Why use a VPN?

Person using laptop in cafe
(Image credit: Unsplash / Brooke Cagle)

Whenever you use a VPN on your own device, you’re establishing an encrypted connection between you - the ‘client’ - and a VPN server. And since the connection is being routed through another computer, it’s much harder for anyone with access to your ISP’s records to know your real IP address or see your real location. 

With the data encrypted, if set up properly, your ISP and any bad actors also can’t read your personal data or tell which websites you’re visiting or apps you’re using to get online. So, why use a VPN in the first place, what is it actually for, and what does it do anyway? 

Why use a VPN? 

Some people may think, “I’ve nothing to hide, I’m not a criminal, so why use a VPN?” For others, using an encrypted connection and concealing an IP address may seem like overkill - after all, who needs that level of privacy?

The truth is, VPNs have other uses besides protecting your online privacy. One of the main beneficiaries are those living under dictatorships or in countries with poor human rights records. In these states, expressing unpopular opinions might be punished and certain websites blocked. Little wonder that we’ve seen a rise in VPNs for China, as well as the likes of UAE VPNs and Cuba VPNs.

A VPN works by shunting your traffic through another server - and you can read more in our guide How does a VPN work? The technique is an extremely good way for people living in such countries to unblock restricted websites such as the BBC or the New York Times. 

Just to drive the point home, in December 2022 leading VPN provider Hide.me launched a provocative billboard campaign pointing out that by using their service people can more freely discuss Russian politics online. 

Should I use a VPN on public Wi-Fi?  

VPNs also offer you more protection from online bad actors like scammers and identity thieves. It might be convenient, but connecting to a public Wi-Fi can be a pretty risky thing to do. You have no way of knowing the connection is secure or whether cybercriminals can see all the data you’re sending. 

Devices that don’t use a VPN are automatically visible to other devices connected to the same network. Any unencrypted data they send, such as requests to visit websites or information entered into pages that don’t use SSL/TLS, can be read by anyone else using the same hotspot. Some hackers even set up fake ‘honeypot’ public Wi-Fi hotspots in the hope of harvesting people’s personal information.

That’s why you need a VPN when accessing public Wi-Fi. By using a VPN, all connection requests and network traffic is routed through an encrypted VPN tunnel. This makes it much more difficult for bad actors to know which sites you’re visiting and what you’re doing online. 

Do VPNs hide location?  

Trusted paid-for and free VPNs are a great way to access websites that would otherwise be blocked. But even legitimate websites can lock you out of content depending on where you’re located. 

Netflix is a great example of this, as they have different licensing agreements with copyright holders in different countries. With geo-restricted content means your watchlist on Netflix UK would look very different to your watchlist in the US.

You can use a VPN to change your location and IP address. When you connect to the internet, it’s through one of the provider’s global servers. If that server is located in another country, you’re in that country as far as the internet’s concerned. The websites you access will only see the server’s IP address, not yours. Some VPN users take advantage of this to undertake ‘geo-spoofing’. This is where users pretend to be in a different country in order to access services available in another.

Platforms like Netflix are all too aware of this so do their best to restrict or block content that they believe is coming from a VPN. Fortunately, some providers have set up servers specifically to let you use a VPN for streaming

Beyond TV viewing habits, remember some websites like airlines and hotels may offer different deals depending on the country where you live. Using a VPN server in those countries will allow you to benefit from the same bargains as people who actually live there. Of course, this cuts both ways. If you happen to be out of your home country on business or vacation, you can connect to a VPN server based there to make sure you can access the same content you always do.

Is using a VPN faster? 

Using a VPN means you don’t access the internet directly but via a server. While this can slow things down, users of the fastest VPNs report it actually increases download speeds.

This might not make sense until you consider that your internet connection is provided by your ISP. Some ISPs practice ‘traffic shaping', deliberately slowing down certain types of content like P2P downloads or streaming video. By using a VPN, or in the case of P2P downloads, a VPN for torrenting, all your ISP can see is an encrypted stream of data - not the content type - so they can’t discriminate against you.  

Protect security and privacy 

A VPN keeps your IP address and personal data safe - and protecting it is vital in today’s digital landscape. Whether you want to stop your Internet Service Provider throttling your downloads or you’re accessing content across the world, a virtual private network is the ideal solution. For more information, see our guide What are the benefits of using a VPN?

If you want to get secure online, you first need to find a reliable VPN provider. The market is awash with premium and free VPN services, so make sure you know the risks when using a free VPN.  

Nate Drake is a tech journalist specializing in cybersecurity and retro tech. He broke out from his cubicle at Apple 6 years ago and now spends his days sipping Earl Grey tea & writing elegant copy.