What's A VPN? & Why You [REALLY] Need One in 2023
A VPN (Virtual Private Network) is a simple software that was created to protect your online privacy and make life harder for hackers by anonymizing your traffic and location. But you can also use it for many other things like fast and secure browsing, and more.
After reviewing over 300 VPNs and analyzing everything they have to offer, I can honestly say that VPNs are super easy to use and everyone can do it. My simple, no-nonsense guide will teach you everything you need to know to get started.
What Can a VPN Do for You?
A VPN can help to protect you in a few key ways:
- VPNs encrypt all the data you send over the internet
When you’re connected to a VPN server, all your internet traffic is encrypted. This means that nobody can see what you’re doing online, not even your internet service provider (ISP). And that means your ISP can't throttle your speeds either.
Encryption stops hackers from seeing sensitive information that you enter into websites, like your passwords. This is especially important if you’re using public WiFi because it's easy for cybercriminals to monitor your connection on public networks. But a VPN makes sure that even if someone stole your data, they wouldn't be able to decrypt it or even understand it.
- Your VPN also protects your privacy
Websites and services use your IP to determine your location. When you connect to a VPN server, your IP address won't be visible.
Because they can no longer see your real IP, they can’t see where you’re located.
- Some VPNs block malicious websites, ads, and trackers
Malicious websites can download malware and trackers onto your device without you knowing. VPNs with built-in protection help to prevent infections by blacklisting these sites before they can do damage.
Some also block ads and pop-ups. This stops malicious ads from infecting your device with malware.
How Do VPNs Work?
Your VPN directs all of your internet traffic through to one of its servers, where it's encrypted. For example, you might be in the UK and connect to a US server. The VPN sends your traffic from the UK to the US, completely encrypted. Because it’s encrypted, your ISP can no longer see your online activity, where you've come from, or track you.
From there, your VPN server forwards your traffic to the website you’re visiting. The site sees the VPN server as the origin of your traffic, instead of your device. This means that it also sees your VPN server’s IP address instead of yours. The best VPNs use thousands of servers and update their IP addresses regularly, so sites don't have enough time to blacklist them. And that means, you stay completely private and undetectable.
Are VPNs Legal?
The short answer is, yes! You can freely use a VPN in most countries, but there are some exceptions.
Countries like China and Iraq forbid the use of non-government VPNs. This means that approved providers have most likely complied with anti-privacy requirements, making their VPN services untrustworthy. Non-compliant VPN companies are usually blacklisted so that you can’t visit their websites to download their apps once you’re in the country.
How Does a VPN Guarantee My Privacy?
VPNs handle a lot of sensitive information, so they need to have solid privacy policies and strong security measures. Some security features appear identical but do very different things.
For example, despite popular belief DNS and IP leaks are not the same thing. Informing yourself is crucial. Plus, some VPNs that can’t be trusted, so it’s important that you're careful to choose one that is reliable and safe.
Reliable VPNs offer a variety of privacy-protecting features, like:
Tough anti-logging policies prevent VPN providers from recording your browsing activity. If they don’t log your information, they can’t disclose it to government surveillance agencies, even if they’re asked to. It also means that if the VPN becomes compromised, hackers can’t garner any of your information from the VPN servers.
DNS Leak Protection
Every time you go to a website, your computer sends a request to a DNS server to learn the website’s IP address. Normally, this request would go to your ISP’s DNS servers, which reveals your browsing activity to your ISP.
When you’re connected to a VPN, your DNS requests are routed to your VPN’s DNS servers. Sometimes, though, your device can reroute your requests back to your ISP without you knowing. Simply, DNS leak protection prevents this from happening.
IPv6 Leak Protection
Even though IPv6 is now available, almost all VPNs still use IPv4 addresses. This creates the potential for a serious security breach.
If your ISP supports IPv6, and you visit a website that also supports it, your traffic to that website will be routed through your ISP, and not your VPN. This would reveal your activity to your ISP, and your true location to the website.
