Using a VPN – what you need to know

You can’t do much these days without using the internet. Your online browsing, streaming, emails, social media engagements, gaming, transactions – every moment on your computer, laptop, phone or tablet leaves a footprint, which could be exploited and make you vulnerable.

VPN stands for Virtual Private Network, and your provider allows you to choose a private network to join in many countries in the world, making it appear that’s where you’re accessing the internet and masking your data. Bouncing off servers further away than you’re used to might cause the tiniest of performance delays, but in the great majority of cases, you won’t notice a difference – and sometimes they might be better.

Why you need a VPN

In a nutshell, you’ll get added security, access to previously blocked content and, for business, better productivity. Here are the four key benefits:

  1. Enhanced security and anonymity – by joining a private network, you’ll be masking your IP address, and your data is kept secure and well encrypted. It makes life unbearably hard for even the most determined hacker to crack who and where you are and what you’re doing online. By using a well-known VPN service provider, you’ll know your data remains private. Without a VPN, your regular internet service provider (like Virgin Media, Sky or Vodafone in the UK) can see what you’re up to (although it’s unlikely they sit in their offices keeping track). But if your data and online activity are important to you, a VPN gives you a comfort blanket.
  2. Access more content – while not commenting on any legal aspects of accessing geo-blocked content (you should always consider this yourself), a VPN overcomes issues such as browsing websites or services that are only available to those in certain countries. Similarly, in countries where internet censorship is prolific, a VPN will allow access to the outside world.
  3. Remote access – for a business, allowing remote workers to use the company network is essential for productivity. Experts agree this is why VPNs – which first emerged out of Microsoft in 1996 – developed in the first place. It means employees not physically in your office can access your network safely and work as normal. Previously, it would be a worry that hackers could access a business network via a remote worker’s internet connection.
  4. Convenience – Whether it’s work or leisure, switching quickly from one server to another via a VPN account can be more convenient. For example, accessing the internet via a server in Australia throws up local Google search results automatically, a bonus if you’re researching marketing or SEO campaigns.

Can you get into trouble using a VPN?

Using a VPN itself is not illegal in any way; it’s sensible security protection. However, it’s what you do with it that can cross the line in terms of the law. Some content – perhaps entertainment or sports streaming – might be prohibited in your country for licensing reasons. However, by using a server in a green-light country via VPN, you appear to be located there and can watch uninhibited. Doing so is your choice, and you take on the risk of contravening any laws.

Using a VPN in some countries is illegal, including Russia, China and North Korea. The reasons are obvious – the regimes there don’t want people accessing sites abroad that are blocked and don’t conform to the state politics.

Is it worth the cost?

You don’t get anything for free, of course, so expect to pay for your VPN service. However, the price is not prohibitive. NordVPN, for example, currently has a three-year deal valued at £2.82 a month, or £101.76 billed every three years.

Whether that provides value for money relates to how much benefit you will get from it. For some, the ability to better protect data and negate the ability to be tracked might be priceless. For others, the cost is tiny for the convenience of accessing the content they might not otherwise have been able to.

Which VPN is right for me?

As the use of VPNs has become more widespread, so the number of providers has grown, and the price generally has fallen thanks to competition in the marketplace.

However, the same larger established providers will likely remain your preferred option because they are known to be trustworthy, work across multiple devices, are fast, offer stable servers and do what you expect.

According to Tech Radar, here are the top five VPN servers:

  1. ExpressVPN has more than 3,000 servers in 160 locations across 94 countries. There’s custom firmware that allows you to change your router settings. With good 24/7 customer support, you’ll have no trouble getting started and configuring your service.
  2. NordVPN is considered the most secure of high-profile providers. We already mentioned its cost-effective monthly fee (£2.82 a month on the three-year option). You can add up to six connections, and there are more than 5,500 servers in over 60 locations worldwide. Despite its name, the business is in Central America.
  3. IPVanish boasts slick connection speeds if that’s something that matters to you (maybe you are streaming content or gaming). There are more than 1,300 servers and the fact you can have ten simultaneous connections might be important to you. The fast speed comes at a price, though – with the cheapest rate being a 12-month deal at $4.87 a month (more than a dollar a month higher than NordVPN, for example).
  4. Hotspot Shield offers a free version, but the premium version is what gets it in the Tech Radar top five because it has a good performance. At $2.99 a month with the three-year option, it’s priced reasonably. But, this may or may not be important to you, the service uses its own protocol meaning it only runs on Windows, Mac, Android or iOS devices. That’s fine for most, but some users may want to configure directly with their router, game console or Chromebook.
  5. Surfshark is a tough and highly secure option, and the price is a tempting £1.59 a month over two years. For those not technically minded, the slick and easy interface will be a bonus, and you can connect as many devices as you like. However, for some, the bells and whistles might be a bit limited – and with 800 or servers or so available, the choice is much narrower than the likes of ExpressVPN (5,500) and NordVPN.

Outside of this top five, other names to consider might be CyberGhost, StrongVPN, TunnelBear, VyprVPN and Windscribe.

Setting up your VPN service

In most cases, configuring your new VPN service is easy. Once you’ve registered an account and paid the required fee (for premium services), you need only download a piece of software to your computer or laptop and install the programme.

User experience is generally intuitive – select the country (and in some cases city) server you’d like to connect to and within seconds you’re hooked up, and your privacy and data are secure. Note that you’ll need to restart your browser to ensure your experience works best (for example, by getting geo-relevant search results from Google).

Setting up connections on your iOS or Android is a little more complicated and perhaps an article in itself – so here’s a link to the relevant information on How-To Geek.

Test out a VPN for free

If you’re still unsure that using a VPN is right for you, there is good news. Most of the services we’ve listed here come with a money-back guarantee. So, if you buy into a pricing plan and then decide a VPN is not worth it, cancel it, and you’ll get your money back, no questions asked.