Looking to find out the truth about VPNs? Good plan, but there's one big obstacle in your way... and it's probably not the one you think.
You might assume it's all that technical jargon, the low-level VPN detail and network-speak. But that's not as important as many people assume, and you can get a very good understanding of VPNs without, say, knowing even a tiny fraction of how WireGuard works under the hood.
The real problem with figuring out VPNs is there are so many misunderstandings and misconceptions about the technology, that it's often difficult to tell the fact from the fiction. In this article we're going to highlight some of the most common VPN myths and set the record straight.
1. VPNs make you completely anonymous
One advantage of VPNs is that they give you a new IP address - perhaps helping you to virtually change location to another country altogether - and effectively a whole new digital identity. So, it's tempting to think this makes you anonymous online. But that just isn't true.
Log into a website, for instance, and it knows exactly where you are. Social media buttons, cookies and assorted other tracker-related trickery enable sites to follow you round the web.
Even your VPN's IP doesn't guarantee total anonymity. Disconnect and reconnect to a VPN location and some providers may allocate you the same IP address, allowing a site to recognize you on a second visit.
VPNs will help with anonymity in some situations, but they're not a one-size-fits-all solution, and you still face many web privacy risks.
2. VPNs are too complicated for most users
Figuring out the low-level details of exactly how VPNs work is a challenge, even for the most technically-minded. Fully understanding just one concept - how elliptic curve cryptography is all about finding distinct logarithms in a random elliptic curve, say - can feel like it needs a week of study, all on its own.
But actually using a VPN is very, very different. You don't have to know exactly what's happening underneath any more than you need to understand exactly how your mobile just requested, download and displayed that last website.
Getting started in the VPN world is usually as simple as launching the app, clicking 'Connect', and waiting a few seconds until you're told you're connected. Then just get on with your regular internet life as usual, while the VPN automatically encrypts your traffic and protects you from snoopers, all on its own. Easy.
3. Using a VPN gives you watertight online security
Connecting to your VPN encrypts your internet activities, and makes it more difficult for your ISP, Wi-Fi snoopers or malicious Wi-Fi hotspots to monitor or modify your traffic. But once you access a website, you're essentially as vulnerable to many online threats as before.
Phishing site, for instance? Forced malware download? Crypto-mining script in a web page? They're still dangerous, whether you're using a VPN or not.
You can reduce the risk a little by installing a VPN with malicious URL blocking, such as NordVPN and its CyberSec.
4. You only need a VPN if you're planning something illegal
VPNs are regularly used to protect users while they're busy with unlawful activities, from downloading copyrighted media to sending spam or launching some hacking attacks.
But we obviously in no way condone that - and there are many other very good and (crucially) legal VPN uses that may encourage you to sign up.
You might want to protect yourself on public Wi-Fi, for instance. Or access a business network when you're out and about, while guaranteeing that no-one else can intercept any sensitive work documents.
Maybe you'd rather your ISP and local network don't get to see and perhaps log your internet browsing history? You don't have to be visiting dubious websites to be concerned: everyone deserves privacy.
VPNs can also help you avoid having your connection speed throttled, get DDoS protection when gaming, securely access your home network, and a whole lot more.
Yes, criminals will always use VPNs, but they have advantages for everyone. And you can enjoy them them, too.
5. Using a VPN cuts internet speeds to a crawl
Connect to a VPN and your internet traffic is encrypted, sent to a VPN server, and then decrypted before travelling on to its destination. These are all extra steps which your traffic didn't have to take before, so of course these slow down your internet speeds. Especially if you're connecting to a VPN server on the other side of the world.
Use your nearest VPN location, though, and you may not notice any difference at all. Our reviews regularly show the best VPNs can deliver amazing speeds.
In our last update, for example, even the slowest WireGuard connection from the top ten providers reached a mega 450Mbps. Exactly what you'll see depends on your device and network connection, but choose a fast VPN and you should get very usable results.
6. All VPNs are the same
Discuss VPNs just about anywhere and someone will pop up to say that it doesn't matter who you choose - paid or free VPN - and that they're all the same, so you might as well just pick any provider that has the locations you need.
It's true, VPNs all carry out the same core task, routing your traffic through a secure tunnel to a remote server. But our reviews have shown huge differences between services.
Better providers make realistic claims about they can do, and invest in their networks and app development to deliver the maximum possible speeds, often 600Mbps or more. The worst plaster their website with fake 'world's fastest' promises, when actually they throw you on an underpowered VPS with 100 other users and you'll be lucky to reach 10Mbps.
And if something goes wrong, the best providers have support sites packed with troubleshooting guides, and live chat to give useful answers in minutes. On the other side of the spectrum, there are those that have no website, no contact options beyond a single email address, and if you ask for help, they may not even reply.
All VPNs are the same? No. Not even close. Keep an eye on our VPN reviews to help you focus on the best providers (and steer clear of the worst.)
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Mike is a lead security reviewer at Future, where he stress-tests VPNs, antivirus and more to find out which services are sure to keep you safe, and which are best avoided. Mike began his career as a lead software developer in the engineering world, where his creations were used by big-name companies from Rolls Royce to British Nuclear Fuels and British Aerospace. The early PC viruses caught Mike's attention, and he developed an interest in analyzing malware, and learning the low-level technical details of how Windows and network security work under the hood.