Trustworthy VPNs disable IPv6 traffic to protect you from these leaks. You can still go to IPv6-enabled websites, but you’ll do so using our IPv4 address.
Are There Any Negatives to Using a VPN?
The benefits of using a VPN heavily outweigh the negatives, but there are some drawbacks to be aware of.
Your connection speed will take a small hit.
It takes time for your data to travel, and when you’re connected to a VPN, it has to travel a little further to reach the VPN servers. It also takes a few seconds to encrypt and decrypt your traffic. So, it’s normal for your connection speed to decrease a little bit.
Untrustworthy VPNs could see your browsing activity.
If you use a less-reputable provider, there’s no way to be sure that they won’t take a look at your browsing activity or share it with third parties. If your provider is based within the 5/9/14-Eyes Alliance, it could even be forced to share this information with the government.
You can protect yourself against this by using a well-known, reputable VPN with a strict no-logs policy and RAM-based servers. RAM-based servers permanently delete your records each time they’re rebooted, so your VPN won’t have any information to share about you even if it’s legally required to.
Some websites block VPN users.
Some websites check your IP address against a list of known VPN server IPs when you log in. If there’s a match, they will obstruct your connection. You can overcome this by connecting to a different server in the same region.
PayPal and some online banks may flag a security breach on your account if you log in from a foreign IP.
As part of their online security process, PayPal and online banking institutions may temporarily disable you from visiting your account if they see that you’re logging in from a foreign IP. This security measure is in place to prevent international fraudsters from logging into your accounts.
Don’t worry - your account won’t be locked forever. But, you may need to contact your bank to clear up the error. You can prevent this by looking at your financial accounts while connected to a server in your own country.
What Do I Look for in a VPN?
It’s important to choose a VPN that meets your needs and provides the best security and performance. When you’re VPN shopping, I recommend prioritizing services that offer:
- 256-bit encryption: This is the highest level encryption available, and will safeguard your personal information and browsing activity.
- An automatic kill switch: Kill switches kick in when your VPN connection becomes unstable. They disconnect you from the internet temporarily to prevent data leaks.
- A strict no-logs policy
- DNS and IPv6 leak protection
- Customer support: Most premium VPNs offer 24/7 support via live chat on their sites. Very few services offer phone support, although it is available with some smaller VPNs.
- User-friendly apps for your devices: take a look at the provider’s website. Most feature screenshots of their apps so you can get a feel for the program before you install it.
- Large server coverage: You need a VPN with servers across the globe so you can connect to any location.
- Optimized servers
- Multiple simultaneous connections: Whether you’ve got a large household or just a laptop and a phone, you need to be able to protect all your devices without having to sign up for multiple VPN subscriptions.
Top 2 VPNs for Beginners
I’ve been using VPNs for years, and I’ve tested my fair share of unreliable, untrustworthy services. In my quest to protect myself online, I’ve also come across some stellar services that I really recommend.
- 3,000+ servers in 105 countries
- 8 simultaneous connections
- Strict no-logs policy
- High-end security features
- Easy-to-use apps
- Compatible with: Linux, Android, macOS, iOS, Windows, Chrome
ExpressVPN offers split tunneling, a must-have if you operate a home office with wireless devices.
Split tunneling lets you choose which activities goes through your VPN, and which use your local IP address. I used this to stay connected with my networked devices, like my wireless printer, while keeping my internet traffic secure.
ExpressVPN’s servers are optimized for fast speeds, so you won’t have any problems while browsing or using the web in general.
