downloads, and means that other users connected to your network will see the VPN's IP address—and not yours.
Engage gamer mode
Concealing your original IP has other benefits, too—especially if you're an avid gamer. Some players, sore losers, and all-around vibe vampires can try to overwhelm your home network with traffic—AKA, a DDoS attack.
If any of these dweebs try to do this while you’re hooked up to a VPN, however, they'll be attacking the VPN servers rather than your home connection, and you can simply switch servers and carry on your way.
Why should I use a VPN?
VPNs boost your digital privacy, encrypting your traffic and personal information, so snoopers (like your ISP, cybercriminals, and the sites you visit) can't access it. This is particularly important when you consider how much data we share online—for example, when making purchases, checking a bank account, or logging in to social media platforms.
When should I use a VPN?
This will depend on what you plan to use your VPN for. If you want to unblock shows on Netflix, you only need to switch your VPN on when you're ready to tune in. To stay safe when using public Wi-Fi, make sure your VPN is switched on when you leave the house. Finally, if you're concerned about your overall digital security, you'll probably have your VPN on most of the time.
Can I use a free VPN?
There are reliable free VPNs out there, but the majority of them come with major limitations and caveats. Think fewer server locations, increased risk of server congestion, monthly data caps, and more. Some free services are little more than scams, too, designed to steal your personal information. Generally, you're better off with a paid service—and some offer handy VPN free trials.
We test and review VPN services in the context of legal recreational uses. For example: 1. Accessing a service from another country (subject to the terms and conditions of that service). 2. Protecting your online security and strengthening your online privacy when abroad. We do not support or condone the illegal or malicious use of VPN services. Consuming pirated content that is paid-for is neither endorsed nor approved by Future Publishing.
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River is a Tech Software Editor and VPN expert at TechRadar. They’re on-hand to keep VPN and cybersecurity content up-to-date and accurate. When they’re not helping readers find the best VPNs around (and the best deals), River can be found in close proximity to their PS5 or being pushed about the countryside by the lovely Welsh weather.