And it's fast, too. I put ExpressVPN's servers through their paces to check up on its performance. This time, my base speed was: 3 ms ping, 22.13 Mbps down, and 17.13 Mbps up.
|Quick Connect US Server||332 ms||8.84 Mbps||14.77 Mbps|
|Manual Connect US Server||371 ms||16.14 Mbps||15.19 Mbps|
|Quick Connect UK Server||319 ms||15.55 Mbps||14.67 Mbps|
|Manual Connect UK Server||301 ms||15.53 Mbps||15.38 Mbps|
|Quick Connect FR Server||310 ms||16.24 Mbps||15.66 Mbps|
|Quick Connect BR Server||539 ms||16.36 Mbps||15.78 Mbps|
|Quick Connect AU Server||29 ms||15.50 Mbps||15.23 Mbps|
Its TrustedServer technology goes even further to keep you safe. Its servers are RAM-based and don’t use hard drives.
This means that none of your data is permanently stored on the server; it’s wiped clean with every reboot. TrustedServer also checks that each server on the network is running up-to-date software to prevent security flaws.
ExpressVPN gives you up to 8 simultaneous connections, so you can use multiple devices at once. As an experiment, I connected my phone, laptop, and desktop at the same time. It didn't slow my connection down at all.
You can reach out to support 24/7 via its live chat feature, too. The staff are easy to talk to, and were able to answer my questions within two minutes.
Its 30-day money-back guarantee made me comfortable testing it out, but ultimately I couldn’t resist and ended up taking out a longer subscription.
- 10,649+ servers in 100 countries
- Specialized profiles
- Easy to install
- 45-day money-back guarantee
- Compatible with: Windows, macOS, Android, iOS, Linux, Routers, Chrome, Firefox.
CyberGhost is a great choice if you’re new to VPNs because its apps are super-simple to install and use. I didn't need to change any settings before I connected; just install, log in, and you’re ready to go!
But don’t let that fool you - it’s also highly customizable. Hidden away in the advanced settings menu, I discovered that you can alter your DNS, change your protocol, and set up custom rules.
CyberGhost operates a huge network. There are more than 10,649 servers across 100 countries. I tested it on a recent vacation, and found this really useful because there was always a fast, local server close to where I was staying. I didn’t have to suffer speed loss by connecting to a distant location. My colleagues reported similar results.
I decided to test CyberGhost again once I got home. My base speed was 37 ms ping, 19.22 Mbps download, with 17.24 Mbps upload.
|Quick Connect US Server||337 ms||7.52 Mbps||12.27 Mbps|
|Manual Connect US Server||276 ms||19.50 Mbps||15.81 Mbps|
|Quick Connect UK Server||338 ms||12.26 Mbps||14.97 Mbps|
|Manual Connect UK Server||332 ms||13.37 Mbps||13.63 Mbps|
|Quick Connect FR Server||319 ms||18.19 Mbps||16.41 Mbps|
|Quick Connect BR Server||401 ms||17.70 Mbps||11.73 Mbps|
|Quick Connect AU Server||28 ms||16.47 Mbps||15.52 Mbps|
CyberGhost has optimized profiles, which will give you an excellent user experience.
You'll be able to use CyberGhost’s NoSpy servers, too. These servers are locked in a secure data center in Romania, outside the 5/9/14 Eyes’ jurisdiction. They’re independently managed, and run on the highest security level at all times.
There’s no middleman involved with these servers, so there’s no risk of data leaks or hacking. I noticed that they also have extended bandwidth for higher speeds.
CyberGhost lets you connect up to 7 devices at the same time. It also has a generous 45-day money-back guarantee that you can use to test it out first.
How to Get a Discount on Your New VPN
I’m a bit of a bargain hunter. I spend a lot of time online searching for coupons to save money. I’ve discovered that VPN companies regularly release new coupons and special offers, but thanks to scam sites, it’s hard to work out which coupons are real.
Because of this, my colleagues and I have created an up-to-date database of the best and most current VPN coupons. We’ve tested each one to verify that it’s real and still working in December 2023.
VPNs are essential internet security tools. If you're looking to protect yourself with an affordable, high-quality VPN, ExpressVPN is my best recommendation. It's fast and easy to use, and you don't need any technical know-how to set it up.